The text of the following article was published in the 2014 issue of the Mistral.
50 Years of Watching over the Island
At this “Golden Birthday” time it is quite appropriate to take a retrospective look over the past 50 years, starting with a return back to the Mersea Island Society’s formation.
With the passing of half a century, almost certainly very few if any of the original members are still alive and therefore personal accounts of the reasons and motivation behind inception are obviously not available. Fortunately one of the very earliest Mistral copies (the 1968 edition) has come to light and by good chance; this gives a comprehensive record of the formation process.
Quite oddly, although the Society is and has always been totally non-political, the idea and creation came about through a political background connection. In the early 1960s, Jill Waterhouse was organising a series of discussion groups for the Mersea Island Liberal branch (no Democrats in the title then) and on one occasion she invited suggestions from the audience on future subjects. Mr R.J Hewitson responded with the comment that there was a desperate need for a meeting to discuss the future of Mersea.
It was decided to call a public meeting and realising this important subject, which concerned all residents, required a full embracing approach, the local Conservative branch was contacted for their involvement. Also for the sake of impartiality, there being no Labour group on the Island, the Labour peer Lord Alexander, who lived on Mersea, was informed as a matter of courtesy and he gave his verbal blessing. An approach was then made to over 30 organisations on the Island including all the churches, the local councils ar that time and anyone else who might be interested.
The first paragraph of the letter sent out illustrates the deep concern for the future of Mersea at that period of extensive development and set out what was to become the core aim. The paragraph read:
“It seems there is considerable anxiety amongst the residents about the future of our Island, and it is felt that this is a very necessary matter for discussion before the general muddle of Mersea development and amenities goes too far to be arrested”.
The public meeting was held on 11th November 1963 at the WI hall with over 150 people present and many turned away through lack of space. It shows how secular things have become since then as the meeting started with a prayer from the vicar, Rev. RJ East. After much discussion, Mr HJ Weaver proposed the formation of a society called the Mersea Island Society, an interim committee was formed and over 100 people enrolled as members. A short later on 14th February 1964, the first general meeting of members was held resulting in the election of an executive committee, a formal constitution and a set of objects. The MIS had been born.
Although the main thrust of the Society was and still is to guard against development and proposals deemed at variance with the Island’s characteristics, a wider vision was set with the creation of study groups on nature conservancy, civic affairs, history, education and culture. We no longer have study groups for each individual subject, but this broad approach concept still remains and in keeping with this ideal, four meetings are held each year with a talk on a variety of subjects, some linked to Mersea, some not but all open for anyone to attend.
In the historical field the Society has had two notable achievements. In 1968 two of the leading members were responsible for locating the missing ancient boundary marker between East and West Mersea, known as “Deramy’s Stone”, with this set up and raised to public view in 1975. A full account of this event appeared in the 2012 Mistral copy.
Also towards the end of the 1960s, guardianship was acquired of the most important ancient site on the Island, the Mersea Barrow. Through neglect, this had fallen into a dreadful condition, covered by brambles, old pieces of machinery and chickens. Neither the National Trust nor County Council were interested, so the MIS stepped in with the aim of clearing the debris and preserving the mound as far as possible. Some years later, the Mersea Museum with its appropriate resources took over, but the Society can take pride in its part towards securing this very important piece of local history.
Over the past years there has been considerable involvement in general civic matters, which have had lasting beneficial results for the residents and Mersea way of life. Visible evidence of this can be seen very simply from a tour around the Island and although space does not allow for a full list, some of the major projects deserve to be mentioned.
At the centre of West Mersea, in front of the library, stands the symbol of community, the Village Sign. The idea for this was first mooted in 1984 and after much effort in creating a suitable design, bringing the local council on board and negotiating with Essex CC for provision of a site, the sign was eventually erected in 1989. Carved in oak by Denis Smy and the painting by Alf Swabey, the construction and work was fully financed by the MIS. The design incorporates major features associated with West Mersea and is registered as copyright to the Society.
Moving from here to Coast Road, there lies the piece of land between the road and shoreline stretching from Monkey steps to the houseboats, containing a variety of vegetation and which many people consider to be one of the most attractive of the beach areas. It was in 1969 that Alec Grant, an early member and one time Chairman, instigated procedures resulting in this are being designated a “Village Green”, thereby ensuring continuing enjoyment for all without fear of unwanted development.
Situated within this “Village Green” is the Island’s early source of water, St Peter’s Well. Its use came to an end when the Town Council placed on a metal cover and piped the water to sea, but in 1977 as a reminder of how it looked, the then chairman of MIS, Mr. A. Hawkins took restoration action having a timber replica of the original erected.
Other examples of support and financial contribution include donating a bench at Cudmore Grove, helping with funds for East Mersea church roof, £250 towards the disabled toilet at the Museum and a contribution of £1,500 for the new St John’s ambulance.
To mark the dawn of the new century with the arrival of year 2000, a project was embarked on to produce a Millennium map of Mersea and accompanying booklet. The work of Dennis Smy, the original map is housed in the Museum. Copies of the map and the booklet went on sale to produce a worthy profit of £5,000, which was distributed amongst Mersea charities.
Another field of activity with an important conservancy theme has involved monitoring the Island’s footpaths. Since formation, regular footpath walks have been held with the joint aim of providing healthful enjoyment while, at the same time, checking on condition and usability. One beneficial outcome some years ago followed a campaign to make good the sea wall footpath past the Dabchicks by the side of the Strood channel, which was in a very poor state. After constant pressure, the authorities eventually effected the necessary repairs with a financial contribution from the Society.
Footpath walks continue to be held and this year it is now possible to cross the Seaview caravan site from Seaview Avenue to Cross Lane, following the hard fought achievement of re-opening footpath 24.
Coming up-to-date and continuing with the conservation theme, the recent introduction of red squirrels onto the Island – a species under threat with few colonies in the southern half of the country – could prove to be one of the most important MIS projects not only for Mersea but for this south-eastern part of the country and progress is being very carefully fostered.
Having looked back briefly over the past five decades, what about the future? Well inevitably there have been changes with a far greater number of clubs and organisations in existence now, each with their own particular interests and involvements. It is most unlikely that some types of projects mentioned in this article, especially in the historical field, could now be undertaken by the Society alone.
However, what hopefully will remain constant for the benefit of all residents is the continuing benign but careful watch over the Island for the next fifty years.