TitleWho Used to Live Here? - Centenary Chronicles 2
AbstractWho used to Live Here?

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 2

Published in Parish News - February 1996

In the introduction to the last issue we asked "Do you remember the aircraft crash at Stamp's Farm?"

Mr. Green remembers it well! He recalls the bomber, probably a Dornier returning from a raid on London, crashing at Stamps & Crows (not Stamps Farm). All the crew were killed in the crash and their bodies laid in an outhouse. The water in the moat which surrounds Stamps & Crows was found to have turned bright green, which mystified everyone until the RAF told them that it was green dye from the aircraft, which the Germans carried in case of ditching at sea as an air-sea rescue marker

Bombs fell in the field beyond Stamps & Crows, and whether they all exploded in the clay (there was evidence of explosion) or whether there may still be a bomb buried deep in the clay remains a mystery.

Who Used to Live Here?

Those with ancestors here far exceed the number of residents today. The number of people in the area now is less than 150 years ago but the number of dwellings has risen very sharply. Many people lived in crowded conditions with poor sanitation and little fresh water as we know it!

How did they earn a living?

The vast majority of the men worked on the land with anything up to 12 per farmer. Many others had jobs associated with the land although there were a few oddities - Layer Marney had a fish merchant and Birch a civil engineer. Few of the ladies, and very few of those who were married, had occupations! Sorry, but that was the official view although there were a very large number of tailoresses - over 80 in the three parishes! (This was before the coming of Hollingtons to Birch). Teachers were few and far between although there were several village schools.

What is very striking is the age of some of the workers. Eleven and twelve year olds worked on the land or assisted fathers or elder brothers as labourers, kitchen boys, and errand boys. With very few large households in this area there were few servant girls in comparison with other villages.

Leisure time

Given the lack of any form of mechanical assistance work was hard and spare time scarce. The only place of entertainment was the village pub. In Layer Marney, in 1878, Thos. Edwards was a beer retailer, Chas. Wm. Everitt was the licensee of the White Horse and a wheelwright, while William Sparrow held the licence for the Black Lion. All for a population of 290 of whom half were women and only half of the men were over 18! Probably no more than 100 customers all told!

The Tale of the Marney Constable

Drinking habits have always attracted the attention of the Courts. Way back in 1604 the Marney constable was hauled up before the quarter sessions for misbehaviour. It seems he was to be found in the alehouse at all hours of day and night much to the displeasure of certain villagers. His behaviour towards the customers, (described in great detail but not fit for copying here!) caused much objection. The case must have roused considerable passions in the village as a number of other people, including the Rector, petitioned that the constable "had always carried himself amongst us his neighbours as a man of quality, befitting his sort and degree". If we could only reconstruct what was behind the records!

Ten years later in 1614 the inhabitants of Great and Little Birch asked that John Bundock be licensed to keep an alehouse, much needed for "passengers having beene overtaken with approaching night" and requiring clean lodgings. Two years after that another group of parishioners were seeking to have a "house next the church" licensed to sell beer and bread at reasonable prices.

Almost the first newspaper item about this area concerns a publican! On 1st October 1831 the Essex Standard reports that James Seabrook, the keeper of a beer shop in the parish of Birch, was charged with having allowed some people to gamble in his house. He convinced the Bench that he was ignorant of the offence and was discharged with an admonition to be more careful in time to come!

During the last quarter of the century there was much unrest among the agricultural labourers and Layer Breton Heath was a popular meeting place for the union. Such meetings aroused passions against the leading farmers who were keen to reduce wages and any hint of rabble rousing had to be quashed. This would have placed the constable in an awkward position as those same farmers were in many cases magistrates and would certainly have had the ear of the Chief Constable.

In 1851 John Guy was the local constable living in Birch Old School House with his wife Sarah and her son Daniel. Born in Whitechapel and a Tallow Chandler by trade, he joined the Force in 1845 aged 22. He was 5 foot 9 inches tall according to the Police Registers. He stayed in Birch until he was promoted Sergeant and he finally retired with the rank of Inspector from Harwich in 1882. John Guy's annual pension was approved at £73 6s 8d (£73.33).

The records also show that two local men joined the Force, Arthur Polley in 1875 and Arthur Frederick Everitt ten years later.

Did people move around?

From census entries we can trace where people said they were born. A very high percentage were born either in the parish where they were then living or in one of those adjacent to it. Overall no more than about 10% came from outside Essex. A close knit community, they lived their lives near to their place of birth mainly because of the need to have work and because their family had worked on the same farm for generations. Domestic servants were slightly different but in an area with few grand houses the influx of such "immigrants" was not great.

Some people certainly did move. As, for example, Joseph King of Layer Marney, who was committed to Chelmsford Gaol for one month in 1881, for running away and leaving his wife and family chargeable to the parish.

Some moved much further afield - the June 1910 issue of the Parish magazine contains extracts from a letter sent by Fred Wade, in New Brunswick, Canada, and it seems that a Jim Baker was only a few miles away. Although it is not entirely clear from the letter it may be that both went out to Canada under an assisted passage scheme. Fred wrote that he was in a good place with nice people. They sailed from Liverpool and he had been seasick but only missed one meal! The voyage to Halifax had taken just over a week and they had to undergo a medical inspection and interview before moving on, in a party of eighteen, to St Johns. He was eventually placed for work by the Emigration Office. Unfortunately this is the only letter mentioned; it would be interesting to hear how Fred and Jim fared - did they, like so many others, return home in 1914 as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force?

Are you related to either of these men or others who emigrated in those days? Do you have in your family letters or diaries which may be of interest to others? Maybe they provide a fresh slant of events recorded in the newspapers of the day. If anyone knows, we would like to hear.

And finally, from the news of 60 years ago, in 1936 - John Hutton aged 83 died in February, a new British Legion branch opened in June, and in August there were repairs to Layer Marney Church. So, even if you missed it then, you know it now!

Is there anything new in the world?

Travelling libraries were, so we thought, quite recent and it came as a surprise to find the first visit to Birch and area hailed in June 1930!

Other things do change - October 1930 reported that the Layer Marney choir outing by double decker omnibus to Walton had been a great success attended by 50 members and friends.

Schooling was a problem in the 1930s and in February 1931 it was announced that no children from this area would be sent to any other school.

July 1831 headline - third fatal accident in Layer Breton this year.
Death of unknown man in Birch July 1927.
Feb. 1936 John Hutton aged 83 died.
New British Legion Branch June 1936.
Layer Marney Church repairs Aug. 1936.
August 1937 Fire at Huttons - July 19th.

PublishedFebruary 1996
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath