|Abstract||Tollesbury is a large compact village, situated on rising ground,
and joins on the west to the villages of Tolleshunt D'Arcy, Tolleshunt
Knights, Goldhanger and Salcott cum Virley, in the County of Essex. It is
bounded on the sout, east and north-east sides by marshlands and saltings.
The River Blackwater runs on the south to the sea, and Tollesbury Fleets,
creeks, etc., partially encircle the parish on the east and north-east
extremities. Its name is derived from the words "Toll" - toll or custom,
and "Burgh" or "Bury" a town, for unquestionably in ancient days it was the
place where tolls or customs were paid by ships entering the River Blackwater.
The village is mentioned in Domesday Book and is referred to as "Tolesberie".
For centuries past the livelihood of the villagers was dependent on
the fishing and agricultural industries. Prior to 1904 no other industry
was available to the men, but at that time the light railway was established
and further extended across the marshes to the River Blackwater, where a
wooden pier ¼ mile in length was built by the Great Eastern Railway jutting
out into the River (the railway and pier were axed in 1954).
At the turn of the century there were close on 100 fishing smacks
operating on the River and off the East Coast. Some of the larger smacks
ventured further to the coasts of Brittany for scallops and to the North Kent
coast for "five-fingers" or starfish largely used for manuring the land.
As can well be imagined the work in the olden days was hard and long, both
on the sea and land, and there was scant reward for their labours. As
travel was difficult in those far off days, and there was very little money
in circulation, the villagers had to provide their own recreation and pleasure
and the focal point of this would have been the village "Green" in the
centre of the village, dominated and overlooked by St. Mary's Church which
dates from the early 11th century and embodies traces of Roman and Saxon
origin. At one time there were at least six taverns in the village, two
on the "Green", and it would appear that at times there was some riotous
and rowdy behaviour, for in the shadow of the church, stands the weather-boarded village lock-up which dates from the 17th century. In the Church
can be seen the font bought forr £5 in 1718 being the fine levied on a man
for disturbing divine service. The font bears the inscription - "Good
people all I pray take Care, That in ye Church you doe not sware as this man
did." These tow existing monuments serve as reminders of the incidents
which occurred in the past, possibly as a sequel to some village festivity.
The origin of the Gooseberry Pie Fair is shrouded in the mists of time,
but like so many other feasts and festivities it undoubtedly had
a religious significance and connexion for according to Morant's "History of
Essex" (A.D. 1772) reference is made to "Tollesbury Gooseberrie Pie Fayre"
being held on Saint Peter's Day (29th June - Patron Saint of Fishermen),
whereas the traditional established Fair in the adjoining village of
Tolleshunt D'Arcy was held on the feast of St. Barnabas 11th June. Accordingly
it is only logical to assume that the "Fair" in its circuit of the countryside would move on to the nearest village, hence it is quite feasible that the "Fair" reached Tollesbury in time for the Gooseberry Pie festivities, and would
pitch its stalls and booths on the village "Green", alas no longer "green"
but tar macadam and more popularly referred to as "The Square". In the
mid nineteenth century the "Fair" was banned from the "Green" for the
disturbances it caused, and since that time has been held in various fields
and open spaces close to the village proper.
As previously stated, prior to 1902, transport facilities were very
poor, and a good deal of the bulkier everyday requirements, coals,
building materials, beer, etc., had to come in by sea routes, and in turn
agricultural produce including livestock would be sent away from the landing
places at Woodrolfe or Mell in the unladed sailing craft. The principal
cargo carriers were the tradiitional sailing barges of that era, and small
collier brigs known as "Billy Boys" which brought in the Tyne coals and
pots, pans and dishes from Sunderland. The Sunderland earthenware pans
figured largely in the village cooking, and were used for baking the
celebrated gooseberry pies. Up to a short time ago one such pan existed
and was repeatedly used for baking a monster pie comprised of some 2 ½pecks
of gooseberries. At other times of the year these large pans were used
for pickling hams in brown sugar and vinegar, and the pan mentioned could
hold tow large sized hams, side by side (see photo).
Much rivalry existed amongst the villagers to see who could bake the best
and biggest gooseberry pie. The pans were too large for the
cottage ovens so recourse had to be made to the local bakehouses ovens
(there were three bakeries at one time), and it is said that it was quite
a sight to see these pies being trundled in handcarts
and barrows to the bakeries where they would be put in the ovens and left
overnight. The next day the pies would be baked a golden brown, nad
when the crust was broken revealed the succelent blood red gooseberries.
Towards the end of the 19th century the custom of having the
gooseberry pie festivities in public diminished, for a good proportion of
the fishermen had to go further afield for work. There was a boom in
yachting at that time and up to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.
Tollesbury men could be found on most of the large racing yachts as their
sailing skills gained in the torturous labyrinths of the Maplin and Gunfleet
sands off the East coast stood them in good stead. The men found the
summer employment lucrative and enjoyable. Not only did the receive a
comparatively good wage, but were also fitted out with yachting uniform,
oilskins etc., which they retained at the end of the season, and
also stood a good chance of gaining a portion of the
prize money awarded for winning races for their wealthy yacht owners and
employers. Some of the most favoured even received a retainer wage
throughout the winter months from their owner employers on the understanding
that they crewed again the following season. these were prosperous
days for the village, business was good all round, and in the autumn many
of the large yachts came back to the Woodrolfe creek where they were
berthed for the winter. Tollesbury men travelled far and wide in those
days, many were employed in Continental yachts, some in the U.S.A.,and
there were even some of the men serving with the german Emperor, Kaiser
Wilhelm, on the outbreak of the Great War, and by good grace they were
allowed to return home, although wages were due to them and never paid.
It is generally known that men from these parts crewed in most America Cup
contenders over the years, and although unsuccessful in lifting the
America Cup are proud of the fact that no less than two were Sailing masters of the Shamrocks and Endeavour in successive attempts, also hat one man was
Sailing master of H.M. George V racing yacht "Britannia" in her most
successful season or racing. The late King of Spain always had a
Tollesbury man and crew for his racing yacht "Hispania".
So far as can be ascertained, it was possibly due to the absence of the
men in the village during the summer months which caused the lapse
of the gooseberry pie festivities. Gooseberry pies were still made at
the appointed time, but there was no jollification as such. One writer
referred to Tollesbury during the summer months as an "Adamless Eden",
a somewhat backhanded compliment to the ladies.
However, in 1936 a local Sailing Club was formed, and it was unique
inasmuch as it was at that time entirely composed of professional fishermen
and yachtsmen. At the end of the last War, the Tollesbury Sailing Club
decided to revive the festival of Gooseberry Pie, and the Club was
fortunate in being able to obtain one of the original Sunderland pie
dishes (see photo) and bake a monster pie for the occasion. Other
Sailing Clubs in the locality were invited to take part in the celebrations
and now it is the customfor the neighbouring Sailing Clubs to race their
craft to Tollesbury Creek (Woodrolfe) and take part in the festival of
dancing and pie eating.
Unfortunately in recent years it has not been possible to hold the
Gooseberry Pie festival on the appropriate date, 29th June. The
traditional fair no longer visits the vilage, except spasmodically, and
other events, times and tides have to be taken into consideration in
order that neighbouring Sailing Clubs may participate. The Tollesbury
Gooseberry Pie Festival will take place this year on Saturday
6th July, 1968.
For further information regarding these parts, the following
literary works are respectfully referred :-
"Mehalah" by the Rev. Sabine Baring Gould (Rector of East Mersea)
"Modern Fowler"; "Harvest Adventure" by J. Wentworth Day
"The Oaken Heart" by Margery Allingham
"Last Stronghold of Sail"; "Down Topsail" by Hervey Benham
1. St. Mary's Church, Tollesbury
2. The "Square" and environs thereof
3. Woodrolfe Creek looking towards Mersea Island
4. Woodrolfe Creek looking towards the Hard
5. The shipyard more than 50 years ago - winter-time.
7. Gooseberry Pie in Sunderland dish outside Sailing Club 1950
8. Cutting the Gooseberry Pie year 1950.
[ We do not have all these photographs ]