4. 18th Century – Gradual Regeneration

Georgian elegance

The period 1714 to 1830 was characterised in England by marked cultural awareness, industrial growth and urban development. Colchester, although not at the forefront of industrial and economic change, remained an important centre for north Essex and south Suffolk and many wealthy men established impressive town houses during this period. There was a confidence in the town at this time and many improvements took place. William Stukeley’s drawing of 1718 shows the remaining friary buildings before the tidying-up of the Georgian period transformed this part of town into a very desirable area. Unfortunately it gives no information on the orientation of the view, although in terms of his access, he may be likely to have drawn it from the south, looking north. Stukely, also drew the St Botolphs Priory ruins, which themselves had a Grey Friars connection through ownership by the Selley and Halls families.

 Drawing by William Stukely 1718

The new buildings about to arrive in this part of town would give the area an air of elegance worthy of its new residents. The Grey Friars site’s prominent setting would now come to the fore in providing dignified residences for leading citizens. The commanding views afforded by the elevated position along the eastern end of High Street (previously known as Frere Street) made the area a highly desirable location for magnificent houses of local gentlemen. Holly Trees, East Hill House, the remodelled Minories and, of course, Grey Friars (in its superior position) are perfect examples. (below) View from Grey Friars, over roofs of Roman/Castle roads towards High Woods  (LPP)

Much later, in 1941, Eric Rudsdale (museum curator) would allude to this setting in his diary of the Second World War. “From my office window at Holly Trees: Green grass of the Park lawns, green leaves of the ancient trees on the Ramparts, russet and yellow flowers in the beds beneath the windows. Pale green of the distant meadows at Mile End Hall, olive green of High Woods beyond them. The sky is a blue vault, with a few fleecy clouds and the brazen sun beating down. Over everything, the brooding lazy heat. No wind, the trees hardly moving in the still, hot air, the distant woods fading in a haze.” Such must have been the prospect from upper stories at Grey Friars. It is no wonder that the site was chosen as the setting for an elegant house.

Georgian Colchester   The prosperity of Georgian Colchester, the largest town in Essex, was founded largely on wealth accumulated during the previous century’s cloth trade. Most of the larger, more impressive houses in the town were built by an elite group of families. Hollytrees was built in 1716 and inherited by the widowed Sarah Creffield, whose second husband, Colchester’s MP Charles Gray, built the west wing and landscaped the castle grounds. Opposite Grey Friars, East Hill House, built circa 1740 by George Wegg is one of the finest and is listed as grade 1 due to its importance. Elsewhere, in the centre of town in West Stockwell Street, Dr Richard Daniell built St Martin’s House, thought to have been designed by James Deane circa 1734 similar to Grey Friars. The Rebow family house (home of a Colchester MP), although much altered, still stands at Headgate (corner of Sir Isaac’s Walk). There is a Grey Friars connection here, for Sir Isaac Rebow’s first wife (circa 1682) was Mary, daughter of James Lemyng of Grey Friars. The period 1714 to 1837 (the reign of three Georges) was certainly a time of improvement in the street scene in Colchester. English society was going through great change in taste, highly influenced by the ‘grand tour’ of Europe undertaken by those who were both wealthy and educated. In architecture especially, following Robert Adam’s own ‘grand tour’, fashion brought the ‘Palladian’ movement to the fore, following the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose work was based on ancient Rome’s buildings. The best Georgian houses exhibited balanced proportions, high quality and elegance.

This view (above) of the site in 1724 (detail from Pryer’s, “A New and Exact Prospect of Colchester taken from ye North Part 1724” – print available in the British Library) shows little change since the 1697 drawing shown in chapter 3. This and the earlier maps suggest that the building shown along the street frontage, opposite St James’ church, is on or near the site of the original gatehouse and the current range of buildings. The building within the site has long gone and may be in the position of the C13th friary structures. The following view by James Deane, from Morant’s book (1748), again shows the former friary land clearly enclosed, and what may be the remaining (possibly derelict) friary buildings, or other structures in their position, along with other constructions opposite St James’ Church.