Come to Leigh-on-Sea and enjoy its history, shopping and restaurants

February 27, 2024

leigh in winter

On the north bank of the Thames, thirty miles east of London, in the borough of Southend-on-Sea, stands the old fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea steeped in a wealth of history and legends of by-gone days.
The earliest known written record of Leigh (or Legra as it was then known) is the entry in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086.

The entry in the Domesday Book runs:

Legra, which was held by 1 free man as a manor and as a 1 hide, is held by R in demesne. Then as now (Semper) 2 villeins, and 2 bordars, and 1 plough on the demesne, and half a plough belonging to the men, and 5 bordars by the water (super aquam ), who hold no land. There is pasture for 100 sheep. Then 1 rouncey (horse) , 5 cows, 5 calves (and) 100 sheep; now 2 rounceys, 4 cows, 5 calves (and) 103 sheep. It was then worth 40 shillings; now 100

Leigh has a long history as a settlement dependent on the sea, and despite many changes, still has some of the atmosphere and character of the old, seafaring community.

With increasing trade during the Middle Ages, the settlement took advantage of its sheltered position on the important shipping route to London and began to grow. By the 13th century it had its own parish church, St. Clements. The list of Rectors dates from 1248, although the present building dates from the 15th century. By the 16th century, Leigh had become a fairly large and prosperous port, handling coastal and continental trade, especially with France and the low countries.

Ship building was one activity to benefit from increased trade and ships of up to 340 tons are recorded as being built at Leigh. In addition to trading ships, many would have been built for the local fishing fleets. The list of Leigh-built ships starts with the Speedwell, a ship of 105 tons built in 1579, Vineyard (240 tons), Merry England (190 tons), Ruby (280 tons), Mary Ann (302 tons) and Salamander (180 tons). The Mayflower, the ship in which the Pilgrim Fathers made their voyage to America, was either built or owned in Leigh.

While the 16th century seems to have been the hey-day of ship- building in Leigh, it was during the next two centuries that so many of its sailors achieved distinction. The first, Sir Richard Haddock, became Comptroller of the Navy in the late 17th century. Other local men served Trinity House and the Salmon family was particularly notable, providing two Masters of Trinity House in the 16th and 17th centuries.

During the 18th century, ships became larger and patterns of trade altered. At this time, the sea level rose, resulting in the silting up of Leigh’s deep water channel and, consequently the town’s importance went into decline. Gradually, it reverted into a fishing village, working local fishing grounds and supplying the London market by road and barge.

As a fishing port, it was far more successful, having no rivals in the Thames estuary. Numerous mudbanks offered ideal fishing grounds and inshore, oysters could be cultivated. Much of the early fishing was done by stop-nets staked across the tidal creeks, which trapped fish on a falling tide. Such traps were constantly being banned in the Thames even as late as 1697. Until 1220, the fishing rights were a royal prerogative but then, were transferred to Hubert de Burgh, the builder of Hadleigh Castle. Fishing was vital for the area, as little else was available for winter food and it provided one of the few stable industries in the area.

In 1801, Leigh had a population of 570, by 1901 it was 3667 and in 1921 grew to 15,031.

It was the arrival of the London, Tilbury and Southend railway line in 1854 that removed the isolation of Leigh and transformed stagnation into slow and steady growth. The railway was forced by the steep terrace edge to keep to the flood plane terrace and carve its way through "Old Leigh".

The fishing industry was the first to take advantage of this speedy transport with 467 tons of winkles, mussels and shrimps being transported by rail in 1855 and 704 tons by 1864.

Not surprisingly, speculative land development followed the railway line and Leigh was promoted variously as a resort to rival the "Queen of Watering Places" and in one instance even Naples, or as a peaceful, residential haven and a fine dormitory for London. In 1913, Leigh was incorporated within the rapidly expanding Borough of Southend. By the 20th century, the old village had become only a small part of a much larger town.

South of the railway lies Leigh Old Town with all it’s renowned charm and character.

Containing the famed "Cockle Sheds" with a bewildering and mouth-watering array of fresh seafood, there are also great pubs, cafes and shops, together with a small, sandy beach.

Old buildings are scattered along the High Street, including the Old Smithy rebuilt from two earlier cottages in 1860-1880 and now containing a "Heritage Centre".

Some of the wharves are of medieval origin and, in 1406, Henry 1V, endeavouring to avoid the plague then raging in London, crossed the Thames from Sheppey to Leigh. Halfway across, his ship was attacked by French pirates, a great chase ensued and, had it not been for the skill and navigational prowess of his crew, the King would have been captured. As he set foot on the Strand, the King went down on his knees and gave thanks for his safe delivery to Leigh.

The Leigh Conservation Area to the north of the railway, rises from the Old Town up the steep hillside to the Parish church at the top. This area contains many of the attractive, old terraced houses and cottages with architectural features dating back to centuries past.

Leigh’s past has given the Town an impressive heritage and one which is still much in evidence, even in the popular and thriving place of today.


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