A potted history of Saffron Walden
With its narrow streets and ancient houses, Saffron Walden is the quintessential English market town. By-passed by the direct results of the Industrial Revolution, it has retained many elements of its mediaeval street pattern and there is much to delight the eye, both open to view and tucked away.
Houses in the High Street, formerly weavers' cottages with typical high windows to light their work. Replastered with pargetting designs in the 1920s. This photograph, taken by Adrian Gibson around 1992, is now where Blue, ladies fashions and accessories, trades. (Image courtesy Saffron Walden Museum 1997-92-339)
The present town started as a small village in the valley, surrounded by rich farmland first tilled by Celtic farmers before the Roman occupation. More than a thousand years ago, it began to grow into ‘Weala-denu’, a prosperous community of Saxon-speaking farmers, merchants and traders, from time to time part of the Danelaw and subject to Viking control. The invasion of William of Normandy in 1066 eventually brought changes and new allegiances: an alien fortification in the forbidding shape of Walden Castle and a bigger church, both built on the hill dominating the Saxons in the valley. The Norman lords of the manor and the wealthy mediaeval landowners had established a market by 1141, built a priory (later upgraded to become Walden Abbey), rebuilt the church in stone and obtained a charter from the Lord of the Manor to avoid paying taxes. By about 1300 the village was overlain by a new town of well-built timbered houses, some of which survive today. There was wealth in the area of ‘Chipping’ (Market) Walden, albeit concentrated in only a few hands. Prosperity seldom faltered, since the crops always grew, whether grass for the sheep, wheat, barley, or saffron, the stamens of the little autumn flower (Crocus sativus) that people came from all over the country to buy. Saffron became synonymous with the town because it was rare and precious — it was used as a medicine and in cooking as well as the source of a rich yellow dye. Though successfully trading in it, sufficiently so to change the town’s name, the community was never solely dependent on it. Just as well, because it was a fitful commodity – an early October frost and the crop could be wiped out overnight. As soon as more dependable sources from southern Europe became more easily available, the local trade waned. By about 1720 when George I stopped at Audley End and a traditional gift was required, the burghers of Walden had to rush to Bishop’s Stortford to buy imported saffron – what ignominy!
The Town Hall before the addition of the mock Tudor façade in 1879. The ground floor area had been used as a lock-up for miscreants until 1818. (Image ©Saffron Walden Museum 1912.58.117).
In the 19th century the friendly influence of Quakers became dominant. The most influential family was the Gibsons who became the major benefactors of the town. There are several buildings which testify to their public-spirited influence and generosity: the Museum, the Town Hall, the Friends’ School, the Training College (latterly the Bell College, soon to be apartments), and the rebuilt 19th-century Almshouses. The Gibson family established the Saffron Walden and North Essex Bank, later Gibson, Tuke and Gibson’s (now Barclays), having made a fortune from malting and brewing. The growth of London and its insatiable thirst in the 18th century had encouraged beer-making in the provinces, especially in such lush arable land as existed in north-west Essex, where malting barley grew well. In the 1830s, over 30 maltings and breweries thrived in the town. Although few survive, the building of the Corn Exchange in the Market Place in 1848 on the site of the mediaeval timber-framed Woolcombers Hall symbolised the dominance of cereal crops then, just as its present use as the Library now characterises the importance paid to learning and the provision of information, most notably via the internet.
King Street, c1906. Walter Robson's shop (where Mayhem now trades) existed from about 1889 until the late-1960s. The Post Office was at that time just out of view on the right. The building which became the Post Office between 1920 and 1997 (still the Sorting Office public access), is just visible in the High Street. It was at that time still a private house, lived in by Dr J P Atkinson, mayor of the town in 1891–92, 1900–01, and 1910–16. (Image courtesy Saffron Walden Museum 1912.58.98).
Gradual change, visible in its real dimensions only decades later, has been a significant element in the development of the town. It has never been sacked, bombed or gutted by fire, and perhaps the preservation of the mediaeval core is the indirect result of the 1964 closure of the unprofitable rail link through Saffron Walden to Audley End, sparing the town the worst effects of post-war ‘development’. Were it possible to transport mediaeval Walden traders from the 1500s to the 21st century they would be able to recognise many elements of their town. They would be familiar with some of the buildings, even if their uses have changed, such as the Youth Hostel (soon to be sold), most of Bridge Street, the present Cross Keys, Corner Cupboard and Saks Hair Salon in King Street, and the buildings on the four corners of the crossing where Market Hill meets Church Street. Stripped of their 18th and 19th century brick frontages, many of the houses on the High Street would also be recognisable. They would, however, find the Town Hall a curiosity – 18th-century brickwork overlain with mock timbering on an exotic colonnade of stone arches. Time-travellers from that era would be astounded to see in what high regard education is held, to judge from the number of schools and the amount of space taken up by their playing fields; and yet how ruthlessly the town-house gardens have been built on, with rows of small houses, even some stables and outhouses fit only for their pigs now being used for people! They might be mystified that the Common has survived almost intact but for the inevitable car park. Wonderful and curious, they would think, that the mighty parish church, the largest in Essex, should have grown a steeple, or the earth Maze on the Common survived at all. Little would such visitors know that there is not one but two mazes in the town, the more recent planted in the 1850s in Bridge End Garden, a copy of the one at Hampton Court (and being celebrated in August 2011 with Saffron Walden’s first ever Maze Festival).
Gray Palmer's shop in the High Street, as it looked in about 1905 when it was already well-established, having been started in Debden Road in 1887 and moved to its present site in 1895. This is one of the few instances in Saffron Walden of the same firm remaining on the same site and prospering for over 100 years. (Image courtesy Saffron Walden Museum 1912.58.83).
Fundamentally, Saffron Walden owes its existence as a town to trade. As a market town, it has supported the usual range of trades and small manufacturing businesses. The 19th-century town provided a typical commercial mix that would astound present-day inhabitants. Not merely its own gas supply and three iron foundries, but agricultural implement makers and horticultural nurseries, to name a few, of a variety to rival any in much bigger towns.
Emson Tanner's wholesale grocer's business on the north side of the Market Place (now Westgate store), decked out for the coronation of George VI in 1937. The line-up of vehicles was described by the firm as 'part of the Firm's fine fleet of motor lorries'. The business, started by John Emson (hence Emson Close), was run at this time by Ernest William Tanner, who was also a formidable local councillor between 1905 and 1927 and a JP from 1917 until the late 1930s. (Image courtesy Saffron Walden Museum C58).
The drive and resourcefulness of the townspeople has continued throughout the centuries, from Humphrey de Bohun who developed the idea of putting the town here in the first place, to the anonymous entrepreneurs of the trade in Saffron. From Dame Johanne Bradbury, pioneering education for the town, to John Harvey, wealthy rope-maker, and his four gifted, well-educated sons. From the ingenious Henry Winstanley, engraver, lighthouse designer and inveterate practical joker, to George Gibson and his descendants, maltsters, bankers and benefactors; to Joseph Scruby, wine and spirit merchant, to Joseph Bell, builder, to Ernest De Vigier, inventor of Acrow props, to William Chater, horticulturalist … all the way to current businessmen and women, from cabinet-makers to electronics specialists, all of whom have contributed to the development of the Saffron Walden we enjoy today.
© Len Pole 2011
Len Pole was Curator of Saffron Walden Museum from 1974–1996 and has, in the last three years, been involved in promoting the further use of the Museum’s world cultures collections. (www.lenpole.com)
This piece is based on the introduction to his book Saffron Walden in Old Photographs, published 1997 (ISBN: 075090853X).