The Watch is based on Colchester’s history as follows:In the days of William the ‘Conqueror’ (or ‘William the Bastard’ as his loving Saxon subjects called him), a ‘Couvre Feu’ or Curfew was imposed at 8 p.m. When the curfew bell tolled, all fires and lights had to be put out. The official reason for this was to prevent fires and other forms of flame getting out of control while the inhabitants of mainly wooden houses were asleep. The other undeclared reason was that it served to keep townsmen in their houses and in their beds thus cutting down the opportunities for plotting against the new regime.In 1103, Henry I repealed the curfew law so that commercial and social life did not come to a dead stop at 8pm. However, the new freedom not only benefited the good citizens of cities and towns, but allowed footpads, thieves and other undesirables free rein to pursue their trades as well. By 1253, the situation had become so unruly that Henry III commanded that ‘watches be kept for the preservation of peace’ in cities and borough towns. Colchester having held it’s charter for 64 years by this time, the town Bailiff was forced to raise a body of ‘good men and true’ to patrol the streets during the hours of darkness and take into custody any malefactor to appear before a magistrate at the earliest opportunity.
The Colchester Town Watch is a revival of the ancient body, not to arrest malefactors – as the Police Service now does this – but to provide the town with a ceremonial bodyguard for festive occasions. It is also hoped to re-create some of the ancient festivals in which the Watch took part, such as ‘The Marching Watches 146; of the vigils of St. John the Baptist (23 June) St. Peter and St. Paul (29 June)’. During these festivals, community groups set up ‘tables of sweete bread and good drink’ for the watch, as a thankyou for its attention to duty through the rest of the year. Also, houses were decorated with branches of Birch, St. John’s Wort, Orpin and White Lilies – and bonfires were lit.
At a date as close to the 23rd June as possible, we mark the vigil of St John the Baptist. The Watch marches, usually accompanied by the Mayor of the Borough of Colchester, led by Colchester’s official Town Crier, Mr Bob Needham, with divers followers. They set out on their circumnavigation of the town’s 3000 metre long Roman walls. This is to continue the custom from the time of King Henry III, who commanded that watches be kept in cities and towns to preserve the peace of the realm. Starting at the Town Hall, the procession, sets off, with various brief stops for a cry of ‘all’s well’ at the several gates and a stop for refreshments. A short ceremony is led by the Mayor for the oath taking followed by a generous libation at a favoured hostelry.