Enough village drama to rival a TV soap!

FROM tales of witchcraft to the mysterious discovery of a civil war skeleton, and from local uprisings to stories about a German spy, there's rarely been a dull moment in Boxted: a picturesque village by the Essex-Suffolk border.

FROM tales of witchcraft to the mysterious discovery of a civil war skeleton, and from local uprisings to stories about a German spy, there's rarely been a dull moment in Boxted: a picturesque village by the Essex-Suffolk border.

And that's before one mentions the caging of drunkards, Edward III's dalliance with the wife of the lord of the manor, the area's major role in helping establish the New World across the Atlantic, or the fact Queen Boudicca is believed to have forded the Stour at Boxted in order to surprise the Roman garrison at Colchester by attacking from the east.

Now all the happenings from 4,000 BC to the present day have been collected between the covers of a new hardback book.

It's been written by Douglas Carter, a local historian and character, but he's the first to acknowledge the real team effort as the community rallied to turn a dream into words and pictures.

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It's not going to be something left to gather dust on a shelf, either; the village primary school has plans to use the book as a valuable resource in the teaching of history.

Semi-retired solicitor Stephen Whybrow, one of four people underwriting the costs of about £10,000, says the seed was planted some years ago when the church needed about £100,000 of renovations.

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A trust raised more than was needed. There were thoughts of writing something about the church, and then that idea was expanded. Another thought: if this material was going to be printed, wouldn't it be nice to have colour photographs?

Yes - but now folk were realising the project threatened to become quite expensive. It wasn't something on which the trust, a charity, could take a commercial risk. Things were put on the back-burner.

A couple of years ago, a retired Army officer called Jeremy Carter recognised the merits of the dormant idea and wanted to see it revived. “He's someone who never stops running around and pushing things,” says Stephen.

One of those to become heavily involved was Hugh Large, creative director for a London brand agency and a villager since 1993, who brought his knowledge to bear on the look of the book.

Another key figure was retired vet Adrian Arnold, responsible for compiling the information.

Jeremy, Stephen, Hugh and Anthea Stewart - a long-term resident, whose mother used to own Boxted House - have financed the production of about 1,000 copies of Boxted: Portrait of An English Village. Once sales cover the costs, profits will swell church funds.

Sitting around the Wybrow kitchen table, Stephen and author Douglas explained some of the things readers will find.

Perhaps one of the most eye-opening is the local role in the great migration to the New World in the 1600s for religious and economic reasons - the legacy of which can today be seen in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where it's said that 20% of the population is descended from Boxted immigrants.

In April 1630 - very nearly a decade after the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth, a number of ships sailed from Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. Passengers included the Rev George Philips, vicar of Boxted, his wife Elizabeth, and three children.

The Rev Philips became the first minister of Watertown in Massachusetts (now a suburb of Boston). He died in July 1644.

Other immigrants included the Boxted Pickerings, who settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Bakers, who established themselves in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

More families left Boxted in 1637, including the Warners, the Stones, the Lumpkins and the Bakers; they went mainly to Ipswich, Massachusetts.

There would be a different kind of departure two centuries later . . .

The 19th Century brought rural depression, and anger was often focused on the 10% tithe payable to the church by locals who could not afford it.

In the 1800s Mark Lay stood up in Boxted church and shouted down the incumbent. He later organised a revolt by landowners and farmers in the parishes of Boxted, Myland and Great Horkesley.

When he appeared at the July Assize, he was told by the judge that had he committed these offences 10 years earlier, he would have been deported. As it was, he was fined £750 - equivalent to £36,000 in 2002.

“And he was told to leave the country; otherwise they'd be for him,” says Douglas. “He and his wife emigrated to Australia. In the tithe rolls, he still owes the church £160!”

More upheaval in the early 1900s, when the Salvation Army tried to help the poor of the East End of London enjoy a better life in rural Essex, only to catch a cold.

The Salvation Army built houses on land in Boxted and set up a smallholding for the folk they moved in from the city.

“The thing was a complete financial disaster and by about 1914/15 the finances had gone to pot,” says Stephen. “The Salvation Army were accused of maladministration. They were trying to turf out the tenants; the tenants were barricading themselves in, and there was a public inquiry of some sort. In the end they had to wind the whole thing up.”

Douglas adds: “It was about putting 'landless people on the peopleless land'. When they came to Boxted, they'd never seen so much open land in their life!”

The smallholders' produce was packed and sold to shops in Colchester. “Well, that was quite a small market, really, and the chap who was in charge of taking the produce into Colchester was a German, and when the war started he disappeared. The story was that instead of selling their stuff to the best possible market, he was up at the barracks spying!”

Douglas has details of the accounts, showing that the smallholders would get a penny for 12 cabbages, for in-stance. Trouble was, the costs of packing them in a box, and the other charges incurred, meant expenses out-weighed returns. “So obviously they didn't have a chance.”

Stephen: “A rather classic example of charitable do-gooding that's totally misconceived.”

Douglas became formally submerged in local history after joining the parish council. “The chairman said he had had a letter about the need for a recorder in each parish. 'You're the one for that,' he said. So I got clobbered with this recorder's job.” That was in 1994.

He inherited a sizeable amount of historical material, found it interesting, and things have progressed from there.

Douglas produced a Short History of Boxted - which sold about 1,500 copies - and has written about other historical issues.

Was he surprised by anything he found during the research for this new publication?

“Yes. The name of the church! I always thought it was St Peter's. When I started researching it, it turned out to be St Mary's! It didn't change its name until the Reformation, when it ceased to be a Catholic church.

“Later research has shown that practically all churches were originally called St Mary's. Mary was such an important figure to Roman Catholics.”

Mention of the church brings forth another tale: a tragic story of the Holy Water clerk, who held a vessel so people could make the sign of the cross when they came in.

One day he dropped it. When he was being admonished under the tower, he was found to have a forbidden Bible in his pocket. He was taken to Smithfield and burned at the stake.

Douglas Carter has always had an interest in local history.

“I suppose you could say it goes back to the pub.” His grandfather and then father ran The Queen's Head in Boxted. Douglas was licensee from 1958 until its closure in 1970.

“There were lots of characters. I thought 'Well, when these people are dead and gone, all this will be forgotten.' I used to write down all their stories. There are a whole load of stories . . . I don't suppose many of them are really true, but they were amusing!”

Ancestors on his mother's side had bought land on Boxted Heath when it was enclosed in the early 1800s. His bungalow stands on part of that original land.

Douglas, who was born in Boxted in 1927, went to the Methodist school in the village. During tough times in agriculture, when some of the children were very poor and undernourished, the teacher would buy them Ovaltine or cocoa.

“And at times, for those who didn't bring any lunch, she used to bring them biscuits and things - all out of whatever pittance of pay they had in those days.”

He moved on to the church school, where most children started at seven and left at 14, and then gained a scholarship to grammar school in Colchester. But Britain was at war and he left in 1943. There was a year on the farm and another in the air force. After that, he came back into market gardening, growing produce on the same land his ancestors had tended.

Mind you, job specialisation then wasn't what it is now. People seized opportunities as they arrived.

Apologising that it's convoluted, Douglas tells a story about a local antiques dealer he fell in with. Douglas would buy sailors' love tokens from people for a couple of pounds, and then turn a profit when he sold them on to the dealer for a fiver. (The love tokens were like little rolling-pins, he explains, bearing a message such as “Though I'm far away, I love you every day.” Sailors gave them to wives and girlfriends before leaving on a voyage.)

“In the end, I got my comeuppance. I had little interest in painting. Perhaps I should have done. My grandfather had been a general dealer and in the saloon bar there were several oil paintings. When the war came along, and the soldiers used to be in there, they used to take them off the wall and hit each other with them!

“This was by now my father's time, and he considered the best thing to do was to put them up in the box room. So they were piled up there.”

When Douglas came to leave The Queen's Head, he sold some things to his antiques dealer pal, but the paintings didn't attract: too dirty . . .

Douglas wanted £300 for them. The dealer agreed to buy a few for a fraction of the suggested price.

Later, he came back and bought more.

“Never saw any more of him. I thought perhaps he wasn't too well. Anyhow, I was in Colchester one day and saw his porter. 'How's the guv'nor getting on?' 'Might well you ask,' he say. 'He's going round the world now. Those paintings you sold him . . . One of those was a Turner . . .'”

Douglas smiles. “We don't win them all, do we?”

Boxted: Portrait of An English Village costs £30, plus £3.50 post and packing. For details, email stephen-whybrow@msn.com or phone 01206 272 773.

Bite-size Boxted: Tales of witchcraft . . .

During the English Civil War in the 1640s, witch fever abounded. Some extreme Puritans denounced innocent women largely because of their Catholic beliefs.

Boxted had its own “witch”: Elizabeth (Betty) Potter, who lived in a small cottage on the Colchester road, near what is now known as Betty Potter;s Dip.

She reputedly cured the sick daughter of a wealthy Colchester merchant, and bewitched horses pulling a wagon of wheat.

The son of the lord of Rivers Hall organised a group to seize Betty Potter. They hanged her from a tree - to the dismay of self-styled Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (from Manningtree), who wanted her to stand trial.

Betty Potter's ghost is said to appear at midnight each October 21.

Bite-size Boxted: A soldier's skeleton . . .

In the summer of 1648 Lord Goring, a royalist cavalry commander, and a royalist army occupied Colchester.

In the July he became ill and was smuggled out of Colchester by a group of royalists dressed as parliamentarian roundheads. They went over Boxted Common to the Boxted Cross Inn.

Lord Goring stayed in the Cross Inn for two nights. He was taken to Langham, where he was rowed up the river to Manningtree to join a ship for France.

There was a skirmish between the royalists and a roundhead force near Boxted Cross; many of the royalists were still wearing their roundhead uniforms.

In 1925, when Hill Farm House was being renovated, a small room was exposed. Inside was a skeleton and round-head helmet and uniform. It's likely this was the body of a royalist - in parliamentary uniform - who was wounded at the skirmish and who hid in Hill Farm, only to die of his wounds.

Bite-size Boxted: A centre of weaving . . .

After Black Death ravished the village in 1348/49, a lot of cultivated land went back to pasture for sheep - leading to the growth of a prosperous wool industry.

Flemish weavers came to Boxted in the early 14th Century after Edward III banned the export of wool to the continent. Boxted prospered with their help.

Weaving sheds were built near the river and “tenterfields” were established by the water mill.

Some of the most expensive woollen cloth was made in Boxted, including one known as “Blue Medleys”, which was exported to the Vatican City.

Thirteen weavers were recorded in Boxted between 1551 and 1670, and 13 clothiers between 1583 and 1686.

Boxted: A very potted timeline!

4000-2000BC: Neolithic settlement between Boxted House and the River Stour, and a probable Iron/Bronze Age henge nearby

300BC: Occupation of Boxted by Trinovantine Celts

55BC-42AD: Occupation of Boxted by Romans

449-500:Arrival of the Saxons, who establish the Boxted manors of Boxted Hall and Rivers Hall: a first Christian church on the site of St. Peter's and a mill on the Stour

1090-1130: Tower, nave and chancel of St. Peter's Church built (then known as St. Mary's)

1280: Songers Cottage, in Cage Lane, built - the oldest surviving timber-framed domestic building in Essex

1348/9: Black Death ravages the village

1354: Lady Sybil, the wife of Peter, Lord of Boxted Hall, reputed to have had a tryst with Edward III while husband is away “on King's business”

1378/9: Black Death again ravages the village, killing 45% of the population

1556-60: Boxted Cross Ale House opens; leading to the building of a cage in nearby Cage Lane to lock up drunkards!

1594-7: Four consecutive poor harvests result in grain being imported from Norfolk

1662: The vicar of St. Peter's, Nathaniel Carr, defrocked for fathering a son by a local woman outside marriage

1761:Unlicensed fairs in Boxted suppressed by Government order

1837: Boxted School built at the instigation of the Rev Charles Norman, vicar of Boxted.

1848: Village population 856; includes 25 farmers, six publicans, two millers, six shopkeepers, two wheelwrights, a baker, a butcher, three harness makers and eight paupers.

August 1942: Boxted Airfield allocated to the American 8th Airforce, flying Martin Marauders, P51 Mustangs and P47 Thunderbolts

August 1943: Boxted Airfield bombed; two killed

February 1944: Five houses near Boxted Cross and Perrymans Lane destroyed by German bombs

January 1958: Body of Dutch au-pair girl Mary Kriek found murdered beside the Dedham Road. The murder remains unsolved

2006: The new Boxted School opens.

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