The Story of Witham


Romans and Christians

The main Roman road from London to Colchester roughly followed the line of the old A12 and remains of a Romano-Celtic temple were found close to the road at Ivy Chimneys.  The site had been known since the 19th century when many finds from the Roman period were made.

A major archaeological rescue dig was undertaken before houses were built at Witham Lodge. The principal objective of the excavation was to investigate the religious aspects of the Roman site which revealed two possible temples, a pottery kiln and an artificial pond.  An early Christian baptismal font, a probable stone chapel and a further pond replaced the earlier pagan structures in the 4th century AD.  The earliest Roman pottery found dates from 70-96 AD.

The site revealed large numbers of ‘votive’ offerings to the gods, which were deposited by the followers of the Roman-Celtic religions in the same way we throw coins in a wishing well today.  Over 1,000 coins were found dating from the 2nd and 4th centuries AD while animal bones and shells suggest extensive religious feasting on the site.

The most interesting finds were Palaeolithic axes which were deliberately deposited by the Romans at temple sites.  These stone axes were believed to be ‘thunderbolts’ – the weapons of the god Jupiter.  The discovery of 32 axes at Witham suggest Jupiter must have been worshipped here.

Large quantities of jewellery fragments were discovered that had been cut into pieces before being offered to the gods.  Archaeologists suggest these were sold by vendors specifically for this purpose.

In the 4th and 5th centuries evidence for the arrival of Christianity is found in the baptismal font and possible stone chapel.  The establishment of a Christian place of worship at Witham would have been part of a gradual conversion of the people and a font would have been placed centrally at the old temple to denote the ascendancy of the new religion.  The excavations offer a fascinating glimpse of the people of the area with its rich agriculture and its importance as a stop-over for travellers on the London to Colchester road; a role which was to continue for the ensuing 1,600 years.

The Spa and Social Life

In the middle of the 18th century Witham briefly became a centre of social importance. The influx of many fashionable people caused Witham to believe that it could rivalBath and Cheltenham. The town’s transformation was due to the efforts of one man, Dr. Taverner, who in 1737 rediscovered the medicinal properties of a mineral spring.

The spring was near a row of lime trees which flanked the drive leading from Faulkbourne Road to Witham Place.  The doctor widely advertised the spring … “This most excellent mineral water whose singular virtues and efficacy will render it beneficial in many if not in most chronic diseases incident to mankind”.  To encourage visitors to the town he convinced them that the water was “of so exceedingly volatile a nature” that it could not be transported “even if the bottles are ever so carefully corked and cemented”.  Dr. Taverner encouraged the local inns not only to accommodate visitors but also to entertain them.  So both The White Hart and The George held assembly balls, concerts, dinners and card games; at The Black Boy, even cock fighting was provided to attract aristocratic clients. The success of the spa was shortlived. After Dr Taverner died in 1748 it gradually declined in popularity, with only a brief revival among the local townspeople around 1796. The appearance of Witham changed dramatically during this time as false Georgian facades were added to existing timber-frame buildings.  Horace Walpole wrote: “What pleased me most in my travels was Dr. Sayer’s parsonage in Witham which he has made one of the most charming villas in England”.

By the end of the 18th century, a young doctor recorded that Witham was “a smart little town with rather high aristocratic pretensions”.  The Pattison family, major landowners in the town, were well connected socially and renowned for the sophistication of their entertaining.  They spent a great deal of money buying property in Witham and were responsible for much of the refronting of the buildings in Newland Street, including their own home, Witham House, now the Midland Bank at No. 57.

However, the gentrification was not to everyone’s taste and a century later the Reverend John Bramston wrote: “What I most complain of is that from that time a universal spirit of sham seemed to come over our houses.  Every cottage must needs look like a mansion, every dwelling must be ashamed of its roof and put on a new brick front …”.

The Eighteenth Century Revival

The political and economic upheavals of the last 17th century initiated the decline of the wool industry, and records show that by 1750 only two firms were producing cloth. Ten years later only one family, the Darbys, continued to employ Witham’s weavers in making bay cloth. The cloth trade’s final collapse was brought about by the wars in Europe which cut off Essex from its markets in Spain and Portugal.

The town’s population grew gradually and the surrounding farms continued to proposer. In the 18th century the road to London, with its increasing traffic, began to revitalise the town and its inns became noted by travellers from London to the Eastern Counties.

In 1711, two coaches a week linked London and Harwich, stopping overnight at Witham. By the middle of the century the Harwich coach was running daily while other services starting in Ipswich, Colchester and Norwich also used Witham as a stopover. Prices were relatively high – a coach journey from Witham to London in 1758 cost 12 shillings inside and 6 shillings outside. The Blue Posts Inn, the site of number 126 Newland Street, was particularly noted for its services, prompting one traveller to write:”Travellers frequently boast of the charms of an inn, but the Blue Posts at Witham is the best that I’ve seen. The rooms are so clean, and so delicious the diet, the servants all round desirous to please, that you find yourself here completely at east”. By the early 19th century there were eleven coaches calling at the town’s inns, with as many as 1,500 horses being stabled overnight. Famous customers included two sons of King George III.

The fortunes of the Town Hall, then “The George” also changed in the 18th century with the success of the passing coach trade. By the 1780’s the premises included “a spacious assembly room, large and small dining parlours, good bed chambers, wine vaults and beer cellars, a complete brewing office, stabling for upwards of seventy horses with good hay and granaries, coach house, a garden well stocked with every convenience that is fitting for an inn”.

Window on the World

The Crittall Company started in Braintree as an ironmongers becoming, in 1889 the Crittall Manufacturing Company for the production of metal window frames. These had far reaching effects on the architecture of the 20th century.

The company became pivotal in the production of munitions during the First World War and the technology developed to produce ammunition boxes was thought to have potential for producing steel office furniture.  In 1919 a factory was built in Braintree Road, Witham for this purpose.  It was the most modern in the country but the venture was not a success and the furniture business was sold to Sankey Sheldon and the factory turned over to metal window production, playing a part in the worldwide market for Crittall’s metal frames. The hot dip galvanizing process was perfected at Witham.

The success of the company led to the building of Silver End between Witham and Braintree, the unique Modernist village was started in 1925 by Francis Henry Crittall and his sons Walter and Valentine, later Lord Braintree. Between 1920 and the town redevelopment in the late 1960s, Crittalls were the largest employers in the town.  In 1974 the company was taken over by Norcros and renamed Crittall Windows.  In 1990 a new factory was built in Braintree and all work transferred from Witham. This  led to the closure of the Braintree Road factory, now the site of a supermarket, which was designed to reflect the architecture of the Modern Movement.