COLCHESTER, a borough and market - town, having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the Colchester division of the hundred of Lexden, N. division of Essex, 22 miles (N. E. by E.) from Chelmsford, and 51 (N. E. by E.) from London; containing, with the parishes of Bere-Church, Greenstead, Lexden, and Mile-End, all within the liberties, 17,790 inhabitants. This place, which by some antiquaries is supposed to have been the Camalodunum of the Romans, derives its name either from its having been one of the Coloniæ established by that people in Britain, or from its situation on the river Colne. It was called by the Britons Caer Colun, and appears to have been a town of considerable importance prior to the invasion of the Romans, who, according to Tacitus and other historians, having, under the conduct of Claudius, subdued the Trinobantes and taken possession of this town, garrisoned it with the second, ninth, and fourteenth legions, styled by him the conquerors of Britain. The Roman name of the place is said to have been derived from an altar dedicated to Mars, under the name of Camulus, by which also that divinity is designated on some coins, still extant, of Cunobeline, King of the Trinobantes, who, prior to the conquest by the Romans, had his residence here. Claudius, having reduced the neighbouring country to a Roman province, appointed Platius his proprætor, and returned in triumph to Rome. After his departure, Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, taking advantage of the absence of part of the Roman legions, attacked Camalodunum, which, after a feeble resistance, she entirely demolished; but according to Pliny, and the evidence of Roman coins and other ancient inscriptions, it appears to have been soon rebuilt with increased splendour, and to have been adorned with public edifices, a temple to Claudius, a triumphal arch, and a statue to the goddess of Victory; and Constantine the Great is traditionally said to have been born in the city, which continued to flourish as a principal station of the Romans till their final departure from Britain. The Saxons, by whom it was afterwards occupied, gave it the name of Colneceaster, and it retained its consequence as a place of strength for a considerable time, but began to decline in proportion as London rose into importance. On the irruption of the Danes, it became a principal residence of that people, who, by treaty with Alfred, were established in the city and country adjacent; but re-commencing their barbarous system of plunder and devastation, Edward the Elder, in 921, took the town by assault, and putting them all to the sword, re-peopled it with West Saxons. According to the Saxon Chronicles, he repaired the walls in 922, at which time he is stated to have erected the castle, now falling to decay; but the remains of that edifice are evidently of Norman character.

Colchester was a considerable town at the time of the Norman survey, but suffered greatly in the wars of the succeeding reigns. During the turbulent reign of John, Saher de Quincy, Earl of Winchester, having assembled an army of foreigners, laid siege to the place in 1215; but on the approach of the barons, who were advancing from London to its relief, he drew off his forces and retired to Bury St. Edmund's: he afterwards got possession of the town, and, having plundered it, left a garrison in the castle, which, being invested by the king, was compelled to surrender. The castle was subsequently besieged and taken by the troops of Prince Louis, whom the barons had invited into England to their assistance, and who, thinking the opportunity favourable for conquest, kept possession of it for himself, and hoisted the banner of France upon its walls; but the barons, having submitted to their new sovereign, Henry III., retook the castle from the prince, and expelled him from the kingdom. In the reign of Edward III., the town contributed 5 ships and 170 mariners towards the naval armament for the blockade of Calais. The inhabitants, during the attempt to raise Lady Jane Grey to the throne, stedfastly adhered to the interests of Mary, whose cause they supported with so much zeal, that, very soon after her accession, the queen visited the town for the express purpose of testifying her gratitude: she was received with every public demonstration of joy, and, on her departure, was presented with a silver cup, and £20 in gold. During her reign many of the Protestant townspeople were put to death on account of their religious tenets. In 1648, the inhabitants, who during the contest between the king and the parliament had generally espoused the cause of the latter, for whose support they had raised considerable supplies of money, finding it necessary to restrain its inordinate power, formed an alliance with the royalists, who, being closely pressed by the parliamentarians, took up their station in the town, into which they were admitted by the inhabitants by treaty. The town was soon afterwards besieged by the army under Fairfax, who had been joined on his march by Col. Whalley and Sir Thomas Honeywood with 2000 horse and foot; and after a close blockade for eleven weeks, during which period the place was gallantly defended by the Earl of Norwich, Lord Capel, Sir Charles Lucas, and Sir George Lisle, the garrison, reduced to the extremity of want and suffering, surrendered to Fairfax, when Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were shot under the castle walls.

The town is built on the summit and northern acclivity of an eminence rising gently from the river Colne, over which are three bridges; and occupies a quadrilateral area inclosed by the ancient walls, within which the houses to the south and south-east are irregularly disposed. The streets are spacious, and the High-street contains many excellent houses; the town is well paved, lighted with gas, and supplied with water by an engine worked by steam. A splendid hotel was erected in 1842–3, adjoining the railway terminus, in the Italian style. The theatre, a neat and commodious edifice, erected in 1812, is opened annually by the Norwich company. A botanical society was instituted in 1823; and there is a medical society, established in 1774. The barracks here, with a park of artillery, were capable of accommodating 10,000 troops; but since the conclusion of the war they have been taken down. The woollenmanufacture appears to have been carried on so early as the reign of Edward III.; the weaving of baizes, for which the town was afterwards distinguished, was probably introduced by the Flemings in the reign of Elizabeth, and at that time employed a considerable number of the inhabitants. This manufacture was subject to certain regulations prescribed by the Baize-hall; it has been transferred to other towns. A large silk-throwing mill, established in 1825, affords occupation to about 300 hands; and there is a distillery, employing about 50 men; also a rectifying-house. The oyster-fishery on the river Colne, granted to the free burgesses by Richard I., confirmed by subsequent charters, and for the preservation of which courts of admiralty were and are still occasionally held at Mersea Stone, about 8 miles from the borough, but now generally at the town-hall, affords employment to about 600 licensed dredgemen; and numerous smacks are engaged in conveying to London the oysters, for which there is a very great demand, especially for those of Pyfleet, which are found in a small creek, and are remarkable for their flavour. The river is navigable to the suburb called the Hythe, where are a spacious quay and a custom-house. The Eastern Counties railway from London extends to this town; and, in junction with that line, commences the railway between Colchester and Ipswich, which was opened in June 1846. The markets are on Wednesday and Saturday, the latter being the principal for corn and provisions, and also a large mart for cattle and sheep: the market-place is on the north side of the High-street, and is commodiously arranged. The corn-exchange, erected a few years since, is a handsome building; the interior is 78 feet by 47, and is lighted by 19 skylights along the sides of the hall, and a clerestory lantern over the centre of it. The fairs are on July 5th and the following day; July 23rd and two following days, for cattle; and Oct. 20th for cattle, and the three following days for general merchandise. There was formerly another fair, called the Tailors' fair, from its having been granted by William III. in the same charter which incorporated the tailors of Colchester, December 15th, 1699.

This is supposed to be a Borough by prescription: it was first incorporated in 1189, by charter of Richard I., who conferred on the inhabitants many valuable privileges, which were confirmed by succeeding sovereigns, and extended by Henry V.: the charter having been forfeited on several occasions, was renewed by George III. in 1818. By the act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76, the corporation now consists of a mayor, six aldermen, and eighteen councillors; and the borough is divided into three wards, the municipal and parliamentary boundaries being co-extensive. The mayor for the time being, and for the previous year, are justices by virtue of office; and there are seven others. The borough first exercised the elective franchise in the 23rd of Edward I., since which time it has, with occasional intermissions, returned two members to parliament. The right of election was formerly vested in the free burgesses generally, whose number was about 1400; but by the act of the 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, nonresident burgesses, except within seven miles, were disfranchised, and the privilege was extended to the £10 householders of the borough, the limits of which comprise 11,055 acres. The mayor is returning officer. The recorder presides at quarterly courts of session for the borough and liberties, together extending over sixteen parishes; and the mayor and recorder hold two courts of pleas for the recovery of debts to any amount, the jurisdiction of which was extended by Edward IV. to the adjoining parishes of Bere-Church, Greenstead, Lexden, and Mile-End. These two courts are held at stated periods: one, styled the Law Hundred, for actions against free burgesses, is on Monday; and the other, called the Foreign Court, for actions against strangers or non-freemen, is on Thursday. The petty-sessions for the division are also held in the town, every Saturday. The powers of the county debt-court of Colchester, established in 1847, extend over the registration-districts of Colchester, and Lexden and Winstree, and part of Tendring district. The Town-hall, erected from the designs of Messrs. Blore and Brandon, was opened March 1st, 1845: it is of the Roman-Doric order; the front is divided by pilasters into five compartments, and is surmounted by a bold cornice and balustrade with a central compartment bearing the borough arms.

Colchester, upon very disputed authority, is supposed to have been the seat of a diocese in the early period of Christianity in Britain: Henry VIII. made it the seat of a suffragan bishop, and two bishops were successively consecrated. The town comprises within the walls the twelve Parishes of All Saints, containing 492 inhabitants; St. James, 1603; St. Martin, 937; St. Maryat-the-Walls, 1272; St. Nicholas, 1087; St. Peter, 1916; St. Runwald, 444; the Holy Trinity, 768; St. Botolph, 3003; St. Giles, 1987; St. Leonard, or the Hythe, 1119; and St. Mary Magdalen, 365. The four parishes without the walls, namely, Lexden, Bere-Church, Mile-End, and Greenstead, are considered as part of the town, but are described under their respective heads. The living of All Saints' is a rectory not in charge, with a net income of £291, and is in the gift of Balliol College, Oxford: the tithes have been commuted for £35. The church, erected in the year 1309, near the east gate of the monastery of Grey friars, which had been founded by Robert Fitzwalter in that year, consists of a nave, north aisle, and chancel, with a handsome tower of flint and stone; the south wall, now covered with cement, is of Roman bricks laid in the herring-bone style. The living of St. James' is a discharged rectory, valued in the king's books at £11. 10., and in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £98. The church is a spacious structure, built prior to the reign of Edward II.; it consists of a nave, north and south aisles, and a chancel, with a tower of Roman brick and stone, and has a fine altar-piece representing the Adoration of the Shepherds. St. Martin's is a discharged rectory, valued at £6. 13. 4.; net income, £102: the patronage is in dispute. The church, which was much damaged during the siege of the town in 1648, was repewed in 1841, when 50 free sittings were added; the steeple, built with Roman bricks, is in a ruinous state. The living of St. Mary's-at-the-Walls is a rectory, valued at £10; net income, £212; patron, the Bishop of London. The tithes have been commuted for £105, and the glebe consists of 14 acres. The church was rebuilt in 1713, with the exception of the ancient steeple, which, becoming ruinous, was repaired in 1729; it contains some ancient monuments: the churchyard is surrounded with avenues of lime-trees, and is much frequented as a promenade. St. Nicholas' is a discharged rectory, valued at £10; net income, £92; patrons, the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford. The church is ancient; the tower some years since fell down upon the nave and chancel, the latter of which is still in a ruinous state. The chapel of St. Helen, in this parish, rebuilt by Eudo in 1076, was lately used as a place of worship by the Society of Friends, and is now a Sunday school. St. Peter's is a discharged vicarage, valued at £10; net income, £285; patrons, the Trustees of the late Rev. Charles Simeon. The church, an ancient structure, was erected before the Conquest, and in Domesday book is noticed as the only church in Colchester; it was extensively repaired and modernised in 1758, when the tower at the west end was erected, and was some time since greatly beautified at an expense of £3000: the altar-piece is embellished with a fine painting, by Halls, of the Raising of Jairus' Daughter. St. Runwald's is a discharged rectory, valued at £7. 13. 4.; net income, £160; patron, Charles Grey Round, Esq. The church, which is small, was erected about the close of the thirteenth century, and is partly of brick and partly of stone, with a wooden turret rising from the centre. The living of the parish of the Holy Trinity is a discharged rectory, valued at £6. 13. 4.; net income, £158; patrons, the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford. The tithes have been commuted for £24. The church was erected in the year 1349, and consists of a nave, south aisle, and chancel, with a tower. Only a part of the tower, the west door (now closed up), and a small portion about it, are of early date; but this small part is curious from its near approximation to Roman work, being plastered over bricks, and also from its having a straight-lined arch: the arch into the church is semicircular, and of flat tiling. The edifice contains several ancient and interesting monuments, among which is one to the memory of Dr. William Gilbert, chief physician to Queen Elizabeth and James I., and author of many learned works. St. Botolph's is a perpetual curacy, in the patronage of Balliol College, and has a net income of £21: the tithes have been commuted for £230. 7. A new parish church in the Norman style, built under the superintendence of Mr. Mason, of Ipswich, at a cost, including the purchase of the site, of above £7000, was consecrated on the 25th of October, 1837; the doorway and other portions of the western elevation are designed from the Norman tower at Bury St. Edmund's: there are 1079 sittings, of which 815 are free, the Incorporated Society having granted £1000 towards the expense. The old church, which has been in ruins since the siege in 1648, exhibits indications of its original magnificence, and of the antiquity of its style, which appears to have been the early Norman, and of the same date as the neighbouring priory; it was built with bricks of extraordinary hardness, supposed to have been taken from the Roman station. The living of St. Giles' is a discharged rectory, valued at £30; patron and incumbent, the Rev. John Woodrooffe Morgan, whose tithes have been commuted for £200, and whose glebe comprises one acre and a half, with a glebe-house. The church, a very ancient structure which has been repaired and enlarged, contains a monument to the memory of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, who were shot under the walls by order of Fairfax, after the siege of the town. The living of St. Leonard's is a discharged rectory, valued at £10; net income, £129; patrons, the Master and Fellows of Balliol College. The church is a spacious structure in good preservation, and was once remarkable for the exquisite carved-work of the roof, which, having fallen into decay, was removed. The living of St. Mary Magdalen's is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £11, and in the gift of the Crown: the church is small, and pleasantly situated on Magdalen Green. On the site of the chapel of St. Anne, which stood in the parish of St. James, and was originally a hermitage, a barn has been erected, part of the chapel being incorporated with the building. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, the Society of Friends, and Wesleyans.

The Free Grammar School was founded and endowed by the corporation, to whom Queen Elizabeth, in the 26th year of her reign, granted certain ecclesiastical revenues for that purpose: the income amounts to £181. 10. Dr. Harsnet, Archbishop of York, received the rudiments of his education in the school. John Winnock in 1679 endowed almshouses for aged widows with a rent-charge of £41, to which several other benefactions were added subsequently; the income now amounts to £235. Arthur Winsley in 1726 founded and endowed almshouses for twelve men, to which six others have since been added. In 1791, John Kendall erected and endowed eight almshouses for widows whose husbands have died in Winsley's almshouses, or in default of such, for other single women: the small original endowment having been considerably augmented, the annual income amounts to about £166, and eight additional houses have been erected. Four almshouses for aged women were endowed in 1552 by Ralph Fynch with £6. 6. 8. per annum, to which £5 per annum have been added by John Lyon, and the interest of £262. 10. new four per cent. annuities by W. Godwin, together with £1000 three per cent. consols. for four additional houses: the income amounts to £51. The Essex and Colchester general hospital, completed in 1820, and supported by subscription, is a neat building of white brick, on the south side of the London road. The poor law union of Colchester comprises the twelve parishes within, and the four without, the walls.

Of the monastic establishments anciently existing here, was the hospital founded (at the command of Henry I.) for a master and leprous brethren, and dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, by Eudo, who had been a principal officer of the household to William the Conqueror and his two sons, William and Henry. The revenue at the Dissolution was £11. This hospital was refounded in 1610, by James I., for five poor brethren and a master, who is always the clergyman of the parish. The almshouses have been lately rebuilt, and are now tenanted by five widows, who receive one shilling per week each; the remainder of the income, which is very considerable, being appropriated to the master's use. Of the other establishments, the principal was St. John's Abbey, founded in the reign of Henry I. by the same Eudo, for monks of the Benedictine order, and the revenue of which, at the Dissolution, was £523. 17.: of this only the gateway is remaining, a handsome structure in the later English style, either built since the foundation of the abbey, or a subsequent addition to it. To the south of the town was a monastery of Augustine canons, founded in the reign of Henry I., and dedicated to St. Julian and St. Botolph, by Ernulphus, who afterwards became prior; at the Dissolution its revenue was £113. 12. 8.: the only remains are its stately church, now in ruins. Without the walls was an hospital, or priory, of Crutched Friars, an order introduced into England about 1244; the revenue of which, at the Dissolution, was £7. 7. 8. The priory of Franciscan or Grey Friars was founded in 1309, by Robert Fitz-Walter; the only probable remains are the parish church of All Saints.

Of the Walls by which the borough was surrounded, and in consideration of repairing which Richard II. is recorded to have exempted the burgesses from sending members to three of his parliaments, considerable portions still remain. They were strengthened by bastions, and defended on the west by an ancient fort of Roman construction, the remaining arches of which are built with Roman bricks; the north and west sides, where the town was most exposed, were protected by deep intrenchments. The entrance to the town was by four principal gates and three posterns, which have been mostly demolished. The ruins of the Castle occupy an elevated site on the north side of High-street; the form is quadrilateral, and the walls of the keep, twelve feet in thickness, are almost entire. The building is of flint, stone, and Roman brick intermixed, and is supposed to have been originally erected by the Romans, and subsequently repaired by Edward the Elder; the solidity of the structure has frustrated repeated attempts to demolish it, for the sake of the materials. The town and environs abound with relics of antiquity, among which is a quantity of Roman bricks in several of the churches and other buildings; and tessellated pavements, sepulchral urns, statues, lamps, rings, coins, medals, and almost every other species of Roman antiquities, have been discovered. Wm. Gilbert, born in 1540, physician to Elizabeth and James I., and author of a work on the qualities of the loadstone, entitled De Magnete, and other publications; and Dr. Samuel Harsnet, Archbishop of York; were natives of the place. The Rt. Hon. Charles Abbot, speaker of the house of commons (whose father was rector of All Saints), was elevated to the peerage, June 3rd, 1817, by the title of Baron Colchester, which is now enjoyed by his son.

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