"Housen" -- evidence for the survival and decline of an Essex dialect plural

This essay deals with the persistence and survival in Essex of "housen" as a dialect plural for "house".

While I have no qualifications in dialect studies, the material -- drawn from local history sources -- draws upon my interest in Essex history and seems worth recording in the hope that it may be of use to specialists. The principal evidence was published between 1920 and 1923 by Miller Christy, an avid -- even compulsive -- collector of all things Essex, and the Reverend Edward Gepp, in his Essex Dialect Dictionary.[1] Their examples were collected from two groups of near-contiguous villages in the heart of the county, the triangle of Chelmsford-Braintree-Great Dunmow, towns  which were then too small to exercise much cultural influence upon the nearby countryside. Neither Christy nor Gepp published information identifying the age, residence or occupations of the people they quoted, nor did they date any examples. While Gepp offered some  primitive phonetic interpretations for other entries, none of the Essex writers indicated whether "housen" was pronounced with a -z- sound, as given in the English Dialect Dictionary, and would be expected by analogy with the Dutch "huizen". Christy and Gepp are important witnesses for their assessment of the decline of dialect, but they are not the only sources for a usage that seems to have been surprisingly persistent, even into the middle of the twentieth century.

            Nowadays, only three English words normally form plurals by adding "-en": ox / oxen, brother / brethren and child / children. In addition, "man" and "woman" mutate their vowel to become "men" and "women", and these generate hundreds of additional compound examples. "Kine" is perhaps still recognisable as an archaic collective noun, a synonym for "cattle", thanks to a dramatic story in Genesis of Joseph's interpretation of the Pharaoh's dreams as a warning of famine. However, few modern readers would instinctively identify the word as the plural of "cow". Other examples, such as "shoon" for "shoes" and "hosen" as a plural of "hose" are long gone: indeed, the generic term survives only in the trade term, hosiery, and the compound "pantyhose". Of the three prominent surviving words, only "ox" has a straight "-en" plural. "Brethren" exists alongside "brothers", to signify fraternal relations without any blood connection.[2] Attempts to revive "sistren", which fell out of use in the sixteenth century, seem doomed by the well-established use of "sisterhood" as a collective feminist term. "Children" is irregular, incorporating an alternative plural, "childer".[3] It may be that variant plurals were at once time intended to convey nuances of meaning. For instance, although "foot" has a firmly established strong plural ("feet"), Christy recalled an -en alternative, "fitten", which meant both "feet" and "footprints". Gepp cited the latter meaning, apparently without regarding it as a plural, but was inclined to reject reports of its use for "feet" received from correspondents as a "freak".[4]

            The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the Anglo-Saxon plural strong plural of "hus" (apparently with a long -u- sound) was replaced around 1400 by the -s version, with -en forms in dialect. Chaucer used "houses" 26 times.[5] Shakespeare used "houses" 21 times in his plays,[6] referring not only to dwellings but also to families: indeed, one of his best-known quotations is Mercutio's curse, "a plague a' both your houses", a rejection of the Montague-Capulet dynastic feud.  Of course, literary works probably impinged very little on country people, who were exposed to established usage, if at all, mainly though church services. Of 131 examples of "houses" (there were none of "housen") in the Authorised Version of the Bible, only eight appear in the Gospels.[7] Just five Biblical texts containing the word were prescribed by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as Collects for specific Sunday services, and four Psalms in morning and evening prayer. Clergy were also enjoined to admonish their flocks that "they procure not their children to be baptised at home in their houses."[8] Since until the mid-nineteenth century, most Anglican services were perfunctory and mechanical, it is unlikely that these readings made much impact upon congregations, the more so because, from the seventeenth century, many Essex people were either Nonconformists (who did, of course, use the King James Bible) or  more simply non-attenders. The most we might assume is that alert country folk would have been generally aware that those in authority used the -s plural. However, in the absence both of any strong sense of standard English and also of a complete and respected network of elementary schools prior to 1870, they would have felt little pressure to adopt the conventions of their betters.

            In the seventeenth century, the textile town of Braintree was administered by a self-perpetuating oligarchy, the Company of the Four and Twenty. On 2 May 1625, they decreed that "Widdow Beckwith shalbe placed in one of the almes housen" -- a rare example of urban use of the term.[9] The excellent on-line calendar of the Essex Record Office provides three further examples confirming that "housen" was in vernacular use in the seventeenth century.[10] William Day, a labourer of Layer de la Haye, was indicted for breaking into the "housen" of Alexander Digby in 1625. Although not mentioned in Morant's History of Essex, there is independent evidence of Digby as a gentleman resident of the parish.[11] The goods alleged stolen were high status -- a cloak worth thirty shillings, table cloths and napkins, pewter ware -- which seems to demonstrate that the raid was on a dwelling, and that in this instance, "housen" did not refer to outhouses, although it is possible that the plural form indicated the existence of a separate free-standing kitchen. In south Essex, complaint was made in 1645 of four "malignos" men from South Ockendon who refused to join the New Model Army, haunting several "housen" -- possibly alehouses? --in the nearby parish of Stifford. The calendar notes that this presentment was in unusually illiterate  handwriting. A third item is a detailed account from 1654 by Edward Marable, a carpenter or builder of Hatfield Broad Oak, for work on a "Carte house", "dwellings house", "sestarne [probably cistern] house", "two Hogscoates" and "two Hen housen". The implication perhaps suggests that a skilled tradesman employed specific terminology for different types of building. These seventeenth-century examples prompt three reflections. First, they probably represent the tip of an iceberg. Calendaring highlights and samples unusual terms, and more are certainly lurking in the archives. Second, documents intended for formal deposit and preservation were less likely to be generated in the vernacular: of these four examples, two were presentments by local constables, one comes from a town meeting, and the fourth was written by a skilled artisan.[12] Third, the examples extend the range of "housen" beyond the core area later studied by Christy and Gepp. Hatfield Broad Oak is only about four miles further west, but Layer de la Haye is around fifteen miles to the east, and Stifford a similar distance south.

            In 1839, Charles Clark of Great Totham Hall published John Noakes & Mary Styles, a dialect poem about the adventures of a young couple attending Tiptree Races, "exhibiting some of the most striking lingual localisms peculiar to Essex". Clark was a self-taught antiquary and collector, and his offering is open to the doubt that surrounds all such writing: was it a genuine record of widespread usage or an exaggeration of the exotic? Great Totham is about six miles west of Layer de la Haye, where "housen" was recorded in 1625. The poem contains a single, inconsequential allusion, part of a sketch of Mary's wayward behaviour: "at housen so she stopp'd". The term evidently refers to dwellings and not outhouses, and perhaps implied public houses. In the accompanying glossary of around 400 words and phrases, "housen" is the only -en plural that Clark cited.[13]

            In 1875, Miller Christy began recording Essex dialect in the parishes of Roxwell, Writtle and Chignal, just west of Chelmsford. Born into a high achieving Quaker family in 1861 and educated at Bootham School in York, Christy described himself as "a small boy" when he began his project (he was about fourteen), which he continued until 1882.[14] With the exception of two visits to Manitoba in 1883-85, in connection with a Friends' emigration project from Ireland -- which, characteristically, generated two books and an interest in western Canadian history -- Christy spent his whole life in Essex, visiting almost every village and becoming an avid collector and analyst of all branches of knowledge about the county -- including archaeology, birds, census statistics, monumental brasses and trade signs.[15] Some years later, possibly when he was preparing a guidebook to Essex published in 1887,[16] Christy added examples from villages three to five miles north and north-east of Great Dunmow -- Lindsell, the Bardfields and the Salings -- in effect leap-frogging what would become Gepp's study area.[17] "The old plural in en is still common," he noted in 1887, citing "housen" and "fitten" as key examples of living dialect Essex.[18] But by the time the material was substantially published in 1922, Christy's regret at the retreat of dialect was elegiac in tone: "I can remember the every-day use of the old plural in -en in the words housen (houses) and fitten (feet or foot-prints)".[19]

            In 1880, "housen" also featured in A Glossary of the Essex Dialect, by Richard Stephen Charnock.[20] "Dr Charnock" in his publisher's promotion, and "Ph. Dr." on his title page, he had presumably studied in Germany, since the PhD was not then a standard postgraduate qualification in most British universities. Charnock read German and was interested in etymology and philology.[21] A multi-edition Bradshaw's tourist guide to Spain and Portugal perhaps underpinned his income and enabled him to pursue eclectic interests, which included areas as diverse as Essex and Transylvania. "Some years since, while making pedestrian tours through Essex, I was struck by the peculiarity of the dialect," he explained.[22] The "greatest peculiarities" that Charnock encountered were found in the north of the county,. around Braintree, Halstead and nearby Gosfield, "Bardfield" (presumably the large village of Great Bardfield), Wethersfield and a region that he mysteriously described as "the Salt Ings", presumably the Blackwater estuary.[23]

            In common with other observers, Charnock made no attempt to record where examples were found, nor anything about the age or occupations of vernacular speakers, although Gepp's subsequent condemnation of his book as "a scrappy collection with the appearance of hasty compilation" seems harsh.[24] Charnock did, however, identify distinct qualities in Essex speech, noting that it was "not generally so broad" as Kent and Suffolk versions, "nor is it spoken with the strong whining tone of the Suffolk dialect." Unlike Londoners, whom Charnock perhaps curiously felt spoke in "subdued tones", Essex people "more frequently scream their words", reminding him -- although, surely, few of his readers, of Venetian gondoliers and French fish-sellers. The letter H was generally pronounced in Essex, although Charnock claimed that "th" sounds often resembled a straight T.[25] Vowels were sometimes transposed, often lengthened, and classic country yokel pronunciations, like "toime" and "foine" for "time" and "fine" were endemic. "The old plural in -en also occurs, as housen for houses."[26] Although neither Christy nor Gepp thought much of Charnock's contribution -- which was not much more than a word list -- he was unusual in noting a compound form, "publick-housen".[27] Charnock defended his decision to publish because "I learned that the dialect was dying out."[28] However, Christy's 1887 note suggests that this pessimism may not have applied to "housen".

            Two examples of "housen" from the 1890s are both open to some suspicion of artificial reconstruction. In 1895, "Mark Downe" published a volume of Essex Ballads, which included the tale of a countryman warning an incomer of ghosts in his new home. "Goo' morning, sir, you minter say you bought them housen there ... Them housen, sir, is harnted...".[29] Mark Downe was the pen-name of Colchester newspaperman Charles E. Benham, member of a family with a strong commitment to Essex institutions and customs.[30] As with Clark sixty years earlier, it is difficult to know how far the term was still in use when Benham memorialised it, but the verse was cited as evidence for its survival in Essex by the English Dialect Dictionary in 1905.

            In 1896-7, a reorganisation of parish charities in Great Waltham, a village four miles north of Chelmsford, included the construction of four almshouses called the Church Housen.[31] It is possible that the name was a conscious exercise in antiquarianism by the vicar, Canon Henry Hulton, who was the driving force behind the project: architectural historian James Bentley comments that the terrace is "not as quaint as the name suggests".[32] The Great Waltham evidence has two marginally interesting features: the village is located in the gap between the Christy and Gepp study areas, and it is the first village-specific example since the Hatfield Broad Oak carpenter's bill of 1654.

            In the early twentieth century, Essex dialect studies fell into the doldrums. The six volumes of the English Dialect Dictionary appeared between 1898 and 1905, but Gepp felt that "Essex figures but poorly in its pages".[33] The English Dialect Dictionary included Essex as one of the counties where "housen" was in use, on the thin evidence of the Mark Downe ballad.[34] Another disappointment was the Victoria County History project, which planned to include dialect in its overview studies. Essex began well, with volumes published in 1903 and 1907, but publication halted for half a century.

            However, there is evidence that "housen" was still used across the county in the  Edwardian period. In 1913, Dr E.B. Dickin listed it among 150 words "known to be or to have been in use in the last few years" in Brightlingsea.[35] Although he supplied no details, Dickin's example is of interest both because it is the only instance of "housen" traced in the north-east of the county, and for its location in an urban community: Brightlingsea had a population of around 4,500. Furthermore, it functioned as an outport to Colchester, six miles up the Colne estuary. With a population of around 40,000, Colchester was the largest town in Essex beyond Greater London, and its mix of industry and military garrison might have been expected to make it an influence for more standard, or perhaps Cockney, forms of speech. That same year, Mrs E.E. Wilde also included a brief entry on dialect in history of Ingatestone, five miles south-west of Chelmsford. She noted that "housen" was an example of a plural "commonly used by the older people, but it shows signs of dying out".[36] Fifteen miles west, however, in Great Parndon, now part of Harlow New Town, Jim Priest later recalled the term fighting a rearguard action during his school days. Attending the village school between 1911 and 1917, "most of  us spoke the dialect customary in our home and village life. We were frequently chided by teachers for using 'housen' (unaspirated) as the plural of house, or for saying that something was 'hissen' or 'hern' instead of 'his' or 'hers'."[37] Great Parndon is eight miles south-west of Hatfield Broad Oak, where the term was recorded in 1654. Priest's reminiscence also seems to be the only example of "housen" being used with a dropped H, perhaps a sign of the proximity of London, barely twenty miles away. In a brief note on Essex dialect published in 1917, Augustus V. Phillips of Chelmsford noted that "housen" was "still used in some parts".[38]

            Although formal interest in Essex dialect seems to have been muted in the early twentieth century, the foundations for a major study were laid in those years. Edward Gepp had been born in High Easter, where his father preceded him as Vicar, in 1855, and attended school at nearby Felsted, where he later spent 21 years as a master. Apart from two years as a young clergyman in Barbados, he lived most of his life within the two nearby villages, but apparently did not interest himself in local speech at the same time as Christy -- who lived only five miles away.[39] In 1903, he abandoned school-mastering and succeeded his father as Vicar of High Easter, and began to collect examples of local dialect, mainly from Felsted and High Easter, the two villages which, although not entirely contiguous, were, frankly, the centre of his entire universe. His glossary was supplemented by the observations of friends in the parish of Little Dunmow, adjoining Felsted to the west,who shared his enthusiasm.

            Gepp began to publish extracts from his work in  1920, leading to his Essex Dialect Dictionary of 1923. He regarded "housen", along with "slone" (sloes), as the sole survivals of what had once been a common plural form -- with "slone" mistakenly making a transition to the singular form.[40] Gepp's findings prompted Miller Christy to dust down his notebooks, which dated from almost fifty years earlier. Indeed, Christy argued that the two-decade interval between his main project and the beginning of Gepp's collection was crucial in appreciating how Essex speech had changed. "Housen" was something of a litmus issue. Gepp mentioned the plural form in his general discussion, but did not include it in his glossary. Christy mistakenly interpreted this omission as confirmation the term had died out. In contrast to his 1887 verdict that "housen" was "still common", he now concluded that it "was formerly in not-uncommon use. but is now seldom or never heard".[41]

            Wilde, in 1913, had also described "housen" as in retreat, "with modern schooling and newspapers against it".[42] Christy firmly blamed the Board Schools established after the 1870 Education Act, arguing that his evidence from that decade predated their impact. Mass elementary education had destroyed dialect "by substituting the literary written word of the school-book for the ancient spoken word of the native". Rhetorically, he asked "where now are those old country folk who spoke with that queer nasal drawl which I can remember so well [?]" He called himself an "ear-witness" to a massive change: "the present generation, which is almost wholly Board-School-taught, uses a pronunciation which is no way local, but general and stereotyped."[43]

            Gepp resented Christy's criticisms and responded in terms of roguish mockery, arguing that the five-mile gap between their study areas meant that "his district is more open than ours to metropolitan inspection." Dialect was still strong around High Easter and Fyfield. "Old men in outlying cottages are almost unspoilt, and even in the pestilently modern-speaking village you may find gaffers whose talk is largely the good old stuff." The schools "may do their wicked will, but they cannot stop children talking properly at home and at large."[44] Perhaps, indeed, the sweeping verdict that the Board Schools killed Essex dialect probably merits at least some fine-tuning. Schools of a kind had existed in many villages before the 1870 Act: White's Directory of 1848 reports them in villages such as High Easter, where the Nonconformist British School had one hundred children enrolled, although a National (Anglican) school serving Christy's core area, Writtle and Roxwell, had an enrolment of only 54. Before the Education Acts, schools could not compel consistent attendance, and teachers were often unqualified and drawn from local communities. After 1870, village schools worked to national syllabuses and were staffed by the products of training colleges. Christy's own impressionistic conclusion that dialect was vanishing faster in Essex than  other counties, and their shared opinion that older forms of speech were clinging more effectively in the north of the county, point to the influence of London, even if its impact might prove hard to quantify. Wilde's linkage to wider developments in popular culture, such as the mass cheap newspaper press, probably fits here. It is also worth noting that the Christy-Gepp exchange straddled a landmark in the birth of public radio, the launching of the BBC in December 1922. By curious coincidence, early broadcasts of this standardising medium were beamed from a Marconi transmitter at Writtle (2MT, later 5XX). However, even the BBC made some concessions to local forms of speech, for instance in 1930 publishing a list of approved place-name pronunciations that took account of Essex versions of Coggeshall and Billericay.[45]

            Given speculation about the influence of  London, it is surprising that the last two examples of "housen" came from south Essex, well within the metropolitan orbit. Dr P.H. Reaney's massive survey, The Place-Names of Essex, had obviously been many years in preparation when it appeared in 1935, and was of course concerned with dialect only so far as it affected toponymy. Hence he noted Church Housen in Great Waltham as "local" in source, meaning that it was not derived from maps or other documentation. He also noted two examples from Upminster, where suburban development had begun around 1902. The Upminster examples were "Bluehousen", a local version of Bluehouses, "preserving the old Essex plural" and Flinthousen.[46] The latter appeared on the Ordnance Survey map as Flint House, and had been so named by T.L. Wilson, Upminster's encyclopaedic local historian, in 1881: the plural form is not otherwise explained.[47] Reaney's informant, "Miss M. Russell", was probably related to Champion Branfill Russell, squire of Stubbers in nearby North Ockendon: one lodge of the Stubbers park opened into the parish of Upminster close to Flint House, and the untraced Bluehousen may be assumed to have been close by.[48] Upminster is a long north-south parish, and in 1935 the location, in the far south, remained a mile or two beyond the advancing suburbs.

            In fact, it seems likely that Reaney missed a similar popular formation from High Easter. A random Internet search in December 2014 discovered a pair of semi-detached residences, numbers 1 and 2 Bellhousen, in the hamlet of Stagden Cross. Reaney had recorded the name as "Bell House", with singular forms such as "Bellhouse" and "Bellows" from 1411 to 1594.[49] Just as Great Waltham's Church Housen may have been a conscious exercise in antiquarianism by Canon Hulton, so the influence of the Reverend Edward Gepp may be suspected here.[50]

            "Bellhousen" was also preserved in a dialect poem by James ("Jack") London in 1958: "Now ther bell frum Bellhousen, f'r dinner rings late / But ut'dd ring 'arly enow! w'en uv swallud me bait".[51] Jack London was an interesting personality. A native of St Lawrence, a marshland village near the south shore of the Blackwater estuary, he had discovered on starting primary school, in 1904, that the "King's English" was entirely different from the speech of his parents and neighbours -- much the experience that Miller Christy had bemoaned in 1922. He made it his life's work to preserve Essex dialect in his own verse. In common with most people of similar background in his era, Jack London had no access to higher education: he had joined the Essex Regiment in 1914, when he was fifteen, and spent much of his working life as a bus driver in Romford. There can be little doubt that he was a victim of intellectual snobbery, cold-shouldered by organisations like the BBC and the British Council.[52] He accompanied submission to the county magazine, The Essex Countryside, of his "Bellhousen" verse, with a photograph of a handsome small mansion topped with a small bell turret but, unfortunately, no information was published with it, and it has not been possible to identify the location.[53]

            One element common to Flinthousen and the two Bellhousen examples is that a name officially singular, in the High Easter case since the fifteenth century, had developed a local and dialect plural. As older buildings slipped down the status ladder, they were sometimes converted to multi-occupancy, but there seems no reason to assume any such development in this in these instances: Jack London's photograph shows no sign of sub-division. An alternative explanation, already suggested for the Layer de la Haye example in 1625, is that "housen" versions referred to a complex of buildings, the main residence plus one or more outhouses. Either way, these examples are intriguing and suggest that the term was still capable of generating dynamic compounds.  

            That "housen" was still alive after the Second World War is shown by a letter contributed to the second issue The Essex Countryside, in the winter of 1952-53, by F.Z. Claro, a correspondent from the Thames-side village of Corringham. "Only the other week," a local smith had mentioned to him that "years ago" he had made nails for "housen", which Claro hailed as "a Saxon word that goes back to the roots of the county."[54] Here, as at Upminster, there seems to have been an example of a small enclave defiant of modernity. The marshes near Corringham had been the site of major industry since the 1890s -- first an explosives factory, later an oil refinery -- which had generated the construction of modern housing. However, despite the addition of new housing, the core settlement was described in 1951 as "an ancient village of great dignity and charm ... a quiet backwater",[55] and this was perhaps true linguistically as well as architecturally. Claro's description evidently refers to an experienced craftsman in a trade that was no longer recruiting younger practitioners.

            Jack London's poems in the later 1950s were an attempt to preserve a dialect that was tacitly accepted to have disappeared. In 1969, John S. Appleby, a long-time Colchester resident and primary school teacher, published a new edition of Gepp's Essex Dialect Dictionary, with an Addendum, which he unhelpfully described as "[c]ompiled from written and spoken sources". This included "housen", but with no indication of whether the term was still in use and, if so, where.[56] In 2014, it seems that only Church Housen in Great Waltham and Bellhousen at Stagden Cross preserve a usage that can be recorded back to 1625 and which may well have originated with the earliest Saxon settlement of Essex. Both forms exist in formal names, with the euphonic spoken version apparently long since lost.


"Housen" can be documented as part of Essex dialect speech from 1625 to 1952. It was evidently perceived to be a dialect variation of the mainstream plural, "houses", and this probably accounts for its absence from most official documents, and its apparent disappearance from the written record between 1654 and 1839. The examples overwhelmingly refer to human habitation, although the Hatfield Broad Oak example of 1654 indicates that "housen" might also describe outbuildings. The term was sufficiently vigorous to coin numerous compounds -- "almes housen" and "Hen housen" in the seventeenth century, while "publick-housen", "Church Housen", "Bellhousen", "Flinthousen" and "Bluehousen" are recorded in the century after 1880. With the exception of "publick-housen", the compounds generally imply contiguity, apparently referring to rows or groups of dwellings, as is implied in the 1895 ballad by "Mark Downe". However, other examples, such as from Stifford, in 1645, or Clark's verse of 1839, evidently allude to separate buildings at some distance from one another. Unfortunately, it is not easy to be sure about such matters because most observers were compilers of lists who generally did not preserve actual examples of speech.

            The same shortfall in record-keeping also makes it hard to provide an accurate map of usage. Remarkably few of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples were location-specific: Great Waltham in 1896, Ingatestone in 1913, Upminster in 1935, Corringham in 1952. Christy based his lists on the three adjoining parishes of Writtle, Roxwell and Chignal, Gepp's world focused on nearby Felsted and High Easter, but both apparently added examples from elsewhere in Essex and neither identified his sources. Perhaps lack of precision does not greatly matter, since rural populations were far more mobile than bucolic idealisation of times past might suggest, and no village could long sustain its own vocabulary. Nonetheless, the determination of a collector like Charnock to treat Essex as an undifferentiated unit is unhelpful. Of more concern is the obvious bias in the apparent distribution of "housen" to one central district of the county. It is likely that this reflects an accident reporting concentration: the quirky Essex Review, for instance, was kept afloat by a small group of activists in that area. The documented survival of "housen" in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire suggests that it was also in use in north and north-west Essex, and other examples may perhaps lurk in parish histories. Aside from Charnock's curious allusion to the "Salt Ings", there would have been no indication at all that the term was used in the county's extensive marshlands had not Claro from Corringham and Jack London, native of St Lawrence,  troubled to communicate with the Essex Countryside magazine in the 1950s.

            A more puzzling aspect of the distribution of "housen" relates to an apparently isolated outcrop of examples, just three of them, in central south Essex -- Stifford in 1645, Upminster in 1935 and Corringham in 1952. These are at some distance from the southernmost manifestation of the main cluster, reported from Ingatestone in 1913. The absence of examples from south-west Essex can probably be attributed to the influence of London, where it may be assumed that dialect did not survive urbanisation.[57] It is harder to explain the problem that no examples seem to have been recorded from the west-east strip through the market towns of Epping, Ongar, Brentwood and Billericay, the more so since this area was colonised in the nineteenth century by wealthy Londoners, the kind of people who subscribed to local histories and might be interested in rural culture. Domesday evidence indicates that this part of Essex was heavily wooded in the Middle Ages, and it is just possible that some other word, such as "cot" (cottage), replaced "house" in forested districts.[58]

            The decline of Essex speech, and "housen" in particular, happened through the half century from the 1880s. In the longer sweep of history, that seems a relatively dramatic decline. But, viewed under the microscope of local studies, it is also possible to detect stubborn pockets of dialect persistence. It seems unlikely that any single reason can explain its retreat. Christy's censorious and elegiac emphasis upon the Board schools no doubt identified a key element, but -- as Gepp argued, and as Jack London and Jim Priest testified -- the State-imposed school system probably made children, in effect, bilingual, capable of  operating in some version of standard English if they went off to the cities, but still conversing and indeed living in the old speech with their families at home. Wilde, who also pointed a finger at the schools, was almost certainly correct to note newspapers as part of a wider cultural influence.

            Gepp's allusion to "metropolitan inspection" touched upon one element that was sometimes implied but rarely confronted, the influence of London. Perhaps equally pervasive was the general shift in the balance of rural and urban population from the middle of the nineteenth century. Braintree is one of only two instances of the use of "housen" in a town, and that from the earliest noted example, in 1625.[59] Christy's study area, Writtle, Roxwell and Chignal, contained 3,800 people both in 1871 and 1901. The nearby county town of  Chelmsford, including its satellite parish of Springfield, rose from 12,000 people to 16,000 in that period, and by 1901 was already encroaching into Writtle, part of which was transferred to the Borough in 1934. Chelmsford not only transformed itself from a market centre into an administrative and manufacturing centre, but became the headquarters after 1895 for modern industries such as ball-bearings, electrics and radio, an environment in which dialect was perhaps unlikely to thrive. By 1931, Chelmsford-Springfield was home to 32,000 people. Christy's study area had contained about one third of Chelmsford's population in 1871, one quarter in 1901, but barely one eighth by 1931. The same shift can be seen by comparing Felsted and High Easter with Braintree and Bocking: the two villages counted 3,000 people in 1871, the town around 8,000. By 1931, the village population was barely 2,000, the town -- also revived as a manufacturing centre -- had risen to almost 18,000. It is possible that urban areas much smaller than  London were capable of an explosive impact upon forms of speech within their immediate hinterland. Enclaves survived nonetheless. In Upminster, the onward advance of suburbia almost quadrupled the population from 1,500 in 1901 to 5,700 by 1931, but "housen" compounds hung on in the rural southern end of the parish. In Corringham, an influx of industrial workers increased the population from 268 in 1871 to 1,537 in 1931, but twenty years later, the village blacksmith could still talk of "housen" and presumably expect to be comprehended. But elsewhere on the marshes, the people simply vanished away, leaving very few to keep dialect alive. In Jack London's childhood, St Lawrence was home to 160 people. By the time he was working as a bus driver in the capital thirty years later, even that small community had halved to a mere 71 people.[60]

            When he dusted down his old notebooks to write about Essex dialect in 1922, Miller Christy excused the unfinished nature of his contribution by citing a French phrase, "matériaux pour servir", indicating an awareness of the inadequacies of his evidence, but a hope that it might nonetheless prove of some value to scholars better qualified in the field of dialect studies. This essay is offered in the same spirit.


Addenda. 2016-18. An additional example of "housen" has been located in Joyce M. Winmill, "Essex Dialect and Customs", Essex Review, lix (1950), 78-83, esp. page 80. Winmill's examples of Essex dialect come from the village of Henham, about seven miles north-west of Great Dunmow, an area of the county where previous examples had not been identified. Her extracts deal with aspects of rural life, and are not attributed to specific respondents. An earlier piece comes from an "old man", apparently William Smith, the retired village postman. Winmill explained that the material was collected "during the last nineteen years [i.e. 1931-50], and particularly during the early 1930's, when many of the old people still talked the old Essex speech, which has largely died out with their death." A reminscence of a Christmas in childhood was accompanied by the recollection: "Those housen over agin the Bell weren't there then." The Bell was one of Henham's pubs. It would be unsafe to draw large conclusions from one short example, but it does seem that the speaker felt comfortable about using "housen" to describe buildings erected during his own lifetime, and apparently did not regard it as an antique term. Thus "housen" was still in use in Henham in the 1930s, and Winmill -- herself an incomer -- did not regard it as meriting comment.

In 1923, the theologian and Essex historian Dr Harold Smith published in the Essex Review, xxxii, 37, "a family story that a boy from the Roothings, nearly 100 years back, seeing London for the first time, exclaimed 'Lawks! what a kit housen'." The "Roothings" or Rodings are eight villages between Fyfield and Dunmow, close to the core dialect area around High Easter where the usage is well established. "A kit" meant "a lot", and Gepp used a version of Harold Smith's story to illustrate the meaning of the word in his Essex Dialect Dictionary, 69.

Sabine Baring-Gould (best known for "Onward Christian Soldiers") used "housen" once in his 1881 novel, Mehala. The story was set on the Essex marshes, where he was Rector of East Mersea from 1871 to 1881. The use of "housen" on Mersea Island would be in line with Dickin's evidence that it was known in Brightlingsea, but the influence of Charles Clark and his Tiptree stories must also be suspected. One of Baring-Gould's characters referred to "a farmer, who owns land and marshes, and saltings and housen, and takes rents". (Mehala, new ed., London, 1884, 55).

There was a Housen Field at West Bergholt, near Colchester. Reaney, Place-Names of Essex, 619.

[Note added November 2021: C.R. Strutt, The Strutt Family of Terling 1650-1873 (1939), 74, quotes an anonymous letter sent to John Strutt of Terling Place in 1814, threatening to burn "farmehousen" in the parish. Terling is located between Great Waltham and Great Totham (see Map 2 below). It seems likely that the letter was written by somebody who lived in or close to the parish.] 

[Note added May 2024: Essex Archives Online (https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/) calendars a reference to the licensing of "Howsin" for Quaker worship at the Quarter Sessions of Epiphany (i.e. January) 1706. In each case, the owner and the place are named, which seems to confirm that the word was used to refer to private homes. The variant spelling is not surprising, but the appearance of the dialect plural in court records so late as 1706 seems striking. However, it is of interest in demonstrating that the term was in use during the interval in the written record from 1654 to 1839.]

Maps 1 and 2 follow, and Endnotes


[1] Miller Christy, "Some Old Essex Words and Phrases", Essex Review, 31 (1922), 194-212, esp. 194-8 (discussion) and 206 ("housen") [cited as Christy]. Edward Gepp, An Essex Dialect Dictionary (2nd ed., London, 1923). An earlier version of Gepp was published as A Contribution to an Essex Dialect Dictionary (London, 1920), with extracts in the Essex Review. Quotations, from the 1923 version, are taken from an expanded reprint, edited by John S. Appleby (East Ardsley, 1969), and cited as Gepp.

[2] Attempts to revive "sistren", which fell out of use in the sixteenth century, seem doomed by the well-established use of "sisterhood" as a collective feminist term.

[3] "Childer" was still in use in rural Ireland in recent times. The choristers at King's Hall, Cambridge, founded in 1317, were called the King's Childer" -- since they were presumably not royal offspring, could this suggest that "children"  and "childer" signalled parenthood and non-parenthood?

[4] It may be that variant plurals were at once time intended to convey nuances of meaning. For instance, although "foot" has a firmly established strong plural ("feet"), Christy 198, 204) recalled an -en alternative, "fitten", which meant both "feet" and "footprints". Gepp (50) cited the latter meaning, apparently  regarding it not as a plural, but as a local pronunciation of "footing". He rejected reports of its use for "feet" received from correspondents as a "freak". (See also his Contribution, 62n).

[5] http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/glossar.htm.. Websites were consulted in late November and early December 2014.

[6] http://www.shakespeareswords.com/Search.aspx

[7] http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/search.php?q=houses&hs=1

[8] http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1662/Baskerville.pdf (search for "houses"). Regulations for the Communion of the Sick also refer to clergy visiting "houses", but there was no provision for reading these in church.

[9] F.G. Emmison, ed., Early Essex Town Meetings (London, 1970), 30. Braintree used "almes houses" in 1629, while the Town Meeting at Finchingfield, nine miles north of Braintree, used "houses" in 1627 and 1629 (and also cottages ["coteghes"]), ibid., 52, 110, 111, 127. Chelmsford had used "almshouses" in 1591. A group of three small buildings was known as the "Shophouses" from 1596 until their demolition after 1687. Hilda Grieve, The Sleepers and the Shadows, Chelmsford ..., i (Chelmsford, 1988), 147, 173.

[10] http://seax.essexcc.gov.uk/Default.aspx (search for "housen"). [Additional note, November 2021. The Seax website is now called Essex Archives Online: https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/]

[11] https://archive.org/stream/cu31924031785748#page/n17/mode/2up (Register of ... Royal Grammar  School of Colchester, 23, 25).

[12] Compare two presentments, each by prominent residents and headed by the local Rector, who probably wrote the submission: in Chelmsford in the 1620s complaining of "houses of prophanation"   and from Stock, eight miles south of Chelmsford, in 1629, criticising publicans who "suffer dayly idle felowes of other parishes ... to contynue drinkinge in their howses". H. Grieve, The Sleepers and the Shadows, Chelmsford ..., ii (Chelmsford, 1994), 7; F.W. Austen, Rectors of Two Essex Parishes and Their Times (Colchester, 1943), 113.

F.G. Emmison published a number of volumes of Essex wills, noting the use of dialect terms for precise identification of legacy items, but "housen" apparently did not feature. This may have been because more precise legal terminology (e.g. tenements, messuages) were considered appropriate, but it may also be that testators, and the scribes who committed their wishes to paper, were aware of the distinction between dialect and lawyers' language. A perhaps rare example of a felt need to employ the term occurs in the 1625 will of John Burles, a Chelmsford innkeeper, who was concerned to protect his daughter from the proselytising activities of his recusant wife. His executor was enjoined to prevent the girl from visiting "papist houses", but only "religious and good protestant howses where the feare of God is". Grieve, The Sleepers and the Shadows, Chelmsford ..., ii, 40.

[13] Charles Clark, John Noakes & Mary Styles (London, 1839), title page, 14, 40: https://archive.org/stream/johnnoakesmaryst00clar#page/n7/mode/2up

In 1863, the Reverend J.M. Jephson of Ingatestone published a paper on "The East Saxon Dialect", which included a thoughtful discussion of examples and a list of around 200 words. However, he did not deal with plurals, and "housen" is not mentioned, despite the fact that an Ingatestone historian, E.E. Wilde (see below) noted its survival there fifty years later. Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, 2 (1863), 173-88.

[14] In 1881, Christy's father farmed 675 acres, a very large holding indeed, and employed 31 men and boys. (Census information from Gail Wood.) Christy himself became a partner in a London printing business in 1889. Edward Gepp seems to have signalled in 1923 that, as a clergyman who visited parishioners in their homes, he (Gepp) was closer to the real people than Christy. Chignal was two small ecclesiastical parishes, merged in 1888 for civil purposes.

[15] Obituary in Essex Review, 37 (1928), 58-62.  

[16] Miller Christy, Durrant's Handbook for Essex (Chelmsford, 1887).

[17] Christy, 196.

[18] Christy, Durrant's Handbook for Essex, 24.

[19] Christy, 198 and cf. 206.

[20] Richard Stephen Charnock, A Glossary of the Essex Dialect (London, 1880):  https://archive.org/stream/aglossaryessexd00chargoog#page/n16/mode/2up

[21] Charnock, Glossary, 65, i.

[22] Charnock, Glossary, iii.

[23] Charnock, Glossary, v.

[24] Gepp, 2. Christy, 195, thought it "an inadequate production". Charnock was also condemned ("qualified neither by his knwledge of the county, nor his acquaintance with the elements of phonetics") by Charles E. Benham ("Mark Downe") in Essex Review, 29 (1920), 155. The chorus seems ungracious.

[25] The latter statement was condemned by Charles E. Benham as "unpardonable". Essex Review, 29 (1920), 158.

[26] Charnock, Glossary, v-vi, and cf. 23.

[27] Charnock, Glossary, 37.

[28] Charnock, Glossary, iii.

[29] Mark Downe, Essex Ballads and Other Poems (Colchester, 1895), 17, 19.

[30] Benham was recorded reading another of his poems on https://soundcloud.com/essex-record-office/these-new-fangled-ways-sa-024.

[31] http://www.greatwaltham.org.uk/ParishCouncil/Parish%20Plan%20V3.pdf (pp. 3-4). There were also two residences built for teachers.

[32] James Bentley and Nicholaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Essex (New Haven, 2007), 438.

[33] Gepp, 2. Christy, 194, more informally commented that "Essex makes an extremely poor show."

[34] Joseph Wright,ed., The English Dialect Dictionary, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1905),  248. (https://archive.org/details/englishdialectdi03wrig). The correspondent for this entry was Miss S.P. Hawes.

[35] E.B. Dickin, A History of the Town of Brightlingsea (Brightlingsea, 1913), 172-3.

[36] E.E. Wilde, Ingatestone and the Great Essex Road with Fryerning (Oxford, 1913), 345.

[37] Jim Priest, Parndon Memories (2nd ed., Harlow, 1981), 70.

[38] Essex Review, 26 (1917), 219. Phillips also noted "fitten", for feet. The 1911 census lists Augustus Vaughan Phillips as an Accounts Clerk with Essex County Council. Information from Gail Wood.

[39] For Gepp, see the entry in Venn's Alumni Cantabrigensis, via http://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk/Documents/acad/search.html. The Times, 13 August 1929, adds that he attended school in Colchester before Felsted.

[40] Essex Review, 29 (1920), 189.

[41] Christy, 206.

[42] Wilde, Ingatestone, 345.

[43] Christy, 196-8.

[44] Gepp, 9.

[45] The Times, 20 August 1930.

[46] P.H. Reaney, The Place-Names of Essex (Cambridge, 1935),  272, 133.

[47] T.L. Wilson, History and Topography of Upminster (Romford, 1881),  160.

[48] "Champion B. Russell and Miss M. Russell" were jointly thanked for information about North Ockendon, Reaney, The Place-Names of Essex, xii.

[49] Reaney, The Place-Names of Essex, 481.

[50] In 1923, ill health forced Gepp to retire to Bournemouth , where he died in 1929. He is not listed as an informant by Reaney.

[51] The Essex Countryside, 6 (26), June / July 1958,  240.

[52] The Essex Countryside, 7 (30), February / March 1959, 158-9.

[53] The Essex Countryside, 6 (26), June / July 1958,  240.

[54] The Essex Countryside, 1 (2), Winter 1952-3, 58.

[55] Glyn H. Morgan, Forgotten Thameside (Hadleigh, Essex, 1951), 202. It remained "miraculously preserved in character" in 2007, Bentley and Pevsner, The Buildings of ... Essex, 310.

[56] Gepp, 1969 edition, Addendum, 9. In  2010, Anna-Liisa Vasko of the University of Helsinki published her Cambridgeshire Dialect Grammar (Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English, vol. 4), which noted two survivals of "housen" from interviews in south and south-east Cambridgeshire in the 1970s. (http://www.helsinki.fi/varieng/series/volumes/04/chapter6.html). Vasko also quoted Martyn F. Wakelin, Discovering English Dialects (Aylesbury, 1979), 20-1, who regarded "housen" as then extant among older people in Essex and East Anglia. An allusion to "housen" in the magazine Essex Life in 2012 was apparently transcribed from Charnock and did not imply survival: http://www.essexlifemag.co.uk/people/essex_dialect_1_1779354.

[57] The Oxford English Dictionary cites an example of "housen" from a play of 1605, The London Prodigal, but this seems atypical.

[58] Distribution maps of place-name elements accompanying Reaney suggest that "fyrhthe" (frith) was concentrated in precisely this west-east band. Also, "ham" (settlement) forms a cluster in central Essex, with an outlier to the south. While uneven recording must remain the most likely reason for the Epping-Billericay blank space,  the suggestion of an environmentally-driven local variation is intriguing. However, Augustus V. Phillips, who recorded "housen" from Chelmsford in 1917, was born in Chipping Ongar in 1878, and lived there at the time of the 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses. His father was a shoemaker who became an agent for the Prudential, both roles that would have brought him into contact with a wide range of local people. His mother was from Good Easter, the next village to Gepp's parish of High Easter. Information from Gail Wood.

[59] The population of Braintree and its twin town of Bocking has been estimated at around 2,000 in 1548. A 1629 petition for relief claiming that 10,000 -11,000 people depended upon its cloth trade was perhaps exaggerated, and probably included out-workers in surrounding communities. Their joint population in 1801 was around 5,500. Braintree was urban, but hardly a suffocating cultural influence. W.F. Quin, A History of Braintree and Bocking (Lavenham, 1981),  41, 56.

[60] Victoria County History of Essex, ii, 344-54 for census figures