This feature from the Essex Countryside magazine was printed in 1965
Written by J Blundell
Obelisks, columns and other such monoliths are apt to attract attention by reason of their height and the usually prominent position which they occupy in the town, city and countryside. Many belong to the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, and their weathered inscriptions today recall public figures and event of the past.
Standing tall and solitary on the foreshore at Westcliff-on-Sea, the Crowstone is an obelisk with a difference. Uncommonly situated, its very presence demands explanation. To approach at high tide, however, one must either take boat or swim. Alternatively, one may wade across at a later hour or, if not suitable shod, patiently await a reasonably dry footing, since leather has no liking for salt-water puddles. Accordingly, there are those occasions when interested persons decide instead to view the Crowstone distantly, from the convenience of the promenade, so that its time-honoured associations remain unappreciated.
Marked Seaward Limit of Thames
The Crowstone’s copper plate – now turned green – records that it was erected in 1836 and marked the seaward limit of the River Thames as then controlled by the City of London, and that it replaced a stone of 1755, both standing together until the more aged of the pair was presented by the Port of London Authority to Southend Corporation in 1950 for preservation in Priory Park.
When raised at Westcliff 210 years ago this stone (now retired in land) also took the place of an earlier limit-mark. The Crowstone stationed alone on the foreshore is, in fact, one of a number to have occupied the same site, or one close by, and merits inspection in that it bears testimony to London’s conservancy of this eastward reach of the Thames as exercised over a period of almost seven centuries.
Long before Westcliff developed, the Crowstone was officially recognized as the city stone at Leigh. Even so, in his duties as the water bailiff, Roger Griffiths would speak of the Crowe’s stone, and in an essay of 1746, one of the few references to have survived, he stated: A little below this island (Canvey), or rather opposite to the lower end of it, is a small town called Leigh, of little or no account otherwise than that it is well stocked with fishermen and seamen, and likewise that about two miles below this town the jurisdiction of London on the Essex side of the river terminates at a place called Crow Stone, where there was a mark stone, but by some accident it has now been lost for these several years.”
The stone now established as a local antiquity at Priory Park was a replacement in 1755 of that declared as “lost” – or possibly fallen. If so, and then broken up to be carted away, in all likelihood the same measures were adopted in the disposal of previous stones when no longer serviceable, for little or no information of these is available. The years of their erection on the foreshore and subsequent removal appear to have gone unrecorded.
Formal rights over restricted stretches of the Thames east and west of London Bridge were first granted to city conservators in 1197, for the payment of 1,500 marks, by Richard I. Richard’s document was confirmed by King John in 1199, by Henry III in 1227 and by Edward I, whose charter of 1285 extended administration of the river, the easterly limit being determined at the Essex shore. From here the boundary reached across to Yantlet Creek, by the Kentish mainland, upon which today is the London stone.
To honour Edward’s charter, the numerals 1285 once appeared on the stone taken for safe keeping to Priory Park fifteen years ago, but the commemorative date is obliterated now except for the figure “5” in itself so vague as to be detected only by a keen eye. The stone carries also the City shield, with the short sword of St Paul, London’s patron saint, just distinguishable. Scarred and bleached, the stone is very much suited to its surroundings, within a few steps of the entrance to the ancient priory of Prittlewell.
How the Crowstone(s) became so called is not accurately known. The name may have arisen from a nearby tenement exiting in 1536 – Crowes. The again it has been suggested that at one time beachcombing crows, which colonized agricultural settlements of the district, favoured the stone as a look-out. That these numerous birds accounted in the first instance fro the naming of both the tenement and stone is sufficiently realistic to be accepted. Beyond this, other reasons advanced have no local connection.
There are lively reports of ceremonial visits paid to the Crowstone in the 1800s, and earlier, by the Lord Mayor of London and aldermen, water bailiffs and sheriffs. Greatly festive occasions, these took place every seven years and attracted crowds. And when the Crowstones of today and yesterday stood side-by-side, the obelisk some sixteen feet high, the other half as much, each flew a banner inserted into a cavity provided at its upper part.
The Lord Mayor on his septennial view, as it was termed, upheld the right of jurisdiction at the Essex limit-mark. Hence, in so doing in 1842, Sir John Pirie, accompanied by Thames officials, first held the City sword and colours against the Crowstone, which was then circled around three times by boat or on foot. Wine was served after, and glasses were lifted to the words “God preserve the City of London” – a pledge perpetuated boldly beneath the Crowstone’s date of 1836 and plainly visible still. The names of the visiting Lord Mayor and other conservators, and the date of the ceremony, were later engraved for all to read for well over a century, a reminder on the Crowstone of a quaint yet charming custom.
The freedom of the water was another. Should any sheriff present have so desired the privilege, at a cost of two guineas and a certain loss of decorum, he was thereupon caught up by stalwart watermen and bumped on the sea-stained Crowstone itself. The elegant dress of the City officers, the band of the Royal Marines, the flag-arrayed boats, a firework display, dining, dancing, and other entertainments lasting a day and into the night – all these were greeted by the public as the Lord Mayor’s Show of the river.
The Crowstone festivities ceased, and their passing must have been regretted indeed, when the Thames Conservancy Board took control of the river in 1857. With a long history behind it, ever austere today yet once feted, the Crowstone awaits the tides and rises in challenge from its granite base.