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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Throughout the period the town was a centre for social and recreational activities for the surrounding district, and the presence of the garrison helped to increase the range of facilities. An important factor was the strength of protestant nonconformity, whose relationship with the established church gradually changed from one of mutual distrust and rivalry to amicable co-operation. Philanthropy and self-help were key elements underpinning the 19th-century social structure, but in the 20th century they were replaced to a large extent by state health, welfare, and educational services. Overlapping social networks, based on economic position, religious affiliation, political interests, educational experience, kinship, and locality provided differing frameworks of social support and influence and supported a variety of leisure patterns. (fn. 1)
The garrison, established at the time of the Crimean War in 1855, (fn. 2) enriched local social life. The town and country gentry had considerable social contact with senior ranks, entertaining and attending balls during the military social season every winter. The garrison commander lived at Lexden for several years, and Scarletts, an estate south-east of the town, was rented for the district commander in the 1880s. There was keen army interest in local dramatics, sport, and freemasonry. (fn. 3) The garrison, however, also introduced or exacerbated some social problems. Many army families were destitute in the early years because commanding officers usually approved more marriages than the seven per cent allowed to the lower ranks; in 1857 only 144 out of 370 wives were 'authorized' army wives who were allowed to share their husband's rations and laundry services and enjoyed other advantages. (fn. 4) Soldiers, very visible in the uniforms of cavalry and infantry regiments, were often involved in drunken and disorderly behaviour in the town; public houses notorious for fights included the Blue Boar in Angel Lane, and the Woolpack in St. Botolph's Street. Armed military pickets were necessary in the town in the 1860s and 1870s; after Christmas 1869 it took two days to stop large numbers of men from the 18th and 33rd Foot from fighting each other and other men. (fn. 5) Prostitution was by no means a new problem, for in 1844 there had been complaints of prostitutes making the streets unsafe for respectable women after 7 p.m., (fn. 6) but the army did bear a large responsibility for its increase and for the spread of venereal disease. The issue became a political one in garrison towns between the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s and their repeal in 1884. (fn. 7)
Relations between lower ranks and townspeople improved from the mid 1880s following army reforms. (fn. 8) Drunkenness and prostitution in the town diminished after barrack canteens were improved in 1886, encouraging men to spend more of their leisure at the camp. The temperance movement and some local churches may also have contributed to raising standards of behaviour. (fn. 9) Nevertheless soldiers continued to be involved in fights in the early 20th century, particularly with cattle drovers, who had a tough reputation. Between the wars the borough chief constable regularly recruited to his police force army boxing champions to be used for breaking up fights; as a result the Colchester police boxing team became European champions. (fn. 10) Military parades and bands added colour to local life. In 1898 a grand tattoo, lit by c. 200 torches, was held on the Abbey field with 11 military bands, and many tattoos were held in the 20th century. (fn. 11) A popular Sunday morning pastime was to watch the soldiers march to the garrison church with their bands. The army's participation contributed greatly to the scale and success of special celebrations for military victories and royal jubilees, marriages, and coronations. (fn. 12) The garrison made its hospital and sports facilities available to townspeople, and played local teams in various sports, but was never needed to suppress a riot nor used to break a strike. (fn. 13) Its presence in the town was less noticeable after 1945, and from 1989, when an I.R.A. car bomb exploded beside army houses, seriously wounding a soldier, involvement in the local community had to be tempered even more carefully by security considerations. (fn. 14)
The influence of organized religion was important in the 19th century and into the 20th, but increases in church attendance may mainly reflect a rapidly rising population. In 1851 the largest congregations were recorded at Stockwell Street Congregational chapel and at St. Peter's church. (fn. 15) Many Anglican churches were extensively restored in the later 19th century and new churches and chapels of ease were built in fast growing districts, the first, All Saints' at Shrub End on the southern edge of the town in 1845, being given a new parish. To take account of problems caused by low stipends, lack of sufficient lay help in poor parishes, falling population in the town centre, and suburban growth, the parishes were reorganized several times, notably in 1911, 1953, and 1977. By 1992 only three of the twelve ancient parish churches in the town remained open. (fn. 16)
Evangelicals were strong within the Church of England in the 19th century. Prominent amongst them were Meshach Seaman, rector of St. James's 1839-49 and of Greenstead 1849-82, who was also a keen Liberal much involved in local affairs, and J. R. Cotter, rector of St. Mary Magdalen's 1877-90. St. Peter's church maintained a strong Evangelical tradition. (fn. 17) From the 1860s a High Church tradition developed at St. Leonard's and from the 1880s at St. Giles's, All Saints' and St. James's. More moderate churchmanship was dominant, however, promoted by rectors like J. T. Round, and later, J. W. Irvine, both of whom became rural dean and encouraged good relations between supporters of Anglicanism's different strands and with other denominations. (fn. 18) Colchester and District Clerical Society, founded in 1857 for monthly Bible reading and discussion, was a forum for local clergy. (fn. 19) In the early 20th century the High Church tradition followed by H. F. V. Carter and his eccentric curate G. A. Newcomen at St. Leonard's caused some parishioners to leave the church. By 1939 the succeeding rector's Anglo-Catholicism was regarded by the ecclesiastical authorities as too extreme, and the tendency was checked, later incumbents following a more moderate High Church line. (fn. 20) St. James's became the town's Anglo-Catholic church. (fn. 21)
Protestant nonconformity grew in strength, although bedevilled particularly in the mid 19th century by disagreements within congregations. It was a powerful force in the town, supplying many of its leaders. Between 1840 and 1874 its places of worship, including mission rooms, increased from 8 to 20, and Sunday schools from 6 to 29. Growth continued into the 20th century. (fn. 22) Roman Catholics, recovering from their earlier exclusion from public life, built their first church in Colchester in 1837. Despite remaining anti-Catholic feeling, their numbers grew steadily thereafter. (fn. 23)
Divisions between nonconformists and Anglicans affected many aspects of town life. Clergy of various persuasions promoted education and welfare, and some supported the labour movement, but many nonconformists objected strongly to paying church rates and to government interference in education by the established church. By the end of the 19th century, although significant underlying tensions remained, disagreement between nonconformists and Anglicans was gradually disappearing. The pattern was similar at Ipswich. (fn. 24) The intense rivalry over education was apparently contained within the school board, established in 1892, which included members from both camps, (fn. 25) although in 1903 four nonconformist ministers were among 19 people summonsed for not paying the new education rate. (fn. 26) Members of different denominations increasingly joined forces to fight the commonly perceived social evils of unemployment, sickness, poverty, intemperance, and Sabbath-breaking, and many served the community on local bodies. (fn. 27) The ecumenical movement became significant from c. 1970. (fn. 28)
Social differences were apparent in patterns of religious observance. St. Mary'sat-the-Walls was the church preferred by the leading Conservatives. (fn. 29) In 1920 the rector of St. Paul's, a working-class parish where many men were unemployed, remarked that very few demobilized men had returned to the church after the war. In 1930 the rector of St. John's, another working-class parish, thought that declining church attendance was partly due to Sunday outings by public transport and broadcast church services on Sunday evenings. The rector of All Saints' with St. Nicholas's observed that church attendance was better among his educated parishioners. (fn. 30) In the rural outlying parts nonconformist congregations were composed mainly of labouring people, (fn. 31) but in the town the nonconformist churches attracted members from all social levels, though the social composition of different congregations varied. Many of the town's most influential people belonged to Lion Walk Congregational church. Between 1835 and 1937 it provided 59 members of the borough council, including several mayors, and 19 others associated with municipal life. Headgate Congregational's members on the other hand were more likely to be 'respectable working class'. (fn. 32) Some prominent families like the Cants and the Turners preferred their children to attend church services rather than the Sunday schools, which were apparently regarded as suitable only for lower-class children. (fn. 33) Churches and chapels provided recreational activities ranging from circulating book societies, like the three at Lion Walk Congregational in the late 19th century, to football clubs, mothers' meetings, temperance societies, and choirs. (fn. 34) E. H. Turner, organist at All Saints', borough organist, and conductor of a local choral society, was a leading figure in the town's musical life and attracted many good singers to his highly regarded church choir. (fn. 35)
Religion, especially the Evangelical type, frequently prompted charity and social concern. Churches continued to administer various charitable donations and bequests, like the small ones to provide bread and coals for the needy in St. Leonard's parish at the Hythe, a poor district. (fn. 36) George Round of East Hill House supported many public institutions, and his wife Margaret was much involved in charity work in St. James's parish and beyond. She maintained an orphanage built c. 1866 for ten destitute children, frequently held sewing classes for the Girls' Friendly Society and Young Women's Help Society, and provided treats for local schoolchildren. By her will, proved in 1887, she made bequests to Colchester hospital and other local charities and left £1,500 to the rector and churchwardens of St. James's, the income to be used for the infant school, the Sunday school, and clothing for the poor. (fn. 37) Wilson Marriage, teetotaller, businessman, and a leading Quaker, campaigned for public health and education, the building of a new town hall, and the closure of public houses. (fn. 38)
Philanthropy and pressure for social reform were not always directly associated with institutionalized religion. James Paxman, the industrialist, was a generous benefactor to the town, helping to establish the Albert School of Science and Art, giving a large piece of land for recreation, and financing the new town hall's clock tower. (fn. 39) H. H. Elwes, in his mayoral year 1902-3, inaugurated a distress scheme which developed into a local branch of the Charity Organization Society. (fn. 40) In the early 20th century Dr. Ruth Bensusan-Butt, women's suffragist and Fabian, campaigned to raise standards of health and welfare, especially of women and children, and for the provision of a maternity home. (fn. 41) Elfreda Sanders, mayor 1953-4, and five times mayoress to her brother, Sir Percy Sanders, did much work for the Red Cross and other charities. (fn. 42)
Self-help was encouraged through institutions like the Colchester Provident Asylum Society, established in 1833 under the chairmanship of Sir G. H. Smyth, M.P., of Berechurch Hall, which invited contributions from artisans or small shopkeepers entitling them in old age to apply for one of the society's cottages built between North Hill and Balkerne Lane. (fn. 43) Colchester Provident Labourers' Society, established in 1842 on the initiative of Revd. J. T. Round to encourage thrift and self sufficiency, enabled the poor to make payments to clothing and coal funds. Those contributions were augmented by wealthier persons who were to befriend families and set an example. Allotments were also acquired. (fn. 44)
Friendly societies offered probably the most important channel of self-help for workers. They became more popular as real wages increased and enabled more men to insure themselves in a limited way against the ever-present threat of poverty. In the early 19th century there were already several societies. The Colchester Provident Benefit Society, founded in 1809, had 270 members by 1834, and the town's first Oddfellows' Lodge was founded in 1844. By the 1890s most working men belonged to one or more societies, the most prominent of which were local branches of the Foresters, the Oddfellows, the Hearts of Oak, the Royal Liver, and the Sons of Temperance. The smaller societies were gradually superseded by the large national organizations; by 1913 the Oddfellows and Foresters between them had c. 6,000 members in the town. The societies functioned as social clubs, most meetings being held in public houses, and the annual church parade with regalia and bands became a colourful public spectacle. (fn. 45) Their role diminished as state welfare provision increased in the 20th century, but branches of the Oddfellows and the Foresters survived in 1992.
The proliferation of voluntary adult educational outlets like the Mechanics' Institution founded in 1833, the university extension centre established in 1889, and church organizations enabled those who were not too tired from drudgery at work and in the home to improve themselves and become more self-sufficient. (fn. 46) There was considerable interest in the town's history, particularly its Roman period. William Wire (d. 1857), a watchmaker, was a self-educated radical and nonconformist who acquired an extensive knowledge of antiquities. (fn. 47) The Colchester Co-operative Society, founded in 1861, whose members included many temperance advocates, had its own lending library and reading room, and arranged lectures and concerts as well as co-operative trading for members. (fn. 48) John Castle, one of its founders, said the aim was to set a good example to fellow working people and improve their physical, social, and moral condition. (fn. 49) Nevertheless, despite such institutions and the increased provision of schools, educational advance before the 20th century should not be overestimated, for in 1877, when the rector of St. John the Evangelist's was widowed, 43 of the 107 parishioners sending a joint letter of condolence signed with a cross. (fn. 50)
The leaders of Colchester social life in the 19th century included the Smyths of Berechurch Hall, the Papillons of Lexden Manor, the Rebows at Wivenhoe Park, and, most of all, the Rounds who lived at East Hill House and Hollytrees in Colchester and at Birch Hall, Birch, and also owned Colchester castle. Such families, who were also socially active at county and national level, had much contact through committees, social events, and charity work with higher ranking army officers, doctors and surgeons, and clerics, and with the middle-class business and professional men who ran the town. In the 20th century, after the manorial estates were broken up, the landed interest declined, leaving a more important social role for the middle-class business and professional families whose members came to be regarded as the town's social as well as its political and economic leaders. (fn. 51)
Members of the leading families, which in the early 20th century included the Cants, Turners, Benhams, Pawseys, Marriages, Blaxills, Impeys, Bensusan-Butts, and Daniells, were often connected by marriage. Family networks established the economic and social status of their members and provided access to various formal organizations like the Rotary, golf, and political clubs, churches, and freemasons' lodges, which facilitated social and business contacts. St. Runwald's club, which met over Griffin's store in Crouch Street, was for professional men, and Colchester club for well-to-do businessmen, though the distinction was relaxed by the mid 20th century when St. Runwald's club was starting to decline. The Officers' Club at the garrison was open to local men of high enough social status. (fn. 52) In the 20th century, while the mayor's political power diminished, his leading role in the social life of the town and in charity work was emphasized. (fn. 53)
The higher the social level the more formal were social relationships. The Cants, for example, the leading family at Mile End in the early 20th century, invited friends to dinner and shooting parties, went beagling with members of the garrison, and played tennis, golf, and cricket. The family employed a cook, housekeeper, full-time gardener, a boy who later became chauffeur of the car acquired in 1912, as well as nannies and governesses when necessary. Mrs. Cant was much involved with Mile End parish church and Sunday school and charitable work in the village. Younger family members made social contacts through tennis clubs like the one at Lexden and at dances. Railway excursions, mainly to London and the east coast, had been possible from 1843, but from the early 20th century families like the Cants who could buy a motor car often preferred outings by road. (fn. 54) A very few wealthy families like the Benhams might visit the Continent, but most people who had seaside holidays usually spent them in England until the later 20th century; the Turners had holidays at Clacton, Frinton, or Felixstowe. (fn. 55) The lower middle class emulated, as far as their income permitted, the social patterns of those above them. Servants' wages were low and it was possible for people with moderate income to employ domestic help until the supply diminished after 1939. A High Street jeweller in the early 20th century lived over his shop in five-bedroomed accommodation, employed a maid, was a churchwarden and freemason, and had much social contact, mostly outside the home, with other small businessmen. (fn. 56)
As the town spread outwards in the late 19th and early 20th century there was considerable residential class segregation, but it diminished from the Second World War, which was seen as having a levelling effect. Social mobility was always considered possible, usually by the acquisition of money through success in business, and, especially in the 20th century, also through education. (fn. 57) Thomas Moy (b. 1831), son of a silk throwster, built up a very prosperous coal and building supplies business, was mayor 1877-9, and in 1880 bought Stanway manor and moved to Stanway Hall. (fn. 58) James Paxman, employed at Catchpool's as a young man, later amassed a fortune through his own engineering business, served as mayor 1887-8 and 1897-8, and bought Stisted Hall and its estate. (fn. 59) In the early 20th century a joiner's son was able to progress from his first job as an office junior to become deputy town clerk. However some other families could not afford to let their children take up the school scholarships which they won. (fn. 60)
Working-class networks were usually more informal ones based on family and kinship, neighbours, the public house, and in the 20th century a common educational background in state schools. The family provided support in childbirth, sickness, and bereavement, particularly before 1945. At the Hythe when someone died a particular local woman would come in to lay out the body, a black-painted board would be put up in the window, and neighbours would visit to pay their last respects. Other networks were based on friendly societies, trades unions, the Co-operative movement strong in the New Town district, political clubs, and churches. (fn. 61)
Working-class leisure activities tended to be different from those of the middle class. A maintenance worker at the barracks, formerly an army farrier, living at Canterbury Road in the 1920s was interested in football and gardening, was a regular customer at his local public house, and a member of the British Legion and the Old Comrades' Association; his wife was occupied mainly with the home and family and read a little; on Sundays his children went to Sunday school and church where they sang in the garrison choir, and the whole family went for a walk, usually at Middlewick. (fn. 62) Young people might join organizations like the Scouts, usually associated with churches, or the King George V mixed club in East Stockwell Street. Billiards and snooker could be played at the Co-op club in High Street and the TocH club. (fn. 63) To meet members of the opposite sex some participated in the 'monkey parade', walking down High Street from St. Nicholas's church to the west end. Dances were held at the Oak hall at the Red Lion and at the Labour club behind the Co-op in High Street. Courting was done by walking miles, large parts of the town remaining undeveloped by building. Before 1939 it was the custom on Whit Sunday for both children and adults to queue in Lower Castle park to skip through long skipping ropes. (fn. 64) Men who worked at Cant's nursery in the early 20th century were allowed to go rabbiting on Saturday afternoons. (fn. 65) Some men at New Town kept pigeons. (fn. 66) Firms like Paxman's and Wood's ran their own sports and social clubs. (fn. 67) Day rail trips to Clacton and Walton provided treats. (fn. 68) Many working-class women, however, found any spare time was taken up with outwork for tailoring firms to supplement the family income. (fn. 69)
Rowdyism and drunkenness on the streets were common in the 19th century, particularly at elections. Guy Fawkes night in 1875 was marked by vandalism and violence. (fn. 70) The distinction between 'respectable' and 'rough' people within the working class was widely made; the former were seen as honest and hardworking; the latter category included itinerants, the 'workshy', and those who had an uneasy relationship with the legal system. Before 1939 'rough' families were likely to live north of the town centre or east of it at the Hythe. In that period there was gang warfare between the north and east gangs, and in some places a soldier was said to be unsafe on his own, but the violence was apparently largely confined to those who wanted to fight. Vineyard Street in the central area, notorious for drunkenness and prostitution, was known as Harlots' Row. (fn. 71) Itinerants, among other occupations, used to bring in wild roses from the briars to Cant's nursery at Mile End. (fn. 72) Marmalade Grimes and Emma were a well-known tramping couple at the beginning of the 20th century. (fn. 73)
Class differences in leisure patterns lessened throughout the 20th century. Cricket and tennis, at first gentlemen's games, became more widely played, and football, athletics, swimming, as well as the local cinemas, theatre, and roller-skating, were popular. A successful pageant, held in 1909, illustrated Colchester's importance in local and national history. (fn. 74) Fairs and the town carnivals provided further entertainment. (fn. 75) Colchester zoo at Stanway was another attraction in the later 20th century. (fn. 76) Improved communications increased national and international social influences; London and the Continent offered new opportunities for entertainment and holidays. The twinning of Colchester with Wetzlar, Germany, in 1969 and with Avignon, France, in 1972 led to many social and cultural exchanges. (fn. 77)