Essex Country Houses

This guest blog post from Ben Cowell, Director General of the Historic Houses Association, is based on his talk on Essex country houses which he gave at the Essex History Group in September 2017. You can read more from Ben on his blog.

Essex is not particularly well known for its country houses. Yet there are far more of them than you might think.

The most famous is Audley End, an English Heritage property and arguably one of the country’s most important mansions. Audley End was principally built in 1605-1614, although the property that is seen today is around a third of its former size (the courtyard wings were pulled down in the 18th century). With rooms by Robert Adam and grounds by Capability Brown, Audley End certainly meets the criteria of a house of national importance.

Print of the principal front of Audley End in its original state (I/Mb 381/1/55)

Audley End today – the large principal court between the remaining building and the river was demolished in the eighteenth century

But what of Essex’s other houses? The National Trust doesn’t have a single mansion property in Essex – somewhere like Paycocke’s House at Coggeshall, charming as it is, is a sizeable merchant’s house rather than a country seat. However, the presence of a fair few Historic Houses Association (HHA) member properties alerts us to the fact that there were mansions all over the county, of which many still survive.

Map showing locations of country houses across Essex

HHA member houses in Essex include Layer Marney Tower, Ingatestone Hall, Hedingham Castle and Braxted Park. All of these houses are open to visits, or run for weddings and other events. Each is of genuine historical significance, and lived in by families who have an extended connection with their house stretching back many generations.

Hedingham Castle

The presence of so many HHA members in Essex is a sign of the attractiveness of the county as a place to site a country residence. Proximity to London, and to the major trading routes via the Thames, led to the decision of many landowners to construct substantial houses. Layer Marney was a remarkable gatehouse of the early 1520s, built from brick in an attempt to transpose Hampton Court to the Blackwater Estuary. Only Lord Marney’s death in 1523 put a brake on the ambitions behind the property. Henry VIII visited in August 1522, when on a royal progress that took in New Hall at Boreham too.

Layer Marney tower

There were plenty of houses built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Audley End may be the most famous, but in all I found 182 houses in total, many of them built between 1600 and 1800. They included huge palaces, such as Wanstead Park, built in 1715 only to be demolished (for its building materials) 110 years later. North and south of my home village of Newport are two substantial houses from the late 17th century, Shortgrove and Quendon, although the Shortgrove of today is a modern rebuilding of the house that was lost to fire in the 1960s.

Number of country houses in Essex demolished in each century, 1900-1989

The truth was that many houses were demolished – I counted 37 in total. The peak of these losses was in the 1950s, when an astonishing number of Essex mansions were either being pulled down because families were unable to keep them going (such as at Marks Hall and Easton Lodge), or were lost beneath the suburbs of east and north-east London.

Wanstead House, one of the largest houses ever built in Essex, which stood for just 110 years (I/Mp 388/1/20)

Nevertheless, many houses survived, and continue to survive, leaving their mark on Essex’s gentle rolling landscapes. Today, Essex country houses either survive through tourism (for which see the Essex houses and gardens website), or as wedding venues. Indeed, it might be said that the Essex wedding has been the saviour of many an Essex country house.

Nominate your favourite record

As part of our 75th anniversary celebrations this year, we want to hear from you.

We always like to hear how searchers are using our collections, whether it’s in the Searchroom or online through Seax and Essex Ancestors, so we’ve decided to ask searchers to nominate their favourite record, and to tell us what it is about it that appeals to you.

Entries can be long or short, medieval or modern, whole volumes or single sheets, parchment or photographs or DVDs or cassettes. All you need to do is to download our nomination form here and either return it in to the Searchroom desk or e-mail it to hannahjane.salisbury[at]

Nominated documents may be featured on our blog or in displays at our open day on Saturday 14 September.

To get the ball rolling, here is one of the favourite documents of Hannah Salisbury, Audience Development Officer:


Bond to Indemnify the parish of Walden agt Ann White’s Child by Mr Rebecca, 1773 (D/B 2/PAR8/35)

Bastardy Bonds were used to protect parish ratepayers from ending up paying to support unmarried mothers and their children if the mother was unable to support herself.

There are hundreds of such bonds in our collection, mostly dating to the eighteenth century, but this one particularly stands out for me because of the story it tells.

Dated 24 April 1773, the bond tells us that Ann White, a servant at Audley End near Saffron Walden, had given birth to a male child, the son of Biagio Rebecca, an Italian painter employed at the house by its owner, Sir John Griffin Griffin.

Extract from D/B 2/PAR8/35

Extract from D/B 2/PAR8/35

Rebecca had acknowledged that the child was his, but clearly had no intention of marrying the hapless Ann. To indemnify the parish from ever having to support her and their child, Rebecca had agreed to deposit £100 with Sir John Griffin Griffin, to whom Ann would have to apply when in need of funds to support herself and the child. In paying this lump sum, Rebecca absolved himself of all responsibility to Ann and their child. You can view the document in full on Seax here.

The story continues in the baptism register of St Mary’s Saffron Walden where the child’s baptism is recorded:

*John Biagio, son of Biagio Rebecca & Ann White *(base-born)

N.B. Senior Biagio Rebecca was a most ingenious artist who was employed by Sir John Griffin, at Audley End, to paint the cieling [sic] & Panels of ye little south drawing Room, & several family portraits in the great Room over the eating Parlor!!! [sic]

Baptism of John Biagio, 24 December 1772. Extract from parish register of St Mary’s, Saffron Walden (D/P 192/1/5, image 40)

You can still see Biagio Rebecca’s paintings at Audley End, and read his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Essex Library card holders can access the ODNB for free with their library card number).

Oldest known map of historic Essex town discovered in outbuilding

A map of Saffron Walden dating to 1757 has turned up in an outbuilding on a farm. The map was discovered at Bruncketts, Wendens Ambo, which would previously have served Mutlow Hall. The map has now been transferred to the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford on permanent loan.

The map being examined at the Saffron Walden Archive Access Point. From left to right: Tony King, Conservator, Clare Mulley, Zofia Everett, Archive Assistant, Allyson Lewis, Archivist, Geoffrey Ball and Lizzie Sanders. Photo by Gordon Ridgewell

The map predates the previously earliest known map, made in 1758, by one year. It shows the town of Saffron Walden, and despite its extremely poor condition the ink outlines of streets and buildings are still sharp and clear.

The outlines of the roads and buildings of the historic town are still sharp and clear, and easily recognisable today

The map has had a hard life up until now. It is drawn onto two pieces of parchment, which at some point had been mounted onto canvas and varnished. After being stored for years rolled up in damp conditions, the map has split down the middle, has numerous small tears in it, several different phases of mould growth, and a sizeable chunk of one corner has been eaten by rodents.

The two pieces of parchment used to make the map have come away from one another


The map is peppered with small tears


Mould that has grown on the split between the two pieces of parchment


A large chunk of the map has been nibbled away by rodents

The map was made by Edward John Eyre, whose later, larger 1758 map of the town and surrounding area may well already be familiar to Saffron Walden residents. It is likely that both maps were commissioned by Elizabeth Countess of Portsmouth or her nephew, Sir John Griffin Griffin, who inherited part of the nearby estate of Audley End. 

Expert conservators at the Essex Record Office will now work to stabilise the map to prevent any further damage, and make any repairs possible.