As I walk through the streets of this city, I look around and I imagine how it once must have looked. I’ve lived in Chelmsford for just over 3 years now, but I’ve know about it for well over 40 and in all that time it’s changed beyond recognition. Where once there were open spaces and green fields all you see now is vast areas of housing and tarmac. Chelmsford is the principal settlement in Essex, in the East of England and its only city. It is located, approximately 32 miles from London, and approximately the same distance from the once provincial Roman capital of Colchester. Chelmsford has a population of approximately 110,000(urban) whilst the district has a population of 168,310.
The main city district area incorporates all or part of the former parishes of Broomfield, Great Baddow, Galleywood, Writtle, Moulsham, Widford and Springfield, including Springfield Barnes, now known as Chelmer Village. The modern history goes back almost a thousand years, when in 1199, following the commissioning of a bridge over the River Can by Maurice, Bishop of London. William of Sainte-Mère-Eglise was granted a Royal Charter for Chelmsford to hold a market, marking the origin of the modern town. Before 1199, there were settlements nearby from ancient times. A Neolithic and a late Bronze Age settlement have been found in the Springfield suburb, and the town was occupied by the Romans.
The remains of a mansio, a combination post office, civic centre and hotel, lie beneath the streets of modern Moulsham, and the ruins of an octagonal temple are located beneath the Odeon roundabout even so the town disappeared for a while after the Romans left Britain. Chelmsford has a had long history some of it interesting,the town became the seat of the local assize during the early 13th century (assizes were also held at Brentwood) and by 1218 was recognised as the county town of Essex, a position it has retained to the present day. An important Anglo-Saxon burial was discovered at Broomfield to the north of Chelmsford in the late 19th century, the road ‘Saxon Way’ marks the site.
Then in the 17th century many of the victims of Matthew Hopkins (the self-styled “Witchfinder General”) spent their last days imprisoned in Chelmsford, before being tried at the Assizes and hanged for witchcraft. Before that Henry VIII purchased the Boleyn estate in 1516, and built Beaulieu Palace on the current site of New Hall School. This later became the residence of his then mistress, and later wife Ann.
More recently during World War II Chelmsford, an important centre of light engineering war production, was attacked from the air on several occasions, both by aircraft of the Luftwaffe and by missile. The worst single loss of life took place on Tuesday 19 December 1944, when a V2 rocket fell on a residential street (Henry Road) near the Hoffman’s ball bearing factory. Thirty-nine people were killed and 138 injured 47 seriously. Several dwellings in Henry Road were completely destroyed, and many in nearby streets were badly damaged. On 13 May 1943 Luftwaffe bombing raids also hit Chelmsford leaving more than 50 people dead and making nearly 1,000 residents homeless, these were dropped mainly in the town centre, Springfield and Moulsham.
The GHQ Line part of the British hardened field defences of World War II runs directly through Chelmsford with many pillboxes still in existence to the north and south of the city and I should know ,I’ve seen many of them. Hylands Park, the site of the annual V festival, then hosted a Prisoner of war camp, and from 1944 was the headquarters of the Special Air Service (SAS). Since the 1980s Chelmsford has suffered from a decline in its defence-related industries, most notably The Marconi Company with all of its factories either being closed or sold. The site on West Hanningfield Road was sold to BAE; the Waterhouse Lane site sold to E2V and the New Street site is undergoing major redevelopment for residential/mixed use.
However, the city’s location close to London and at the centre of Essex has helped it grow in importance as an administrative and distribution centre. The one-time largest employer in Chelmsford, RHP, the former Hoffman ball bearing manufacturing company, closed its New Street/Rectory Lane site in 1989.
Some of the factory remains and have been converted into luxury apartments and a health club although most of the site was demolished to make way for the Rivermead Campus of the Anglia Ruskin University.
Beaulieu Park, The Village and Chancellor Park are some of the most recent large-scale housing developments built in the city to complement earlier developments such as Chelmer Village which was built throughout the 1980s.
Despite its colourful history to me the urban redevelopment of Chelmsford since World War II has been misguided. Originally an agricultural and market town, Chelmsford had been an important centre for industry since the 19th century. Following the opening of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation in 1797, cheaper transportation and raw materials made milling and malting the main industries until the 1850s, when increasing prosperity created a local market for agricultural machinery.
Foundries and engineering works followed including Fell Christy at his Factory (In later years known as Christy Norris Ltd) on the corner of Kings Road and Broomfield Road opened 1858 finally closed 1985, Coleman and Moreton, Thomas Clarkson (Steam Omnibus manufacturer and Founder of the Eastern National Bus Company) and Eddington and Stevenson (makers of traction engines).
The need for housing is one thing but the general building policy which has continued unabated since the 1970’s, has turned Chelmsford from a town with character into a city with hardly any character and urban sprawl than covers an area of approximately 10 square miles.
Gone are the companies by which Chelmsford made its name. Gone are the Marconi Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company(2008), Crompton’s Electrical Engineering(1969), Hoffmann Ball Bearings(1989) and on 14 March 2014 the Britvic Soft Drinks, Westway factory closed for good thus ending the company’s 150-year association with the City. This leaves only the renamed “English Electric Valve Company “ (now e2v) remaining.
There are some sights you can link to Chelmsford past but they are few and far between sometimes hidden between sprawling housing estates, overwhelming amounts of retail outlet or unused offices that are now having to be turned into inner city flats. Chelmsford has definitely lost its charm amid the curse that is modern day planners and developers.Why they ever let the countryside disappear around Chelmsford like the have is a travesty,they’ve turn a town of note into a city that is really dull.