Maritime Heritage

Maldon’s Maritime Heritage

“THE GREAT GLORY OF MALDON IS ITS RIVER”. That statement is as true today as it was when it was written by one-time Maldon mayor and local historian, Edward Arthur Fitch, back in 1894. Maldon is rich in Maritime Heritage and the River Blackwater has been a major feature throughout the annals of the area’s past. Prehistoric man certainly knew the Blackwater and exploited the resources around the estuary. Early Neolithic peoples had a fishing industry here and the decision to establish a hill-fort in the early Iron Age had a lot to do with the strategic position overlooking the river valley below. Later on there would have been a Romano-British harbour somewhere nearby and during the Saxon Period the town was invaded by a fleet of 93 Viking long-ships, under the command of Olaf Tryggvason (later King of Norway).

The River Blackwater is saltier than the sea itself and the Domesday Survey (of 1085/86) mentions several salt works in parishes along its banks. Maldon Salt continues to be famous world wide. (In fact surviving ‘Red Hills’ indicate salt production dating back to Roman times). In 1171 a Royal Charter, granted by King Henry II, confirmed an earlier order that Maldon should provide, when necessary, a “ship of war”. Thus began an important local industry of ship and boat building. In 1347 two Maldon vessels took part in the Siege of Calais and from 1378 the Borough coat-of-arms displayed a ship alongside the Royal Lions of England.

A wool merchant from the staple of Calais, named John Fenne, died on 15/8/1486 and is buried in St. Mary’s church, perhaps suggesting a commercial link by sea between Maldon and Calais. There is a surviving Admiralty Seal for Maldon dated 1490. During the 16th century the town prospered as a port and a surviving map of the waterfront, dated 1516, shows two new wharves, a limekiln, a crane, coal and chalk heaps and shops and storehouses. Maldon received important Admiralty Rights from 1528 onwards, allowing courts to settle maritime disputes and offences. On 2/7/1588 Mary Tudor planned to escape abroad on a friendly merchant ship, via Maldon, but in the event this did not happen. Maldon contributed a ship to assist in repelling the Spanish Armada (1588). An important ship of 556 tons called the ‘Jersey’ was built here in 1654 and, for a short period, its notional “Captain” was the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys.

In the 18th century the town’s maritime trade steadily developed. In 1700 about 100 ships left the town annually for other British ports, but by 1823 10 (larger) ships left every week. The Industrial Revolution hailed two new types of craft to Maldon waters – the Thames Sailing Barges transporting various cargos (such as coal, cement, hay, grain, corn, manure, bricks, explosives and beer) to and from the town and a fleet of Fishing Smacks also worked the river. Both of these craft reached their working heyday during the late 19th century and various examples were built in town, by firms such as Cook & Woodward (later Walter Cook & Son) and John Howard (at his Shipways Yard). Preserved barges and smacks still sail the Blackwater. Wildfowling using locally produced punts and guns was also popular during the 19th century and still takes place on a limited scale today. Recreational swimming, sailing and boating also greatly developed in the 19th century.

To explore this maritime past today, one only has to visit the town’s Hythe Quay. At the Hythe (a Saxon word meaning “haven”, “wharf” or “landing place”) we can look up at the tower of the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ‘Fisherman’s Church’. The present building dates from 1130 and, following a collapse, the tower was re-built in 1636 by Royal decree, as it served as a beacon for shipping. The barge hulks on the saltings opposite are the remains of the ‘Scotia’ of London (1899) and the ‘Oxygen’ of Rochester (1895). The large warehouse in the distance opposite (which was converted to office accommodation in 1988) was built in 1863 by Bentall & Co. to store completed products for eventual shipping. Next to the Hythe is Cooks Yard where, until the late 1980s, many local barges and other craft were built and repaired by Walter Cook & Son (established 1894). Not far away is the Marine Promenade (opened 26/6/1895) and the former Marine Lake (1905). Some believe that the Marine Lake is where the ‘Jersey’ was originally built in 1654. In the distance is Northey Island. Many are convinced that the island, causeway and adjacent mainland were the original setting for the bloody Battle of Maldon (10/8/991), but there is no firm evidence for this. The author, lecturer and holder of the Nobel Peace Prize (1933), Sir Norman Angell (b.1874), once lived here (as well as occasionally in New York!). It is now owned by the National Trust, is used for farming, but is also an important habitat for wildlife. Opposite the island is ‘Hering’s Point’, ‘Collier’s Reach’ and Heybridge Basin. The Basin was dug out of Heybridge Marsh in 1793 and the earliest houses date from that period. It marks the link between the River and the 14 miles long Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation that bypasses Maldon. (It was opened in 1797 at a cost of £50,000).

There is so much to see of our local salt water past – either viewed from dry land or, for the more adventurous, by booking a river trip with one of the local charter firms. Either way “Maldon’s Great Glory” can still be a very special experience indeed.

By Kind Permission of Stephen P. Nunn, ©
Maldon, January 2010


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