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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BOROUGH AND LIBERTY.
The liberty, first defined in Henry VI's charter of 1447, covered the town of Colchester and its four hamlets (the parishes of Lexden, Berechurch or West Donyland, Greenstead, and Mile End), in addition to part of the river Colne which had been granted or confirmed to the burgesses by Richard I. In the late 13th century the burgesses claimed that a charter of Richard I had declared the four hamlets to be within the borough, but Richard's only known charter, while granting hunting rights within the 'banlieu', did not define the liberty territorially. (fn. 1) Greenstead, although it may earlier have been an independent estate, was within Colchester in 1086, and so presumably were Berechurch, West Donyland and Mile End, which were not separately recorded in Domesday Book unless the 2 hides belonging to St. Peter's church were in Mile End. The status of Lexden was disputed, and part of West Donyland in St. Giles's and St. Botolph's parishes seems to have been outside the liberty. (fn. 2) In 1277 the Colchester bailiffs claimed, apparently with success, that the St. John's abbey manors of Greenstead and West Donyland were within the liberty, but the status of the two hamlets was disputed again in 1285 and the following years. (fn. 3) The inhabitants of all four hamlets were assessed for subsidy with Colchester from 1296 if not earlier, but soon after 1313 Robert FitzWalter, lord of Lexden manor, tried unsuccessfully to establish that Lexden was outside the borough's jurisdiction. (fn. 4) There seem to have been no further serious disputes about the status of the hamlets until the 1580s when Catherine Audley revived the claim that Berechurch was outside Colchester, and some inhabitants of Lexden refused to contribute to a subsidy as part of the borough. (fn. 5) The burgesses claimed Stanway as part of the borough at the forest eyre in 1291-2, (fn. 6) but the claim, if it did relate to the whole parish and not to detached parts within Colchester, was not made again.
The borough bounds accepted in 1835 followed the outer parish boundaries of Lexden, Mile End, Greenstead, St. Giles's, and Berechurch. (fn. 7) Under the Essex Review Order of 1934 the area of the borough was increased from 11,333 a. to 12,011 a. by the addition of small areas from Ardleigh, East Donyland, Langenhoe, Stanway, West Bergholt, and Wivenhoe. (fn. 8) In 1974 the administrative borough was extended to cover the former Lexden and Winstree rural district and West Mersea and Wivenhoe urban districts. (fn. 9)
THE PERAMBULATED BOUNDARY.
Perambulations of a boundary which differed at several points from the parish and later borough boundaries took place at long and irregular intervals from the 13th century to 1801. (fn. 10) Part of a later medieval description of the southern boundary survives but cannot be related to 17thand 19th-century perambulations, and a 13thcentury list of boundary marks and a similar one of 1563 are too brief to work out the exact route followed. (fn. 11) The earliest clear accounts are of 1637 and 1671; with the detailed account of the 1801 perambulation, which incorporates earlier material, they enable most of the route to be reconstructed. (fn. 12)
The 17th-century perambulations began at the Colne in the south-east corner of the liberty and followed Birch or Battles brook westwards to the lane from Old Heath to Rowhedge, then the lane to its junction with a track leading back to the brook, thus taking in a small part of East Donyland. They followed the track back to the brook, the brook to its source by Mersea Road, and then turned south along the road. The route from there to Roman River is not altogether clear, but it seems to have gone nearly due south and may have followed the parish boundary, as it did along the river to Kingsford bridge. The 17thcentury route turned north along Layer Road, but the later medieval perambulation may have continued along the river to take in Olivers fee, presumably the later Olivers in Stanway. (fn. 13) From Layer Road the perambulation turned northwest along Gosbecks Road to Maldon Road, taking in part of Stanway parish. It ran straight across Maldon Road, following the parish boundary and the line of the Iron-Age ramparts across Lexden heath, then along the lane to Newbridge, leaving out a small area of Lexden north-west of Chitts hill. The line of the perambulation beyond Newbridge is not clear. In 1801 it, like the parish boundary, ran along the Colne to St. Botolph's brook and then followed the brook north-eastwards. In the 17th century it seems to have crossed the river below Newbridge, possibly by a footbridge called Motts bridge near where St. Botolph's brook falls into the Colne. It then seems to have followed field boundaries to the point at which a track from Colchester to Bergholt heath crossed the brook, apparently taking in a small area of West Bergholt. From the track it followed St. Botolph's brook and another small brook to the Horkesley road, ignoring small areas of West Bergholt and Great Horkesley east of the brooks, then turned north along the road, across Horkesley heath to the foot of Horkesley causeway where Black brook crosses the road. From that brook the perambulation followed a rampart or causeway across Horkesley and Boxted heaths to the corner of Langham park, probably where the boundaries of Langham, Boxted, and Mile End meet. From there the perambulation followed a brook to Ipswich Road and the road to Bullock wood, taking in the small extra-parochial area on Cock Common. From Ipswich Road it followed the parish boundary through Bullock wood and along the edge of Sowen wood to Harwich Road but then went straight across the road and followed ditches or streams to Crockleford or Salary brook, taking in part of Ardleigh parish. It then followed parish boundaries along Salary brook, round Churn wood, and across Whitmore heath to the stream which flows through Wivenhoe park. At the south-west edge of the park the perambulation probably turned south-east to the old channel of the Colne and thence into the main river, taking in a small area of Wivenhoe parish.
The minor divergences between the perambulation route and the parish boundaries may have resulted from the moving of parish boundaries, either as tithes were given to a neighbouring church or as the course of streams or drainage ditches changed. That certainly seems to have happened on the West Bergholt boundary where the perambulation of 1671 states that the track leading to Bergholt was agreed by both incumbents to be the boundary between West field (in Lexden) and West Bergholt, and where the 1801 perambulation followed St. Botolph's brook, then the parish boundary. There may have been a similar boundary change at Gosbecks, whose tithes were in dispute between St. John's abbey and the rector of Stanway in 1364. (fn. 14) The parishes of Stanway and St. Mary-at-the-Walls were intermixed in the Middle Ages, and as late as 1578 part of Stanway seems still to have been within the liberties of Colchester. (fn. 15) A rationalization of the boundaries may have given Stanway the land north-east of Gosbecks.
The perambulated boundary on the north may reflect hunting rights in Kingswood forest. The forest boundary as recorded in 1298 cannot be identified on the ground, but it does not seem to follow St. Botolph's brook, and at the corner of Langham park it coincides with one of the points on the borough perambulation. (fn. 16) The rampart or causeway which was followed across Horkesley and Boxted heaths in the 17th century may have been a woodland boundary bank and ditch. Five Horkesley men accused of forest offences in 1276- 7 were classed with the Colchester men, and there was a disturbance at Great Horkesley 'within the liberty of Colchester' in 1285. Part of Great Horkesley 'within Chester well' was within the liberties in the 1360s. (fn. 17)
The river Colne from North bridge to 'Westness' was granted or confirmed to the burgesses by Richard I. The burgesses' rights there were acknowledged in 1285, and confirmed by later charters, (fn. 18) but the location of Westness was later disputed. In 1362 the burgesses claimed that their fishery included the Geedons between Fingringhoe and Langenhoe, and the Parrock or north part of the Pyefleet channel around Mersea Island, (fn. 19) suggesting that Westness may have been the later Westmarsh point on the north shore of the entrance to Brightlingsea creek. The limits of the liberty were not defined in 1448 when it was recovered from the earl of Oxford, to whom Henry VI had granted it, or when the borough's rights were challenged in 1579. (fn. 20) In 1629 and 1630 Sir Roger Townsend of Wivenhoe, who had built wharves on his land, and fishermen anxious to escape the borough's jurisdiction claimed unsuccessfully that Westness was opposite Wivenhoe wood, between Rowhedge and Colchester. (fn. 21) When the fishery was challenged again in 1700 the borough defined Westness as 'beyond Colne water' and 'beyond or near Chich St. Osyth', and in another dispute in 1896 the borough claimed that Westness was St. Osyth or Colne point in the open sea at the mouth of the Colne estuary. (fn. 22)
The boundaries of the borough's liberty in the Colne were marked by the bailiffs or mayor 'going down the river'. The ceremony was first recorded c. 1540. It was held regularly from 1580, perhaps in response to the challenge to the borough's rights in 1579. The bailiffs, and later the mayor, attended by councillors, were rowed down the river to the blockhouse near the Mersea stone where they feasted on meat, oysters, and wine. (fn. 23) In a similar ceremony c. 1587, while the borough's rights over the river were still in dispute, the Admiralty court judge Julius Caesar was taken by water from the Hythe to Mersea blockhouse where the borough's charter was read to him. (fn. 24) When the borough recovered control of the channel from the improvement commissioners in 1892 (fn. 25) the Harbour and Navigation committee of the council resolved that they should hold a committee meeting once a year at the Mersea stone 'in continuation of the ancient custom observed by the Corporation'. (fn. 26) The custom continued in 1987.
Head ward, the south-west quarter of the borough, was recorded in the early 13th century, and the north or North Street quarter or ward in 1254. The later four wards, North, South, East, and West or Head ward were recorded in 1272. (fn. 27) Fourteenth-century evidence suggests that the borough had been divided into four quarters, the east-west boundary running down the middle of the High Street, the north-south one running from Ryegate to Scheregate. The north-west ward, centred on North Hill and North Street, was the North ward; the north-east ward was East ward; the south-east ward (which included the South gate), South ward; and the south-west ward, centred on Head Street and Headgate, Head ward. (fn. 28) Those ward boundaries did not coincide with parish boundaries, and left all the parishes except St. Mary's-at-the-Walls divided between two or more wards. The suburbs and outlying parishes were included in the appropriate wards; Kingsmead was in East ward in 1385, the Hythe in South ward in 1386, and Bourne mill in South ward in 1407, but Dilbridge north-east of Kingsmead was in North ward in 1428. (fn. 29)
By 1748 the wards had been reorganized so that their boundaries corresponded more closely with those of the parishes. Head ward comprised St. Mary's, Holy Trinity, Lexden, and parts of St. Runwald's and St. Giles's; South ward St. Botolph's, St. Mary Magdalen's, Berechurch, and part of St. Giles's; North ward St. Peter's, St. Martin's, St. Nicholas's, Mile End, and part of St. Runwald's; and East ward All Saints', St. James's, St. Leonard's, and Greenstead. (fn. 30) Different boundaries were set out for the wards ordained for maintaining a workhouse in 1613, the whole of St. Giles's being assigned to Head ward, the whole of St. Runwald's to East ward, and St. Leonard's to South ward instead of East ward. A different arrangement again was recorded in 1764. (fn. 31) In 1837 the wards were found to be composed of complete parishes in an arrangment similar to that of 1613, except that St. Runwald's parish was in Head ward, St. Giles's in South ward, and St. Leonard's at the Hythe in East ward. One of the serjeants at mace, however, claimed that the ward boundaries did not follow parish boundaries. (fn. 32)
Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 the borough was reorganized into three wards. The first comprised Berechurch, St. Botolph's, St. Giles's, Holy Trinity, and St. Mary's-at-theWalls; the second, Lexden, St. Martin's, St. Peter's, St. Runwald's, and Mile End; and the third Greenstead, All Saints', St. James's, and St. Leonard's. (fn. 33) In 1892 a system of four wards, their boundaries approximating to those of the 18th-century wards, was restored. (fn. 34) In 1937 the borough was rearranged into nine wards: St. Mary's, Castle, New Town, Abbey, Berechurch, Lexden and Shrub End, Mile End, St. John's, and Harbour. (fn. 35)
There were 16 parishes within the liberty, including the outlying parishes of Lexden, Berechurch, Greenstead, and Mile End. Their bounds were first recorded in the earlier 19th century. (fn. 36) Six parishes, whose churches lay within the walls, were small, any extramural lands lying intermixed in the borough fields south-west and south-east of the walled area. Their boundaries within the walls followed tenement boundaries. The area of those two fields may originally have been in two parishes: St. Mary's-at-the-Walls, whose parish covered much of Borough field south-west of the walls, and St. James's which extended round the walls on the north-east and south-east and along both sides of Harwich Road beyond the Colne. South-east of St. James's parish lay the scattered parish of St. Mary Magdalen, formed from the lands of St. Mary Magdalen's hospital, and the compact parish of St. Leonard's at the Hythe which contained a small detached part of St. Peter's parish.
The boundaries of all the parishes, with the possible exception of St. Leonard's, had been rationalized by the 19th century; in the 1590s there were more detached parts, notably those belonging to St. Nicholas's parish which had lost all its extramural land by 1748, although in the 15th century the church had tithe from part of Magdalen field south-west of the walls and as late as 1747 land north-west of Harwich Road was said to be in St. James's or St. Nicholas's. (fn. 37) An area of 242 a. in the north-east, probably once part of Greenstead, had been attached to All Saints' parish by 1542; its boundaries were altered slightly between 1794 and 1876. The poverty of the living of All Saints' in 1254 suggests that the arrangement was made after that date. (fn. 38) About 1699 St. Mary's parish exchanged meadow along the Colne for arable which had formerly been in Lexden. (fn. 39) In 1817 the bounds of Lexden, St. Mary-at-the-Walls, St. James's, and Holy Trinity in the borough fields south-west of the walled town were altered to give each parish a compact, although detached, area instead of scattered acres in each of five fields. (fn. 40)
St. Botolph's parish (905 a., half of it in detached portions) to the south and east of the walled area was composed largely of the lands of St. Botolph's priory, although the church was parochial as well as conventual. The original parish church of the area south of the town was probably the precursor of St. Giles's whose parish included Battleswick manor, the only large estate in the southern half of the liberty which did not belong to St. John's abbey or St. Botolph's priory in the Middle Ages. The Colne seems to have been Greenstead's original western boundary, but in the mid 11th century the estate there was divided into four parts, one of which passed to St. Botolph's priory and thereby became part of St. Botolph's parish. Mile End in the north was in St. Peter's parish until the 13th century. Lexden in the west was a berewick of Stanway in 1086. (fn. 41) In 1364 lands in Crouch Street belonging to St. Cross hospital, later in St. Mary's parish, were in Stanway, as was land belonging to the rector of St. Mary's. (fn. 42) In 1403 the rector of Stanway agreed that the warden of St. Cross hospital might serve the inhabitants of Crouch Street and Maldon Road in return for their tithes. The area was thus absorbed into the surrounding St. Mary's parish, which was called St. Mary's and St. Cross in 1487-8. (fn. 43) A field near the south-west postern, perhaps the later detached part of Lexden in St. Mary's parish, was still in Stanway in the 15th century. (fn. 44)
Most of the parish boundaries followed field or tenement boundaries, although the western boundary of St. Giles's followed Layer Road for much of its length and the eastern part of the southern boundary Birch or Battles brook. St. Botolph's and Salary brooks formed much of the northern and eastern boundaries of Lexden, Mile End, a detached part of St. Botolph's parish, and Greenstead. The southern boundary of St. Nicholas's parish followed the town wall for a short way, as did the south-western boundary of the intra-mural part of St. James's parish. The 19th-century boundaries of All Saints' parish followed the wall on the east and on much of the north, but the castle and presumably the Greyfriars site were extraparochial in the Middle Ages. In the 1590s the friary site was in St. James's parish; part was in All Saints' by 1686, but part was still claimed by St. James's in 1742. (fn. 45)
Attempts in the 16th and 17th centuries to unite some of the smaller parishes failed, (fn. 46) and all 16 parishes survived until 1897 when they were united to form the single civil parish of Colchester, although some of the detached parts had been absorbed into their surrounding parishes under the Divided Parishes Act of 1882. (fn. 47)