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Essex Field Club
Essex Field Club
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Noteworthy naturalist

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William Coys (1560 - 1627) Botanist and horticulturalist

William Coys lived at Stubbers, in the parish of North Ockendon, the easternmost part of the London Borough of Havering. The big estate of Stubbers is now an outdoor pursuits centre for young people, much used by school groups and others. Part of the estate was dug up for the gravels below several decades ago, but the old quarries are now lakes that are enjoyed for water sports of several kinds.

A plaque commemorating William Coys is on the wall of St Mary Magdalene in North Ockendon, and his grave is beneath the present floor. The church was built in 1170, and extended in the 13th Century. The graveyard is probably ancient grassland that may be 900 years old. Sadly, it is not well preserved but is mown too often and much of the old lawn has been replaced by alien turf.

He built six walled gardens, none of which remain, although another walled garden was built later after his death. This second walled garden is still there. Mainly a famous botanist and horticulturalist at the time, he had collections of lots of species from the Americas and elsewhere that he grew from seed at Stubbers. His was the first Yucca to flower in Britain (1604), the first tomato plant, and the first Ivy-leaved Toadflax, and many more. This last has spread all over Britain, growing on walls everywhere, and still thrives at Stubbers. Many of his plants were sent to the infant Kew estate, to help establish the famous gardens there.

William did much work breeding new strains of yeast, mainly for the breweries. The idea was to breed up yeasts that would continue to grow to make more alcohol (a waste product of the yeasts’ metabolism, equivalent, loosely, to urine in mammals). Brewers and winemakers continue today to breed up yeasts to make stronger beers and wines. Wild yeasts only go to about 2-3% in beers and 8-9% alcohol in wines, but modern beers can be over 10%, and wines are often 14% nowadays. But William Coys, all those years ago, was the first to grow the Flemish hops in Britain, so instead of having to import them, English farmers could grow their own. The Flemish hops were female plants that were infertile so without the very bitter seeds from wild hops, which were much too bitter to make a pleasant drink. The reason for putting hops in at all was to allow the beer to be kept for some weeks, unlike the ale which, hopless, only lasted a day or two. Airtight stoppers helped too!

There is a good story here. Ale went acidic, like vinegar, without any preservatives, but there were not many suitable plants that acted as preservatives, without making the drink taste terrible. In Scotland they made Gale beer, which has the leaves of Myrica gale, Bog-myrtle, which has a pleasant smell and, presumably, a pleasant taste too, but it is restricted to northern bogs, so not very suitable for growing in the rest of Britain. Gale beer can still be found in a few parts of Scotland, as a revival for visitors. Other plants of many kinds were tried, mostly with low success rates, due to either tasting terrible or not being a satisfactory preservative, or both, or even poisonous as well. However, long before, in Flanders, the locals had found this sterile female plant, from which they took huge numbers of cuttings, in order to propagate it. Lots of men had boats near the coast, so many took Flemish hops to sell in Britain, rowing or sailing across the Channel, but whether or not these men bought goods in Britain to take back home on the return journey is not known. But when William Coys decided to try growing Flemish hops in Britain, and found they grew well, Flemish hops were suddenly more widely available here. The men that took Flemish hops across the Channel were soon all out of work, but it meant that there was twice as much beer being made in Britain, as home-grown hops were cheaper, and twice as much in Flanders since no hops were being exported, so everyone in both countries could enjoy more beer and get drunk twice as often!

Sources
Put together from local knowledge and several documents (look on Google) by Mary Smith.

Account provided by Mr Peter Harvey
page last edited on Fri Apr 26th 2013 by site user 3