There has always been a close connection between the village and the Blackwater Estuary, and the many activities associated with the water have had a major influence on village life:
Fishing has been a major commercial activity in the Estuary for centuries. In Goldhanger - estuary Village (page-19) Maura Benham describes Fish Weirs or Kettles used to catch fish, which may be the origins of the many pieces of ancient wood still projecting out of the mud in Goldhanger Creek. Some are also likely to be the remains of jetties used by fishing smacks in the 18th &19th centuries. See... Ancient wooden posts in the Creek.
Two Fish Pits were located adjacent to Goldhanger Creek near Bounds Farm. They appear on the 1820 Tithe map and are listed in the Tithe Awards as part of Bounds Farm property, they are also shown on 1900 OS map and a map the Proceedings Antiquaries Society of 1910. They were most probably used to hold temporarily oysters, shellfish, eels and large fish catches from further out at sea, in the days when refrigerators were unavailable and ice was expensive.
Fish Street was said to be the haunt of Maldon based fishermen whose boats were temporarily moored in Goldhanger Creek waiting for the tide to reach Maldon. In the meantime the fishermen frequented the various ale houses and other houses of ill repute down Fish Street.
Oyster fishing and cultivation has been an activity in the Estuary for centuries. However, an abrupt end came to local industry in the early 1980s when a disease caused the government to curtail production. Native Oyster shells litter the foreshore and oyster shell are found in the gardens in Fish St. In the last 20 years commercial oyster beds have been re-established at a location referred to as Goldhanger Creek but is close to Lauristons Farm and are now sold all around the world. See... Goldhanger Oyster Beds
The full history of fishing is given at... Commercial Fishing at Goldhanger and in the Blackwater
In the past there were huge quantities of ducks around the Estuary and the local Duck Decoy Ponds were a good source of income for the village. As they were all located just inside the seawall it would suggest that construction of a seawall was necessary before the ponds could become viable.
The ponds were "star" or "octopus" shaped with between four and eight "pipes", and were use in in the 17th & 18th centuries. They were on the land-side of the seawall with "hatches" through the wall. The Shoe is the remains of one such hatch. Tame ducks and trained dogs were used to lure the wild fowl up the pipe and into the traps. The catch was sent to Leadenhall Market each day. Mallard, Curlew, Teal and Wigeon were the main catch.
An old map showing the ponds on the east side of village
Decoy ponds was private property, were well protected by a wide ditch or high fence, and were in remote situations. They was usually worked by one man, or perhaps a father and son. The owners purposely shrouded their management with mystery, and spread absurdly inaccurate reports as to their manner of decoying and of the accessories used at the decoy. The decoy man was always on the watch for intruders and would on no account give them the any reliable information.
The Decoy man usually rented a considerable amount of land, mostly marsh and low wet meadow in the vicinity, so as to keep out trespassers and to assist the natural solitude of its surroundings. He helped to support his income by grazing a few sheep or cattle on the dryer portions of the land.
a report made in 1811 to the Board of Agriculture...
The Maura Benham book Goldhanger - an Estuary Village describes the Methods of Workings Decoy Ponds on pages 83 to 85 and there are descriptions of the Goldhanger Decoy Ponds in Birds of Essex, written by Essex historian Miller Christy and published in 1890 on pages 62 and 63.
In recent years The Blackwater Wildfowlers Association has acquired land close to Goldhanger that includes one of the original decoy ponds. The Association has since restored it and maintains it as a no-shooting zone and a haven for wintering wildfowl...
As the number of wild ducks on the estuary steadily declined duck shooting from a punt became more effective than using the decoy ponds and in more recent times was both a commercial activity and a popular pastime. Just before WW-2 a wealthy Goldhanger resident kept his own punt and gun at The Shoe, keeping the gun and tackle in a long sturdy box of some three metres length that sat on top of several posts set into the ground. It was situated on the waterside below the seawall, and was kept padlocked. Below on the left is a typical duck punt with gun and on the right is Samuel Johnson of Fish St. in his punt in Goldhanger Creek, who made a living in the winter from this activity.
The following extract is taken from www.chelmercanaltrust.co.uk and the life story of Darby Stebbens of Heybridge Basin:
. . .One famous man who I helped was the artist Peter Scott. I took him on a duck shoot down the river with his guns and dog. I rowed and he sat in the back but he didn't have a lot of luck! I had a punt gun myself and once got twenty five widgeon with one shot just off Osea in the morning mist. You went out in the winter just before dawn, or at dusk, lying flat in the bottom of the punt and paddling gently with paddles no larger than your hand - you had to keep as low as you could. I sold the birds around the Basin houses at three shillings a brace. . .
Exceptionally low rainfall in the Blackwater Estuary results in the salt being retained in the extensive mashes and mud flats, which has traditionally made the location ideal for salt extraction. The Redhills in the area have been extensively excavated in the past and been show not only to have been used for salt production but were also early potteries as the salt produced locally was used to salt-glazed the pottery. In 2007 the Maldon Crystal Salt Co. returned to the locality with a new processing plant at Longwick Farm, just half a mile from Goldhanger.
A full history is given in. . . Salt extraction in the Blackwater
It is said that before the railways came through Essex in the 1850s in winter the journey to London was quicker by sea than by road could, which took 3-days.
This early postcard photograph shows pony carts loading and waiting to load a barge at The Shoe in Goldhanger Creek. The barge belonged to Robert Page the farmer at Highams Farm in the late 1800s. The mooring posts were accidentally knock over in 2009 but up until then were still occasionally being used for maintenance work on the Maldon barges. These barges took farm produce up to London and returned with 'London mixture' - horse manure, and seaweed for fertilizer, lime, coal and other cargoes. One important local cargo was Kentish rag stone, which was used to build up the sea walls and helped in the reclamation of marshland. Barges stacked with hay were called Stackies. These flat bottomed barges could navigate and moor in the shallowest of creeks and rivers adjacent to farms and mills. The barges were sailed by just two people, so it was a very economic form of transport for bulky and heavy. In 1860 there were 5000 sailing barges on the East coast, by 1910 there were 2,000 barges trading in the UK, but with the decline of the hay trade, there was a dramatic fall in their numbers. In 1939 there were 750 and in 1949 a mere 125.
Stackie at sea - taken from Maura Benhamís book
Today the sad remains of the barge Snowdrop lies in Goldhanger Creek, having been abandoned in the 1950s. These pictures show the barge during its working life and how it has deteriorated since it was left. . .
at Greens flour mill, Fullbridge in London Docks mast-less in the pool at Heybridge Basin.
The Kelly Family on Snowdrop at East Greenwich in 1928
in the 1950s in the 1970s in 2010
For most of the 20th century large volumes of commercial shipping passing up and down the Estuary heading for Maldon quay and Heybridge Basin. At high tide ships could be seen regularly passing up and down the Estuary. At low tide they would moor up in the estuary adjacent to Osea Island in regularly dredged deep water areas waiting for a sufficient depth of water and a pilot.
Shipping at anchor off Osea Island
Commercial vessel in Heybridge Basin lock.
This trade ended in the 1970's
when bigger ships with containers took over
On two occasions on the 20th century, in the 1920s and the 1970s, the Estuary was used to lay up surplus commercial shipping and they were clearly visible from the village. . .
Ships laid up in the background - strawberry pickers in the foreground
Osea Island has never been within Goldhanger Parish, but as the island is less than a mile (and a pleasant dingy sail) away, and there have been many associations between the island and the village in the past, so it is appropriate including a short history of the island here. . .
Over the centuries the island has had many names and variations of spellings, some associated with the islands Roman, Danish/Viking and Saxon past, and have included:
Uvesia, Vuesia, Ōsgybes īeg, Ovesey, Totham-Oveseye,
Totham-Magne-cum-Ovesem, Awsey, Oosy, St. Osyth, and Osey.
It is probably not a coincidence that it has been called St Osyth island, a name used by Daniel Defoe. The village of St Osyth, just 10 miles away by sea, was previously called Chich. A seventh century Saxon nun called Osyth was murdered there by Danes in a Viking raid for religious reasons. It is said that when the Danes were finally defeated and left, both the village of Chich and the island, then occupied by Saxons, were re-named after the beatified nun.
A total of 23 owners have been identified over the past 1000 yrs. Seventeen are identified in the biography of Mr Charrington's: The Great Acceptance written by Guy Thorne in 1913, which includes a very interesting chapter about Mr Charringtons involvement with the island.
Here is an extract from that chapter of the book (which is freely available on-line) describing the history of the island and its the past owners, which in turn is taken from a booklet produced by Mr Charrington in 1907 entitled: Osea island - the new temperance seaside resort...
In the first place, to the history of Osea. This has been compiled by his friend Mr. Rupert Scott for an excellent little publication issued by Messrs. Partridge, which is in itself a complete guide to the island.
Mr. Scott tells us that before the Norman Conquest the name of this jewel of the Blackwater was Uvesia, and later Ovesey or Osey and Osyth's island. During the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) it was owned by one Turbert, who was Lord of the district.
At the time of the Norman Conquest it was in the possession of one Hamo Dapifer, nephew to William the Conqueror. He held it as a manor, and four hides of land, and there resided on it one bordar or resident. According to the Doomsday survey book (1086), there had always previously been on the island three serfs, one fisherman, and pasture for sixty sheep, and at the time of the survey belonged to the Bouchier family, afterwards created Earls of Essex; and was included in the Capital Manor, or Parish of Great Totham.
During the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), it was held by Henry Malache, from the king, as one knight's fee. This is found in a MS. Of the time of Henry VIII, viz.: 'Totham Magne cum Ovesem, alias Ovesey. It is not known how this Henry Malache was related to the Bouchier family.
In the reign of Edward II (1315), the Island of Osea was owned by Gilbart de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and then came into the possession of Bartholomew de Bouchier and his wife, who retained it from 1410-1411 under Henry VI. Its next owner was Sir Hugh Stafford, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Bartholomew, Lord Bouchier, who died in 1420, and was held 'by him as the Manor of Oveseye from King Henry V, as the Honor of Bologne, by the service of half a knight's fee.'
The island next came into the hands of one Ludovic Robbesart, and Elizabeth his wife, in 1431, during the reign of Henry V, and upon their death for the following two years was held by Anne, widow of the Earl of March. The next possessor of Ovesey Island was Henry Bouchier, created first Earl of Essex, and he held the manor of Totham-Oveseye from King Edward VI, and died in 1483.
He was followed by Anne Bouchier, Marchioness of Northampton, who brought the island to her husband under the title of 'Manor or Isle of Ovesey, with free fishery, free warren, and wrec of the sea.' She died in 1570, during Queen Elizabeth's reign. Her husband forfeited his estates for espousing the cause of Lady Jane Grey, but this Manor of Ovesey was returned to him by a letter patent from the Queen dated August 8, 1558, for his maintenance.
On the death of Anne Bouchier, Marchioness of Northampton, this manor descended to the heir-at-law, one Walter Devereux, who was the first Earl of Essex of that name; but in order to carry on his warfare in Ireland he mortgaged and sold his estates in Essex, including 'Ovesey Island,' which was purchased by a Mr. Thomas Wiseman, of Great Waltham, Mr. Wiseman held it of Queen Elizabeth by a Knight's service. He died July 15, 1584, without issue. It then came into the possession of his two sisters, Elizabeth, wife of Richard Jennings, and Dorothy Wiseman.
Osea Island was purchased by a Mr. Charles Coe, of Maldon, but it is not known from whom, and it was still owned by him at the time of his death in 1786, and afterwards was conveyed to the Pigott family, who were evidently related to him, because on the south wall of St. Peter's Church at Maldon there is a mural monument to 'John Coe Pigott,' and dated March, 1802.
The next owner of the island known was Mrs. Pigott, who married Henry Coape, and was succeeded by his son, Henry Coe Coape, who, through troubles, had to make it over to his brother [in the 1700s].
Seven other owners have been identified since The Great Acceptance was published in 1913. . .
1880s Henry Coe Coape son Henry Coape-Arnold. Both were Lords of the Manor of Goldhanger.
1903 Frederick Charrington, heir to the London brewery company (more below)
1910-26 The island was occupied by the Royal Navy (more below), but still owned by Frederick Charrington
1936 Wealthy philanthropist Major Alfred Allnatt (sold to him by the trustees of the Charrington estate) He is best known for donating Ruben's Adoration of the Magi to Kings College Cambridge.
1960 Michael & David Cole, founders of Metals Research and the Cambridge Instruments companies. The Metals Research Company was the first to grow silicon crystals, which is one of the foundations of todays digital equipment. Cambridge Instruments produced very high quality electronic instruments and were the first to market electron microscopes. Michael Cole's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies quotes him as: an inventor Michael Cole was a genius.
1968 Cambridge University
1986 The Cole family re-purchased the island from the University
1990s The Cole family sold the island to the latest owner
4K BC Neolithic occupations on the island
100 AD Romans built the causeway, saltworks and pottery
800 Holmbyggja - Viking settlement & burial ground
991 Vikings warriors were probably based on the island in preparation for the Battle of Maldon
1086 The Domesday Book entry for the island:
Steward: Richard from Hamo, 4 hides, 1 smallholder, always 3 slaves, 1 fishery, pasture, 60 sheep, value 60s.
1700s James Wentworth Day wrote in the Daily Mail in 1977 that 24 revenue men were murdered in Death Creek (see Smuggling)
1722 Daniel Defoe wrote about the island in: Tour through the Eastern Counties of England.
1890s Oysters cultivated commercially in the salt marshes on the northern shore (still visible today).
1903 Frederick Charrington created and developed his Cure for Inebriety on the island.
1903 Mr. Charrington purchased the steam ship SS Annie to provide transport to and from Maldon
1903 on Many newspaper and magazine articles were written at home and abroad about the developments on the island,
including articles in... The Times, The Manchester Guardian, Punch, The Spectator, Country Life,
Christian World, NZ Ashburton Guardian, NZ Oamaru Mail, AU Launeston Examiner, USA Indianapolis Journal
1903 Postcards showing life the island at that time were distributed (to date seventeen have been identified)...
1904-06 Mr. Charrington developed a menagerie on the island that included: seals, kangaroos, parrots, and Australian swans.
1906-9 London County Council operated summer open air schools on Osea for children with learning difficulties.
1906-9 The Boys brigade held summer camps on the island. There are many photos of their 1906/07 activities at...
1907 Mr. Charrington published a booklet entitled: Osea island - the new temperance seaside resort.
1907-9 Many advertisements appeared in the Times and the Manchester Guardian.
1907-12 Much alchohol was smuggled onto the island by local fishermen, The Chequers Inn customers and island workers.
1913 Seaplane trials based on the island (see Seaplane Trials below)
1917-26 HMS Osea (see World War-1 below)
1919-23 Foreign Office secret missions to the Baltic using CBMs based on the island.
1924 Former Goldhanger curate Douglas Vale, employed by Mr Charrington as the island's hotel manager, died of alcoholism.
1927 Essex county council declined to purchase the island from R Charrington for use as a sanatorium.
1927-30 May & Butcher of Heybridge purchased the WW1 huts and moved many of them to Heybridge where they remain.
1934 The recently formed Rural Community Council of Essex (RCCE) started a 'reconditioning camp' on the Island to help the unemployed improve their fitness and readiness for work.
1936 Major Allnatt, wealthy philanthropist, formed the Society for the Promotion of Old English Pastimes and each year held a week-long 'Conventical' parties for the wealthy on Island. Tractor slaloms, mud walloping, searching for ping-pong balls buried in the mud at low tide. He also used the island for shooting and greyhound-breeding.
1939-45 Dummy submarines placed around island during World War-2,
The army manned Pill-boxes on the island and occupied Rivermere
A German V2 rocket exploded near the island
1960s While living on the island Lord Gawain Douglas wrote poetry about the island, published in his book entitled: Fortuna.
1981 The BBC made a half hour TV programme about the island. (see BBC TV programme below)
1980s The Goldhanger postman made daily collections and deliveries to Osea, crossing the causeway on his bicycle.
2006 A semi-biographical novel Once upon an Island by former resident Joe Canning is about Osea island and Goldhanger.
2007 The Chequers landlady's autobiography: The Licence, has a chapter about the pub and her family links to the Island.
In 1981 the BBC made a half hour television programme about the island entitled Causeway's End. Several Goldhanger residents were interviewed in The Chequers who had connections with the island. The programme explained how they residents traditionally supported the island's activities and that island residents frequently used the Chequers Inn as their mainland base. The film was made by BBC producer Andrew Gosling, who at the time lived on the island. Goldhanger people described Charringtons retreat for inebriates, and it has scenes from HMS Osea, and more recent scenes of the island, including horses at work, barges sailing by, and vehicles on the causeway.
audio extracts from the programme:
watch selected video clips at...
watch selected images at...
The history of Osea Island is one of the Local History Talks
In the early 1900s F N Charrington purchased Osea Island and set up a treatment centre for alcoholics in the main residence called Rivermere. He also purchased the steam ship SS Annie to travel between Maldon and the island. The boat was later re-named the SS Maldon Annie and was used for many years as a Maldon based pleasure steamer and was a familiar sight in the Estuary.
Steam Ship Maldon Annie
Maldon Annie took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk, but sadly did not return to Maldon.
The most significant military event to have taken place in the estuary was the Viking invasion and the Battle of Maldon in the year of 991. Ninety Viking longships sailed up the estuary carrying 4000 Viking warriors. The actual location of the battle remains in doubt, but Northey Island is generally accepted as the main battle site. However, the western end of Osea Island and the stretch of water across to Decoy Point may have also been a battle site. Wherever the battle was located, the armada of Viking longships would have passed up the estuary visible from the shore at Goldhanger.
artists impression of armada of Viking longships in the estuary
pargetted artists impression of the invasion
on the inner wall of a property in the village
Much has been written about the Battle of Maldon on the internet.
In 1913 Osea Island was enveloped in tight security while the Royal Navy conducted a series of tests on a revolutionary new two man Seaplane called the Seagull which was intended to be the main line of defence against enemy submarines and Zeppelins. The British Deperdussin Aeroplane Company demonstrated the seaplane in the Blackwater Estuary on the south side of Osea Island. The aeroplane was a single engine monoplane with large floats. The Seagull did not prove successful during the trials and was not taken into service by RNAS. Some of these photos where in a Flight Magazine in 1913. . .
The Deperdussin Seagull on trial at Osea Island in 1913
a contemporary drawing of the Deperdussin Seagull
It seems however that the Osea Island involvement with seaplanes, later to become known as Flying Boats, did not end in 1913. The Deperdussin's test pilot during the Osea Island trials, John C Porte went on to become the commander of the Felixstowe Naval Air Station, later called the Felixstowe Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE). Lieutenant-Commander John C. Porte is credited with designing the Felixstowe F1 and F2 seaplanes and the Felixstowe F3, F4 and F5 Flying Boats and finally the Felixstowe Fury Flying Boat. During WW1 Shorts Brothers built many Felixstowe F3 and F5s to MAEE specifications and then after WW1 in 1926, the Blackburn Aircraft Company built the Iris 1-3 range of Flying Boats again to MAEE specifications, and these were know to be delivered to Felixstowe for trials. One of these machines was photographed during trials in the Blackwater Estuary off Osea Island, and although the quality of the photograph is not good, the machine looks very similar the Blackburn Iris 1 model. However, it could be one of several early Felixstowe designs and related aircraft as they are all of a very similar appearance...
the seaplane photographed near Osea Island
examples of very similar seaplanes. . .
The Felixstowe Naval Air Station was created in 1913 and Lieutenant-Commander Porte joined it in 1915, and on his recommendation the station was initially equipped with USA built Curtiss flying boats. The HMS Osea base for Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs) began life in 1917 and it seems that the two establishments worked closely together throughout the war. For example, in 1918 Commodore Augustus Agar was awarded the VC for his involvement in the CMB raid on the Russian fleet at Kronstadt. That raid was supported by four Shorts seaplanes carried there on the converted Aeroplane Carrier HMS Vindictive.
During World War 1 forty Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs) were stationed on Osea Island. At one point there were 1000 sailors stationed there.
a 180 degree panoramic view of the HMS Osea during WW-1 shows many of the buildings
There is more about HMS Osea at... The Great War - HMS Osea
The history of Osea Island and the Great War are two of our... Local History Talks
There were many rumours that Osea Island was used by the Royal Navy during World War 2, and much talk of a Clandestine miniature submarine base. However no documented evidence of this has been found and several years ago the Royal Navy Museum offered the following explanation: It is know that during WW-2 a base at Wivenhoe was involved in constructing wooden mock submarines for use in confusing the enemy. These were towed to various location around the Essex coast and left for the enemy to find and bomb. Some were probably located for a while at Osea Island and Heybridge. The Blackwater estuary was also used by both the army and the navy as part of the build up to the D-Day landings at Normandy. Landing craft were seen at many locations including: Osea, Stone, Heybridge Basin and Mill Beach.
These paragraphs are taken from. . . CHELMER CANAL TRUST NEWSLETTER ISSUE 24, November 2003
From Darby Stebbens' life story. . .
The 28th Company Royal Army Service Corps was stationed in the Basin during the war. They had three or four motorised wooden barges to carry their machinery, together with a 'Tid Tug', a bit like the old steam tug Brent which you can still see at the Hythe in Maldon. There were also a dozen or more Thames lighters tied up all along the sea wall as far as Mill Beach ready for D-Day. They must have been in one heck of hurry to get away because on the day they left they just threw all their mooring chains overboard and left them on the shore. What they used to tie up with when they arrived I'll never know.
There was a lot of military activity around the Basin with soldiers and sailors billeted at The Towers in Heybridge and in the Manor House on Osea Island. Certain boats in the Basin were commandeered for military services: the yacht Francis II, for example, was turned into a river patrol boat and was moored off Osea.
One night Lord Haw Haw told us on the radio that German planes were going to bomb the submarine base at Heybridge Basin. The attack happened several nights later: six people were killed and several houses received direct hits. There were frequent air raids as German planes flew up the river thinking it was the Thames. At night our family went and slept on our boat, Gracie, moored on the saltings, so that we would not have the house fall down on us if we were bombed. One night a land mine landed right next to the house on Northey Island making quite a thump, but there wasn't much damage because it went into the soft mud. When I was at Mill beach one day I saw a Hurricane crash near the Doctor's buoy off Osea.
After both world wars May and Butcher Ltd in Heybridge Basin were involved in scrapping many surplus navy ships, including the 5600 ton light cruiser HMS Dido. Many ships like this would have been seen making their last journey up the Estuary past to Heybridge Basin.
See also the World War II memories of those living in the village.
Early postcard photos show that swimming and bathing has been popular in the Estuary and Creek for many years and has probably take place for centuries.
The picture on the left shows a children's swimming gala, while the picture on the right shows an ancient wreck with a crude diving board attached, there are also two bathing huts in the background, close to The Shoe.
A beach hut in the creek
Goldhanger Sailing Club was formed in 1959, however these two photos from much earlier days indicate that sailing has been an pleasure activity in the Creek and Estuary for at least a hundred years...
The picture on the left of a sailing dinghy in the Creek also shows the Coastguard Hut and Flagstaff on the seawall which probably dates the picture as no later than the 1930s. The picture on the right is from the 1970s.
The club house is built on the site of the former Goldhanger salt works.
Seawalls have had, and still do, give many benefits: they protect the village and farmland from tidal surges, they have created more useable farmland, they create deeper water at high tide enabling better navigation and coastal access for small boats and the wall itself provides access to the coast for wheeled transport and pedestrians. Not least, an indirect benefit not realised for many centuries, has been that the draining and drying out the marshes eliminated the mosquitoes that carried the malaria virus, the disease formally called The Ague.
Here is no doubt that the walls were originally constructed a very long time ago, however there is much doubt surrounds the actual dates of the walls in the Goldhanger vicinity. In the early 1900s extensive excavations of Red Hills were undertaken at Bounds Farm, Goldhanger, and their report (Proc. Soc. Ant., XXIII, 69-76.) puts forward the theory that the seawall was in Roman times before some of the Redhills were formed. .
. . .It was the opinion of the excavators that while the Red Hill itself had been built on the open marsh, the mould could only have formed after the sea-wall had been constructed. Hence they would assign a pre-Roman date to the Hill itself, and conjecture the seawall to have been built possibly in Roman times. The Roman occupation of a Red Hill, of which this is the only recorded instance, may possibly have been due to a recrudescence of the industry.
. . .and the construction of seawalls must have had a major influence on the decline in the local sea salt industry. See. . . Salt extraction in the Blackwater
This paragraph have been taken from Goldhanger -an Estuary Village by Maura Benham:
Hilda Grieve in her splendid account of the sea-walls of Essex in The Great Tide (1959) finds evidence of Essex marshland being embanked by the end of the 12th century. And great storms are recorded in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, causing concern lest the low lying land should be flooded.
In 1303 a commission was directed to 'the sea-coast of Essex', but the coast north of Maldon was not specified until 1439 when a commission was to include in its work the stretch from Hockley to Tollesbury and Wigborough. These commissions had to survey, to find out why disrepair and decay had occurred, and to levy from those benefiting from the walls the money needed to repair and maintain them. The charges included a levy on those using the banks for grazing. The walls had to be built and maintained by skilled men, and wages paid in 1346-47 to men making a wall in a marsh during the summer were as much as the marsh shepherd was paid for a whole year's work.
E. S. Gramolt in his unpublished 1960 thesis Coastal Marshlands of East Essex between the 17th and mid-19th centuries (in ERO) writes in detail of the construction of the sea-walls. The practice was to build the wall in two arms carried across the saltings to the lowest point over which the wall was to pass. The proposed line of the wall was prepared by removing vegetation and digging a trench. The soft mud was removed and the hollows filled with brushwood and good clay, marsh clay being always the chief material of the wall. Sometimes brushwood made the permanent facing of the wall, as faggots secured vertically on its face; sometimes chalk and piles were used; and later Kentish ragstone was brought by barge and used for the purpose. These construction techniques can be seen in early photographs. . .
The walls around the Blackwater once had only two feet wide tops, but after the great tide of 1736 the walls were heightened and widened to three feet. By 1790 the Goldhanger seawalls were 7 feet high. The borrow-pits or dykes formed by digging out the clay to make the wall, also known as delphs or delfs, were at first dug close to the wall but later moved to some twenty feet from them.
Until WW-2 seawall maintenance was the responsibility of the adjacent landowners. For example Highams Farm used horses and wagons on narrow gauge rail tracks to move soil from ditches dug onto the seawall during quieter farming periods. The iron tracks were periodically dismantled and moved to a new location on or near the wall where it was most needed. There are still very deep ditches to be seen around Highams Farm which were the result of this activity.
'Seawalling' being carried out by workers from Bounds Farm in the 1920s
The seawall was breached during the 1953 floods near Highams Farm and at Decoy Point, and an area stretching from lower Fish Street to the caravan sites at Millbeach was flooded for many days, including much of Bounds Farm land. The concrete lining slabs visible today were laid mainly just after these floods when the government took responsibility for the maintenance of the seawalls. A length of seawall closest to the village was raised by a further metre in the early 1990s.
Today the Environment Agency is responsible for seawall maintenance, but are slow to repair the wall to the east of the village, ironically one of the very locations where the wall was breached in the 1953 floods. This photo shows the deteriorating state of the wall in recent years, fortunately repaired in November 2014 after continuous lobbying by the Parish Council. . .
Deteriorating seawall near Highams Hatches
photo taken in early 2014