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Ongar Millennium History Society

Ongar Millennium History Society


February 2018  

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New light on Ongar's medieval development

The Fenn Family

Fredericks' Princess Theatre, Ongar in 1874 and 1876

Building work at 171 High Street

The Gun - A condensed History from Crecy to Current Conflict

Dates for the diary

Photo Gallery

Future Events

Committee Members                  

Chair               Vacancy                          Venues Sec.                        Vacancy

President         Felicitie Barnes                 Membership+Speaker Sec.   Lorna Vaux

Secretary         Sandra Dear                    Committee Member             Lawrence Mendoza

Treasurer        Kathleen Jenkins               Archive                              Vacancy

                                                           Newsletter                           Jenny Main

New light on Ongar's medieval development Back to top

The origins of Chipping Ongar are obscure. Faint updateable earthworks on the south side of the town are believed to have been part of a Saxon burgh enclosure, but it is generally assumed that the town and parish of Chipping Ongar were carved out of the much larger (High) Ongar parish to form a Norman settlement town with its castle, and its 'new' town enclosed by the town ditch and bank. This securely enclosed the area from the 'bottleneck' to just north of the recently closed police station, with the castle enclosure on the highest point on the east side.

Recent archaeological excavations have shown that the assumption that the medieval town did not extend outside its ditch and bank until after the end of the medieval period is entirely wrong. The area behind Central House, just to the north of the town ditch, was excavated in 2013 before house building commenced, and showed clearly that this area was being used for a variety of domestic and craft uses from the early medieval period onwards. By peeling back the layers, archaeologists have shown that this site went through at least 7 phases of redevelopment.

The earliest (phase 1) is dated from pottery finds to the 12th and early 13th century. Charcoal, post holes, beam trenches and hearths, together with paved areas of compacted gravel, suggest that it was fairly intensively occupied. Rubbish pits from this phase contained fish, fowl and animal bones, the last showing signs of butchery. There was also a possible cess pit.

Phase two showed evidence of new construction in the early to mid 13th century, with more charcoal from hearths, and a broken quern (used for grinding grain to make flour) as well as abundant traces of grain residue, suggesting bread making in the vicinity. There was also scanty evidence for iron working.

Phase 3, covering the latter part of the 13th century, showed partial abandonment of the area with the digging of boundary ditches across the site, and possible robber trenches to salvage paving material. New post holes and beam trenches suggested the construction of one new building and pieces of oyster shell showed that contemporary occupants were eating sea food.

Phase 4, dating from the 14th century, showed a further decline in activity on the site with a few new ditches and post holes, but little else.

Phase 5, extending from the late 14th to the 16th century, was marked by the backfilling of many ditches, levelling the ground where subsidence had occurred over earlier fills, and a line of post holes, probably a fence but possible part of a building with earth-fast timbers.

In phase 6, extending to the early 19th century, the area had returned to agricultural use, and this is confirmed by the earliest detailed map we have – the tithe assessment map of 1840 – which confirms that by that date it was divided into two meadows.

Phase 7, from the mid 19th century onwards, saw numerous intrusions from service trenches, a sewer, an inspection pit and modern metalling. Documentary evidence shows the area in use variously as a sawmill, a builder's yard and for motor vehicle maintenance.

The really surprising thing about these discoveries is how much early medieval activity there was outside the security of the town enclosure – both residential and commercial – and how this declined steadily until the Victorian period. It suggests that the town's fortunes steadily declined after the mid 13th century, perhaps reflecting the dwindling importance of the later occupants of Ongar castle. Its early owners, such as Richard de Lucy, had been national figures of considerable importance and power, able to entertain the king and his entire court during several of their progresses round the country. By the 17th century Ongar castle's occupants had dwindled to local gentry of no regional importance, and Ongar's market – described in 1673 as 'indifferent' -  was of little commercial significance in comparison to Epping, Brentwood or Romford.

With the demolition of the building immediately to the north of Central House (until recently occupied by our excellent cheesemonger) it will be extremely interesting to see what further light excavations will throw on the economic history of Ongar. For those who would like more detail, the archaeological report from the 2013 dig in Banson's Yard, and the limited excavation in front of the cheesemonger's premises in February this year, are both available in Ongar library.

Michael Leach

The Fenn Family Back to top

There are two stained-glass windows in St Martin’s Church, Chipping Ongar dedicated to members of the Fenn family.

A window in the north wall of the nave, dating from 1963, depicts St Philip and the Ethiopian (Acts 8: 26-38). “What doth hinder me to be baptised.”  “If thou believest with all thy heart thou may be”. The sections at the bottom feature David Livingstone who lived in Ongar in 1838 to receive instruction from Rev. Richard Cecil, the Ongar Congregational minister, while training for the ministry. On the left, David Livingstone is shown being greeted in Africa while the section on the right shows African converts being baptised. In the bottom left hand corner are the letters (F S and G B) denoting the creators of the window, Reverend Francis Stephens, the principal designer of Faith-Craft Workshops from 1950 until its closure in 1968 and his assistant, Gordon Beningfield. The inscription at the bottom reads: “In memory of Walter Patrick Fenn who died 24th January 1919 and his wife Mary Adlard Fenn who died 7th May 1931”.  Walter was born in 1841 and Mary in c.1845. He became an insurance agent and banker and they married on 21st November 1876 in St. Luke’s, Finsbury. They lived in Ashley Lodge in Marden Ash.

A second large stained-glass window in the north wall is also by Francis Stephens and Gordon Beningfield (also marked FS/GB) and again dates from 1963. Worship of the Magi shows Mary, Joseph and Jesus and the three kings. Featured at the top is the Star of Bethlehem in the night sky. “All kings shall fall down before Him: all nations shall do him service” (Psalm 72: 11). The bottom section on the left depicts the slaughter of the innocents (killing of the first born) (Matthew 2: 16-18) while the section on the right shows the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15) with pyramids in the background.

There is an inscription at the bottom: “In memory of John Patrick Fenn who died 28th December 1960 and his sister Gertrude Mary Fenn who died 15th June 1960”.

John Patrick was born in c.1880 and became an insurance clerk and lived at Abington Lodge, Ongar. His sister Gertrude was born in c.1879.  

The Fenn family are buried in the cemetery in Ongar and the family grave (shown below) is similarly inscribed but additionally shows their ages when they died: Walter Patrick Fenn aged 79; Mary Adlard Fenn aged 87; Gertrude Mary Fenn aged 81; and John Patrick Fenn aged 80.

Keith Snow and Stan Ball

Fredericks' Princess Theatre, Ongar in 1874 and 1876 Back to top

Two playbills have recently come to light, advertising a 'grand select night' performance on 19 October 1874, and 'a great attraction – this night only' on 26 October 1876. Both were advertised as being 'under the immediate patronage and appearance of Captain Budworth'. The 1874 performance comprised a 'great play' in three acts entitled 'Prayer in the Storm: or the Brave-hearted Trooper in the Days of Oliver Cromwell', followed by a 'fancy dance' and concluding with 'a laughable Farce, called A Kiss in the Dark'. The temporary theatre appears to have been a great success, as three weeks later the Chelmsford Chronicle reported that it was only then about to end its run. To the final performance was added a singing competition for local residents, with the audience deciding which of the six contestants would receive the prize of a silver cup. The newspaper's report of their relative merits and demerits was surprisingly frank!

Two years later, the same company was offering 'Hamlet, Prince of Denmark', another 'fancy dance' and the same 'laughable Farce' but the event passed unreported by the Chelmsford Chronicle. It is possible that this was a more sophisticated one night performance, as the playbill was printed on silk with a blue border, and Mr W C Middleton, of the Surrey Theatre, London, took the leading role of Hamlet. However the 'fancy dance' and the 'laughable Farce' were common to both, and in both years the Fredericks' family played a significant number of the parts, though the names of the additional actors were different.

The Princess Theatre never existed, of course, as a permanent building. Fredericks' theatre company was itinerant, and travelled from place to place wherever there was demand for popular entertainment – for Ongar this was in the aftermath of the annual fair, of which Captain Budworth was a stalwart supporter. This fair, a relic of the old annual hiring fair for farm labourers, had become by this date merely an occasion for entertainment and – in the view of Ongar's more straight-laced citizens – for drunkenness and debauchery. Captain Budworth, however, was a champion of the working man's right to a day of pleasure to relieve the unremitting grind of hard physical labour during the rest of the year. This fair attracted visitors from a wide area, many of whom came in on the railway.

Henry Mayhew's famous report of a decade earlier, London Labour and the London Poor, contains an interview with a 'Canvas Clown' and this provides some insight into the life of an employee of a travelling theatre. This particular 'Canvas Clown' had worked for the Fredericks' theatre, as well as many other similar enterprises. He described the hard life of an itinerant player, travelling with two carts which carried the tent, theatrical props, musical instruments and temporary seating, as well as all the impedimenta for life on the road. Working late, starting early, sleeping under the cart, and poor pay – or no pay at all on bad nights – was part of the job. Players generally reckoned on being treated to drinks in local hostelries, but food was poor and often scanty. Attracting curious onlookers, and then working the crowd to ensure that some at least paid up to see the performance, was an important part of ensuring that the actors got paid at the end of the day.

The 'Canvas Clown' explained that the travelling theatres in which he had worked were constructed by mounting a tent pole on each cart to support a central ridge pole, a canvas tilt across the top, and side panels to ensure that no one got a free peak of the action. Some form of audience seating was also provided, and the Ongar playbills promised back seats at sixpence, front ones at a shilling. The theatre had some form of lighting, and was claimed to be 'commodious, dry and comfortable'. Ongar's upright citizens may – or may not – have been reassured by the information that strict order was kept, and that disorderly persons would be 'instantly expelled'.

There is no record of where Ongar's temporary theatre was erected, but doubtless Mr Fredericks would have chosen a central and conspicuous site in order to attract the maximum audience.

Michael Leach

Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson for finding and photographing these playbills, and for their considerable input to this article.

Building work at 171 High Street Back to top

Members may be wondering what is happening to the old market house next to the King’s Head. Recently much of the lathe and plaster has been stripped off the south side, as well as a smaller area on the north side. As a listed building, repair work on this scale requires listed building consent which, inter alia, would need to specify the materials to be used in the repair. It appears that the necessary consent had not been obtained before the work was started and the Epping Forest District Council planning enforcement officer has acted to ensure that no further work, apart from essential temporary weatherproofing, is done until the issues are resolved. From past experience, this may take some time.

This may seem meddlesome, but the choice of materials for repairing a medieval timber-framed building is crucial to its long term survival. The usual mistake is to use a hard cement mortar instead of the original lime plaster. Cement mortar is hard and waterproof, qualities which superficially might appear to be an advantage in the preservation of an old building. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Hard mortars crack under the seasonal movement of the supporting timber frame, allowing rainwater to seep through into the wood. Being waterproof, the mortar prevents effective drying of the waterlogged timber, and rot sets in. I know a timber-framed house at the other end of Essex which was restored in the late 1950s using cement mortar, and within a few decades there was more wet rot than the last 400 years had inflicted on the building!

The huge advantage of lime plaster is that it has a degree of flexibility and can move with the building without easily cracking. Cracks that do appear tend to be self-healing when they absorb more rainwater. In additional, lime plaster is not impermeable to water vapour so, if significant amounts of water do penetrate, they will dry out when the weather improves. As all timber-farmed buildings move seasonally, these qualities are vitally important for their long-term survival.

So, though the old market house may look something of a neglected eyesore for some time, it is essential that the final repair should be done in an appropriate way.

Michael Leach

The Gun - A condensed History from Crecy to Current Conflict Back to top

An excellent talk was given on the history of the gun at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey.  The Armoury and its extensive weapons collection was open on the evening where those in attendance could view and discuss the exhibits prior to the talk.  From its 13th century beginnings to modern firearms, the gun has evolved from a crude tube to the sophisticated weapons we see today.  The scientific principle of harnessing an explosion has remained constant, but mechanical development has tested the imagination and technical ability with innovation driven by necessity, prestige and battlefield advantage.  The talk covered the whole range of firearms and their deployment from the original matchlock and wheellock technologies through flint locks and percussion caps right up to the modern AK47 and M16.  The history of gunpowder and Cordite manufacture were covered along with the many innovators involved in the development of the firearm.   

There will be further talks in the future focusing on specific element of the gun so watch out for the for notices and the check the Royal Gun Powder Mill web site www.royalgunpowdermills.com

Nigel Main

Dates for the diary Back to top

23rd March - The Marion Slade lecture will be at the Budworth Hall and will be on Jack the Ripper

Photo Gallery Back to top

Ethel Jones Nurse at the Budworth Hall     


Budworth Hall in use as a Hospital in 1st World War

Ongar Grammar School

Future Events Back to top

Further events will be announced in future newsletters and on the website as they arise.  Have you looked at our website?  The site is regularly updated with future events so this is where you will hear the news first.  The address is http://www.omhs.org.uk/ or just search OMHS

Newsletter Contributions

We need your help with articles for the newsletter.  If you have anything that you would like to contribute no matter how small or large, please submit to the editor or through the website before the end of April 2018 to be in time for included in the next edition of the newsletter