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.

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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.

First World War memorials – who was included where?

Andy Begent has created a website recording biographical details of 460 men connected with Chelmsford who lost their lives as a result of the First World War, including photographs of them where possible. In this blog he writes of one of the unexpected tasks that he has dealt with in that ongoing project.

Recently someone asked me what had been the biggest challenges which I had faced during the creation of the Chelmsford War Memorial website.

Chelmsford war memorials homepageI think they expected me to respond by talking of the difficulty in researching the lives of the fallen so long after they died. Though that research can be time consuming, laborious, occasionally frustrating, yet often rewarding, I have found the biggest challenge has been the apparently simple task of determining whether a person should or should not be included on the website.

Early on in my research I was faced with a choice: should the website only commemorate those named on the Chelmsford Civic Centre war memorial, or should it include others that I had identified as having strong Chelmsford connections but who been omitted from that memorial?

I soon discovered that the process to select the names for the memorial had been imperfect. The draft list of names was issued as late as July 1923 to the public for comment upon, with the finalised list later determined by the Mayor and Town Clerk. That delay of almost five years after the end of the war meant that there was every chance that relatives or friends of some of those who could have been included on the memorial were no longer in a position to suggest their names.

Leading Seaman Samuel Allen Barnard, killed aged 26 when H.M.S. Vanguard blew up in 1917. Read his story here

My initial analysis also revealed that some of those named on the memorial had left Chelmsford several years before the war – some to settle in other parts of the country, and others who emigrated abroad, to Canada and Australia. They appeared not to have set foot in the town for some time, if at all, since their departure, yet their names were included on the memorial.

Having identified those potential shortcomings I decided I would include on the website all those mentioned on the war memorial plus those with a strong Chelmsford connection who had been omitted from the war memorial. I then just needed to determine what ’strong Chelmsford connection’ meant.

I looked to the past for clues.

Almost a century ago those erecting war memorials after the First World War had to determine their own inclusion/exclusion criteria, with the criteria varying from memorial to memorial. The Chelmsford approach seemed to be inconsistent, but maybe if I looked at other memorials I could identify best practice.

I soon established that war memorials that commemorated the war dead who attended a particular school, or church, or club, or place of work would have been fairly straightforward to compile names for – either the individual had attended or they had not.

Leading Mechanic Arthur Evan Thomas, R.A.F. Read his story here.

Other types of memorial would have been more challenging. Those that commemorated war dead of towns (and villages, parishes etc.) often used residency as the primary criteria for inclusion. Usually a person was included on such a memorial if they had been resident in the town at the time they began military service. They may also have been included if they died in the town as a consequence of their military service. Some war memorials broadened the residency scope wider than the individual; they may have included an individual on a town’s war memorial even if the individual did not reside in the town when they joined up or died, but their parents, spouse or next-of-kin siblings did, either at the time of them joining up or of their death. This broadening of scope means that some individuals’ names appeared on more than one war memorial – some of Chelmsford’s also appear on town and village war memorials in other parts the UK and further afield.

Even the boundary of a town can be difficult to determine. Chelmsford’s Civic Centre war memorial generally uses the Borough Boundary of 1923 but also includes residents from beyond. The 1923 Borough did not include parts of Widford which were added to the Borough in the 1930s. Great Baddow, Broomfield and Writtle were not absorbed in to the Borough until 1974.

Other criteria, beyond residency, may be considered when selecting names for a war memorial, including date of death, cause of death, and whether the individual was serving or had served in the military.

Corporal John William Hooker, 7th (Service) Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, killed in action in 1918. His brother, George Alexander Hooker, was also killed in the war. Read his story here.

Some war memorials restrict their commemorations to those that died or were killed between the war’s outbreak on 4th August 1914 and the Armistice of 11th November 1918. Others stretch that to the Treaty of Versailles of 28th June 1919 when peace with Germany officially started. For the First World War the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) commemorates deaths from 4th August 1914 up to 31st August 1921. Others go beyond, recognising that the war led to wounds and illness that led to the deaths of servicemen for decades after the war. The last of those to die who is commemorated by Chelmsford’s Civic Centre war memorial is Douglas Havelock Newman, a former prisoner of war, who died on 7th May 1922, well past the CWGC cut-off date.

Some war memorials include only those who were killed in action or died of wounds. Others expand on that to include those that died of illness, accident or even suicide. The CWGC makes no distinction around causes of death when determining if a person should be commemorated. Chelmsford’s Civic Centre war memorial includes all of those except suicide, although two soldiers who committed suicide are buried in the town.

Some war memorials include only those who died whilst serving in the military. Others go beyond that to include ex-servicemen and civilians. The CWGC commemorates anyone who was still in military service or members of certain civilian organisation (such as the Red Cross) at the time of death, but also includes those who had left the military and died up to 31st August 1921 as a result of an injury or illness caused by or exacerbated by their service up to that date. The Chelmsford Civic Centre war memorial includes a member of the Red Cross, but it does not, and neither does the CWGC, include a civilian from Chelmsford, John Thomas Bannister, killed in a German air raid on London during the First World War.

Having pondered those factors I have ultimately come up with the following criteria which I employ to determine whether someone should be included on the website. You will see is not simple and certainly not as simple as I would have liked.

An individual will be recorded on the website where:

  • They are mentioned on Chelmsford’s Civic Centre war memorial or the Moulsham, Springfield or Widford war memorials, or
  • They or their assumed next of kin were resident in the Borough of Chelmsford of 1923 or parishes of Widford and Springfield at the time they began military service or at the time they were killed or died, or
  • They died or were buried within those same areas, and;
  • Their death is commemorated by the CWGC or their death is proven to have been as a result of an injury or illness caused by or exacerbated by their military service or enemy action.

Determining to what extent these criteria apply so long after an individual’s death is not always easy. We do not have comprehensive records of all those who served in the military nor of those who lived in Chelmsford. The 1914-15 and 1918 registers of electors provide some evidence which can be used, as do contemporary newspaper reports, cemetery and church records. Perhaps the greatest untapped source of information is the stories passed down through families and I hope that the war’s centenary will bring many of the latter to the fore.

If you would like to view the Chelmsford War Memorial website follow this link: http://www.chelmsfordwarmemorial.co.uk/Chelmsford_War_Memorial/Home.html

Andy will be giving a talk on some of the stories he has come across during his research at Essex at War: 1914-18 at Hylands House on Sunday 14 September. Click here for details.