A History of Chelmsford

By Tim Lambert

Roman Chelmsford

The Romans built a small town on the site of Moulsham. It was called Caesaromagus (Caesar’s marketplace). It served as a local market town halfway between London and Colchester. The same craftsmen worked in Roman Chelmsford as in every town, such as carpenters and blacksmiths. Chelmsford was fortified in the late 2nd century. At that time it was at its peak.

However, in the 4th century, Roman civilization declined. After the Romans left Britain in 407 this little Roman town disappeared.

Chelmsford in the Middle Ages

The modern town of Chelmsford was created in the Middle Ages. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), the land on the site of the modern town centre belonged to the Bishop of London. About 1100 Bishop Maurice built a bridge across the River Can. As a result, traffic that used to travel through Writtle was now diverted through Chelmsford.

Then, in 1199, Bishop William obtained a charter from the king. The charter gave the bishop the right to hold a weekly market near the bridge. In those days there were very few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market. Once the market was up and running merchants and craftsmen would come to live in Chelmsford. So a town was born.

In 1201 the king gave the bishop the right to hold an annual fair in Chelmsford. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a few days and they attracted buyers and sellers from far and wide. Chelmsford quickly grew into a busy little town. To us, it would seem tiny, with only several hundred inhabitants but by the standards of the time, it was a respectable size.

Medieval Chelmsford prospered partly because of its position on a busy main road. There was also a leather industry in Chelmsford and there were skinners and tanners. There was also a wool industry in Chelmsford. After it was woven wool was fulled. That means it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. In the Middle Ages, wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded wool. When it dried the wool was dyed. In Chelmsford, there were also drapers and mercers (dealers in fine cloth).

In the 13th century, friars came to Chelmsford. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. The friars in Chelmsford were Dominicans, known as black friars because of their black costumes. From the late 13th century there was also a leper hostel at Moulsham.

In 1430 a man named William Caleys was burned to death in Chelmsford for heresy. Then in 1348-49, the Black Death devastated Chelmsford, like the rest of the country. The plague may have killed half the population. However, Chelmsford soon recovered. Some idea of the sanitary conditions in Chelmsford at that time can be gained from the fact that in 1475 the townspeople were forbidden to let their pigs roam the streets!

Chelmsford 1500-1800

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friary in Chelmsford. However, in 1551 a grammar school was founded in Chelmsford.

Chelmsford continued to grow through the 16th century and 17th centuries. This was despite outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1603, 1625, 1637, and 1666.

A plague doctor

However each time the town of Chelmsford recovered. In the early 18th century Chelmsford was described as large and populous. That was probably an exaggeration. It probably only had a population of around 3,000. Chelmsford was an agricultural market town rather than a manufacturing center.

At the end of the 18th century, there were some improvements to Chelmsford. A new jail was built in 1777. In 1787 a man named John Johnson designed a new stone bridge. The same man built Shire Hall in 1791. Meanwhile, in 1789, an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called Improvement Commissioners with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Chelmsford (with oil lamps).

In 1797 a canal, the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation improved communications between Chelmsford and the rest of the country.

Chelmsford in the 19th century

In 1801 Chelmsford had a population of nearly 3,800. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town. Furthermore, the population quadrupled during the 19th century.

The railway reached Chelmsford in 1843. Improved transport led to an economic boom in Chelmsford. New industries grew up in the town. Chelmsford became known for its engineering industry and in the late 19th century for an industry making electrical equipment.

There were a number of improvements to Chelmsford during the 19th century. From 1819 the streets were lit by gas. In 1818 a dispensary opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. In 1883 the Chelmsford and Essex hospital opened.

However, like all towns in the early 19th century, Chelmsford was dirty and unsanitary. Chelmsford suffered an outbreak of cholera in 1832. Then in the 1850s, a network of sewers was dug and things improved. Central Park opened in 1894. Meanwhile, a museum was founded in Chelmsford in 1835.

In 1899 Marconi opened the world’s first radio factory in Chelmsford. In 1912 he built a purpose-built factory.

Chelmsford in the 20th century

By the beginning of the 20th century, Chelmsford had a population of almost 22,000. And it continued to grow rapidly (partly due to boundary extensions). Meanwhile, amenities in the town improved. A library opened in 1906 and before the First World War, the first cinemas opened.

In 1914 Chelmsford church was made a cathedral and in 1923 a War Memorial was unveiled to all those from Chelmsford who died in the First World War (later those who died in the Second World War were included).

The engineering industry in Chelmsford continued to be important during the 20th century. The industry meant that Chelmsford was a target for German bombing during World War II and the town suffered a number of raids.

Amenities in Chelmsford continued to improve. Civic Theatre opened in 1962. The Essex Regiment Museum opened in 1973. Cramphorn Theatre opened in 1982. In 1988 an extension to County Hall opened. It included a new library.

Meanwhile High Chelmer Shopping Centre opened in 1971. Meadows Shopping Centre opened in 1992.

By 1971 the population of Chelmsford had risen to 58,000.

Chelmsford in the 21st century

In 2012 Chelmsford was made a city. In 2023 the population of Chelmsford was 181,000.