Sunday, May 26, 2019

St Osyth in Essex

The strangely-named village of St Osyth lies about twelve miles (19 km) from Colchester, heading south-east towards the coast of Essex in southern Englad. It's named after a legendary seventh-century chieftan's daughter, Osyth or Osgyth (pictured here in an illuminated manuscript about her life).

She apparently left her arranged marriage to become a nun and set up a convent in the village of Chich or Chicc. She was beheaded by raiding Viking pirates in about 700 AD. Later Chich became known as St Osyth, though the earlier name continued to be used. Osyth's ghost, carrying her head in her hands, is said to haunt the Priory built in her honour in the 12th century.

No such drama was involved when Robert Beales moved to St Osyth around the time of his marriage to Hannah May in 1809. He was a carpenter, from Combs in Suffolk, and perhaps came to St Osyth looking for work. His family would remain in the village for several generations.
Gatehouse and walls of St Osyth Priory
 (image by Stephen Dawson)

Robert Beales might have found work as a carpenter on the grounds of St Osyth's Priory or in the house itself. The walls and gatehouse of the Priory were a dominant feature of the village, taking up one quadrant of the cross formed by the two main streets. At the time of the dissolution in 1539, under King Henry VIII, it was one of the richest monasteries in Essex. After its closure, it became a private home.

Robert and Hannah had seven children before Hannah's death in 1830, including James (b 1814) from whom my family line came. Most of them were baptised in the ancient church of St Peter and St Paul in St Osyth. The widowed Robert married Mary Ann (surname unknown, but possibly Farthing). She had no children as far as I know. Robert died in St Osyth in 1854.

19th century Ordnance Survey map (from Vision of Britain)
Click to see larger version

The land around the village, which is mostly flat, was used for grazing animals, and growing wheat, barley and oats. Instead of following his father into carpentry, Robert's son James became an agricultural labourer. He may have worked on the farm belonging to his father-in-law, John Potter. In the 1851 census the Potters were said to own a farm of 5 acres, employing one man. They lived next door to James and his wife Hannah.

St Osyth marsh
(image by Paul Franks)

Ten years later, in 1861, James and his family were living in a cottage on Wigboro Wick, a farm and hamlet located between the village of St Osyth and the salt marshes that separated it from the mouth of the Colne River. ('Wick' means a farm or settlement and there are several farms in the area with the same suffix).

They were still there in 1871. Their son James, also an agricultural labourer, lived, and probably worked, on the same farm, with his wife Rosanna (or Rosina, nee Bines) and their children.

Farmland around St Osyth. Wigboro Wick farm
 is near the top of the picture. (Image by Terry Joyce)

By the time of the 1881 census, Beales was the third most common surname in St Osyth. The older James was by now a stockman at Wigboro Wick. He died in 1887 at the age of 73. The younger James and Rosanna had moved to a house closer to the village, in Mill Street. This ran past the Mill Dam lake, formed by a dam across St Osyth Creek. Next door to James lived his brother George and his family. Both James and George were employed as agricultural labourers. Like their father, the two brothers became stockmen, looking after the farm's horses, as they grew older.

St Osyth seems to have been a quiet place in the 19th century. When it was mentioned in the Essex newspapers, it was mostly just a two-line report about the local flower show, an outbreak of disease on a farm or a fund-raising tea at the vicarage. Occasionally there would be something more out of the ordinary - a drowning off the coast, or an archeological find. The Post Office directory of 1874 shows all the usual occupations found in a village of this era - bakers, shoemakers, drapers, hairdressers, carpenters etc, along with services needed by farmers such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights and seedsmen. There were five beer retailers listed.

The agricultural depression of the late nineteenth century had a dampening effect on this rural community. According to speech to Parliament given by the Member for Colchester and reported in Hansard in June 1894, the state of things in Essex was "serious and urgent".

"The time was when Essex was one of the most prosperous agricultural counties in the whole Kingdom; it was one admirably adapted for corn growing; but the years since 1875 had been a period of accumulated decline, 19 years in which not one year had been a good one, with the exception of 1887. Even in that year the farmers did no more than pay their way, and then on the top of all came the worst season agriculture had ever known, to wit, the year 1893."

The depression, combined with industrialisation, led to villagers, particularly the young, moving to larger centres such as Clacton, Ipswich and London, to find work and St Osyth went into decline.

My great grandfather, William James Beales, left St Osyth and moved to Colchester when he married in 1891. But his parents, James and Rosanna, and several of his siblings and cousins, remained in the village all their lives. The last of the Beales family descended from Robert Beales left St Osyth in the 1970s.

William Beales' wife Eliza Whybrew was born in Adelaide in South Australia, and that is where we'll go next in this journey through places where my ancestors once lived.

General Sources:

St Osyth Conservation Appraisal and Management Plan

History of St Osyth (History House series)

Vision of Britain - St Osyth

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