Braintree (St. Michael)

BRAINTREE (St. Michael), a market-town and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Hinckford, N. division of Essex, 11 miles (N. by E.) from Chelmsford, and 40 (N. E.) from London; containing 3670 inhabitants. This place is described in Domesday book under the head of "Raines," including also the village of "Raine," to which it was at that time a hamlet, and from which it was separated in the reign of Henry II. From its situation on the road leading from London into the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, it is supposed to have derived considerable benefit from the numerous pilgrims who passed through it, on their way to the shrines of St. Edmund at Bury, and Our Lady of Walsingham; and the population having consequently increased, it was made a market-town in the time of John. In the early part of the reign of Elizabeth, the Flemings, as has been supposed, fleeing from the persecution of the Duke of Alva, settled at Braintree, and introduced the manufacture of woollen-cloth; but it appears that that manufacture had existed long before, it being noticed so early as 1389, in an act of parliament, intituled "The clothes of certain counties tacked and folded shall not be put to sale before they be opened."

The town is pleasantly situated on an eminence, and consists of several streets irregularly formed and inconveniently narrow. The houses in the central part, now the only remaining portion of the old town, are in general ancient, and many of them are built of wood; but in the principal street, which is the grand thoroughfare, are many well-built modern houses. The woollentrade has given place to the manufacture of silk, which has been introduced into the neighbourhood within the last 40 years, and in its various branches now affords general employment to a rapidly increasing population. The manufacture of silk-crape has more recently been established; in this branch about 1400 people are employed by the Messrs. Courtauld in the towns of Braintree, Bocking, and Halstead, in machine-making, spinning, weaving, dyeing, and crape-finishing. The total number of persons employed in the silk trade in these towns, in a recent year, was 2210, of which 660 were crape-weavers in hand and power looms, 450 silkweavers in other branches, and 1100 factory hands. Straw-platting has also been introduced, and affords occupation to a considerable number of females. In 1846 an act was passed for the construction of a railway to Witham and Maldon. The market, which is said to be equal to any in the county, is on Wednesday; the fairs commence on May 7th and October 2nd, each continuing for three days, and the latter is a great mart for cattle and hops. The county magistrates hold a pettysession for the division on alternate Wednesdays. The powers of the county debt-court of Braintree, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Braintree. The town is the place for returning two knights for the northern division of the shire.

The parish comprises 2249a. 1r. 19p. The living is a discharged vicarage, valued in the king's books at £12. 3. 4., and in the patronage of Lady Stewart; net income, £212; impropriator, the Earl of Winchilsea. The church, a spacious structure on the summit of a mount, apparently the site of an ancient camp, is principally of later English architecture, with a tower in the early style, surmounted by a shingled spire of later date. It was enlarged in the reign of Henry VIII., the expense being defrayed out of the proceeds of many plays performed in it, during the interval from 1523 to 1579, and of which several curious particulars are recorded in the churchwardens' accounts. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, and Methodists. An ancient grammar school, in which the eminent naturalist, John Ray, received his education, is supported partly by an endowment of land now let for £18 a year, bequeathed by J. Coker, Esq., partly by an annuity of £45 left by the Rev. James Burgess, and partly by voluntary contributions. In the reign of Charles I., Henry Smith, alderman of London, who, from the habit of wandering like a beggar, accompanied by his dog, obtained the appellation of "Dog Smith," bequeathed £2800 to the poor of this and 13 other parishes; and there are many other charities in the town, yielding altogether nearly £200 per annum. The union of Braintree comprises 14 parishes or places, and contains a population of 15,097: the workhouse, calculated for the reception of 300 inmates, cost £6342. About half a mile distant there were, till lately, the ruins of a church founded before the Conquest, and formerly the parish church: the site of a Roman camp, now called the Cherry Orchard, is pointed out; and many sepulchral urns, fragments of Roman pottery, and Roman coins, have been found, besides three British gold coins, supposed to be of Boadicea. This was the scene of one of the earlier martyrdoms, that of Richard Pygott, in the reign of Mary. Samuel Dale, M.D., editor of the History and Antiquities of Harwich, resided here, and assisted Ray in collecting the more rare plants in Essex; the Rev. Mr. Challis, professor of astronomy at Cambridge, is a native of the place.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.