Arms of Colchester Borough Council
- This article is about the town in England. For other towns with the same name, see Colchester (disambiguation).
Colchester is an historical town in the north of the English county of Essex, with a population of about 160,000. It is the main town in the borough of Colchester, and is one of the towns which claim to be Britain's oldest town.
Colchester lies 54 miles (87 km) east of London, with direct links into the capital via the A12/M25 road network, or 47 minutes by train into the heart of the city.
Colchester is the oldest recorded Roman town in England, although it existed as a Celtic settlement before the Roman conquest and there is archaeological evidence of settlement 3,000 years ago. Its Celtic name was "Camulodunon", meaning "the Fortress of Camulos". (Camulos was the Celtic god of war.) This name was modified to the Roman spelling of "Camulodunum" (written "CAMVLODVNVM").
Camulodunum was the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe. King Cunobelinus (or "Cunobelinus") (Cymbeline in William Shakespeare's play and "Old King Cole" of the nursery rhyme) was ruler of the Catuvellauni when the Romans invaded Britain in AD43.
A Roman legionary fortress was established at Colchester in AD43. This was the first permanent legionary fortress to be built in Britain. Later, when the Roman frontier moved north (c. AD49), Colchester became a colonia known as Colonia Claudia Victricensis (written "COLONIA CLAVDIA VICTRICENSIS"). Colchester was the first Roman capital of Britain before this was later moved to the more accessible site of London.
A Roman monumental temple was built at Colchester in c. AD44 and was dedicated to the Emperor Claudius as The Temple of the Divine Claudius. The temple was completely destroyed during Boudicca's rebellion in AD61.
Colchester was the only place in the province of Britannia where samian ware was produced (for a short time). Roman brick making and wine growing also took place in the area. Bricks have been made in Colchester (or in the surrounding area) for around 2,000 years.
Many Roman mosaics and artefacts have been found in subsequent archaeological digs in the town and some can be seen at the Colchester Castle museum. The Roman walls still survive (they are the most complete in the country) and they contain the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain. Many holes have been cut in the walls over the years and the history of the whole town can be seen in its surviving structure. Medieval buttresses, shops and steps are still present in Colchester.
Medieval Colchester's main landmark is Colchester Castle, which is an 11th century Norman keep, and built atop the vaults of the old Roman temple. The castle is surrounded by the landscaped Castle Park. The castle is a minute's walk from the high street.
The Benedictine abbey of St. John the Baptist, generally known as "Colchester Abbey" or "St. John's Abbey," had a beautiful late 11th century church until the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the execution of its abbot in 1539. Now all that remains of it is its gate, which is still a tourist attraction on St. John's Green and the small church with a wooden tower (St. Leonard's) which was built for the layworkers on the site.
The Augustinian priory of St. Botolph, generally known as "St. Botolph's Priory", was also established in the 11th century. Today, all that remains of the priory are ruins. This adopted the Augustinian Order in around 1200 and became the mother church of the order in Britain. The present church is Victorian.
In addition, Colchester had eight other medieval (Norman) churches within the walls. These were:
- St. Mary at the Walls
- Built against the Roman Walls, this church was the site on which Protestants were burnt during the reign of Mary I. The largest number of 'heretics' was burnt in Colchester in Britain after London. The tower was used as a gun emplacement during the Civil War by the Royalist army. The tower of the Norman church remains, the rest was built subsequently. It is an arts centre today. The body of the church is Victorian with a Norman tower which was repaired in around 1750 after civil war damage. (See Humpty Dumpty)
- St. Martin's
- Still survives in its original Norman state. It is currently unused. Its tower was damaged during the Civil War and was never repaired. The key is available from the Colchester Castle museum.
- St. Runwald's
- Only three churches were ever built to St. Runwald in Britain. The one in Colchester was knocked down in the 1860s. It used to stand in the High Street and the graveyard is still in West Stockwell Street, behind the Colchester Town Hall.
- St. Nicolas
- Used to have the highest spire in Colchester but it was knocked down in the 1950s by the church authorities who no longer needed the site. The site was redeveloped for use as a department store (St Nicolas House) by the Colchester Co-operative Society.
- All Saint's
- Is now used as the Natural History Museum (opposite Colchester Castle).
- Holy Trinity
- The oldest church in Colchester. Parts of the tower could date to around 1050 (The Saxon period) when an earlier church building existed there. There is a unique pointed Saxon doorway in the West side of the tower.
- St James the Great
- Is still used as a church in Colchester. It stands to the East side of the town near the town wall.
- St Peter's
- Also still a church with a surviving bell tower. The bells can be heard every Thursday in the town centre. The church is always open through the day and details of its history are available there.
In 1189, Colchester was granted its first Royal Charter by King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart.) The charter was granted at Dover with the King about to embark on one of his many journeys away from England. The borough celebrated the 800th anniversary of its charter in 1989  (http://www.oysterfayre.flyer.co.uk/1989newsreports.html).
There were many other charters were granted by successive monarchs. The 1413 Charter granted by Henry V is on display in the Castle Museum  (http://www.colchestermuseums.org.uk/CM_html/toptens/cm_topten1.html).
The 1189 charter granted the borough rights to the oyster fishery in the estuary of the River Colne.
Between 1550 and 1600, a large number of weavers and clothmakers from Flanders emigrated to Colchester and the surrounding areas where they were affectionately referred to as the 'Dutch'. They were famed for the production of Bays and Says cloth. An area in Colchester town centre is still known as the Dutch Quarter and many buildings there date from the Tudor period. During this period Colchester was one of the most prosperous wool towns in England.
Siege of Colchester
In 1648, Colchester was thrown into the thick of the English Civil War when a large Royalist army (led by Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle) entered the largely parliamentarian town. They were hotly pursued from Kent by a Roundhead army led by Sir Thomas Fairfax who besieged the town for eleven and a half weeks. By that time, many of the town's most ancient monuments like St. Mary's Church and the Gate of St. John's Abbey were partially destroyed and the inhabitants were reduced to eating candles and boots. When the Royalists surrendered in the late summer, Lucas and Lisle were shot in the grounds of Colchester Castle. The spot is marked by an obelisk today and there is a myth that no grass will grow in this area (it has since been covered with tarmac to make sure.)
At around 9:20 in the morning of April 22, 1884, the Colchester area was at the epicentre of the UK's most destructive earthquake, estimated to have been 5.2 on the Richter Scale, and lasting for about 20 seconds. The quake was felt over much of southern England and into Europe, and over 1,200 buildings were destroyed or damaged.
The Times for Wednesday, April 23 reported damage "in the many villages in the neighbourhood from Colchester to the sea coast", with many poor people made homeless, and estimated the financial cost of the quake at 10,000 pounds sterling. Great damage was also reported in Wivenhoe and Ipswich, and buildings destroyed included Langenhoe church, and the Rose and Crown Inn at Peldon. The death of a child at Rowhedge was also reported.
A copy of the Report on the East Anglian Earthquake of April 22nd 1884 can be found in the Colchester local library.
As well as the medieval landmarks above, Colchester's tourist attractions include Colchester Zoo, situated in Stanway and a number of civic and historical museums. The borough is home to the University of Essex and the Colchester United football club.
Colchester is ideally situated for tourists wishing to visit Constable Country in the Dedham Vale. It is also the setting for many of John Grant's Lovejoy novels and is an ideal base for touring the picturesque villages of Lovejoy Country.
Rights to the Colchester oyster fishery were granted by Richard I in the royal charter of 1189. The "Colchester Natives" (the native oyster, Ostrea Edulis) are world famous. They graced the tables of the Czar's court in St Petersburg, and the finest restaurants in Paris.
The oyster fishery is officially "opened" on the first Friday of September each year. The Mayor of Colchester, the Town Clerk, and the Town Sergeant take passage on an oyster dredger out into the Pyefleet Channel of the Colne estuary off Mersea Island, in full civic regalia. A flotilla of small boats carrying invited guests follows the Mayor out into the channel. Oaths are sworn, pledging devotion to the monarch. The Mayor dredges and consumes the first oyster of the season. The Mayor and guests then proceed to an oyster lunch which celebrates the opening of the fishery.
On the last Friday in October each year, the Mayor of Colchester hosts a grand civic Oyster Feast in the Moot Hall. The feast dates to the 14th century. The feast is attended by civic dignitaries from around the nation, and worthies from the world of arts and entertainment. The Mayor also invites Colchester citizens who are active in local charities, civic bodies, and good causes. There is a public lottery to ensure that every citizen of the borough has the chance to attend this prestigious event.
In recent years the Colchester Labour Party and Trades Council have organised an "Alternative Oyster Feast" to provide a hearty meal and enjoyable entertainment for the town's pensioners.
Colchester Army Garrison
Colchester has been an important military garrison since the Roman era. The first permanent military garrison in Colchester was established by the Legio XX Valeria Victrix in AD 43.
Colchester was an important barracks during the Napoleonic Wars and throughout the Victorian era. During the First World War several battalions of Kitchener's Army were trained there. Today, there are considerable plans to build a new and modern barracks out of the town to free up building land in the centre and replace the Victorian buildings. There are hopes that some of the original architecture will be conserved for heritage.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in Sepetember 1939 Colchester was the home garrison of 4th Infantry Division. Resident units on 3rd September 1939 included 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment, 1st Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, 17th/21st Lancers, 27th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, 30th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, and 14th Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery. The division deployed to France in 1940 as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
During Second World War the town was ringed by over 120 pillboxes or other defensive structures. The town was defended by members of 8th Essex Battalion of the Home Guard. Colchester was bombed by the Luftwaffe in July 1940 during The Blitz.
The Colchester Garrison is currently home to 16 Air Assault Brigade (http://www.army.mod.uk/16_aaslt_bde/). The brigade has 3 air assault infantry battalions, 3 air assault aviaition battalions, 1 artillery regiment, and supporting units (engineer, signals, logistics, medical). The brigade has deployed in support of Operation Bessemer (Macedonia 2001), Operation Fingal (Afghanistan 2002), and Operation Telic (Iraq 2003).
The Territorial Army is currently represented in Colchester by 45 Squadron, 36 (Eastern) Signal Regiment (Volunteers) (http://www.army.mod.uk/royalsignals/36sigregt/index.htm). During World War II Colchester's "Terriers" included 2nd/5th Battalion Essex Regiment, and 104th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (Essex Yeomanry).
Garrison Radio (http://www.army.mod.uk/garrisonradio/colchester/) broadcasts locally on 1350 AM.
University of Essex
The University of Essex is located in a parkland setting on the edge of Colchester, close to the village Wivenhoe.
Colchester is also home to one of the campuses of Anglia Polytechnic University.
The Colchester and East Essex Co_operative Society (http://www.colchester.coop/) was founded in 1861 by a small group of Colchester citizens who came together to discuss a new enterprise.
The co-operative movement has its roots in the early part of the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution brought many problems, and families had difficulties obtaining food of acceptable quality at fair prices. The development of shops did not keep pace with the growth of the new industrial communities, and unscrupulous shopkeepers maintained a monopoly of trade in their localities. The need and ability to organise, together with the social needs and self-help values of the Victorian era, spawned the co-operative movement which was to revolutionise retailing.
Today the society is the largest independent retail chain in the region with £140 million net sales (2004) and a net asset value of £59 million. A dividend ("the divi") of £1.6 million was paid to society members.
The society maintains town centre and neighbourhood stores.
The world famous Paxman diesels business has been associated with Colchester since 1865 when James Noah Paxman founded a partnership with the brothers Henry and Charles Davey ('Davey, Paxman, and Davey') and opened the Standard Ironworks at a location in the town centre. In 1876 James Paxman obtained a site on Hythe Hill and the company moved to the "New" Standard Ironworks.
Davey, Paxman and Davey conducted business as general engineers and ironworkers. The company manufactured steam engines, boilers, agricultural machinery, and mill gearing. By the early 1870s the company was supplying machinery to the Kimberley diamond mines in South Africa.
In 1925 Paxman produced its first spring injection oil engine and joined the English Electric Diesel Group in 1966 - later becoming part of the GEC Group. Since the 1930s the Paxman company's main business has been the production of diesel engines. Paxman engines are world famous. They are used in fast naval patrol craft, submarines, and high speed trains. At its peak, the Paxman works covered 23 acres (93,000 m²) and employed over 2,000 people.
Examples where Paxman diesels are in use include the Type 23 Frigate, the Upholder class Submarine, the Intercity 125 High Speed Train.
Paxman became part of MAN B&W Diesel Ltd in 2000. In 2003 the company announced proposals to transfer manufacturing to Stockport. The last production engine to be built in Colchester was completed on 15th September 2003. This marked the end of 138-years manufacturing by Paxman of Colchester. All that is left on the Standard Works site is the Diesel Service (Spares, Service and Overhaul) activities, employing around 100 people.