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MARKET TOWNS OF ESSEX (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Colchester in 1837

COLCHESTER, a borough and market town, having separate jurisdiction, in the N.E. part of the county of Essex ; locally situated in the hundred of Lexden, 22 miles N.E. by E. from Chelmsford, and 51 N.E. by E. from London. The liberties of Colchester, which are co-extensive with the borough, include the town of Colchester, and the parishes of Bere-church, Greenstead, Lexden, and St. Michael, Mile End, and comprise an area of 11,770 statute acres.

Colchester is generally supposed to be the Camalodunum of the Romans. There are few places in England where more Roman antiquities have been found : Morant mentions ‘bushels’ of coins of Claudius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and their several successors. In addition to which, the town-walls, the castle, many of the churches, and other ancient buildings are chiefly built of the Roman brick. Numerous vases urns, lamps, both bronze and in pottery, rings, bracelets, &c, as well as tessellated pavements, paterae, and other Roman antiquities have at various times been dug up within the walls and in the neighbourhood. By the Britons it was called Caer Colon, and finally by the Saxons Colne-Ceaster, from the Latin ‘Castra,’ and its situation on. the river Colne. Colchester was strongly fortified by Edward the Elder, and although it had gradually diminished in importance as London increased, still at the time of the Norman survey it was a place of considerable note. In 1218 it was taken by Prince Louis, son of Philip II of France, who had been invited into England by the rebellious barons to assist them against king John. In the reign of Edward III the town contributed five ships and 170 marines towards the naval armament raised to blockade Calais.

Early in the civil wars the inhabitants of Colchester declared against the Royalists ; and in 1648 the town sustained a memorable siege. Having been obliged to surrender to the royal forces, the city was garrisoned by Sir Charles Lucas and Lord Goring. Fairfax soon arrived, and summoned Lord Goring to surrender, and on his refusal, proceeded to storm the city; but after seven or eight hours attack he ordered his troops to retire, and began the most rigorous blockade. The Royalists bravely held out for eleven weeks, but at last all the provisions of the place having been consumed, and the soldiers and inhabitants being compelled to live on horses, dogs, and other animals, the garrison was obliged to surrender at discretion. Sir Charles Lucas, Sir George Lisle, and Sir Bernard Gascoigne, were condemned to death. Gascoigne being a foreigner, his sentence was remitted, but the other two were shot a few paces from the castle walls. The town was fined £14,000, of which half was levied on the Dutch inhabitants, who were principally merchants that had been driven out of Flanders by the persecutions of the Duke of Alva, and had settled at Colchester. Two thousand pounds were afterwards returned to the inhabitants, but the poor Dutch were not allowed to have any part of it.

The ruins of the old castle, St. John’s Abbey, St. Botolph’s Priory, the Moot-hall, and its eight churches, form the principal ancient and public buildings of Colchester. Of the walls by which the city was surrounded, in consideration of the repairing of which Richard II is recorded to have exempted the burgesses from sending representatives to three of his Parliaments, only some detached portions now exist. They formed a circumference of one mile and three quarters. The remains of the castle stand upon an eminence to the north of the High Street, and form a parallelogram ; the principal entrance is at the south-west corner, beneath a strong semicircular arch with capitals ornamented in the Norman style. The keep is still in a good state of preservation, and its walls are twelve feet thick. The building, which is a compound of flintstone and Roman brick, is so hard that it has frustrated repeated attempts to demolish it for the sake of the materials. The castle was formerly crown property, and the town was feudatory to it.

St. John’s Abbey was founded by Eudo, dapifer or steward to Henry I, for monks of the Benedictine order. A handsome gateway, of the later style of English architecture, is all that now remains of this abbey. The last abbot was hanged for treason in 1539, and the site of the monastery passed into the family of the Lucases.

In St. Giles’s church, adjoining the abbey, is a monument erected to the memory of Sir C. Lucas and Sir George Lisle. St. Botolph’s Priory, not far from St. John's, was founded by Enulph in the beginning of the twelfth century. The remains of the western front of its stately church are highly interesting. A fine semicircular retiring arch, with various mouldings of small Roman bricks and stone alternately, forms the doorway.

Colchester has returned two members to Parliament since the 23rd of Edward I. At the first election after the passing of the Reform Act there were 1,099 voters registered. The first charter granted to the corporation was by Richard I in 1089. It was subsequently extended by Henry V, and renewed by George III in 1818.

The Corporation hold quarterly Courts of Session for the borough and the liberties : and two Courts of Pleas for the recovery of debts to any amount ; one called the law hundred, on Monday, for actions against burgesses, and one on Thursday, called the Foreign Court, for actions against strangers, or non-freemen. The Moot-hall is an ancient building erected by Eudo, and contains the Hall and Exchequer Chamber, and the Council Chamber, where the business of the corporation is transacted. Underneath is the town gaol.

The town is built on the summit of an eminence gently rising from the river Colne, over which there are three bridges. The streets are wide and generally well paved, and the High Street contains some handsome houses and good shops. It is lighted with gas, and well supplied with water. The theatre is a neat building, erected in 1812. A literary and philosophical society was established in 1820 ; attached to it is a museum of shells, fossils, and natural objects. There are also a medical society, a botanical society, and a musical society of amateurs. The weaving of baizes, probably introduced by the Flemish in the time of Elizabeth, was carried on here to some extent, but it now has been succeeded by a large silk manufactory. The oyster fishery on the river Colne, granted to the burgesses by Richard I, employs a great number of men, and some hundreds of smacks are engaged in conveying the oysters to London, especially from Pyfleet. The river is navigable for vessels of 200 tons burden to the Hythe, where there is a custom-house and an extensive quay. The market-days are Saturday and Wednesday, for corn and cattle ; but a market for meat, fish, and vegetables, is held daily. The fairs are on the 5th and 6th of July, and on the 23rd and 24th of July for cattle; and on the 20th of October for cattle, and three following days for merchandize. The population of the borough and liberties is 16,167, of whom 8,696 are females ; the population of the town itself is 13,766. There are 2,079 families employed in manufactures, trade, &c., and 490 families employed in agriculture.

Colchester was made the seat of a suffragan bishop by Henry VIII, and two bishops were subsequently consecrated there. The church of St. James is a handsome building, erected prior to the reign of Edward II. It has a fine altar-piece representing the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds.’ St. Peter’s was erected before the Conquest, and is mentioned in ‘Domesday Book’ as the only church in Colchester. It was greatly repaired and modernized in 1758, and large sums of money have been laid out on it since that time. The church of St. Leonard’s is large and convenient. There are two places of worship for Baptists, two for Independents, and one for each of the societies of Friends, Wesleyan Methodists, and Unitarians.

The free grammar-school was founded by the corporation, to whom queen Elizabeth, in the 26th year of her reign, granted certain ecclesiastical revenues for that purpose. The number of scholars on the foundation is generally from thirty to forty ; the present income is £117 per annum.

Two charity schools for the education and clothing of fifty-five boys and thirty girls were established in 1708 ; several donations have been since made to these schools. The National School is formed by an extension of the original charity school, and about 400 boys are educated in it, of whom 148 are clothed. There are several schools supported by different dissenting congregations. A school for children of members of the Society of Friends was established in 1816, and endowed with a library and a large sum of money by John Kendall. There is also a Lancasterian school for children of both sexes, supported by voluntary contributions.

There are several alms-houses at Colchester. The Essex and Colchester General Hospital is a neat and commodious building, erected in 1820.