The history of Chelmsford: How WWII decimated the city’s architecture
PUBLISHED: 10:18 21 July 2020 | UPDATED: 10:18 21 July 2020
Chelmsford may not be known as one of the county’s most historic or architecturally interesting cities, but behind the modern façade there’s much to learn about this city’s past | Words By: Nicky Adams
Chelmsford has been a commuter town for the best part of a thousand years.
The Londinium to Camulodonum (London to Colchester) Roman road ran right through it and made it a very convenient, leafy spot for centurions to kick off their sandals at home with the family at the end of a hard day defending the Roman Empire.
Now better known as the A12, this road is still a poker-straight dual-carriageway linking Chelmsford with the M25 at Brentwood, while the railway line pretty much follows the same route into London and, with Stansted Airport a hop, skip and a jump away, Chelmsford is undeniably a great place to get to and from other places.
But don’t write off Chelmsford as just a dormitory destination. Chelmsford was (eventually, some would say) awarded city status in 2012 to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee and although the local football team (Chelmsford City in Vanarama National League South) jumped the gun with its name by several decades, a lot of people are still getting used to the change.
After all, Chelmsford has had one of the key criteria for a city – its own cathedral – for 800 years, although, granted, it was only officially recognised in 1914 at the same time as the creation of the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford and is therefore one of the country’s youngest.
The magnificent Gothic cathedral is close to the city’s centre and one of just a handful of buildings of architectural interest that avoided the bombings of World War II.
These were aimed at Chelmsford’s light engineering factories, notably the Hoffmann factory (now the site of Anglia Ruskin University) which produced the ball bearings that were essential to war-time munitions, and Marconi’s pioneering telegraphic communications company (now flats).
The 18th century Shire Hall is another still-standing Chelmsford landmark. In pale Portland stone, it oversees the high street, while the Stone Bridge spans the River Can halfway down and dates back to 1784, although there has been a bridge on that same site since the 12th century.
There are also several cosy old coaching inns dotted in and around the centre, that date to various periods. All have their own characters and stories to tell (notably The Bay Horse on Moulsham Street which was a tavern even in Tudor times).
If the Luftwaffe didn’t get them, then many of Chelmsford’s other more interesting buildings of the past became the victims of modernisation.
In the late 1960s a characterful collection of pubs and shops in Tindal Street (formerly known as both Back Street and Conduit Street) were flattened, along with a network of bomb-damaged Brighton-style lanes, to make way for Chelmsford’s first shopping mall – High Chelmer.
Originally open-air and with a huge and elaborately tiled fountain in the middle of its three arms, this was a leap forward for Chelmsford as a shopping city, but not the beginning.
In naming their settlement Caesoramagus – ‘Caesar’s marketplace’ no less – even the Romans had Chelmsford pegged as a place to browse and buy, although in Roman times the trade was in jewellery, meat and pottery.
In the centuries that followed, Chelmsford became known for its Corn Exchange and its livestock market, which provided a steady stream of customers to the pub and retail trade.
Over the past few decades, the quirky individual buildings of the High Street have merged to create enough shop floor space for the big names to move in and The Meadows shopping centre has been added too.
As if a mall at either end of the historic High Street weren’t enough, the recently built Bond Street shopping area has a sparkling John Lewis as its focal point and its pedestrianised thoroughfare is lined with up-market high street names.
Chelmsford Museum, in the grounds of the delightful Oaklands Park, has a wonderful collection of paintings and photographs of Chelmsford down the ages, and that is unfortunately the only place where some of the city’s most interesting and historic edifices can now be clearly seen.
But peek down a few alleyways (particularly between the High Street and Tindal Street) and look carefully behind the facades of some of the city centre’s shops and offices (such as Middletons Steakhouse, a Grade II listed former Barclays Bank) and it’s still possible to catch a glimpse of Chelmford’s hidden history.
Find out more
Even now you can learn about Chelmsford’s past by visiting the Chelmsford Museum website and taking a close look at some of the exhibits online at chelmsford.gov.uk/museums.