‘Coggeshall job’: meaning and origin

The British-English phrase Coggeshall job denotes any muddle-headed business.

It refers to Coggeshall, a small town in Essex, a county of south-eastern England.
—Cf. also meaning and origin of ‘Hogs Norton’.

In “Stories illustrating Local Stupidity”, published in Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore (Oxford: Horace Hart, Printer to the University, 1913), Elizabeth Mary Wright 1 wrote the following after evoking the Wise Men of Gotham and the Wiltshire moonrakers:

A Coggeshall job means in Essex a stupid piece of work, a foolish action. Many stories are told in illustration of the stupidity of the people of Coggeshall, for instance, it is related that when they had built their church they found they had forgotten to make any windows. So they got some hampers, and set them open in the sun to catch the light, then shut them up tight, wheeled them into the church in barrows, and there opened them to let the light out. Another legend tells that the people thought that their church was in the wrong place. In order to move it, they went to one end to push it, laying their coats down on the ground, outside the opposite end, on the spot to which the wall was to be removed. When they judged that they had moved the building far enough, they went round to find their coats, but none were to be found. They at once concluded that they had pushed the wall over them, and went to look for them inside the church. Further, they are said to have placed hurdles in the stream to turn the river, and to have chained up the wheelbarrow when the dog bit it.

1 Elizabeth Mary Wright (née Elizabeth Mary Lea – 1863-1958) was the wife of the English philologist and dialectologist Joseph Wright (1855-1930), whom she helped with the editing of The English Dialect Dictionary (1896-1905).

The stupidity of the people of Coggeshall was already proverbial when the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705) composed A Collection of English Proverbs Digested into a convenient Method for the speedy finding any one upon occasion; with Short Annotations. Whereunto are added Local Proverbs with their Explications, Old Proverbial Rhythmes, Less known or Exotick Proverbial Sentences, and Scottish Proverbs (Cambridge: Printed by John Hayes, Printer to the University, for W. Morden, 1670). John Ray mentioned Coggeshall in “Local Proverbs with their explications out of Dr Th. Fuller his Work of the Worthies of England 2, adding thereto such others as came to my hands or memory, since the finishing of the precedent Catalogues”:

Essex.
[…]
Jeering Cogshall.
This is no Proverb: but an ignominious Epithete fastned on this place by their neighbours, which as I hope they do not glory in, so I believe they are not guilty of. Other towns in this Countrey have had the like abusive Epithetes. I remember a rhyme which was in common use formerly of some towns, not far distant the one from the other.
Braintree for the pure, and Bocking for the poor,
Cogshall for the jeering Town, and Kelvedon for the whore.

2 The only reference to the stupidity of the people of Coggeshall made by the English cleric and historian Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) is as follows in The History of the Worthies of England, Who for Parts and Learning have been eminent in the several Counties. Together with an Historical Narrative of the Native Commodities and Rarities in each County (London: Printed by J.G.W.L. and W.G. for Thomas Williams […], 1662)—source: Early English Books Online:

Jeering*Coxhall.]
How much truth herein, I am as unable to tell, as loth to believe.
*. Alias Cogshall.

The following query, from a person signing themself ‘J. C.’, appeared in Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, etc. (London: George Bell) of 1st March 1851:

Has the old saying of “A Coggeshall Job” occupied the attention of your readers?

On 12th April 1851, Notes and Queries published this reply, from a person signing themself ‘J. H. L.’:

Coggeshall Job […].—Does J. C. allude to the tradition that the Coggeshall people placed hurdles in the stream to turn the river, and chained up the wheelbarrow when the mad dog bit it?

The following note, from one E. Walford, appeared in Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc. (London: Published at the Office, 43 Wellington Street, Strand, W.C.) of 16th October 1880:

Essex Proverbs.—Your readers, or some of them, may be glad of a note about two or three proverbs current in my native county of Essex.
[…] “A Coggeshall job.”—This name is generally shortened into Coxall in pronunciation. It is the Essex phrase for any blundering or awkward contrivance, much as in other parts of England people talk of an “Irish” transaction. The local tradition reports that when the Coggeshall or Coxall men went out fishing, many years ago, they took with them tubs of water to put the fish in.

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES OF COGGESHALL JOB

 

These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase Coggeshall job that I have found, presented in chronological order:

1-: From a letter in which one Jason Lartep denied assertions made by a certain Benjamin Barthrop regarding Lartep’s trial at the last Suffolk Assizes—letter published in The Suffolk Chronicle; Or, Weekly General Advertiser, and County Express (Ipswich, Suffolk, England) of 23rd October 1813:

To conclude with one observation on the old adage, let not the cobler go beyond his last, viz. I wish Mr. Barthrop to remember there are coblers in all trades; and I firmly believe Mr. Barthrop, by this time, has found there are coblers at Law, and that he and his advisers have made a Coggeshall Job of this business.

2-: From the account of a court case, published in the Chelmsford Chronicle (Chelmsford, Essex, England) of 23rd October 1835:

David Serjeant, 29, ragman, was indicted for stealing a donkey, the property of James Johnson, sen., of Coggeshall. […] Isaac Smith said he knew the donkey to belong to prosecutor from the swelling under the throat, and from two marks inside the ears; he had occasionally trimmed the donkey.—Cross-examined. He was a weaver, but he took a fancy to trim Master Johnson’s donkeys; he had trimmed 4 of them, and Johnson had soled his shoes for it; it was a “Coggeshall job” to trim donkeys.—(Laughter.)

3-: From The Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of 9th February 1839:

Coggleshall [sic].—A correspondent of the Essex Mercury, after condemning the church party for exulting in a late church-rate 3 sale of Mr. Stephen Unwin’s goods, at Coggeshall, in Essex, exposes the whole proceedings in good style. Having stated that the Witham bench of Magistrates admitted, when Mr. Fisher Unwin was summoned for non-payment of the rate, on the 26th of November, that it was illegal, our contemporary’s correspondent says, “Notwithstanding this decision, Mr. Stephen Unwin, who had also refused to pay the rate in question, was, on the 18th day of December following, summoned before the Witham Bench, which then declared the rate to be legal. And by what process, think you, had this sagacious portion of the country’s Executive attempted to render legal what they had before declared illegal?—by no less dexterous a one than that of directing the churchwardens to quietly supply, at their own homes, all the deficiencies apparently upon the face of the rate!!! And the rate having undergone this ingenious process of rectification, was declared by the Witham Bench to be a good rate.” Refusing to obey this fine specimen of “Justice’s Justice,” Mr. Stephen Unwin’s goods were sold, as already stated, “but,” adds the correspondent, “that the churchwardens and their officers have, by the proceedings last alluded to, exposed themselves to an action for trespass, and that the magistrates, by granting the warrant of distress, have placed themselves in no enviable position, all parties may yet have to learn, to their no slight chagrin.”—Our readers will thus perceive that the whole affair has been “a regular Coggeshall job;” but as some of them may not be acquainted with the Essex phrase we may state that, during the threatened French invasion the Coggeshall men, determined to raise a volunteer corps, but when they took the field the redoubted corps was found to comprise about 15 captains, 27 lieutenants, we know not how many ensigns, an infinitude of non-commissioned officers, and one private! Hence the origin of the phrase—“A regular Coggeshall job!”

3 The church rate was a compulsory tax levied upon all occupiers of land or property within each parish to fund the maintenance of the parish church and the provision of services; it was abolished in 1868 under the Compulsory Church Rates Abolition Act.