The history of Walton begins millions of years before that of many other towns. This is because the area to the north that lends the town its name – the Naze – is rich in fossils, particularly those from a warm ancient sea.
In addition to deposits from both the Eocene and Pleistocene periods, much evidence of early man is present from both the Palaeolithic and, more commonly, the Neolithic periods. Indeed, the area seems to have supported a large and industrious population in the New Stone Age.
Later the Romans held the area in high regard due to the abundance of septaria, which they used to make their cement, although there is little evidence of local settlement during this period. The septaria may well have been used to build the Roman Wall at Colchester.
The beginnings of modern-day Walton and the surrounding villages really began in Saxon times when the boundaries and names we recognise today started to appear.
The origins of the name Walton-on-the-Naze are lost in the mists of time but most agree that the Anglo-Saxon word “naes”, meaning ness or nose, relates to the distinctive area that juts out to the north of the town. It is also possible that Walton is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “weala tun” meaning “farms of Britons”. (Picture courtesy of Mark Nimrod.)
Indeed, Walton’s early history is one of a scattered farming community. The old parish name of Walton-le-Soken (still used by the Parish Church today) shows that the area once formed a “soke” with its neighbours Kirby and Thorpe. These villages were once owned by the Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral and enjoyed special privileges and powers.
The land in the area was extremely fertile and suited to the growing of cereal crops. The population of Walton was small in comparison to its larger neighbour Kirby and coastal erosion meant that much land was lost to the sea. The old church was lost around the beginning of the 19th Century and even today World War II fortifications can be seen lying on the beach where once they stood on the cliffs.
In addition to farming and the aforementioned collection of cement stone, Walton had one other industrial interest to rival farming – the copperas works. Copperas is a ferrous sulphate found in the London Clay in the cliffs which when collected and processed yields green copperas or vitriol used for dying, tanning and the manufacture of ink. The works closed in 1850 but even after that Copperas was still collected for processing elsewhere.
Around the beginning of the 19th Century Walton started to become a seaside resort. The first visitors were probably people living or staying locally, out on day excursions enjoying picnics on the secluded beaches.
As the popularity of the seaside grew and the medical benefits of sea air and, particularly, salt water bathing, were promoted, then the popularity of seaside towns like Walton began to rival that of the spa towns. The coming of the railway and the building of the pier allowed travellers to make their way to Walton from the overcrowded towns and the building of hotels and other amenities gave rise to what might be described as Walton’s Victorian heyday.
This period began approximately in 1829 when the publication of the first ever guide to Walton coincided with the opening of “The Hotel”, later to become “The Marine Hotel”. At this point the town we see today started to develop around the High Street and the first pier was built to accommodate steam ships from London and Ipswich.
Three developers dominate this period in Walton’s History – John Penrice who built the Marine Hotel and the first Pier, John Warner who owned the foundry and built the East Terrace, and, most famously, Peter Bruff. Bruff was a distinguished civil engineer – working on the Eastern Counties Line from London to Colchester and responsible for bringing the railway to Walton in 1867.
Bruff was responsible for the building of the Marine Terrace, South Terrace (destroyed by bombing in WWII), Clifton Baths (today the Pier Hotel) and the new pier. His grand vision of Walton connected to Frinton with a tramway along the landscaped cliffs was never realised, however, and other projects took him away from Walton until he finally sold his remaining interests in 1897.
Despite Bruff’s withdrawal from Walton and two setbacks – Philip Brannon’s Naze Park development failed to attract much interest and the company that had acquired Bruff’s interests, the Walton-on-the-Naze Hotel & Pier Company, went bankrupt – Walton continued to grow and prosper. Indeed the pier was lengthened and improved and other attractions started to spring up, including pleasure craft, a Camera Obscura and bathing machines. Progress continued, unabated, after WWI with the Kino cinema being followed by the Regal and the demolition of the old tide mill making way for a large boating lake.
“The town lies between the sea-cliffs and Walton Creek, which is much frequented by sportsmen in quest of wildfowl, and on the head of the creek stand powerful tide and wind mills: the air is salubrious and bracing, and the beach, consisting of sand and fine shingle, is well adapted for bathing, and affords a pleasant promenade, the ebb tide leaving a hard smooth sand.”
Kelly’s Directory of Essex 1937
It was the outbreak of WWII that signalled the end of Walton’s heyday. The threat of a German invasion meant that the pier had to be partially demolished to prevent enemy landing, and holiday trade ceased.
Walton was also exposed to bombing and strafing raids by axis aircraft and a good number of bombs fell on the town – Bruff’s South Terrace was completely destroyed. When the war ended Walton made a brave attempt to regain its former glory, only to find that the whole nature of the holiday trade was about to change.
The post-war austerity followed by the availability of foreign holidays meant that Walton’s once spectacular tourist trade never returned. Both cinemas closed, followed by most of the large hotels. Although people still came for holidays, it was mostly to stay in the new caravan parks and not in the hotels and guest houses as they had before.
Visit the World War Two Trail page for more info about Walton during the War.
In recent years, people have started to become interested in reviving Walton’s fortunes and preserving its Victorian charm. Unlike many developed towns, Walton retains a strong flavour of its former glory days and a number of projects are already under way to improve the environment and facilities for both locals and tourists alike.
For information on the regeneration of Walton, visit the about page.
Jacobs, Norman, Frinton & Walton: A Pictorial History ISBN 0850339820
Norman, Bernard J, Walton-on-the-Naze in Old Picture Postcards ISBN 9028825495
Rayner, Geoff, Seaside Front Line ISBN 0952818604
Also available from The Naze Tower and Caxton Books in Frinton:
A Lighter Shade of Pale Blue – A Radar Operator’s Memories of World War Two – Interesting tales from WW2 told by Reg O’Neil MBE who was stationed at Walton in the Naze Tower. ISBN 1-873203-45-4
The Naze Tower at Walton – The First Line of Defence, A brief history – by Reg O’Neil MBE
Visit Putmans collection of historical photographs of Walton.