Windmills, hermits and milk maids: Local life in the eighteen century

Epping Forest District Museum has a huge collection of old photographs and pictures. These can be a great way to learn about how our local area looked in the past, and how people lived. We’ve been finding out about life in the 1830s, when London-based artist James-Paul Andre visited this area. He created an album of watercolour sketches in Chigwell and the villages and countryside nearby.

This was a time when the industrial revolution was creating massive changes in the way many people lived, and London was rapidly expanding; but before the railways had reached this part of the country and before the advent of the motor car. This area was on the cusp of changes which would have a profound effect people’s way of life, and Andre’s album is a fascinating portrayal of rural life here nearly two hundred years ago.

Let’s have a look inside the album… Imagine a time when Chigwell was dominated by a huge, dark-wooden windmill on the hill, overlooking fields and rolling open countryside. It is striking how far you can see into the distance in many of the sketches, with the views open due to the lack of buildings. One image shows an adolescent boy trying to herd a nonchalant group of cows.

The High Road in Chigwell is much easier to recognise, with the familiar outline of St Mary’s Church and the historic buildings of Chigwell School pretty much unchanged in two hundred years. A view of Pudding Lane near Chigwell Row also shows a familiar wood-framed farmhouse, surrounded by fields and trees much as it is today. But the man and lady talking in the lane outside are unmistakably of the rural eighteenth century: The lady carries a basket and is wearing a wide bonnet and full skirt, while the man sports breeches, stockings, a waistcoat and a low top hat. He also appears to be holding a pitchfork, used for hay making and throwing straw.

In another scene of rural life a milkmaid is shown walking down a tree-lined lane in Chigwell in the early morning moonlight, a wooden yoke across her shoulders with a milk pail suspended from each side. The picture creates an idyllic image, but the reality of life for a lowly milk maid at this time was likely very tough. Perhaps the modern world we live in, with a free, decent education for all; running water and sanitation; and much higher standards of housing would have appealed to this young woman more than the rural life portrayed?

A number of sketches feature Hainault Forest, showing gently rolling hills with a delightful patchwork of forest, meadows and meandering streams. There is even a sketch of the Hermitage, a ramshackle structure deep in the forest where a hermit famously lived for decades. It is poignant to think that within twenty years of Andre’s sketches, much of Hainault Forest had been erased from the map.

When painting these watercolours, it is likely that Andre knew he was capturing a way of life about to change forever. Perhaps he came here to make these sketches for exactly that reason. But although many of his pictures have a romantic quality which creates rather an idealised view of life, it is wonderful to have a record of the landscapes and way of life in the district two hundred years ago, before life for most people changed forever.

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