Billericay is a town of some historical interest: burial mounds still exist in Norsey Woods signifying its occupation in the Bronze and Iron Ages, however, the town was born at the time of the Roman Invasion in 55/54 BC with evidence of a Roman Fort at Blunts Wall. Roman burials were unearthed when ground was prepared for building between School Road and Billericay School and coins dating back to AD69 were also discovered (the road was appropriately named Roman Way). For centuries, Billericay was part of the nearby hamlet of Great Burstead and, prior to the Norman Conquest, this was known as 'Burgestede' and formed part of Earl Godwin's (the father of King Harold) estates.
The name ‘Byllyrica’ is first recorded in 1291 and changes to ‘Billerica’ in 1307; ‘Billyrecha’ in 1594 and to ‘Bilrecky’ in 1686. Billericay established itself as a staging post during the 13th and 14th centuries as pilgrims travelling to Canterbury would often stay overnight in one of its many taverns (this was the period when Highwaymen found ‘rich pickings’ on the ‘Pilgrim’s Path’) before journeying on to Tilbury where they would cross the Thames.
A chantry chapel was built in 1342 with adequate lands to support a priest. The chapel had become necessary as the parish church in Great Burstead, due to its distance from the town, had become almost inaccessible during bad weather. This would eventually become the parish church of Saint Mary Magdalen and there are a number of the original bricks in its bell tower.
There is a history of dissension in the town, both political and religious, with Billericay men joining the Peasant's Revolt, led by Essex man, Wat Tyler, against the taxation of King Richard II. On 28th June 1381, the rebels, pursued by the King’s armies, fled to Norsey Wood where, after an infamous bloody battle, over five hundred were killed. It is said this battle hastened the end of the revolt itself. Also around this time Billericay fell under the influence of the Wycliffe preachers and many became deeply entrenched in the ‘new religion.’ Four local people were burnt at the stake and two were hung during the reign of Queen Mary. One of these, Thomas Watts, a linen draper of Billerica, is mentioned in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and was burnt at the stake on 5th April 1555 by the command of the Bishop of London. After refusing to change his views, he is recorded as saying: “I am weary to live in such idolatry as you would have me live in.”
Although Billericay was a flourishing commercial centre during the reign of Henry VIII, it had become one of the strongest centres of Puritanism in Essex and continued religious persecution led some residents to embark on the famous Mayflower voyage, from Plymouth, to the New World in 1620. The leader of the expedition was Christopher Martin, a former churchwarden of Great Burstead parish who, in 1619 was brought before the Archdeacons Court at nearby Ingatestone for failing to attend church and answer questions on the Catechism! There is much historical imagery relating to the Pilgrim Fathers depicted throughout Billericay, there is a Mayflower Hall and Mayflower School; the parish magazine is entitled The Pilgrim; and the Billericay town flag is adorned with a silhouette of the Mayflower. The town of Billerica, Massachusetts, was established in 1655 which began a relationship between the two towns which still exists today (both towns have thriving town twinning associations with a regular exchange of visitors).
The protestant dissension in the town was eventually tolerated by the authorities and a plaque outside the ASK Restaurant in the High Street states: This house was the original meeting place of the Billericay Independent Protestant Dissenters who were licensed to worship here on 28th April 1672 with liberty of conscience.
Billericay became a parish in its own right and the seat of local government in 1860. The coming of the railway in 1889 placing Billericay on the line between London and Southend-on-Sea increased the town’s accessibility and importance, which continues to this day.
Many fine houses were built in Billericay during the Georgian period – one of those remaining is Burghsted Lodge, located in the High Street, which houses the Citizens Advice Bureau. Saint Andrew's Hospital was built on the site of the town's Victorian workhouse and, from 1973, housed the internationally renowned Regional Plastic Surgery and Burns unit until this was relocated to Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford in 1998. Afterwards, most of the buildings were converted into flats and apartments. There are currently 59 listed buildings of architectural and historical interest in Billericay and they have their own museum – known as the Cater Museum.
The town gained national recognition at the time of General Elections and was, for many years, the first constituency to return their results. Billericay is mentioned in George Orwell's novel Down and out in Paris and London and is also the setting of the BBC sitcom Gavin and Stacey but has no connection to TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex!) which is filmed in nearby Brentwood.
Billericay is a prosperous Market Town, separated by countryside and farm land from Basildon to the south, Brentwood to the west and Chelmsford to the north. It has an official population of 36,000 (but it’s probably nearer to 40,000 due to a significant increase in house building in recent years). It is situated just 12 miles from the M25 Motorway and 15 miles from the Essex coast. It is a thriving commuter town, 30 minutes by rail from London Liverpool Street. Those who don’t work in the City may well work in the Oil Industry, Engineering or IT. The Ford Motor Company has a major research and development centre just south of the parish at Dunton.
There are numerous clubs and institutions: two Rotary clubs; Lions; Roundtable; Residents Association and sports clubs such as: Football, Rugby, Cricket and Golf clubs alongside many other ‘hobby and craft’ organisations. There are numerous groups which cater for those with young children. The town is served by an independent Town Council and we share a Conservative MP (Rt Hon John Baron) with nearby Basildon and Wickford.
Revd Paul A. Carr M.A