10:46 am May 10, 2022
Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) had an impressive resume: writer, merchant, journalist, spy and one of the very first novelists. But did you know he also wrote a guide to Essex? Stephen Roberts discovers Defoe’s thoughts on our beautiful county…
Son of a butcher, he would become a famous author of fiction and non-fiction, writing everything from Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders for A Diary of the Plague Year and A circuit through the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or courses (sic)’. We are talking about Daniel Defoe.
Born in London, Defoe is not an obvious choice for an Essex Great but then his A tour across the whole island… is one of the county’s premier travel guides. He appears to have traveled extensively, including on the Continent, before settling in the hosiery business, going bankrupt along the way. He was a good Protestant, fighting in Monmouth’s rebellion against the Catholic James II, then joining the army of his supplanter, William III, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Defoe’s autobiography Call for honor and justice (1715) described his career since those heady days of 1688, including his time as a government spy. Defoe was fine with William and Mary, the co-monarchs, his poem English by birth (1701) up the rue du Roi apparently. Things did not go well with the next monarch, Queen Anne, Defoe’s The shortest way with the dissidents (1702) seeing him fined, pilloried and imprisoned at Newgate. His political activities have been described as “questionable” or a little shady. The article, a journal he started on his release in 1704 and edited until 1713, was a pioneer. He initiated the modern lead story, so his place in the pantheon of journalism is assured. Defoe was becoming one of our most versatile writers because he was also evoking a ghost story, The Appearance of a Mrs. Veal. Don’t assume he made it up – much of Defoe’s fiction was rooted in fact.
And what about Essex? Well, Defoe’s tour of the whole island took him to the eastern counties in 1722. Leaving London on April 3, Defoe headed for Barking mentioning a “breach” that had arisen between Barking and Dagenham, which flooded 5,000 acres but had been sorted with the permission of a Captain Perry, and beyond to Tilbury where he commented on flat land and marsh agriculture. There is a detailed description of Tilbury Fort, which Defoe describes as “the key to the Thames, and therefore the key to the City of London”. Osey (sic), or Isle of Osyth, is known for the abundance of game birds, which attracts armed men. However, as Defoe wryly points out, they often come home with ‘Essex disease on their backs’ (malaria in other words). Defoe also mentions the large quantity of fish supplying London markets and the mast erected by shipping and seamen’s charity Trinity House (“Shoe Beacon”) at a place called Shoeburyness “for seafarers’ direction”, as well as Colchester oysters, the “best and nicest” in England.
Defoe continues via Maldon to Witham, where he notes “there are…many gentlemen of good fortune”, before indulging in a few names. Agriculture is broadcast: “Maize is grown and calves reared, which I need not say are the best and fattest” (he does though). Defoe soon lands in Colchester, which is “big, densely populated” but “still weeping in the ruins of a civil war”. The evidence for the siege of 1648 must have been all too obvious, and Defoe shows his interest in epidemics by throwing in the plague of 1665 when “they buried over 5,259 people”, before mentioning a happier visit, that of the late King William III, who stayed in the city “several times”. He lists some of the “public buildings” in Colchester: Bay Hall, the guild hall “called by them the moot hall”, the workhouse, a castle “falling with age” and two charity schools.
Defoe appears at Walton-on-the-Naze where ‘there are several great works called copper houses’, and the men of Trinity House were again busy erecting ‘a round brick tower nearly eighty feet from above”. Then to Harwich, a “city of haste and business” where “the harbor is of vast expanse” and the harbor is “where the steamers, between England and Holland, come in and out.” This explains why William (of Orange) stopped at Colchester on his way from Harwich to London.
Defoe briefly mentions other towns, namely Romford, Brentwood, Ingatestone and Chelmsford ‘the county town’, but there is ‘very little to say about them’ (sorry folks). He continues with Dunmow, Braintree, Thaxted and Coggeshall and confidently predicts that he ‘will make the ladies laugh at the famous old flitch of bacon story at Dunmow’. I bet he did. The forest of Epping and Hainault still “extends much of this country”, then Defoe concludes with brief mentions of Bocking and Felsted.
Defoe’s greatest claim to fame is Robinson Crusoe (1719), his guide to how to survive in loneliness; an early 18th century take on modern lockdown. Unlike the Desert Island Discs, there were no luxury items; Crusoe “forbade the necessities of civilization”. It can be considered the world’s first significant work of realistic fiction, but again it had a factual basis. Defoe came up with the idea after meeting sailor Alexander Selkirk at a Bristol hostel – the sailor had been abandoned on a desert island for four years. Crusoe was stuck for two decades. It’s a thread about the unbreakable human spirit in adversity, which could have been a totem for our times.
On this topic, The Diary of the Plague Year, although allegedly fictional, appears based on a newspaper as Defoe offers us the detailed account of a major city, London, during a pandemic. If someone writes about our experience with Covid-19, they are following in their pioneering footsteps. Moll Flanders remains one of the best stories of ‘low life’. It’s not Jane Austen. The truly amazing thing about Defoe is his anticipation of nearly every genre of modern fiction; the only exception being the social novel for which we expected Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). Nevertheless, Defoe can be considered the first true novelist in the English language.
circa 1660 – Birth of Daniel Defoe in London.
1684 – Marries Mary Tuffley, Defoe’s wife until his death.
1688 – Defoe joins William of Orange’s army during the Glorious Revolution.
1703 – After a spell in the pillory, Defoe is sent to Newgate Prison.
1704 – After his release, Defoe begins to edit The Review.
1719 – Publication of Robinson CrusoeDefoe’s most famous work.
1722 – Defoe explores Essex as part of his ‘tour through ‘the whole island’.
1731 – Death of Daniel Defoe in London (April 24) at the age of 70.