The Totham connection (iii): Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny

Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, with trophy, from his memoirs Forty Years of a Sportsman’s Life (1910)


Sir Claude’s monument in St Peter’s Church, Great Totham

It is almost impossible to write anything about Great Totham without mentioning Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, 4th baronet (1847–1935), a remarkable character: a sportsman in the widest sense of the word, and someone who frequently crops up in anthologies in Great British Eccentrics. The family came to England in 1785/6 as Huguenot refugees and settled in Camberwell, an area that has since become known and Champion Hill. Their house in Great Totham, like their house in Camberwell, was called Champion Lodge, and had been built in 1877 not long before Sir Claude bought it. Here he laid out a private steeplechase course; the house was filled with hunting trophies; and he was an intrepid balloonist. A tramp who asked him for money had to earn it by first engaging in a bout of fisticuffs. He thought nothing of walking the 45 miles from Great Totham to London in order to win a wager of half a crown. He was never High Sheriff, and would have been, in many ways, quite unsuited for the position; at the age of 67, for example, he struck a police constable at Bungay races (where he was acting as steward) and was fined £20. On the other hand, he was well qualified because, unlike most High Sheriffs (one hopes and suspects), he would have relished that part of the role that required him to see that death sentences were carried out.

The entrance hall of Champion Lodge, Great Totham

On Monday 18 May 1885, James Manson alias Lee was hanged at Chelmsford Prison (then known as Springfield Gaol) for the murder of Inspector Simmons of Essex County Constabulary at Romford on 20 January. Those present included the Sheriff’s Marshall, Mr D. Powell; Mr Walter Gepp, taking the place of his brother Charles, the Under Sheriff, who had sprained his ankle; and Messrs F. Smee and D. Thompson from the Under-Sheriff’s office. The High Sheriff himself (J. F. Lescher of Hutton Park, Brentwood) was not present, although he had been at the prison earlier; but Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, with no official function and for no obvious reason, walked in the procession from the condemned cell to the scaffold (Essex Standard, 23 May 1885, p. 8). Sir Claude later claimed that he had been there in his capacity as a magistrate, although no one had actually required his presence.

The executioner was James Berry, who carried out 131 hangings in England between 1884 and 1891. Later in 1885 three men were convicted of the murder of a policeman near Penrith and sentenced to hang at Carlisle on 8 February 1886. A triple hanging was a rare event and attracted a good deal of press attention. Berry was assisted in his task by one ‘Charles Maldon’, soon exposed in the press as Sir Claude. This caused an outcry, with questions asked of the Home Secretary in the House of Commons as to whether he now approved of amateur hangmen. When interviewed in his ‘elegant mansion’ by a reporter from the Yorkshire Post, ‘Mr Maldon’ defended his actions by saying that ‘I have a great dislike to ordering anyone to do things I should not like to do myself. It is within the bounds of possibility that I might be High Sheriff in the course of years; I have not been pricked out yet, but if I were I should have to serve. We will suppose that one of these “martyrs,” one of these Fenian fellow, was to be hanged. The executioner might be threatened, and it is possible that we might not be able to get a hangman. I would not order anyone to do what I could not do myself.’ A triple hanging, where Berry would be in need of an assistant, seemed a good opportunity for Sir Claude to learn the necessary skills, so he offered his services. He allowed Berry to keep the £5 that he had been given to pay his assistant, and tipped him another fiver on top (Carlisle Reporter, 26 February 1886, p. 3).

There is little doubt that Sir Claude’s actions, and his subsequent comments, would have put paid to any prospect of his becoming High Sheriff.  There is such a thing as being too keen to carry out certain duties.

Sheriffs Act 1887

[Much of the above is based on ‘The amateur hangman: a Victorian sportsman’s pastime’ by Fred Feather, one of a series of History Notebooks published by Essex Police Museum.]

Fellow Travellers

I’ve been a-gipsying, or, rambles among our gipsies and their children in their tents and vans, by George Smith of Coalville, published in 1883. Smith’s rambles took him into Essex. In spite of the somewhat picturesque illustrations (see below), he found nothing romantic about Gypsies, and his mission was to end their way of life and restore them to God.

There was an astonishing headline in the Maldon & Burnham Standard recently: ‘Travellers “most polite we have dealt with”’ (the online version went for the more predictable ‘Traveller crackdown set after encampment on the Prom in Maldon’). A police spokesman said, ‘The travellers moved off the prom at Maldon and I have got to say they were the most polite, cleanest and engaging group of travellers I have had the pleasure to police.’ It is rare to read a ‘good news’ story about Travellers, but Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month provides an excuse to look beyond the stereotypes.

That is certainly what Essex Police’s Gypsy, Traveller and Rural Engagement Team (GTRET) do, based on my experience of spending a couple of days with them. They are a small team (a sergeant, four constables, and a special constable), covering the whole county, and their remit includes not just enforcing the law as far as unauthorised encampments are concerned, but dealing with a whole range of crimes that come under the umbrella of ‘rural’, such as wildlife crime, hare coursing, theft of agricultural machinery, and heritage crime, notably nighthawking (illegal metal detecting). Because they have to spend a lot of time driving round the county in their distinctive Ford Ranger pickups, they are the most visible police presence in the remoter parts of Essex.

Unauthorised encampments are a fact of life, given that there are no transit sites for Travellers in Essex, and there are clearly defined ways of dealing with them, occasionally under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, but more commonly by Court Order, a process which in most parts of Essex is handled by the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU), run by the County Council.

The great thing about both the GTRET and the ECTU is that they treat Gypsies and Travellers as individuals, who have the same rights and are deserving of the same respect as any other members of the public. In the last few years we all, and especially those of us involved with public services and the judiciary, have quite rightly been trained and educated to treat all people equally, whatever their race, colour, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Somehow Gypsies and Travellers seem to have been overlooked in that process. It is now becoming something of cliché to say that language and behaviour directed towards Gypsies and Travellers is the last accepted form of racism, but still it goes on.

One day this week Lucy and I were honoured to be asked to attend a Travellers Forum in Chelmsford Prison. These events are arranged every couple of months by Sister Philomena of the Prison’s Chaplaincy Team, and they provide an opportunity for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers to come together to celebrate their heritage in a way that has long been available to other heritage and faith groups. On this occasion we were joined by Eddie Gilmore and Breda Power of the Irish Chaplaincy in London, as well as an Irish band of a fiddler and two accordion players. About twenty prisoners were present, and two officers – one of them a Traveller herself, the only Traveller prison officer (so I am told) in the country. After an hour or so of music and singing and a lot of good-natured chat, much of it between family members (brothers, fathers and sons) a traditional Gypsy dish of bacon, cabbage and potato was served, cooked earlier in the prison kitchen. It went down well.

A friendlier and more polite bunch of men you could not hope to meet, and it was a privilege to sit down with them and share their food. They did not need to give us a card, before we left, thanking us for coming to see them and, as one wrote, ‘learning more about us’. We could all do with learning more about them, and trying to understand them and their way of life. And as Sister Philomena said afterwards, ‘whatever we do for our men, however small, is never lost’.

More children, some animals

Essex Schools Food and Farming Day, now in its twelfth year, is an event organised by the Essex Agricultural Society in partnership with Writtle University College and Essex County Council. This year it saw some 3000 primary school children from all over Essex gathered in the showground at Writtle, where they were exposed to a variety of stands and displays that told them about all aspects of food and farming. The idea is to show them that cornflakes are made from maize, which has to be grown in a field, and that milk comes from cows before it gets into a bottle or, more likely, a plastic carton.

In this it works magnificently, and the children, aged 8 to 11, were clearly enjoying a grand day out. Displays of raw cereals proved surprisingly popular. People dressed as tomatoes and cucumbers were mobbed. And Tim and Harry, the well-groomed Golden Guernsey goats, patiently received a lot of attention, but such handsome creatures are no doubt used to it.

What was noticeable was that the farm machinery, once so popular with small boys (and of course girls), failed to grab their attention. They were much more interested in making pyjamas from bananas, and other eco-friendly ways of turning what would otherwise be plant waste into something useful, or saving water. They seemed less than impressed by a big piece of kit that was used to spray the fields with chemicals, essential though they are if a growing population is to be fed with the food that it needs and especially the meat which the majority crave.

The children may not have been avoiding from the stalls offering samples of venison burgers and pork products – on the contrary – but there is no doubt that as a generation they are more conscious of the environment than the majority of their elders.

That same evening, as the sunshine was turning to light rain, we drove down to Hawkwell to meet the 4th Rochford Scouts, for a litter-pick that had been organised by Rochford District Councillor Julie Gooding. Our hunting ground was a large playing field behind Clements Hall Leisure Centre, and at first sight it wasn’t very promising, as there wasn’t much sign of litter; but the long grass and scrub round the edge yielded rich pickings, much of it recyclable. It was fun, and there was some friendly competition, but the scouts were fully aware of the environmental value of what they were doing, and of the long-term damage that discarded plastic is doing as well as the immediate damage caused by broken glass. I wasn’t surprised to learn that one of the young leaders, currently doing her GCSEs, wants to be a marine biologist.

I hope it’s not too grasping to mention at this stage that I’m raising money for the High Sheriffs’ Fund by taking part in litter picks across the county during my year in office. But I need to take every opportunity, because I fear that my efforts are likely to be eclipsed by 7-year-old Daniel Walker, who has so far raised £2800 for Farleigh Hospice by litter-picking in Great Notley. This week he walked away with the ‘Inspirational Role Model’ award (young person winner) at the Braintree District Volunteer Awards, well-deserved recognition of his efforts.

Daniel Walker receiving his award from the Chairman of Braintree District Council, Councillor Angela Kilmartin, and the High Sheriff

Dorothy Lodge, with whom (as it happens) I used to sit as a magistrate, was the adult winner, and overall Volunteer of the Year; but, particularly when it comes to the environment, the Daniel Walkers of this world can provide as much inspiration as the David Attenboroughs.

With apologies to the Braintree & Witham Times.

Stronger together

Life is full of surprises these days, and ‘A Night of Music’ held in St Botolph’s Church, Colchester, contained more than its fair share. The first was the Amici Mixed Choir from Okinawa, Japan – about ninety of them, with an average age of 77 – singing ‘Home, Sweet Home’ in Japanese, accompanied on grand piano. Their repertoire also included Handel, Mascagni (Cavelleria Rusticana), and a Hokkaido folksong. The came all the way from Okinawa for this one concert and, apart from a little sightseeing, are heading straight back. The standard of their performance was second to none.

Meanwhile we had been eagerly awaiting the Bao-Lai Junior High School Chorus, sitting patiently in the north aisle in their traditional costume. They swept on like a tropical storm, dancing and singing, some as young as 11. It was exhilarating stuff, totally unfamiliar traditional songs, for the most part wild and energetic but with one breath-taking passage of delicate whistling birdsong. They have won many international prizes since they were founded in 2015, and it is not hard to see why. They come from a district in southern Taiwan where the majority of the population is composed of the indigenous Bunun ethnic group, one of sixteen official aboriginal groups in Taiwan; our neighbour, the Deputy Representative of the Taipei Representative Office in London, said he did not understand their language, but he did not need to (and neither did we) to appreciate their performance.

Click here to see what happened next

These two very different choirs came to Colchester thanks to the Colchester Military Wives Choir, who have achieved a formidable reputation themselves in the seven years of their existence. They are part of a growing network of military wives choirs across the forces, made up of veterans, mothers of soldiers and, of course, military wives. The benefits they bring in terms of boosting morale and building community spirit are enormous, and they have performed for many charities as well.

Click here for the video

It is easy to slip into clichés and draw predictable morals from events such as these. Music transcends cultural and political barriers. The two visiting choirs achieved more in the course of the evening than a month of trade talks ever could, and it was more than politeness towards our overseas guests that brought the audience to its feet for two standing ovations. The final pieces were especially poignant and symbolic. First, the Military Wives singing ‘We Will Remember Them’, followed by ‘Stronger Together’, the theme song (by Gareth Malone) of the military wives movement; then all three choirs singing together ‘Amazing Grace’.

The Bao-Lai Junior High School Chorus, with members of the Colchester Military Wives Choir, and (left to right) the Mayor of Colchester. the High Sheriff, Nicholas Charrington DL, the Chairman of Essex County Council, the First Secretary of the Japanese Embassy, and the High Steward of Colchester.

After that, all descended into near chaos with group photos on the staging. The traditionally-costumed Taiwanese turned out to have jeans under their robes, and quickly found their trainers. Getting them into the right place, to the satisfaction of the photographer, required much arm waving. A small party of elderly Japanese men made light work of pushing the grand piano out of the way. Gifts were distributed, including bags of goodies from Okinawa containing origami birds and boxes of what look like biscuits, and from Colchester intriguing parcels of fudge and little jars Tiptree honey. I would guess that everyone left feeling a lot better about the world than when they arrived.

The Amici Mixed Choir, with Colchester Military Wives Choir in the front, and assorted dignitaries (as above).

Working with animals and children

Never do it, said W. C. Fields (supposedly – don’t write in), but then being High Sheriff has little to do with show business, apart from the occasional dressing up. There’s quite a lot that can go wrong with holding a goat, but this particular one was very well behaved and presumably used to being handled by strangers, and I was appropriately dressed in tweed rather than velvet. I didn’t catch its name, but it was one of two that we met at Abberton Rural Training in Wormingford, along with ART’s CEO, Jacqui Stone, chairman Paul Roberts, and a number of trustees (see photo above). ART was established 2014 following a Section 106 requirement as part of the extension to the Abberton Reservoir (hence the name), and moved a couple of years ago to occupy the old village school at Wormingford, down a very narrow lane by the church in one of the most rural parts of North Essex, on the slope that leads down to the River Stour and Suffolk. Here a wide variety of people with a range of issues are helped back into the community: in ART’s words, they run courses in rural skills for the ‘long-term unemployed, those with barriers, and wounded and injured service personnel and veterans’. The goats have their part to play in this process (see photo below), working alongside a dedicated management team and number of part-time tutors.

The goats were a one-off. The children (no ‘kids’ puns, please) were equally well behaved, and there were three lots of them. The first appeared at the Essex Community Foundation’s reception at Layer Marney Tower: a group of six from All Saints’ Primary School, Maldon, where the imaginative head, Philip Brown, has come up with a scheme called Maldon Up whereby children in Year 6 make weekly visits to Longfield Care Home in the town, talking to them and playing games, to the great benefit of both children and residents. It’s an initiative that should be widely copied. Mr Brown runs what seems to be the very best sort of old-fashioned village school, in that he went there himself and has sent his children there too; and he cheerfully admits that much of the burden of delivering his wilder schemes falls on the shoulders of his deputy, Mrs White.

Year 6 students from All Saints’ School, Maldon, with Mrs White (left), Mr Brown (right), and Nick Alston, chairman of the Essex Community Foundation
(Essex CF Pics)

The next lot we encountered came from a wide geographical area (including Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Suffolk) and were taking part in the regional finals of the Magistrates’ Court Mock Trial competition. This is organised by Young Citizens for 12–14 year olds; there’s a separate Crown Court-style competition for 15–18 year olds. After what must be a great deal of preparation (with some input from magistrate mentors) the children stage a trial, taking all the parts (magistrates, legal adviser, usher, lawyers, defendant, witnesses) with just a single real magistrate acting as chairman, and more magistrates judging their performance. It is all surprisingly true to life, although it must be said that the acquittal of the defendant in the two cases we watched (assault of a taxi driver) came as a bit of a surprise. But it’s the process, rather than the outcome, that’s being judged. The winners, Sir John Hampden Grammar School from High Wycombe, go through to the national finals at the Royal Courts of Justice in June. What an amazing experience that will be for them! As for the runners-up, they have had the experience of spending half a day in Chelmsford Crown Court, and will have learnt a lot about what goes on in the magistrates’ courts, where all criminal cases start and where 95 per cent are concluded – an aspect of the criminal justice system that is rarely understood except by those directly involved in it. So much work goes into the mock trials, on the part of the students, their teachers, magistrates and court staff, and Young Citizens, but it is time well spent.

From the Rhyme v Crime anthology, illustrated by artists from the amazing Acorn Village, Mistley

Finally, to Harwich, to help present prizes to winners in a ‘Rhyme against Crime’ competition organised by the Harwich and District Community Crime Prevention Panel – a competition run within local schools to highlight crime-related issues and allow the children themselves to express an opinion about them in verse. On reflection I was wrong in what I said earlier about the High Sheriff having little to do with show business: this was an evening of razzamatazz, compered by Nigel Spencer MBE DL, chairman of the HDCCPP, and it included not just the prizewinners and runners-up reading their poems, but very enjoyable and accomplished musical interludes by Harwich Sing (community choir), Nicole Dube and Freya Potticary, and Harwich Rock School. The themes that the children chose for their verses were varied, but all seemed deeply felt and there was a sense of outrage that their elders and not betters are behaving in ways that makes life a misery for other people. Leading themes were graffiti and other antisocial behaviour, cyber bullying, and (among the older ones especially) knife crime:

Artist Louise; she’s a member of Harwich Sing, too.

The Totham connection (ii): W. P. Honywood

W. P. Honywood, by Robert Nightingale of Maldon
(Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service: Colchester Collection)

Great Totham has a rather better claim, as it were by proxy, to William Philip Honywood of Marks Hall, who was High Sheriff in 1851. He was the second member of his family to hold the office, but the example of his predecessor, John Lamotte Honywood, sheriff in 1689–90, is not particularly inspiring: he hanged himself in 1694. At that time he was M.P. for Essex, having previously been elected in 1679 and 1681.

For almost all of the 19th century the Honywood family were lords of the manor of Great Totham, lay rectors of the parish, and the principal landowner – in fact they owned almost the entire village, having purchased the manor of Jepcracks in 1749 and Great Totham Hall in 1765. The estates passed through several branches of the family over the years (and now I’m quoting from my own guide to St Peter’s Church), but those who took more interest in Great Totham than might be expected, considering that they lived a good ten miles away, were Filmer Honywood (who sponsored the enclosure of the parish in 1805) and W. P. Honywood, who died in 1859 at the age of 35. The latter built the Honywood School in Hall Road (perhaps with the proceeds of the enclosure), which opened in 1857 and is still in regular use as a parish and community room.  After his death a stained glass window was erected in the church by his tenants, ‘as a token of their respect for his memory’; in his will, which he made two days before he died, he confirmed his tenants ‘in their present occupations at their present rents for the term of twenty-one years from Michaelmas last’, an extraordinarily generous gesture.

The Honywood, Great Totham, with Honywood’s arms over the door

His widow Frances continued to take a close interest in the village (she donated the pulpit when the church was restored in 1878–9), until her death in 1895; her heir, her husband’s second cousin, rapidly became bankrupt, and most of the estate was sold off in 1897. Marks Hall itself, near Coggeshall, was demolished in 1951; the house was surrounded by magnificent gardens which are being partly restored and are open to the public.

Fireman’s lift

The former administration block of Runwell Hospital

Runwell Hospital, which closed in 2010, opened in 1937 as a mental hospital for the boroughs of Southend-on-Sea and East Ham, both then in the county of Essex. It was state-of-the-art, being built on the colony plan, with ward blocks widely spaced out on the 509-acre site. Since the closure of the hospital most of the original buildings (designed by architects Elcock & Sutcliffe) have been demolished; prominent survivals are the administration block (shown here) and the chapel, the latter in rather a sorry state and awaiting alternative use. Otherwise the site is being developed for housing (‘St Luke’s Park’, named after the chapel).

Brockfield House, entrance, showing some of the pictorial panels by Jacqueline Seifert.

One part of the site was retained for a secure hospital: Brockfield House, which opened in 2009 and was in its own very different way equally state-of-the-art. It provides forensic mental health services for people detained under the Mental Health Act or Court Order, in conditions of low and medium security (Broadmoor Hospital, to make the obvious comparison, provides treatment and care in condition of high security). When it opened it was compared, not unkindly, with a hotel, so sensitively was it designed and so well is it equipped. There are high security fences, but the layout of the building is such that they are kept to a minimum.

Lucy and I went there last week for a Firebreak pass-out. Firebreak is a five-day course run by Essex County Fire & Rescue Service that aims to improve the lives and increase the confidence and self-esteem of a wide range of people of all ages (but mostly young people) and in all situations. The Service runs dozens of courses each year, and the one in Brockfield House must be one of the more complex to organise. Normally they take place at fire stations, but in this case all the equipment (including a fire engine) must be brought to the site each day. A regular component of the course is working with ladders, but that is clearly not an option in secure hospital. It is not always possible to find enough suitable candidates, so on this occasion there was a team of eight, rather than the usual twelve, meaning they had to work that bit harder.

After passing through security and being issued with personal alarms (which we never came close to wanting to use) we met the lead instructor, Mark Crouch, and his colleagues in the hospital gym, and then trooped out to an area at the back of the hospital where seating was set up for the spectators – ourselves, a few patients’ family members, hospital staff, and quite few graduates of previous Firebreak courses who were still at the hospital. The team of eight were put through their paces, deploying hoses, performing CPR on a dummy, and generally going through the drill. At the end they lined up (by this time in quite a prolonged shower of rain) and I presented them with their certificates (dummies, actually, the real thing being more like a log book that was inside in the dry). Then we all returned to the gym for much-needed tea and biscuits.

I wish: I wish more people could witness an event like this and see what wonderful work Mark and his colleagues are doing to improve the lives of the people they work with. The positive effect, on the current team and older graduates, was plain to see. I wish more people knew of the dedication of the staff at Brockfield House, who provide a very high level of care. I wish I could include some photographs of the drill, and of the individual team members, all of whom were delightful to talk to. I wish more of their families had been there to support them and be proud of what they had achieved in just five days. I wish them the best of luck for the future, and hope that this experience has helped speed them along the road to recovery.

It was a joyful occasion, and one for celebration, but we felt sad as we drove out through the high gates, not knowing what lay ahead for the people we had met, nor indeed what had brought them there in the first place.