Heritage: Poet John Donne had a message about Orchard Village, Rainham

Until the 19th century, the Essex marshes were notorious for ague, a shivering fever like malaria, s

Until the 19th century, the Essex marshes were notorious for ague, a shivering fever like malaria, spread by mosquitoes. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Mardyke Farm may have been responsible for the poet’s death, says Prof Ged Martin

“No man is an island entire of itself.” Those striking words written 400 years ago by John Donne (his surname rhymed with “fun”) still resonate today.

He was a reluctant clergyman, persuaded by James I. The King made him Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

But Donne preferred to write love poetry, part mystical, part fruity.

In his 1624 Meditation, he insisted “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”.

Donne’s message is that we’re all in this together. You can’t wall off somebody else’s life and ignore their problems.

It’s a message we should apply to Orchard Village, the housing regeneration project that is replacing the failed tower blocks of Rainham’s Mardyke Farm estate.

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It matters to everybody that Orchard Village is a success, not just the people who live there.

In the 16th century, wealthy London merchant, Sir Sebastian Harvey, lived in a fine mansion at Mardyke, listed in 1594 as one of the biggest houses in Essex.

However, by 1630, his nephew Samuel had inherited the land, but lived at Aldborough Hatch in Ilford.

Why was the Mardyke mansion abandoned?

In 1591, the Thames broke through badly maintained river walls, and flooded the South Hornchurch marshes – the area we now call Rainham.

Flood water spread almost to Mardyke. It took four years to reclaim the land.

There was more flooding in 1613. Nearly 700 men were employed to repair the wall.

When the river walls gave way again in 1621, the Dutch engineer Vermuyden, who was draining the Fens, was brought in to tackle the problem.

Until the 19th century, the Essex marshes were notorious for ague, a shivering fever like malaria, spread by mosquitoes. Repeated floods would have left ponds of stagnant water, where insects could breed.

It made sense for Samuel Harvey to collect rents from his trembling tenants, but live safely on dry ground inland.

In 1630, Samuel Harvey married John Donne’s daughter Constance. Harvey’s father-in-law was a sick man. A 17th-century biographer blamed “vapours from the spleen”. Modern experts think Donne had stomach cancer.

He moved to his daughter’s Ilford home to escape the filth of London. But it was probably not cancer that killed him.

The story of John Donne’s final illness isn’t very clear: medical science was so poor that it’s often hard to make sense of health problems.

But we know Donne “fell into a fever” that made him literally waste away.

The symptoms may have been a by-product of his rampant cancer.

But it’s also possible that one of England’s greatest poets had caught the Essex marshland ague. That shouldn’t have happened in healthful Ilford.

Maybe he’d accompanied Samuel to collect Mardyke Farm rents.

Perhaps Harvey’s tenants sent over a wagon-load of farm produce, complete with disease-carrying mosquitoes.

“No man is an island entire of itself.” Donne was right. You can’t put impassable boundaries around people. Or places. Or diseases.

John Donne died in 1631.

He was obsessed by death. He had himself depicted corpse-like in a funeral sculpture, wearing a shroud.

The monument survived the destruction of Old St Paul’s in the 1666 Fire of London, and stands today in Sir Christopher Wren’s noble cathedral.

If you heard the church bell ringing mournfully for a funeral, said Donne, don’t ask who has died. Just remember that we’re all going the same way.

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The alarm bells have been ringing at Orchard Village. If the regeneration project fails – I hope it won’t – it will cast a blight across a wider neighbourhood.

We’ll never know if John Donne was killed by the malarial mosquitoes that once infested Orchard Village.

But his message remains clear. We don’t live on isolated and impregnable islands. We’re all in this world together.