5. 19th Century – A Desirable Address

The Victorians and the Edwardians

The nineteenth century saw Colchester experience further change. Although it remained an important market town for the surrounding rural area, there were economic and social developments which would alter the profile of the town and by 1901 the major sources of employment were the engineering and building sectors, along with transportation of all kinds. These had gradually built up during the C19th, eventually replacing the activities connected to the more traditional trades. For example, business at Grey Friars’ owner Stephen Brown’s silk factory (built 1824) steadily declined, ceasing by 1881, and its buildings were eventually converted by Truslove’s to make steam pumps.

There were major social repercussions to the coming of the garrison in the mid C19th, whose arrival both enriched and challenged the community. Many activities (social, artistic, sporting for example) were enhanced by the presence of all ranks within the military, but there was also drunken and disorderly behaviour and an increase in destitution due to problems with the authorisation process for wives and families to benefit from soldiers’ rations.

The development of foundries, engineering firms, quarrying, printing and transport, along with building to cater for the increasing population, was altering the environment. By contrast, this all served to enhance the reputation of the area around Grey Friars as a quiet and fashionable part of town. Although Colchester was not subject to the extremes of social and health problems experienced in the cities (probably due to its slow expansion coupled with its capacity for expansion outwards to accommodate growth) there was inevitably social segregation to some degree.

The leaders of Colchester society in the 19th century included various branches of Grey Friars’ neighbours the Rounds of East Hill House and Hollytrees (they also owned the Castle and Birch Hall) who ranked with the Papillons of Lexden Manor and the Rebows of Wivenhoe Park. Alongside these locally and nationally powerful dynasties, there were other leading families active in the professions such as doctors, surgeons, clerics and high-ranking officers in the forces. Grey Friars housed examples of all of these.

The town’s prominent families held on to the more desirable areas such as this site and the owners and occupiers of Grey Friars continued to enjoy a privileged life, exemplified by the print below, showing the view of Grey Friars’ ‘garden front’ across the extensive and well-tended lawns.

  Print – ERO

It has been suggested that the governors of the Colchester Royal Grammar School considered the Grey Friars site when looking to relocate from their deteriorating premises in the C19th. There is an earlier connection between ‘the land of the Grey Friars’ and this institution through a reference in Colchester Grammar School documents of circa 1540, still to be clarified.

Thomas Baskerfield   Circa 1814 Rev Halls’ nephew and heir, James, sold Grey Friars to Thomas Baskerfield (1751-1816) who was a cartographer and topographical artist. Many of his maps are held in the British Library. In 1817 the property was willed to Baskerfield’s wife Sophia with his executor Horatio Cock and heirs. In 1824 Priory Field (below the formal gardens) was leased to trustees of the Colchester and Essex Botanical and Horticultural Society. In 1849 the heirs of Horatio Cock sold the main part of the property (the house, Grey Friars, and its gardens) whilst retaining ownership of the land containing the Botanic Garden.

Roper’s map of 1810 (below) shows a very neatly landscaped area between the house and the town wall to the north. We cannot be sure how accurate this was, especially as he (in common with others) has an incorrect name for the order of friars from which the site takes its name. (Crutched Friars, also known as crouched or crossed, carried a staff with a cross/crucifix on it.)