Recently the Friends of Historic Essex have generously funded the purchase of a colourful plan of a modest 27 acre property called Great Childs, belonging to the Rev. Thomas Forbes, rector of Little Leighs (ERO, D/DU 3263). The cartouche names the surveyor as John Waite, and states that the estate straddled the parish boundary between Little Leighs and Much (Great) Waltham. The plan itself shows that it lay south of the road to Littley Green, making it possible to accurately locate the site. (TL 703 174)
Little is known for about Forbes before his arrival at Little Leighs. He probably obtained his MA degree at Aberdeen in June 1694, was ordained deacon the same day by the bishop of London and appointed schoolmaster at Monoux’s school, Walthamstow a fortnight later. He was ordained priest in June 1695. We do know that he was instituted rector of Little Leighs in August 1701, and that he died and was buried there nearly half a century later in January 1750.
The house belonging to Forbes’s estate lay immediately to the north of the Littley Green road, just inside the parish boundary of Great Waltham. Immediately to its north and east the plan clearly shows the pale of Leez park, together with a narrow strip of woodland, marked ‘The Old Wilderness’. This is of great interest and raises a number of questions.
Nothing is known about the formal gardens at Leez. The priory had been acquired at the dissolution by that unscrupulous parvenue, Richard Rich (1500-1568). He demolished most of the monastic fabric to build a grand mansion round two courtyards and, at the same time, he acquired Littley Park which lay to the south. This medieval deer park provided Rich with an instant cachet of respectable ancestry, as well as an opportunity to make a new, more convenient and much grander access to his mansion from the south. The Old Wilderness, which is shown on Forbes’s estate plan, is just inside the pale on the eastern edge of Littley Park.
To those of puritan conviction, the most important resident of Leez was Mary Rich, countess of Warwick (1625-1678), the wife of the fourth earl, one of Richard Rich’s descendants. Her diary reveals a daily cycle of prayer and meditation, with many references to ‘the wilderness’ to which she retreated to escape from the distractions of domestic life at Leez. On receiving news of the Great Fire of London in September 1666, for example, she ‘went out into the wilderness to meditate, and to endeavour by meditation to put my soul into their soul’s stead, that were spoiled by all, and had not a house to lie in’.
It is generally accepted that Mary Rich’s wilderness was not in Littley Park but in the old monastic park, immediately to the north of the mansion, accessed by crossing a bridge over the river Ter. This appears to be confirmed by first edition 6” OS map of 1875 which shows a
square enclosure in this position, marked ‘The Wilderness’. What then was ‘The Old Wilderness’ shown on Forbes’s plan?
Due to its relatively modest status, it is most unlikely that Littley Park would have had a wilderness before its acquisition by Rich in the 1530s. However ‘The Old Wilderness’ is almost a kilometre from the mansion of Leez, seemingly an unlikely place to construct one. As already mentioned, nothing is known about the formal gardens that Rich planted round his new mansion, though it is tempting to imagine that there was once an extensive formal landscape extending from the house to the later site of Forbes’s dwelling, of which ‘The Old Wilderness’ was the only remaining fragment by 1735. Both the mansion and its surrounding landscape would have come dramatically into view on reaching the summit at the northern end of the causewayed drive that Rich had constructed through Littley Park. It would have provided a setting worthy for a self-made Tudor billionaire (though it must be emphasized that there is no archive evidence to support this speculation). After a long decline, the majority of the mansion was demolished in 1753, though most of Littley park (including the area occupied by the Old Wilderness) had remained paled and stocked with deer until that date. Subsequently it was disparked, and divided up into named fields. It has been farmed for at least a century and a half, and any trace of the formal garden that might once have existed would have been destroyed.
Forbes died in 1750 and left his property of 27 acres and 35 perches (which he called Good Childs) to his ‘legitimate or illegitimate’ grandson. Most of his fields were amalgamated in the twentieth century to form a large orchard, but the footpath which divided his property is still a right of way, and still follows the parish boundary between Little Leighs and Great Waltham.
Anon (ed) Memoir of Lady Warwick & her Diary (London, 1847).
Chancellor, F. ‘St John’s church, Little Leighs’ in Essex Review, iv (1895), p.196.
Clark, R, ‘Wildernesses and Shrubberies’ in Journal of Jane Austen Society vol 36,
no. 1 (2015).
Fell Smith, C, Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick 1625-1678 (London, 1901).
Hunter, J. ‘Littley Park, Great Waltham’ in EAT, xxv, 3rd series (1994), pp.119-24.
Leach, M, Leez Priory entry in Chelmsford Inventory
(unpublished Essex Gardens Trust MS, 2010).
Thomas Forbes’s estate map, ERO, D/DU 3263, 1735.
Will of Thomas Forbes, ERO D/ABW 96/3/7, 1750.
Sketch plan of Littley Park ERO D/DGh E14, 1753 (or later).
Church of England Clergy database, accessed 0/03/2020 .