Prehistory & Creeksea Cliffs
Burnham on Crouch used to be thousands of miles south of where it is now, south of the equator.
About 300m years ago it was at the centre of the supercontinent, Pangaea, made up of all the Earth’s continents.
Pangaea started breaking up around 100m years later, sending us north under the slow propulsion created by plate tectonics and continental drift.
This animation, from Cambridge Earth Sciences, gives you a rough idea of Britain’s journey over the last 450m years.
Evidence of our prehistory can be found at the Creeksea cliffs, where fossil-hunters still regularly find sharks’ and rays’ teeth from a time, 50m years ago, when this part of the British landmass was submerged.
How old is the Earth and the universe?
The Earth itself is some 4.6 billion years old.
The sun and the rest of the solar system, is a similar age. There is evidence to suggest that our existing solar system coalesced from the remains of a previous star in this location, which exploded in a supernova.
The universe itself is around 13.6 billion years old – that’s the estimated time back to the Big Bang. What happened before that, no one has any real idea, but current thinking includes Brane theory, which suggests the Big Bang was created by the collision of other, older universes…
Burnham on Crouch has been, for time out of mind, an area of marsh and rich farmland.
Neolithic remains and bronze age burial sites have been found in the area, and there is much evidence of Roman and Iron Age settlement too.
In 1016 Edmund Ironside’s army fought the Danish leader Canute at the battle of Ashingdon on the opposite bank of the Crouch. Canute won, chasing King Edmund across the Crouch. Canute was duly crowned King of England.
The hill of Canewdon, to the southwest of Burnham, can be seen from West Quay. This is one of the many sites where it is reputed that King Canute demonstrated his inability to turn back the incoming tide.
In 1086 the Domesday Book listed Burnham as Burnheham. It was around this time that St Mary’s Church was built, initially constructed from Roman brick and flint.
In 1253 the High Street was widened to allow for a market granted by Royal Charter to the Fitzwilliam family who owned the local manor. A four-day fair was traditionally held in the High Street in mid-September. In modern times, this is effectively replaced with the Carnival, which, if you include the funfair, lasts from Thursday to Sunday – the last weekend of September.
In medieval times the town continued to grow under the impetus of trade from the river and the sea.
By the 1300s the town had split into two parts, with the southern part growing around the river and the High Street, and with St Mary’s Church and the adjoining manor house a mile inland. This northern area is now reflected electorally as the North Ward.
The Harris Family and Creeksea Place
In the 1500s, the Harris Family were the dominant local force; Edward Harris built Creeksea Place, which remained in the family until the 19th century.
This historic building is now the centrepiece of the Creeksea Caravan Park (the 1960s BBC series of Great Expectations was filmed here). The sword of Sir William Harris is displayed in the Church of Creeksea.
In 1650, John Washington, son of the Vicar of nearby Purleigh, was one of the first Englishmen to emigrate to America . His Great Grandson was George Washington the first President of USA. The Civil war saw the area supporting the Parliamentarians.
In 1665 the Great Plague hit the area, making heroes of sailors from Burnham and Bradwell – they were the only people taking grain to London at the time. They were honoured for their bravery and allowed to land grain in London without duty forever.
Oysters – Essex Gold
The river continued to dominate the town and fishing became a major force. The Mildmay family was granted the exclusive rights to the River Crouch by Charles I. In 1661 the rights to oyster beds in the river were leased to local companies and, over time, Crouch Oysters came to national fame.
By the late 1700s the Oyster beds were commanding large rents and employed many men – some to cultivate and some to protect the oysters from thieves.
The oyster beds continued in production until the 1990s, when pollution reduced the oysters to unprofitable levels. The river, however, is apparently beginning to get cleaner…
The marshland was reclaimed for farming rather than summer grazing of sheep during the Industrial revolution. Southminster became the dominant market in the area.
Smuggling continued to be a major cottage industry with battles between smugglers and coast guards a regular feature. The hulk of a boat called Kangaroo was moored on the site of the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club to house the families of local Coast Guards and on the opposite bank of the river Darwin’s ‘Beagle’ served a similar purpose.
Napoleonic Sea Defences
During the Napoleonic wars Burnham built sea defences with a battery of 24-pounder guns manned by the Sea Fencibles.
Improving Roads and the Rail Revolution
Contact with the outside world improved in 1800 when a coach route from Burnham to Southminster and Maldon was established which by 1848 had been expanded to Chelmsford.
The next major change was the coming of the railway in 1889 with a branch line from Wickford to Southminster passing through Burnham. Materials to build the new railway were brought by river on Thames barges – ironic enough, since, as a consequence, the railway was the doom of the Thames barge, which until then had been the primary means of moving heavy loads up to London.
With the economy booming in the late 1800s, yachting began to become more and more fashionable. The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club and London Sailing Clubs opened in Burnham in 1892 . These clubs led to the formation of other clubs and encouraged the development of boatyards, sailmakers and other allied industries which came to dominate the river front and give Burhham its special character.
The end-of-season regatta, Burnham Week, helped propel the town into national prominence as a yachting centre.
Do visit the Burnham museum, on West Quay.
You will find there much of the history of the town recorded in fascinating detail, in artifacts, documents, pictures and recordings.
They also sell a series of fascinating books written by local historians.