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Brentwood through time

PUBLISHED: 17:04 27 March 2017

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Kate Cole is the author of Brentwood and Around Through Time. Here she shares some of her own unique insights into the history of this fascinating Essex town

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The town of Brentwood was established in the 12th century as a clearing within the great forest of Essex, which covered much of the area. Wood was burnt here (hence ‘burnt wood’) and people settled in the vicinity, attracted initially by the old Roman road from London to Colchester.

The fledging medieval town became popular with pilgrims travelling from the north and east of England on their quest to worship at the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Brentwood’s then parish church was in South Weald, some distance from the streets of what is now the town’s centre.

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Consequently, a small chapel in the High Street was built in the early 13th century as a chapel-of-ease to the parish’s church in South Weald and dedicated to St Thomas à Becket. The High Street’s chapel was used until the 1830s when a new parish church to serve the town of Brentwood was built close-by on land that had once been a nursery garden. The ruins of the Brentwood’s old chapel are still present on the High Street.

Royalty passed through Brentwood in the 1390s when King Richard II and his entourage made their pilgrimage through the town on his way to worship at Canterbury Cathedral. He rested at an inn in the High Street and his personal emblem, the white hart, became the name for that inn.

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Today, pilgrims (of a different kind) still flock to the inn, although this time in search of the cult of celebrity. In the 2000s, the White Hart was renamed to the Sugar Hut and it is now a nightclub where much of the filming for TOWIE takes place, giving this centuries-old inn a revival as a central star of reality TV.

Brentwood also has a dark past. In the 1890s, a scandal broke at the Hackney Industrial Training School in the town’s London Road. The school was an orphanage set up by the Shoreditch Board of Guardians (and later taken over by the Hackney Poor Law Union) to house pauper children from the East End of London to teach them adult trades and occupations.

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In 1894, a nurse, Ella Gillespie, was sentenced to five years of penal servitude for her abuse of children at the school. She was charged with acts of extreme cruelty such as getting all the children out of bed on cold nights and making them march around the dormitories carrying their day-clothes in a basket on their heads. Gillespie severely beat them if they didn’t trudge fast enough, or dropped anything.

She was also charged with causing the death of one small six-year-old girl after Gillespie pushed her down steps at the school. Even after her imprisonment, the scandal rumbled on the following year when the headmaster, a man from Shenfield, was tried but acquitted of the sexual abuse of small boys. Despite the grand Victorian Gothic architecture of the school (later the hospital, St Faith’s), it was demolished in the late 1990s to make way for the British Telecom offices.

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In the 19th and early 20th century, the High Street in Brentwood housed at least 10 public houses and inns; most of which have long since been demolished or converted into shops. One that is still present today is the Swan Inn.

Originally known as the Gun, the Swan has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. According to local legend, Marian Protestant martyr William Hunter stayed in the inn the night before his execution. Over the centuries, Hunter has been remembered throughout the town centre.

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He was burnt at the stake as a heretic in Ingrave Road on March 27, 1555 and an elm tree grew in the same location as his martyrdom shortly afterwards. The remains of this ancient elm tree stayed at the site for 400 years, until 1952 when it was removed. In 1936, a new oak tree was planted nearby to mark the coronation of King George VI.

A monument to William Hunter was built in 1861 at a cost of £350 (raised by public subscription) and was erected on land then owned by Dowager Lady Cowper of Shenfield, but now the land is more commonly known as Wilson’s Corner. In more recent times, the old North Service Road has been renamed William Hunter Way.

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Unfortunately, many of the town’s Victorian shops and public buildings were demolished last century. One such building that is now lost was Brentwood’s Victorian Town Hall, built in 1864 at the London Road end of the High Street at a cost of £1,800 to replace the old Elizabethan Assize House.

Brentwood’s successions of local government bodies occupied the Town Hall from the 1860s until 1957 when the Urban District Council moved to a newly-constructed building in Ingrave Road.

Brentwood has witnessed a fast pace of change, in its population, its buildings and its infrastructure. Nevertheless, when you scrape away the layers of progress and redevelopment, underneath it, the old Brentwood is still there (just) to be enjoyed by modern-day residents and visitors

Get the Book

You can read more about the towns and villages of Brentwood, Warley, Shenfield and Hutton, and their journeys through time in Kate’s book Brentwood and Around Through Time, by Kate J Cole and published by Amberley Publishing. Kate also writes about aspects of Essex local history on her blog, and on her Facebook page @KateJCole. Kate gives regular talks to clubs and societies all around Essex on the The Witches of Elizabethan Essex and Great Dunmow and Henry VIII’s Reformation


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