SOME weeks ago the focus of this regular history feature was on Goldhanger Road.

I mentioned the farmhouses and how, foremost among these, was 15th Century Jacob’s Farm.

As a result I was contacted by David MacMorland, of Woodham Mortimer. I have known David and his family for years, but I had no idea about his associations with Jacob’s. What he sent me, however, was a copy of a remarkable sepia photograph with an equally fascinating story behind it.

At first sight it appears to rather bizarrely depict a man trying to extricate an ancient car from a muddy field, with two puzzled figures looking on.

David explained that it was actually a Model T Ford being driven out of a Zeppelin crater – just as curious.

So I wondered why, where and when was the picture taken.

Apparently the scene is Hall Field, Jacob’s Farm. You can just about make out Heybridge Hall in the background and the bridge that connected the two estates.

If my surmises are correct, the crater would have been made by one of either four high explosive or 30 incendiary bombs dropped from Zeppelin L6 during an attack on the night of Thursday, April 15, 1915.

The discovery of such a large hole the following morning must have attracted a lot of attention from the locals.

The agent for Ford cars in those days was a certain Mr Bate. The Bate family had relocated to Heybridge from London.

Patriarch Samuel Bate was a clockmaker, but found work at Maldon Iron Works before eventually setting himself up as a gunsmith.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

  • The Free family - David and Jane (front), Martin, Laura and George (back) (Picture: permission of David MacMoreland)

His son, Thomas Stapleton Bate, established the Bate Cycle Company on Market Hill, Maldon, but with the advent of the car he branched out as a motor vehicle dealer, introducing the first Ford Model Ts to the district. The T design was launched in 1908 and much was made of its capabilities.

As well as running the car business, during the Great War TS Bate was also a member of the local volunteers. He is known to have formed a “guard” on the bomb damage in Spital Road from Zeppelin L6. And it is those two aspects of his life that come together in the unique photo.

Keen to maximise advertising potential, Mr. Bate sought permission from the farmer at Jacob’s to prove the Model T's capabilities by driving it in and out of the hole.

So we might now know the place, rough date and what is happening, but who are those two bystanders? Again, we need David’s help.

He told me that the man is his grandfather, George William Free, and the little girl holding his hand is David’s mother, Laura (Peggy) Free.

It is a surname that I know well as it features in my research about Maldon and Heybridge during the Great War.

I have the family as originating in Thaxted, but in Heybridge George and younger brother Martin moved from Salcote Hall Cottages in 1911 to take over Jacob’s. At that time it was nicknamed Nettle Hall due to its derelict state.

A horseman (old Bill Collier) lived upstairs and chickens occupied the ground floor. Martin Free helped George to make Jacobs properly habitable and then, on September 14, 1914, he volunteered for war.

Being a good horseman, Trooper (number 1207) Martin David Free was a member of C Squadron of the mounted Dunmow Troop of the Essex Yeomanry, and was sent out to France in November.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

  • Jacob's Farm as it is today

In May of the following year, the Essex Yeomanry took part in the ill-fated Battle of Frezenburg, just outside of Ypres.

Martin was seriously wounded, evacuated by ambulance, but succumbed to his wounds on May 14.

Described as “tall, dark, healthy and strong…popular with the girls, who called him a terror” he was just 25 when he made the ultimate sacrifice.

It is clear that David’s photo must have been taken some time after April 15 and we know that Martin died less than a month later.

Depending on the actual date that Mr Bate performed his car extraction, was Martin already dead and did George know?

There are some things that, 106 years later, we can’t confirm.

George was not a materialistic man. For many years he used the old picture as, of all things, a teapot stand and then it passed to David.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

  • Martin Free’s grave in France

Bate’s business was eventually acquired by the Belcher family. Instead of Model Ts, they sold Austins and MGs and then, in the 1970s, became a prestigious BMW franchise.

Like me, you probably remember their posh garage in Spital Road (now replaced by Cooper Court). By an ironic twist that garage was just over the road from Arthur Smith’s workshop, raised to the ground during the Zeppelin raid.

But it is a certain field in Heybridge that really connects a car to the Bate name, to a German air raid, a hard working farmer, his young daughter, brave brother and a surviving grandson who still owns a unique snapshot in time.