Modern Colchester: Introduction

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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A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton, 'Modern Colchester: Introduction', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, ed. Janet Cooper, C R Elrington( London, 1994), British History Online [accessed 23 July 2024].

A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton, 'Modern Colchester: Introduction', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Edited by Janet Cooper, C R Elrington( London, 1994), British History Online, accessed July 23, 2024,

A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton. "Modern Colchester: Introduction". A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Ed. Janet Cooper, C R Elrington(London, 1994), , British History Online. Web. 23 July 2024.


The growth of the built-up area

The town's geographical position, near London and the Continent, and the re-establishment of the garrison from 1856 were both crucial factors in its modern development. In 1835, relatively unaffected by rapid industrialization in other parts of the county, Colchester remained a market town serving the neighbouring agricultural area. In the later 19th century, despite agricultural depression and helped by the garrison's demand for goods and services, its economy was able to diversify and expand, with new manufacturing enterprises developing. Both manufacturing and service industries expanded in the 20th century, but in the later 20th century manufacturing declined and the town's reputation rested on the administrative, commercial, and cultural services which it provided for the region. Borough government and poor relief had to adjust to a new reformed system after legislative changes in the 1830s. Party confrontation gave way in the late 19th century to a period of more consensual town politics which lasted until after 1945 when party rivalries increased again. Business and professional men dominated the council, though in the 20th century councillors gradually came to be drawn from a wider range of social backgrounds. Protestant nonconformity was a powerful force in the town's economic and political, as well as social and religious life. In parliamentary elections national factors became more important than local ones from the later 19th century. The town remained physically quite compact until the First World War. Afterwards suburban growth spread, but even in the later 20th century a significant amount of open space remained within the ancient borough boundaries. The pattern of development was greatly affected by the expansion of the barracks south of the town centre. The garrison gave the town a strategic importance, valuable in the context of its rivalry with other towns, and military uniforms and bands gave colour to civic events and celebrations.

Year Population Decennial % change Year Population Decennial % change
1801 11,520 1901 38,373 11
1811 12,544 9 1911 43,452 13
1821 14,016 12 1921 43,393 0
1831 16,167 15 1931 49,131 13
1841 17,790 10 1941
1851 19,443 9 1951 57,449
1861 23,815 22 1961 65,080 13
1871 26,345 11 1971 76,408 17
1881 28,374 8 1981 82,227 8
1891 34,559 22 1991 est. 89,000 8

Sources: Census, 1801-1981; Colch. Boro. Council, Colch. Counts (Mar. 1993), 13.

The population of the ancient borough (Table X) increased steadily from 16,167 in 1831 to 38,373 in 1901 and 82,277 in 1981. (fn. 1) The estimated population in 1991 was c. 89,000. (fn. 2) Census figures are complicated by the garrison, whose average strength between 1856 and 1921 was c. 3,000, although it rose briefly to more than 40,000 in the First World War. (fn. 3) Colchester was fortunate in having more space for its increasing population than many towns, being able to expand within its ancient boundaries, which remained virtually unchanged until 1974. (fn. 4) Advances in public health helped the death rate to fall from an average of 27.7 deaths per 1,000 of population in the period 1838-40 to 15.6 in the period 1896-1900, the rate being consistently lower than the national average from the 1850s. The infant mortality rate remained high throughout the 19th century, still averaging 130.4 per 1,000 in the period 1896-1900, but fell dramatically to average 68.8 in the period 1912-14 as infant care improved. Quinquennial recorded birth rates fluctuated between 33.7 and 31.2 per 1,000 between 1841 and 1885, but then steadily fell to a rate of 20.6 in the period 1911-14. (fn. 5) The trend continued, the death rate falling to 13.3 and the birth rate to 10.1 in 1933, both rates below the national average. (fn. 6) In the 19th century emigration was particularly to London, and immigration mostly from surrounding rural areas. (fn. 7) Twentieth-century growth was based on net immigration, much of it still from rural areas but also from London and metropolitan Essex. Commuting to London increased in the later 20th century. (fn. 8)

Colchester achieved national fame in 1884 when it was the town most affected by the earthquake which lasted for several seconds at 9.20 a.m. on April 22, when '. . . the ground and the houses with it was lifted up, shaken two or three times in a manner that made the stoutest heart quake' and then subsided 'with a kind of final shake or jerk'. People left their work to view the damage, which was minimal. There were no deaths or serious injuries. Lion Walk Congregational church spire fell, some masonry was dislodged at St. Leonard's church, and three chimneys went through the workhouse roof. Other chimneys and debris fell from buildings mostly on the east side of the town, which felt the full force of the shock. There was some damage outside the town in Wivenhoe, East Donyland, and Mersea. Well attended thanksgiving services were held at several churches the same evening and there were special services the following Sunday. Sightseers visited the town in succeeding weeks. (fn. 9) Colchester escaped the disastrous east coast floods of 1953 with comparatively minor flooding at the Hythe; the borough authorities and the garrison helped other areas more seriously affected, and the barracks provided temporary shelter for evacuees. (fn. 10)

In the First World War the town was full of troops and many local men were away serving in the forces, but daily business continued with little disruption. One German bomb caused slight damage in a garden in Butt Road in 1915. (fn. 11) A military airfield was established on a polo ground at Blackheath. (fn. 12) During both World Wars some soldiers were billeted on local families, apparently matched by rank as far as possible. (fn. 13) In the Second World War Colchester was not subjected to heavy systematic bombardment, but it did sustain smaller attacks, the heaviest loss of life occurring in 1942 when 38 patients were killed and 25 people injured at Severalls hospital. (fn. 14) In 1944 about 1,000 incendiaries and 8 phosphorus oil bombs set St. Botolph's corner on fire, badly damaging several factories and shops, but there was only one casualty and no fatality. (fn. 15) The town was an important rest centre for American troops, who regularly bussed young women out in army trucks to dances in the villages to the north and west where American servicemen were based. (fn. 16) Between 1944 and 1947 German prisoners of war were held at Berechurch in huts which were afterwards used as a military corrective centre. The prisoners of war worked on neighbouring farms in 1946 and 1947. (fn. 17)

The town's main rival in the 19th century was Ipswich, and there was keen competition over the improvement of dock facilities and the acquisition of railways. (fn. 18) From the later 19th century Chelmsford, the county town, whose importance increased when county councils were established in 1888, was Colchester's main rival, while Ipswich remained a competitor for retail trade. (fn. 19) Colchester's campaign in 1907 to become the seat of the new diocesan bishop was unsuccessful, the honour going to Chelmsford, but the score was evened in 1961 when Essex University was established at Wivenhoe Park. (fn. 20)


  • 1. Census, 1841-1981.
  • 2. Colch. Boro. Council, Colch. Counts (Mar. 1993), 13.
  • 3. A. F. F. H. Robertson, 'The army in Colch. and its influence on the social, economic and political development of the town, 1854- 1914' (Essex Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1991), 451; Phillips, Ten Men, 134-8.
  • 4. Below', Boundaries.
  • 5. Phillips, Ten Men, 131, 136, 150-54; below, Public Services.
  • 6. Essex Tel. 7 July 1934.
  • 7. Phillips, Ten Men, 137.
  • 8. Essex C.C. Essex Development Plan, Rep. on First Review, Part II Towns, Colch. & District, 1964, 2; below, this chapter, Econ.
  • 9. Essex Tel. 22, 26 Apr. 1884; R. Mendola and W. White, Rep. on the East Anglian Earthquake of 1884 (Essex Field Club Special Memoirs, i), 22-3, 44-57: copy in E.R.O.; E.R.O., D/P 245/28/13.
  • 10. H. Grieve, The Great Tide, 53, 133-4, 210, 269, 280, 315, 341-2, 486.
  • 11. G. Martin, Story of Colch. III; A. Phillips, Colch. in Old Photographs, 77-84.
  • 12. Gant, MS. 'Hist. Berechurch', 190.
  • 13. e.g. E.R.O., SA 0677; Colch. Institute, Colch. Recalled oral history project, interviews 2180, 1504.
  • 14. E.R.O., Acc. 6475, record map of aerial bombardment 1939-45; Acc. C48, file on bomb craters and other war damage; E.C.S. 27 Apr. 1962.
  • 15. E.C.S. 25 Feb. 1944.
  • 16. Colch. Recalled, interview 1502A; 'They also served', video produced by Signals: copy in Colch. Mus. Resources Centre.
  • 17. R. Boyes, In Glass Houses, 260-5; inf. from Lt. Col. R. J. Robinson; Querschnitt (magazine of German prisoners) 1945-7: copies in E.C.L. Colch.
  • 18. Phillips, Ten Men, 17.
  • 19. H. Grieve, The Sleepers and the Shadows, ii. chap. 12; E.C.S. 24 July 1992.
  • 20. Ibid. 20 July 1907; Essex Tel. 2 Nov. 1907; Colch. Official Guide (5th edn.), 17.