In March 1871 Sabine Baring Gould and his family arrived on Mersea. He was to be the rector at East Mersea for the next ten years. It is well documented that he found life in East Mersea difficult. He complained that the inhabitants of this parish were "dull, reserved, shy and suspicious" and that "I never managed to understand them, nor they to understand me".
Baring Gould was well aware that he had been sent to this remote, isolated place as a form of exile. There were a number of complex reasons why this happened, and these would make for a full article in their own right. It is sufficient to say at this point that Baring Gould's independent thinking and radical views had made him powerful enemies in the church hierarchy. They wanted him sent off to some part of the country where he could no longer mix with refined, educated men of culture and equal standing. In such a place he could no longer easily voice his opinions on the major political and religious issues of the day. Mersea, it was felt, was just such a place.
In spite of all this, Mersea provided the setting for what is regarded as Baring Gould's greatest work of fiction, MEHALAH. A dark, tragic novel, it is based on the people and places he found in and around Mersea. He used the real names for some of the characters and places. De Witt, Mussett, Mersea, the Ray, Sunken Island, Salcott and Virley all feature in the story.
The result has been endless speculation about the main characters. Was there a real Mehalah? Who was Elijah Rebow? Was there ever a house on Ray Island? The answer to the last question is yes, there is a strong evidence of a building having existed on the Ray, but not in Baring Gould's time on Mersea.
The opening page of MEHALAH contains this passage: "At the close of the last century there stood on the Ray a small farmhouse built of tarred wreckage timber, and roofed with red pantiles". The archaeological evidence confirms there was a building there until some time in the 18th century. The archaeologists have identified a "building platform", and a nearby midden heap contained pottery fragments dating to the 18th century and earlier. The midden has not been fully explored , as this would have involved excavations - something for the future perhaps.
Locally-produced and crudely-made bricks discovered around the site have been dated to around 1450. Also scattered around the area are fragments of terracotta pantiles. A time scale for a building on the Ray spans from the mid-15th century to some time in the 18th century.
We can be certain that this building did not survive beyond the start of the 19th century. Mersea Museum has an accurate map of Ray Island when it was surveyed in 1817 as part of Mersea Hall Estate. It shows the island as two fields with a pond alongside the field boundary, but no sign of any buildings. Nor do any buildings appear on maps produced after that date.
The evidence suggests that a farmhouse, as described by Baring Gould, did once exist on the Ray, and he would have heard stories about it. Maybe it was destroyed by fire, as in MEHALAH. Such as event would mean that it would be remembered by local people for many years after it happened.
And what of the villainous Elijah Rebow? Baring Gould tells us he based the character on a major Dissenter who lived in West Mersea, and had rented the glebe lands from a previous (non-resident) rector.
The following account gives an idea of this Dissenter's character. When the Reverend Musselwhite came to West Mersea in 1863, he took the glebe back from the Dissenter, who had rented it for a sum far below its true value. After his first harvest was gathered in and the ricks were thatched, the Rev. Musselwhite journeyed into Colchester. Before he left Mersea, his churchwarden insisted that, whilst in town, the clergyman should insure his ricks to their full value. This was done within minutes of the insurance office closing for the day. On returning to Mersea, the Rev. Musselwhite was again approached by the churchwarden asking if he had insured the ricks to their full value. When it was confirmed that this was so, the churchwarden reported that the ricks were ablaze. The Dissenter had set them on fire as an act of revenge for not being allow to retain the glebe. The insurance company tried hard to obtain evidence against this man, but failed. All the residents of West Mersea were apparently so afraid of him that they would not speak out against him.
If it could be traced in the church records who was farming the glebe in the early 1860's, we would know the name of the local man who inspired Baring Gould to create Elijah Rebow.
Mahala's father William Baker with his second wife Anne in 1890.
Information regarding the fiction heroine Mehalah and who she was based on is much more sketchy. Baring Gould does not mention her in his REMINISCENCES, but there was a real Mahala, the daughter of the local ferryman at East Mersea Stone. Mahala was born in February 1858, the second daughter of William and Hannah Baker. At that time they lived in the Ship House at East Mersea.
By the time Baring Gould arrived in 1871, Mahala was thirteen years old, and working as a domestic servant in a Custom Officer's household in Brightlingsea. Her mother Hannah died in 1868, and her father married Anne Hall in 1869. William and Anne Baker lived on an old barge, "Friends Goodwill". This was moored alongside East Mersea Stone, from where they would ferry people across the river Colne to Brightlingsea. Baring Gould knew them well and frequently took tea with them on their barge. He would have known Mahala through this connection.
In case readers are getting confused by different spellings of the name, I should point out that Mahala is the name as recorded. Baring Gould changed the spelling for the book.
During these meetings on the barge (and at other times) the second Mrs Baker, Anne, was frequently the worse for drink, and is mentioned several times in baring Gould's REMINISCENCES. One amusing incident is related thus: "We went often to Baker's boat and had tea with him. Whilst tea was brewing he would set a pail of shrimps before us, on the deck, and bid us fall to until the tea was ready in the cabin. Baker himself was a sober man, but his wife was often tipsy. When she returned late from Brightlingsea, overcome with liquor, Baker hauled up the ladder. He emptied a pail of water over her head, as she stood shouting for admittance, and left her to scold, swear and shiver till he considered her to be sufficiently sober to be admitted. I used her in my story MEHALAH."
Anne Baker is a good model for Mrs De Witt, (mother to George, Mehalah's weak-willed boyfriend) who owned the houseboat Pandora, wore a mob cap and had a drink problem. [Letter from Stephen Rice in Courier 508].
Of the real Mahala we know very little. Records show that by 1876 she was living at 7, Mersea Road, Colchester. In June of that year she married John McCart, an Irishman who was a private in the Army. The 1881 census shows them living in the barracks at Aldershot. John is still a private in the 45th Sherwood Foresters. By 1891 John McCart had left the Army. He and Mahala were living in Colchester again, this time at 9, Mersea Road. In 1893, at the age of just thirty-five, Mahala died of consumption. As far as is known there were no
children of this marriage.
A sad, premature end to the life of a young woman whose name, at the very least, was the inspiration for a powerful novel by a remarkable clergyman.
Published in the Courier 8 June 2011 Issue number 507. Letters relating to Anne Baker appeared in issues 508 and 509, used to update the article above.