The New English Landscape

For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.

Tag: The Peculiar People

‘We are not afraid of the future’ The Peculiar People: an exhibition at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, 19 April – 2 July 2016


Masthead of The New Order anarchist newspaper produced at The Purleigh Colony in Essex, and reproduced from ‘Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England’ by Dennis Hardy

There was a packed opening night at this new exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on 16 April, and a great party atmosphere too. After decades of embarrassed silence, a rich history of political and religious non-conformism and radicalism in Essex is now being properly acknowledged, in a county that has been the subject of much cynical misrepresentation, but which is here revealed as a key social laboratory for all kinds of experiments in living in the 20th century. The exhibition title takes its name from a Nonconformist sect unique to Essex, The Peculiar People, about which we blogged earlier this year, and the gallery itself has been handsomely re-housed within the state of the art new public library, The Forum.

The tutelary spirit of anarchist historian Colin Ward hovers over the exhibition, for it was Ward, latterly with Dennis Hardy, who initially chronicled the self-built plotland communities and rural communes to be found on the margins of Essex. Ward suggested that they arose there because of a relative proximity to London’s politically volatile East End, but also – following the agricultural depression of the 1870s – land was cheap. The ground plans of the Dunton colony near Laindon are on display, but also included is a rare opportunity to listen to a recording of Ward giving his 1985 lecture, Arcadia for All – A study of the Essex Plotlands.

Close to Dunton, in East Tilbury, the Czech shoe manufacturer Tomas Bata established his model industrial village in 1932, having been persuaded by a local clergyman to come to the aid of the many unemployed in the area. At its peak, Bataville employed over 4,000 workers, many of whom lived in houses supplied by Bata, and designed in a modernist style. Workers were encouraged to participate in company leisure-time activities – outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, 350-seat cinema and technical college – and even took ski-ing holidays in Czechoslovakia at the company’s resorts there. No zero-hours contracts then. ‘We are not afraid of the future’ was Bata’s maxim, and a selection of plans and drawings of his model town are on display, supported by documentary footage from a film by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope.


Credit: Fraser Muggeridge Studio

Along with Bataville, Silver End Garden Village near Witham was another attempt to build an industrial settlement as a utopian community (even if ordained from above, as both manifestly were). Established in 1926 by Francis Crittall (1860 – 1935), a successful manufacturer of metal window frames, the housing was designed in a high modernist style by architect Thomas Tait. The village was almost entirely self-sufficient, and at the time regarded as one of the healthiest settlements in Britain, and is still much visited by architecture students.

The overlap between the socially minded and the religiously inspired was strong in the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that many of the religious settlements featured in the exhibition – Hadleigh Farm Colony, Osea Temperance Society, the Othona Community at Bradwell, among others – were centres for the rehabilitation of those whose lives had previously been blighted by poverty, ill-health, addiction, or as places of spiritual retreat. Wide-ranging as it is, the exhibition only scratches the surface of the dozens of self-sufficient or therapeutic communities established in Essex over the past hundred years, many of which remain unrecorded.

The principal gallery space also includes the work of artists and architects who took a fancy to the Essex scene, possibly because of its rough and ready unfashionability. A large vitrine displays a model by architect Cedric Price for an unrealised 1972 proposal to construct an inflatable roof to cover Southend High Street, along with a number of Price’s bold and expressive drawings. Other exhibits include watercolours, drawings or prints by Edward Bawden, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Milly Thompson, along with a generous display of work by poet and artist Henri Chopin.

The folk-modernist spirit of the old Southend Art College is captured in a display of books written and illustrated by Kurt Rowland, who taught at the college, and whose pioneering work in the field of design education became internationally renowned. Rowland may well have inspired the fanzines produced by the Southend Libertarian & Anarchist Broadsheet (SLAB) collective in the 1980s, a number of whom worked locally for HM Revenue & Customs, but, not unsurprisingly, contributed anonymously. Artist Christian Nyampeta completes the exhibition with his fashioning of Gallery 2 as a place for meeting, talking, reading and the exchange of views about the world, complete with striking murals, purpose-built furniture and book-shelves, all combining to create a small salon/library/retreat to which visitors can retire and reflect.

The exhibition is just one element in a longer project being carried out by Focal Point Gallery under the rubric, ‘Radical Essex’, and includes architectural study tours across the county, gallery talks, and related projects such as Matthew Butcher’s ‘Flood House’, the subject of our last posting. It’s a small step for Essex but a large step for mankind.


Ken will be giving a talk at the Focal Point Gallery at 7pm on Thursday, 12 May, 2016, as part of the exhibition programme:

The New Life in Essex: nonconformist life and culture in the 20th century’

Admission is free, but booking essential at

The Peculiar People of Essex


Peculiar Chapel, Tillingham, Essex

In the early 1960s my family lived for a short time in Daws Heath, Essex, across the road from a Chapel belonging to The Peculiar People, a Nonconformist sect almost unique to Essex. On Sundays and sometimes during the week we would hear stirring hymns emanating from the small, four-square chapel, but otherwise chapel life didn’t intrude into our own, neither did the activities or beliefs of the congregations of the Elim Pentecostal Church in nearby Hadleigh, which also counted a Baptist Chapel and a Methodist Church (as well as a fine Norman Anglican building). The ‘low’ churches – as they were often termed – were still quite active at the time across the county. Dissent and Nonconformism were particularly strong in East Anglia where, in the words of the Anglican preacher and writer, Ronald Blythe, even the wind was doctrinal.

Philip Hoare mentions the Peculiars in his inspired study of early Victorian religious enthusiasm, England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia (2005), though he refers only to the ‘Plumstead Peculiars’, one of only two branches outside Essex. At its height the Peculiars had more than 50 chapels within the county boundaries. The Peculiar church had its origins in Rochford in the 1830s, forming as a result of the religious epiphany experienced by local farm labourer, James Banyard, whose life until then had been decidedly drunken and quarrelsome. Banyard attached himself initially to Wesleyanism and then subsequently established his own sect.


The story is told in Mark Sorrell’s fine history, The Peculiar People (1979), since supplemented by newer archive material and recollections, including those of novelist Bernard Cornwell on Desert Island Discs in 2004, where he recalled his early life as the adopted son of a Peculiar family. Cornwell’s new family was well known locally when I was growing up, the father being a successful builder. A friend of my family who worked as a carpenter for the firm used to tell us that biblical texts were always inserted into the weekly pay-packets of the workers.

In his own words, Cornwell’s childhood memories were ‘very ugly’. No television, cinema, comics, unsuitable books or music; and the threat of eternal damnation hung over all those who failed to convert. On one occasion he was with his father in Rayleigh High Street when they passed by the memorial to four Protestant martyrs burned in 1555. Cornwell’s adoptive father said that he himself expected to be martyred one day. In the chapel the family attended there was a ‘mercy seat’, where the as yet unconverted could sit and await the divine call. At the age of sixteen the would-be novelist walked out of the house one day and never returned.

Cornwell disliked the Peculiars from direct experience, though in general members were tolerated by outsiders – except when it came to the issue of divine healing. Like the Plymouth Brethren, the Peculiars eschewed the use of doctors or any form of medical intervention, preferring the healing power of prayer. When this involved cases of children (especially of those very seriously ill), public opinion, and at times the law, took against them. This matter also led to the first of several doctrinal schisms, when Banyard’s own son became seriously ill and after agonising at length a doctor was called in, causing a church split. In the twentieth-century, distrust arose for another reason, as the pacifist beliefs of the sect led to many being imprisoned as conscientious objectors, a position regarded as virtually unforgiveable during the First World War, less so during World War Two.


In the recently published third and final volume of Michael R.Watts’ definitive history of English Nonconformism, The Dissenters (2015), we are given the occupations of male dissenters in Essex from 1840 – 1959. The ‘low’churches were peopled mostly by unskilled workers and their families in the early Victorian period, though by the late 1950s, congregations had a much higher proportion of skilled workers. Nonconformism was essentially a working class body of faith, its non-hierarchical and plain-speaking tradition fitting more comfortably with everyday sentiments and lifestyles. Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism, though one should be careful of saying that the Nonconformist spirit in Essex was imbued with the same sense of social solidarity enjoyed by its Northern industrial counterparts. Rather it was perhaps more firmly attached to the principle of individual self-determination, preferring not to be told by others what to think or do. This might help explain the volatility of political attachment in Essex, sometimes regarded as a bellwether for the nation as a whole.

The last time I was in Tillingham, near Bradwell-on-Sea, I noticed that the Peculiar Chapel had been demolished; many others have disappeared. The loss of these smaller, often modest workaday religious buildings, which anchored so many Essex towns and villages in a long tradition of Nonconformist life and culture, is cause for concern. One does not have to be a religious revivalist or antiquarian to regret the way in which the many traces of public memory embodied in these buildings are being erased from the landscape and townscape.


Cinematic skies and revolutionary winds


Dunlin Press is a new independent press based in Wivenhoe, and it has just published a first anthology of writing, Est: Collected reports from East Anglia. Forget the obligatory nod to psycho-geography, these are finely crafted love letters (and some very good poems) dedicated to the landscape and history of the eastern counties, with Essex coming into its own. When in later years people ask, what did you do in the nature writing wars, anthologies such as this will show that it was possible to express sentiments of attachment and loss – in the portrayal of place and the natural world – without being found guilty of emotional self-indulgence.

A number of the contributors have studied or taught at the University of Essex, so whatever they put in the water there, it clearly works. The phrase ‘cinematic skies and revolutionary winds’ comes from Chris Petit’s foreword, in which he also makes the claim that in filmic terms, he had always admired the region’s notorious flatness as ‘a way of eliminating class nuance, the bane of English cinema’, which hadn’t occurred to me before but makes sense if you think of how too often the English class system is signalled through the use of landed estates, rolling hills and dressed stone country houses. David Southwell finds in the coastal footpath along the Dengie peninsula – in a set of memory traces entitled ‘The Empty Quarter’ – the edge, and indeed, the end, of national narrative.

Melinda Appleby recalls her mother’s childhood memories of growing up in Dengie before the Second World War, in a flawless short essay on ‘this salt kingdom’. Her mother’s recollections were triggered by the mounting block in the Anglican church at Bradwell, though my attachment to this lonely quarter of the world has always been stirred by the simple four-square chapel of The Peculiar People in adjacent Tillingham, sadly reduced to a pile of rubble when I last cycled past it several years ago. Adrian May name-checks The Peculiar People, a non-conformist sect unique to Essex, in his brief overview of the connection between Essex folklore and the vibrant music scene of the southern limits of the county, in which he has played no small part. Fellow poet and musician, the ever chippy and chipper Martin Newell, admires the truculent spirit of Colchester and its suburbs, ‘perennially up-for-it’. Newell pays homage to the bitter north-easterly winds scything the eastern flatlands as character-forming, though in high summer it is the same wind which accounts for some of the most perfect clear-skied days.

Several contributors share Melinda Appleby’s anxieties about the continuing ‘thinning out of nature’, as species decline, bird numbers fall, and once familiar woodland flowers no longer appear. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden but there are furies too. Chris Maillard recounts the destruction of Eden, when new neighbours move in next door and uproot a long-established garden with fruit trees and a rich array of flowers and shrubs, all reduced to bare earth in under an hour by a hired digger. As with Chekhov, the grubbing up of orchards tends to signal the end of the old ways of life, though happily not beyond recuperation.

Anthologies are often hit and miss affairs, but Est is uniformly excellent, a genuine contribution to East Anglian life and landscape. Auden once wrote that a good poem should be like a well-wrapped parcel – if dropped it should still hold together and remain intact. This anthology does that: well-edited, well designed, and unbreakable.


Est: Collected reports from East Anglia, edited by M.W.Bewick and Ella Johnston, Dunlin Press, Wivenhoe, 2015, £9.99

Watch Ken’s talk on the 20th century Essex landscape at the recent Doughnut architectural conference on suburban London:

The Peculiar People


In the July 1939 edition of The Countryman, writer Sylvia Townsend Warner described how she fell in love with the Essex marshes. On a visit to Whiteley’s Department Store in 1922 she bought an Ordnance Survey map of Essex, simply because of the unusual place names and the fascinating blue/green configuration of the coastline. A few weeks later she took a train from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness, and then a bus to Great Wakering, where she walked to the River Crouch.  Caught in a thunderstorm, she was rescued by a farmer and his wife who gave her tea, dried her clothes, and told her about their lives. Her next trip took her from Liverpool Street Station to Southminster, and from there a walk to the River Blackwater, again finding a scene of empty skies and utter tranquillity. She stayed overnight on a farm at Drinkwater St Lawrence, making life-long friends of its owners.

These private expeditions and the deep impression they made upon her resulted in the novel, The True Heart, first published in 1929, set on a small island she disguised as New Easter, clearly one of ‘the Essex archipelago’ near Great Wakering –  namely Havengore Island, Foulness Island, New England Island, Potton Island, Rushey Island and Wallasea Island – all still isolated and mostly off-limits. Warner briefly alluded to the origins of The True Heart as a result of her early Essex outings in her introduction to the first edition. In 2012 Black Dog Books included the hitherto unpublished essay on ‘The Essex Marshes’ in With the Hunted: Selected Writings, and this gives a much more dramatic picture of her deep attraction to a landscape where, ‘I knew that mysterious sensation of being where I wanted to be and as I wanted to be, socketted in the universe, and passionately quiescent.’

Not only did the marshes and saltings enchant Warner, she was intrigued by a religious sect she found there, The Peculiar People. This had been established in 1837 by a farm worker from Rochford who allegedly had a revelation after falling into a ditch one night, drunk. The church grew rapidly amongst the rural Essex poor, though not without controversy. Like the Plymouth Brethren, the Peculiars eschewed any kind of professional medical intervention, believing that all such matters were in God’s hands, and on those occasions when young children died, who might have survived with proper treatment, they understandably incurred the antagonism of their neighbours and fellow workers.

This congregation was unique to Essex, and thrived separately for over a hundred years, only reuniting with other nonconformist churches in the 1950s, eventually becoming a member of the Union of Evangelical Churches, under whose auspices some chapels continue to worship. In The True Heart the meetings of the Peculiar People ‘took place in a parlour and finished with seed cake.’  This was unusual, because the sect was remarkable in the number of chapels it built between the Essex marshes and east London, some 43 in all, several of which still stand.

I lived next door to a Peculiar chapel in Daws Heath, Thundersley, in the 1960s, and not surprisingly was intrigued by their name and the mysterious nature of their religious beliefs and observances.  It soon became obvious they were almost indistinguishable from most other nonconformist congregations: teetotal, fond of rousing hymns, modest in their dress and lifestyle. That chapel has now gone, but the chapel in Tillingham near Bradwell still displays a notice board proclaiming it to belong to The Peculiar People, while nearby at Steeple, there is a beautiful Peculiar chapel which I came across walking from Maldon to Southminster several years ago, now converted to a private house.