The Victoria County History of Essex is a comprehensive work of scholarship, founded on original research in printed and manuscript sources, but designed to make Essex’s history available to everyone. Work began in the early 20th century and so far fourteen volumes have been produced including three general volumes and three volumes of biography covering the whole of Essex County.
Volume X (pt) covers 21 parishes in the north and east of Lexden Hundred including Dedham, Earls Colne and Wivenhoe. It traces Wivenhoe’s history from the earliest days and suggests that finds of a Neolithic arrowhead and a bronze spearhead plus some linear features indicate that there may have been prehistoric settlement in the ancient parish. The place name, Wivenhoe, meaning Wifa’s ridge or spur of land, suggests early Anglo-Saxon settlement. In 1066 Wivenhoe had a recorded population of 14 (presumably heads of households) which increased to 28 by 1086, 167 (paying the poll tax) in 1377, 197 households in 1671, increasing considerably to 1093 in the 1801 census, etc.
The book describes the early settlement of the parish around the quay and the church and Manor House to the north of it. The growth and demise of the manor is recorded in various documents from 1066 onward as the property descends through a variety of owners. In 1427 it included a deer park and later the building of a new Manor House (known as Wivenhoe Hall) is referred to in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was altered and rebuilt in 1844, and finally demolished in 1927.
To begin with the parish contained mainly scattered farms with a few houses at Wivenhoe Cross, but as the town grew and developed other large houses were built, including in the 17th century, Garrison House with its elaborate pargetting, Wivenhoe Park built in the north-west of the parish in 1759, and Wivenhoe House, a handsome white brick mansion built east of the High Street in the late eighteenth century by Daniel Harvey (later to be lived in by William Brummell, the brother of Beau Brummell).
Sheep rearing was a significant part of the manorial economy in the Middle Ages. In 1086 there was pasture for 60 sheep in Wivenhoe and 100 swine rooted in the parish woodland. A vineyard was recorded in 1431 (probably on the site of Vine Farm). Later animal husbandry was superseded by arable farming, growing mostly oats, rye, wheat and barley, although in the 17th century wool was still being supplied via Wivenhoe for the cloth trade in Colchester. The sale of broom and oaken planks was also a significant part of the economy at this time.
Traditional fishing and maritime activities were always part of Wivenhoe life and by the late 16th century Wivenhoe was acting as a port for Colchester. In 1564, twelve ships, twelve masters and owners and fifty-one mariners were recorded and gradually the quays and wharfs were expanded to include several granaries and warehouses. Shipbuilding became an established industry and in the 17th century the Nonesuch which sailed to Hudson’s Bay in Canada, was built. Many ships were built for the navy as well as fishing smacks, yachts and schooners.
Today’s Wivenhoe seems a sad reflection of the lively bustle of economic activity recorded in this fascinating book. It seems extraordinary that in 1758 there were 3 bakers, 3 butchers, and 6 shopkeepers in the village and there was even an annual toy fair held in September which continued until 1931. These days there are only a few shopkeepers struggling to provide a service in the face of high business rates. The older village has become subsumed by newer housing developments and the roads are clogged by cars.
An edited version of a review which first appeared in Wivenhoe News, March 2002.
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