A Brief History of Mersea Island

The Bronze Age, about 2500BC to 800BC, saw a rise in the population of Britain and evidence suggests there was a settlement on Mersea. Bronze age tools and pottery have been found over many years, but recently (2016-2019) parts of a Bronze Age Board Walk across the shore have been found, and a second Bronze Age barrow has been excavated. Both of these indicate a sizable local population.

Mersea during Celtic times (about 600BC to 43AD) had a fairly steady and settled population, living mainly by farming and fishing. There can still be seen on Mersea several of the famous Red Hills, which mainly exist on the Essex coast. These heaps of burnt soil, some covering wide areas, are the remains of Celtic salt workings. Also pottery was probably made in conjunction with salt panning, examples may be seen in the Colchester Museum. Many oyster shells have also been found by these sites indicating the long popularity of the Mersea Native Oyster. The Island was mainly wooded at this time and probably one of the 'hards' on the island was used for trading by water to the main land.

Mersea entered written history with the Romans who built themselves brick and stone establishments. Mosaics have been found including a large mosaic floor in the area of West Mersea Church and West Mersea Hall. Also Mersea's most famous existing Roman relic, the Barrow, which is situated beside the East Mersea Road at the north end of Dawes Lane. Originally 60 feet high and 300 feet in diameter, this mound enclosed a brick tomb with a burial casket made of lead about 2 feet square by 2 feet tall. Within the casket was a green glass bowl containing the cremated remains of an adult. This casket is now on exhibition in Mersea Museum. The lead container was welded, a technique which was not rediscovered for many years after. The Barrow is believed to have been erected in the first Century A.D. in honour of a local chieftain or important and wealthy person, this being a Celtic habit though cremation was a Roman practice.

For more information on the Barrow, see Mersea Barrow

In 61 A.D. the Iceni rebelled under Queen Boudicca, who attacked Colchester before marching on London against the Roman rule. Boudicca was eventually defeated by the Romans who reoccupied the area and rebuilt damaged Camulodunum - Colchester.

The Roman peace that existed in Britain continued until about 410 A.D. Saxon pirates were kept at bay by the building of forts such as Othona at the entrance to the Blackwater on Bradwell Point opposite Mersea. Eventually Roman influence wained and the Saxon reign took over. Meresig, the 'Island of Mere' or 'Island in a Pool'. This is the origin of the name Mersea. Other variations in Saxon times were Mersige, Mercseye, Myresigae, Meresheia, Martsey and Marza.
Britain slipped into the Dark Ages with little written history and little Christianity. A monk called Cedd was sent to convert the people back to Christianity and in 653 AD he founded one of his first churches at Othona, Bradwell, which still stands today. The nave was dedicated to St. Peter. This church is probably built on the old fort from the material of the fort. Possibly at this time the first church was built at Mersea.

In the 9th Century the Danes started taking a more active interest in East Anglia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that in 880 they had made a settlement in East Anglia and moved right across the country as far as Wales before retreating back. At this point they did encamp at Mersea prior to taking their ships up the Thames. The Church at West Mersea possibly suffered at the hands of the Danes in 894. Then possibly restored by the Aelfar family before being left in the Will of Queen Aethelflaed, wife of Kind Edmund, to her sister in 950. The bequest included the Benedictine Priory situated close by the Church.

The moated area of East Mersea Church and Hall is believed to have enclosed a Danish encampment. In 917 the English recaptured Colchester and Kind Edward. However, at the Battle of Maldon in 991 the English were defeated and eventually in 1003 a full scale invasion pushed the Saxon dynasty from the throne.

In 1046 Edward the Confessor granted West Mersea including Pete Tye and part of Fingringhoe to the Abbey of St. Ouen in France, in commemoration of the news of his succession to the throne whilst staying in Normandy. The boundary between West and East Mersea was probably the same as it is now with the Deremy Stone recently re-erected being, some say, the original boundary stone marking King Edward's grant.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 probably had little effect on the people of West Mersea the land already under the rule of Norman House of St. Ouen who was also Lord of the Manor. William 1 compiled the Doomsday Book in 1086 in which West Mersea appears as being owned by the Abbey of St. Ouen with 20 hides (approx. 2400 acres). The records yield numerous interesting facts including the cash value of the Church as £6 13s 4d.

In the mediaeval period there was again much warring but lives of ordinary people seem remote from these military activities. The Court Rolls of the Manor of East Mersea, which still exist, indicate the normal every day local matters, poaching, damage to hedges, non-payment of tithes and disputes. However, records for West Mersea were destroyed in the Great Peasant's Uprising. The Priory still held Manor at West Mersea, the first recorded Prior being Ralph in about 1232, with only two monks. The Black Death of 1349 greatly reduced the population and caused the land to fall into decay with shortage of labour, high prices, wages and taxes finally leading to the Great Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Alien Priories, such as Mersea with its French connection, were dissolved in about 1415. During this period we find the names of Mersea Houses Reeves Hall in 1254, Bower Hall in 1264, Barrow and Weir Farms in 1319, Bocking Hall in 1327, Fen and Bromans Farms in 1332, North Farm in 1412 and Waldegraves in 1450. Though some were known to have existed in Norman times such as Bower, Bocking and Reeves Halls.

Henry VIII dissolved all religious houses and in 1542 West Mersea Priory together with the Church passed to a Robert D'Acres and the appointment of the Vicar remained in lay hands until 1926 when the patron resigned it to the Bishop of Chelmsford.

As the Manorial System passed away the Secular and administrative power of the Parish was born. Under Queen Elizabeth's Poor Relief Act a small workhouse was built in Waldegrave Lane. Also in the Tudor documents mention is found of The Strood Lands Charity, believed to have been founded in 1460, which consisted of a document of 81 acres of land in the Waldegraves Area, rents of which were used to upkeep both the Strood and West Mersea Church. The charity was used for its original purpose until quite recently.

The Civil War between Royalists and Parliamentarians affected Mersea in 1648 when the Royalists marched into Colchester and fortified a blockhouse at East Mersea to control the supply of food up the Colne River. However the Parliamentary Army arrived soon after and besieged Colchester, also taking the East Mersea fort, which was put in charge of an office and party manning a gun. Much damage was done to Colchester by the Commonwealth guns, and after 76 days the town surrendered - starved out. Seven years later the East Mersea fort was abandoned. Only some of the earthworks are to be seen these days.

In the reign of Charles II a thousand men encamped on Mersea against a threatened Dutch invasion which never happened.

During the 16th and 17th Centuries many Dutch and French settled in Mersea and their anglicised names remain today. Many tales of smuggling during the 18th century abound as Mersea Island was fairly remote. However, the local Coastguard stationed at West Mersea together with modern communications reduced much of the smuggling in the 1850's.

In 1871 the West Mersea School was built in Barfield Road. Many of the original buildings are still there today and some are still used for classrooms. There has been considerable development in recent years. Since 1960 secondary pupils have had to leave the island, leaving Mersea Island School as a thriving primary school with about 420 pupils.

Mersea's first policeman arrived in November 1844 (pop. approx. 900) and the Police houses and station came with the much increased population in 1952 of some 3010. In 1884 there was a very serious earthquake centred in Langenhoe causing much damage over a wide area. Coal and other heavy goods were still brought to Mersea by boat and barge after the First World War. There were also carriers to and from Colchester. Before WW1 it was planned to have a railway on to the Island with a pier. East Road was then Station Road. During this period many fine houses were erected with locally made bricks in a factory off Kingsland Road. In 1911 the population was 1600 and by 1912 it was 1908, by which time Mersea was becoming a popular holiday resort, though main sewerage drainage was not put in until 1924. Mains water came in 1925 with a 230 feet bore hole under the water tower in Upland Road. Prior to this the main water supply was from St. Peter's Well on Coast Road which has never been known to fail in providing the Island's water. Today the site of the well is marked with a plaque and wood surround and is situated below the old Coastguards post, now a sitting area, on Coast Road, to the West of the Church.

The Second World War saw many defences erected on the Island with an active Civil Defence and many evacuees including children. A few stray bombs but no casualties amoung the civilian population. An extremely severe winter in 1947 destroyed most of the Oysters and it took many years to rebuild the stock. Mersea began to prosper again in the fifties. In 1951 the population was 3004. Mersea suffered severe flooding in 1953, along with many other East Coast seaside villages and towns, the water being some 6 or 7 feet deep at the Strood. Many craft, houseboats and houses at the West end of the Island were severely damaged. By 1961 the population was 3140 and then great development took place with the population reaching 4148 in 1971.

The population recorded for West Mersea in the 2011 Census was 7,183. and the population of East Mersea was 266.

The Parish Church is probably the most interesting building in West Mersea and it has been seen to feature throughout this brief history of the Island. It is believed that the first church was built on Roman foundations in the late 7th or early 8th Century. It was rebuilt in the mid 10th Century and the base of the present tower probably dates from this building. The Chancel and Nave were possibly rebuilt in 14th Century with the South Aisle even later. The structure visible today is made up of ragstone, septaria, Roman and later brick with limestone dressing, brick and Roman tile. The external facing is roughly coursed with some herring-bone areas. Whilst from the architectural side the style is a mixture of perpendicular and decorated with more modern additions.

The history above is based on an article written by Elsie M Karbacz some time ago.
For a more detailed history of Mersea, Elsie Karbacz's book A Short History of Mersea is available from the Museum - see Publications

Read more: Mersea Barrow