ID: PH01_CSE / Elaine Barker

TitleEssex Cheese
AbstractEssex Cheese

Fingringhoe Wick, Langenhoe Wick, Middlewick, Abbots Wick, Tollesbury Wick are all names we are familiar with in this part of Essex but what does 'Wick' actually mean?

Wicks were in fact shepherds' huts where sheep, grazing on the low-lying marshes of this coast, were milked and cheese was made from their milk. These wicks were often built on slightly raised areas of land, frequently on the site of old Red Hills where salt had been made as farm back as the Bronze Age. These raised areas also acted as a refuge for the flocks when, as sometimes happened, the sea inundated the marshland.

The wicks generally lie in a belt parallel with our coast. Jim Storr In his book King Alfred's Wars estimates that there are more than 46 wicks in Essex, all very small, comprising a hamlet or farm, most being near the coast or a tidal river. The Tendring, Dengie Peninsular, the area around Canvey and Foulness and the coastal villages of Winstree Hundred are the places we find most wicks.

By the late Saxon period the Essex marshes, which were much more extensive in the past before progressive drainage and the building of sea walls reclaimed them, were mainly used for the grazing of sheep. The marshes were low-lying and damp and little else could be done with the land other than grazing. The saltwater led to an absence of disease common in sheep elsewhere. The incidence of liver fluke and foot rot were greatly reduced in flocks kept on the fine, short, iodine-rich grazing on the marshes.

The sheep were mainly reared for their wool and between the late 13th and 15th centuries there was a thriving trade sending raw wool to the continent to supply the demand of the Flemish weavers. From 1560s on, as Flemish and Dutch refugees fled religious persecution in their own countries, many settled in Colchester which became prosperous through the woollen cloth trade right up to the mid 18th century.

The ewes were also valued for their milk - the hard cheese made in these Essex shepherds' huts kept well and could be stored over winter. There are reports that the Essex cheeses were also taken on board ship as supplies on long voyages.

The Romans were cheese-makers and it is likely they brought their skills to this area. In an Archaeological dig undertaken in 2014 in Colchester the remains of a Roman cheese press were found.

Entries in the Domesday book for local villages reveal large flocks of sheep. Tollesbury in particular is recorded as having pasture for 700 sheep.

An entry for Great Wigborough reveals not only the amount of pasture for sheep but also the proceeds from it. The manor of Abbots Hall (previously called Abbess Hall and held by Barking nunnery at the time of Domesday) refers to pasture for 100 sheep, which renders 16d and it goes on to say there were 230 sheep at the time of the survey. The other Great Wigborough manor had 260 sheep.

The making of cheese on farms and smallholdings, largely for the occupants' own use, continued throughout the medieval period, although with the development of many small ports and quays along this coast, dairy products began to be transported by water to London. In a survey of 1575 it was reported there were 135 Ports, Creeks and Landing Places in Essex.

By the mid 16th century a decline in dairy and rise of arable farming had already started but cheese continued to be produced right up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

By all accounts, it seems Essex Cheeses were huge and particularly smelly and full of maggots. While not to our modern taste, in certain parts of the world, maggot-infested cheese is considered a delicacy to this day!

The earliest reference to Essex Cheese appears in William Langland's poem, Piers Plowman, written between 1370 and 1390

I wolde be gladder bi god that gybbe had meschaunce
Than thouse I had this woke ywonne a weye of essex chese

Translation: I would be gladder, by God, to see old Gilbert ruined
Than to win this week a 3 cwt of Essex Cheese

The Norfolk-born poet and satirist John Skelton (1463 - 1529) who was unofficial poet laureate and tutor to Henry VIII wrote

A cantle [segment]of Essex Cheese
Was well a foot thick
Full of maggots quick
It was huge and great
And mighty strong meat for the devil to eat
It was tart and punicate *

* meaning uncertain

The poet and playwright John Heywood (c1497 - 1580) wrote

I never saw Banbury cheese thick enough
But I have often seen Essex cheese quick * enough

* this probably refers to the cheese being alive with maggots

In 1594 John Norden in Speculi Britanniae Pars wrote of the Rochford Hundred in which Foulness lay as

yielding milke, butter and cheese in admirable abundence: and in those partes are the greate huge cheeses made and wondred at for their hundreds and thickness

The cheeses were obviously an acquired taste by those who couldn't afford to be too fussy!

those cheeses of an extraordinary bigness which are used in foreign places as well as in England, to satisfy the coarse stomachs of husbandmen and laborers

and writing of the Canvey area

low merishe [marshy] grounds; and for that the passage over the creeks is unfit for cattle, it is onlie conuerted to the feeding of ews, which men milke, and thereof make cheese (suche as it is).

In his 1700 publication, Travels over England, Scotland and Wales, clergyman and travel writer, James Brome, writes of Essex

hereupon the Rusticks have great plenty of Dairies, and make Cheeses massy and ponderous;

We find references to the domestic making of cheese in Peldon in two documents, the first in the 1597 will of Abraham Fokes, a yeoman. He leaves to his wife, Margery,

all the cheese and buttere that is made before my decesse for her relief and Maintenance

In the Peldon Parish Overseers Book an entry for January 1704 lists the inventory of the goods of a woman who has died, Widow King. The proceeds of the sale of all her belongings were to be used in bringing up her children. Amongst those items are a chese press and 5 cheese motts [cloths], 2 cheese breds [cheese boards].

Both Abraham Fokes and the Widow King leave animals as well including sheep and cattle.

In searching for 'Wicks' nearby, I found Manifold Wick, which was the farm that later became 5 Lakes Hotel and Golf Club at Tolleshunt Knights. Sampton Wick, probably refers to the area where Sampson's farm in Peldon sits by the sea wall. (Not the Sampton Wick on Lower Road in Peldon, a relatively modern name for this house). In Layer de La Haye there is Wick Farm and Layer Wick.

On the 1777 map by Chapman and Andre I was struck by the number of wicks at Bradwell-on-Sea. Due South from Peldon across the Blackwater, Stansgate Wick, West Wick, East Wick and Downwest Wick are all marked on the map along Waterside Road at Bradwell. Now they are just the names of a farmhouse or farm cottages if they exist at all.

The 1777 Chapman and Andre map shows Long Wick, Skinners Wick, and The Wick at Tollesbury and across the water at Bradwell, Stansgate Wick, West Wick, East Wick, and Downwest Wick.

According to Essex Life (October 2016) Traditional dairies in Essex are rarer that hen's teeth these days but there are a handful of small producers of dairy products throughout Essex using milk from Cows, Sheep and Goats, thankfully not the maggot-ridden smelly ewes' cheeses produced in the medieval marshland wicks!

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

Judith Williams The Little History of Essex
Jim Storr King Alfred's Wars
Langland Piers Plowman
John Norden in Speculi Britanniae Pars
Will of Abraham Fokes of Peldon 1597 ERO D/ABW 15/49
Chapman and Andre map Winstree Hundred & Blackwater
Peldon Archaeology - Red Hills

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum