Chelmsford (St. Mary)

CHELMSFORD (St. Mary), a market-town and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Chelmsford, S. division of Essex, of which it is the chief town, 29 miles (N. E. by E.) from London, on the road to Yarmouth; containing, with the hamlet of Moulsham, 6789 inhabitants. This place, which is within a short distance of the Cæsaromagus of the Romans, derives its name from an ancient ford on the Chelmer, near the natural confluence of that river with the Cann, into which its stream is previously diverted by an artificial channel near the bridge. In the reign of Edward the Confessor, and at the time of the Norman survey, it was in the possession of the bishops of London; and two buildings, still called Bishop's Hall and Bishop's Mill, seem to indicate its having been either permanently or occasionally their residence. In other respects it was an inconsiderable place till the reign of Henry I., when Maurice, Bishop of London, built a stone bridge of three arches over the river Cann; and, diverting the road, which previously passed through Writtle, made Chelmsford the great thoroughfare to the eastern parts of the county, and to Suffolk and Norfolk. From this period the town increased in importance; and its trade so much improved, that, in the reign of Edward III., it sent four representatives to a grand council at Westminster. A convent for Black, or Dominican, friars existed at an early date, the foundation of which has been erroneously attributed to Malcolm, King of Scotland: its revenue, at the Dissolution, was £9. 6. 5. In this convent, of which only the site is visible, Thomas Langford, a friar, compiled a Universal Chronicle, from the creation to his own time. During the late war with France, two extensive ranges of barracks, for 4000 men, were erected near the town, both of which have been taken down; and at a short distance from it, a line of embankments, defended by star batteries, of which some traces are still remaining, was raised to protect the approaches to the metropolis from the eastern coast.

The town is surrounded by interesting scenery. It is well paved, and lighted with gas: the houses, several of which, on both sides of the town, have gardens extending to the river, are in general modern and well built; and the inhabitants are amply supplied with water. Considerable improvements have been made of late years in the appearance of the neighbourhood: a handsome iron bridge has been erected over the Chelmer; and more recently a road has been formed, which, commencing at the twenty-eighth milestone on the London road, and crossing the river Cann by an elegant iron bridge (about one hundred yards from the stone bridge, erected in 1787, and connecting Chelmsford with the hamlet of Moulsham), enters the town about the centre of the High-street. A building called the Institute has been erected for the delivery of lectures, for concerts, and public meetings; and near the Eastern Counties railway, which passes a little to the west, numerous villas have been erected: this railway has a station here, 21 miles from the Colchester station, and 30 from the London terminus. Races, which continue for two days, are held in August, on Galleywood Common, about two miles distant, where is an excellent two-mile course.

The trade consists principally in corn, which is sent to London, and in the traffic arising from the situation of the town as a great public thoroughfare: there are several large corn-mills on the banks of the Chelmer. A navigable canal to the river Blackwater, twelve miles distant, was constructed in 1796. The market is on Friday, for corn, cattle, and provisions; and fairs are held on May 12th and November 12th. The town is within the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who hold petty-sessions for the division every Tuesday and Friday; and constables and other officers are appointed at the court leet of the lord of the manor, who also holds a court baron occasionally. The powers of the county debt-court of Chelmsford, established in 1847, extend over the registration-districts of Chelmsford and Witham. The assizes and sessions for the county, and the election of knights for the southern division of the shire, take place here. The shire-hall is an elegant and commodious structure, fronted with Portland stone, and having a rustic basement, from which rise four handsome pillars of the Ionic order, supporting a triangular pediment; the front is ornamented with appropriate figures, in basso-relievo, of Wisdom, Justice, and Mercy: in the lower part is an area for the corn-market. The old county gaol, a spacious stone building, in Moulsham, was completed in 1777, at an expense of upwards of £18,000; it is appropriated exclusively to the reception of persons confined for debt, and of prisoners committed for trial. Adjoining the gaol, and incorporated with it, is the house of correction, for convicted female prisoners; it was built in 1806, at a cost of about £7500. The new convict gaol at Springfield Hill, on the road to Colchester, is a very extensive and well-arranged edifice of brick ornamented with stone, completed in 1825, at an expense of £55,739; and since enlarged. A building has been erected within the last few years for the reception of vagrants.

The parish comprises 2348 acres, the soil of which is generally a deep rich loam, occasionally intermixed with gravel, and producing fair average crops. The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £31. 2. 6., and in the patronage of Lady St. John Mildmay: the tithes have been commuted for £500, and the glebe contains 15¾ acres, with a glebe-house. The body of the church has been rebuilt, at an expense of £15,000, the former having fallen down in 1800, from the unskilfulness of some workmen who, in digging a vault, undermined two of the principal pillars: it is a stately structure in the later English style, with a square embattled tower, crowned with pinnacles, and surmounted by a lofty spire. A chapel in a modern style has been erected at Moulsham, on a site given by Lady Mildmay. There are places of worship for Independents, Baptists, Irvingites, the Society of Friends, Wesleyans, and Roman Catholics. The free grammar school was founded and endowed, in 1551, by Edward VI.: the income is about £488; and, in common with the schools at Maldon and Brentwood, it has an exhibition of £6 per annum to Caius College, Cambridge. The school-house was built by R. Benyon, Esq., in 1782, on the site of a more ancient one erected by Sir John Tyrrell, Bart. Philemon Holland, translator of Camden's Britannia, and a native of Chelmsford; John Dee, the celebrated mathematician; Sir Walter Mildmay, Bart., founder of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; and Dr. Plume, Archdeacon of Rochester, received the rudiments of their education in the establishment. The union of Chelmsford comprises 31 parishes or places, and contains a population of 30,603. The inhabitants of an island in the river have from time immemorial practised the form of electing a representative, on a dissolution of parliament or the vacation of a member for the county: the ceremony concludes with the chairing of the successful candidate, who is dipped in the river, and the chair broken to pieces.

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