I’m an Essex boy through and through. But I’ve always been mildly embarrassed by that. Essex has never been a highly-regarded or ‘proud’ county, even before the emergence of ‘Essex Man’ (vulgar) and ‘Essex Girl’ (promiscuous) to sully its reputation in the 1980s. It was a non-county, with no special identity or pride compared with others like (especially) Yorkshire, where I live now. I realised this when I went up to university, meeting and envying people from much more attractive counties or cities than Essex; and particularly than London-suburban Essex, which Hornchurch was then. (It’s now part of Greater London.) This hybrid identity posed problems. Asked where I came from, I was in two minds whether to reply ‘Essex’, which sounded dull, or ‘East London’, which was more interesting, and which I would have preferred, as a bit of an inverted snob, but which implied eel pies and whelks, which wasn’t Hornchurch at all. (Simple ‘Hornchurch’ would have drawn a blank.) Besides, I knew the ‘proper’ or rural Essex far better, spending most of my summer holidays as a boy cycling over it, photographing and sketching churches and other historic buildings, following Essex County Cricket Club around, and visiting my father’s family in Chelmsford.
One of Essex’s problems is its place on the map. It’s quite a large county, as it happens – tenth out of 39 of the ‘historic’ counties; but lying under the great East Anglian bulge which is Norfolk and Suffolk, stretching down to the mudflats of the Thames river and estuary, and broken up more and more as you go south by further muddy estuaries and seeming nothingness. It sort of peters out to the east, boringly if you don’t like sea birds, sky-scapes or sailing, with no firm defining boundary around it. On the map of England it looks a bit like an armpit. To the south-west, of course, it has been extensively encroached upon by the ‘Great Wen’ of London, which has significantly changed the county’s character today; and all over by the ‘stockbroker belt’, on the lines to Liverpool Street (convenient for ‘The City’), taking over and converting many of the picturesque older houses, which has made it virtually unaffordable to live in for locals. You won’t find many Essex accents in the county today; only London (‘cockney’), ‘Estuary English’, and tight-arsed upper-class. For the sort of ‘Essex’ my father and grandparents used to speak – warm, rural, richly musical – you now have to venture into Suffolk or Cambridgeshire. Of course that’s a source of regret for nostalgic oldies like me.
But that’s ‘progress’, as they say. Nostalgia has its tearful pleasures, especially later in life, remembering (in my case) the bike rides, the leafy lanes, the quiet towns, the lovely little churches, the solitude, sitting in cornfields sketching and painting, resisting the advances of the cycling paedophiles (oh yes, we had them then), and those fun nights at the Youth Hostels (no cars allowed), crippled with cramp after a hundred miles a day of peddling. I’ve always resisted nostalgia; but I guess that, at my advanced age, it can’t do me much harm now. And I can put it in its place. Of course things have to change. And in the case of Essex, the changes of the past seventy-odd years have – in my view – added to the richness and certainly the fascination of the county; even the much-derided arrival, from the slums of East London, of Essex Man and Essex Girl.
Imagine what it would be like now without them. Actually I don’t need to imagine, living as I do presently in the East Riding of Yorkshire – or North Humberside, if you want to be up-to-date – which is similar to Essex in many ways, especially its landscape and wonderful old churches, but without Hull, on its southern border, being able to infuse it with the new blood and liveliness that the East End of London imparts to Barking, Brentwood, Billericay and all places north-east. The East Riding really is dull – and comfortable. (I love living here.) OK, it doesn’t have the clogged-up roads and railways, the (very) nouveaux riches in their pretentious ‘stockbroker Tudor’ homes, the concentration of ugly petrol stations, McDonald’s eateries, and snobby golf courses that blight the ‘home’ counties, all of which is to the good; and it is undoubtedly just as pretty as Essex. (Ask David Hockney.) But where are the life and vitality that you find in Essex, only partially compromised by their less salubrious sides: the Jamie Olivers, Bobby Moores, Graham Gooches, Russell Brands, Maggie Smiths, Grayson Perrys, Sandie Shaws, and (I’m afraid), David Irvings: to name but a few, most of them from the London side of the county. And where in the East Riding is the political radicalism that has been a great feature of Essex historically, deriving to a great extent from its proximity to the filthy metropolis next door? Or the New Town architecture – those great experiments in social living? And what can compare with the peculiarly attractive, semi-rural quality of Essex cricket?
What I hope to do in this book is to make out a case for Essex’s being at least interesting. I’m aware that I don’t have all the proper credentials for this task, not being what is called a ‘local’ historian; though I did write a book about Essex, illustrated, at the age of about fourteen, now lost (my mother kept none of my juvenilia), but, as I remember, mainly plagiarised from other books, which is how I thought history was written at that age. (Some of the students I later taught at university seemed not to have moved on from there.) My professional expertise is in more nation- and indeed world-wide history, plus a little foray into the history of architectural theory; but as I’ve found in my own writing in the past, an outsider’s perspective can often inform the most specialist of disciplines, so long as one is prepared to learn, respectfully, from the specialists’ work, and retains one’s own scholarly – that is, sceptical – discipline. Besides, I may be better placed than more parochial historians to properly appreciate and describe the place that my county and its inhabitants have played in Britain’s broader national history. As a non-specialist I feel fortunate that Essex, despite its low esteem, offers a plentiful specialist literature for me to plunder: stretching from the huge multi-volume Victoria County History of Essex, edited for a time by WR Powell, whom it so happens I knew as a boy when he attended the same Methodist church that my father and I did in Harold Wood; through to gazetteers, guide-books, archaeological reports, popular publications of the Essex Record Office, an early ‘Pevsner’, romantic travel-books, and even a novel or two. These, and my memories, especially as a boy brought up at the very meeting point between the two cultures whose intermingling has contributed so much to present-day Essex, are my sources. On top of that will be spread a layer of I hope intelligent speculation, which should be easily distinguishable from the ‘facts’, and so easy to discount, if it’s considered untrustworthy.
This book will not be the first to try to rescue Essex’s reputation. Many authors have written in ‘praise’ of Essex, albeit struggling against what they represent as almost impossible odds. If Essex hasn’t got a unique reputation for awfulness, it is certainly thought to have one by those several writers who have sought to defend it. ‘It’s arguably the most-maligned 1,300 square miles in the UK’, claimed a BBC documentary in 2010, before going on to give its own contrary view. ‘Yes, everyone knows about Essex’s reputation,’ writes another. ‘People from Essex in particular are well aware of that reputation, thanks to the knowing looks and smirks we frequently get when we confess our roots. In order to avoid this, less hardy locals will respond to the innocent enquiry with ambiguous statements like “near London” or “in the South East.”’ That’s my experience precisely. Its reputation as ‘flat and uninteresting’ goes back at least a couple of hundred years. No wonder then that, as the very first issue of the Essex Review put it as long ago as 1892, ‘it has often been said that there is less county pride in Essex than probably any other British county’. More recently – and partly because of the influence of ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Essex Girl’ – it has been described as ‘the dustbin of London’, ‘the golden turd of England’ (!), and plenty more in the same style. That’s what its defenders claim; which makes their task of rehabilitating the wretched place, of course, all the more heroic. I salute them.
The present book, however, won’t exactly fit into that pattern. I don’t see it as an ‘in praise of’ kind of book. It certainly isn’t intended to engender pride in Essexites’ Essexness – ‘Essexite’, incidentally, is a neologism, there being no other collective noun to describe the county’s inhabitants – as I don’t believe in the logic of any people’s feeling ‘pride’ in the mere accident of their birth. Besides, Yorkshire folk have enough of that for all of us. (They can keep it.) It won’t, I promise you, be too nostalgic, starry-eyed or honeysuckle-scented – though the smell of honeysuckle on balmy summer days is, as it happens, one of the things I recall most fondly about my cycle rides in the Essex countryside. Needless to say, the book won’t pretend to be comprehensive, or a ‘last word’. It will have worked, if it stimulates some interest in, and maybe a little affection for, an unjustly neglected corner of England.
It will begin with some very early prehistory, before cantering through the recorded history of the county, at quite a lick. The subsequent chapters will explore various ‘themes’ arising from all this, and some theories. You’ll see.