The unexpected radical past of Essex

Behind the picture-postcard side of Essex is a history of non-conformism.

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If, as the song has it, it’s hard to be a cowboy in Rochdale, then it’s even harder to be a leftie in Essex. At the last general election, a disaster for Theresa May, every constituency in the county returned a Tory MP. And although many of the county’s Labour voters supported the Leave campaign in 2016, for good measure every Essex constituency voted to come out of the EU at the referendum. They (or rather we: I must declare my interest, having been born in what was once the Chelmsford Parish Workhouse and having lived in the county almost all my life) are a single-minded lot who simply won’t be told what to do.

The temperament of old Essex is perhaps best summed up by something I read over 35 years ago by the great political journalist Colin Welch, who spent the 1945 general election canvassing in Saffron Walden for RA Butler. Welch watched a local grande dame campaigning for Labour approach a yeoman farmer on the road between Thaxted and Dunmow, who was leaning on an unproverbial five-bar gate and sucking a straw, and tell him it was in the class interests of people such as him to vote for Mr Attlee. “Ma’am,” the yeoman replied, “Oi’ve made moi poile, an’ yo can go to buggery.”

But it is precisely because Essex is so bloody-minded that (except when Vikings turned up in 991 at the Battle of Maldon) it has always welcomed people who think differently, and has left them alone. The Essex temperament expects to be allowed to live and let live, and so it allows others to do so. This curate’s egg of a book, the result of various literary and artistic events in the county over the last two or three years, describes some of those non-conformists.

It contains first-class essays by Gillian Darley, the biographer of the social reformer Octavia Hill, and the Guardian writer Tim Burrows, both of whom are writing books on the Essex phenomenon. There is also an excellent architectural essay by Charles Holland and a discussion by Ken Worpole of communities of peculiar and unpeculiar people who have chosen Essex as their home – among them a community of nudists in Wickford called Moonella that lived in a 1920s bungalow, who seem to have died out: winters out east can be damnably cold.

There is also an account of one of the more fascinating and, for many years, successful enterprises in the county, as Rachel Lichtenstein recounts in her essay on “Bata-ville” – the utopian community that grew up in East Tilbury around the Czech-built shoe factory.

The book is extensively but not lavishly illustrated, and makes a cult of the difference from the Essex mainstream of the people and their projects. The only unsatisfactory essays are two about the origins of Essex University and the student protests there in the 1960s and 1970s. The essay on the protests especially fails to appreciate how much this important and potentially exciting institution inflicted a grievous wound on itself at a time when it could most have done without it. The university’s association with radical politics meant that head teachers would refuse to write references for pupils who wished to study there; it is a pity those who romanticise that era cannot see the price of self-indulgence in terms of the lost opportunities for a generation or two of young men and women.

The picture-postcard side of Essex is largely absent from the book, except for references to Gustav Holst and the patronage given to him by Conrad Noel, the socialist vicar of Thaxted from 1910 until his death in 1942, and a mention of the artists Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden in Great Bardfield. The book comes back again and again to all that is not picture-postcard about the county: the new towns of Harlow and Basildon, the plotlands of Laindon and Pitsea and South Woodham Ferrers, the Bata factory at East Tilbury.

Essex is now three distinct places: the urban encroachment from the east end of London, which began after the First World War, expanded after 1945 and is now fuelled by a property shortage common to the rest of the south-east; the desolate marshland of the coast, an ideal home for the Christian community at Othona on the edge of the Dengie peninsula, adjacent to the second oldest surviving church in England, St Peter-on-the-Wall, which dates from the Synod of Whitby in the 660s; and, inland and north of the River Crouch, those picture-postcard villages.

The book seems partly to have been inspired by an excellent BBC documentary made in 2013 by Jonathan Meades, who coupled his interest in discrete tribes of people and their attraction to Essex with his extensive understanding of the modern movement in architecture. Meades saw that community is not merely about people but about buildings; as Bata brought a supermarket and a hotel to the environs of his factory, or as the Crittall factory in Silver End, famous for its metal windows, created some remarkable houses for its workers in the modernist style there between the wars. Crittall’s company had already been responsible for one of the early modernist statements in England, Clockhouse Way in Braintree. The essay on the architecture of Essex University laments that some of it has already been altered or demolished; had it been better built, as Crittall’s houses were, or as some episodes of art deco were at Canvey Island and Frinton, it might not have been necessary.

Essex was suitable for radical experiments because the land in the south and near the marshes was cheap. It was almost impossible to cultivate and much of it had been rendered derelict by the agricultural depression of the 40 years before the First World War. A large part of the land had been reclaimed and was not, therefore, owned by local squires and magnates, as was often the case away from the coast; so there was no forelock-tugging social hierarchy to stand in the way of radicalism.

Othona, established by Norman Motley, an RAF padre, in 1946 as a retreat and place of reconciliation, is the most enduring of these initiatives; but as Worpole’s essay also points out, Christian socialism flourished in pockets of Essex in the era of George Lansbury, notably on Mersea, Canvey and Osea islands. Some Christian socialists set up Brotherhood Cottage in Ashingdon in the Dengie in 1897, and there were short-lived colonies of utopians and vegetarians at Stanford-le-Hope, Purleigh and Mayland.

Little trace of this now remains in capitalist Essex in the 21st century. In an introduction to the book Joe Hill, until recently  curator of the Focal Point Gallery, the publisher of the work, talks of the Sunday Telegraph running a piece about “Basildon Man”, a creature of Thatcherism who became a barometer of the county’s politics. It wasn’t quite like that. The piece was called “Essex Man” and described a phenomenon that, with the new housing estates then popping up all over the county from Colchester to Brentwood and Southend to Harlow, spread far more widely than Basildon (I should know: I wrote it, anonymously). Essex embraced capitalism long before Mrs Thatcher; Basildon voted for her in 1979 to empower her to create conditions that might enrich people often caricatured as ex-barrow boys from the East End, but its ideals are not confined to a new town ghetto.

Live and let live still prevails: but the driving force in Essex is, and has been for long as I can remember, getting on. They are, as they always were, still making their piles.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. His books include “The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914” (Random House). He lives in Essex

Radical Essex
Edited by Hayley Dixon and Joe Hill
Focal Point Gallery, 230pp, £20

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?