Essex Industries a Century ago
When the railways came to East Anglia, it made the transport of milk and garden produce to the markets of London vastly quicker and easier. On the other hand some of the Essex industries had been ruined by the coming of the railways. The evaporation of sea-water for its salt, the growth of hops, and the manufacture of cheese had, on the introduction of the railways, collapsed as industries as soon as railways increased the competition from more distant counties.
Until the start of Victorian times, the making of potash from the ashes of burnt weeds, hedge trimmings, and other vegetable matter was one of the oldest and commonest industries of rural Essex. There are many fields and some farms, which by their names record the fact that a potash factory was on their site; and there was, at Radwinter, a country inn known as “The Potash." The place of potash for use in soap-making, clothes-washing, etc., was subsequently taken by soda, and the industry disappeared.
Roman cement was an industry of much importance at Harwich and other coast towns. It was manufactured from septaria, hard stone-like concretions found in the London clay, notably at Harwich and Dovercourt. Roman cement was sometimes known as Parker's cement, from the fact that James Parker patented its manufacturing process in 1796. For more than 50 years after that date between 400 and 500 men were employed in the cement trade at Harwich, supplying about two millions of bushels annually. Roman cement manufacture was extinguished by the introduction of Portland cement, which was then made in the south of the county.
Strawplaiting was carried on in the north of the county, and declined suddenly in late Victorian times. It was introduced at Gosfield in 1790, and as a cottage industry it flourished at Castle Hedingham, Halstead, and Braintree. Calico printing was carried on at Waltham Abbey, and silk was manufactured at West Ham. Copper rolling was one of the industries of Walthamstow, and from 1807 to 1845 the British Copper Company had its works in that town. This fact accounts for the name of one of its roads, which is known as Coppermill Lane.
The chief industry of Essex for several centuries was that connected with the manufacture of woollen goods. There is evidence that wool was manufactured in Essex in Roman and Saxon times, and in the Domesday Book we have many references to sheep and wool. In 1250 we know that the monastic houses of Essex exported wool to Italy, and there was also a great demand for it in Flanders. At the beginning of the fourteenth century some cloth-workers from Bruges landed at Harwich, and settled at Braintree, Halstead, and Dedham. Edward III gave a great impetus to the wool trade by his encouragement of the Flemings to settle in Essex and teach the people the art of weaving. The chief influx of Flemings was in the reign of Elizabeth, and numbers settled in and around Colchester in 1570, and flourished till about 1748. The clothing towns were Colchester, Braintree, Coggeshall, Bocking, Halstead, and Dedham, and we find that about 60,000 families were employed as spinners, weavers, and combers. The fabrics woven by the Flemings were known as “bays” and “ says” and corresponded to what was later called baize and serge. Colchester was famous for the “bay and say” trade, while Bocking was noted for its woollen drugget, or baize, which was also known as “Bockings.”.
By 1900, Romford, Chelmsford, and Colchester were the chief towns engaged in brewing and malting, while the last two and Maldon had some trade in corn-milling. Charcoal-burning was formerly more important than it was then, but it was still, at the turn of the century, an industry of some note at Writtle and Hanningfield. The chalk quarries in the north at Saffron Walden, and in the south at Stifford, Grays, and Purfleet, give employment to many, and large quantities of this material were used in the manufacture of Portland cement.
Gunpowder was made at Waltham Abbey as far back as 1560, and the works became Government property in 1787. The work was, by the 1900s, carried on in 300 separate buildings, which cover 411 acres, and have a water-way of 5 miles. As many as 1200 men were employed, who made annually 2000 tons of cordite, 200 tons of gunpowder, and 150 tons of gun-cotton.
The making of bricks and tiles has been practised in Essex from Roman times, and owing to the abundance of brick earth this industry was one of considerable importance at Hedingham, Ilford, Rainham, Dagenham, Grays, Pitsea, Shoebury, and other places in the south. In 1902, 2136 people were, engaged in brick and tile making.
Soap and candles were largely manufactured at Stratford and Silvertown. Chemicals, such as camphor, quinine, sulphuric acid, tar, creosote, pitch, naphtha, and turpentine were produced in large quantities at Stratford and Uphall, a part of Ilford. The manufacture of photographic plates was carried on at Ilford, where the works were probably the largest in the world at the time; and additional works had been opened at Great Warley. Guttapercha and India-rubber goods were made at Silvertown, named after its founder, Mr Silver; and at the same place there was some sugar-refining.
The manufacture of silk and crape gave employment to 2000 persons at Braintree, Bocking, Halstead, and Earls Colne. The crape made at Braintree was of worldwide fame, and this town had the distinction of making the robe of cloth-of-gold for King Edward VII, and the purple velvet robe for Queen Alexandra, which were worn by them at their coronation. Lace-making was a home industry which employed many cottagers at Coggeshall, Great Tey, Marks Tey, and Chappel.
Ship-building on the Thames was declining in importance, but the Thames Iron Works on the Essex side of Bow Creek employed many hundreds of men in their ship-yards and engineering works. There was some yacht-building at Pitsea, Maldon, and Rowhedge, on the Colne. Chelmsford, Maldon, and Colchester made agricultural implements, and the county town had also electrical engineering works, and was developing a trade for building steam motor-omnibuses. The Great Eastern Railway Company had very extensive works at Stratford, where thousands of men were employed in making steam engines, railway carriages, and other rolling stock. The Xylonite Company's works were at Manningtree and Walthamstow; and the manufacture of explosives was carried on at Kynochtown, in Corringham, and at Stanford le Hope.