Daniel Defoe: the Colchester connection
Tubswick in Mile End, to the north of Colchester town centre, was a Grade II listed house dating to c 1752. It had replaced an earlier structure which may have dated to the early medieval period. It was situated on a 0.35 hectare plot of land on the south side of Mill Road. The building was listed for its special architectural and historic interest in 2001. The property and attached land had connections to several significant historical figures, important both nationally and to Colchester in particular. The famous author Daniel Defoe leased the property (a farm with house) in 1722 and the house was subsequently rebuilt and occupied by his daughter Hannah Defoe. A fire during renovations in 2009 damaged the house and the Borough Council gave permission for it to be demolished. It was not replaced with a reconstruction and the plot of land has now been redeveloped with housing. In May 2011, Chris Lister of the Trust conducted a building record of the house.
Tubswick is mentioned as a farm as far back as 1296. It took its name from Richard Tubbe, bailiff of Colchester 1296-7, who had crops and stock worth £6, 16s. 8d. In February 1348, Joseph Elianore bestowed a messuage in Mile End called Tubbeswick, along with 18 acres of arable land and two of woodland, on the Church of St Mary-at-the-Walls to provide for a chantry in the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr. This was a small part of a large endowment to support two chaplains to pray daily for his good estate whilst he was alive, and for his soul after his decease. On the chantry’s dissolution in 1548, Tubswick was passed to the corporation of Colchester. The house and its farm (included as part of
the Kingswood Heath, or Severalls, estate along with Brinkley Farm) was leased by the corporation to the author Daniel Defoe (c 1660-1731) on 6 August 1722 for £120 per annum for a period of 99 years (Morant 1748, Book II, 26). The house was rebuilt for his daughter Hannah Defoe in the early 1750s, probably 1752 based on an inscribed brick found in the south elevation: ‘HDF/1752’ (Hannah Defoe). The house faced south, overlooking Colchester, and was in a prime position as both an out-of-town house with easy access to the town and as a farm close enough to supply the urban market with produce.
The brick-built Georgian farmhouse erected by the Defoe family evolved into the structure that survived into the 21st century. These changes reflect prevalent architectural styles of the time and the attitudes of the different occupants.
The most famous person associated with the house was of course the author Daniel Defoe, who took up the lease in 1722. A local myth is that Defoe wrote his famous novel Moll Flanders while living there, but the fact that the publication date for that novel is January 1722 and the lease was not signed until August of that year disproves this theory. Defoe may never have lived in the house. However, the heroine of Moll Flanders spends some of the early years of her eventful life in Colchester.
In 1722, Defoe was enjoying a successful career as one of the earliest proponents of the novel after a lifetime of political pamphleteering. At the same time, he had numerous careers (including general mercantile, perfumery, tax collector, brick and tile manufacturer, Monmouth rebel, and government spy). He was well connected but dogged by debt and indeed imprisoned for it. It is possible that Defoe leased the farm as a business concern, with someone managing the farm for him, rather than as a residence for himself, although it is possible that a man of such diverse talents might turn his hand to farming (although in a gentlemanly manner). What can certainly be said is that the years between his taking up of the lease and his death in 1731 saw the bulk of his novels published. It is possible that he stayed in the house, although his main home was London. where he was born. Perhaps he discovered the house and estate while he was researching A tour through England and Wales: the Tour through the Eastern Counties of England was published in 1722.
Wikipedia: ‘… Defoe entered the world of business as a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woollen goods and wine. Though his ambitions were great and he was able to buy both a country estate and a ship (as well as civet cats to make perfume), he was rarely out of debt. In 1684, Defoe married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a London merchant, receiving a dowry of £3,700 – a huge amount by the standards of the day. With his debts and political difficulties, the marriage was most likely troubled, but it lasted 50 years and produced eight children, six of whom survived.
In 1685, Defoe joined the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion but gained a pardon by which he escaped the Bloody Assizes of Judge George Jeffreys. William III was crowned in 1688, and Defoe immediately became one of his close allies and a secret agent. Some of the new king’s policies, however, led to conflict with France, thus damaging prosperous trade relationships for Defoe, who had established himself as a merchant. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for debts of £700 (and his civets were seized), though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000 his laments were loud and he always defended unfortunate debtors but there is evidence that his financial dealings were not always honest.
Following his release, he probably travelled in Europe and Scotland and it may have been at this time that he traded wine to Cadiz, Porto and Lisbon. By 1695 he was back in England, now formally using the name “Defoe”, and serving as a “commissioner of the glass duty”, responsible for collecting taxes on bottles. In 1696 he ran a tile and brick factory in what is now Tilbury, Essex and living in the parish of Chadwell St Mary …’
Defoe’s best-known works are Robinson Crusoe (1719), The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722), and A tour through England and Wales (1722-1727). He died on 24th April 1731, probably while in hiding from his creditors. He was interred in Bunhill Fields, London, where his grave can still be visited.
Taken from CAT Report 595; read the report at http://cat.essex.ac.uk/reports/CAT-report-0595.pdf – there is also an article on Defoe and Colchester in The Colchester Archaeologist magazine no 22 (2012).
Taken from Defoe’s Letter 1, ‘CONTAINING A DESCRIPTION OF THE SEA-COASTS OF THE COUNTIES OF ESSEX, SUFFOLK, NORFOLK, ETC., AS ALSO OF PART OF CAMBRIDGE-SHIRE’, part 1, ‘Through Essex to Colchester’.
‘… I BEGAN my travels, where I purpose to end them, viz. at the city of London, and therefore my account of the city itself will come last, that is to say, at the latter end of my southern progress; and as in the course of this journey I shall have many occasions to call it a circuit, if not a circle, so I chose to give it the title of circuits, in the plural, because I do not pretend to have travelled it all in one journey, but in many, and some of them many times over; the better to inform my self of every thing I could find worth taking notice of.
I hope it will appear that I am not the less, but the more capable of giving a full account of things, by how much the more deliberation I have taken in the view of them, and by how much the oftner I have had opportunity to see them.
I set out, the 3d of April, 1722, going first eastward, and took what I think, I may very honestly call a circuit in the very letter of it; for I went down by the coast of the Thames thro’ the marshes or hundreds, on the south-side of the county of Essex, till I came to Malden, Colchester, and Harwich, thence continuing on the coast of Suffolk to Yarmouth; thence round by the edge of the sea, on the north and west-side of Norfolk, to Lynn, Wisbich, and the Wash; thence back again on the north-side of Suffolk and Essex, to the west, ending it in Middlesex, near the place where I began it, reserving the middle or center of the several counties to some little excursions, which I made by themselves …
In this inlet of the sea is Osey or Osyth Island, commonly called Oosy Island, so well known by our London men of pleasure, for the infinite number of wild-fowl, that is to say, duck, mallard, teal and widgeon, of which there are such vast flights, that they tell us the island, namely the creek, seems covered with them, at certain times of the year, and they go from London on purpose for the pleasure of shooting; and indeed often come home very well loaden with game. But it must be remembred too, that those gentlemen who are such lovers of the sport, and go so far for it, often return with an Essex ague on their backs, which they find a heavier load than the fowls they have shot.
‘Tis on this shoar, and near this creek, that the greatest quantity of fresh fish is caught, which supplies not this country only, but London markets also: On the shoar beginning a little below Candy Island, or rather below Leigh Road, there lies a great shoal or sand called the Black Tayl, which runs out near three leagues into the sea due east; at the end of it, stands a pole or mast, set up by the Trinity-House men of London, whose business is, to lay buoys, and set up sea marks for the direction of the sailors; this is called Shoo-Bacon, from the point of land where this sand begins, which is call’d Shooberry-Ness, and that from the town of Shooberry, which stands by it. From this sand, and on the edge of Shooberry, before it, or south-west of it, all along, to the mouth of Colchester Water, the shoar is full of shoals and sands, with some deep channels between; all which are so full of fish, that not only the Barking fishing-smacks come hither to fish, but the whole shoar is full of small fisher-boats in very great numbers, belonging to the villages and towns on the coast, who come in every tide with what they take; and selling the smaller fish in the country, send the best and largest away upon horses, which go night and day to London market.
N.B. I am the more particular in my remark on this place, because in the course of my travels the reader will meet with the like in almost every place of note through the whole island, where it will be seen how this whole kingdom, as well the people, as the land, and even the sea, in every part of it, are employ’d to furnish something, and I may add, the best of every thing, to supply the city of London with provisions; I mean by provisions, corn, flesh, fish, butter, cheese, salt, fewel, timber, &c. and cloths also; with every thing necessary for building, and furniture for their own use, or for trades; of all which in their order.
On this shoar also are taken the best and nicest, tho’ not the largest oysters in England; the spot from whence they have their common appellation is a little bank called Woelfleet, scarce to be called an island, in the mouth of the River Crouch, now called Crooksea Water; but the chief place where the said oysters are now had, is from Wyvenhoo and the shears adjacent whither they are brought by the fishermen, who take them at the mouth of, that they call, Colchester Water, and about the sand they call the Spits, and carry them up to Wyvenhoo, where they are kid in beds or pits on the shoar to feed, as they call it; and then being barrelled up, and carried to Colchester, which is but three miles off, they are sent to London by land, and are, from thence, called Colchester oysters.
The chief sort of other fish which they carry from this part of the shoar to London, are soals, which they take sometimes exceeding large, and yield a very good price at London market: Also sometimes midling turbet, with whitings, codling, and large flounders; the small fish as above, they sell in the country.
In the several creeks and openings, as above, on this shoar, there are also other islands, but of no particular note, except Mersey, which lies in the middle of the two openings, between Malden Water and Colchester Water; being of the most difficult access, so that ’tis thought a thousand men well provided, might keep possession of it against a great force, whether by land or sea; on this account, and because if possessed by an enemy, it would shut up all the navigation and fishery on that side: The Government formerly built a fort on the south-east point of it: And generally in case of Dutch war, there is a strong body of troops kept there to defend it …
Not one half of the inhabitants are natives of the place; but such as from other countries, or in other parts of this county settle here for the advantage of good farms; for which I appeal to any impartial enquiry, having myself examin’d into it critically in several places …
It is observable, that in this part of the country, there are several very considerable estates purchas’d, and now enjoy’d by citizens of London, merchants and tradesmen, as Mr. Western an iron merchant, near Kelvedon, Mr. Cresnor, a wholesale grocer, who was, a little before he died, nam’d for sheriff at Earls Coln, Mr. Olemus, a merchant at Braintree, Mr. Westcomb, near Malden, Sir Thomas Webster at Copthall, near Waltham, and several others.
I mention this, to observe how the present encrease of wealth in the city of London, spreads it self into the country, and plants families and fortunes, who in another age will equal the families of the antient gentry, who perhaps were bought out. I shall take notice of this in a general head, and when I have run thro’ all the counties, collect a list of the families of citizens and tradesmen thus established in the several counties, especially round London.
The product of all this part of the country is corn, as that of the marshy feeding grounds mention’d above, is grass, where their chief business is breeding of calves, which I need not say are the best and fattest, and the largest veal in England, if not in the world; and as an instance, I eat part of a veal or calf, fed by the late Sir Josiah Child at Wansted, the loyn of which weigh’d above 30*. and the flesh exceeding white and fat.
From hence I went on to Colchester: …
COLCHESTER is an antient Corporation; the town is large, very populous; the streets fair and beautiful; and tho’ it may not be said to be finely built, yet there are abundance of very good and well-built houses in it: It still mourns, in the ruins of a civil war; during which, or rather after the heat of the war was over, it suffer’d a severe siege; which, the garrison making a resolute defence, was turn’d into a blockade, in which the garrison and inhabitants also, suffered the utmost extremity of hunger, and were at last oblig’d to surrender at discretion, when their two chief officers, Sir Charles Lucas, and Sir George Lisle, were shot to death under the castle-wall. The inhabitants had a tradition, that no grass would grow upon the spot where the blood of those two gallant gentlemen was spilt; and they shewM the place bare of grass for many years, but whether for this reason, I will not affirm; the story is now dropp’d, and the grass, I suppose, grows there as in other places.
However, the batter’d walls, the breaches in the turrets, and the ruin’d churches still remain, except that the church of St. Mary’s (where they had the royal fort) is rebuilt; but the steeple, which was two thirds batter’d down, because the besieged had a large culverine upon it, that did much execution, remains still in that condition.
There is another church which bears the marks of those times, namely, on the south-side of the town, in the way to the Hithe, of which more hereafter.
The lines of contravallation, with the forts built by the besiegers, and which surrounded the whole town, remain very visible in many places; but the chief of them are demolish’d.
The River Coln, which passes through this town, compasses it on the north and east-sides, and serv’d in those times for a compleat defence on those sides. They have three bridges over it, one called North-Bridge, at the north gate, by which the road leads into Suffolk; one call’d East-Bridge, at the foot of the High Street, over which lies the road to Harwich; and one at the Hithe, as above.
The river is navigable within three miles of the town for ships of large burthen; a little lower it may receive even a royal navy: And up to that part called the Hithe, close to the houses, it is navigable for hoys and small barks. This Hithe is a long street, passing from west to east, on the south-side of the town; at the west-end of it, there is a small intermission of the buildings, but not much; and towards the river it is very populous; (it may be call’d the Wapping of Colchester;) there is one church in that part of the town, a large key by the river, and a good custom-house.
The town may be said chiefly to subsist by the trade of making bays, which is known over most of the trading parts of Europe, by the name of Colchester bays, tho’ indeed all the towns round carry on the same trade, namely, Kelvedon, Wittham, Coggshall, Braintree, Bocking, &c. and the whole county, large as it is, may be said to be employ’d, and in part maintain’d, by the spinning of wool for the bay trade of Colchester, and its adjacent towns. The account of the siege, anno 1648, with a DIARY of the most remarkable passages, are as follows, which I had from so good a hand, as that I have no reason to question its being a true relation.
The town of Colchester has been suppos’d to contain about 40000 people, including the out-villages which are within its liberty, of which there are a great many, the liberty of the town being of a great extent: One sad testimony of the town being so populous is, that they bury’d upwards of 5259 people in the Plague Year, 1665. But the town was severely visited indeed, even more in proportion than any of its neighbours, or than the city of London.
The government of the town is by a mayor, high steward, a recorder, or his deputy, eleven aldermen, a chamberlain, a town-clerk, assistants, and eighteen common-council-men. Their high-steward (this year, 1722.) is Sir Isaac Rebow, a gentleman of a good family and known character, who has generally, for above 30 years, been one of their representatives in Parliament: He has a very good house at the entrance in at the South, or head gate of the town, where he has had the honour, several times, to lodge and entertain the late Kong William, of glorious memory, in his returning from Holland, by way of Harwich to London. Their recorder is Earl Cowper, who has been twice lord high-chancellor of England: But his lordship not residing in those parts, has put in for his deputy, ——Price, Esq; Banister at Law, and who dwells in the town. There are in Colchester eight churches, besides those which are damag’d, and five meeting-houses, whereof two for Quakers; besides a Dutch church and a French church.
Public edifices are,
- Bay-Hall, an ancient society kept up for ascertaining the manufactures of bays; which are, or ought to be, all brought to this hall, to be viewed and sealed according to their goodness, by the masters; and to this practice has been owing the great reputation of the Colchester bays in foreign markets; where to open the side of a bale and shew the seal, has been enough to give the buyer a character of the value of the goods without any farther search; and so far as they abate the integrity and exactness of their method, which, I am told, of late is much omitted; I say, so far, that reputation will certainly abate in the markets they go to, which are principally in Portugal and Italy. This corporation is govern’d by a particular set of men who are call’d Governors of the Dutch Bay Hall. And in the same building is the Dutch church.
- The Guild Hall of the town, called by them the Moot Hall; to which is annex’d the town goal.
- The Work-house, being lately enlarg’d, and to which belongs a corporation, or a body of the inhabitants, consisting of sixty persons incorporated by Act of Parliament anno 1698, for taking care of the poor: They are incorporated by the name and title of The Governor, Deputy Governor, Assistants, and Guardians, of the Poor of the Town of Colchester. They are in number eight and forty; to whom are added the mayor and aldermen for the time being, who are always guardians by the same Charter: These make the number of sixty, as above.
There is also a grammar free-school, with a good allowance to the master, who is chosen by the town.
- The Castle of Colchester is now become only a monument shewing the antiquity of the place, it being built as the walls of the town also are, with Roman bricks; and the Roman coins dug up here, and ploughed up in the fields adjoining, confirm it. The inhabitants boast much, that Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, first Christian Emperor of the Romans, was born there; and it may be so for ought we know; I only observe what Mr. Camden says of the castle of Colchester, viz.
“In the middle of this city stands a castle ready to fall with age.”
Tho’ this castle has stood an hundred and twenty years from the time Mr. Camden wrote that account, and it is not fallen yet; nor will another hundred and twenty years, I believe, make it look one jot the older: And it was observable, that in the late siege of this town, a cannon shot, which the besiegers made at this old castle, were so far from making it fall, that they made little or no impression upon it; for which reason, it seems, and because the garrison made no great use of it against the besiegers, they fir’d no more at it.
There are two CHARITY SCHOOLS set up here, and carried on by a generous subscription, with very good success.
The title of Colchester is in the family of Earl Rivers; and the eldest son of that family, is called Lord Colchester; tho’, as I understand, the title is not settled by the creation, to the eldest son, till he enjoys the title of Earl with it; but that the other is by the courtesy of England; however this I take ad referendum …’