Gina Lomac tells the story of the development of Cliff Town, in Essex Countryside Magazine
In 1853 Southend was described as “quiet, dull Southend….. with its half dozen bathing machines and its two dozen or so bathers.” Nonetheless, the potential for development of this “quiet place for quiet people” did come to the notice of some well-established speculators.
In 1854, the railway developers Messrs Peto, Brassey and Betts leased the railway and completed the development of the Tilbury line to Southend.
Imagine these gentlemen speculators Sir Morgan Peto and Mr Thomas Brassey arriving from London one day having sampled their railway service. Southend Station – now Southend Central – opened in 1856. The gentlemen walk out of the station and turn right into a track called High Street because it took the high ground between Prittlewell and the hamlet of Southend; there were no bustling shops then, only a few houses and the brewery.
They might have wandered down to the cliff top where they would pause to inhale the ozone rising from the mudflats or to enjoy the water if the tide was in. If they looked to their left, past the bow-fronted library building, they saw the sea front jumble of the old town; below them the old pier. The shrubbery, an enclosed garden, clothed the cliffs below Royal Terrace.
Suppose that on a whim, Mr Brassey proposed to Sir Morgan that they take a turn along the cliff top – to stetch their legs before luncheon at the Royal Hotel. Perhaps as they approached the end of the imposing terrace, they paused for a moment, to enjoy the sun on the waving corn of Shorefield with the mill not far off to the north. Here were two seasoned speculators maybe remembering the railways that they had built in many lands. Peto received his Baronetcy from the service he did the crown when Messrs Peto, Brassey and Betts built, gratis, a vital 39 miles of railway from Sebastopol during the Crimean War.
Perhaps as he surveyed the farmlands across the cliff top, he saw another possibility: “Hmm, now the railway is done I should think there’s room here for a bit of development. What d’you think Brassey?”
“Indeed, town houses – sea views – just the thing.”
“Yes…and now the railway’s done…”
Perhaps this is how the cornfields became Cliff Town.
On 3rd October 1859 the first stone of the Cliff Town Estate was laid. Messrs Peto, Brassey and Betts leased the land from Squire Scratton and together with Charles and Thomas Lucas the builders, built 124 town houses designed by Banks and Berry, Architects of Westminster. A gasworks was built in 1855 and waterworks were set up between 1856 and 1860. Water was pumped from the reservoir directly to tanks in each of the houses on the estate.
The Cliff Town Estate was a shrewd speculation. In the Railway Director’s Report, 1859, the builders promoted the Cliff Town Estate in the hope that “accommodation which will thus be afforded for residence at Southend, with proper facilities for speedy and convenient communication with the metropolis, will materially improve the traffic of the railway.”
In the 1851 census, Prittlewell which included the hamlet of South End had a population of 2462. By 1881 the population had risen 220 percent to 7972.
The Building News of 14th February 1862 described the estate: “The houses are built of white brick, with freestone dressings. They are constructed in terraces laid out on the summit of the cliff, connected diagonally at intervals in such a way that those lying back get sea views in one direction… The houses are of various classes, differing in size, in position and in rental… The spaces between the houses are turfed and planted out with trees and shrubs. Very few of the houses are unoccupied; and the experiment is said to be so successful, that it is in contemplation to increase the number and to add a church, a hotel and a library and reading room.”
Local people and city merchants rented the properties and one of the first to move in was Ellis Kerry, the Stationmaster at Southend Station. His neighbours in 1863 included Robert Absalom, fisherman; Stanley Rudd pianomaker; Joseph Clements, barge owner and several lodging-house keepers including Miss Rebecca Berry and Miss Maria Bragg. By 1866 two ‘ladies schools’ were established: one at 12 Prittlewell Square run by the Misses Fanny and Jane Manning.
Kelly’s Gazeteer for this year mentioned “the new neighbourhood” and suggested that more houses were contemplated: “a great inducement being held out to the occupants by the Tilbury and Southend Railway Company by the issue of season tickets at the low price of £10 first class and £7 second class. Another shrewd move by Messrs Peto and Brassey.
Unfortunately in this year of 1856, both gentlemen suffered financial losses when a bank they used crashed, so their influence on the Cliff Town development ceased.
By 1856 the rental for houses in Cambridge Terrace was £60 per annum and the ground rent £5. One feature of the original development was Nelson Terrace where eight houses were built as shops with accommodation. These were occupied in 1869 by:
No 1 Mr Jas Wheeler Chemist (In 1863 this was a grocers run by Geo Cooch)
No 2 Mr A Harrison, Draper
No 3 Mr F Wakefield, Stationer
No 4 Mr Webster, Butcher
No 5 Mr Ray, Poulterer
No 6 Mr Ulyate, Bootmaker
No 7 Miss Purser, Milliner
No 8 Mr T Arnold, Baker and Confectioner, this was a corner shop with the bakery in the basement.
The Railway Hotel on the corner opposite Nelson Terrace was built before 1872. The church which is today the Clifftown United Reformed Church was built in 1865.
Visitors to Southend now may retrace the steps of Thomas Brassey and Sir Morgan on that fateful day and see for themselves the still elegant town houses of the Cliff Town Estate. The nursery garden is now the bowling green and Prittlewell Square has a pond with fountains. No longer surrounded by cornfields, Cliff Town is a conservative area in a thoroughly modern conurbation. And yet, as the Illustrated London News of 1st June 1861 said, “the Cliff Town Estate still helps to supply a want which the overworked middle classes of London experience.”