Picture of a vintage railway standing on a platform ready to set off.

Explore our industrial past

Some of the earliest reminders of Essex’s industries are its mills, originally used to grind corn. Earliest of all are its watermills, first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, many subsequently rebuilt as technologies improved throughout the centuries. By the 1820s there were about 100 watermills as well as some 285 windmills in Essex. Among the best preserved are Bourne Mill in Colchester and Alderford Mill at Sible Hedingham. Tidal mills made use of the power of the tide in coastal areas and a rare working example stands at Thorrington Tide Mill, a scenic stroll along the creek from Arlesford.

Some of the earliest reminders of Essex’s industries are its mills, originally used to grind corn. Earliest of all are its watermills, first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, many subsequently rebuilt as technologies improved throughout the centuries. By the 1820s there were about 100 watermills as well as some 285 windmills in Essex.

Shot of the windmill with a daffodil in the foreground.
Rayleigh Windmill

Building on the past

So old and still around

Compilation of various historic buildings in Essex.

 

As the middle Ages progressed, the medieval cloth industry took on a growing importance. The enormous wealth it brought to Essex is evident in the many fine timber-framed buildings and ornate churches which date from this era. Colchester was the most important cloth centre with its ‘Dutch Quarter', settled by weavers from the Low Countries, still today retaining the character of a medieval town.

Braintree was another important cloth town with fine medieval buildings. The museum has displays interpreting the history of the industry. Elsewhere, less common trades such as saffron cultivation, salt production and cutlery making brought prosperity to Saffron Walden, Maldon and Thaxted.

The wheels of the Industrial Revolution began to turn in England towards the end of the 18th century, shifting the focus of production from man to machine, and altering the face of the landscape forever.

The cloth industry saw traditional home weaving replaced with looms powered by water and steam. Braintree, Halstead and Colchester became internationally important silk manufacturing centres while, at Waltham Abbey, the Royal Gunpowder Mills grew to become one of the largest gunpowder producers in the world. As Essex moved on into the 20th century, engineering took on new significance and companies like Marconi and metal window manufacturers, Crittall’s, became world famous.

As the middle Ages progressed, the medieval cloth industry took on a growing importance. The enormous wealth it brought to Essex is evident in the many fine timber-framed buildings and ornate churches which date from this era.

What the cloth industry left behind

Picture of a timberframed building with lots of pargetting on the plaster.

The name Saffron was added to Walden in the Middles Ages when Saffron Walden became the major English centre for the production of the saffron crocus used to produce dye for cloth, food colouring and medicine. Crammed with historic buildings, many featuring decorative pargetting plasterwork, as well as galleries and antique shops, it is a beautiful place to stroll.

Picture of a white weather-boarded windmill with shrubs in the foreground.

Windmilling in Britain began around the late 12th century, by which time watermills were already well established. By the 1820s, there were about 285 windmills in Essex. A number have been restored today and are open to the public, including the white-sailed post mills at Finchingfield and Mountnessing, Upminster’s smock mill and the tower mills at Rayleigh and Stock.

Richly carved and decorated timberframed merchants house with terracotta coloured plaster in between

An excellent place to see the fruits of the cloth industry is Coggeshall where the timbered Woolpack Inn commemorates the town’s wealth. The nearby church houses memorials to local merchants, including Thomas Paycocke whose house is possibly the finest medieval domestic building in Essex, its elaborate carvings witness to the wealth of the merchant class.

A bygone era

Picture of a white timberframed building that is over 500 years old.

Perhaps the most unusual of Essex’s traditional industries was the cutlery industry of Thaxted. With no particular advantages in raw materials, the Cutlers prospered in the town, building parts of the beautiful church and contributing towards the construction of the unique timber-framed Guildhall which dominates the marketplace.

Picture of a spinning wheel.

Braintree’s claim to silk weaving fame stems from the successes of the Courtauld family, whose story is told at the Braintree District Museum. Around the corner is the Warner Textile Archive, whose 80,000 display items, including Chinese silk and patterns, represent one of the largest collections outside the V&A.

Exterior of the bulding showing the side with light blue claddings and the chimney.

The Great Dunmow Maltings dating from 1560 retain much of the original malting infrastructure used to produce malt by hand throughout the building's active life of 400 years. Beautifully and sympathetically restored, the Maltings are a visitor attraction incorporating the Town Museum on the ground floor.

The wheels of progress

PIcture of two red old cannons standing on a lawn next to each other.

Kept secret for over 300 years, it was at the Royal Gunpowder Mills that successive governments produced gunpowder for Britain's wars as well as explosives for Barnes Wallis' WWII Bouncing Bomb. Exhibitions, historic buildings, land train tours and a range of shows and interactive displays bring the story alive.

Picture of a black steam engine.

Soak up some railway heritage with a trip on the county’s longest heritage line at the Epping-Ongar Railway or visit a museum packed with restored locomotives and memorabilia. Choose from the Colne Valley Railway, Mangapps Railway Museum or the East Anglian Railway Museum, which lies adjacent to Chappel’s famous viaduct.

Interior of the museum showing various broadcasting equipment.

Chelmsford's importance as a centre of industry was secured by the arrival of Guglielmo Marconi who opened the world's first ‘wireless’ factory here in 1898. The company was responsible for some of the most important telecommunications advances in the world, including the world’s first wireless broadcast service.

You might also like these

Featured mills

Rayleigh Windmill and Museum

Rayleigh 01702 318120

 
 
 
Thorrington Tidemill

Colchester 07717 867178

 
 

Other museums of interest

Braintree District Museum

Braintree 01376 325266

 
 
 
Saffron Walden Museum

Saffron Walden 01799 510333

 
 
 
Harlow Museum

Harlow 01279 413412

 
 

Stay a while longer

Wakes Hall Lodges

AA 5 Star Self-catering £708-£1196 pupw sleeps 2-5, Colchester

 
 
Puttocks Farm B & B

VisitEngland 4 Star Farmhouse £69 prpnb, Great Dunmow