A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.
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GEORGIAN COLCHESTER INTRODUCTION
Colchester's position on the route between London and Harwich and the Continent and its function as a centre for the surrounding rural area helped to foster commercial development and economic diversity, mitigating the difficulties caused by the loss of the bay trade. The establishment of a temporary garrison during the Napoleonic Wars was a further stimulus to the town's economy. Manufacturing growth was on a comparatively small scale and so Colchester did not share the problems in the late 18th and early 19th century of rapidly industrializing northern and midland towns. The port at the Hythe was important locally in attracting foreign trade but was not of great national significance, its development being inhibited by its location several miles inland. (fn. 1)
Burgesses were proud of Colchester's borough status, and during the period 1741-1763 when the borough charter was in abeyance, they felt keenly the loss of their privileges. The borough assembly was the seat of power locally and much political manoeuvring was centred around it. Minor local administration was carried out by the 16 town parishes, and from 1811 the improvement commissioners were very active in the town. The town had two elected members of parliament. (fn. 2)
The face of Colchester changed substantially over the period, with new elegant buildings emphasizing the bustling town's self-confidence. There was space, where houses had been demolished as the weaving trade declined, to build new houses and enlarge gardens. The town was surrounded by fields, enabling people easily to go into the countryside. Growth was gradual and, compared with other towns, Colchester appeared to contemporaries a pleasant place. (fn. 3) In 1795 Ann Taylor, who later became a well known writer, described the town as 'a nice old town . . . clean, open, and agreeable . . . situated on a healthful gravelly hill . . . commanding from many points a view of the Colne', and considered the high street 'quite a gay promenade'. (fn. 4)
Socially and culturally the town offered a wide range of activities, from book clubs and theatrical performances to charity work and meetings of friendly societies. Evangelicalism in the Anglican church was influential from the 1780s. Nonconformity remained strong but much of the religious rancour of the previous century had disappeared. The local social, political, and economic leaders were the town gentry together with members of the commercial and professional élites. A gulf remained between rich and poor: conflict surfaced in occasional disturbances, but law and order were never seriously threatened for long. (fn. 5)
Population, estimated at c. 10,400 in 1674, increased to 11,520 in 1801. (fn. 6) Numbers may have declined in the earlier decades of the 18th century. About 100 weavers, presumably with their families, left the town before 1715 and there was a high death rate from disease in the 1720s. (fn. 7) The historian Philip Morant estimated that there were 2,342 households in the town in 1748, not including Mile End and Berechurch; before then houses had been pulled down in St. Peter's, St. James's, St. Giles's, and Greenstead parishes, though some new ones had been built in Mile End. (fn. 8) Burials exceeded baptisms in the parish registers until the 1770s and did so again in the early 1780s; baptisms exceeded burials from 1786 until 1800, except in 1791, 1795, 1799, and 1800. (fn. 9) The strength of nonconformity complicates further any attempt to estimate population. (fn. 10) Smallpox and other diseases continued to claim lives, and towns like Colchester on trading routes were particularly vulnerable. In 1730, 1735, 1736, and 1737 smallpox was recorded in St. Peter's parish, and in 1741, 1747, and 1754 in St. Mary's-at-the-Walls, where six deaths from measles were noted in 1769. A smallpox case was mentioned in All Saints' in 1748 and more sickness than usual in 1749 and 1750. A newspaper notice in 1763 declared the town free of a recent smallpox outbreak. (fn. 11) In the late 18th century parishes occasionally provided inoculation at one or more inoculating houses. (fn. 12) In 1800 Dr. Jenner visited the town to inoculate with cowpox the 85th Regiment, invited by its commander-in-chief, the duke of York. (fn. 13) Migration from the town was usually over short distances, with other Essex parishes the most usual destinations, followed by London, then Suffolk, then other places. (fn. 14) During wartime there were fluctuating numbers of soldiers in the town. There is some evidence that soldiers who married local women settled there. (fn. 15) Population grew more rapidly in the early 19th century reaching 16,167 by 1831, although outbreaks of disease, such as cholera in 1834, were still serious. (fn. 16) It was only in the late 18th and early 19th century that the built-up area of the town was extended. (fn. 17)
During the Napoleonic Wars the town, alive with soldiers and troop movements, was described as 'gay and busy'. (fn. 18) In 1795, when Holland was held by the French, the prince of Orange with a party of nearly fifty stayed at the White Hart; the duke of York dined with him there and reviewed the Surrey Fencibles. The wars brought years of high food prices and an increasing burden of poor relief. (fn. 19) The Colchester Loyal Volunteers were formed in 1797, providing their own uniform and mounts, and patriotism was expressed in public celebration of victories and royal occasions. (fn. 20) During an invasion scare at the end of 1803 an attack was expected at any hour; soldiers were 'pouring in daily' and people were 'in the utmost distress and consternation'. Wealthier families left the town, the Rounds going to Bath, the Daniells to Halstead, and the Taylors to Lavenham (Suff.). The crisis passed, however, and by early the following year most had returned. (fn. 21)
Georgian Colchester was not at the forefront of industrial and economic change, but it remained an important centre for the surrounding area of north Essex and south Suffolk. Colchester people resented the role of Chelmsford as a county town, complaining of the cost and inconvenience of travelling to the county court and sending prisoners there. (fn. 22) They were proud of the continuing vitality of their own ancient town.