A History of Harwich

By Tim Lambert

Harwich in the Middle Ages

Harwich was not mentioned in the Domesday Book so at that time if anyone lived there it must have been a very small settlement. (The name Harwich is believed to be derived from the old words here wic, meaning army camp because the Danes camped there in the 9th century). However, there is an entry for Dovercourt. It was a little village with a population of about 120. The inhabitants were peasants who farmed the land around a cluster of wooden huts.

Yet by 1177 a chapel existed at Harwich so by then there must have been a small number of people living there. Then in the 13th century, the Earl of Norfolk turned the hamlet into a town. At that time trade and commerce were increasing in England and many new towns were founded.

In 1253 the Earl of Norfolk, Lord of the manor, started a weekly market in Harwich. In those days there were very few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you usually went to a market. Once the market in Harwich was up and running craftsmen and merchants would go and live in the town. So new streets were laid out and wooden jetties were built for ships.

Medieval Harwich grew rapidly and in 1318 it was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). In the later Middle Ages Harwich was a busy little port. At that time England’s main export was wool and bales were sent from Harwich. The main import was wine (the drink of the upper class). Furthermore, in Harwich, there were the same craftsmen found in any town such as carpenters, brewers, butchers, blacksmiths, etc.

Harwich 1500-1800

Then at the time of Henry VIII, strong defences were built at Harwich. Three forts were erected. At that time Harwich was a busy fishing port with a population of about 800.

In 1604 James I gave Harwich a new charter. As well as weekly markets Harwich was allowed 2 annual fairs. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People came from all over Essex to attend a Harwich fair. In the 17th century, Harwich continued to flourish. Shipbuilding was a major industry in the town.

In the latter part of the 17th century, England fought 3 wars with Holland. Because of its position on the coast of Essex Harwich became an important naval base. In 1667 a wheel crane was built at Harwich. (In 1928 it was moved to Harwich Green). Meanwhile, in 1665-66 the plague struck Harwich causing many deaths.

In the 18th century, quieter times returned but civilian shipbuilding continued in Harwich and fishing was still an important industry. Harwich was also still a busy little port. However, the town did suffer from flooding at intervals.

In the 1720s the writer Daniel Defoe visited Harwich and he said it was ‘a town of hurry and business, not much of gaiety and pleasure; yet the inhabitants seem warm in their nests and some of them are very rich’. Defoe was also impressed by Harwich Harbour. He said it was ‘able to receive the biggest ships and the greatest number that ever the world saw together’.

A sailing ship

Harwich Guildhall was rebuilt in 1769.

Modern Harwich

In the years 1808-1810, a redoubt was built to protect Harwich from the French. A lighthouse was built in 1818 and St Nicholas Church was dedicated in 1822.

In 1801, at the time of the first census, Harwich and Dovercourt had a population of about 2,700. To us, it would seem no more than a village but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town.

In the early 19th century an industry making ‘Roman cement’ flourished in Harwich although it had died out by the end of the century. On the other hand, the railway reached Harwich in 1854 and steamships began sailing from the port.

Furthermore, there were some improvements in Harwich during the 19th century. From 1870 Harwich was lit by gas and in 1880 the first sewer was dug. In 1887 Harwich gained a piped water supply.

Harwich Museum opened in 2021.

In the 20th century, Harwich continued to grow steadily. By 1911 it had a population of over 13,000. By 1971 the population was almost 15,000. In 2022 Harwich had a population of 19,000.