Rowhedge – A Community

A Community Grows 


In his essay ‘Rough Days at Rowhedge’,[1] Hervey Benham characterises the village as a community of disorganised, barbarous criminals. The fishermen (who he refers to as ‘hairy old amphibians’[2] ), standing in a bath of beer on the pub floor, their ‘wretched’ wives beside them, boys running from pub to pub to see the fights. One might assume that this is intended as a caricature rather than an accurate description of the events in the village, but this then begs the question: what was village life and the community really like, and how far removed was is from Benham’s colourful portrayal of Rowhedge as ‘one of the roughest of all the Colne and Blackwater villages.’[3]

The Albion Pub

The Albion Pub


In attempting to answer this question, I carried out an extensive survey of the records and secondary literature available, and whilst it has not been possible to identify sufficient independent sources to be able to generalise confidently as to the nature of the community during the period studied, what I have found suggests that contrary to Benham’s opinion, the people of Rowhedge were ‘decent’ people.[4] As Benham himself does not reference his findings to any independent source, it is possible that his colourful description is a subjective viewpoint coloured by his own conservative, upper middle-class background and personality.


Rowhedge was, throughout the period, a village ruled by the seasons and the tide.  However, as time progressed, changes occurred within the community which were to alter forever the way of life known for generations and to change the whole dynamic of village life. As more work became available, in-migration to the village increased, the need for additional housing being met by new, purpose built, good quality housing stock[5]. The increasing relative prosperity of the village, brought about by the availability of more regular work for the residents, gave rise to more social events, further strengthening the bonds of community.


Rowhedge c1897

Rowhedge c1897

Self Sufficiency

The village was in almost all senses self sufficient in the early years. Many of the inhabitants rarely if ever left the banks of the river, and when they did it was only to cross to Wivenhoe for work in the shipyards there or to visit friends and family.  For most a trip to Colchester was a major event necessitating a long walk through open fields. Indeed, there was little need to leave when in 1851 there was within the village a fish merchant on the quay selling freshly caught fish, a master baker and a master butcher – this remember in a village that extended to little more than three main streets.  Prior to 1900, the main access to the village was via Mersea Road and through Weir Lane, and the village was literally a gated community with a toll gate standing at the northern end which was secured and locked at night.  Little documentary evidence remains of the earliest years of the study in relation to the community as a whole, but as the years progressed Rowhedge grew at an exponential rate. However, unlike many of the other villages circling Colchester it failed to become a dormitory village inhabited by middle class people travelling to and from the town for work.


Carters and Carriers

There is little reason why this should not have happened; by the late 19th century the facilities were in place for those wishing to travel to Colchester by horse-drawn van. Margaret Leather speaks of old Captain Harris, seriously injured in a yachting accident, who brought a horse and van to become a carrier: ‘He charged 3d for a single fare and would also shop in Colchester for anyone, charging 2d per call at a shop or for a parcel collected.’[6] A Mr Jones also acted as a carrier, and both vans could carry from eight to ten passengers into the town.  Several of the village worthies including the doctor and the rector also owned ponies and carts by the end of the period studied. But this level of wealth was not common, the largest part of the village being made up of working-class families who had to walk or, on special occasions, catch the train from Wivenhoe.  In the days of the study a ferry ran every day from 6am until 10pm between Rowhedge and Wivenhoe, and from there it was just a few minutes walk to the new station and a short 3 ½d trip into Colchester[7].


To all intents and purposes however, the village still remained insular and the need to leave was not pressing, with the increasing levels of self-sufficiency seen in the 1901 census returns and in the business directories. By this time, the growing village now returned a draper, grocers, butchers, bakers, a milliner, a postmaster, a shoemaker, and several pubs all serving the increasing population. As Margaret Leather remembers:

Shopping in Colchester was a rarity in those days, about three or four visits a year by the majority of women… Although unnecessary outings were not often made I have no doubt that some occasionally travelled further afield as did one village woman who spent a short holiday in London. When she arrived back home someone asked her how she had enjoyed her stay, and she replied “Too much ‘whiff waff’ for me; give me good old England.” Her reply became quite a saying in the village.[8]


The increasing availability of regular work resulting from the industrialisation of the shipyards and the growth of the brewery, not to mention the tailoring work available to a large proportion of the women, meant that the village was now more prosperous than in its early days when fishing had been for many the sole income available.  However, for many, particularly those with young families still reliant on mariner’s wages and the declining catches and the reduced prices commanded by those catches, poverty was still a major issue and it can’t be suggested that the village became in any way ‘rich’.


Housing Booms

Albion Street looking down towards the river

Albion Street looking down towards the river

The rate of physical growth within the village is marked. The available records suggest that this growth was linked almost entirely to the growth of the industrial sector.  The most marked example of this is seen between the years 1881-1901 when a significant house-building boom led to an increase in the number of properties available making  relatively more spacious surroundings possible and bringing for many an end to house-sharing.

The houses were built in the main by the owners of the shipyards themselves or by wealthy ship owners to house their workers. A notable feature of the houses is that many still today bear the names of ships built in the yards for which they were erected.  Black comments on the quality of this housing stock:

Rowhedge… is exceptional. Its habitations appear to have been mostly erected at about the same time, or from the same model and expressly to meet the needs of the people as now occupy them. Solidly built, containing four to six good-sized rooms, large and airy windows, and convenient sculleries or wash-houses, they provide “homes” in a sense rarely attained by the dwellings of English manual workers; and the prosperity of Rowhedge is probably due in no small measure to the superiority of its housing accommodation.[9]


Perhaps reflecting the quality of the housing stock, rents in the village were relatively high; where in most villages yearly rent was around £4, here it was £7-£10 per annum (c1910).[10] However, the care put into the building of these houses is described by Margaret Leather when she explains how during the building by her uncle; Captain William Cranfield, of houses in Regent’s Street, he paid a man £100, ‘just to keep an eye on their construction while he was away in America as captain of the Valkyrie III racing for the America’s Cup.’[11]

Regent Street

Regent Street – Lovely newly built houses with plenty of space


Why would an employer build such good housing stock for their employees?

One may ask why the wealthier shipyard owners and captains built such good quality housing for their employees. The answer would seem to lie in the fact that Rowhedge was built by Rowhedge people for Rowhedge people.  For example, Harris’s yard was built up from a small concern in 1865 by Peter Harris and his sons, who were born in the village, and the great captains, (for example the above-mentioned William Cranfield) were also in the main born and bred here.  One of the most notable features of the social make-up of the village was the level of plebeian independence. With the exception of the doctor, all of the other ‘middle-class’ families lived outside of the main body of the village, the rector up on Rectory Road near to the owners of the brewery, the Daniells, and the only other family of note, the owners of Donyland Hall over ½ a mile from the village proper.  There is no record of any other significantly middle-class families within the village. Even those mentioned above who enjoyed relative wealth were born into working-class families within the village and did not appear in any way to ‘lord it’ over the working class majority. This feeling of solidarity within the community as a whole is voiced in Black’s report:

‘The absence of distinctions of rank makes for a cheery social life. “We are all alike here,” many women remarked; and with the exception of the resident clergyman, the resident doctor, perhaps a few persons connected with the engineering works, and a few little-heeded newcomers, the statement appeared to be absolutely true. A community of which two thousand or so members can hail one another as friends, and which is enlivened by the recurrent comings and goings of sailor kinsfolk, has, it may easily be imagined, no stagnant social life.’[12]


And this certainly seems to be the case.  All of the life histories studied suggest that the village was a happy, buzzing environment. The women, used to being alone, developed the habit of sticking together and as so many were interrelated, all members of the community were seen as family: ‘Neighbours were very kind to one another and we would call nearly everyone Aunt and Uncle. I had many related aunts and uncles and those that were not we would address as “my uncle” or “my aunt” followed by their surname.’[13]


Balls and Flower Shows

Over the period studied, as the village grew, so did the number of ‘official’ social events in the village calendar.  Back in the 1850s one can only imagine that with such a small community, and with the poverty and separation endured through the fishing seasons, that community events of the size and frequency of those seen in the later years would not have featured in the village calendar[14]. The relative wealth brought by industrialisation and the wider spread of financial benefits, made it possible for the village to stage more organised social events, including a ball. The ‘ball’ is discussed in n The Chronicles of the Principle Events at Rowhedge for 1902. This was described as a popular event for the villagers, and with the very small proportion of middle-class inhabitants, this would suggest that it was more of a ‘dance’ than a ‘ball’.

Rowhedge Regatta c1910

Rowhedge Regatta c1910

All the main social events in the village appear to have ended with dancing to a band; this is recorded also at the Flower Show and The Regatta for example at the Old Brewery Room to mark the end of the dancing season, and the annual flower show. Rowhedge Recollections (1977) states that the flower show was first held in Bly’s meadow c1907. However, Margaret Leather suggests that in the ‘earlier times’ it was held on Donyland House meadow and in later years on the Brewery Meadow, showing that it had been a village event for many years prior to the time she was describing (c1905). Margaret Leather describes in great detail the setting of these shows, the smell of the marquees erected by the village folk and the quality of the produce supplied:

I would share the laurels of the vegetable section between Stephen Cranfield [a yacht owner and mariner] and Harry Fairweather [the postman], both wonderful gardeners whose exhibits were all grown on their own land.[17]


What the emergence of village social events would seem to suggest is that maybe, by the end of the period we are covering, the release from the relentless grind of trying to simply survive allowed at least a proportion of the village residents a limited amount of free time to enjoy more leisurely pursuits such as gardening, and for women making chemises etc simply for show and for pleasure. One can imagine that for some of the tailoresses previously described, devoting time to detailed crocheting or elaborate embroidery purely for show, may have been impossible when they were working day and night to make a few shillings with which to feed their families.  However, certainly by the early twentieth century, the displays in the Flower Show marquees described by Margaret Leather would suggest that a large percentage of the village community were able to enjoy at least a little free time.  These social events made possible by the increased wealth brought by the industrialisation of the village are likely to have contributed to a greater sense of community as the residents were now not only working together, but ‘playing’ together on a regular basis too.

In the next and final post on the life and work of the people of Rowhedge we’ll look at how life in the village was for children and their changing experiences over the sixty years of the study.



[1] H Benham, Last Stronghold of Sail, (London, 1981), pp.66-72

[2] Ibid, p.70

[3] Ibid. p.66

[4] The report, Married Women’s Work, by C Black is the only independent source I have identified that speaks directly of the nature of the community at the time. Other sources are in the form of life-histories and as such have to be approached with caution, acknowledging that there is a possibility of re-fashioned memories.

[5] As the tables for in-migration show, in 1851 the majority of those moving to Rowhedge were fishermen from other ports, with a minority taking up positions in the shipbuilding trades. However, by 1901 in-migration was running at a much higher rate, with acquiring work in the yards forming a higher percentage of the total than any other trade.

[6] M Leather, Saltwater Village, (Lavenham, 1983), p.124

[7] Ibid, p.125

[8] Ibid p.117

[9] C Black ed, Married Women’s Work, (London, 1983), p.242

[10] Ibid, p.243

[11] M Leather, Saltwater Village, (Lavenham, 1983), p.110


[12] C Black, Ed, Married Women’s Work, (London,1983), p.249 – A figure higher than the census returns would suggest. These would appear to suggest a population closer to one thousand five hundred inhabitants at most, allowing for men at sea and families away from home.

[13] M Leather, Saltwater Village, (Lavenham, 1983), p.116

[14] It has not been possible to verify this as I have been unable to secure any sources referring to community events pre 1890.

[15] Ibid, pg 88

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