Say "Essex" and the odds are you’ll be thinking commuter belt, saucy seasides, possibly boy racers. Add the word “girl” and you might envision a montage of women in high heels (usually white), short skirts, statement hair, who are made up to the nines. So well entrenched is the term, and its knee-jerk imagery, that it’s got its very own listing in the OED, where the Essex Girl is characterised as “unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic”. Some of you might recall the petition started up last year to remove it from the dictionary. Computer said no on this occasion, but the campaign is ongoing. For the Essex Girl evokes strong feelings. Has done since her birth.
Many trace the stereotype’s creation to the article Simon Heffer wrote in 1990, in which he coined the term “Essex man”, although I’ve encountered many women who believe the female version predated that. Sprouting boobs in the early to mid-80s, I reckon the term was already germinating then, as I have memories of being on the receiving end. However, lately my own research has made me wonder if the Essex girl’s unbleached roots go a lot further back than that.
While I was writing my first book, The Drowning Pool, about the legend of Essex seawitch, Sarah Moore, I came across a statistic that blew my mind. Between 1560 and 1680 in Surrey, Sussex and Hertford, there were 185 indictments for witchcraft. Over the same period of time, Essex, on its own, saw over 500. I’m a feminist and I live in Essex – how could I not know about this? After all, I’d heard about the Pendle witch trials in 1612, when 11 people died, and the awful Salem hysteria when, between the spring of 1692 and May 1693, 20 “witches” were executed. But on just one day in 1645, 19 Essex women were “turned off” on the gallows in Chelmsford. Essex was, in fact, at one point known as “Witch County”.
The reputation of the county’s women never really recovered, which is why, when the Essex girl reared her flossy blonde head she was taken up so quickly and decisively
As I dug deeper into the numbers, I started to notice something about the shared characteristics of the women accused. They were mostly poor, at the low end of the socio-economic scale, considered “loose”, meaning not under the protection, shelter or control of a man. And a fair few of them were lewd and lusty, accused of fornicating with men and the Devil himself. Kramer and Sprenger, who penned the 15th century “how to” guide to witch-hunting, the Malleus Malificarum, wrote that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable”. Reconstructed men, they were not. This attitude echoed throughout the contemporary pamphlets which reported the shocking and salacious revelations of the Essex witch trials (some of them written by witchfinders with vested interests). When I read that the women accused also had to have a man to represent them in court – a husband or a son, brother, nephew – that they were legally “dumb”, something clicked. So – carnal, low of social class, loose and dumb. Sound like any other stereotype? What if these centuries-old feelings of dismay and revulsion for the women of Essex never actually went away? Mud sticks. Anyone who has ever been to Southend when the sea is out knows that in Essex that’s doubly true. Maybe, when the tides of time came in again, they never managed to wash away those stains.
It’s my theory that, despite memories of the witch hunts fading, the reputation of the county’s women never really recovered, which is why, when the Essex girl reared her flossy blonde head she was taken up so quickly and decisively. People felt like she had always been around, that they’d heard about “those girls” before. They had. But this time they weren’t dressed in rags with wild tatty black hair. This time, the Essex girl emerged onto the national consciousness bimbo blonde and beautiful – a carnal seductress, low of class, dumb and loose. The new incarnation of everyone’s favourite scapegoat.
So, the next time you hear “Essex girl” and that internal montage starts to form, spare a thought for her origins and ease up on the scorn.