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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Colchester's social life was influenced in the period by improved communications, by the consequences of agricultural change in the surrounding rural area and of rapid industrialization in other parts of the country, and by the indirect effects of wars, including the temporary establishment of a garrison during the Napoleonic Wars. Improved roads and methods of road transport enabled a faster interchange of commodities, and also of ideas and fashions, between the town and other parts of the country, especially London. Coaching inns were particularly important before the railway reached the town in 1843. Colchester's position on the route from London to Harwich and the Continent provided in addition an important cultural link beyond England. Newspapers, easily accessible in the town, brought news of current national and international affairs like parliamentary debates and the progress of the French Revolution. The Evangelical revival in the Anglican church, which emphasized individual faith and the spiritual worth and capacity for improvement of every person, led, particularly from the 1780s, to the establishment of Sunday schools, day schools, and hospitals, to other philanthropic work, and not least to some refinement in public behaviour. Nonconformity, strong locally, encouraged similar efforts. By the end of the period the range of social activities had widened. An increasing proportion of the town's population might be categorized as middle-ranking, but great discrepancies remained between those who could lead a reasonably comfortable and secure life and those on the borders of poverty who sometimes resorted to lawbreaking when food was in short supply or their livelihoods seemed at risk.
The remaining sections of the London-Harwich road were turnpiked under the 1725 Act, and by 1748 there was a coach to London and back, daily except Sundays, so that it was possible to make brief business and social visits to London and keep abreast of the latest developments. (fn. 1) There were 80 inns in 1762; (fn. 2) many were staging posts for travellers. Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stayed at the White Hart in 1763, as did John Wilkes in 1783. Lord Nelson visited the Three Cups in 1801, as did the Prince Regent in 1813, and the Duke of Wellington in 1823. (fn. 3) Inns were also convenient meeting places with refreshments for people such as farmers visiting the town on market days. (fn. 4) Members of political and social clubs met at certain inns: the King's Head club was started by a group promoting the return of the borough charter but continued as a Tory dining club whose members included leading Anglican clergymen and gentry; Whigs and Radicals met at the Hand in Hand club at the Red Lion. (fn. 5) Some local administration was conducted at inns: in 1783 the borough accounts committee met every Monday evening at the Waggon and Horses; (fn. 6) from the 1740s to the 1760s magistrates adjourned to the Three Cups, the White Hart, or the King's Head after quarter sessions. (fn. 7) The White Hart, which also had a coffee room, became one of the leading inns in the later 18th century, accommodating administrative and legal meetings as well as monthly assemblies and balls; it ceased trading in 1816 after its position was usurped by the Three Cups, where a new assembly room had been built in 1807. (fn. 8) New buildings and street improvements, including the provision of street lighting in the town centre from 1783 (by gas from 1819), and a wider variety of goods for sale in the shops increased the attraction of the town as a social centre. (fn. 9)
Intellectual stimulation was provided by the books and newspapers available in libraries and reading rooms, and by societies and lectures. Charles Gray set up a library in the castle in 1749, and the following year formed the Castle library book club, one of several lending libraries, which acquired a wide range of books, including works by leading contemporary philosophers and political economists. (fn. 10) In 1794, when the club's membership of 30 included 10 clergy, 4 bankers, at least 1 grocer, 1 apothecary, 1 clockmaker, and 1 captain, the writings of the Evangelical William Cowper were popular, and Byron's works were also held. (fn. 11) Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man was considered subversive however, and Richard Patmore, a baymaker, was indicted in 1793 for distributing part of it. (fn. 12) Colchester Medical Society, England's oldest provincial medical society, was founded in 1774 by Robert Richardson Newell. Members presented difficult or interesting cases for diagnosis and discussion, established a medical lending library, and regulated their own professional conduct. (fn. 13) In 1820 the Philosophical Society was formed, whose members, mainly professionals and traders but also one working man, each gave one of the monthly lectures at Queen Street, the subjects of which included Heat, Taste, Wit, and Electricity. The society kept a museum of antiquities which it presented to the corporation when it was dissolved in 1843. (fn. 14) Interest was developing in science as well as the arts. George Wegg of East Hill House had amassed a collection of books, manuscripts, globes, telescopes, quadrants, magnets, and other mathematical and philosophical instruments by the time he died in 1777. After a successful series of lectures on astronomy at the moot hall in 1798 by a visiting lecturer, Isaac Taylor, an Independent minister in the town 1796-1810, lectured monthly in his parlour to 60-70 young people and their friends on geometry, astronomy, geography, mechanics, history, and anatomy. (fn. 15)
Local discussions were sharpened by contact with scholars and writers from further afield. Balliol College, Oxford, was patron of several town livings, and Nathaniel Forster at All Saints' was one of their presentees who was also resident; a Utilitarian writer on political economy and education, he was a friend of Jeremy Bentham. The quarrelsome Dr. Samuel Parr, an eminent classical scholar and a Whig writer, served as Forster's curate while master of the grammar school 1777-9, for which post Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote him a letter of recommendation. (fn. 16) The family of the minister Isaac Taylor was part of the small circle of intellectuals in the town. His daughters, Ann and Jane, were writers of children's stories, hymns, and poems, including 'Twinkle, twinkle little star'. The family visited friends and relations in London, Essex, and Suffolk, who included publishers, writers, medical families, clerics, and the artist, John Constable's, family at East Bergholt (Suff.). One of their Colchester friends was Benjamin Strutt, antiquary, vegetarian, amateur artist, musician, and agnostic. (fn. 17)
For much of the 18th century the established church seems to have had a limited impact on local affairs. Many of the Anglican parishes were poor livings with dilapidated church buildings, badly served by incumbents who were often pluralists and non-resident for part or all of the year. No services were held at St. Runwald's between 1723 and 1748, parishioners attending St. Peter's, and parishioners of St. Botolph's attended All Saints' until their new church was built in 1837. St. Mary'sat-the-Walls parish, however, had some wealthy inhabitants and a good rectory house to attract able clerics: Philip Morant, rector 1737-70, was author of a scholarly history of Colchester and also of Essex; Thomas Twining, son of the tea-dealer and well known as a translator of Aristotle, was resident rector 1790-1804. (fn. 18) He was acquainted with the diarist and novelist Fanny Burney. (fn. 19) All Saints' was another relatively desirable living where some of the parishioners, such as Charles Gray at Hollytrees and Thomas Boggis at the Minories, could be counted among the most influential people in the town. (fn. 20) St. Peter's church was used by the corporation for civic services. (fn. 21)
Despite various schisms old Dissent in general continued to be numerically strong, although Quakerism declined. Some dissenters were prepared to conform occasionally to qualify for civic office, and two Independents, Arthur Winsley and Jeremiah Daniell, were mayors. Others, like members of the Tabor family at Lion Walk chapel, took no interest in the corporation but were members of the navigation and improvement commission. (fn. 22) New Dissent in the form of Methodism had some early success, but declined in the 1780s, though it revived by 1800. A minister's daughter considered local dissenters c. 1795 to be 'men of habit more than men of piety', only a few of whom 'knew or thought why they dissented', but that condition did not continue. (fn. 23) The number of protestant dissenters was often overestimated: in 1829 out of a population of c. 16,000 there were 4,330 (27 per cent) of whom 2,200 were Independents, 1,100 Baptists, 930 Wesleyan Methodists, and only 100 Quakers. (fn. 24) Roman Catholicism was insignificant in the town in the period. (fn. 25) Roman Catholics were feared: the corporation repeatedly petitioned parliament against them, for example, in 1812 about the dangers of their holding office in a protestant government, and in 1828 against granting them further concessions. (fn. 26)
The Evangelical movement revived Anglican church life from the 1780s in some parishes. By 1835 the income of many livings had also been augmented, and some of the church fabric had been improved. Robert Storry, vicar of St. Peter's 1781-1814, an early Evangelical, was succeeded by another, the enthusiastic and popular William Marsh, who stayed until 1829. Marsh instituted more Sunday services, started prayer and bible-reading meetings in the week, renovated the church, and provided more seating; he supported philanthropic activity in the parish and beyond, including missionary work and anti-slavery societies. (fn. 27) The Colchester and East Essex Church Missionary Association was established in 1816. (fn. 28) Public sermons to benefit missionary societies and on behalf of the National schools were regularly preached at St. Peter's in the early 19th century. (fn. 29) The Religious Tracts Society for Colchester and its Vicinity was formed in 1825. (fn. 30)
The influence of Evangelicalism extended beyond organized religion into the whole of private and public life, influencing personal morality and stimulating much educational and philanthropic work. The town assembly petitioned parliament against the slave trade in 1788, and Colchester Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1824. (fn. 31) Fourteen Sunday schools were opened in 1786 when Nathaniel Forster preached sermons expounding his Utilitarian view of education as a prevention rather than a cure of vice in the poor. (fn. 32) By 1833 many day-school places had been provided. (fn. 33) Some new charities were established for bread and for money for the poor. (fn. 34) The Benevolent Medical Society for Essex and Herts. was founded in 1786 for the relief of distressed medical men, their widows and children, and in 1789 Colchester Benevolent Society was established for the sick poor. (fn. 35) There were some short-lived attempts at medical provision in the late 18th and early 19th century, and in 1820 the Essex and Colchester hospital opened as a general infirmary for the poor on the initiative of Joseph Jefferson, archdeacon of Colchester, and seven other men. (fn. 36) Women of middling status, excluded from much of public life, were active in philanthropic work, such as running Colchester's Lying-In charity, set up in 1796. The Female Friendly Society, established in 1808 with a committee of 12 ladies and 114 subscribers, helped women and girls, mainly with gifts of clothing. (fn. 37)
Colchester's leaders, socially as in political and economic life, were the town gentry together with members of the commercial and professional elites. (fn. 38) Among the leading families, Charles Gray, lawyer, of Hollytrees was linked by marriage with the Creffields and the Rounds, though the Rounds were not an important social influence in the town until the 19th century. Gray's stepdaughter, Sarah Creffield, married his friend, the lawyer George Wegg of East Hill House. (fn. 39) The Smythies, an Anglican Tory family whose members included Francis and his son Francis, both active in town politics, and also clergymen for several Colchester churches, were linked with the Twinings, the tea merchants. (fn. 40) The Smyths at Berechurch provided M.P.s for the town. (fn. 41) The increase in small workshops and the growth of retailing resulted in a significant expansion, below the gentry and above the lower levels of petty traders, artisans and labourers, of the middleranking groups who probably constituted about 20 per cent of the population at the end of the 18th century. (fn. 42) They usually kept female servants, and wealthier households also kept male servants. In 1780 Isaac Martin Rebow, M.P. for Colchester, had 7 male servants at Wivenhoe Park and Charles Gray 4 at Hollytrees, but only 7 Colchester houses kept as many as 2, and 50 houses had 1 each. (fn. 43) Poorer people experienced much deprivation caused by the Napoleonic Wars and the decline in the bay trade, and poor relief expenditure per head increased greatly in the late 18th century and early 19th. (fn. 44)
Different social networks, such as those of family, religion, profession, trade, or freemasonry were often intertwined. The Anglican physician, Richard Mackintosh, was part of the local Evangelical network; he was treasurer of the Castle library, vice-president of the Philosophical Society, a manager of the savings bank, active member of the Botanical and Horticultural Society and of the Colchester and East Essex Bible Society, and a founder member and voluntary physician of the Essex and Colchester hospital, all of which ensured that he was never short of patients. (fn. 45) A denominational bias was marked in social relationships, but nonconformists gradually became more integrated into social life. (fn. 46) There is some evidence to support the view that later in the period, especially in the 19th century, the spheres of middle-class women and men were becoming increasingly separated, with men's activities located predominantly in the public world and women's in the home. Maria Marsh, for example, took her role as a clergyman's wife seriously, running the home, looking after the material and moral welfare of the children and servants, undertaking some charitable work, and generally supporting her husband, whose activities were mainly outside the home; she corresponded with the Evangelical writer, Hannah More, who extolled the virtues of domesticity and the importance of women's moral influence in the home. (fn. 47)
In the 18th century men working in the cloth industry had their own supportive networks. Woolcombers held an annual procession until at least 1782 in honour of their patron saint, St. Blaize, and met at Bishop Blaize inn, Angel Lane. Other inns, like the Weavers' Arms, were frequented by other craftsmen in the industry. (fn. 48) Workers had to take care not to be seen to be breaking the Combination laws, consolidated in legislation of 1799 and 1800, and their fraternization was often disguised in the activities of friendly societies or benefit clubs. In 1793 there were 18 friendly societies in the town each with 20-40 members paying 1s. monthly; sick members received 8s. to 10s. a week and aged ones 6s. (fn. 49) By 1828 benefit and friendly societies included those for the parishes of St. Leonard's, St. Botolph's, St. Nicholas's, and Lexden, the Samaritans Club at St. Peter's, and the Union Benefit Society. (fn. 50)
Freemasonry gave its members useful social and business contacts and by the end of the period a number of lodges existed in the town. Thomas Boggis, baymaker, was master of the Angel lodge in 1770, deputy provincial grand master of Essex in 1777, and master of the new Lodge of Unity in 1779. (fn. 51) At a masonic anniversary meeting in 1777, after the public breakfast that ladies were allowed to attend, the brethren processed to St. Peter's church where, together with the provincial grandmaster, they heard a sermon. (fn. 52) In 1799 many of the members of the Angel lodge and most of those of the North Devon lodge were soldiers. In 1834 the Angel lodge's 47 members were mainly occupied in trade and commerce, though there were a few professionals, farmers, and gentlemen. (fn. 53)
The range of social activities increased, especially for those with sufficient free time and the financial means to enjoy it. In 1790 a party of corporation gentlemen, which included two customs officers, went by sea on a two-day pleasure trip to Dunkirk; on their return they were astonished to be apprehended by another customs officer for illicit trading. (fn. 54) Colchester functioned to a certain extent like a county town in so far as people from the surrounding rural area visited the town for agricultural, judicial, and political business. Social functions were put on to coincide with particular events. (fn. 55) Monthly assemblies were held c. 1773 at the King's Head from November to January and at the White Hart from March to October. When fairs, like St. Dennis's, were on, special public breakfasts, dinners, suppers, balls, and theatrical performances attracted 'the most respectable families'. (fn. 56) The items included in musical concerts and at the theatre showed that Colchester was no cultural backwater. Handel's Messiah was performed in 1759, and there was a Handel festival at St. Peter's church in 1763 followed by a ball at the King's Head, though no musical oratorio was played again until 1790. Music by Dr. Thomas Arne accompanied a performance of Tom Jones at the theatre in 1769. (fn. 57) Entertainments staged at the theatre ranged from plays by Shakespeare and Sheridan to the performance in 1786 by acrobats from Sadlers Wells and the Royal Circus, which ended with a new pantomime. (fn. 58) During the Napoleonic Wars some plays were chosen by the officers of various regiments. (fn. 59) Soldiers from the garrison also brought extra custom to the town's inns, and were potential dancing and marriage partners.
Some men took part in sports. Cricket matches were sometimes played for prizes: in 1770 cricketers dined at the Cock and Pye, North Hill, before playing a match for half-guinea hats. (fn. 60) There was a race-course on Mile End heath in the 1750s, although it had gone by 1821, and a horse-race with betting was held after a cricket match on Lexden heath in 1785. (fn. 61) A new riding school was set up at the bottom of Angel Lane in 1792. (fn. 62) The town owned a subscription pack of hounds in 1754, and in 1798 the East Essex Foxhounds was established, which met quarterly for dinner at the White Hart. (fn. 63) Some early attempts at ballooning were made, and in 1829 George Green ascended from the town, reaching an altitude of nearly 3 miles. (fn. 64) Humbler folk had less leisure and little money to spend on it; some went to cockfights, forbidden by the borough court again in 1764, or indulged in poaching. (fn. 65) Both rich and poor may have enjoyed watching prizefights or visiting spectacles like the 'surprising dancing bears' on show at the market cross in 1753 or the two lions and a tiger on view at the Golden Lion in 1766. (fn. 66)
Manners, both at public events and in private visiting, at least of the social elite and of the middle-ranking groups, became more refined over the period. 'Genteel' pastimes included visiting friends and going for short walks. 'Handsome gravel walks' were laid round St. Mary's church in 1714, with lime trees planted beside them. (fn. 67) Gardens, and the growing of plants and trees, became a fashionable interest. (fn. 68) Annual spring flower shows and feasts were held in Colchester as in many English towns, and auriculas were a speciality claimed to be finer than the tulips and hyacinths of Dutch rivals. (fn. 69) Nevertheless by the early 19th century many leisure activities were considered harmful by a minority like the Evangelical William Marsh, who campaigned against the theatre. (fn. 70)
Colchester seemed a reasonably orderly town, by contemporary standards. (fn. 71) There were food riots, apparently not serious, in 1740, 1766, 1772, and 1789, when there were similar disturbances in other parts of the country. (fn. 72) Electioneering never seemed to run out of control, even though numbers of London and country voters were brought in and entertained by the rival candidates, and in 1832 part of the hustings was destroyed by the crowd. (fn. 73) Industrial action was probably most threatening early in the period when workers in the cloth industry still had some economic power: in 1715 an armed mob tried to enforce redress of weavers' grievances, and in 1724 weavers rioted for higher wages. The Luddite protests in 1811-16 against the introduction of new machinery in the stocking-making, cotton, and woollen districts in the midlands and north inspired nothing comparable in Colchester, where there was no equivalent large-scale industry. (fn. 74) The minor outbreaks of incendiarism and the breaking of threshing machines in 1815 and 1830 at Mile End were linked with a wave of agricultural unrest unconnected with the town. (fn. 75) In 1821 Queen Caroline's funeral procession, which a mob had tried to divert in London with some loss of life, stopped in the town overnight en route for the Continent; local people flocked to show their respect, but there was no threat to law and order. (fn. 76)