A SUMMARY OF THE HISTORY OF STEBBING
If a 16th century Stebbing yeoman were to take a walk from the parish church of St. Mary’s, down the High Street today, much would be familiar. Stebbing, like many villages in this part of Essex escaped wholesale modernisation; retaining the fabric of the past in its churches and houses. This visual link to its history is both its charm and heritage.
Stebbing, lies in the south-west corner of the old Saxon Hundred of Hinckford, and consists of the main village, centred on what is now the High Street, and three hamlets, Bran End, one mile north, Duck End, 1.5 miles north-east and Stebbing Green, one mile south east. Another hamlet, still known as Church End, has all but joined up with the main part of the village.
The name, which is Saxon, was written in the Domesday Book in a Latinised form as ‘Stibinga’ and ‘Stabinga’ It is believed to have derived from the Old English for tree stump, ‘stybb’ dwellers among the stumps, i.e. land cleared for settlement, and ‘ing’ a meadow. Strength is given to this theory by the derivation of Bran End - written as ‘Brandonande’ from the Old English 'brende dun ende' meaning, ‘district by the burnt hill’. This again suggests woodland clearance. An alternative origin proposes that Stybba was a Saxon Chief’s name, i.e. ‘Stybba’s Ing’, meadow or place.
Prehistoric finds have been relatively few and scattered. The first settlements we can trace with certainty are Roman. In 1950 Roman remains were found in a large field forming part of Porters Hall Farm. Excavations revealed a complex of buildings and ditches, including workshops and a bath house. Half-a-mile to the south-east the remains of a small Roman Villa were discovered near Boxted Wood, and in 1988 adjoining the villa the remains of a Roman malt house were excavated by Essex County Council.
The villa and malt house are situated close to the present Stane Street, which it is believed follows the line of the old Roman Road between Colchester (Camulodunum) and St. Albans (Verulamium). This road also provided the link to the nearby Roman settlements at Dunmow and Braintree.
When the Normans arrived in 1066, the village had probably been in existence for three or four hundred years and was held by Siward, a Saxon thegn. It is almost certain that by this time the settlement pattern of housing and fields was already established. By 1086, two Norman lords, Henry de Ferrers and Ranulf Peverell, are recorded in Little Domesday as holding the village between them. The de Ferrers family initially prospered, indeed there is evidence that in the 14th century William Lord Ferrers made Stebbing his family home and that somewhere in the village there existed a great house fit for a noble family.
Earlier, in 1181, William de Ferrers, 3rd Earl of Derby gave the Church and its lands, part of his Stebbing holding, to the Knights Hospitallers, where it remained until their dissolution in 1540. It then became known variously as Friars (Freers) or Priors Hall.
In the late 13th and early 14th centuries the manor of Porters Hall was built up by the local Porter family, but by the 15th century its lands had passed to the Earls of Essex (who also held Stebbing Hall), although Porters Hall continued to function as a separate ‘manor’ administering its copyhold land until the early 20th century. So by the middle of the 16th century there were three ‘manors’: Stebbing Hall, Porters Hall and Priors Hall.
Stebbing Hall was by this time held by the Capel family, Earls of Essex, major landowners in the parish until the early 20th century. Priors Hall was separately owned.
A weekly market and annual fair were granted to Henry de Ferrers by Edward III in 1338. The market does not appear to have been successful for long, but the fair survived into the 20th century.
The present parish church dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin was built almost entirely in the 14th century on the site of an older church building. It is a fine example of the decorated style of architecture and contains, what is almost a unique feature, a carved stone rood screen. The only other example in England is a few miles away in Great Bardfield.
Stebbing proved to be an early and consistent home for dissenters from the established church. The Friends Meeting House built in 1674 still stands in the village street, and is the oldest surviving Meeting House in the county. Recently restored, it is a memorial to the early Stebbing Quakers, several of whom suffered persecution and imprisonment for their faith. It closed as a church in 1884 when there were about 14 members left. Another group of dissenters known as the Independents, later called Congregationalists, are recorded as worshipping in a small barn in the village in 1720, building their permanent church at the top end of Mill Lane in 1793 (a building that has now been converted into apartments). In the 19th century it equalled the Anglican church for membership and many of the local farmers and business people were regular attenders. Membership declined during the second half of the 20th century and the chapel finally closed its doors as a place of worship in 1971 with the congregation moving to the old Sunday School across the road. Worship in this building in turn ceased in 1994.
One other religious group, the Primitive Methodists, built a church at Bran End in the mid-19th century, but by the Second World War it had closed. The fabric of the building is now in an advanced state of decay, leaving the Church of England as the only place of worship in the village.
The cloth industry, so important to parts of North Essex, seems to have been one of the key factors in the wealth of the parish from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Many listed buildings that survive in the village owe their birth to the wealth this industry created, their preservation to the poverty that followed its decline. The cloth industry often provided employment for several members of the same family so its demise, at the end of 18th century, left agriculture as the sole wealth generator and, with a growing population, this provided the conditions for unemployment and poverty. Agriculture and its associated trades remained the principal source of income for most villagers until after the Second World War. There was little new building in the 19th century, thus preserving the 16th and 17th century houses, and only a limited amount in the first half of the 20th century. It was the gradual spread of commuting, starting in the 1960s from people who earned their living outside Stebbing, that stoked up the demand for new housing. So Stebbing’s ancient timber-framed houses, due to relative isolation and poverty, escaped destruction long enough to be protected by 20th century statute.
There is evidence to suggest that at one time there were three water mills in the village, all based on the Stebbing Brook, a tributary of the Chelmer. Town Mill, at the bottom of Mill Lane, and the building for Bran End Mill remain. The site for the third mill is uncertain but is believed to be downstream of Town Mill. In later years they were used for grinding corn, but they had also been employed as ‘fulling mills’ for the cloth industry. At the end of its milling life, Town Mill ground animal feed using an electric motor to try to survive but it finally ceased production in 1995. No windmills have survived, although there are records of the sites of five spread over the village.
Villages like Stebbing were largely self-sufficient, producing most of their own food i.e. meat from cattle and pigs, bread from locally-grown corn etc. Water was obtained from a number of pumps found throughout the village and beer was produced from maltings (six were recorded in 1839). In 1900 there were nine licensed houses of which only one, The White Hart (first mentioned in 1756), remains today. A quick look at the Post Office 1862 Directory for Stebbing lists the many trades that were needed to sustain economic life: blacksmiths, butchers, maltsters, bakers, farmers, millers, cobblers, harness-makers, tailors, wheelwrights, carpenters (the term includes builders) and general shopkeepers.
By 1862 there was a National School (Anglican) and a British School (Non-conformist) in the village, although little is known about them. In 1874 the Stebbing School, administered by a School Board, opened its doors to all the children of the parish and continues to thrive as a Primary School.
There are over 150 ‘listed’ buildings in the parish, most are Grade II, only one is Grade I, the Church of St Mary the Virgin, and six are Grade II*, the old manor houses of Priors Hall, Porters Hall and Stebbing Park, plus the Friends Meeting House, Town Mill, and Tan Office Farmhouse.
‘ The Mount’ situated close to the Stebbing Hall is classified as a Norman Motte, but there is now no trace of a bailey. It stands nearly 50 feet high and is 225 feet in diameter at the base, surrounded by a water-filled moat. Two mounts are recorded by earlier historians but today there is no trace of the second.
The population in 1801 was 1,026 which rose steadily up to a peak of 1,458 in 1841, after which it declined slowly until 1901 when the population was recorded as 911. Again, it started to rise with a few dips, reaching 1,290 in 2001, still below its 1841 peak. In 1901 almost all the working population earned their living within the parish but by 2001 the reverse was true, with many commuting to London, Chelmsford and Cambridge on a daily basis.
Today Stebbing has a Parish Council, many recreational and sporting clubs, one public house and one village store, two community halls, cricket and football grounds, and provides an attractive rural environment for its residents.
A Brief History of Stebbing
Published by the Stebbing Local History Society