The Parish of East Donyland is located near Colchester. It is bordered on the east by the Roman River, the Mersea road to the south-west, by Birch Brook to the north-west and by the River Colne. Its main settlement is the village of Rowhedge.
It is a very pretty area with a substantial area of ancient forest known as Donyland Woods. The village’s main claim to fame was its association with the large yachts owned by such people as the then Prince of Wales and Sir Thomas Lipton, that used to race at the beginning of the last century. The majority of the skippers and crews came from the area. A number of their houses in the village were named after the boats that supplied the money to pay for them!
The character and flavour of Rowhedge stems from its location at the eastern end of the second of four ridges which separate Colchester from the North Sea. It is bounded to the south by the Roman River and to the north by Birch Brook. It lies on the west bank of the River Colne which meanders upstream of Wivenhoe to wash the quay faces of Rowhedge. Like many riparian settlements it is at ‘ the end of the line’ and is devoid of through traffic.
Its origin is lost in the mist of time but in the Essex Records Collection there is an entry granting the right to fish and collect oysters to an inhabitant of Rowhedge by the local landowner.
The oyster industry centred around the River Colne & East Donyland; in order to protect the skilled villagers from any exploitation they were made Freemen of the River Colne, and the Freemanship has been handed down since the 17th century. The fishermen who sailed down the Colne to the North Sea became highly skilled at coping with dangerous conditions and at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries they found a ready and profitable outlet for their skills as masters and crews of private yachts, as the monarch and gentry developed an interest in yachting as a sport. The names of famous yachts and their captains survive as the names of houses in the village. The Alms Houses in Paget Road are testimony to the bond between owners and their crews and in particular, Lord Paget, who was a distinguished regular owner who kept his yacht in Rowhedge.
Into this hub of activity, changing from yachting in the summer to fishing in the winter, came three men who founded Rowhedge Ironworks. This company constructed vessels for commercial use, some in kit form for assembly in distant lands, where, from time to time they are reported to be still in service. Two world wars and the depression in the 1920’s saw changes in society and the eventual demise of ship building on the River Colne.
Rowhedge Ironworks, Cook’s Yard at Wivenhoe and Aldous Yard in Brightlingsea all ceased to trade. We also saw the end of Ian Brown’s Boatyard in Rowhedge.
The loss of business in the shipyards and the subsequent loss of skilled jobs, although halted in the war years, and improved communication, led to a change in the character of the village. Physically, it was altered by the extraction of the sand and gravel on the southern aspect of the village. Massive quantities were excavated to cater for the many airfields constructed during the war. At the end of World War 2, the pressure for housing accommodation led to the building of houses on the Tithe land in Colne Rise. Building up Rectory Road and the development of Hillview Close changed the nature of the community, which was fast becoming a dormitory village, with jobs in Colchester and further afield.
With this change of workplace came other changes and since World War 2 ended, 5 public houses, 3 general stores – butcher, baker, greengrocer – sweetshop/tobacconist have all closed. The advent of mobile phones has seen the removal of some call boxes. In 1958 there were 3 or 4 cars in the village, now cars are parked both sides of the road. The changed attitude to marriage has resulted in a huge demand for single occupancy property and the pressure to redevelop the defunct port area and the sand pits, in addition to the development of the old Rowhedge Iron works site and Ian Brown’s boatyard already completed, will bring a fresh influx to the village.
Change is inevitable and must be accepted, but the change consequent upon becoming a dormitory community, swamping the existing social structure and urbanisation of the village, bids to destroy the neighbourliness which was the characteristic comfort of the village. We hope that fears expressed over the future of our village will prove illusory, but we must be on our guard!
The above was written by one of our residents, Dr John Sanderson, who, in addition to being our former GP had a distinguished career in both the army during WW2 and in local politics. He was Chairman of the Parish Council, a Borough Councillor and a former Mayor of Colchester. Additional information was provided by Mr Graham Taylor a Freeman of the City of Colchester (Freeman of the River) who has ancestral links with East Donyland.