Chelmsford: Anything but dull!

PUBLISHED: 11:39 13 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:39 13 April 2015




Who said Chelmsford was dull? Actually, Charles Dickens did, but Paul Wreyford — author of The Secret History of Chelmsford — begs to differ

Charles Dickens didn’t like Chelmsford much.

It is no secret that following one visit he dubbed it the ‘dullest place on earth’. Let’s be honest, a lot of people — even Essex folk — do not always speak fondly of England’s newest city. After all, Chelmsford is no Colchester. There is no castle or Roman walls to entice visitors and few come to town for sightseeing.

But people should not so readily dismiss Chelmsford as being dull — at least in an historical sense.

You only have to dig a little bit below the surface to find a fascinating history.

Dickens remarked on the prison when he visited. It may not be a tourist attraction as such, but it has a fascinating past, with tales of daring escapes and corrupt gaolers. And few will know that the man who designed the current prison, renowned architect Thomas Hopper, was also the man responsible for designing the original Craven Cottage, the property that stood on the site now occupied by Fulham Football Club. Despite his fame, the prison became Hopper’s one and only public building.

Dickens campaigned long and hard against public executions. Few know that William Calcraft — one of Britain’s longest-serving hangmen — was born down the road at Little Baddow. Calcraft used to sell the clothes of the hanged criminal to Madame Tussaud so that she could dress the waxwork of the deceased in their original clothes, many villains of the day becoming anti-heroes.

The final execution to take place in Chelmsford occurred in 1914. The hanging of Charles Frembd also has a place in history for the fact he was the oldest man to be hanged in Britain in the 20th century. Frembd was 71.

Sports fans will probably know that the Boreham circuit, an abandoned airfield, held motor racing meetings. And if things had been a little different, thousands of Formula 1 fans might have been flocking to Chelmsford and not Silverstone every summer for the British Grand Prix.

The West Essex Car Club applied to stage the 1953 British Grand Prix at Boreham with the future of the circuit at Silverstone, at the time, not assured. Many were already tipping Boreham as a possible replacement. Sadly, Boreham had had its day by the end of 1952 and it was not to be.

Chelmsford has certainly had its fair share of characters down the centuries. Wilson Barrett was a man that knew how to draw an audience and was one of the most successful Chelmsfordians. And yet, mention his name in Chelmsford today and it will most probably only attract a shake of the head.

Barrett was an actor, playwright and manager. He is accredited with attracting the largest crowds of theatregoers ever. One of his productions, The Silver King, was performed to record-breaking audiences and is still regarded to be the most successful melodrama of the 19th century. The Victorians could not get enough of the work of Barrett and flocked to see him.

In 1895, Barrett staged a religious play that he had himself penned. The Sign of the Cross proved to be a massive hit and was made into a successful film in 1932, Fredric March and Charles Laughton among the stars.

Mention Jack Sparrow and most will think only of a camp pirate made famous by Johnny Depp.

The Rev Jack Sparrow, one-time vicar of Highwood, must have prompted a few tongues to wag when he was seen making one of his regular trips to London. It is said villagers had no idea what his business in the capital involved.

It is believed most of his parishioners were oblivious to the fact that the Rev Sparrow was not only vicar of Highwood in the 1950s, but also deputy to the Bishop of Borneo! The Rev Sparrow travelled from Chelmsford to London, to the offices of the BBC World Service to be precise, in order to broadcast to the people of Borneo in their own tongue.

The Rev Sparrow had been a missionary in that country and was appointed deputy to the Bishop of Borneo in 1949, a position he held — albeit from a distance — until 1962.

You won’t find the name Robert Warner in a history book, but you will find it in one on botany. This little-remembered Chelmsfordian was once in possession of the finest collection of orchids in the world and claimed to have discovered a new species, Cattleya warneri, which still bears his name.

You are also unlikely to find many lion tamers in Chelmsford these days and yet George Newcomb was not only Chelmsford’s most famous lion tamer, but, apparently, one of the most famous in the world.

Newcomb, who was born in Chelmsford in the 1830s, travelled with Wombwell’s, the most famous of Victorian menageries. He performed all over the world. Of course, things did not always go to plan and a dispute with a leopard resulted in the loss of one of his eyes. During one particular performance, he nearly lost his life when he was attacked while performing with five lions. Now that, to me, sounds anything but dull.

Get the book

The Secret History of Chelmsford by Paul Wreyford is published by The History Press and is priced £9.99.

For more details, visit

Did you know?

The first burial at the non-conformist cemetery in New London Road was of James Lionel Fenton in 1846. Coincidentally, and sadly, he just happened to be the son of the man who designed it.

England and Spurs star Vivian Woodward quit professional football at the height of his fame in 1909 — and signed for non-league Chelmsford.

Writtle entrepreneur Thomas Usborne was responsible for taking Britain’s first colour photograph using the autochrome process.

Arthur Pearson, the son of a Springfield rector, grew up to found the Daily Express in 1900.

The Wrays, a well-known family of stonemasons in Chelmsford over the decades, had a hand in building the London Monument, which was erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London.

George Calver set himself up in Chelmsford as a professional telescope maker in the 1860s.

Calver is said to have produced thousands of mirrors for telescopes from his Widford premises. He is widely considered the best telescope maker of his time.

Hylands House almost became the location for the University of Essex. Christine Hanbury, the final private owner of the estate, wanted to leave the property to the public, but her offer was declined in favour of Colchester.

William Petre, the 11th Baron Petre and the man responsible for the racecourse at Oxney Green, is reputed to have acquired Marengo, Napoleon’s famous warhorse, following the Battle of Waterloo.

The White Lion, which became the Golden Lion, exhibited a young cow towards the end of the 18th century. It is said this particular calf was born with five legs, two tails and two udders!

Guglielmo Marconi had a return ticket for the Titanic, but was forced to travel to America prior to the voyage due to business.

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