Monday, August 29th 2016
Harwich is a sea port on the east coast and facing the North sea. It also lies at the point where two rivers, the Stour and the Orwell1, meet as they enter the sea. It offers a safe haven to shipping and was, between 1652 and 1713, a Royal Navy Dockyard. Though the Navy no longer has a presence here, the fortifications raised to protect the port and naval shipping still remain. These days, Harwich is known for its international ferry services to the Hook of Holland – an interesting if slower alternative way of travelling to Continental Europe.
There have been settlements here as far back as historians can fathom but it remained fairly obscure (not being mentioned in the Domesday Book, for example) until the Norman era when it began to develop as a port. The name is said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon words here and wic, meaning ‘army’ and ‘settlement’, respectively. This seems to indicate that its name came from a time when there was an army stationed here, though no one knows for sure which army that might have been. The name Harwich, incidentally, is pronounced as though it were spelled ‘Harritch’.
To reach Harwich, we took the train from Liverpool Street to Manningtree and there changed to the Mayflower Line that runs trains between Manningtree and Harwich Town railway station.
The above map shows Harwich, with the international ferry port at top left and the promontory containing Harwich Town Station on the right. (I would be inclined to call it a peninsula but for the fact that the whole area covered by the map and some way beyond it is known as Tendring Peninsula.) It was here that we spent our time. A map showing Harwich in relation to London will be found here.
We disembarked at the unusual long, low Harwich Town Station. The railway reached Harwich in 1854 but the original station burned down and the current one was built in 1865-6.
In front of the station is a spacious forecourt, most of it covered with grass. Upon this stands the brightly painted drinking fountain pictured above. On the base we can read the name of the maker, George Smith & Co, Sun Foundry, Glasgow. The company flourished in the second half of the 19th century when this fountain was presumably made. It is now a Grade II listed building.
On St Helen’s Green stands the Old Harwich Buoy, now retired from whatever functions it once performed, permanently ashore.
Harwich has two lighthouses, called the High Lighthouse and the Low Lighthouse, respectively. Above is shown the High Lighthouse and below, the Low Lighthouse, which now houses the Harwich Maritime Museum.
Both lighthouses were built in 1818, the High Lighthouse replacing a light positioned over the town gate and the Low Lighthouse replacing an earlier wooden lighthouse.
Standing 150 yards apart, they acted as ‘leading lights’, that is, ships could follow a safe course into harbour by keeping the lights aligned, one visible above the other, as seen from sea. The lights were owned by General Rebow who charged 1d (one penny) per ton of ship’s tonnage as ‘light dues’ for any ship using the lights. In 1836 ownership of the lights was transferred to Trinity House.
The silting up of Landguard Point meant that following the lights no longer provided a safe passage into the harbour and they became known as the ‘Misleading Lights’. In 1836, therefore, they were taken out of use, their functions being assumed by new iron lighthouses at Dovercourt (no longer used for navigation). The Low Lighthouse served for a time as a pilot station until becoming a museum.
The High Lighthouse is listed Grade II and the Low Lighthouse, Grade II*. In addition, both have been scheduled as Ancient Monuments.
In the above panorama we are looking east across the water from near the Low Lighthouse. On the other side is the town and port of Felixstowe.
Quite near the lighthouses stands tihs curious machine. It is called a treadwheel crane and this one was made in 1667. It is reputed to be the only surviving British example. It was moved here in 1932 from its original site of operation in what was then the Naval Yard. The boom gives away the fact that it is a crane but how was it powered? Inside, and unfortunately not visible in the photo, are two wheels 16ft (4.9m) in diameter and 3ft 10ins (1.2m) wide. Men would ‘walk’ inside the wheels to work the crane, a technique known from Roman times. There were two wheels in order to provide a balanced action. Lack of a brake mechanism rendered cranes of this design somewhat dangerous for those operating them. It is scheduled as an Ancient Monument but not listed.
In King’s Quay Street stands the Old Bank, identifiable as such by the work ‘BANK’ engraved above the door. There are single-storey and two-storey sections and a manager’s flat in included in the design. The building dates from the early 20th century but I have no idea which bank, or banks, used it or when it ceased to operate as a bank. It has been an antiques emporium and currently houses Old Bank Studios which provide workshops in art and crafts.
This large and rather plain building might not seem that old unless you happen to be paying attention. (The plaque on the wall helps, too!) It dates from the early 19th century, as might be guessed from its ‘Georgian windows’, i.e. windows that decrease in size on successive floors. It was the residence of the Master of the Royal Naval Yard and, then, following the Yard’s closure, the municipal offices of Harwich Borough Council. From the 1950s, it has been converted to commercial use. The interior is also said to be of interest though we were unable to see it. The house is Grade II listed.
Reaching the top, northern, edge of the ‘promontory’, we found two items of interest, the pier (of which more anon) and the old lightship. The ship’s official name is Lightvessel LV18 and it was the last lightship to be manned. Launched as a lightship (a floating lighthouse) in 1958, it served as such until being retired and sold in 1994. It can be visited and is the present home of Radio Mi Amigo which seeks to recreate the life and times of pirate radio.
By now we were feeling hungry and desirous of finding somewhere where we could have lunch. Happily, the pier was nearby.
The Ha’penny Pier is so called because when it first opened visitors were charged a toll of ½d, a pre-decimal halfpenny2. The pier opened in 1853 and provided a terminal for ships to the Continent and local paddle steamers though these services came to an end by the time of the First World War. The pier also provides a mooring for the RNLI inshore lifeboat and, more important for our immediate needs, a cafe serving hot food!
Continuing our explorations after lunch, we found this building now labelled simply ‘SCHOOL HOUSE’. Above the door there is a plaque bearing an inscription in Latin describing the origin and purpose of the institution. The school was built in 1724 on the initiative of Sir Humphrey Parsons MP who provided most, but not all, the funding for it. The school was set up to educate 20 poor children who would not have had any other access to education, though it later took paying pupils as well. It became the Harwich Corporation School in 1855 and finally closed in 1909 when Harwich High School opened. Having become derelict, the house was restored and is now residential. Beside the front door, a translation of the Latin text reads thus:
This edifice for instructing the youth of Harwich in good manners, literature, and the doctrine of the Church of England, was founded and built at the proper charge of Humphrey Parsons, Esq; Citizen and Alderman of London, and Member of Parliament for this Borough, AD 1724. The Founder begs thee, O Almighty God, to take it into thy protection; do thou prosper the munificence of the illustrious benefactor, and under thy favour may both the youth and the building succeed to thy honour for ever.
We were charmed by this beautiful old cinema called the Electric Palace. It turns out that but for a happy chance, we might never have seen it. The cinema was purpose-built in 1911 by a travelling showman named Charles Thurston (architect Harold Ridley Hooper) and is an admirable piece of work. I understand that the interior also is very fine and we would have liked to see it but, unfortunately, it was shut. I did notice, with some amusement that there are two entrance doors above which appear the ticket price for each, ‘ADMISSION SIXPENCE’ and ‘ADMISSION ONE SHILLING’, respectively. (2½p and 5p in modern coinage.)
In 1953, the cinema was damaged by East Coast floods and though it was repaired and reopened, business declined. The Palace remained closed between 1956 and 1972 and seemed on the point of being demolished with the rest of the block but was ‘rediscovered’ and reopened by a charitable trust – the happy chance mentioned above. (See here for a more detailed narrative of the cinema’s salvation.) The Electric Palace now has a Grade II* listing, making it safe for at least the immediate future.
This is the Parish Church of St Nicholas, built in the Georgian era (consecrated in 1822) and also very fine with a Grade II* listing. Perhaps we shall mange to see the interior on another visit.
We admired the Guildhall of 1769, a very handsome building and Grade I listed. A plaque beside it notes that it stands on the site ‘The Bear’ where Harwich Borough Council had met since 1673. The Borough Council was succeeded by the Harwich Town Council in 1974 and this body undertook a two-year restoration of the building 1975-7. It’s good to see these beautiful and historic treasures being cared for.
We took a final look at the port area before turning for the station. Above is the lookout and control tour of Navigation House, the HQ of the Harwich Haven Authority. Harwich offers plenty to see and enquire into and, as usual, we had to choose what we looked in detail. The good thing is that that leaves plenty more to see on future visits!
1Stour: The name Stour occurs in many forms all over Britain and the continent of Europe as a name for a river. Various theories suggest a range of possible meanings, though the most plausible proposes the meaning ‘large’ or ‘powerful’, indicating that it could be the name of the major river in a given area. Considerable uncertainty remains, however.
Orwell: ‘According to the first edition of Hollinshed’s Chronicles dated 1577 the river from “Bacton Urus” near Hartismere all the way to the sea was originally named the Ure. Legend has it that mariners knew of a very deep pit or well in the river at Ipswich which they called the Ure-well. This pit is believed to have been near the present docks.’ (River Gipping Trust)
2The ha’penny (pronounced ‘hape-nee’ in the common parlance) was a coin worth half a (pre-decimal) penny. Mathematically, it was equal to 0.2 of a modern penny but such conversions mean very little as a ha’penny would have been worth more in purchase value in the 1850s. Moreover, the ha’penny was not the smallest coin of the day. There was also the farthing, worth a quarter of a penny, and even a half-farthing, worth an eighth of a penny. In the colonies, one-third and one-quarter farthings were circulated. The farthing survived in Britain until after the Second World War but the ha’penny was abolished only shortly before the introduction of decimal coinage in 1971.