Essex University student internship at ERO

The FHE-have, for several years, supported an internship for an Essex University student at ERO. For 2021 the FHE Committee agreed, exceptionally for this year only, to support two student placements, and Aaron Archer and Adam Campbell-Drew were appointed. Below is an initial report from Aaron on some of his findings.

If you enjoy this, Aaron also has an accompanying post on the ERO Blog (

Tales from the Parish Chest: migration in early modern north-Essex

by Aaron Archer

During my placement at the Essex Record Office, I have been cataloguing records from various parishes across north-east Essex. In this piece I would like to focus on some of my findings pertaining to two of these parishes: St Osyth and Sible Hedingham.

St Osyth drew my attention for two main reasons. Firstly, I live in St Osyth, therefore there was no shortage of curiosity about the local history of the parish. But secondly, and more importantly, I found myself struck by the range of locations mentioned within the settlement certificates, settlement examinations, and removal orders within its parish chest.

Among these, the relatively local settlements were expected; places such as Colchester, Ipswich, Harwich, Clacton, Wivenhoe… none of these locations struck me as out of the ordinary. However, when I noticed locations such as Boston and Blankney in Lincolnshire, Kirdford in Sussex, West Riding in Yorkshire, and even County Cork, I realised that people were arriving in
St Osyth from all over the British Isles. This itself began to suggest that people in early modern England migrated much greater distances than I had initially expected.

The picture above shows the locations which some of St Osyth’s inhabitants travelled from. The hearts representing birth locations cited in settlement examinations; stars being the origins of settlement certificates; the green flags being locations in which people were removed from back to St Osyth; and the blue squares being locations where people were returned to from St Osyth.

The huge cluster of locations on the east coast are to be expected, since none are considerably far from St Osyth, and many along the coast almost certainly reached the parish by boat. However, some of the other birth locations are a considerable distance away. Moreover, even some of the places that people were removed to, such as Nottingham, are vast distances away in a time where travel by road was limited to walking or to horse and cart.

The real question, though, is why? Why St Osyth of all places? St Osyth itself is not exactly unique. Or, to be frank, particularly interesting. The parish lies four miles from Clacton to its east and twelve miles from Colchester to its west. It was largely rural with little to offer that might draw people in; indeed, many of the people who did end up in St Osyth either worked in husbandry or entered domestic service. These individuals often had not had long term employment, with many stating that their last year’s work was years prior (if they had even ever had long term employment). Unlike its other coastal neighbours, St Osyth did not have a fishing trade, instead this trade was primarily focused on Harwich (sixteen miles away) or Brightlingsea, with its oyster dredging, (about six miles in the other direction). Both locations were frequently mentioned in the apprenticeship indentures of young men born in St Osyth, and then sent to these locations for their tenure.

The positioning of St Osyth may have proved useful as a sort of central hub, with Clacton, Great Bentley and Brightlingsea all within walking distance, and Colchester just a few more miles further beyond that. Essentially this particular route would be a precursor to the B1027 Colchester Road that exists now. This is notwithstanding the potential sea routes available due to being on the coast. Yet still, the range of locations that appear within its settlement documents is nothing short of amazing.

Though, how does St Osyth compare to other parishes in north-east Essex? To consider this, I compared St Osyth to other parishes in north-east Essex, but for this piece I shall focus just on Sible Hedingham – a parish about as far away from St Osyth as I could find!

Sible Hedingham lies only four miles from Halstead, which was a sizeable market town throughout the early modern period. As such, one can understand that there may have been some allure to the parish, due to its proximity to Halstead.

Looking at the map here, there are some similar trends. Again, there is the expected cluster in the south-east around the parish, but also two anomalies – Perth and Dublin. Unlike the examples in the St Osyth records, both have detailed settlement examinations associated with them, describing journeys across the British Isles in search of work before finding their way to Sible Hedingham.

According to his settlement examination (D/P 93/13/4/10), the individual from Dublin, Thomas Buttler, was born in Castle Dermott, and was bound apprentice to a butcher named Richard Pearson in ‘Kilabien’ in Queen’s County. He then travelled to Dublin for work for two and a half years before moving to England and working as a labourer in London on several occasions before he eventually ended up in Sible Hedingham.

It is a similar story in the settlement examination for James Hutchson of Perth (D/P 93/13/4/13). He lived in Forgen, Perthshire in Scotland until the age of 18. He was bound apprentice as a tailor for three years, and then worked for his master for a further year. He came to England in 1733 but he does not discuss any notable work between then and his examination in 1742.

These individuals covered huge distances to faraway towns, and one imagines that they were never entirely aware of what was waiting for them at the other end of their journey. Yet, it is apparent with both cases, these journeys were necessary in search of work – particularly searching for long-term employment.

So, I expect I am now being asked “what does this all mean?” and “where am I going with this?”.

It is too early to make any conclusions, and a blog post is too limited to make any strong assertions anyway. However, this evidence certainly supports the recent research stating that migration was more prevalent and spanned greater distances than was once thought.

Whilst many who were caught travelling across the country were accused of vagrancy, it is apparent that at least some (if not many) of these individuals were travelling in search of more long-term employment, rather than the weekly or monthly labour they often found. In doing so, they travelled parish to parish (usually either coastal or parishes on routes to larger towns), performing short-term labour and eventually would find themselves brought in for a settlement examination by the churchwardens and the overseers of the poor – especially if they were caught seeking poor relief.

As Fumerton has suggested in her book, Unsettled, despite the state desire for an idealised settled population of workers in service to their masters, we instead find a reality of an early modern England replete with a mobile population of often dispossessed and alienated individuals forced to roam the country in search of work.

Clark, P., and Souden, D. (eds), Migration and Society in early modern England, (London: Routledge, 1988).

Fumerton, P., Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England, (London: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

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