Osea Island has a rich and diverse history. It has been occupied for over 5000 years. There are remains of neolithic villages, and later evidence of viking burial grounds from the famous battle of Maldon.
The Romans were here in force. They built the causeway, the salt works, a pottery, and grew arable crops. With the departure of the Romans, the island passed through the hands of many powerful and titled families, emphasising its importance through to Tudor times.
The battle of Maldon, 991AD, took place on the shores of the river Blackwater in Essex. There was a heroic stand by the Anglo-Saxons against the Viking invasion, which ended in utter defeat for the Saxon Brithnoth and his men.
The battle itself is depicted in a famous Anglo-Saxon poem, only part of which survives. The surviving relic tells of how Brithnoth summoned his forces together to stand against the invasion, and that the first order he gave to his men was to drive away their own horses, thus making retreat, effectively, impossible.
There is to be no flight from here: the thanes can only stand or die. Brithnoth himself is almost a caricature of British heroism: he made a wholehearted attempt, ending in what can only be described as a resounding defeat, playing the game of war as if it were cricket. His permitting the enemy Norsemen to cross the causeway is comparable to opening the castle gates, allowing the enemy in. But with what glorious enthusiasm he does it – "Come swiftly to us, warriors to war"!
With the fall of Brithnoth, the battle of Maldon is lost. But this is the point at which folly transcends failure and becomes heroism on a grand scale. The battle of Maldon deserves it's place not only in the annals of English literature, but also in our country's history. Brithnoth attempted astonishing heroism, unfaltering in the face of attack, comparable to such celebrated events as the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Seige of Lucknow, or in the Zulu War, the Battle of Rorke's Drift.
According to the Domesday Book, at the time of Edward The Confessor in 1066, The Island, then called 'Uvesia' had become the property of a local lord called Turbet/Thorbet, who in turn lost to the Normans.
After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror presented Osea as a gift to his nephew. This tradition continued over the centuries with the island passing into the ownership of crusaders and noblemen who had pleased the royal family. They included the Earls of Essex, Sussex, Gloucester and March.
In 1903 Osea was purchased by Frederick Charrington who created what was probably the world’s first temperance society. His reasons for buying the island involved quite a story. He was a director of the family business of Charrington, the Mile End brewers. The tale goes that one Saturday night he saw a drunken husband repel his wife's appeal to come home to the family, instead striking her across the face, lurching into the bar and slamming the door. Charrington saw that on the signboard hanging above the inn, The Rising Sun Pub, Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, was the name of the proprietor, Charrington. He paused in horror, the experience smote his conscience, and he became determined to distance himself from the business and use his considerable wealth in an endeavour to offset the evil effects of alcoholism.
He purchased the island with a vision of temperance, where alcoholics and people with addiction problems could retreat and seek help. A considerable amount of East End unemployed were brought from London and housed in wooden huts while they worked on the island, carrying out alterations. Roads were constructed, houses were built, and a village store was opened.
Some attempt was even made to give the island an exotic appearance. Palms and fuchsia’s were planted, a large ornamental seal pond was created and wallabies were imported from Australia to roam free about the island.
Charrington also bought a small steam ship named HMS Annie to run trips for the public between Maldon and the island. A quite elaborate little pier was built on the islands South Side giving access to the vessel, which was licensed to carry 151 passengers.
The advent of the steamer Annie in Maldon waters caused quite a sensation in the town. The agents used to prepare a timetable of trips, which was posted on hoardings throughout the district.
Occasionally at the period of the full moon they even ran moonlight trips with lanterns hung in the rafters and awning, and on fire nights they presented an idyllic picture and were much appreciated and patronised by locals.
Charrington was one of the last great Victorian philanthropists. He was well known for his work in the East End including the building of the great assembly hall in the Mile End Road, a mission feeding the homeless, capable of holding 5,000 people. There is documentation showing that the mission provided over 850 families with Christmas dinner in 1910. He passed away in 1936.
He had fed the hungry, fought against the exploitation of women and backed workers in their struggle against social injustice but sadly with the outbreak of the First World War, Charrington's ambitious plans came to a halt.
In 1917 The Island was requisitioned by the admiralty for use as a top-secret naval base, named S.S. Osea (the ship that never sails). So secret was its mission that people on the mainland had no idea of its existence until well after the war was over, despite having over 1000 sailors billeted on The Island.
S.S. Osea was a base for motor torpedo boats, often referred to as 'submarine chasers' or 'scimmers'. Some of the missions were extremely dangerous and one of the lieutenants received the Victoria Cross for his bravery – an account of which can be found in Captain Agar's autobiography 'Baltic Episode'.
With the onset of World War II, things were not quite as eventful as in the naval days, but were still not entirely without incident. A V2 rocket falling short of its target in London, hit Osea instead. It's remains can still be seen today, together with two heavily reinforced 'pill boxes' or bunkers at the furthest East and West points of the island designed to spot invaders.
After the war Osea went into the ownership of Cambridge University. It was declared a site of special scientific interest because of its unique ecology, rare plants, birds and marine life, before returning to private ownership in the 1950's.
Today, the district has also become a centre for classic sailing boats, such as the Blackwater Barges taking part in the Osea Island Regatta.