Over the past few days I’ve been listening to a lengthy article on the rise of Essex Man and Essex Woman. I’ll put my cards on the table. Born in South London, I became an Essex child at the age of three when my family moved to the South East of the county. Apart from six years in Australia I lived in Essex until I retired to North Wales. For over 50 years I was an Essex Girl. I have the emotional scars to prove it.
It’s a large county – Kent across the Thames to the South, and borders with Greater London, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and the North Sea to the East – yet it doesn’t seem to matter where you live within its borders, you are still dismissed intellectually, have your morals and ethics questioned, or relegated to a joke. Stereotyping on a grand scale.
How does Essex stand in history?
It was a strategic location in pre-Roman times, increasing its reputation as a stronghold with the building of Castles at places such as Colchester, Hadleigh, and Hedingham.
One of England’s first Knights Templar estates was founded at Cressing Temple, and there were great religious houses – the Priories of St Osyth, Blackmore, and Prittlewell, and Abbeys at Barking and Waltham. Audley End House, originally a priory, became a palace after the dissolution.
Essex was chosen as a location for royal residences: Havering Palace (the final home of Henry IV’s Queen, and also visited by Charles I in 1638 although his mother-in-law, Queen Marie de Medici, preferred Gidea Hall in nearby Romford); the Palace of Beaulieu, owned by Henry VIII and later a residence of Princess Mary. There were also estates built by courtiers that were grand enough to be visited during royal progresses: Elizabeth I stayed at Danbury Palace, Ingatestone Hall, and Loughton Hall, while Rochford Hall was one of many Essex residences owned by the Boleyn family.
Elizabeth I made her famously inspiring speech on the eve of the Spanish Armada in 1588 at Tilbury, and the port of Harwich was favoured by royals travelling from Holland and France. Early in the 1800s Princess Caroline stayed for a time in Southend-on-Sea, and in 1882 Queen Victoria visited the royal forest of Essex (Epping) to declare it “the people’s forest”. Bottom of Form
Royals from Canute to Elizabeth I, and probably beyond, enjoyed hunting in the forests of Epping, Hainault, and South Weald near Brentwood.
When did it go so horribly wrong?
Put bluntly, when the ugly face of politics reared its head in the 80s. It’s no coincidence that Harry Enfield’s ‘Loads-a-Money’ and Basildon Man walked side by side with Thatcher, while white-shoed Essex Girl danced around her handbag at TOTS in Southend. Enterprising individuals from London, those with a little cash and a lot more initiative, had moved into Essex in the 60s when new estates beckoned them from over-crowding and poor living conditions. These were the upwardly mobile, intelligent, younger people who wanted better for themselves. Unfortunately this was leading up to the era of home ownership, a get-rich quick mentality, and for Essex inhabitants on the doorstep of London it was too easy to reach the easy pickings of the financial sector. Suddenly there was money, so much money that consumerism was a hair’s breadth away. They earned loads of money that they were too ready to spend conspicuously – on alcohol, gambling, expensive clothes, big houses – everything that seemed brash to outsiders and epitomised in TV shows like Birds of a Feather. And this image – this caricature – of Essex Man and Girl was born, already a fledgling.
But stop there. Who genuinely has Essex connections? Here’s just a smattering –
World of entertainment, but many are multi-talented: Alan Davies, Alison Moyet, Charlotte Rampling, Dermot O’Leary, Dudley Moore, Jamie Cullum, Jamie Oliver, Joe Pasquale, Maggie Smith, Noel Edmonds, Rachel Riley, Richard Osman, Rik Mayall, Russell Brand, Sara Pascoe
Artists, Musicians, and Writers: Coventry Patmore, Jilly Cooper, John Constable, John Fowles, Kenny Ball, Ruth Rendell,
Medical pioneer: Joseph Lister
Sport: Alf Ramsey, Barry Hearn, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Sally Gunnell, Terry Venables
Infamous? Dick Turpin, Wat Tyler
My own story
Back in 1964, having arrived back from Australia, my Dad put down a deposit on a house. I told my new school friends where I was going to live. ‘You’ll be all posh then.’ The house was on the outskirts of a sprawling town built on ‘old money’. In the main the inhabitants had natural class, roads were clean and quiet, the high street thronged with small shops selling high-end goods. Another satellite of the town could boast houses in private roads with million-pound price tags. This was where Grievsie of World Cup fame lived.
Centuries before, when a mere village, it had been a place of pilgrimage and Becket’s Shrine stood across the main thoroughfare from the old coaching Inn. But in 2004 this famous 15th century Inn on the High Street was bought and converted, allegedly without full permission. Looking back, this is when the rot started to set in. The courtyard was ‘removed’ and it ceased to be what it had been for probably 500 years, an iconic building central to the life of the town. The ‘Sugar Hut’ was created like the monster of Dr Frankenstein. In 2010 TOWIE usurped the town’s sensibilities, swarming around the Sugar Hut, and filling our spaces with leopard print and orange skin. Yes, the future was orange but it wasn’t bright. Wonderful, individualist shops were forced to close, unable to compete with the enforced road closures brought on when TOWIE ‘celebrities’ decided to make an appearance at their own stores. Coach loads of fans would pile in from places like Preston, blocking footpaths while they queued outside these establishments. This was Brentwood. Once a symbol of refined living, now a laughing stock. No wonder I couldn’t wait to leave.
Back to my original question
Until the second half of the twentieth century Essex was a good place to live. You didn’t feel the need to lower your voice or sound apologetic when you told people where you came from. But things have changed. TOWIE – and thus Brentwood, Birds of a Feather – and thus Chigwell, Gavin and Stacey – and thus Billericay; all these mark out the rest for what most are not. They have become the stereotype, and so have stereotyped the county.
If peoples from other countries, other races were so stereotyped it would not be tolerated. At the very least there would be people speaking against it, questioning whether it was ethical to so dismiss a whole group without justification. But the sons and daughters of Essex? We’re fair game. A joke. And we like a laugh. Don’t we?