Chelmsford Then and Now: 40-41 High Street

In the sixth post in our series looking at the history of Chelmsford High Street, Ashleigh Hudson looks at no. 38 High Street through the centuries. Find out more about the project here.

In the 16th century the site of 40-41 High Street was occupied by a medieval inn called the Boar’s Head. From 1633 the inn was known as the King’s Head and it continued to operate on the site until 1929 when the property was demolished to make way for a branch of F.W Woolworth. Woolworths vacated the site in 2010, making way for the arrival of Barclays Bank, who continue to occupy the site today.

Extract from John Walker's map of 1591 showing the Boar's Head

Extract from John Walker’s map of 1591 showing the Boar’s Head

From the mid-15th century the site of 40-41 High Street contained a medieval inn known as the ‘Boreshed’, which in 1591 was occupied by the widow Anne Bridges. In 1633 the ‘Boar’s Head’ changed its name to the ‘King’s Head’, although the nature of the premises remained the same. The inn benefitted from a prime position on the high street and was a very popular establishment. A Sale Catalogue from 1807 described the King’s Head as an ‘old and well-accustomed inn’. The property boasted a bar, two parlours and a large market room, indicating the inn had the facilities to accommodate a range of events and activities.

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Front view of the King’s Head, Chelmsford High Street (SCN 4768)

The inn was modest in size, but well equipped to cater to the various visitors passing through the town. The inn provided stabling for up to thirty horses, which was accessed through a narrow passageway leading from the high street to the yard. This coloured plan of the King’s Head from 1842 reveals the structure of the property fits the standard pattern for coaching inns.

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Plan of the King’s Head, Chelmsford High Street (D/DOP T2).

By the early 20th century, a growing demand for retail establishments in the high street led to the closure of many of the town’s inns. The highly respected Walter J. Greenwood, who served as landlord of the King’s Head for over thirty years, was also its last before the inn was demolished to make way for a branch of F.W. Woolworth.

In the 1920s, rumours circulated that developers intended to demolish the King’s Head to make way for an ‘entirely new and handsome premises’. It was hoped that the new building would improve the overall appearance of the high street and bring it in line with other developments.

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Springfield corner several years later. F.W Woolworths has now replaced the King’s Head

The much anticipated Woolworths store opened in the summer of 1929 and was immediately embraced by Chelmsford residents. The fancy new premises included a large shop floor where a wide range of merchandise was displayed. Above the shop floor there was a large store room and several offices for employees. The store initially employed around forty young shop assistants, all of whom were from the Chelmsford area. The shop front contained two entrance swing doors and several large display windows where stock was displayed to entice passers-by. Above the display windows, gold embossed lettering proudly spelled out ‘F.W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd’.

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Woolworths, Chelmsford High Street. Customers frequently left their bicycles, unchained, outside while they popped inside the store to browse

Woolworths continued to operate throughout the Second World War, though the store did not escape completely unscathed.  In May 1943 Chelmsford’s industries were targeted by the Luftwaffe and many of the shops on the high street were caught in the cross fire, including the Woolworths store. The store was struck by burning debris and as a result, the wooden counters towards the rear of the store caught alight. Fortunately, several members of staff, who were reputedly paid ‘danger money’ to sleep in the store overnight, were on hand to douse the flames. The charred site allegedly remained roped off and kept on display for the duration of the war.

The store continued to prosper throughout the rest of the 20th century, with development and expansion occurring periodically. By the 1960s, the store had undergone a vast programme of modernisation. The acquisition of a block of six shops in Springfield Road provided additional space for the store to expand. The new extension was said to have increased counter space and the range of goods on sale. It also created superior staff quarters, a cloakroom, lounge and a spacious canteen. The work took around two years to complete, although the store was said to have operated as normal during this time with minimal disruption to customers. Woolworths remained on the site until the early 21st century when, sadly, the firm went out of business.

In 2010 it was announced that Barclays Bank was in talks to relocate from their premises near the Shire Hall to the site of the former Woolworths store. Barclays have enjoyed a long history in the town, having previously occupied the Grade II listed building now containing Jamie’s Trattoria.

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Exterior of Barclays Bank which was built in 1905.

The attractive, red brick three storey building was constructed in 1905 after the former owner, six time Mayor Frederick Chancellor, vacated the site. The property retains all of the original 18th century detailing externally, although obviously the internal modelling has altered substantially with time.

Barclay's Bank Chelmsford High Street

Barclays today, situated on the former site of Woolworths and the King’s Head

The current Barclays store, located to the south of the High Street, has a much more contemporary feel. At street level, the Barclays building may look very different to those who remember its former life as a Woolworths. The upper façade of the building however is very much unchanged and serves as a subtle reminder of a not so distant past.

If you would like to find out more about the site of 40-41 High Street, try searching the Boar’s Head or the King’s Head in Seax. Alternatively, see Hilda Grieves’ detailed history of Chelmsford The Sleepers and The Shadows which is available in the ERO Searchroom. Additional information regarding the Chelmsford Branch of Woolworth’s provided by Paul Seaton of

Chelmsford Then and Now: 38 High Street, Black Boy Inn

In the fifth post in our series looking at the history of Chelmsford High Street, Ashleigh Hudson looks at no. 38 High Street through the centuries. Find out more about the project here.

The site of 38 High Street is most often associated with the famous coaching inn, The Great Black Boy, which served Chelmsford residents and travellers alike for over three hundred years. The inn was demolished in 1857 and from the late 19th century, the site housed various retail establishments including fashion retailer Next who occupy the site today. A blue circular plaque commemorating the former site of the Black Boy currently sits just above the entrance of Next, ensuring that memory of the much revered inn lives on.

John Walker's 1591 map of Chelmsford, with the Black Boy Inn highlighted on the junction between the High Street and what is now Springfield road

John Walker’s 1591 map of Chelmsford, with the Black Boy Inn highlighted on the junction between the High Street and what is now Springfield road

John Walker’s map of Chelmsford depicts a large, two storey property sitting on the site of 38 High Street. The property belonged to the widow Elizabeth Stafford and was known locally as the Crown or New Inn. By 1642 the inn was known as the Great Black Boy and was one of the most popular inns on the high street. Ideally situated on the Colchester to Harwich Road, the inn grew prosperous on the traffic passing through the town. During the 18th century, the original, timber building, as depicted on the Walker map, was pulled down and rebuilt.

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Illustration of the Black Boy Inn after it was rebuilt.

During the 17th century, coaching inns were a fundamental part of the country’s transport system. The coaching inn provided travellers with space to eat, sleep, and drink, as well as stabling for horses. The Essex Record Office is fortunate to have a building plan of the Great Black Boy which reveals how coaching inns were typically constructed.  A large gateway allowed coaches to pass through the property into the yard where the stables were located. Remarkably the gateway appears to sit on the same spot as in the Walker Map, despite the property having been rebuilt in the 18th century. The accommodation is situated relatively close to the yard, which perhaps made it difficult for guests to sleep undisturbed. A large inn such as the Black Boy could expect coaches coming and going throughout the day and night.

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Map of the Black Boy Inn and Brewery, 20 inches to 1 mile 19” x 27”, 1817. (D/DDw P40/1).

The Black Boy was also linked to the town’s mail service, accommodating the Post Office from 1673. The inn provided a mail coach service which passed through the town twice a day and contained a Post Office guard to ensure the coach safely reached its destination.

The Great Black Boy, by virtue of its great size, operated in various capacities. In the early 18th century for instance, the inn served as a detainment centre for residents deemed disloyal to the King. Several men were held at the inn under ‘suspicion of being disaffected to King George’. The Essex Record Office holds several letters written to Anthony Bramston during his incarceration at the inn.

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Letters to Anthony Bramston during his incarceration at the Black Boy Inn, Chelmsford, held on suspicion of disaffection to King George I. (D/Deb 70/1-4)

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Great Black Boy was overwhelmed by an influx of military personnel, who were stationed in Chelmsford as hostilities between England and France escalated. The possibility of an attack via the Essex coastline must have seemed of secondary importance however to the town’s innkeepers who were kept extremely busy accommodating the spike in trade. The town was soon hosting more men than space could permit, and many soldiers resorted to sleeping in stables or barns.

From the late 18th century, the Great Black Boy served as an important social hub, providing a popular space for communal gatherings. Several clubs and societies, including the Chelmsford Tradesmen’s Club and the Chelmsford Pitt Club, met regularly at the inn. The Black Boy also hosted various assemblies and balls, although this practice declined somewhat after the construction of the Shire Hall in 1791. The inn also attracted many notable visitors in its day. In October 1832, the Chronicle reported that the Duke of Wellington changed horses at the Black Boy on his was to Sudbourn Hall for a shooting trip. A few years later, Charles Dickens reputedly stayed at the inn while working as a newspaper reporter. Looking out of his window at the Black Boy, Dickens famously concluded that Chelmsford was the ‘dullest and most stupid spot on the face of the earth’; to be fair apparently it was a rainy day.

The arrival of the railway in Chelmsford in 1843 severely impeded the Black Boy’s trade by removing much of the passing traffic. By the mid-19th century the Black Boy was in decline with various outbuildings, stables and the yard progressively sold off. Between 1848 and 1851 the inn operated as a minor hotel. New owner John Amery was optimistic the business would turn around and committed the property to considerable alterations and improvements. Just ten years later, the Black Boy closed its doors for the last time. The inn was sold in 1857 and was later demolished leaving a gap on the high street which remained vacant for just over a decade.

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Sale Catalogue of the Black Boy Inn in 1857.

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Early Spalding photograph of Chelmsford High Street. On the far right it is possible to make out the gap left by the demolition of the Black Boy.

By 1868 the vacant space was ironically filled by Bernard’s Temperance Hotel. In the 19th century, Temperance advocates promoted alternatives to alcohol, which they viewed as a social evil.

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Chelmsford High Street photographed from the south, revealing Barnard’s has now taken over the spot formerly occupied by the Black Boy inn.

The Hotel only survived on the site until the early 1920s, before it was once again put up for sale. The sale catalogue indicated excellent foresight in stating:

“…with its excellent depth could be easily converted to form one of the finest shops in the town, possessing as it does exceptional facilities for window front and display purposes…”

Shortly after, the site was filled by Boots the Chemists. Various alterations were made to the exterior of the property including the addition of large display windows. Just above the entrance, large lettering announces ‘Boots’.

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Front corner of Boots the Chemists, Chelmsford High Street. (SCN 3934)

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View of Chelmsford High Street, taken from the south featuring Boots the Chemist on the former site of the Black Boy inn. The photograph captures Springfield corner prior to pedestrianisation. (SCN 3140).

The arrival of Boots in some ways indicated a break with the past and the beginning of a new era for the high street. The Black Boy had prospered because it catered for a specific need, that of travellers passing through the town on the London to Harwich Road. The arrival of the railway diminished the flow of traffic through the town and therefore the demand for accommodation. As the population increased, the demand for retail grew and the high street transitioned into a shopping destination.

The site is currently occupied by fashion retailer Next. The memory of the Black Boy inn is commemorated today by a blue circular plaque stationed just above the entrance to Next.

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Fashion retailer currently occupies the former site of the Black Boy inn.

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If you would like to find out more about this famous posting house, try searching for ‘Black Boy Inn’ on Seax. Alternatively, see Hilda Grieves’s detailed history of Chelmsford The Sleepers and The Shadows which is available in the ERO Searchroom.

Chelmsford Then and Now: 28-31 High Street – Debenhams, Bonds, the Falcon Inn

In the fourth post in our series looking at the history of Chelmsford High Street, Ashleigh Hudson looks at nos. 28-31 High Street through the centuries. Find out more about the project here.

Nos. 28-31 Chelmsford High Street have, in their long history, previously been a pub, the Falcon, Chelmsford’s first department store, Bonds, and today is occupied by Debenhams. Using maps, newspapers, photographs and other records at the ERO we can trace the history of the site back to the 1300s.  Hilda Grieve in her incomparable history of Chelmsford The Sleepers and the Shadows gives us the following key details on the site:

1381 – owned by Nicholas Cook, an innkeeper selling wine and victuals

1384 – Robert Glover bought the property from Nicholas Cook, including a house, 4 shops, pigsty, garden and yard

1567 – first named in sources as the Falcon Inn

1591 – owned by Benedict Barnham, alderman of London; the landlord was probably Humphrey Cordall

Extract of John Walker's map of Chelmsford, 1591, showing site of Falcon Inn (D/DM P1)

Extract of John Walker’s map of Chelmsford, 1591, showing site of Falcon Inn (D/DM P1)

By 1591 there were 11 major inns in the town, including the Falcon. Innkeepers were supposed to be licensed, but the town authorities frequently dealt with people who had been selling ale unlicensed or running brothels. The Falcon was a mid-sized inn which survived on the site until the early 18th century when it was pulled down and replaced with three attractive brick houses.

The properties were built to serve as private dwellings but they increasingly adopted a dual purpose, providing both a retail and residential space for the growing town’s entrepreneurs. At the north end of the site Robert Serjeant ran a newfangled Coffee House. In 1787 number 28 was occupied by Andrew Smith who ran a successful linendrapery. Apprentice records reveal that Smith was able to employ various young, female apprentices between 1790 and 1802 to assist with running his thriving business.

For a few decades the development of these properties occurred sporadically according to the needs and means of particular owners. In 1870, however, J.G Bond, owner of a drapers shop in Moulsham Street, moved to the prime site of 28 and 29 High Street. Several months after opening, Bond placed an advertisement in the Chelmsford Chronicle boasting of an enlarged shop and new show rooms.

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Advertisement featured in the Chelmsford Chronicle shortly after Bond’s opened on the High Street.

The ambitious Bond had a keen eye for development and in 1881 submitted plans to construct a bridge connecting the upper floors of 28 and 29 as well as plans to redevelop all of the outbuildings. By 1902, Bond had absorbed Saltmarsh’s store (no. 30), as well as Edward Wills’ Draper shop (no.31) and finally the chemist owned by Wilson Metcalf (no.27).

The 1911 Census reveals that Bond employed 24 members of staff, mostly from the Chelmsford area. This extraordinary rate of growth was facilitated by the growing prosperity of the town and the increasing population in Chelmsford.

As the store grew, Bonds offered a wider range of merchandise which reflected the very latest trends and fashions. You can get it at Bond’s was pasted on the old steam buses and frequent advertisements appeared in the local newspapers announcing the arrival of new stock.

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Advertisement featured in the Chelmsford Chronicle announcing the arrival of the Summer season.


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J.G. Bond’s van-dressing entry for the Chelmsford carnival of 1929. Bond recognised the importance of advertising and used the event as an opportunity to market his growing business.

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Advertisement featured in the Chelmsford Chronicle in the 1950s.

An advertisement for Bond's involving elephants

An advertisement for Bond’s involving elephants

The Bond frontage dominated the east side of the high street for nearly a century. The photograph below, captured in the 1930s, gives a real sense of the shop’s size and its domineering presence on the east side of the high street. Two storeys of windows displayed the shop’s vast array of stock.

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Spalding photograph of Bonds in the 1930s.

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Bond’s, Chelmsford High Street.

The store remained on the same site until the 1960s when it was purchased by Debenhams, who continue to occupy the same spot today. If you have ever visited and wondered why the internal layout is on different floor levels and is all a bit twisty, now you know – it’s because the layout of the site dates back to the medieval period.

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Debenhams, Chelmsford High Street 2015.

If you would like to find out more about J.G Bond or the Bond’s store see Hilda Grieve’s detailed history of Chelmsford The Sleepers and The Shadows. Alternatively search ‘Bonds’ in the British Newspaper Archive, available free from the ERO Searchroom, to view a wide range of the Bond advertisements.


Find out more about Chelmsford at two of our events for the Chelmsford Ideas Festival 2015:

The Changing Face of Chelmsford

Immerse yourself in Chelmsford past in this display of maps, photographs, and sound and video recordings.

Saturday 24 October, 10.30am-3.00pm

Tickets: £2.00

No need to book, just drop in

Part of the Chelmsford Ideas Festival


Walk: Chelmsford – Walking with Walker

The Walker map of Chelmsford is one of the gems in the Record Office’s collections. Using this as a starting point, we will uncover some of the secrets of Chelmsford High Street. The walk is on flat terrain and under one mile.

Wednesday 28 October, 2.00pm-3.30pm

Tickets £6.00

Please book in advance on 033301 32500

Part of the Chelmsford Ideas Festival

Chelmsford Then and Now: The Saracen’s Head

In the second in our series looking at the history of Chelmsford High Street, Ashleigh Hudson looks at the Saracen’s Head Hotel. Find out more about the project here.

The Saracen’s Head was first recorded on the site of Number 3 High Street in 16th century parish registers. Remarkably the Saracen’s Head continues to occupy the same site today, having served as a popular and well frequented establishment for nearly five hundred years.

Saracen's Head Chelmsford

The Saracen’s Head today at the north end of Chelmsford High Street

Walker map Saracen's Head

Extract from the 1591 Walker map of Chelmsford. The Saracen’s Head is the third building down on the eastern side of the High Street, opposite the old Market Cross, where the market and court hearings took place. The property backs onto ‘Saracen’s Head Meade’ (D/DM P1).

John Walker’s map of Chelmsford includes eleven inns dotted along the high street in the 16th century. On the site of 3 High Street sat The Saracen’s Head inn; a large, two storey property constructed from timber. Chelmsford was ideally situated on the road to London and therefore made a welcome resting point for weary travellers. The survey which accompanies Walker’s map tells us that Richard Brett was in charge at the time:

The Sarazens Hedd – an Inn with buildings, gardens, curtilages, and orchards, Richard Brett also holds a piece of waste in front of the Sarazens hedd in length “xv foote of assise and in breadeth Easte and West vj foote, for moveable stalles to be used in the market time.”


The Saracen’s Head grew into one of the largest inns on the high street, boasting an impressive 18 hearths according the Hearth Tax Assessment conducted in 1671.

Chelmsford’s growing prosperity and increasing trade facilitated the redevelopment of the property in the early 18th century. Owner Thomas Nicholls took a second mortgage out on the Saracen’s Head, describing the property as ‘lately erected and new built’ in 1724. Development came at a price and unfortunately Nicholls was unequipped to pay it. He defaulted on the mortgage repayments and the property subsequently passed to William Taylor. Despite Nicholls’ personal financial shortcomings, the Saracen’s Head continued to prosper into the 19th century. We are fortunate to have a beautifully written will belonging to Saracen’s Head innkeeper George Lake which reveals the growing wealth of the town’s tradesmen. Lake was able to bequeath twenty pounds each to his mother and sister as well as an annuity of thirty pounds to be paid over their lifetime. While many of the original Tudor inns were either demolished or replaced by various retail establishments, the Saracen’s Head continued to thrive and proved itself a profitable establishment.

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The will of Saracen’s Head innkeeper George Lake in 1845. (D/ABW 137/1/144)

From the late 18th century, inns increasingly provided an important social space in the heart of town. The Saracen’s Head, as one of the largest inns on the high street, was a popular venue of choice and hosted a whole range of activities, clubs and events.

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Photograph taken from the north end of the High Street in the late 19th century. The Saracen’s Head can be seen just behind the Sebastopol Cannon which has since been moved to Oaklands Park.

The Chelmsford Beefsteak Club met once a month at the inn where they had their own cellar reserved. Every summer the inn accommodated the Flowerists feast and prior to the construction of the Shire Hall in 1791, the Saracen’s Head hosted various concerts and balls. Advertisements were frequently placed in local newspapers announcing the events which attracted visitors from across the county.

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The Chelmsford cycling club posing outside the Saracen’s Head in the 1890s (I/LS/CFD/00006)

The Saracen’s Head was equally popular with local residents, who perhaps appreciated the long history of the ancient establishment. Mayor of Chelmsford Frederick Spalding recalled:

“…the little back room, which I remember very well, was what one might call a club room, because every seat in it during the evening was occupied by some well-known resident of Chelmsford… If you were at any time permitted to go into this room and happened to seat yourself on any particular chair you would be politely told that at 7 o’clock, when Mr. – came in, you would have to vacate it.”

During the Second World War, the Saracen’s Head opened its doors to the American Red Cross. Known locally as the ‘American Club’, the hostel provided sleeping accommodation for up to 30 men as well as providing meals for up to 300 soldiers per day. The hostel was kept separate from the Saracen Head’s main bars and even had its own entrance. The Chelmsford Chronicle hastened to reassure residents that the opening of the American Club ‘would in no way affect the bars, which will be carried on as usual’.

The American officers were a visible and constant presence on the High Street during the war years. The photograph below captured in 1942 depicts numerous American officers, dressed in full uniform, posing outside the Saracen’s Head. A large sign reading ‘American Red Cross Service Club’ dominates the main entrance, while an American flag flutters overhead.

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The Saracen’s Head Hotel during the Second World War when it was used as a club for the American Armed Forces. (SCN 552)

 The hostel also acted as an important social hub where American soldiers could relax and mix with the locals. In the photograph below numerous American officers can be seen relaxing inside the hostel, clearly enjoying the comfortable and even homely interiors.

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The Saracen’s Head provided hot meals for up to 300 American soldiers per day. (SCN 547)

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Over 150 women from the Chelmsford area volunteered their services at the new American Club. (SCN 548)

The American officers reportedly enjoyed their time in Chelmsford with a survey conducted by the Chronicle establishing that 32 out of 40 American soldiers very much liked Chelmsford, although all were excited to ultimately get back home. A young American Lieutenant is quoted:

“Your town is much bigger, and has more services than we expected… We have been very agreeably surprised. Many of our boys are now almost members of some Chelmsford families, who took the initiative in the early days of our arrival and made us so much at home… Most of us think that Chelmsford is a real swell place, with grand people in it.”

The ‘American Club’ came to represent a period of harmonious relations between Britain and the US. Over 150 young women in Chelmsford volunteered to work at the club and countless Chelmsford residents interacted with the American soldiers socially on a daily basis. Such was the legacy of these relations, both in Chelmsford and Essex as a whole, that the Essex Anglo-American Goodwill Association was created to foster continued relations and perhaps engage with Americans who were sent here as soldiers, but who might one day return as tourists.

By the end of July 1945, the ‘American Club’ closed, although the Saracen’s Head did not officially resume pre-war functionality until 1948. In January of that year the Essex Newsman warmly declared ‘Welcome back the Saracen’s Head!’ noting that after the long period of war service the hotel was at last able to come into its own again.

Many inns have disappeared from the High Street since the creation of the Walker map in 1591, but the Saracen’s Head continues to operate under the same name and from the same site as in the 16th century. This extraordinary achievement is a testament to the popularity of the premises in question. Nonetheless, the nature of the business has changed a great deal over time. Originally a resting point for weary travellers, the Saracen’s Head increasingly became a social establishment, providing an entertaining venue for visitors and residents alike. Today the Saracen’s Head is a popular social destination for a whole new generation of Chelmsford residents.

If you would like to find out more about this ancient building, try searching for the Saracen’s Head on Seax. Alternatively see Hilda Grieves’s detailed history of Chelmsford The Sleepers and The Shadows in the ERO Library.

Chelmsford Then and Now

IMG_6536 compressedWe were fortunate recently to have University of Essex student Ashleigh Hudson undertake a 10-week research project with us exploring the history of several properties along Chelmsford High Street. Ashleigh has used a range of sources, including documents, maps, and photographs, to highlight areas of continuity and change. Her research findings will be turned into a display, and also shared here in a series of blog posts, starting now…


A Royal Charter, granted in 1199 by King John, authorised a weekly market to be held within Chelmsford. A town grew around the market and by the 16th century, the basic shape of the high street had been firmly established. In fact the essential pattern of the High Street has not changed a great deal since the 16th century. A quick comparison of John Walker’s 1591 map of Chelmsford and a map of the high street today reveals that the fundamental shape of the town is very much the same.

John Walker's map of Chelmsford, 1591

Extract from John Walker’s map of Chelmsford, 1591.

Internally, the High Street is quite different, with all of the timber buildings featured on the Walker Map long replaced by brick buildings of modern design.  Economic factors, social mobility and technological advancements have all impacted on the structural development of the High Street. Development has occurred sporadically, and according to the whims of a particular owner at a given time. By the latter half of the 20th century, the demand for retail and a growing population seemingly justified the demolition of vast portions of the town, which were deemed no longer fit for purpose. To many long-term residents of Chelmsford, modern development has completely obscured the town they knew and loved.

Chelmsford OS maps 1963 1974

Extract from the OS Map of 1963 (left) and 1974 (right). A comparison of the two maps reveals that by 1974 many of the individual properties situated on the west side of the high street have been demolished or consolidated to make way one large store, Marks and Spencer’s. Marks and Spencer’s currently occupies the former sites stretching from 62-66.

One of the biggest challenges facing Chelmsford High Street is a perceived lack of history; the belief that 20th century development has stripped away the heritage and integrity of the town. In actuality there is still a great deal of history hidden, often just above street level. Even where the ancient building has been demolished, the plots themselves have a story to tell. It is entirely possible for modern development to occur and coexist with areas of historic value; the challenge is building awareness and a sense of appreciation for the history behind the High Street.

King's Head Chelmsford | Essex Record Office

Photograph of the King’s Head shortly before it was demolished to make way for a branch of F.W Woolworth. The King’s Head had occupied the site since the 17th century and was a central part of town life throughout that period. Though the physical building has gone, the King’s Head is a large part of the history of 40-41 High Street, so much so that the carpark to the rear of the property was named in its honour.

Woolworth's Chelmsford 1930s | Essex Record Office

Photograph of F.W Woolworth in the 1930s. The photograph reveals an entirely new building sitting on the former site of the King’s Head.


Barclays Bank, 40-41 High Street Chelmsford

The former Woolworth’s building is currently occupied by Barclays Bank. A quick comparison of this photograph and the one above reveals a high level of continuity, just above street level.

The aim of this project is to construct a historical profile of selected sites across the high street using a range of different sources. The research gathered will be presented in a variety of ways to highlight areas of continuity and change. It is hoped that this project will encourage a greater awareness of the historic development of Chelmsford High Street and a stronger appreciation for the town itself.

The Essex Record Office has provided most of the primary material for this project. Supplementary material has been sourced from The Essex Newspaper Archive and Ancestry, both of which can be accessed in the ERO Searchroom. Hilda Grieve’s detailed history of Chelmsford The Sleepers and The Shadows was a fantastic starting point for much of the research, and a constant source of reference throughout. Look out for the Chelmsford Then and Now series of blog posts to be posted on the ERO blog shortly. Alternatively, why not check out our new HistoryPin page which contains a range of photographs of Chelmsford High Street through time.

Bienvenue les rouleurs

As the Tour de France comes to Essex, Archive Assistant Edd Harris takes a look back at our county’s cycling past…

As Essex “gears up” (geddit?) to host several hundred brightly clad racers in the third stage of the Tour de France on the 7th of July, we felt it would be a good idea to take a look back at Essex’s rich cycling past. Essex had cycling aficionados, fans and competitors long before the exploits of Ian Stannard and Alex Dowsett brought the county’s cycling talent into the limelight. (I am also reliably informed that Laura Trott comes from Harlow, and Mark Cavendish lives near Ongar.)

TS 310/1 - An ordinary bicycle (penny farthing) leaning against an unidentified shop in Southend.

TS 310/1 – An ordinary bicycle (penny farthing) leaning against an unidentified shop in Southend.

Before the invention of the safety bicycle life was a much loftier affair for cyclists. To gain any sort of real pace a large wheel had to be used, so brave men clambered onto “ordinary bicycles” or “penny farthings” as they became nicknamed. (If you are feeling very down with the kids, I hear they can also be called “P-fars” and can still be bought from specialist retailers.) The safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyre were in widespread use by 1890 bringing about a massive boom in cycling.

Almost as soon as cycling had been invented clubs were formed and despite the machines still being worth the equivalent of a small car in today’s money, hundreds of people ventured out onto the roads each weekend, and this early boom in cycling Essex is evident in some of the documents in our collections.

D/P 296/1/13 is a register of services held at St Nicholas, Kelvedon Hatch between 1897 and 1908. As well as recording interesting details about events happening both locally and nationally, it also tells us that the Vicar held a number of services specifically for cyclists attended by lots of cyclists.

D-P 296-1-13 watermarked

D/P 296/1/13 – The service register of St Nicholas’ Kelvedon Hatch with a cyclists service attended by 35 cyclists. (Click for larger version)

D/Z 518/1 is the guest book of the Cock Tavern in Ongar and it seems to have been reserved purely for the use of visiting cyclists. We have looked at it once before as part of our document of the month series, but it is well worth re-visiting. Beginning in 1890, it is full of messages of thanks from cyclists, illustrations of the badges of the clubs (amongst other things) and complaints about the local traffic. In one message thirty or more riders are said to have descended on the pub from just one club. One commenter reminisces about his first visit to the Cock Inn, drawing an image emphasising how old fashioned he thought cycling was. He is shown in tweed plus-fours, pipe in mouth, flat-capped and astride his “ordinary”. Can anyone identify T.M.R. Whitwell or any of the other names in this register?

D/Z 518/1 - Entry in the guest book for the Cock Inn in Chipping Ongar. Here T.M.R. Whitwell illistrates his first visit to the pub in 1893. Is this the same Whitwell who illustrated the works of P.G. Wodehouse?

D/Z 518/1 – Entry in the guest book for the Cock Inn in Chipping Ongar. Here T.M.R. Whitwell illistrates his first visit to the pub in 1893. Is this the same Whitwell who illustrated the works of P.G. Wodehouse?

D/Z 518/1 - Another entry from the guest book. A rather delightfully named club - the Cemetery Crawlers

D/Z 518/1 – Another entry from the guest book. A rather delightfully named club – the Cemetery Crawlers

With the increasing affordability of cycling, it became the working man and woman’s chance of escape, providing them with the freedom to travel where and when they wanted. As its popularity grew, however, the well-heeled country gent was becoming worried that his quiet country solitude was being disturbed by this riff-raff and in an attempt to assuage their worry, the National Cyclists Union banned racing on the roads in 1890. This was a ban which would last till the 1950 and shaped the character of British cycling to this day. We have always been at our best when taking part in the once clandestine discipline of time trialing, our biggest stars, Boardman, Wiggins and Dowsett can all trace their heritage back to the black clad cyclists hammering along the country’s A-roads in pursuit of the best time whilst trying to avoid the attentions of the authorities.

D/Z 518/1 - Another entry from this fascinating guestbook. It seems like interacting with motorcars was a problem for cyclists even way back in 1906.

D/Z 518/1 – Another entry from this fascinating guestbook. It seems like interacting with motorcars was a problem for cyclists even way back in 1906.

S-U 6-1 a

A series of sketches detailing the extra forms of transport considered by Lieutenant Colonel Francis H.D.C. Whitmore then High Sheriff of Essex when his car broke down en-route to an important engagement in 1922.

S-U 6-1 b S-U 6-1 c

Over time the various clubs began to specialise in different activities. There were racing clubs who time trialed and raced on private tracks, there were social clubs and there were touring clubs. Eventually one club would form which attempted to encompass cyclists all over the country. The Cycle Tourists Club or CTC would go on to become advocates for the pastime as well as organising rides and meets. The Essex Section of the CTC was formed in 1927 and almost immediately got down to business. It seems that that business was initially to very carefully delineate the boundaries of the section to avoid confrontation and then to move on to the more important tasks of arranging for design and supply of a club badge (not without some argument), deciding where to hold their Christmas dinner and ensuring that the tea stops they visited on their rides were of adequate quality. There is a little bit of riding too. Tellingly, they had to cancel a women-only ride due to a lack of interest, a problem which still blights the male-dominated pastime to this day.

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A13272 – On this page of the CTC minute books one member seems somewhat worried about substandard tea.

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A13272 – During this meeting arrangements were made for bike parking in a cow shed in Chelmsford during a lecture.

So, when Le Tour comes charging though Essex on the 7th of July remember that this is not a new cycling boom, more of a renaissance. Cycling in Essex can trace a very long history and we are always looking for more information and material relating to the clubs and riders of Essex.