Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - August 2003
This article was prepared during the run up to the Birch Village Fun Day on 19th July. The leaflet outlining the plans for the Day refers to a number of items such as singing and dancing competitions; fancy dress, teas and so on which seen as traditional at such events. All in all the event is aimed at providing an opportunity for everyone to have a good time. Down the years local events, across the country, have concentrated on May Queen celebrations, Bonfire Parties, local sports days and similar regular happenings, sometimes unique to a particular village, while others are part of a pattern.
In the present day we try to make the maximum use of leisure time whether it be on holidays abroad, playing sport, attending local and national events, or even just sitting at home watching the TV. It was not always so and a glance through the local newspapers convey a somewhat different picture of how our ancestors celebrated locally in their all too little time off from work.
The Coronation of Queen Victoria, in 1838, heralded a new era and the Essex Standard reported that the poor in the Lexden and Winstree Union House had a dinner "provided by subscription by the Guardians and other Gentlemen". It would seem that there was little choice over who attended and, no doubt, a change in workhouse fare was very welcome to the poor. If you were one of the poor living in Easthorpe you were given a pint of beer and a pound of meat each. Those poor folk living in Layer de la Haye were less fortunate as although every man, woman and child received a pound of meat they were allocated only half a pint of beer - what happened to the children's beer?
At Copford "a liberal subscription was entered into by the excellent Rector and other gentry and inhabitants of the parish, and the poor were supplied with one and a half pounds of meat, one and a half pints of beer and a half quarten loaf per head. Much enjoyment was created by crowning and chairing a young woman, in humble imitation of the leading ceremony of the day".
It seems that some of the villages knew how to celebrate but attempts at holding a public dinner in Colchester failed and the two political parties went their own way - the Conservatives to The Three Cups and the Whigs to The Queens Arms!
Fifty years later, however, Colchester got its act together in celebrating the Queen's Jubilee and they held a Great Free Fete, illuminated the Water Tower and distributed 5,000 tickets to the poor to obtain meat and victuals. In Birch a well attended service was held in the Parish Church where a short address was given by the Rector. Flags and banners of all colours were displayed throughout the parish and every one who chose to accept received a pound of meat. In total 700 pound was distributed and enough money left to provide each house with 4 ounces of tea. It was said that "this appears to have given great satisfaction throughout the parish". In addition there was a concert in the "beautifully decorated school" in the evening.
Ten years later and the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee with Colchester celebrating in style as befitted a military town. In Birch a clock was fixed to the church and 240 poor attended a dinner at Gate Farm followed by sports and a bonfire in the evening. Unfortunately the same issue of the paper records a terrible hailstorm which caused much damage to Layer Marney Tower and Church as well as substantial damage to Dukes Farm which had also suffered badly in the 1884 earthquake - on both occasions it was unoccupied at the time. Considerable damage was caused to the fruit crops in Tiptree where about an eighth of the fruit was lost. The storm was deemed to be so bad that the Lord Mayor of London started a disaster fund to which the Queen made a contribution.
Edward VII's Coronation did not seem to be celebrated locally to quite the same extent perhaps due to the fact that it was postponed originally as the King was taken ill. Perhaps also the Boer War, combined with the loss of the Queen, distracted people from doing anything very much outside Colchester but the lack of reports may have been due to lack of correspondents.
For the Coronation of King George V the people of Easthorpe were treated to a feast at Easthorpe Hall and each child was presented with a Coronation mug. At Layer Marney "The parishioners met at the school at 10.15 am and marched to Tower Green headed by the band of the 5th Essex (Territorials). After a short service dinner was served to about 200 people followed by sports and tea. A hearty vote of thanks was given to Mr and Mrs De Zoete and family."
For the Silver Jubilee, in 1935, there are no reports of local activities probably due to a lack of correspondents and newspaper space than an absence of celebrations as commemorative mugs and such like were available and were likely to have been distributed locally, probably at some unreported function.
May 1937 saw the Coronation of King George VI and those of us old enough to recall the day would accept newspaper reports of adverse weather, much the same as it was to be for the present Queen's Coronation. Most reports concentrate on Colchester but it was noted that "Birch and Layer Breton Coronation Festivities held at Birch Hall on 15th May by kind permission of Mr and Mrs Round will long be remembered by young and old. Lunch was served to 120 residents of 65 and over in a gaily decorated marquee. Guests were waited on by members of the committee attired in gay costumes of red, white and blue. During the afternoon the grounds of Birch Hall were open to all and tea was provided. Side shows, sports, a barrel organ entertained the crowds and tea was supplied to 450 children with a Coronation mug being presented to each. A dance with an excellent band was held in the evening in Birch Hall and the day was enjoyed by everyone.
Village celebrations did not always take place on the day of the national event as those likely to promote and be involved in organising local events would, certainly in the earlier days, be expected to attend functions in Colchester or London. With regard to 1937 the actual Coronation took place three days before the events at Birch Hall but my recollection of attending a fete in the village where I lived was that Coronation Day was a washout and our celebration was postponed for a few days - my John Bull outfit never looked quite the same and I was probably one of several lads similarly dressed in our village!
The format and emphasis of national and local events may have changed over the years but if there is one thread running through them it is that there is a "feel good" factor. In Victorian times the gentry gained satisfaction from easing the burden on the poor even if for only a brief while and the poor gained by a change of diet perhaps and the gifts donated. My recollection of 1937 is that the occasion was looked forward to and, despite the weather, was enjoyed by employer and employee alike in our small community. We hope the Birch Fun Day gave a similar experience to all involved.
Eric Hall's researches for Chronicle 31 are based on local newspaper reports. For once I have been able to surprise him, for I have copies of the Minute Book which covers the 1st meeting of Birch Parish Council on 4th December, 1894, through to January 1953.
The meetings included planning for celebrations of jubilees or coronations, and Eric has covered most, apart from the Edward VII coronation, which for some reason failed to make the local papers. Here are extracts from the 1902 minutes:
29th May, 1902 '...to consider what means should be taken for celebrating the Coronation, in the Parish.'
The Coronation Celebration Committee passed the following resolutions:
'That Mr Chandler collect subscriptions'
'District Visitors be requested to canvass their districts and furnish lists of people likely to attend a feast, and of those unlikely to attend personally'
'Stanway children attending Birch School be admitted, on condition of 13 shillings being subscribed on their behalf, and Layer Breton Children for £2'
'Every man, not resident, but regularly employed on any Birch Farm, should be admitted to the Feast - free, if his employer were a contributor to the funds; on payment of a shilling otherwise'
10th June: The Members of the Committee who had thoroughly canvassed the Parish having handed in their collecting lists, it was found that £57.12.10 had been promised. Proposed and carried that:
'£10, and more if necessary, be granted to the Ladies for the Children's Entertainment.'
'Parishioners be offered the option of attending a Public Feast or of receiving an allowance at their own homes; this not to extend to the children. The allowance to consist of two pounds of beef for each parent, or head of household, - and one pound for every other member (not counting schoolchildren) and one shilling for each cottage.'
'That families residing over Heckford Bridge, but forming part of a Birch District - being regularly visited by a Birch District Visitor, be admitted to the Feast on payment of sixpence per head.'
'Sub-committees were formed for Catering, Sports and Ladies.'
17th June: ....it had been ascertained that 174 houses had been visited, 276 adults and 35 infants wished to be present at the public feast; 203 adults & 24 infants wished a home allowance, and 180 children would have to be provided for at a school feast. Agreed that 'after deducting all expenses, each person having a home allowance should have the same estimated amount per head as each person attending the Feast, and that the whole of the allowance should consist of meat.' And that 'no visitor of any family be granted allowance, but be offered a ticket for the Feast.'
'That provision for the Feast be as at the Diamond Jubilee, with bread and butter and cake and tea, instead of plum pudding.' 'That scholars attending Birch Evening School be allowed to participate in the Feast & Sports on payment of sixpence per head.'
Catering Committee: 'That orders for the meat be equally divided between Mr Edward Tiffin & Mr Geof. Church'
'That Grocery and other provisions (including hams) be equally divided between Mrs Nice, Mr Sach and Mr Saunders'
'That 300 lb of beef - 100lbs salt and 200lbs for roasting be ordered for the Feast'
'Sports Committee: 'by kind permission of Mr Douglass Round the sports be held in the paddock adjoining the Cottage'
'Capt. F Luard kindly undertook to be responsible for the preparation of the track'. A programme of 15 events was drawn up.
The events then presumably took place, with no comment in the Minutes, except that on 1st August 'the Secretary reported a balance of £26 in hand...resolved that a general holiday be given on the first suitable day after Harvest is over'
This day was fixed for 'the remainder of the Coronation Celebration on Tuesday 30th September'. Resolved that the Ladies Committee be joined to the Catering Committee to make full arrangements for Refreshments and £20 allotted for the purpose' 'that £6 be allotted to the Sports Committee.' 'That sausage rolls, beer, cake, bread and butter and tea be provided'. A programme was drawn up, including sports and distribution of medals and mugs for children, and prizes for adults, concluding with the National Anthem at 6pm.
Mr Blomfield was to order the sausage rolls, hire the necessary plates etc, to prepare the tea and arrange for seating etc. Miss Luard & Miss Blomfield made themselves responsible for the proper supply of bread, cake, tea, sugar etc, and Mr F Brown promised to order of Mrs Goody two barrels of ale.
A meeting was held on Monday 29th September under the presidency of the Rector, when waiters etc were appointed to look after the comfort of the guests at the tea.
There is meticulous care in making arrangements, and (within the social context then applying) in ensuring that everyone in the parish was treated equally and people were asked what they preferred to do; possibly there was such poverty that many had little choice but to take the allowance. Visitors and other 'fringe' groups were welcomed, though with appropriate charge or condition. It is interesting to see that any surplus funds, having been given for celebration, were used for the purpose, even to the extent of fixing an extra whole day's holiday for the village and having a second party! There is also some interesting business concerning items which might perhaps be open to abuse; the 'one shilling per cottage' was amended to ' the whole .... be in meat', and visitors were offered a ticket rather than a share of home allowance, perhaps to avoid over-claiming! It is not clear where the sports medals or coronation mugs for the children came from; I wonder if any are still in homes here?
There is never any report after the events, nor vote of thanks; they just got on with the next business.