The story behind Essex’s twin towns
PUBLISHED: 16:41 26 October 2020 | UPDATED: 17:01 26 October 2020
Many Essex locations are partnered with towns across the globe. Stephen Roberts explores some of these connections and some of the surprising origins to these unique friendships
The concept of ‘twinning’ was launched into a brave new post-war world in 1947. Its intention was laudable: to foster friendship and understanding among different cultures, and between former foes, as an act of peace and reconciliation, and to encourage trade and tourism.
While the concept of twin towns is quite a familiar one, you may not know that the county of Essex itself has been twinned with five other counties or regions across the globe. Is it significant that four are in countries that fought against the allies during World War II?
Well, yes. When you consider that World War II cost a conservative estimate of 60 million lives, you can understand the desire to foster friendship between nations afterwards, especially as this was the second global war in a generation to have begun in Europe.
Officially our county’s five sister counties or regions are Picardy in France, Thuringia in Germany, Henrico County, Virginia (USA), Jiangsu in China and Accra in Ghana.
The only one of these links that is still active at the current time is the link with Jiangsu in China, with the rest having been dormant for some time. Jiangsu is a central-eastern coastal province and one of the smallest, yet most populous, of China’s 23 provinces, with the second-highest GDP, its prosperity is centred on its capital Nanjing, the second-largest city in eastern China.
Nanjing fell to the Japanese in December 1937, with Japanese occupation persisting until the end of World War II. Fighting also took place in northern Jiangsu during the civil war that followed, so the experience of warfare here was first-hand and profound.
Aside from the county’s links, there are numerous twin towns that see Essex places associate with places overseas, with some instantly explainable and others more surprising in origin. French and German partnerships innevitably feature prominently. In fact, the name Twin Town usually denotes a place in one of these countries. Sister City is used for towns and cities elsewhere, for example in the USA.
Chelmsford is a case in point, twinned with Backnang (Germany) and Annonay (France), but also with a sister city in China (Wuxi). Chelmsford has become synonymous with technology and innovation, of course, with the likes of Marconi, Crompton’s Electrical Engineering and the English Electric Valve Company.
We need look no further to find the rationale behind its global connections. Backnang is home to telecommunication companies including Ericsson (which includes the bulk of the former Marconi Company), while sister city Wuxi has also become a major producer of electrical motors, software and solar technology.
Annonay also has a reputation for innovation: it was here that the first balloon flight occurred in December 1782 thanks to the ingenuity of the Montgolfier brothers.
It might be less obvious why Southend was tied with Sopot in Poland, its only twin town, in 1999? Sopot is a resort on the Baltic, although it’s dwarfed by its Essex counterpart, with a population of some 40,000 compared to Southend’s 180,000 plus. For extra resonance, Sopot has the longest wooden pier in Europe (at 515.5 metres), contrasting with Southend’s, the world’s longest pleasure pier at 2,160 metres.
Then there’s Colchester, twinned with Yangzhou in China, plus Imola (Italy) and other French and German connections. For the city of Yangzhou, just north of Nanjing, we’re back in Jiangsu province. Yangzhou has been noted for both mercantilism and culture. Sometimes you have to acknowledge and celebrate the differences as well as the similarities that bring communities together. Imola is famous for its Grand Prix racing circuit. Colchester and Imola have something in common though, both being Roman towns.
A spokesperson for Colchester’s Twinning Society elaborates: ‘The link with Yangzhou is a friendship link rather than a twinning. It originated with a link between Essex County Council and that Chinese province. There have been visits in both directions and a particularly strong project involving youngsters from Colchester choosing artefacts that were then displayed in Colchester Castle.
‘The links with Imola, Wetzlar and Avignon have been forged over many years and those links remain strong to this day. As a society we promote these links and visit these three towns regularly.
‘There is also a newly-formed friendship arrangement with Arnhem due to the links with the Parachute Regiment based here in Colchester.’
The fact that the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Paras have their Garrison/HQ in Colchester makes any links with Arnhem in the Netherlands easily understood for the 2nd and 3rd participated in the Battle of Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, an ill-fated attempt to capture the key Neder Rijn bridge during the latter stages of World War II.
Immortalised in the film A Bridge Too Far, the assault became a byword for the fighting spirit of British paratroops, setting a standard for the Parachute Regiment. Colchester, of course, has been a garrison town since Roman times, with the modern garrison dating back to the Napoleonic era.
Not everything is well with the world today, with fear and nationalist sentiment smouldering from the impact of Covid-19. It’s therefore comforting to recall the Twinning initiative of 1947 that linked communities around the globe in an attempt to nurture relationships, as an antidote to nationalism and war.
Twinning is as relevant today as then, as is shown by Colchester’s newly-formed friendship arrangement with Arnhem, and since the 2000s twinning has been synonymous with forming strategic international business links.
In Essex, the choices of ‘twins’ not only celebrate similarities, but also differences, while those links with nations that have suffered from conflict remain in place and remain strong.
More Essex Twin Towns
Basildon is paired with Heiligenhaus in Germany and Meaux in France
Billericay is paired with Billerica and Fishers in the USA, as well as Chauvigny in France
Brentwood is paired with Montbazon in France and the District of Roth in Germany
Harlow is paired with Havirov in the Czech Republic, Tingalpa in Brisbane, Australia, and Velizy-Villacoublay in France
Maldon is paired with Cujik in the Netherlands and Villeparisis in France
Barking and Dagenham are twinned with Tczew in Poland and Witten in Germany