|ABBERTON RESERVOIR - what was there before?
Abberton Reservoir was constructed between 1936 and 1939 on the course of the Layer Brook. The valley between the four hills on which Peldon, Abberton, Layer and Great Wigborough Churches stand was predominantly farmland and few homes were affected. However, prior to the construction of the reservoir, several buildings were demolished, and 1,210 acres and two copses, including Butlers Grove, submerged. The Act of Parliament in 1935, passed to allow the building of the reservoir, gave permission for the water company, at the time called the South Essex Waterworks Company, to buy 3,000 acres in all.
Over the years, Essex and Suffolk Water, now part of Northumbrian Water, has produced several booklets about the reservoir's history, covering its construction, its importance as a nature reserve and what happened there during WW2. Details of further reading are given below. But what of the land, buildings and the people who lived and worked where now millions of gallons of water stand?
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Prior to the reservoir, the land in the valley, according to the ordnance survey map of 1898, was
liable to flooding especially around Layer Brook. The two following photographs of the valley were taken before work started and belong to an album kept by Essex and Suffolk Water in their Layer Treatment Works.
Lodge Lane, which extended from Peldon across the brook to the Layer Road, was a through road and a short cut from the village to Colchester. Where it crossed Layer Brook, a ford is marked on the 1895 Ordnance Survey map and is pictured on this postcard from around 1910; the photograph also shows farm buildings, probably Butler's Farm, which was demolished to make way for the reservoir. The ford appears as early as 1777 on the Chapman and Andre map of Peldon named as ' Peldon Hole'.
Postcard showing Peldon Hole c 1910 looking south towards Peldon with Butlers Farm buildings visible
There were two other roads which still exist, those that cross the reservoir dividing it into three parts, the Layer Breton Causeway and the causeway by the Abberton Reservoir Visitors' Centre known as the Burnt Downs causeway. Both roads were moved in the construction of the reservoir, and in the case of Burnt Downs - a second time - in the recent expansion of 2015. The two bridges which carried these roads were finished by May 1939. Otherwise there were just tracks and footpaths through the area. It did mean that villagers that had once been fairly close neighbours were separated by the water and a main route into Colchester from Peldon was closed.
The water company's brochure, Abberton Reservoir expansion project the story so far, written in 2003/4 reveals
Horse races were held on the site, with the Essex and Suffolk Hunt holding an annual event and the army holding the annual Enniskillen race.
This is borne out by an entry in the Cavalry Journal Vol VIII Jan - Oct 1913 which reports that the 20th Hussars held races at Layer de la Haye in 1913. The 20th Hussars was a cavalry regiment stationed in Colchester from 1911 until the start of WW1 in 1914.
On that occasion the results of the races were as follows!
Charger Race: Mr Barnes's Lady Madcap (owner)
Heavyweight Race: Mr Silvertop's Kellar (owner)
Soldier's Race: Captain Irvine's Glencarn (owner)
Regimental Challenge Cup: Mr Darling's Joan of Arc (owner).
These point to point races were still going on in the mid to late 1930s according to the late Charles Ryecroft who was a medical student living in Essex then.
Layer de la Haye historian, John Morse, tells me the races set off just beyond Layer Church and the riders rode from church to church, Layer, Abberton, Peldon and Wigborough.
John has a programme for the races in 1923 entitled
Colchester Garrison Point-to-Point Steeplechases
To be held at Layer-de-la-haye
Thursday MARCH 15, 1923
The course is described as
Course about 3 ½ miles of fair hunting country
and the land
Kindly lent by Miss Colthurst, Mr Lennox, Mr Bunting and the Berechurch Hall Syndicate Association
The rules state that for the two principal Garrison Stakes the horses had to be
Bona fide property of, or Government chargers allotted to, Officers of the Colchester Garrison, that have been regularly and fairly hunted with the East Essex or Essex and Suffolk Hounds during the present season. To be ridden in hunting costume by Officers of the Colchester Garrison.
One of the judges was Charles J Round of Birch Hall, one-time President of the East Essex Hunt and Chairman of The Colchester Horse Show
a prominent figure in the hunting field Round of Birch Hall by T B Millatt
The first newspaper coverage of the proposed reservoir was at the end of 1934.
To read all the words transcribed, click GAZ_1934_DEC12_001
For a larger version, click GAZ_1934_DEC12_101
In this article of December 1934 the right hand picture is Billets Farm which was compulsorily purchased although apparently uninhabited at the time. The left-hand picture is of Butler's Farm where Layer Brook crossed Lodge Lane.
Butlers Farm, on Lodge Lane in Peldon, was one of the farms completely submerged by the reservoir. In 1877 it was one of five lots auctioned
as part of the estate of the late Thomas Graham White. Described as a neat substantially-built Farmhouse made of brick and tile it extended to 168 acres. By the time it was demolished ready for submersion, it had been farmed for over thirty years by the Thomson family who arrived in Peldon between 1897 and 1899 and was their family home. There were also a couple of cottages called Butlers Farm Cottages.
The Thomsons moved down to the village as part of a wave of migration of farming families from Scotland. A combination of factors made moving the family farming business from Kilmarnock to Essex attractive. The largely arable county of Essex was experiencing an agricultural depression and there was a quick turnover of tenants, some farms were unlet and rents were correspondingly low.
The county had suffered a series of droughts at the end of the nineteenth century and increased imports from abroad reduced prices for corn. Many Essex farm workers were moving towards the towns for work and there was a constant exodus abroad, particularly to Canada, in search of a better life. In Kilmarnock, however, there was keen competition for dairy farms, and it was said that there were more farmers than farms available. Between the late 1870s and the turn of the century large numbers of Scottish farmers moved to Essex, lock stock and barrel, some famously hiring a whole train to transport livestock - most particularly Ayrshire cattle - and equipment.
Head of the Butler's Farm household was James Thomson. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had four daughters and two sons, all except the youngest son, David, were born in Scotland. David was born in Peldon in November 1899.
The Thomsons were to live and farm in Butlers Farm until the building of Abberton reservoir. They owned some of the land but rented the farm from a landlord, farmer Percy Golding, whose family occupied Peldon Lodge in Lodge Lane.
The Thomsons' elder son, James, died in WW1 and is commemorated on a marble plaque in St Mary's Church, Peldon. At 19, in the 1911 census for Peldon, he was assisting his father by working on the farm.
An economic advantage for these Scottish farmers was the fact that all the family would work alongside their labourers. Sons worked on the farm driving tractors, hedging and ditching, tending livestock and driving them to market. Wives and daughters helped with the milking, James's daughter Mabel is listed as assisting with the poultry in the 1911 census. With the whole family working on the farm and by turning much of the arable land over to pasture for their cattle, these Scottish farmers had the added economic benefit that they didn't need to employ as many labourers.
Elizabeth Thomson died in March 1936 and from her brief obituary in the Essex County Standard it is clear that her son, David, had taken over the running of the farm from his elderly father; it seems, at that point, the family were still on the farm. Elizabeth's widower was to die the following year at 85 and, the same year, son David married Abberton-born Hilda Hayhoe. They are subsequently found in the 1939 register, farming Knights Farm in Tendring by which time their home in Peldon was demolished and submerged.
There had been a building called Butlers Farm on this site for centuries; situated in what is now the middle of the reservoir, to the east of today's pumping station. In Reaney's book of The Place Names of Essex the earliest reference to a building there was from a document of 1341, linked to the family of Geoffrey Boteller. The farm was on the same track as another ancient house, Layer House, and adjacent to a copse known as Butlers Grove.
An interview with Harry 'Tucker' Cross for the Mersea Lions Talking Magazine, reveals Tucker's memories of working on Butler's Farm.
Born in Tendring he came to Langenhoe in 1911. He remembered going down Lodge Lane, Peldon, with Lodge Farm on the left and Lanhams on the right.
The road went right through to the top of Bounstead Brook. He worked on Butlers Farm which he called Buttles Farm; three men worked on the farm and
there were 162 acres. His two daughters did the milking (he also had a son). In the 1930s they would drive horses and cattle to market and worked
54 - 56 hours a week for 25 shillings. When the submersion was proposed he received a letter to say they would be employed on the reservoir but
there was no living accommodation with the job. Seeking work elsewhere, he went to Surrey where, for five years, he thatched, ploughed and milked.
He clearly came back to this area and in 1984 was living in Easthorpe which was when he was interviewed. From Lions Talking Magazine No. 70.
Dennis Chatters interviewing Harry 'Tucker' Cross ID: LN007002_001 .
Another Peldon resident, Eldred Ward, having lived in Peldon for over 40 years at his death in 1940, aged 79, was employed for a long period by
James Thomson. When the farm was marked for submersion in the scheme for the new reservoir, which is nearing completion, he entered the employ of
Mr F J Smith of West Mersea. Essex County Standard 10 Feb 1940
Eldred's step-daughter, Ruby Theobald née Swallow, who was born in 1921 [interviewed in 2018] remembers when, as a child, there was a knock at the door and the family were told of the reservoir plans and given notice to leave their cottage at Butlers Farm. The family were to move into one of ten cottages on the Mersea Road, Peldon known as Barnards Cottages, where they appear in the 1939 register, by which time Eldred, at the age of 78 was described as a jobbing gardener.
Elsie K.E. Miller used to tell that she was born only five years after the famous earthquake of 1884, in a farm which no longer exists. Butler's
Farm was down at the bottom of Lodge Lane, and in that area later taken in by the Abberton Reservoir. Peldon and Wigborough Parish News
Lodge Lane, with a finger post saying THROUGH ROAD, led north from Peldon to the Layer Road between Abberton and Layer de la Haye. It was marked in the reservoir plans 'ROAD TO BE STOPPED UP'. The far end of the lane, now part of Layer, was originally part of the parish of Peldon and a dwelling there called The Cottage or Abberton Cottage appears in several Peldon Censuses.
Layer House, was another home demolished to make way for the reservoir and also part of the late Thomas White's estate sold at auction in 1877.
Described as a spacious and most substantially built farm homestead, by 1877 the old farmhouse had been divided into three cottages for farm
labourers. Built of Brick and Plaster and contain[ing] nine rooms with brewhouse (brick and tile) Poultry House and Garden it had 216 acres of land. It was situated in front of the dam off the same track as Butlers Farm that ran from the west end of the dam to Lodge Lane, Peldon, Layer House is marked on the Chapman and Andre map of 1777. In Reaney's The Place Names of Essex the earliest reference to the name Layer House is 1438 in the church minister's accounts.
The owner of Layer House in the 1930s was Daniel Abbott Green. Born in 1861 to a farming family he was brought up in Donyland Place where in the 1871 census his father is farming 470 acres and employing 22 men and 11 boys. By 1881 Daniel is described as a farmer's son, no doubt working on the farm in Donyland for his father. Donyland Place, probably a nineteenth century building, was bought by the War Office 1898/9 and demolished to allow the rifle range to be extended and in later censuses (1901 and 1911) we see Daniel's father and mother living in 'St Andrews', Fingringhoe.
In the 1891 census Daniel is living with a servant in Badcocks Farm, Abberton - another farm that was to be demolished for the reservoir in the 1930s. In the 1901 and 1911 censuses he is living in Fingringhoe Hall with his wife, Anna Maria, whom he married in 1892. They were to have five daughters and 2 sons although one son, also named Daniel Abbott Green, died in WW1. According to Ted Sparrow's research into the family
By 1900 [the Green family] were farming a large area of land between Layer Road and Fingringhoe Road but much of this land was commandeered by the
War Office for WW1. Two very costly High Court cases against the War Office were unsuccessful. In 1915 Fingringhoe Hall and the adjacent land was
sold to others & the family moved to East Donyland Hall where the family lived until the death of Mr Abbott Green senior in 1943 ... [Daniel] was a breeder of the Suffolk Punch horses, [he] also had a renowned herd of shorthorn cattle, which won many prizes at the Royal Show & Essex Show.
The 1939 register confirms Daniel was living in Donyland Hall. He died there in 1943.
Returning to Layer House, in Andrew Thompson's booklet of 1996 Aspects of Abberton Reservoir, he writes
The deep water in front of the main dam now covers the site of Layer house where the grandfather of a friend of mine worked for many years. After its demolition the timber from Layer House was used to repair several houses in the village.
Layer House (photo by Percy Cansdale who recalled 'Dankey' Green was the farmer there).
John Morse of Layer de La Haye tells me that some of the timbers were used to build The Nightingales on Nightingale Corner opposite the Donkey and Buskins in Layer which was erroneously (and temporarily) Grade II listed because of the age of the timbers that had come from Layer House!
The Chapman and Andre map of 1777 showing Layer House and Peldon Hole in the top left hand corner.
Billetts Barn The name first appears in 1588 in Land Revenue books. Two centuries later, mentioned in the will of Peldon's Lord of the Manor, Charles Reynolds, in 1770, Billetts Barn was left, to his grandson, William Powell, D.D., Master of St. John's College, Cambridge, and Archdeacon of Colchester.
It was situated at the entrance to Wigborough Bay, on a track that ran from the B1026 near the beginning of the current causeway.
The barn was, at the time of the construction of the reservoir, owned by the Hon Stella Maxwell and listed as 'occupied' by herself, her sister, The Hon Zoe Maxwell and Peggy de Bowen Colthurst.
Not mentioned in information from the water company was Billets Farm which is now situated close to the Layer causeway on the B 1076 and owned by the water company. The existing farm building was erected in the 1960s.
In 1933, the farmer of Billetts Farm was the Honourable Stella Maxwell. In the Colchester Gazette article of 12th December 1934 the caption with the photograph of the farmhouse reads
The other farm which will be submerged, Billetts, now unoccupied owing to lack of water. It never rains but it pours!
Billets farm was originally at the site of Billets Barn which was flooded by the reservoir. The farm house was moved closer to the road. The current
Farm house & buildings are a bit younger than the reservoir circa 1960. Jim Jenkins by Email
Upon the compulsory purchase of Billets Farm the owners, the Maxwell sisters, then had a house built in the Folley, Layer-de-la-Haye, which they
called Little Billetts. This house was then bought by a family called Ralph, who retained the house name. However, another family then bought it,
about 20 years ago, and they changed the name. Tim Oxton by Email
Badcocks Farm. The name first appeared in Early Chancery Proceedings between 1449 and 1452 and Reaney suggests the name was linked to the family of Richard Badcock. Lot 2 in the auction of 1877 it was described as well-built of Brick and Slate. The farm buildings surrounded three farmyards and there was also a cottage known as The Cottage which still stands on, what was, the other end of Lodge Lane.
In the 1930s Badcocks Farm was farmed by William and Isabella Cock who then bought The Nook at West Mersea, probably using some of the compensation they received from the water company. William and Isabella had already left Badcocks by 1936 for they appear in the West Mersea electoral register of that year. William was from a Mersea farming family having been brought up in Weathercocks Farm, Dawes Lane, West Mersea and by the 1939 register, living at The Nook, is, at the age of 65, described as a retired farmer.
Their son, Charles Methuen Cock moved to a farm in Fingringhoe. In 1939 he is at Pickets Farm in Fingringhoe with his wife, Dorothy, and described
as a poultry farmer and heavy worker. He was to move to Holmwood Farm, Fingringhoe.
Holmwood, dating back to the sixteenth century and Grade II listed, is still operating as a working farm and has been farmed by the Cock family for
over 50 years. They came to Fingringhoe after their Abberton Farm was taken over as part of the then new Reservoir, firstly to Picketts and then to
Holmwood in an exchange with Mr 'Buller' Green in 1945. Fingringhoe Past and Present published 1998
['Buller' Green was the son of Daniel Green of Layer House].
Badcocks Farm and lake
Situated along the Layer Road, ¼ of a mile North West of Abberton Church, Badcocks Farm was demolished and replaced by Broad Meadows House. The man in charge of the reservoir construction, Stanley Allderidge, lived in Broad Meadows House as a perk of the job. A little wooden hut village was set up as temporary accommodation for the reservoir construction workers at Badcocks Farm. Many were to stay in the area afterwards.
It was in 1936 when work commenced with Mr Stanley Allderidge the Engineer in Charge. He had just finished building a Reservoir in Burnhope, Co.
Durham. The first thing he did was to build a row of wooden bungalows for the workers and families that he had brought from Durham to help him with
the building of the Reservoir. There were many other workers needed beside local labour and they came from many parts of the country. The many empty
houses in the district were soon rented out. Gerald Curtis unpublished memoirs
Children playing in front of the wooden huts at Badcocks Farm
Broad Meadows House was later sold to a Mr and Mrs Hazel. In the late 1980s Mr Hazel died and his widow was happy to sell the house back to the water company who had realised the land would be needed when the reservoir was expanded. In the 1990's Broad Meadows House was sold back to the water company and subsequently demolished.
Last harvest at Badcocks Farm 1935
Lower Barn also was owned by William Cock of Badcocks Farm and situated at the end of a hawthorn-lined track from St Andrews Church, Abberton.
Until the recent expansion of the reservoir, the old track used to lead down to a 'water meadow'. This was level with the reservoir concrete edging and access road and leased by the water company to a local farmer to graze sheep. The track is now cut short with viewing places for bird watchers set some way back from the water's edge. The barn clearly had offered living accommodation and had been occupied; certainly in the census of 1861 it was inhabited by a ploughman and his wife.
The hawthorn-lined farm track which led to Lower Barn.
At the Layer Breton causeway, five cottages, Brook Cottages, were demolished. Brook Farm was situated where the Layer Breton Causeway passes close to Layer Breton Hall and took its name from the adjacent Layer Brook. Presumably belonging to the owner of Layer Breton Hall the cottages seem to have been known as either 'Brook Cottages' or 'Layer Breton Hall Cottages'. They were certainly known as Brook Cottages in the 1901 census.
Bertram and Mrs Smith started married life in Layer Breton Hall Cottages which now lie under the reservoir. The foundations of their cottage were
visible when the drought reduced the level of the reservoir a few years ago Peldon and Wigboroughs Parish News November 1980
View from Layer Breton Causeway in 1997 when the reservoir was only 32% full due to drought and there was a hosepipe ban. The old road can be clearly seen.
At the time of the demolition of Brook Cottages, one of the well-established Birch families called Goody lived there.
Also demolished were some small farm buildings situated in the middle of the reservoir to the west of the pumping station, on a track that was the continuation of Fields Farm Road, Malting Green.
Land and landowners
In Abberton and Langenhoe In Pictures by Peter Wormell, he writes that the water company paid £30 an acre for the 3,000 acres when land prices were £15 - £20 per acre.
In an interview for the Lions Talking Magazine No 72 March 1984 ID LN007201_002 the interviewee, Ken Ham, who farmed
Seaborough Farm, Great Wigborough is asked if farmers resented losing their land. He says in fact it was a godsend and manna from heaven
because of the poor state farming was in. He talks of there being no arable farming going on in Wigborough at the end of the 1930s and down in the Layer Brook Valley much of the land had gone to bushes and brambles. The purchase of farmers' land, he agrees with the interviewer, probably saved some of them from bankruptcy.
The Ham family farmed at Seaborough Farm from 1932 - 1958
Some of those local farmers who were to be most affected by the compulsory purchase of land can be found listed in the Kelly's Trade Directories of the 1930s.
In the Directory of 1933, for Layer de la Haye, Peggy Bowen [Colthurst] is named as a farmer of Hill Farm and Field Farm, the Honourable Zoe Maxwell, Blind Knights, and the Honourable Stella Maxwell, Billets Farm.
Stanley Fairhead had The Rows, where later the wildlife reserve would be built.
Robert Hutton Lennox was the farmer at Wick Farm, by Layer Church; his descendants still run the farm and farm shop. He was also listed as the farmer at Aldenham Oak Farm, sometimes referred to as Burnt Downs Farm which was on the B1076 near the causeway and is no longer there.
Rye Farm, owned and farmed by Sidney Bunting, is now farmed by his grandson, Peter, whose wife, runs a B&B there. Peter is the third generation of the Bunting family to have lived and worked there, his grandfather having purchased the farm in 1921 - nearly 100 years ago. The farm was compulsorily purchased in the 1930s to build Abberton Reservoir and subsequently the family became tenants of Essex & Suffolk Water. With the recent expansion of the Reservoir, Rye Farm has been reduced in size but Peter still grows some cereals and grazes a few livestock.
Also affected were Robert and son Andrew Faulds, arable and dairy farmers at Layer Hall. Originally from Dumbartonshire, Robert had moved his family down to Hadleigh in Suffolk before making Layer their home.
Charles James Round, a member of the Round family of Birch Hall is also listed as a landowner affected by the reservoir. He owned huge amounts of land locally, was Lord of The Manor of Layer de La Haye, which covered the Birch Hall Estate, and was also the principal landowner on East and West Mersea.
The War Office, now the Ministry of Defence, owned some of the land.
In the 1939 register Kenneth Juby Ham at Seaborough Farm, Wigborough is listed in 1939 as a working farmer and grazier and Frank Waldron Aldred is listed in Kelly's Directory of 1937 and the 1939 register as a farmer at Moulshams on Wigborough Hill. They both lost land to the reservoir and in The Lions' interview already quoted Ken told of how he first knew of the scheme. He heard voices in his meadow on a dark November evening and, challenging the four men there, was told they were surveying with a view to building the reservoir.
Paul Henry Oliver a farmer, auctioneer, estate agent and area and district Livestock Controller (in the 1939 register) from The Hall at Melford owned further land tenanted by Mortimer Thomas Medcalf, a farmer from Saffron Walden who may have just managed the land at a distance.
Peggy Greer née Bowen-Colthurst
Peggy Bowen - or to give her full name Peggy de Billinghurst Freda Bowen-Colthurst - owned Fields Farm, Hill Farm and Brickwall Farm in Layer de la
Haye. She had a partnership with the two Maxwell sisters, who lived at Blind Knights in Layer and also owned Billett's Farm. This partnership, we
are told in Colin Ridgewell's book, farmed these farms as one unit. Peggy came from Anglo-Irish nobility and was born in Ireland. She studied at St
Hugh's College Oxford where she gained a first class degree in geology in 1906 and we know she was dairy farming in Ireland at the family home of
Oakgrove, part of the Dripsey Castle Estate in 1919. During the years of the First World War she had run a Governmental training centre for Land
Girls there Colin Ridgewell
Peggy's brother, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, a British officer, was arrested following the 1916 Easter Rising and his shooting of two pro-British
newspaper editors and a noted pacifist and women's rights campaigner, Francis Sheehy Skeffington. Bowen was court-martialled in 1916 and was
found Guilty but Insane. He was sent to Broadmoor officially for indefinite confinement but by early 1918 he was released to a private asylum in Surrey after lobbying by influential family friends. Within a year he was released on condition he didn't return to Ireland. After a preparatory visit to Vancouver Island in May 1919 he returned to his wife and children in March 1920 when the family made preparations to make a final emigration to Canada.
As one would expect, following the Easter Rising, the Bowen-Colthurst family was boycotted and there was one incident reported in the newspapers in August 1919 where carts, carrying milk churns to the creamery of Peggy Bowen-Colthurst were overturned, the churns destroyed and the three drivers bound, gagged and left by the roadside by a group of young men, some masked. In May 1920 the Bowen-Colthursts were being threatened and police were placed on constant patrol around their home Oakgrove to protect the family. By June that year it seems the family had decided to leave, for the house was vacated, and the cattle and the caretaker removed from the farm. The house was set fire to in 1920, part of a wave of attacks on 'Big Houses' by supporters of independence for Ireland but also probably as a result of the ill-will directed against the family. Peggy's widowed mother died in 1921 and the estate was sold in 1922 after Ireland gained independence. According to John Morse, Peggy, her sister, Mary, and her widowed sister-in-law, Winifred Bowen-Colthurst, and her children moved to Layer circa 1920. Peggy was listed in the Kelly's Directory of 1922 as farmer of both Field and Hill Farm. Did Peggy bring her beloved Kerry cows over with her?
Colin Ridgewell who worked as Peggy's farm manager from 1959 - 1965 wrote in his book Looking Better, Looking Back of finding documents and newspaper clippings in an old barn which revealed the history of Captain John Bowen-Colthurst and the family's leaving Ireland.
It seemed that Peggy came of Irish stock, even if it was 'Cromwell's Irish', and her family owned a large estate in Co Cork, with several tenant farmers. Some said she left Ireland and came to Essex, and with two other Irish sisters, bought several adjoining farms in the early 1920s when land was very cheap. Others said she (or they), were driven out of Ireland by Sinn Fein. The land they bought totalled 600 acres, 200 of which were arable. They set up a kind of agricultural training school for young ladies who wished to make a career in gardening. By 1926 it was flourishing and continued to do so for a few years until the bulk of the land was bought under a compulsory purchase order to make a reservoir. £45 per acre was said to have been the compensation price paid to the partners, which was vastly more than orthodox farming could have provided at that time. Within a few more years came the war, and the remaining 200 acres were required to yield more than three rather odd, middle-aged women could wrest from it and their venture was at an end.
In Kelly's trade directories from 1922, 1925, 1929 and 1933 Peggy appears as a farmer in Layer de la Haye.
Colin relates that Peggy's brother once visited the family at Layer. Did Captain John Bowen-Colthurst risk the trip to Layer because of his son's marriage to a cousin in Layer Church?
At some time during the mid 1930s Peggy had been visited by her brother of the murdered journalist saga, now a civilian and apparently a free man, but Sinn Fein got wind of it and sent an executioner to find him....
Colin goes on to relate this executioner was killed locally in a motorbike accident. The implication being it was a deliberate act by a refugee member of the Black and Tans who also lived in the village.
It was said that for some time Peggy and her brother slept in various and separate hen-houses while the scare subsided. He then moved on to Canada and lived out his remaining years there. The onset of war in 1939 eased Peggy's fears of assassination because Irish nationals were now seen as enemy sympathisers and their entry into this country strictly monitored.
Early in 1939 Peggy married William Greer, also from Ireland, with private means, and possibly related (Peggy's mother was a Greer), whereupon she became Peggy Greer; they probably moved into Brickwall Farm near the Cross at Layer then. Peggy and William married in Layer Church. In a Chelmsford Chronicle article reporting their wedding, her address was given as Fields Farm, Layer de la Haye, her former address being Dripsey Castle in County Cork.
Peggy was quite a character and the story is told locally that she got married wearing her riding jodhpurs under her wedding dress.
In the 1939 register a Mrs Bowen Colthurst was living in the Great House situated at Malting Green, Layer. This is likely to have been Peggy's sister-in-law, Winifred, (the widow of another brother, Robert, who died in WW1).
A newspaper report from 1938 records Peggy being summoned for speeding in a motor and trailer near Stisted. Many years later, according to John Morse, following an accident in Colchester, she was ordered to take a driving test which she clearly did not do and she would drive her tractor with L plates on or drive a pony and trap! In those days one could renew provisional licences ad lib.
John Hopkins, whose family moved from Buckinghamshire to Essex during the Second World War wrote a diary of his war-time experiences in Layer. First, the family moved into a bungalow on Blind Knights Farm and then Well House Cottage set in the grounds of the farm. John, who was still at school, immediately got involved with farm-work at Blind Knights which Peggy was farming in partnership with the owners, the Maxwell sisters.
I continued to help on the farm, but had become a sort of personal assistant to Mrs Peggy Greer. This made life very interesting as both her and her husband were quite odd.... I saw little of him. He spent much of his time driving his Lagonda. This was a truly magnificent car, cream or white, two seats and completely open. Although I never saw it in position I think it could have had a canvas top. Huge headlights and other lights and badges on a cross bar. The dashboard was a delight and I'm not sure but I think it included an altimeter. The one certainty is that he did absolutely nothing on the farm.
A pre-war Lagonda similar to William Greer's which would have been seen in the country lanes around Layer de la Haye
Mrs Greer on the other hand drove an old small van, which was in a terrible condition. On one occasion I stood on the running board pouring water into the radiator while she drove it to the garage for repair. A distance of around four miles.
In 1943 Peggy attended a protest meeting at Peldon Rectory against the War Agricultural Committee's heavy-handed tactics threatening farmers with eviction. Author James Wentworth Day described her as a local farmer, of Blind Knights, Layer de la Haye, 'tweed clad, her dog-cart in the drive'
One can only wonder how these strong women farmers, Peggy, Zoe and Stella, dealt with the War Agricultural Committee who were appropriating farms as
they deemed fit and in some cases evicting the owners. As E.J. Rudsdale wrote in his Journal of Wartime Colchester
I notice that members of the committee are very antagonistic against women farmers - not one has any chance of a fair hearing.
According to Colin Ridgewell, it would appear that in fact Peggy was evicted during the war years and her farms run by War Ag Committee-approved farmers.
At Hill Farm there was an Aladdin's cave of sorts in the shape of an upper storey built into a typical Essex barn. It was rumoured that Peggy had been relieved of her farm in the war years, no doubt by the rigours of the War Agricultural Committee, who in this instance probably had a prima facie reason to do so. It may also be that her house, which was somewhat distant from the bulk of her land, was also confiscated for it seems that she made her home in the upper floor of the said barn, and furnished it with tasteful, if cosmopolitan, items. Some of these remained in the barn when the war ended and her house and land were returned to her.
Peggy was avidly organic according to Colin and on arrival in 1959 he found the state of the farmland both depressing and challenging. Peggy had
strong views, was reluctant to take advice and Colin writes she had no natural ability to farm.
During the war the three women were involved with the Women's Land Army and John Hopkins remembers the girls arriving:
Land girls arrived at the farm. They turned out to be a young and happy lot.
John helped in the evenings and weekends while at Birch School assisting with everything from calving to weeding large fields of beet. He clearly loved working for Peggy wanting to work there once leaving school but his parents had ideas of something better for their son!
By the start of the war the reservoir was well-nigh finished. The pumping station was yet to be put into commission and the water level didn't reach the intended height until the end of 1940. By then a large amount of Peggy Greer's acreage was underwater or part of the reservoir's perimeter. Local historian, John Morse, tells me that it was Peggy Greer who lost the lion's share of the land that was compulsorily purchased for the reservoir.
In conversation with local residents who still remember her, (she died in 1970), it seems she dressed as a man, wore short hair and was always in farming clothes. It is also reported she used to allow swallows to nest in the house!
The Maxwell Sisters
Two other members of the Anglo-Irish nobility, both also women farmers, close friends and business partners of Peggy Greer, lived and farmed in Layer de La Haye and seem to have arrived between 1922 and 1933. The Honourable Zoe Emma Maxwell and her sister the Honourable Stella Frances Maxwell were believed to have descended from William the Conqueror. Both sisters remained unmarried and died in the late 1960s. On the plans for the building of the reservoir, it is Stella who is given as the owner of land whereas her sister is described as sharing occupancy with her sister and in some cases with Peggy Greer.
The sisters Zoe and Stella were 'Honourable' their father having been a baron but they themselves were very typical elderly spinsters. Their ancient
farmhouse overlooked much of the reservoir which had submerged the bulk of their land, and though some millions of gallons were pumped from it each
day none of it issued forth from their taps. Nor had any water company seen fit to lay pipes to that remote farmhouse that was once the demesne of
the Knights Templar. Colin Ridgewell
Both sisters were benefactors of the church. Canon James Allen, one time vicar of Layer church, wrote in his history.
1967 A modern chalice and paten in silver was purchased as a memorial to the late Hon. Stella Frances Maxwell (1886-1966)
1968 The chancel roof was painted as a memorial to the Hon. Zoe and the Hon. Stella Frances Maxwell.
1969 The screen in the tower arch was placed there in 1969 as a memorial to the two above-mentioned ladies who each left £200 to the church
Parsonage Farm, mentioned as being affected by the submersion in the 1934 newspaper article above, is probably the house now known as Glebe
House, Abberton. The house which had been the old parsonage was formerly known as the Old Parsonage, Parsonage Farm, Glebe Farm and Glebe House. In the sale brochure for 1922 there was the existing house, a farmhouse, a four bedroomed cottage, stable, coachhouse, stockyard and two old brick and timber-built cottages with thatched roofs plus a large timber-built barn. There were buildings for pigs and poultry and various outbuildings. Offered for sale were 94 acres in all with a large amount of orchards of choice fruit which clearly attracted the next owner, Samuel King, who was a fruit-grower and seller. All but 1 rod and 4 perches (in Peldon) were in Abberton. The cottages have all gone and it's not clear what happened to the farm-house. Glebe House now stands on just 6 acres. How much of the original 94 acres was taken by the water board is not clear, nor when the cottages, barn and outbuildings were demolished but the proximity of the house to the reservoir gives wonderful views!
A Clean Sheet
Once all the people and crops and livestock had been cleared from the site
All buildings and foliage within the reservoir area were removed and the top soil was scraped off and used to reprofile the edges.
Scraping off the topsoil took the ground level down to the underlying heavy London clay. The core of the dam was clay and layers of clay were tramped down by the workers to remove any air pockets.
Huge amounts of concrete were needed for the edges and perimeter access road - much of which has, in the 2015 expansion, been removed to make wildlife-friendly habitats with waterside plants and, coming soon, reed beds.
Trains and gravel extraction During the construction of the reservoir huge amounts of gravel were extracted from opposite the treatment works.
The massive hole created is now a lake and used as a fishery, and, incidentally, close to a bronze age village which was discovered and excavated by
To transport the gravel, small locomotives were used, along with narrow gauge tracks.
Jim Jenkins, former employee and historian of the building of the reservoir informs me that in the recent enlargement of the reservoir a small
section of the track was found.
The history of the locomotives and of traction engines used is described in an article written for Colchester Recalled by Ray Roxby. Its picture
appears with two of its sisters at Abberton in 1937 in Peter Wormell's Abberton and Langenhoe in Pictures.
It was a 2ft gauge diesel locomotive named PELDON. This was made for use on the construction of Abberton Reservoir. It had three sister locos which
were also named after villages around the reservoir. I can remember a field adjacent to the Layer to Abberton road, near the dam, being a graveyard
for a large number of steam traction engines after completion of the reservoir. They laid there until the great demand for scrap metal in the
1939-1945 war. I understand that several of them were 'ploughing' type engines that were used to drag scoops across its valley to remove the topsoil
down to the underlying clay ... an uncle got a temporary job to cart cement powder from St Botolph's Station goods yard to the Abberton Reservoir.
Ray Roxby Colchester Recalled
PELDON and LAYER have survived.
LAYER is now at Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Leeds, where it is awaiting restoration, and PELDON went to Amberley Museum in Surrey.
A postcard that was given to visitors to Amberley Museum in the early days
Amberley Museum sheds more light on PELDON.
PELDON is the only working example of a 2ft gauge, Fowler Resilient 4w industrial diesel locomotive. It was built by John Fowler & Co (Leeds) Ltd
for the Essex Water Authority for use during the construction of the Abberton Reservoir near Colchester, Essex. PELDON is powered by a 40hp
Fowler Sanders 4 cyl engine, No. M443, B series.
After the Water Authority had no further use for it, the loco was sold, with LAYER, to the Alpha Cement Company, at Cliffe at Hoo, Kent. It was
acquired for preservation by the Brockham Museum Trust, and transferred to Amberley with the Brockham collection in 1982. The locomotive was
acquired in a rundown, derelict state, and was restored by volunteers at Amberley, again led by Doug Bentley, finally re-entering service in 1987.
Locomotives used reservoir construction. They are unnamed but were to become ABBERTON, LAYER and PELDON.
A fourth was added 6 months later, named ROMFORD. c1937, photo from Essex & Suffolk Water
PELDON at the quarry at Cliffe at Hoo. Photo copyright Gordon Edgar
PELDON at Amberley Museum. Photo copyright Kris Ward
The fourth engine was called ROMFORD, appropriately, because the head office of the South Essex Waterworks company was in Romford. What happened to
ABBERTON or ROMFORD is not known.
Many old steam ploughs locally had been laid up during the thirties when land was turned from arable to pasture but the water company bought 4 or 5 to help with the reservoir excavation. Once it was completed however there was no market for them and as Ray Roxby relates they were broken up for scrap metal.
Ordinary rollers had difficulty with the soft soil of the site, and Stanley Allderidge designed a mammoth, said to be the largest steam roller in
the world. The rear wheels were 12 feet diameter (almost 4 metres) and it weighed 20 tons. The driver was Lawson Featherstone, one of several men who had come down from County Durham to build the reservoir.
In WW2, the newly built water treatment works at Layer de la Haye, a potential target for German bombing raids, were repainted with camouflage.
On 24th August 1940 a German Heinkel passed over the reservoir on its return from a bombing raid on Hornchurch airfield being chased by two RAF planes and was shot down. Two of the crew bailed out, one, the 'observer', falling into the reservoir, got tangled in his parachute and drowned. The pilot survived. Farmer's son Jim Bunting, saw the Heinkel come down while ploughing at Birch.
One report says the plane crashed on the Buntings' land and in the end, because no one came to take away the burnt out wreckage, the farmer buried the wreckage. Believed to be on the northern side of the reservoir between Blind Knights and the water to the north east it has never been found. From the ARP records, held at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, we can narrow down the location:
1 mile south of Hill Farm on Layer side of South Essex Waterworks reservoir. Under military guard. There has been a big explosion and it is burning furiously and I am informed that nothing can stop it being burned out completely.
From Peldon Rectory, the vicar's daughter, Phyllis Wilson, witnessed the final moments of the Heinkel.
It came spiralling down in wide circles, two tiny blobs of white appeared high in the sky as two airmen jumped out. It crashed with an almighty
explosion on the north edge of Abberton reservoir. Unpublished memoirs by Phyllis Day née Wilson
Three bodies were recovered from the plane and were buried in the Military plot at Colchester Cemetery on the 30th August 1940. They were Unteroffizier Alfred Kramer, Feldwebel Enrich Salomo and Erwin Gleissner; the missing 'observer', Karl Ritscherle, was also remembered in the service. They were buried at the same funeral as four other German airmen.
The service was performed at the graveside, by the Reverend W. J. Heaton M.A. (Chaplin to His Majesty's Forces). Post war, along with many other
German casualties they were transferred from our local churchyards and cemeteries to the Cannock Chase German War Cemetery in Staffordshire.
Memorial Profiles: Edwin Sparrow
It is not clear when the body of the crew's observer, who drowned in the reservoir, was recovered but in 1963 he was found in the same grave as Erich Salomo at Colchester Cemetery, when the bodies were exhumed and moved to Cannock Chase where the airmen are commemorated.
In the on-line BBC People's War, Kathleen Frances Reece's memoirs, written up by her daughter Sue Holifield, tell of her father, Charles, being posted to Essex. During Charles's war service with HMS Vernon, he was posted to Langenhoe, to work with the Army, putting sea mines into the newly-built reservoir. He did similar work on other stretches of water around the east coast of England.
At Abberton, Charlie was involved with laying 312 mines across the reservoir in a grid pattern on steel cables attached to concrete blocks to prevent German sea-planes landing on the water. While working on installing the mines, Charles was to witness the Heinkel coming down and arrested the pilot who was the only crew member to survive.
In August 1940, just before we went to visit Langenhoe, a German Heinkel (aircraft) had crashed, just missing the reservoir, and nearly hitting Dad's car. A splash of an airman's blood landed on the windscreen. Dad, who didn't look much like an officer as he wore overalls to work, arrested one of the German airmen. The German protested, saying: 'Militaire, militaire' - because he wanted to be dealt with by an official rather than someone who appeared to be a member of the public - whereupon Dad replied: 'I'm good enough b***** militaire for you!' Dad also found an airman's wallet, which he handed in to the Police.
When the family next visited the house in Langenhoe where Charlie was billeted, he took them for a walk around the reservoir, and showed where the
German plane had crashed, right at the edge. Kathleen relates: As far as I remember, there was a big wall that had been blackened by the fire.
The arrested pilot became a Prisoner of War, I have not discovered his name or where he was taken.
John Hopkins's account of living close to the reservoir gives more detail about the mines.
We were living quite near to the Abberton Reservoir and we spent time on the concrete edging on our bicycles, the only flat and level surface available. The reservoir had an unobstructed run of some 2 ½ miles, ideal for enemy seaplanes. As a deterrent, wires were laid across the surface, and sea mines were laid in it. It was particularly good fun in the really cold spells, as the freezing water detonated the mines erupting in huge columns of water. The occasional night-time detonations were not such fun.
David Wilson, son of Peldon's vicar, remembers seeing the explosions from the rectory in Church Road, Peldon.
1940 was a very cold winter and the Reservoir was completely frozen over. When the thaw came, there were also strong winds which made the ice-floes
crash together and the mines started to explode, one after the other. It made quite a sight, we used to watch from the top floor of the Rectory,
there would be a bang and a column of water would shoot up. Privately published memoirs by David Wilson
Kathleen Reece's father told his family that seagulls would land on the floating mines and set them off too!
Many years later when water levels were very low, between 1989 and 1991, 22 mines were exposed. The tactic at the end of the war had been for the
military to fire at the mines and inevitably many sank, some still capable of exploding. Bomb disposal experts had to come to dispose of these mines and some of the remains can be seen in the pictures below (courtesy of John Morse).
John Hopkins reports that the Layer de la Haye Home Guard unit used to be on duty on the roof of the waterworks building. Having a perfect view they
saw the first doodlebug arrive in June 1943 which crashed in the fields towards Birch. John Hopkins tells us it was
one of many that arrived that night.
Jim Jenkins, former employee of Essex and Suffolk Water and author of the 2003/4 brochure the story so far tells me that a spigot mortar base was found in Rows Wood along the side of the road when the B1026 was being moved in recent years for the 2015 expansion. It was a circular block of concrete with a scaffold pole up the middle on which a mortar could be placed and swivelled round. Pipe mines, anti-tank devices, were also found along the road.
Evidence has come to light that there was also an Auxiliary Unit with an Operational Base in Chest Wood, Layer, of which farmer Stanley Fairhead's son, Richard, was a member. Formed to provide a secret resistance in the event of a German invasion, the Auxiliary Units were top-secret, neither the regular military nor the police knew of its existence, and it is only in recent years that details have slowly emerged and are sketchy at best. Had the Germans invaded, the reservoir would have been strategically very important and the Layer Auxiliary Unit would have performed acts of sabotage until caught.
In May 1943 John Hopkins was to witness an event that spawned a film, numerous books and documentaries and has become embedded in public imagination.
Some evenings I went down to the reservoir to watch Lancaster bombers flying very low with what looked like two small searchlights shining down on the water. Occasionally, they would drop what looked like barrels which splashed and bounced across the surface. I had no idea then that this was practice for the bombing of the dams in Germany.
The following reminiscences pf the Lancaster bombers flying over by Paul Jasper are from a recording held by Mersea Museum. Paul was living in West Mersea.
There was this terrible noise one night and they came flipping over our house ... we had three big elm trees ... these enormous aircraft, the
Lancasters, we could see plainly the crew in each one and they went round and round again until they got what they wanted then of course they went
to Wales or Derwent water or somewhere else to do the rest of their training ... all we heard was this terrific noise as they put their full power on to fly over the island and then this just swooshing over the top of our trees and then going down again. I'd like to have been at Abberton at that time and seen that lot.
Some of those practice flights are recalled in Bomber Boys by Kevin Wilson in what was called 'Operation Chastise'. It was necessary to deliver the bouncing bombs which were in fact mines, (code-named 'Upkeep'), at right angles to the face of the dam in order to penetrate the target dams, the Mohne and Eder. After trial and error, the shape of the bombs was changed from a spherical one to a cylindrical one to ensure they bounced from the given height in a straight line.
The Lancaster bombers also had to be specially adapted. Two spotlights which converged into a figure of eight when the Lancaster was exactly in the
right position to release the bombs at a height of 60 feet were installed. Pilots had to learn to navigate at low level and make a final approach
to the target at about 240mph. Kevin Wilson describes the Lancaster pilots thundering over hills, valleys and lakes at low level as they
practised day after day and night after night. The Abberton reservoir was deemed to be a reasonable facsimile of the Eder dam in shape and whenever the pilots were in training, local military police shut the B1026, the Burnt Downs Causeway, over the reservoir. The bombers would come in from the Peldon direction and 'drop bombs' as if to destroy the causeway.
Learning to fly at very low levels was fraught with difficulty and danger and pilot, Henry Maudslay, came back from one of those practice
flights with branches stuck in his tail wheel after too steep a descent to the Abberton Reservoir.
Although in the eye-witness account above, John Hopkins writes he saw Lancasters practising dropping the barrel-shaped bombs on the reservoir,
the official report was that no bombs, inert or otherwise, were dropped there although it is stated that they had a 'full dress rehearsal' at Abberton on 14th May. It would seem unlikely to drop bombs on a mined stretch of water! The crews did not find out the actual targets until their briefing on May 16th. The operation was the night of May 16th/17th 1943 and both the Mohne and the Eder were successfully breached.
* * *
Wildfowl Trust and Essex Wildlife Trust
In 1949 the reservoir was formally established as a Wildfowl Trust ringing station and in 1955 designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It officially became a Wild Birds Sanctuary in 1967 and designated a wetland of International Importance under the Ramsay Convention. In 1991 it was to be made a Special Protected Area.
Essex Wildlife Trust, which was formed in 1959, built its first visitor's centre in 1990. My memories of visiting in the mid-1970s were of using a
two shilling piece to go through an old turnstile and viewing the reservoir from, at that time, the only viewing hide. The Scott hide was opened
The list above gives a good idea of the birds attracted over the years by the reservoir
The retrospective registration of some of the affected areas with Her Majesty's Land Registry appears in the London Gazette of December 1963, it reads
Part Blind Knight's Farm and Rye Farm, Layer de la Haye and land on SE side Billet's Barn and SW side Butler's Farm, Peldon, Great and Little Wigborough, Essex by the South Essex Waterworks Company
And again in March 1964
Badcock's Farm, The Bungalow and Layer Barn Farm, land part Abberton Hall Farm, Layer House Farm, Abberton and OS No 10 and Layer Fields Farm, Peldon and Butler's Farm, Layer de la Haye, Essex by the South Essex Waterworks Company, 342, South Street, Romford, Essex.
Nowadays, the reservoir is a magnet for lovers of wildlife and there are few alive who remember the area before it was submerged. Managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust it is a wetland site of international importance; up to 40,000 ducks, swans and geese visit each year. Over by the Layer Breton causeway there is one of the few places in England where cormorants nest inland in trees. Work continues tree-planting, growing wildflowers for butterflies and other insects and large areas of grassland for species of bird such as skylarks and corn buntings. The concrete edges from the 1930s have now all but gone, replaced by shallow muddy margins and - to come - reed beds.
It is worth noting that none of the surrounding villages are supplied with water by Abberton reservoir. Their water comes from the Ardleigh reservoir whilst Abberton supplies the south of the county!
Peldon History Project
Sources / Read More
Abberton Reservoir Expansion - the Story So Far 2003
- Abberton_History_Brochure.pdf (opens in new window 1.9Mb)
The Abberton Scheme 2015
- Abberton_scheme_brochure.pdf (opens in new window 3.7Mb)
Lions Talking Magazine (audio)
- Harry 'Tucker' Cross January 1984
- Ken Ham March 1984
Aspects of Abberton Reservoir Andrew Thompson booklet
Colin Ridgewell Looking Better, Looking Back
"Bomber Boys" Kevin Wilson
Essex and Suffolk Water
Marina Harvey - Layer Treatment works
January 2021 add steam roller picture and details.