HISTORY always has a few secrets to be revealed. But sometimes those secrets are a bit more revealing than you might expect.

Because Britain’s first-ever nudist colony opened right here in Wickford 98 years ago.

Known as Sunbeam, or more simply as “The Camp”, it was founded by the appropriately-named Moonella Group in 1924. The site, off Castledon Road, lay on the banks of the River Crouch, about one mile upriver from Wickford. It was the first camp of its kind dedicated to naturism as the movement flourished on the European mainland during the early 20th century.

Back then Brits were shy about removing their overcoats in public, let alone their long johns, so they proved slower to embrace the notion. However, the founding of the English Gymnosophical Society after the end of the First World War proved a turning point. And a publicity stunt – the march of 200 nudists through London’s Hyde Park, led by war hero Captain Harold Hugh Vincent – put naturism on the map.

The formation of the Wickford club followed soon after. Local authorities had refused to licence any beaches for use by nudists, but the camp was on private land and protected by club status.

Nearly a century later and the club even got a mention in the popular historical drama Downton Abbey. In the fifth episode of season five, Lady Rose Aldridge, played by Lily James, reads about the Moonella group - the group which had land in Wickford to open up the camp.

Of course Violet Crawley, the tart-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham played by Maggie Smith, is not impressed with the news and turns her nose up at the thought.

After the episode aired the Wickford Community Archive website which collates local history saw 1,500 extra hits – clearly people wanted to find out if it was true.

But the Wickford colony was by no means the only nudist colony to attract attention. By the 1930s there were several scattered about the county.

One of the most popular was called Old Shaws and was located in Great Waltham on the outskirts of Chelmsford. The opening of the camp drew so much attention that in March 1933 hundreds of cars and even coaches descended on the quiet village as visitors scrambled to see and take photos of the nudists.

It must have been like a scene from a Carry On film as curious and lusty day-trippers tried in vain to get into the camp.

Around the same time villagers in Great Waltham launched a petition against the colony after residents complained of seeing camp members sunbathing in the buff outside of their bedroom windows.

Mr W Potter, owner of the colony, vehemently defended his camp. He said: “Our object is to fight prudery and grundyism. Our membership is very select and embraces people in all walks of life.”

Essex still has at least two nudist colonies today and residents in general have shown they are more than happy to strip for a good cause.

In 2015 more than 50 people shed their inhibitions – and their clothes – to ride the Green Scream rollercoaster at Southend’s Adventure Island for charity. They pulled in £10,000 for Southend Hospital Charitable Foundation’s keyhole cancer appeal. The event also celebrated the five-year anniversary of the successful world record attempt set by Adventure Island, which saw 102 people take on the challenge and raise £20,000 for the hospital’s Bosom Pals Appeal.