Schools and Sanitation – Rowhedge grows….


In this fourth and final post of the history of Rowhedge in the 19th century I’ll be focusing primarily on school life and the strength of the villagers as they fought off all on-comers in their attempts to bring a degree of drainage and sanitation to the village – a situation described as ‘a war’! How the village grew as it did, and reflecting on life in a small, Essex village.


School and education


For the children of the village, life, like that of the  adults, revolved around the river. Most were born within sight of it. Margaret Leather describes how, ‘from a small child I was observant of the tides, winds and weather.’[1] The heath and river banks were their playground:

The sea wove its way early into the children’s lives; skipping ropes of best yacht manilla; hoops made in the shipsmith’s forge; mud ovens on the sea wall; sea shells for scales; drums and penny whistles salvaged from a wreck; signal rockets for Guy Fawkes night; a tartan bonnet brought from Scotland after a successful summer’s yachting.[2]


The village school also grew rapidly during the period. In 1851 there was no school, simply a Sunday School. ‘Plans for a school were made and a trust deed drawn up in 1846, but no further progress was made until 1862 when a school was built next to the church.[3]  Initially the accommodation was for eighty nine children, but the rapid growth of the village meant that over the next forty years the building had to be extended twice, first with an infant’s room in 1871 as recorded in the school diary:

Week ending October 3 – commenced using new room, working it as an infant school in the morning and girls and infants in the afternoon. Have got for new room, 2 easels, 2 boards (one of them with grooves), box of letters, abacus and chart of comparative sizes of animals.[4]


Later there as a further extension to accommodate 304 children; ‘c. 1906 average attendance was 271’[5]  The school’s accounts record that regular contributions were made to the school funds by wealthy benefactors, many of whom were linked to the burgeoning industries.  Through this assistance the school was able to be well-furnished, well-staffed and to grow with the village.


The Rowhedge School


Sanitation Issues…

Although many aspects of village life improved as time went on, others were slower to change, a prime example being the matter of public health and in particular the issue of sanitation. Rowhedge, for all its being constructed of beautiful new houses, by the end of the period was being decried as being one of the most unsanitary villages in Essex.  Records show that the Lexden and Winstree Rural Sanitary Authority were regularly at odds with the owners of the housing stock, who felt no pressing need to change the way of life and the sanitary provisions that had been in existence from the earliest years[6].  Whilst researching the minutes of the Board and comparing these with The Chronicle of the Principle Events in Rowhedge[7] which succinctly outlines the meetings held there, you can’t help but be struck by the increasing frustration on the part of the authorities, compared with the intransigency of the population, proud, independent and unwilling to alter for the sake of outsiders who wanted to change their way of doing things.  In one particular period 1888-1893 Rowhedge is mentioned at every meeting of the board, the tone changing from one of mild concern, noting the difficulty in emptying the closets and ashbins due to their unsatisfactory condition, to serving notices on the owners a year later for failing to deal with the situation, to a point in 1892 where an extraordinary meeting has to be convened solely to deal with the subject of rubbish and cesspits in the village!


Drainage and Sewerage facilities would ruin Rowhedge

By the end of 1892, the Board had decided that the cesspits should be filled in and earth and pail closets erected in their place following a considerable outbreak of Scarlet Fever and Typhoid Fever which the Medical Officer attributed directly to the sanitary conditions within the village and the lack of drainage.  The Parish Council though still disagreed with these findings, and as late as 1908 were fighting the Sanitary Committee after a report by Dr Cook suggested that the village was in urgent need of proper drainage. Turner Barnard, a mariner, Parish Councillor and Rural District Councillor, is reported as having disagreed at the meeting, saying that no drainage was required, that the health of the village was quite satisfactory, there had never been an outbreak of disease or epidemic of any kind, and that the enforcement of a proper drainage and sewage system would be an unwelcome burden on the rate payers of the parish. Mr Thomas Grubb (a farmer) went further by stating that a sewerage system would ruin Rowhedge. Indeed, it was not until 1933 that the parish council finally relented and agreed to a scheme to construct drainage and sewerage facilities.


Rowhedge showed itself to be a community which was close knit and unwilling to be dictated to by outsiders and, to all intents and purposes, virtually cut off from the outside world, except on its own terms. When authorities did try to encroach on parish affairs, they were met with disdain and intransigency.  This can possibly be best illustrated by a speech given, following the election of the new Parish Council in 1904, by the outgoing Chairman which was recorded in the minutes:

The chair said he should … like for the meeting to know the very great amount of work the late Council had done and the risks they had run on behalf of the Parish in standing up for their rights. He hoped the Parish would stand shoulder to shoulder in maintaining the war in the future.[8]


Rowhedge may not have been the rough village that Benham refers to, but it was certainly not a place that would be bullied or interfered with. The people seem to have softened to a certain extent in their way of living, in that now many were able to enjoy more free time and more organised social events. For some there were smart new houses with ‘modern’ conveniences. The newly built school meant that the children could benefit from education and the opportunities which this could bring. The village as a whole benefited from increasing relative prosperity as a result of the improved security of employment, but these people were not soft!  Unused to bowing to authority[9], they were able to find ways around, and fight against, any intrusion into their world and their way of life.


Changes over the years

The changes seen in the village during the latter half of the 19th century were immense: the career opportunities for men altered radically as the possibility of long-term, guaranteed income work in the industrialised sectors became available with the growth of the yards and the brewery.  For women, the need to supplement the wages of the men, especially those still working in the mariner sector, was met by the growth of the tailoring industry in Colchester, meaning that now more married women and their single daughters and counterparts were able to work from home, bringing in the extra funds needed to increase the financial prosperity of the village.  The effect of these changes was seen in the community, as more time was spent in leisure pursuits. The increase in decent housing stock brought a better standard of living to all as the village itself grew away from the river and up the hill and into the fields behind the waterfront, enclosing in a maze of streets the church that had once stood alone.  Education became available at the growing village school, enabling more of the children to enter the apprenticeships offered in the yards. Although the role of fishing as the main source of employment receded, the community was still focused very much on the river, both the ships docked there and the shipyards.


How Rowhedge bucked the trend for agricultural villages post 1870

The most startling finding of this study has been the increase in population overall in the village between the census return of 1851 and that of 1901.  Over the time period studied Rowhedge expanded at an exponential rate, from a tiny fishing village in 1851 of 332 people, to a thriving industrialised community of 1,500 by 1901. By 1914 with its bustling shipyards, brewery and tailoring factory, and with a large percentage of the population now involved in these trades rather than fishing as originally, the village as a whole bore little resemblance to that seen in 1851.  When placed into a national setting, the growth of the village as a whole is well above that which would be expected. Statistics show that whilst national population growth rates at the time were around 1% per annum[94], the growth rate of Rowhedge may have been as high as around 3%. When considering that the population of Britain as a whole doubled from c20 million to c40million in the timescale covered, one can see that Rowhedge is increasing at a rate beyond that of the national average. Mortality rates and in-migration rates in the village are not high enough to completely explain this growth rate. Although throughout the period following the industrial revolution, towns and cities were growing at a rapid rate, villages generally were not, and people were actively moving away from the villages to find work in the industrialised regions. It appears that crucially Rowhedge did not experience this type of emigration. The biggest change within the village during the timescale was the arrival of industry, and it could be argued therefore that it was this, and the resulting opportunities for work within the village that it brought, that firstly made it possible for people to stay within the village, and secondly encouraged others to move in from outside. Without it Rowhedge may have experienced the slow decline that befell so many other rural, agriculturally-based communities.


On that night of Sunday 30th March 1851 as so many women sat alone in their homes filling in the census returns, their husbands at sea, they could not have imagined the huge changes that would overcome their village within the next sixty years.  The tiny family shipyards and the small brewery that would soon grow to such a great extent, and bring all encompassing changes to the community, stood quiet and empty.  The following years would see the village grow at a rate far in excess of national averages where other small agrarian villages would see their numbers slowly fall.  The children would soon have a school to attend, the education it provided offering life chances beyond anything that their parents could have imagined. At the end of it all though, Rowhedge would, and always will be a village centred on the quays lining the river. Time and tide wait for no man, and the first fifty years of the twentieth century would signal even more changes for the people of Rowhedge, as their isolation was challenged and world events impinged on this bustling little village at the end of the road …






[1] M Leather, Saltwater Village, (Lavenham, 1983), p.17

[2] M Leather, Saltwater Village, Lavenham, Terence Dalton Ltd, 1977, pg 13


[4] Rowhedge Recollections, The Rowhedge Village Association and The Parish Council of East Donyland, 1977 – no date is recorded for this excerpt from the School Logs. However, as 1871 was the year that the infants’ room was added it could be assumed that the record is from this date.


[6] Essex Record Office, G/LWS1 Lexden and Winstree Rural Sanitary Authority Minutes

[7] Essex Record Office, C599, Box 1. Chronicle of Principle Events at Rowhedge 1902-1912

[8] East Donyland Parish Council Minutes, Monday, March 7th 1904.

[9] It must be acknowledged however that there was an increasing intrusion into this independence via government legislation which would accelerate in later years.



One comment on “Schools and Sanitation – Rowhedge grows….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *