Roman Roads in Benfleet around 250 AD

Connecting Canvey and Hadleigh to the wider world

Location and shape of Hadleigh Roman fortlet
Phil Coley
Location and shape of Canvey Roman fortlet
Phil Coley
Possible Roman Roads in Benfleet and Canvey
Phil Coley
Priestley's Roman route to Chelmsford
Phil Coley
Bread and Cheese Hil in 1909
Phil Coley

There is very little evidence of Roman or any other remains in South Benfleet village around the Roman times. What has been discovered by excavation over the years suggests at most a farm house in the area of the rail station and car park. Also we know that for nearly 2,000 years people have descended into Benfleet via the steep and difficult Vicarage Hill rather than the easier path of Essex Way. Essex Way has existed as a footpath for centuries but only became a road in 1938. These facts together suggest that Benfleet Village did not exist in Roman times.

However as you approach Hopes Green there have been a few finds of Roman remains including some at 70 Hall Farm Road. In addition in 1971 Roman artefacts were discovered where the bypass road leaves Canvey. So there are some Roman remains but how did they influence the road system? The answers depends upon two unexcavated sites which are likely to have been Roman Fortlets.

Hadleigh Roman Fortlet

Just after WW2 a Roman Signal Fort site was discovered south of Hadleigh. All we can now see is a square of discoloured earth 100 m square. It is a double ditched enclosure and is consistent with other sites which have been dated to the late Iron Age or Romano-British period. Local historian Priestley’s history shows this picture of what it might have looked like.

Canvey Island Roman Fortlet

There are ruins in Holehaven Creek on Upper Horse Island which have long been thought to be a Roman Fortlet. The one complete side is 100 m long, but again this has never been excavated.

The key question is why build it in the middle of a creek? This does not make much sense, which is why some Authorities have suggested that it was fish trap. If so it was very sophisticated and would require people to attend it.

However there is evidence that suggests in Roman times Canvey was above water and not an island. Evidence on Canvey show salt pans and pottery manufacture taking place and habitation at Leigh Beck. The inhabitants probably cleared all the low lying area of trees to provide fuel for the salt pans and building. This would mean the fortlet was on dry land.

Benfleet Road to Connect Them

When the Roman fortlets were built at Hadleigh and Canvey there would have been a need to connect them. There would most likely have been a Century, or about 80 men, in each of them who would have been rotated from Chelmsford or Colchester. The distance between the fortlets in a straight line is just under 4 miles which is the maximum distance between stations that a horse can be ridden hard.

Not all Roman roads are constructed to the highest standard we see in the main Roman roads. It is likely that the Benfleet roads were built to a good standard commensurate with the amount and type of traffic that was going to use them but were not necessarily paved with stone. Even if they had been paved the state of disrepair of Hadleigh Castle demonstrates how expensive stone was and how it was taken to build other building. In fact St Mary’s Church shows several examples of Roman tiles in its construction.  So lack of evidence of proper Roman road construction does not mean they were not Roman.

To follow from the top of Vicarage Hill along Benfleet Road today is a slightly winding but relatively straight route. The usual Roman practise was to construct as straight a road as possible between the two points. However Benfleet Road is a minor road so it is likely that the road was constructed running along the high ridge of Benfleet Road following the contours as much as possible so a to keep a level surface.

We then come to Vicarage Hill. This has been and remains a very steep and winding road. In the 19th century it required four horses to pull a carriage up it. It is the most unsuitable type of road for connecting Benfleet with Hadleigh especially as for hundreds of years you then had to pass over a brook to get to Benfleet Village. However for the Roman military this would be a minor problem compared with having a shortest practicable route between fortlets. Troops would be walking on the flat for most of the time with just the hill to deal with.

This route when extended comes to the point where Roman artefacts were found in 1971 suggesting a junction with a road then running along to the Canvey fortlet and to the Leigh Beck settlement.

Road to Chelmsford

When the artefacts were discovered in 1971 the historian Priestley surmised that there was a road following the modern A130 to Chelmsford. However modern excavations which took place along this route before it was built have shown no road, but have shown Roman and other remains.

However a map shows that the road from Tarpots to Cemetery Corner is straight and leads to the equally straight Rushbottom Lane.  This in turn leads to Chelmsford. When the Tarpots to Cemetery Corner road is extended it connects with the suggested Roman junction. This is possibly another Roman road.

Bread and Cheese Hill and the A13

The last Roman road is from the top of Bread and Cheese Hill down its steep path to join with the A13 to Tarpots. This picture from 1909 shows how it might have looked over the centuries. It is likely that the Romans constructed it and the A13 as extensions of the pre-Roman roads as a shorter route for people leaving Hadleigh wishing to go to Chelmsford or Pitsea without having to go to the Canvey junction.

Theory and Evidence

This article is based on looking at maps and such old records as exist. However there is no excavation evidence that any of these roads are Roman. But looking at maps over the last three centuries shows how persistent road patterns are. Also major Roman roads still form part of our modern road network. Therefore it suggests that these Benfleet and Canvey roads are Roman until evidence comes along to suggest they are not.

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  • I’ve been reading about the Roman invasion of England on and off for some sixty years. In his “Roman Britain” published way back in the early 60s, Leonard Cotterel (not too sure of the spelling now !) followed Tacitus in his description of all three invasions of England. Caesar ‘s two incursions are often viewed as punitive raids. A full invasion took place in 43 AD. The Greek historian, Dio or Dion Cassius describes two battles taking place as the army moved inland. Chichester and the River Arun are one possible area. Richborough in Kent is more likely, given how precarious moving 1000 transports with 40,000 men over a notoriously dangerous stretch of water would be.
    Either way the Roman army ended up fording a second river to defeat the English tribal army. If you accept that the first battle took place on the Medway, the next fordable place on the Thames was most likely west of the present City. Brentford would seem likely as more easy than around Westminster or nearby. Whichever, it’s unlikely that the army would backtrack to cross the much wider stretch of river to Tilbury or Canvey.
    Claudius had rushed to England to “lead” the army with elephants in attendance. If you believe that he actually brought them, and Dio’s history was written in about 200 AD,, a long time after, a short crossing and an overland route would be the choice, as opposed to the effort of shipping 40,000 men over a wide stretch of river with possible opposition in waiting.
    I can see the point of a signal tower in Hadleigh as it could be seen from a distance and it also had a clear view of anything hostile coming up the river. Sadly I can’t recall exactly when the Saxons first started raiding the coast, but feel it was around 250 to 300 onwards.
    Even if Canvey was a much more solid area, I am puzzled why even a fortlet was built low down and in an exposed area. Again Hadleigh makes more sense. Love to get involved in any dig but the legs might not pull me out of the mud !

    By David Housden (01/03/2023)
  • Very interesting article. I am not an historian or Roman specialist but enjoy looking at history from different viewpoints. I have for many years found the conventional history of the Roman invasion route in AD43 to Colchester which states the Romans went to Brentford, crossed the Thames there and then went to Colchester. My own view is that they crossed directly from Kent to Essex and that there would have been in existence an existing track leading from somewhere in Tilbury, Benfleet, Hadleigh area towards Chelmsford and Colchester. The British tribes would surely have used a ferry over to Kent rather than travel up through Middlesex to gain the south bank of the Thames. I thank you for your article which has given me hope that historians will take a fresh look at the invasion route. If you would like to, please add a comment at the foot of this page. Thanks again.

    By Terry O'Donnell (10/11/2021)

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