Historically, towns within Essex were any settlement with a charter, including market towns and ancient boroughs. Since April 1st, 1974, parish councils have had the right to resolve to call themselves a town council.
Towns are typically split into three size bands as shown below:
- Small-sized town - a population between 5,000 and 20,000
- Medium-sized town - a population between 20,000 and 75,000
- Large-sized town - a population above 75,000
Although the village of Basildon was mentioned in the Domesday Book, the town of Basildon was not founded until 1948. Basildon grew out of a union of four villages (Pitsea, Laindon, Basildon and Vange) as a part of the government’s ‘London overspill’ strategy after World War 2.
There is evidence of settlement in Billericay from the Bronze Age, but the town was first mentioned in historical records in 1291. In 1381 King Richard II finally ended the Peasant's revolt in Norsey Wood, where the battle led to the death of 500 rebels. Billericay was also the hometown of 4 pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620. It is reputed that all Pilgrim Fathers met in the town before setting sail. The link to the Mayflower is a source of great pride to the people of Billericay, as can be seen by the number of place names taken from the Pilgrim Fathers.
The area around Braintree has been settled for about 4000 years. Braintree itself, however, was granted its town charter in 1190 by Prince John during the reign of Richard I. In 1665 Braintree was decimated by the Black Death. Records show that 856 of its 2300 residents died of the plague. Braintree became known as a mill town due to the influx of Flemish immigrants in the 17th Century. At first, wool and silk were worked in the town, and, in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II wore silk robes for her coronation woven in Braintree.
Likely, the earliest settlement on the site of what is now Brentwood dates back to Saxon times. On many of the older maps, Brentwood appears as ‘Burnt Wood’, probably referring to the fact that much of Essex was once covered by the Great Forest, and the settlement was likely a centre of charcoal burning. Brentwood became prosperous in the 12th and 13th centuries as a stopover for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to visit the tomb of St Thomas a Beckett.
The picturesque coastal town of Brightlingsea can trace its roots back to Neolithic times. In 1995, archaeologists conducted a dig that uncovered a pot dating back between 3200 and 4000BC. Brightlingsea was traditionally known for fishing (especially oysters) and shipbuilding. It has also held a historical link as a subsidiary port (called a ‘limb’) of the Kentish Cinque Port of Sandwich. This meant that Brightlingsea shared the responsibility to provide for the naval defence of England and received certain privileges in trade and taxation as a result. In the middle of the town sits Jacobs Hall, the oldest timber-framed building in England, dating back to the fourteenth century.
Burnham-on-Crouch lies on the northern bank of the River Crouch and can trace its history to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. It is listed in the Domesday Book and was granted its Royal Charter to hold a town market in 1253. Burnham-on-Crouch is well known as a centre for yachting, with no fewer than four yacht clubs. The town hosts the annual ‘Burnham Week’ regatta, which claims to be the oldest of its kind in mainland Britain. Burnham-on-Crouch sits at the centre of the Dengie peninsula, a designated area of special scientific interest. It boasts flora and fauna protected by law because it is unique to the area.
Canvey Island lies in the Thames Estuary on an island reclaimed from the water. There is evidence that the land has been inhabited since the Roman invasion of Britain and has had a varied history involving a great deal of flooding. Since as early as the fourteenth century, tremendous efforts have been made to manage the effects of the sea upon the reclaimed island. In the 17th century, Dutch workers were invited to Canvey Island to install a series of dykes and defences (now called the Commissioners Dykes). These defences remain the foundation of the Canvey Island flood defences, and the influence of the Dutch workers is evident in the area in the names of one-third of Canvey's streets, which have a Dutch root.
Being within the ring of the M25, Chigwell is as much a part of London as it is Essex. The foundation of Chigwell is likely to date back to the Anglo-Saxon times when it would have been a rural area in what was then known as ‘the Great Forest’. Chigwell now stands at the edge of the Epping Forest and the Hainault Forest. The town was mentioned in the Domesday Book as a settlement of 35 adults, and in Victorian times it was lauded by Charles Dickens in his novel Barnaby Rudge as “the greatest place in the world... such beautiful forest scenery...such an out of the way rural place!”. Much of the centre of the old village of Chigwell is protected as a conservation area that has survived the rapid growth in population.
Founded in 1871, Clacton-on-Sea is best known as a seaside resort that saw its heyday as a holiday destination between 1950 and 1980. Its Pier is 160 yards in length and is claimed to be one of the longest of its kind in the world. In 1911, J. Hazzledine Warren, a noted archaeologist, uncovered a wooden spear dated around 400 000 BC, the oldest wooden artefact found in the British Isles. Clacton-on-Sea also refers to a flint tool dating back to the same period found in the area (called Clactonian tools). This means that the original human settlement in the area is as ancient as anywhere in Essex. Whilst Clacton-on-Sea is no longer the holiday resort that could once boast a Butlin’s holiday camp, it is still a thriving entertainment and leisure town that attracts many visitors. It has family amusements, a Carnival, nightlife and a famous Air Show among its many attractions.
Until relatively recent history, Dagenham has been a small place. In 666AD, it only received a mention as a farm in the charter of Barking Abbey, and it was only large enough to warrant a chaplain in 1205. It was not until the building of the vast Becontree Council Estate in the 1920s that Dagenham grew beyond the size of a village. The resulting population explosion led to Dagenham being added to the District Line of the London Underground and the relocation of The Ford Motor Company’s headquarters in the UK from Trafford, in Manchester, to a new site in the town.
The weekly market in Epping has run unbroken since King Henry II granted its charter in 1253. As a result of its location at the edge of the ancient Forest of Epping, the town has been an important centre for trade in its rural surroundings and a stop-off point on the journey to and from London. By the nineteenth century, up to 26 stage and mail coaches were passing through Epping each day, and 26 coaching inns were thriving on the High Street. The introduction of the railways led to a noticeable decline in visitors and business since travel and communication became possible without the need for stopovers. However, the introduction of motorised transport has led to rapid growth for Epping as a popular place to live and commute into the city of London. As a result, house prices have risen dramatically. The town of Epping has many listed buildings and a rural atmosphere. It is also close to Lee Valley Park, which hosted some canoeing events for the London 2012 Olympics.
The attractive seaside town of Frinton-on-Sea was, until the 1890s, a single church and collection of houses. As a result of the Victorian boom in seaside destinations within reach of London, Peter Bruff and then Powell Cooper developed Frinton-on-Sea into the town it is today. Cooper was concerned that the town should retain a sense of decorum, so he insisted that there be no pier and prohibited the building of boarding houses and pubs.
Thurrock and neighbouring Grays rest on the north bank of the River Thames. It was once a grazing site for Wooly Mammoths, and archaeologists recently unearthed the remains of a large jungle cat. Its position at the mouth of the Thames Estuary means that Grays and Thurrock have always been linked with the sea, and the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, mentions in his diary on 24th September 1665 that Grays was the place where he purchased fish. In 1701, the infamous pirate Captain Kidd was executed for his crimes, and his remains were displayed at Thurrock for twenty years, offering a warning against piracy.
Great Dunmow was founded as a settlement in Roman times and stood on the ancient road called “Stane Street”. After the Romans left Britain, the settlement continued and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Great Dunmow was granted its charter to hold a market in 1253 and went on to thrive so that by the Middle Ages, it was the venue of two annual fairs and a major commercial centre for the wider countryside. Many of the town’s listed buildings, including the 16th Century town hall, are testament to Great Dunmow’s wealth during the Middle Ages.