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MARKET TOWNS OF ESSEX (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Waltham Abbey in 1837

Waltham Abbey, or Holy Cross, is in the half-hundred of Waltham, 12 miles from London, a little to the right of the road to Ware, Royston, and Huntingdon. It is on the river Lea (which is here separated into several channels, some of which flow through the town) near the junction of the Cobbin brook, which flows a short distance from the town on the east and south.

The first notice of Waltham occurs in the reign of Canute, whose standard-bearer, Tovi, founded here a religious house with two priests, probably secular canons of St. Augustine. The place derived sanctity and name (Holy Cross) from a cross with the figure of Christ upon it found at Montacute and transferred here, to which miraculous powers were ascribed. Harold, afterwards king of England, enlarged the foundation of Tovi, A.D. 1062, furnished it with ample endowments, increased the number of canons to 12, one of whom had the rank of dean, rebuilt the church, and established such a school of learning as the state of the age admitted. When the unfortunate Harold fell in the battle of Hastings, A.D. 1066, his body, which had been given up to his mother, was brought to Waltham for interment and his tomb erected. William the Conqueror treated the religious of Waltham harshly, and deprived them of their moveable valuables, but left their lands untouched or nearly so. In the reign of Henry II (A.D. 1177) regular canons were substituted for seculars, the number enlarged to 16, the endowments of the establishment augmented, and the dignity of abbot conferred upon the head of it. Subsequent monarchs favoured the establishment : Henry III frequently resided in the abbey, and granted to the inhabitants of the village the privilege of a market and a fair. Some accounts make the market more ancient. In the reign of this king, A.D. 1242, the conventual church was again solemnly dedicated, the king and several of his nobles being present. The yearly revenues of the abbey at the dissolution were £1,079, 12 shillings and 1 penny gross, or £900, 4 shillings and 3 pence clear. The town consists principally of one main street, running nearly east and west. The church, formerly part of the conventual church, is on the north side of the main street, near the centre of the town. As the conventual church it was very extensive, consisting of nave, transept, choir, and chapels. At the intersection of the transept, which may still be traced, rose the great tower, which contained a ring of five bells. Part of this tower having fallen in, the remainder was blown up by underminers, and the whole choir, tower, transept, and east chapel demolished. The nave and some adjacent chapels alone remained : the nave, with its side-aisles, forms the body of the present church.

The extent of the original fabric may be estimated by the fact, that Harold’s tomb, which was in the choir or in a chapel beyond it, stood about 120 feet eastward from the termination of the present building. The church is about 90 feet in length, and in breadth, including the side-aisles, 48 feet : it is in the Norman style, with round massive piers (some of which have indents of wave and zig-zag lines), dividing the nave from the side-aisles ; semicircular arches, and zig zag enrichments. The great arch of the cross, now walled up, is a very fine one. Above the arches dividing the nave from the side-aisles are two other ranges or tiers of arches : those of the second tier correspond in width to those of the lower, but are not of equal height ; the arches of the third tier are three to each arch of the lower tiers, with a window pierced in the middle arch of the three. The roof is modern, and little ornamented. The side-aisles are surmounted with galleries, erected about half a century ago. At the west end of the church is a heavy square embattled stone tower, 86 feet high, bearing the date 1558. From the south side of the church projects the Lady Chapel, now used as a vestry and school-room, under which is a fine crypt. Another little chapel, at the south-east end of the church, is now a repository for rubbish, These chapels have some beautiful and well-executed portions in the Decorated English style. There are in the church various inserted windows of different dates. The font is apparently very ancient, and there is a fine wooden screen. The building has been much injured and its beauty deformed by dilapidation and alterations, but it is still well worthy of attention.

Exclusive of the nave of the abbey church, the remains of the abbey are but few. They consist of an entrance-gateway, and bridge across an arm of the Lea, which bounds the enclosure of the abbey on the west side; some walls, and a few vaulted arches in a garden belonging to the abbey farm. The refectory is reported to have stood eastward of the church ; and what is now the abbey farm is said to have been anciently the stables. The gateway is in a much later style of architecture than the church. In the gardens formerly belonging to the abbey, now occupied as a nursery-ground, is a tulip tree, reported to be the largest in England. There are at Waltham Abbey meeting-houses for Baptists and Wesleyan Methodists.

The parish of Waltham Abbey is extensive, comprehending 11,870 acres : it had, in 1831, 760 inhabited houses, and a population of 4,104 ; but of these 344 houses and 1,902 inhabitants were in the three hamlets of Holyfield, Sewardstone, and Upshire ; leaving for that part of the parish which contains the town 416 houses and 2,202 inhabitants : only a small proportion of the population of the town division is agricultural ; but the greater part of the population of the hamlets is so. The powder-mills belonging to government employ many hands : many are engaged in the printing of silk handkerchiefs, and some in the manufacture of pins : some also, though not in the town division, are engaged in throwing and spinning silk. The market is Tuesday.

The living is a donative curacy, in the peculiar jurisdiction of the bishop of London : it is of the annual value of £237. There is an almshouse for eight poor widows.

There were in the year 1833 one infant school, with 135 children : three day-schools, viz., one endowed for 20 boys and 20 girls, one national school for 60 girls, and a school with 24 boys at High Beach, besides many small private day-schools ; one evening-school, supported by voluntary contributions, with 42 boys ; and four Sunday-schools, with 310 children.