Heritage: Meet the Gidea Park woman who lived 400 years ago

St Andrew's Church, Hornchurch. Picture: Paul Bennett

St Andrew's Church, Hornchurch. Picture: Paul Bennett - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin introduces Anne Frith, who lived in an era when wealth could not keep out death

In St Andrew's church, Hornchurch, you can stare into the face of a Gidea Park woman of 400 years ago. Anne Frith shares the memorial to her third husband, Richard Blakstone, who died in 1638. We know it's a good likeness because she organised the monument.

Anne was born in 1586. Her father, Avory Frith, owned Goodwins, a farmhouse, surrounded by a moat, which stood on the site of Royal Liberty School.

Anne had a little sister, who died in 1594, leaving her the sole heiress.

William Frith of Romford was probably Avory's brother. Charged in 1584 with drunkenness, William pleaded that he was "sometimes drunk but not often".

Anne was first married in 1602. Her parents had died, and she needed a husband.

He was John Caunt, fishmonger of London. Forget images of a man in a striped apron gutting mackerel. Aged 23, John was the heir to a wealthy business. He lived in the City, but owned property at Rayleigh.

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A bride at 16, tragically Anne became a widow at 17. In 1603, plague struck London (and Romford too).

In October, King James I closed London's theatres to stop it spreading. But John Caunt died on 22 October, aged just 24.

His memorial in St Peter, Cornhill - Anne in her grief must have approved it - reported "this young man by his fruits shewed his faith." Although he hadn't studied at Cambridge or Oxford, "he gave bountifully to both Universities". I like him.

Anne probably remained a widow throughout her twenties. This may help explain why, although married three times, she left no children.

With her second husband, George Bland, she sold the Rayleigh property in 1616. They'd obviously only recently married: the land was transferred to them by Edward Caunt, John's brother, who'd probably acted as her trustee. John's estate fetched £630, a huge amount.

From 1615 and 1617, George Bland, "Esquire", was the Liberty of Havering coroner.

In 1618, the first detailed local map shows him at Goodwins, farming about 80 acres. The property was triangular, bounded by Main Road and Upper Brentwood Road, extending as far west as modern Wallenger Avenue, plus some fields alongside the Ravensbourne, which trickles behind today's Cambridge Avenue.

Nearby Hare Street, the hamlet around The Unicorn, was a major tanning centre, manufacturing leather from animal hides- a smoky and smelly occupation. One ancient timber building survives from Anne's time. The Ship was possibly built by a wealthy tanner before eventually becoming an inn.

Beyond Goodwins was Havering's gallows. It wasn't used very often, but in 1611 a felon was hanged at Gallows Corner. I'm sure Anne didn't attend.

With her third husband, she shared the comfortable partnership of a middle-aged couple at Goodwins. His memorial in St Andrew's church refers to "the happy memory of Richard Blakstone".

A short man, with black wavy shoulder-length hair, Richard sported the pointy beard made fashionable by Charles I, with a Poirot-style moustache.

Anne had traded up the social scale. A cultured "gentleman", Richard Blakstone was a friend of Lord Berkeley, from whom he'd received "many noble favours".

Lord Berkeley supported playwrights and poets. One of his scribblers probably penned the lines honouring Richard on the memorial: "Well seasoned knowledge and ye Arts Inricht (enriched) his Soule".

The couple kneel in prayer, facing one another. The pretty bride of 16 has become a solemn fifty-plus matron, with the hint of a double chin.

Anne left a blank tablet alongside Richard's poem for her praises to be engraved. But, when she died in 1647, Goodwins passed to a distant cousin - probably a grandson of drunken William Frith. He never finished the job.

Anne had decorated the memorial with sculpted angels. Puritan vandals smashed their heads.

With a little effort, you can imagine Anne Frith breaking into a smile, her wide eyes sparkling with delight. After so many bereavements, she deserved some happiness.