Wivenhoe's History

A short overview of over 1,000 years of Wivenhoe's history

Posted by Peter Hill

Why are we called Wivenhoe?

The name Wivenhoe is Saxon. Hoe means a ridge, that spur of land jutting out to the River Colne which contains the present High Street. Wiven is an old genitive form of Wifa, a proper name. At some time after the Romans left and before the Normans arrived our town belonged to a tribe or individual called Wifa and that is the first thing we know about ourselves.

The Domesday Book

A sample page from the Domesday Book held in the National Archives

A sample page from the Domesday Book held in the National Archives

Twenty years after the Norman Conquest, in 1086, the Domesday Book was written as record of every town and village at that time. It records a community of less than thirty adults who owned sheep, pigs and a mill. No doubt they also built boats and fished.

Wivenhoe in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages Wivenhoe passed from one family of grandees to another. Early in the fifteenth century we were acquired by the Earls of Oxford, one of whom created the road we call The Avenue. The Manor House, which stood at the top of the King George V Playing Field, had a gatehouse with high towers which were used as a seamark by sailors. Having backed the future Henry VII at Bosworth, (1485), the thirteenth earl settled here, together with a companion in arms, Viscount Beaumont. The Viscount and his wife are buried in the church, their graves marked by handsome brasses.

The church itself, which has occupied the same site from Saxon times to the present day, acquired, by about 1500, a tower, which rose high above the surrounding timber-framed houses, in which bells rang and a clock chimed.

In 1585 the manor was sold to a Norfolk courtier, Roger Townshend, who was knighted when he fought against the Spanish Armada.

Boat-building from 1575

Our earliest record of boat-building is in 1575. One Richard Quykeskey rented a shipyard upstream of The Quay and for the next four centuries ship building was an integral part of our economy. Commercial craft also ran from Wivenhoe. Before the seventeenth century Wivenhoe was sending two packet boats regularly to London, laden with Colchester’s bays and says (certain types of woolen cloth).  It is virtually certain that in 1650 Robert Page built the ketch Nonsuch which later sailed to Canada and inaugurated the Hudson’s Bay Company. After the Civil War, Page built a warship, the Fagons, a frigate with twenty-two guns, one of several naval commissions.

Shortly before the Restoration the manor was sold to a family of Dutch merchants called Corsellis who lived at Wivenhoe until 1899.

Growth in Wivenhoe in the 18th century

In the eighteenth century Wivenhoe developed as a port and the up-stream shipyard was invariably busy, for we never ceased to build fishing smacks and cargo vessels, while a ropery flourished at The Cross for well over a century. Our own fishing fleet landed sprats and oysters in large quantities.

The town also developed socially. Several private schools were founded and in about 1750 a local doctor, Horace Flack, built a public bath which was developed and publicized by his successor, Thomas Tunmer. It adjoined a public house called The Woolpack which stood on The Quay at the foot of what is now Bath Street. It survived until about 1800. Dr. Tunmer also started to inoculate for smallpox which considerably reduced mortality.

However, the real social centres were now the public houses, in particular The Rose and Crown. The Black Boy, The Falcon and The Anchor, where auctions were held, business transacted and activities such as cricket, bowling and cockfighting were promoted. At one time, there were twenty one of them, including two up at The Cross. The name Malting Yard reminds us that once we brewed our own beer. An annual fair was established early in the century and at the end of it the first regattas were held. We cared for the poor and elderly in the workhouse at The Cross, and until 1797 anyone might graze a cow on the open land beyond The Cross known as Wivenhoe Heath.

Wivenhoe in the 1800s

The following century brought a radical change in Wivenhoe’s fortunes, for the Marquis of Anglesey commissioned a cunning and durable Wivenhovian, Philip John Sainty, to build him a racing cutter, Pearl. Her launch in 1819 was followed by other commissions and for sixty years the town’s economy largely depended upon the rich men who owned the big yachts, for we not only built them, but crewed them and laid them up for the winter, in the mud beside the river wall downstream of the quay.

In 1832 Sainty retired, bankrupt, from the upstream shipyard and was succeeded by the Harveys, first Thomas and later his son, John. Both were outstanding boat builders and thanks to them the name of Wivenhoe stood high in yachting circles. Their spectacular commissions included the 148 ton yawl Rose of Devon (1869), and two boats for the Prince of Wales, a 33 ton cutter Dagmar (1865), and a steamship, Alexandra (1869). They also built commercial vessels, including schooners for the fruit trade, and the occasional naval commission, such as four mortar vessels for the Crimean. In the 1840s the Husk family was established down river of The Quay and built boats there for the best part of a century.

By 1850 the town badly needed to expand but was unable to because of the manor hall on the west side of the High Street and Wivenhoe House on the east. However, in 1853, the owner of Wivenhoe House, William Brummell, died and his estate was divided up into building plots. Park Road, Queens Road, Anglesea Road, Alma Street and Belle Vue Road all date from the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, the population doubled, from one to two thousand, between 1801 and 1881.

The railway came in 1863

Grosvenor HOTELIn 1863 a railway line from Colchester to Wivenhoe was opened and three years later a branch line to Brightlingsea. Fish, particularly oysters, could now be despatched quickly to London, a boon to our economy, while materials, such as wood for boat building and slates for the roofs of the houses in, say, Station Road, could be easily brought to the town.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of formal education, as the Congregationalist British School, founded in 1805, vied with the Church of England National School, founded in 1814. The former built itself new premises in West Street (1847); the latter did so in the High Street (1848). In 1887 the two schools were amalgamated and by about that time most Wivenhovians were literate.

In 1881, John Harvey built a 60 ton steam yacht for the librettist, W.S. Gilbert, and retired from the upstream shipyard. He was soon succeeded by a firm from London, Forrestt’s, which built a dry dock, the only one between Lowestoft and London. Commercial craft made from metal plates riveted together were now the order of the day, especially paddle steamers. Often, Forrestt’s would bolt a vessel together but then dismantle her and send her, in small parcels, to her destination where she would be reassembled and riveted up. One of the first boats to be despatched as a ‘do-it-yourself kit’ was the passenger steamer Tern (1891). She plies Lake Windermere to this day. In 1899 the steamship Cecil Rhodes was sent to Lake Tanganyika.

The earthquake of 1884

At 9.18am on Tuesday, 22nd April 1884, there occurred the worst earthquake ever recorded in England. Within seven seconds it damaged over a thousand buildings. The greatest destruction took place at Wivenhoe where the chimney of the gasworks collapsed and masonry fell from the church tower. Nobody was killed directly, though one Wivenhovian died later from shock. In a few months most of the damage was repaired.

The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth were busy ones for the upstream shipyard. In 1905 it produced one of the earliest submarines, a three-man vessel called the Volta weighing 17 tons. Downstream, the reigning Husk was joined by a firm called Cox & King.

World War in 1914

Unveiling the Memorial Cross in St Mary's Churchyard to Wivenhoe's fallen 21st June 1921.

Unveiling the Memorial Cross in St Mary’s Churchyard to Wivenhoe’s fallen 21st June 1921.

In 1914, the nationalism we had been cultivating ever since the Boer War blew up into a holocaust which claimed the lives of forty-six Wivenhovians. Troops were billeted all over the town, several large yachts berthed at the river wall were converted into warships and the shipyards were naturally active.

The First World War was succeeded by a frightful depression, for the upstream shipyard closed and 150 able-bodied men were put out of work. However the town shone with a reflected glory when Captain Albert Turner was appointed skipper of King George V’s yacht Britannia.

Our social life was developing. In 1927 we lost the manor house and nine years later its sloping grounds were turned into playing fields. The Cricket Club built itself premises at the top end of the town and in the thirties our GP, Dr. Walter Radcliffe, produced a special sailing dinghy for the Colne, the Wivenhoe One Design. Meanwhile, the water tower, opened in 1902, was linked up to more and more houses, while the sewerage works arrived twenty years later and the task of connecting it up kept at least a few Wivenhovians in work.

Second World War

The Second World War revived the upstream shipyard for the last time. It built over two dozen minesweepers, also motor torpedo boats, motor fishing vessels and rafts designed to explode magnetic mines, whilst on the adjoining saltings sections of Mulberry Harbour were constructed. Downstream, a firm called Vosper’s built fifteen motor torpedo boats. The young males engaged in boat building joined the Home Guard, the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Air Raid Precaution Service, while the women formed a war working party which knitted socks for the troops, and the ambulance service.

After 1945 Wivenhoe pulled itself up and out of the inter-war demoralisation and in the sixties started to expand in earnest. In twenty years the town trebled in size as housing estates fanned out on either side of the spinal route, most of them badly laid out and designed. In 1963 our Urban District Council built us a public hall, but it was soon quite inadequate. In 1961 the upstream shipyard finally closed and the site became a wharf where timber was unloaded, and then other cargoes, including coal.

The old Wivenhoe, an indigenous population of mariners and farmers, was now rapidly disappearing. Most of the adult males were commuters, either to Colchester or London, and everyone owned a car. Happily, we still have some light industry, mostly concentrated at an estate in Brook Street, whilst a handful of Wivenhovians fish for a living. The post-war years also brought a Bohemian element, a colony of professional artists. From 1966 to 1983 they had their own club at Ballast Quay, founded for them by the journalist George Gale.

Shipbuilding ended in 1986

In 1986, the largest employer in the town, the downstream shipyard now owned by James W Cook & Co. Ltd closed, and an era ended. One of the last vessels to leave the stocks was the Jubilee Sailing Trust’s training ship, the Lord Nelson, built for disabled amateur sailors. The Duke of York visited the yard to have a look at her.

The University came to Wivenhoe Park in 1964

When, in 1964, the University of Essex was founded at Wivenhoe Park it was feared that it might dominate the town. In fact, it has saved us from being physically absorbed into Colchester, whilst its lecturers and undergraduates give us another social dimension. It has grown steadily in its relatively short time here to become a prestigious learning and indeed even a research establishment.

In March, 1992, the wharf at the upstream shipyard closed. Meantime, at the downstream site of Cook’s shipyard the National Rivers Authority constructed a Flood Surge Barrier to prevent the sort of flood that the Town experienced in 1953. A total of 400 houses have now been built on these two sites and that have transformed the water front.

Wivenhoe Today

There are around 7,600 Wivenhovians now, with another 2,400 living on the University campus at the north end of Wivenhoe. The social needs of Wivenhoe residents are catered for by seven public houses (where once there were 21), four wine bars and places to eat, four churches, several sporting organizations with club facilities, three primary schools, and a very large number of clubs, societies and organisations to make up our energetic and lively community of Wivenhoe.

The Wivenhoe of today is very different to that of Wivenhoe even 50 years ago. It is now a much larger community with the local population having trebled in size during that period. Changes in living standards and technology have all had a tremendous impact. Yet, the Wivenhoe of today has these roots which go back 1,000 years to when people were first recorded as having lived here. There is a lot of history to explore.

This page was added on 20/02/2015.

Comments about this page

  • Hi Wivenhoe, My name is Frances Green, but my maiden name was Barrell. Although I was born in Colchester my family’s roots lay A long way back in Wivenhoe, my grand father’s family were builders and carpenters. My early memories were of my grandfather Harold, and his brother Tom telling me of the earthquake, although a little while before their time, it was very fresh in the Town memory. I have enjoyed reading your Website. It has given me an insight into the lives of my ancestors, and the place they called home. I have lived in Devon since I came here in the 1968, but I will all ways be an East Essex girl, at heart. Thank You. Regards Frances.

    By Frances Green,new, Barrell (03/10/2017)

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