A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10, Lexden Hundred (Part) Including Dedham, Earls Colne and Wivenhoe. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2001.
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In the Middle Ages the separate manors of Great and Little Birch occupied the main part of the parish and small areas of neighbouring parishes. William a Birches manor lay in the south-east extremities of Birch and perhaps also in Layer-de-la-Haye. (fn. 1) Other small parts of Birch belonged to other manors, for example, Easthorpe, (fn. 2) and Fillol shall or Felix Hall, Kelvedon, (fn. 3) or to religious houses, like Tiptree priory. (fn. 4) The complex pattern may result from assarting.
In 1086 there was woodland for 100 swine on Great Birch manor and for 40 on Little Birch manor. (fn. 5) In 1194 wood from Birch and Easthorpe manors was sold for £4 8s. (fn. 6) In 1605 Little Birch manor included 100 a. of woods and underwoods called Nothes, Parmenters, and Chamberlaines or Chamberleyes. (fn. 7) In 1638 Hawkins wood (14 a.) and Honfield wood were recorded. Chestwood extended into north-east Birch from Layer-de-la-Haye. (fn. 8) About 1800 there were several coppice woods on Great Birch manor. (fn. 9) In 1841 there was 143 a. of woodland, mostly in the east of the parish. (fn. 10) Heathland, probably former woodland, included Birch heath west of Birch Hall, and Layer Breton heath which extended into the south of Birch. (fn. 11)
The value of Great Birch manor, assessed as 3 hides, fell from £6 in 1066 to £5 in 1086, while the value of Little Birch manor, assessed as 2 hides less 4½ a., remained £3. William a Birches manor, assessed as 1½ hides and 18 a., was worth 50s. in 1066, and 40s. in 1086. (fn. 12) In 1327, when Birch was assessed with Easthorpe for taxation, John Gernon, the lord of Easthorpe and Birch manors, was the highest assessed of the 21 tax payers. (fn. 13) Great and Little Birch occupied a medium position in the assessment of Lexden hundred in 1524 when Thomas Tey and Robert Forster were the highest assessed of the 40 tax- payers. In 1662 five houses had more than four hearths. (fn. 14)
Between 1066 and 1086 the number of ploughteams on the demesne of Great Birch manor decreased from 3 to 2½ and those belonging to the men from 8 to 6, suggesting a small decrease in arable farming; there was also a sokeman with 13 a. who had another half team. The number of villani fell from 13 to 6, and of servi from 6 to 4, but bordarii increased from 5 to 17. There were slightly fewer demesne stock: the number of cattle fell from 20 to 10, swine from 35 to 34, sheep from 140 to 120, and goats from 40 to 20; but the stock of horses increased from 1 in 1066 to 3 in 1086. On Little Birch manor between 1066 and 1086 the number of ploughs on the demesne remained 2, with another 2 belonging to the men. The number of bordarii remained 12, but the number of servi decreased slightly from 6 to 5. Stock increased: the number of cattle rose from 2 to 7, sheep from 38 to 80, swine from 5 to 33, and in 1086 there were also 33 goats and 2 horses. On William a Birches manor in 1066 there were 3 servi; in 1086 there were no servi but instead 3 bordarii who had half a ploughteam. In 1066 there were only 3 cows and 20 sheep, but in 1086 there were 3 cows, 60 sheep, 14 swine, 7 goats, and 1 horse. In 1086 Great Birch manor included 16 a. of meadow and Little Birch manor had 12 a. (fn. 15)
On Great Birch manor in 1195 there were 252 sheep and 4 cows, and 2 ploughteams made up of 16 oxen and 4 horses. There were also 8 sows and a boar, which suggests the production of meat for sale. (fn. 16) Corn, presumably wheat, was grown in 1204. (fn. 17) Arable predominated in the large amounts of land held by the Sayer and Birch families in the 14th century. (fn. 18) In the early 15th century the Baynard family managed Birch Hall, Easthorpe, Messing Hall, and Harborough (Messing) manors together, leasing to tenants landholdings ranging from ½ a. to 40 a.; wheat and oats were grown. (fn. 19)
The proximity of Colchester and the road to London affected Birch's economy. In the period 1381-1560 between 10 and 19 men from Birch became Colchester burgesses, about half of them in the period 1501-60. (fn. 20) Colchester merchants and gentlemen sometimes invested in land and houses in Birch, for example, Thomas Christmas (d. 1520) merchant and bailiff, Robert Smith (d. c. 1652) Colchester baymaker, and John Scarlett (d. 1706). (fn. 21) Other investors came from other Essex parishes and from London, (fn. 22) including in 1647 a clothier from Great Cog- geshall and in 1659 another from Braintree. (fn. 23)
In the 16th and 17th centuries wheat, barley, oats, and peas were grown, and cattle, pigs, and sheep reared. (fn. 24) Small portions of land in Birch and Layer-de-la-Haye, referred to as doles in 1607, were probably meadow. (fn. 25) A field called the Great Rye field, next to Bottingham heath, was recorded in 1610. (fn. 26) Apart from the usual rural craftsmen and tradesmen like blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and farriers, (fn. 27) a bricklayer was recorded in 1627, a tailor in 1653, a butcher in 1616, a charcoalburner in 1631, and a chandler in 1779. (fn. 28) There were two clothiers in 1606. (fn. 29)
In 1689 there were 72 rateable holdings in Great and Little Birch parishes held by 62 owners, 45 of whom had tenants in occupation. In 1758 land tax was levied on 45 persons, some of whom were bailiffs or agents, and in 1763 on 58. (fn. 30) In the 18th century the main farms were of c. 100-200 a., for example, Garlands farm was 209 a. in 1702, Heath farm 135 a. in 1750, Scotts and Theadoms farms 108 a. and Boarded Barn farm 105 a. in 1773, and Shemmings farm 96 a. in 1784. (fn. 31) In 1777 Great Birch manor farm com- prised 193 a. of arable and pasture, and 7 a. of meadow. (fn. 32)
In 1718 the lease of Nevards farm in Birch and Layer-de-la-Haye specified that the tenant was to have a fallow year after every two grain crops, undertake systematic hedging and ditching, manure the land, build a potash house, and apply potash to the land. He was also to plant six crab apple stocks every year and graft them and ensure that the cattle would not damage the orchard. (fn. 33) The lease of Hill farm in 1755 also required that the land was to be manured, and no more than two grain crops were to be grown without a fallow year, but turnips were allowed instead of the fallow, and in the lease of 1781 peas and beans, or clover, could be grown in the third year. (fn. 34) In 1760 Hill farm was described as 'chiefly of good turnip land and meadows'. (fn. 35) A lease of Birch Hall farm in 1774 also allowed peas and clover in the fallow year; crops there included rye in 1783. (fn. 36)
In the 18th and 19th centuries the Round family built up a large estate. By 1796 James Round was the highest taxed of 29 land tax- payers, and in 1826 Charles Round the highest of 47. (fn. 37) By 1841 the Rounds owned the eastern half of Birch, the rest of the parish having many different owners. The Rounds and some of the others also owned significant amounts of land outside the parish. (fn. 38) From the later 18th century the acreage of some farms increased: the Harrisons at Copford Hall increased Hill farm in Birch from 170 a. in 1760 to 212 a. in 1766, and by 1800 James Round's Birch Hall farm was 398 a. (fn. 39)
In 1801 in Great and Little Birch the main crops were wheat (598 a.), barley (285 a.), and oats (261 a.); beans, peas, turnips and rape, rye, and potatoes were also grown. (fn. 40) The lease of Hill farm in 1814 specified a 4-course rotation: (1) wheat or winter corn, (2) peas, beans, oats, barley, or other spring corn, (3) clover or other artificial grass seeds, (4) fallow and summer till age. The tenant was obliged to give the owner three days' work a year with a wagon, two men and four horses, or cart nine chaldrons of coals for him. (fn. 41) In 1841 of the 3,070 a. of titheable land in Birch 2,540 a. (83 per cent) was arable, and 222 a. (7 per cent) meadow. (fn. 42) C. G. Round took a close interest in his leased farms which included Garlands, Wood House, Gate House, Birch Holt, and Roundbush. In 1843 Garlands farm of 209 a. was nearly all arable except for 11 a. of pasture; wheat, oats, beans, swedes, and turnips were grown, and there were cows, pigs, and poultry. The land was said to be 'but moderately farmed' and C. G. Round suggested improvements, including drainage and the application of lime and chalk. In 1844 Wood House farm of 56 a. was also mostly arable. The land was 'well suited to turnip husbandry' and 'in a creditable state of cultivation'. The tenant, a butcher, applied plenty of manure to the land from the the large quantity of stock he kept in a small pasture. (fn. 43)
In 1851 most people worked in agriculture and the usual rural crafts and trades. There were 194 or more agricultural labourers, 9 farmers, 2 farm bailiffs, and a cattle dealer. Old Holt farm (424 a., although most of it was outside Birch) employed 20 labourers, Hill farm (224 a.) had 12, Heath farm (221 a.) 11, and Garlands (210 a.) 10. (fn. 44) In 1870 arable farming still predominated, the chief crops being wheat, beans, and barley. (fn. 45) In 1871 there were 10 farmers, 209 agricultural labourers, and 3 shepherds. Some farms had increased in size: Birch Holt was 717 a., Gate farm 480 a., Garlands 414 a., and Hill farm 370 a. (fn. 46)
Of the 4 blacksmiths in 1851, the one at Heckford bridge employed 3 men. The 3 silkweavers may have been outworkers for London firms. Six people worked in shoemaking, and there were 5 teachers, a house painter, a superintendent of works, a police constable, and a bricklayer. Women and girls in paid work were mostly domestic servants, but a few were dressmakers, needlewomen, laundresses, or teachers. By 1871 as many as 46 women and girls were employed as tailoresses or dressmakers, probably mostly on outwork for Colchester firms. About 12 people worked in the butchers', bakers', grocery, and drapery shops in Birch. (fn. 47)
Farmworkers who joined the National Agricultural Labourers' Union came into confrontation with the resident main landowner, James Round, M.P., in 1874 when they demanded higher wages, and there was a lockout; (fn. 48) the school authorities allowed boys over 10 years old to be employed on the farms temporarily. Children often missed school to augment a family's income, for example, by helping with the harvest, picking up acorns, or beanstalking. (fn. 49)
Agricultural depression was evident from the 1870s. Some farms were sold, including Hellens Farm in 1876, described as first-class arable or accommodation land. (fn. 50) In 1879 the tenant at Gate House and Lukes farms felt unable to continue unless his rent was reduced. (fn. 51) The decreased demand for labour caused wages to fall and young people to move away. Some people emigrated. Many families lived in overcrowded conditions because they could not afford higher rents. Families with allotments were likely to have a better standard of living. (fn. 52) The churchwardens apparently let allotments of ½ rod and 1 rod in White Horse field. (fn. 53) Some attempts were made to diversify: by 1891 there were a few stockmen in the parish, and the farmer at Little Lukes was growing seeds in 1898. The employment pattern of those who remained in the parish did not change much, but tailoring overtook domestic service as the main paid work for women and girls. (fn. 54)
In 1905 there were 8 holdings of 1-5 a., 5 of 5-50 a., and 13 of 50-300 a. The main crops were wheat (334 a.), oats (273 a.), and barley (200 a.), and peas, mangolds, beans, turnips and swedes, potatoes, cabbage, vetch or tare, lucerne, kohl rabi, and rye were grown. There was 102 a. of bare fallow, 212 a. of mown grass, 266 a. of grazed grass, 174 a. of mown clover, and 7 a. of grazed clover. Owner-occupation accounted for only 150 a. of the land, 1,892 a. being rented. Livestock amounted to 81 horses, 74 cows, and 36 adult pigs. Woodland had been much increased, to 246 a. (fn. 55) In 1907 the Rounds' managed woodland included oak, ash, hazel, hornbeam, birch, chestnut, and pine; under wood was cut for rake-handles, linen props, thatching rods, hurdle stuff, birch brooms, and faggots. (fn. 56) In 1914 there was a market gardener. (fn. 57) Four Scottish families acquired tenancies on the Birch Hall estate in the early 20th century. (fn. 58)
Between the World Wars wheat, beans, and barley remained the principal crops, and sheep, pigs, and poultry were reared. (fn. 59) A tenant of 600 a. on the Birch and Messing estates had a dairy herd of 30 cows, grew cereal crops, and also mangold, turnip, and Essex red clover for seed; he developed contract pea-growing as a sideline. (fn. 60) In 1937 Garlands, Lukes, and Winterfloods farms each had more than 150 a., the rest were smaller; there was one poultry farm. Between 1906 and 1937 Hollington Bros. wholesale clothiers had a small factory in the parish at Birch Street. A petrol station was opened by 1933. (fn. 61) Hutton Builders Ltd., estab- lished in 1872, (fn. 62) had more than 100 employees before 1939; besides local work, contracts included ones for construction at Colchester barracks and at Lambeth County Court. (fn. 63)
After the Second World War the Rounds and the Macaulays farmed most of the land. In the 1940s most of the employment inside the parish was still in agriculture, for example, the Rounds employed twenty men and five women at their 600-a. Hellens farm in 1946. Children still sometimes missed school to work, usually on pea and potato picking. (fn. 64) In 1947 the Essex County Show was held at Birch Park. (fn. 65) Lt. Col. J. G. Round sold some of his land, (fn. 66) and Strutt and Parker managed the farms from the early 1950s. Machinery was modernized, fertilizers introduced, and reservoirs created for irrigation schemes. The farming became almost entirely arable, mainly sugar beet and wheat, with a reduced workforce of contract labour. Some early potatoes were grown in the 1960s and early 1970s on the irrigated, light soil east of the Maldon road using female labour. Fields were amalgamated and many hedges removed, and in 1990 up to 200 a. was put to grass under the government's Set Aside scheme. (fn. 67) In 1999 rheas were reared at Birch Holt farm. (fn. 68)
One mill was recorded on Little Birch manor in 1086, and another on Great Birch manor in the 13th century (fn. 69) where a windmill was re- corded c. 1400. An unidentified field on Great Birch manor called Fullingeslond c. 1400 and ffulleresland in 1427 may have been near the site of a fulling mill. (fn. 70) A watermill belonged to Little Birch manor in 1605, perhaps that which stood half a mile north-east of Little Birch church in the 18th century and stopped working between 1785 and 1810. (fn. 71)
A post mill about half a mile north of Great Birch church, known as Birch mill, was recorded in 1724. In 1774 it belonged to James Round who leased it with the watermill. It was auctioned in 1855, and apparently removed by the purchaser and probably re-erected in Layer-de- la-Haye. Another post mill, at Birch Green immediately west of Mill House, was probably built in the late 18th century. It was not used from 1894 until c. 1905, then operated un- profitably until c. 1910. It was demolished in 1962. (fn. 72) The surviving red-brick Mill House appears to be mostly early to mid 19th century.
Field names suggest there were once brick kilns north of Birch Holt and that gravel may have been extracted beside the Maldon road and in the east of the parish for many centuries. A gravel pit was recorded in 1758. Until 1862 the lease of some farmland in the centre of the parish included the right to take and sell gravel. (fn. 73) Birch sand and gravel pit was opened in 1939 on Maldon Road when Birch airfield was built. It was acquired by the Amey Roadstone Corporation Ltd. c. 1974, but demand fell and production declined so that the pit was worked only sporadically. Part of it was closed in 1984 and the site landfilled, grass planted and a lake created. (fn. 74) The Playle Engineering Co. Ltd. was established c. 1960 by P. Playle. (fn. 75) Local people increasingly worked outside the parish in Colchester and other towns, and also in London.