Thurrock historical figures

Daniel Defoe in Thurrock

There has been much confusion over many of the details regarding Daniel Defoe's residence in Thurrock, compounded by 'Robinson Crusoe' pub and 'Defoe shopping parade in the old upper ward of Chadwell-St-Mary Parish. Recent research has located the farmstead on the Thames marsh levels of the lower ward where for some nine years, Defoe operated a tile & brickworks in the Chadwell/Tilbury area, beginning in 1694/5.

However, there are various local theories about this period in his life, which bear little or no relation to the truth! For example, it is believed by some that Defoe lived at Sleeper's farmhouse in Chadwell, but he actually built his own house and Sleeper's farm dates back to the 15th Century. It has also been said that one of Defoe's children is buried in Chadwell churchyard, but there is no record of this burial and Defoe's family are not mentioned at any point regarding his time spent in this area.

Perhaps the most common misconception is that a Foe family were living in Chadwell around 75 years before Daniel's arrival in the district. It has been presumed that they were related as his surname was Foe at birth. These assumptions date from the time of William Palin's research for his 'Stifford and its Neighbourhood', published in 1871, but have been perpetuated on many occasions since then. However, checking the Chadwell parish registers reveals that the surname of the family in question was in fact Roe, spoiling that bit of folklore.

There has been much investigation into the precise location of both the brickworks and Defoe's own house. By chance, the house and neighbouring barn were included in a military surveyor's sketch of between 1713 and 1730, which depicted the waterfront at Tilbury Fort, as well as the churches of Chadwell and West Tilbury. The presence of such identifiable features in the drawing means that we can locate Defoe's 'Brick House' on Chadwell marsh. Its farmyard was the present area of Ferry Road and Peninsular Road, and the Tilbury Cottage Hospital (now destroyed) was built on part of the farmhouse site itself. Today much of the land is open, but the soil level has been raised prior to the laying of a tarmac surface.

The two-storey 'Brick House' faced south towards the river, looking over an area which featured in Defoe's later novel 'Moll Flanders'. There were three brick chimney stacks, three upper windows and two on the lower storey with a central doorway. A low extension ran eastwards away from the house (possibly a dairy or brew house) and to the west or south-west was a large barn, possibly older than the house. The Chapman and Andre survey of 1777 recorded various farmhouses on the Chadwell marshland, including one unlabelled which has been identified as Defoe's house and barnyard.

'In the bottom of these marshes, and close to the edge of the river stands the strong fortress of Tilbury, called Tilbury Fort, which may justly be looked upon , as the key of the river of Thames, and consequently the key of the city of London. It is a regular fortification, the design of it, was a pentagon, but the water bastion as it would have been called, was never built. The esplanade of the fort is very large, and the bastions, the largest of England, the foundation is laid so deep, and piles under that, driven down two on end of one another, so far, till they were assured they were below the channel of the river...These bastions settled considerably at first, but they are now firm as the rocks of chalk they come from.'

Daniel Defoe - 'A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.'

Bibliography

  • Panorama no. 27: 'Daniel Defoe: His Trail Uncovered' by Randal Bingley
  • Thurrock Historical Society Journal 3: 'Thurrock and its Link with Literature' by I.G. Sparkes
  • Thurrock's Past: Echoes from a Place by Alan Leyin, 1997
  • The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe by Richard West, 1998