March 17, 2023

In 1953, every child in Essex was given a slim hardback volume published by Essex County Council and printed, quite beautifully, in Dagenham. Royalty in Essex, its weighted inscription explained, was published to mark the “occasion of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, on June 2nd, 1953”. Its pages contained potted histories of the various buildings around the county that were built or owned by royals, some with handsome illustrations, and a colour print of the new Queen at the back.

Hadleigh Castle, one of the featured properties, was built in the 13th century but now lies in ruins on a hill above a section of the Thames meandering towards the North Sea. People like me who grew up in this densely populated, marsh-fringed stretch of Southend might know Hadleigh as a right-of-passage destination for teenage drinking, rather than for any association with Edward III. Sheltered from the wind in one of the towers, you could truly escape the streetlights, Neighbourhood Watch patrols and trendies spoiling for a ruck.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

The surrounding constituency of Castle Point — named after the ruin and containing Hadleigh, Benfleet and Canvey — is, according to new polling by UnHerd, the most monarchist place in Britain: 67% think it’s “a good thing”. Neighbouring constituencies had similarly high results. Essex, it seems, more than any other county, belongs to the king.

Castle Point is an area closely linked with the Thatcherite stereotypes of Essex Man and Essex Girl. It is notable, too, for being at the top of two other charts that have come to define Britain: it had the third-highest Leave vote in 2016, and it has the highest percentage of property ownership in the UK, with 82% of its dwellings owner-occupied.

Monarchism and home ownership are intrinsically linked; there are, after all, few more voracious property owners than the Windsors. As Londoners leaked into Essex in the postwar years, if they didn’t move to the new towns of Basildon or Harlow, they swapped a life of anxiety under landlords for a dabble at sovereignty. Soon, the transfer of the working classes from east London’s slums to Essex’s new suburbs became a shiny symbol of home ownership, particularly after Thatcher’s Right To Buy scheme.

Yet property ownership in these parts was not triggered by Right To Buy, but by a boom in the sale of parcels of land on which migrating Londoners with not much money but plenty of resourcefulness built DIY homes. On to this patchwork of land, acquired wholesale by cunning developers, were built thousands of makeshift homes. It’s partly how my father’s family came to live in Essex, by building a bungalow in a woodland clearing in Thundersley, which is now part of Castle Point. The rectangular, pebble-dashed dwelling my Nan grew up in is long gone; the plot now houses a luxury detached property for the modern Essexperson on a street filled with SUVs parked on lit-up driveways. When I recently visited the area for my new book, I met a woman who lived in one of the surviving bungalows built by my great-grandfather. She was very keen to talk about the history of the people who built the original estate, but not in stories of kings and the queens. “I like real history,” she said.

Before the Coronation, 1953 was already a pivotal year for Essex: the Great Flood that swamped the lowlands up the east coast of Britain killed 120 in Essex, the majority in low-lying clusters of seaside bungalow communities in Jaywick and Canvey Island. The newly-widowed Queen Mother visited Benfleet near Canvey to meet evacuees, many of whom would never move back to their ruined homes. Her visit was reported in Hilda Grieve’s The Great Tide as a morale booster and source of salt-of-the-earth stories: “There was I in me nightie, up to me neck in water with the bloody cat in me arms. What was I to do? Chuck the bloody cat in the drink?’”

The rescue effort relied on a flurry of Royal prefixes. Evacuees from suddenly sea-filled places such as Foulness Island were taken to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club in Burnham; missing persons on Canvey Island were diligently recorded in the form of case cards by the South Benfleet branch of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. It was, as the social historian Ken Worpole observed, a purely practical upshot of a post-war society of “small platoons” and the omnipresence of the monarchy in a kingdom that had not fully realised its Empire was in terminal decline.

Yet Essex’s modern affiliation with the monarchy may still prove to have a limited shelf life. Many of the outbursts of fondness for the Queen after she died stemmed from the fractured connection between civic life and the monarchy, as if the decline of the country were somehow inexorably linked with the life and death of Elizabeth Windsor — whereas it perhaps has more to do with the policies of Right To Buy architect, Margaret Thatcher. As house prices outpace local wages, Essex property is less accessible to first-time buyers than ever, beckoning already wealthy Londoners to buy property in the county and chipping away at its reputation of offering upward mobility through homeownership.

John, a retired postman and sometime anarchist I met in a pub in Southminster on the Dengie Peninsula, talked fondly of receiving Royalty In Essex when he was a schoolboy in Walthamstow, which was still part of the county in the Fifties. John had voted for Brexit, but was not a card-carrying Conservative property-owner, much less a monarchist. He lived in a modest rental property in a side street away from the pub, trying to invent a new kind of software on a knackered PC that made spread betting more profitable for him (I don’t think it ever paid off). Back at his house, he pulled the slim book from a shelf, still in pristine condition, and talked at length about the hope and promise it had symbolised 70 years ago. When Britain’s tarnished king is crowned this year in a country that feels like it is bottoming out, Essex — and England — will not be able to say the same.