Peoples of Essex newsletter: A celebration of migrant stories


The end of January and the start of February marks National Storytelling Week. The ‘Peoples of Essex’ project has revealed many interesting stories about the people who moved and lived in Colchester and Tendring in the past and present. This post will share some highlights of the fascinating tales we have heard and read.

This project was made possible with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Stories from our research

Parades with baby lambs:

February 3rd marks the saints day for Bishop Blaise, the patron saint for wool-combers and the wool industry. An interview with a lady called Mrs Scott revealed celebrations for the bay trade in Colchester. She recalled a family of the name Strong whose young daughter was dressed in white and sat alongside another young girl on a high wagon surrounded by wool and each with a lamb on their laps. This was for the procession in honour of Bishop Blaise around 1782. The Strong family had two generations of connection to the wool trade in Colchester. No. 35 Stockwell Street was formerly the Bishop Blaize inn, where the town’s wool combers met in the building named after their patron saint.

Colchester’s nursery rhyme fame:

Colchester’s nursery rhyme fame has Flemish migrant connections. The Rebow family were relatives of the Flemish Tayspill family and were wealthy merchants and tailors. Isaac Rebow became a wealthy clothier and MP and bought Colchester Castle. His daughters, Ann and Jane, became famous for writing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in the Dutch Quarter. In a letter Jane Taylor wrote, she describes how she would sneak out at night and read poems she had written to her friend on the Roman town wall until midnight. She would often be found star gazing from her attic or from the wall. She moved to Colchester with her family when she was 13 and made a group of friends who created a ‘society for the reading of original essays’ to improve their intellect. Many of her poems express themes of moving and trying to settle into a new community. The original lyrics for ‘The Star’ thank the stars for lighting the night for the travellers. ‘The Poppy’ resonates to the migrant story of trying to fit in as it compares the situation to a weed growing in a field it doesn’t belong to. ‘The Spider’ may refer to migration too as she talks about people fearing the new creature until it proves that it brings interesting skills in spinning his web which could reference the spinning techniques in the textiles trade. ‘Prejudice’ is a long poem about religious persecutions and the original prejudice people have on new settlers. ‘Experience’ is a poem about Jane’s experiences in life and she explains her experience arriving in Colchester in one of the paragraphs. ‘The World in the House’ is a poem about merchants moving to a new place and references their success in gaining their own seals and finding a religious community. Finally, ‘The Village Green’ likely refers to the green houses in the Dutch Quarter, painted to resemble the homes of the Flemish migrants.

Ann and Jane Taylor remain an inspiration today.

Local artist highlight: Peter Porteous-Butler

Ann and Jane are credited for their work on ”Original poems for infant minds” on a plaque marking their house in the Dutch Quarter, Colchester. Their story influenced local artist Peter Porteous-Butler to illustrate a gorgeous depiction of the Dutch Quarter under the starry nights that inspired the stargazing poets to write ‘The Star’ (also known as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). “I imagined the sisters sitting at the dormer windows looking out up at the stars. Personally, I find looking at stars (the ones in the sky, not celebrities) a very inspirational thing to do.”

Peter has also illustrated a stunning oil painting of Colchester Castle, and nostalgic ink drawing of Bourne Mill.

“Twinkle Twinkle” by Peter Porteous-Butler. “Twinkle Twinkle” by Peter Porteous-Butler.

Did you know that Alan Turing helped the Kindertransport children?

Alan Turing (who is famous for decrypting the enigma code) helped Kindertransport children from Harwich by granting scholarships to them in 1939 at Rossall School. Codebreaker Fred Clayton  had received a letter from a family in Vienna where he had once stayed, expressing their need of help transporting their children to Britain. He worked with Quakers and the University MP to make a list of children, organise contacts and transport. He received a card from Dover Court near Harwich explaining the children had made it to safety. He visited the children and volunteered at the refugee camps. He helped arrange foster families including contacting his friend Alan Turing who came down to Dovercourt and Harwich in February 1939 and  fostered a child called Bob Augenfield who was able to attend Rossall School. Fred continued to help find jobs for the parents waiting to come over and foster families for the children.

Team trips


Searching for the ‘Strangers’:

Our research revealed that the Flemish textile experts settled in Norwich as well as Colchester. We were keen to find out more about the ‘Strangers’, as they were known in Norwich, and set off in search of the Stranger’s Hall. We wanted to find out if the textile industries between the towns were similar and if they worked together, what the lives of the ‘Strangers’ were like in Norwich and what stories they told.

On the way to the hall, we came across St-Michael-at-Plea Anglo-Saxon Church which had a sign at the front pointing us in the direction of a monument to a Flemish refugee. Behind the font inside the church was a monument to Jacques de Hem and his family, suggesting that the Flemish settled alongside their families.

On our fascinating tour of the Stranger’s Hall we learnt that the Flemish lodged at the hall after being encouraged to settle by Queen Elizabeth I who met them in 1578. As we entered Lady Paine’s Bed Chambers, we were excited to spot red say curtains, providing our physical connection to the bay and say trade. This raised a few questions; did the Norwich Strangers only make say, why did they dye their say but Colchester often finished them plain, and were the say making industries of Colchester and Norwich connected?

On further study, it was revealed that Norwich’s textile industry was more focused on clothing. Norwich had already established a significant worsted industry creating clothing. At the time Colchester was also creating clothing from russets. However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, enhanced incomes after the Black Death created a demand for more expensive clothing as wage earners were able to buy higher quality clothing. Norwich encouraged Flemish worsted weavers to settle to help meet the demands of these new clothes and to teach their better techniques to the Norwich weavers. However, Colchester’s russets were previously produced for the poorer people and the new demands put this business under pressure. Instead, Colchester encouraged Flemish weavers to bring a new trade in to save the textile industry. Bay making was a perfect fit for Colchester because the river banks provided the perfect space to build tenterframes, the existing small mills were great for production, and the roads connected to London markets.

In regards to the question of dyeing, there is a tale that the river would run red due to the Madder dye used in the textiles. This legacy can be seen in the street names around Norwich including ‘Madder Market’.

It has been fascinating to hear the stories of how the Flemish migrants have brought over multiple textile skills and how the two towns have greatly benefitted from their work and teachings.

Monument to Jaques de Hem, St-Michael-at-Plea Church, Norwich
Say Curtains from Stranger’s Hall, Norwich

Heritage at home:

A closer research trip took us to Hollytrees and Colchester Castle Museums. In search of migrant heritage and physical evidence of the textile industry, we were keen to study their domestic life displays.

We were excited to spot portraits of Flemish refugees including Isaac Taylor II, brother of the poets Ann and Jane. We also found a portrait of bay and say maker, Giles Tayspill, who was part of one of the first waves of Flemish migrants to arrive in Colchester.

It was also interesting to spot the portraits of the young boy and girl at Blue Coat School. We learnt that the school was established in the Dutch Quarter and prepared children for apprenticeships in the bay trade.

Downstairs we found an exhibit showcasing the Textiles Trade in Colchester including weaving instruments such as tweezers, shuttles and shears that were once used by the Flemish bay makers.

The objects and portraits in the museums really bring the research to life by helping us picture the people who helped revive the textiles trade and the tools they used.

Giles Tayspill
Isaac Taylor II
Girl in Blue Coat School uniform

What stories have we been creating?

We have had a busy start of the year teaching many animation workshops and creating many stories. At Mayflower School we discussed migration and applied it to the student’s current topics including bird migration and Romans. Some students in the classes were migrants themselves and appreciated learning about what their movement meant and were able to talk about their experiences with the class. We received a large amount of feedback from students who were enthusiastic to learn about what migration means and why humans might migrate. The students took inspiration from these discussions and created engaging animations about their personal stories.

We also held an animation workshop at Harwich Arts and Heritage Centre. Participants learnt about our project and how to animate characters. They were excellent at creating lively stories through fantastic facial expressions. After the workshop they were able to explore the Digital Harwich Live event and learn all about different ways of telling stories digitally, from AR and VR to creating new creatures inspired by their made up sounds.

“I learnt about migrations which is what I did!” “I learnt a new word- migration” “migration isn’t just for birds” -feedback from Mayflower School

Want to attend Digital Club?

In our current term of Digital Club we have kept our focus on game making. We have been making individual beginners guides based on the games we are creating. This has been a very interesting task as the guides will help children learn how to create engaging digital stories. Our game guides range from creating monsters and discussing what makes a character a monster, to guides about specific tools such as perspective in game design. Other guides involve coding visual media and music. This task has helped to understand that many aspects in game design contribute to the story. We are looking forward to 3D games design on Unreal Engine, bringing our stories to a new dimension.

What stories are we eager to hear and share next?

We are looking forward to seeing what stories are created in our February half term video game and animation workshops. If you want to see if we have any spaces available (or want to check out our other activities) you can check here!

We are also excitedly planning our first animation explainer video about the Flemish Bay Makers.

As always, we are keen to engage in more communities from different backgrounds.

We would love to hear from local textiles and craft artists to learn the history of their craft. We are also looking to get involved with schools, craft groups, migrant communities and anyone who has a relation or interest to our project. If you would like to get involved please email

By Jenny Harris

Researcher at Signals.