Oral history in the post-modern age

Our You Are Hear project officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on why oral history continues to have value even in an age of high literacy rates and easy access to public platforms.

I recently had the joy of running an oral history training workshop, for a local heritage society. I always start with some theorising about oral history: why should we do it, what is its value, what need does it meet?

One of the main arguments for taking the time to create oral history recordings has traditionally been that it enables you to add a missing perspective into the historical record. The majority of the records at the Essex Record Office have been created by those in power: government records, church records, estate records of the major landed families in the county. Individuals from the ruled classes might make it into the records, but predominantly in records written about them, rather than by them. Limited literacy, limited access to writing materials, and the process of documents making their way into record offices have generally been given as reasons why the voices of everyday people are hard to find in the archive (though read this interesting challenge of the common assumption that writing paper was expensive). Oral history can change that: any individual can be interviewed about their experiences. It merely takes someone with time and a sound recorder to interview them.

Minnie Johnson’s story of her life in a traveller community is unlikely to have been known were it not for this oral history interview – she explains that she taught herself to read from comic books, but cannot write more than her name. The full interview can be heard on Essex Archives Online or our Soundcloud channel (SA 24/1925/1).

This is all excellent, and the rise of oral history ran alongside the rise of ‘history from below’ from around the 1960s. Using interviews allows historians to look at alternative histories to political and economic studies. Hearing from ‘ordinary’ people allows you to find out about everyday life for social and cultural history. Or it allows you to study political and economic history from a different perspective: how did the 1930s Depression actually affect people’s daily lives? How did Joe Bloggs feel about international relations during and after the Second World War? Without oral history interviews, these and similar questions would be very difficult to answer.

So we happily trot out these examples of why oral history interviews have value for giving a voice to the ‘ruled classes’. But is this as true today? Literacy rates are high (though not high enough). Access to writing material is prevalent. You can go into your local library and use a computer to type up your reminiscences. If you really wanted, you could probably use scrap paper from junk mail received and free pens given out at events to write down your life history without it costing you a penny.

What is more, platforms for making your voice heard are much easier to reach. There are social media channels; online petition sites; and file sharing sites that give you free and easy access to voice your opinions. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017 96% of 16-24 year-olds surveyed used social media, and 51% of 55-64 year-olds.

Graph of adult Internet usage from Office for National Statistics

While there are still barriers to technology, it is much easier to find the views of everyday people. So does oral history matter now, when people can make their way into the historical record of their own volition?

Laying aside the (very large!) problem of permanent preservation of online content, I argue that oral history does still, and will continue to, play a very valuable role in filling in gaps in the record.

Facebook posts and Tweets tend to be written in immediate response to an event. They represent a person’s immediate reactions. They can be mundane, amusing, fiery, or heartbreaking, but what is written today may not be true tomorrow. They are instantly written, and often instantly forgotten.

Oral history recordings are generally collected from people towards the latter stages of their lives. Some argue that this limits their usefulness: you are relying on the supposed frailty of human memory, and on the interviewee reliving events from their current perspective, looking back in hindsight. But this is one of the characteristics that gives the oral history interview its inherent value. From a distance, the interviewee can reflect on events they experienced, what emotions they prompted, and how they reacted. This will give a more balanced insight into which events and experiences were most significant in shaping the individual, and therefore shaping the culture and society in which each lived.

Mrs Summers reflects on how she felt about moving to Harlow in 1952, from the perspective of 34 years of hindsight. The full interview, recorded by Dr Judy Attfield, can be heard on Soundcloud or Essex Archives Online (SA 22/1364/1).

In fifty years’ time, if you amassed all social media posts I have written in 2017, this would give you one impression of who I was and what happened to me. Interviewing me alongside this data will help to give a fuller picture. Firstly, you can ask me to explain further details. For example, when I posted a picture of a meal I was about to eat, you can ask how representative this meal was of what I ate on a regular basis. As mundane as social media posts can be, oral history interviews will still have value in probing the details of everyday life and culture.

Secondly, you can ask me about the events that prompted my posts, and, I hope, you will get a different, more considered insight on what was happening. How will I feel in fifty years about my experiences in 2017? Photograph of subject being interviewed with recorder

Thirdly, there will always be matters that we do not share publicly at the time, but which we are happy to discuss further down the line. Oral history interviews will perhaps highlight the most life-changing events that are otherwise absent from contemporary autobiographical records.

Access to the historical record might be widening, but there is still a place for an oral history interview, where the interviewer can prompt those reflective questions from an outside perspective. Long may it continue.

Hear more of Sarah-Joy’s musings on oral history in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex History Group talk in May. Keep an eye on our events page to book, or subscribe to receive notifications about upcoming History Group talks.

If you want to embark on your own oral history interviewing project, the Essex Sound and Video Archive can provide training to help you get started. Please contact us for more information.

The smashing Rock sisters: Dorothea and Madeleine Rock, Essex Suffragettes

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2018, in the centenary year of some British women getting the parliamentary vote for the first time, we have been finding out about sisters Dorothea and Madeleine Rock of Ingatestone, who both spent time in prison for their part in the campaign for votes for women.

Dorothea and Madeleine were daughters of Edward Rock, an East India tea merchant, and his wife Isabella. They were born in Buckhurst Hill, Dorothea in 1881 and Madeleine in 1884, but by 1891 the family had moved to Station Lane in Ingatestone. The sisters had a middle class upbringing, with a governess, a cook, and a housemaid all employed in the household.

Sisters Dorothea and Madeline Rock of Ingatestone, left and centre. The caption on the back of the photograph does not tell us which sister is which, or the identity of the third woman, although she may be their governess, Louisa Watkins. This photograph has been digitally restored. (T/P 193/13)

In 1908 both joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant  organisation led by Emmeline Pankhurst. After decades of petitioning and lobbying with little result, the WSPU approach was ‘Deeds not Words’. Their tactics included smashing windows of government buildings and upmarket shops, setting fire to letter boxes, vandalising golf courses, and in extreme cases arson of unoccupied buildings.

We can track some of the WSPU activities of the Rock sisters by searching local newspapers (this is made so much easier and faster by accessing the newspapers through the British Newspaper Archive online, which allows you to search for key words. You can use the BNA for free at ERO and Essex Libraries).

The first mention of the Rock sisters’ WSPU activities that I have found so far is in the Essex Newsman of 13 March 1909. A short piece in the local news columns descibes a rummage sale held at the Rock residence, the Red House, to raise funds for the WSPU.

On Monday 6 September 1910, Madeleine presdied over an open-air meeting in the market square at Ingatestone, where, the Chelmsford Chronicle (9 September) reported, ‘There was a good attendance’. The meeting was given a ‘spirited address’ by a Miss Ainsworth. A few weeks later (reported in the Essex Newsman, 29 October 1910), Dorothea spoke on votes for women at the Ingatestone Debating Society; the meeting passed a resolution in favour of the Conciliation Bill then going through parliament which would have given some women the vote (the Bill was later defeated).

The first time the local papers mention the sisters being arrested is in late 1910. From the Chelmsford Chronicle of 25 November 1910 we learn that the Rock sisters had been arrested for taking part in a raid on the House of Commons, along with other Essex suffragettes:

Essex Suffragettes Raid

Among the 116 ladies arrested during the raid of the suffragettes on the House of Commons on Friday were the Misses K. and L. Lilley, of Clacton-on-Sea; Madeline Rock and Dorothea Rock, of Ingatestone; and Mrs Emily K. Marshall, of Theydon Bois, a daughter of Canon Jacques… The defendants surrendered to their bail at Bow-street, on Saturday, when Mr. Muskett, under instructions from the Home Secretary, withdrew from the prosecutions, and the whole of the ladies were discharged. The suffragettes regard the action of the authorities as a great triumph for the cause.

Chelmsford Chronicle, 25 November 1910

In April 1911, the sisters joined in with the boycott of the census. Instead of completing the household return with details of the occupiers, Dorothea filled the page with a message:

I, Dorothea Rock, in the absence of the male occupier, require to fill up this census page as, in the eyes of the law, women do not count, neither shall they be counted

The enumerator later added some details of the people who lived there – Mrs Rock, 55, Dorothea Rock, 27, described as a ‘News vendor’ (presumably distributing copies of the WSPU paper), and Madeleine, 25, along with three unnamed servants. (If Dorothea had known doubtless she would have been annoyed.)

Not everyone agreed that the census boycott was a good idea. A few days before the census was held, there was a meeting of the Chelmsford branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) at Shire Hall (reported in the Chelmsford Chronicle on Friday 31 March 1911). The meeting was addressed by Miss K.D. Courtney, honorary secretary of the National Union, who described the census boycott as ‘futile and a waste of time’. A Miss Rock (the Chronicle doesn’t specify which one) defended the boycott, saying it aimed ‘to show the Government how many women there were who would submit no longer to being treated as mere chattels’.

The sisters again took militant action in November 1911. The Chelmsford Chronicle reported:

Suffragette riot in London

Essex women arrested

A serious riot was the result of Tuesday’s demonstration by the militant section of Suffragettes in London. The women essayed to approach the House of Commons with a view to some of their number entering the House. A strong cordon of police, however, prevented the women from carrying out their object. Many disgraceful scenes took place, and 223 arrests were made. Organised bands of women appeared in different parts of the West End, breaking windows with hammers and stones, the damage being estimated at hundreds of pounds. Among those arrested were the following Essex women: – Grace Cappelow [sic], Hatfield Peverel; Marie Moore, Forest Gate; Emily Catherine Marshall, Theydon Bois; Constance Nugent, Leytonstone; Dorothy [sic] Rock, Ingatestone, Madeline Rock, Ingatestone; and Sybil Smith, Chigwell.

Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 November 1911

Madeleine at least was sentenced to a week in prison; her release was reported in the Chronicle of 1 December 1911.

The next mention I’ve found of the Rock sisters in the Chelmsford Chronicle is 23 February 1912, when Dorothea spoke at a suffrage meeting in Chelmsford:

The Suffragettes have held several successful meetings in the open air, and on Wednesday a well-attended drawing-room meeting was held at Yverdon, London Road, the residence of Alderman and Mrs. Maskell. The expected speaker, Miss Wylie, was called away to work in the Glasgow Bye-election, so Miss Dorothea Rock took her place, with Miss Grace Blyth in the chair. In the evening there was a meeting for shop assistants. Miss Chapelow [sic] recited “The Song of the Shirt,” and Miss Rock again spoke.

Chelmsford Chronicle, 23 February 1912

A few short weeks later the Rock sisters were back in London, smashing windows at Mansion House with hammers and stones. This incident led to the longest Chelmsford Chronicle article that I have come across about the Rocks:

This newspaper column was preserved along with the photograph of the sisters posted above (T/P 193/13)

At the Mansion House on Tuesday, four Suffragists – Dorothea Rock, 30, and Madelaine Rock, 27, both giving addresses at the Red House, Ingatestone, the former described as of no occupation and the latter as a poet; Grace Chappelow, 28, The Villa, Hatfield Peverel, no occupation; and Fanny Pease, 33, of 4 Clements’s Inn, hospital nurse – were charged before Sir George Woodman with wilfully breaking windows at Mansion House.

The cases of Dorothea Rock and Grace Chappelow were taken first, and a constable said that about 10.15 on the previous evening he saw the two defendants walk up to the kitchen window of the Mansion House, in Walbrook, and deilberately break eight panes of glass with two hammers and stones. He arrested them, and at the statino a hammer and two stones were found on Rock and three stones on Chappelow, whose hammer had been left on the window sill.

Evidence having been given that the damage done was to the value of £2, Chappelow said she thought that was rather a high estimate.

Dorothea Rock: This thing is not done as wanton damage – we have done it as a protest against being deprived of the vote.

The Alderman: But it was wanton damage, whatever you may call it. Are you Londoners?

Rock: no, we have come up from Essex.

The Alderman: For this little prank. (Laughter.)

Rock: No, to do our duty… We selected the Mansion House because of the insult offered to our women here the other day by the Lord Mayor ordering them to be ejected from a meeting here.

The Alderman: I cannot find any excuse for treating you leniently or differently from other people. You are either criminals or lunatics, one of the other, and you will each have two months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

In the case of the other prisoners, Madelaine Rock and Fanny Pease, evidence was given by P.c. Washer that he recognised Rock as a seller of the “Votes for Women” paper in the vicinity of the Mansion House. He saw her throw a hammer enclosed in a glove at one of the windows of the basement of the Mansion House, but the weapon rebounded off the iron protections. The other prisoner was with her, and three two stones at the window.

Rock: It was my stone with broke it.

Both prisoners made statements in their defence on the lines of the previous two women.

The Alderman said he was sorry to punish these women in this way, but they were acting under an entirely mistaken view of their case. They were violent as agaisnt the public, and that was bound to bring punishment in its train. He must punish them equally as he would do a poor wandering man in the street who broke windows, and they must go to prison for two months with hard labour.

Pease: We are not afraid.

The Alderman: I can’t talk to you. You must remember that you are dealing with Englishmen, who are not to be driven to do that which they will not do of their own free will.

Interested spectators of the proceedings were the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress, who were seated in the counsel’s seats.

So began two months in Holloway prison for the Rock sisters, along with several other fellow Suffragettes arrested in the March window smashing campaign. Many of the Suffragette prisoners went on hunger strike as a protest, and the prison authories responded by forcibly feeding them. This involved restraining the woman and pushing a rubber feeding tube through their nose or mouth into their stomach. Emmeline Pankhurst, in her book My Own Story, wrote that ‘Holloway became a place of horror and torment… I shall never while I live forget the suffering I experienced during the days when those cries were ringing in my ears’.

The Rocks appear in the volume of poetry published by the imprisoned campaigners, Holloway Jingles. Madeleine is described in some documents as a poet, and one of her poems was included in the book (you can read more about this in this preview of Glenda Norquay’s book Votes and Voices). Dorothea, meanwhile, is believed to be the subject of a poem, “To D.R.”, written by Joan Baillie Guthrie under the pseudonym Laura Grey.

While in Holloway Dorothea met Zoe Procter, who was to become her lifelong partner. Zoe had become involved in the WSPU in 1911 when her sister took her to a meeting, and she joined the Chelsea branch, running the lending library. An impassioned speech by Christabel Pankhurst inspired Zoe to take part in the window smashing campaign on 1 March that year, and armed with a hammer concealed in a large muff she smashed her window, and was sentenced to six weeks in Holloway.

However unpleasant their experience in Holloway, the Rock sisters were undeterred from pursuing further militant activitie. In July 1913 Madeleine was arrested for allegedly attempting to protect Sylvia Pankhurst from arrest:



Among the persons arrested at the Suffragist gathering at the Pavilion on Monday, and who appeared before Mr. Denman at Marlborough Street in Tuesday on charges of obstruction and assault, was Madeleine Rock, 30, described as a poet, of Ingatestone.

Inspector Riley stated that after he had arrested Mrs. Pankhurst the defendant, with two others, attempted to prevent him leaving the theatre with her.

Defendant Rock said she did nothing, but she felt Sergt. Cox’s stick. It came down on her head when she was not doing anything.

One of the defendants, Francesca Graham, was discharged.

Mr. Denman said the other two defendants must enter into recognisances to keep the peace for six months.

Miss Rock: I will not keep the peace; how long will you be the tools of tyranny?

Mr. Denman said if defendants were not willing to be bound over they must find two sureties in £20 each, or in default go to prison for twenty-one days.

Eventually the defendants found sureties.

Chelmsford Chronicle, Friday 25 July 1913

With the outbreak of the First World War in the following year, most militant campaigning activity ceased.

Madeleine continued to write poetry and published two volumes of her work, Or in the Grass in 1914 and On the Tree Top in 1927. She lived until 1954, leaving the residue of her estate to Marjorie Potbury, her cousin and a fellow suffragette.

Dorothea lived with Zoe Procter at 81 Beaufort Mansions, Chelsea, and Shepherds Corner, Beaconsfield. She wrote plays, in some of which Zoe performed. Zoe died in 1962 aged 94, leaving a substantial estate to Dorothea. Dorothea herself died in 1964, leaving bequests to Grace Chappelow and to Marjorie Potbury.

Document of the Month, March 2018: Humphry Repton’s ‘Red Book’ for Stansted Hall

March 2018 marks 200 years since the death of one of England’s most influential landscape gardeners, Humphry Repton. To mark this, we have chosen for March’s Document of the Month Repton’s ‘Red Book’ for Stansted Hall, commissioned in 1791 by William Heath (D/DQ 29/1).

Repton worked as a design consultant, visiting his clients’ properties and making suggestions for how picturesque views might be created within the landscape. He is best known for his ‘Red Books’ – reports he created for his wealthy clients which outlined his suggested changes, bound in Morocco leather. These books include beautiful watercolour sketches with flaps that can be lifted to show the views before and after Repton’s proposals. The Red Books served a dual purpose; they showcased Repton’s ideas to his client, but they might also be shown to admiring friends and hopefully secure further commissions.

In the book for Stansted Hall Repton sets out suggestions for creating what he considered would be picturesque views from and towards the house. His first observation was that the house was rather sprawling, and suffered from an unbalanced appearance due to one of its four towers being shorter than the other three. He recommended that the house should not be extended any further, but that the smaller tower should be built up to match the others, and the sprawling buildings to the side be concealed with planting, allowing a cupola or clock turret to peek up above the trees.

The Stansted Red Book includes one of Repton’s famous ‘lift the flap’ pages. With the flap down, we see a watercolour of the house as it stood.

A flap showing part of the existing view can be lifted…

…to reveal to the client the changes Repton was proposing. In this case, the building up of the shorter tower to match the others, and concealing part of the building with planting.

Repton also suggested covering the red brick building in a grey-white stucco wash, due to his ‘full conviction how much more important as well as picturesque a stone coloured building appears than one of red bricks … this alteration will [also] have a prodigiously pleasing effect from the turnpike road’.

Repton’s impression of what Stansted Hall would look like if rendered in white stucco, which he considered a vast improvement on its red brick exterior

He also offered suggestions for creating an impression that everything within the views belonged to the estate, which meant concealing other buildings and public roads behind planting:

The park

I call the Lawn immediately surrounding a mansion by the name of Park, whether it supports deer or other stock. This sort of Park does not take its consequence from real extent, but from its supposed magnitude, and chiefly from its unity, or the appearance of all belonging to the same proprietor: high roads, hedges & houses belonging to other persons near the Mansion, always tend to lessen its importance, while plantations increase it.

To this end, Repton suggested concealing the vicarage which was near the hall with a plantation, and rerouting the approach road to carefully craft the views seen by visitors as they arrived.

Landscape gardening was not the career that had been intended for Repton. He was born in 1752 in Bury St Edmunds, the son of an excise collector. His parents had 11 children; Humphry was one of only 3 who survived infancy. He attended grammar school in Bury St Edmunds, and then in Norwich when his family moved there when Humphry was 10. Intended for a career as a merchant, at age 12 Repton was sent to live with a wealthy family in the Netherlands to learn Dutch and French. Returning to Norwich aged 16, he was apprenticed into the textile industry. He was, however, more talented in the arts than in trade, and was not a successful businessman.

In 1773 he married Mary Clarke, and having inherited some money he retired from business and set himself up in the north Norfolk countryside to live the life of a gentleman. After a few years, however, the money was running out. In 1786 Repton moved his family to Hare Street near Romford, and turned his skills at sketching and writing to a career as a landscape gardener.

His favourite commissions were from the established gentry and aristocracy, when sometimes he would be invited to stay at his clients’ grand houses. A large proportion of his work, however, was for villas of the nouveaux riches around London who had made their money in business and trade. By the end of his career, Repton believed he had prepared over 400 Red Books and reports, including for several properties in Essex.

In addition to his work for private clients, Repton also published treatises on the principles and practice of landscape gardening. These helped to secure his reputation and his influence on the field of landscape gardening.

Repton’s career had a rather sad end. Commissions became fewer and further between, something he blamed on the effects of the Napoleonic Wars, with new taxes and dramatic inflation reducing the amount of money the wealthy had to spend on luxuries such as landscaping.

In January 1811 the carriage he was travelling in returning from a ball overturned on an icy road and Repton sustained serious injuries from which he never fully recovered. He continued to work, visiting sites in his wheelchair, often in great pain. He died on 24 March 1818 at Hare Street, and is buried at Aylsham church in his beloved Norfolk.

The Stansted Hall Red Book will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout March 2018.

Votes for Women: Essex girls on the march

6 February 2018 marks 100 years since some UK women were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections, after decades of campaigning.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the right to vote to women over 30 who met a property qualification – 8.4 million women in total. With so many men having been killed in the First World War, there was a fear that if equal voting rights were given female votes would outnumber male voters, and the country would end up with a ‘petticoat parliament’.

(It’s also worth noting that before the Act, only 60% of men over 21 had the right to vote. This meant that many of the men returning from military service would not have been able to vote. In addition to granting the vote to women, the Act also extended it to all men over 21, an additional 5.4 million men.)

The campaign for votes for women had stretched over decades, and for most of that time made little progress. In this blog post we take a look at some of the local women and men who took part in this momentous national campaign.

Lilian and Amy Hicks – Great Holland

Photographic postcard of Lilian Hicks, produced by the Women’s Freedom League (D/DU 4041/1)

Lilian Hicks (née Smith) was born in Colchester in 1853. She married Charles Hicks, and they made their family home at Great Holland Hall near Frinton-on-Sea. From the 1880s, when she was the mother of young children, Lilian worked for the women’s suffrage movement, organising meetings across East Anglia, and when she was older her daughter Amy joined Lilian in her campaigning. They belonged to various suffrage organisations over the years, joining the militant WSPU in 1906 before breaking away with the more peaceful Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in 1907, then ultimately rejoining the WSPU. Mother and daughter were arrested together on 18 November 1910 at the protest which became known as Black Friday, a struggle between campaigners and police in Parliament Square which turned violent.

Amy took part in the WSPU window smashing campaign in March 1912, and was arrested and sentenced to four months hard labour. She spent time in Holloway and Aylesbury prisons, including time in solitary confinement. She was one of the suffrage prisoners who went on hunger strike, and was subjected to the brutal procedure of forcible feeding.

Read more about Lilian and Amy Hicks in our previous blog post about them


Dorothea and Madeleine Rock – Ingatestone

Sisters Dorothea and Madeline Rock of Ingatestone, left and centre. The caption on the back of the photograph does not tell us which sister is which, or the identity of the third woman, although she may be their governess, Louisa Watkins. This photograph has been digitally restored. (T/P 193/13)

Sisters Dorothea and Madeline Rock of Ingatestone both spent time in prison for their campaigning activities. They were daughters of Edward Rock, an East India tea merchant, and his wife Isabella. Dorothea was born in 1881 and Madeline in 1884, and they had a middle-class upbringing, with a governess, a cook, and a housemaid employed in the household.

In 1908, the sisters both joined the WSPU, and in December 1911 both were sentenced to 7 days’ imprisonment for smashing windows. Undeterred, the sisters smashed further windows in March 1912, and were arrested with fellow Suffragettes Grace Chappelow, from Hatfield Peverel, and Fanny Pease. The four attended a hearing together, which heard that they had smashed windows at London’s Mansion House with hammers and stones. A newspaper account of the hearing reported Dorothea defending their actions:

‘This thing is not done as wanton damage – we have done it as a protest against being deprived of the vote.’


Kate and Louise Lilley – Clacton

Kate and Louise Lilley are welcomed back to Clacton after being released from prison in May 1912. The pair were met at the station then driven home in their father’s motor car (Clacton Graphic, 4 May 1912, photo from Hoffman’s Studio)

Sisters Kate (b.1874) and Louise Lilley (b.1883) were daughters of Clacton magistrate and company director, Thomas Lilley JP. They were also both members and officials of the Clacton branch of the WSPU. Like the Rock sisters and Amy Hicks, they took part in the March 1912 WPSU window smashing campaign and were sentenced to two months’ hard labour as a result.

They were released in early May, and returning home to Clacton they were ‘met with a most hearty welcome home from hundreds of spectators, including many women wearing the W.S.P.U. badge’ (Clacton Graphic, 4 May 1912). The crowd cheered the sisters, and they were presented with bouquets. The Graphic further reported that  ‘Their suffering for the cause, which they believe to be right and just, have not damped their ardour, and they are more determined than ever to go forward’.

Kate herself wrote a piece for the Graphic about their experience, and why the sisters had taken the course they had:

‘I should like to state that the reason why my sister and I decided to take our courage in both our hands, and make a protest by damaging property was: – we were following the dictates of our conscience and our reason. We know we had to make an active protest to call attention to the need of the great and urgent reform and so long delayed Act of Justice, i.e., Enfranchisement of Women.’

On the hunger strike which took place while they were in Holloway, Kate could only write:

the horrors of it are still too fresh in my memory for me to feel able to dwell in any way on the details.


Eliza Vaughan – Rayne

Millicent Fawcett's Hyde Park address1913

The NUWSS pilgrimage which Eliza Vaughan took park in in July 1913 ended with a rally in Hyde Park address by their leader, Millicent Garrett Fawcett (photo from the Women’s Library at LSE)

Eliza Vaughan was born in Brixton in 1863. Her father was a vicar, and later moved the family to Finchingfield when he became vicar there. From 1895 Eliza lived in Rayne near Braintree, and researched and wrote about the local area.

Eliza was an active member of the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for many years. Unlike the WSPU, the NUWSS believed firmly in sticking to peaceful campaigning activities.

In July 1913 Eliza took part in a march organised by the NUWSS which brought together suffrage campaigners from across the country, all the contingents eventually meeting for a rally in London. On 25 July 1913 a letter from Eliza was published in the Chelmsford Chronicle explaining why the march was taking place:

‘The just end of this gigantic undertaking is to demonstrate to the nation throughout the length and breadth of England the dertermination of non-militant suffragists to obtain justice for their own sex, so that the needs of women, particularly the toilers in our great industrial centres, may be adequately represented in Parliament.’

Eliza was one of the leaders of the Essex contingent, beginning in Colchester and marching through through several town and villages including Mark’s Tey, Coggeshall, Braintree, Witham, Kelvedon, Chelmsford and Romford. The marchers included both men and women, and in each place they stopped they made speeches, distributed leaflets and had conversations with people about women’s suffrage. Throughout the march they took pains to distance themselves from the militant actions of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The audiences at the meetings are described by Eliza as being mostly orderly, but the marchers were in places subjected to abuse and egg-throwing.

In an account of the march titled ‘Humours of the Road’ (T/Z 11/27) Eliza describes the march as a pilgrimage ‘journeying to a shrine, dedicated to Justice and Right’.


Rosina Sky – Southend

Suffrage Campaigning: Women's Tax Resistance League1909-1914

Badge of the Women’s Tax Resistance League (photo: LSE Women’s Library)

Rosina Sky led the charge for votes for women in Southend. She was born in Whitechapel in 1877, the daughter of a Russian tobacconist and pipe manufacturer. She married William Sky, and they had three children together, before divorcing. As a single mother of three, Rosina ran a tobacconists shop of her own in Southend at 28 Clifftown Road. As a woman in a man’s world, Rosina had all the responsibilities of running a business with none of the rights accorded to men in the same position. She was treasurer of the Southend branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and a member of the Tax Resistance League, whose slogan was ‘No Vote, No Tax’. Their key argument was that it was unjust for women to pay tax when without a vote they had no say in how it might be spent.

In September 1911, bailiffs seized goods belonging to Rosina in lieu of the taxes she had refused to pay. The goods were publicly auctioned, accompanied by a parade of the WSPU in Southend to protest. Further goods were confiscated from Rosina and sold in June 1912. She continued to run her shop until her death in 1922.


A small display of records relating to Essex suffrage campaigners from the ERO’s collections is currently on display in our Searchroom, until the end of April 2018.

Document of the Month, February 2018: Women make it into the electoral register

Katharine Schofield, Archivist

Our Document of the Month for February 2018 is an electoral register for the Saffron Walden Division from 1918 (C/E 2/8/1) – the first year that women appear in registers of parliamentary voters.

On 6 February 1918 the Representation of the People Act gained royal assent.  This entitled all men over the age of 21 to vote, previously only 60% of men who met the property and residential qualifications had been eligible.  More famously, for the first time women over 30 were able to vote in parliamentary elections, provided that they met certain property qualifications.  In the 1918 general election the electorate trebled from 7.7 million to 21.4 million, with women accounting for 43% of the total.

The register outlines the qualifications needed to vote. Women over 30 could qualify on their own account, or through their husband’s occupation.

The immediate impetus behind the change was the First World War.  Under the previous Act of 1884, many men who had fought would not have been entitled to vote.  The war years had also seen women working in jobs vacated by men as well as working as part of the war effort, in munitions factories such as the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey where more than 3,000 were employed.  Women had long worked in many industrial areas of the country, particularly the mill towns of the north-west.  In 1901 nearly 30,000 women signed the Mill Girls’ Petition and two years later the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester.  Three years later, in 1906, the first London branch was founded in Canning Town.  Interestingly, the Canning Town branch was expelled from the WSPU in 1914 when the women’s campaign broadened into other issues such as housing and working conditions which affected the women of the area.

Harriett Byford of 25 Mount Pleasant, Halstead, appears among other Halstead women who could vote in parliamentary elections for the first time. Her sisters however, had to wait until 1928 to be able to vote.

In Halstead the new Act doubled the parliamentary electorate.  Harriett Byford of 25 Mount Pleasant had previously been entitled to vote in local elections, but was for the first time listed among the parliamentary electors.  She was 62 and at the time of the 1911 census, a silk weaver, presumably employed in Courtauld’s silk weaving factory in the town.  Her younger sisters Tamar, 59 and Emily, 53, who lived at the same address in 1911 and were also employed in silk weaving, were still not entitled to vote as they did not meet the property qualification.  Women like Tamar and Emily had to wait until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 extended the right to vote to all women aged over 21.

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing stories of some local Essex campaigners and the actions they took, peaceful and militant, as part of the decades-long campaign to achieve votes for women.

Digitised copies of the electoral registers for Essex from 1918 and 1929 are available on our catalogue, Essex Archives Online. These are the first registers in which women appear – in 1918 those who met the qualifications, and in 1929 all women over 21. Who might you discover in these essential records?

Christine ‘Heaven’ Bradhurst – Society Lady, Actress, Playwright, Red Cross VAD and Fundraiser

Throughout the centenary of the First World War, the Friends of Historic Essex are running the Essex Great War Archive Project. One of the aims of the project is to collect First World War documents relating to Essex to add to the ERO collections to preserve them for current and future generations. One such document acquired recently is a scrapbook kept during the First World War by Minna Evangeline Bradhurst of Rivenhall Place, now catalogued as Acc. A14491 (you can read some more background on it here). Caroline Wallace, a History MA student from the University of Essex, has been researching the contents of the scrapbook, to see what it can tell us about the lives of Minna and her family during the First World War.

Born on 21st May 1894, Christine Evangeline Minna Elizabeth Bradhurst was the only child of Minna Evangeline Bradhurst, née Page Wood of the county ‘Wood’ family, and Augustus Maunsell Bradhurst of New York. As a family of social standing in the county, Christine grew up as any other upper-class daughter would at the turn of the twentieth century with a life full of country houses, society families, large birthday parties and lavish gifts (listed painstakingly by her mother in one of her many scrapbooks). By 1913, Christine was off to debutante balls with the cream of British society.

Christine pictured in costume for one of her plays during the First World War.

Christine pictured at Rivenhall Place. The notes on the photograph refer to her ‘swish’ hat, which was part of a costume for a play she was in.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Christine was 20 years old and expected to do her bit for the war effort. As a society lady with no need to work for a living, there was one occupation that was both suitable and acceptable – that of British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment, or VAD, worker. She could have become a VAD nurse, as many other middle and upper class ladies did, including most famously Vera Brittain and Agatha Christie.

However, Christine chose to work as a general service VAD, undertaking general duties at Earls Colne Auxiliary Hospital, whilst putting her considerable artistic talents to use to raise funds for war charities in the county, the number of which had grown substantially nationally. The Essex Record Office hold several scrapbooks (three on microfilm, one original) put together by her mother, Minna Evangeline Bradhurst, that document her life and record the concerts, plays and musicals that she put on and performed in. Fundraising was not only seen as ‘the thing to do’ by society, but was encouraged by Queen Mary with her Needle Work Guild, and it is believed that the First World War inspired the greatest level of philanthropy that Britain has ever seen.

The first mention of Christine on stage in the scrapbooks is in 1914 at the Colchester Hippodrome, where the East Lancashire Regiment put on a performance in which she assisted. Another of the scrapbooks but together by Minna has details of the entertainment that Christine organised and paid for in December 1915. It describes how 100 wounded soldiers were entertained for 2 days at the family home at Rivenhall Place, near Witham, coming from the Earls Colne hospital as well as Stansted Hall, Witham Hospital and Colchester Military Hospital. Performed each day were plays written by Christine called ‘Spy Mania’ and ‘The Companion’. These plays were also performed in theatres across the county, including at Colchester and Kelvedon on a regular basis to raise funds for the Red Cross Hospitals in Essex, in which Christine acted along with plays and comedies written by others.

A programme for an ‘entertainment’ held in aid of Coggeshall Nurse Fund in which a play by Christine was performed.

Alongside her Red Cross fundraising work, Christine helped to raise funds for other county, national and international associations and societies, including the French Wounded Emergency Fund, the Coggeshall Nurses Fund, the Friendless Soldiers Guild and the Khaki Prisoners of War Fund. Somehow, she also managed to find time to organise ‘Pound Days’ with her mother (events were people were encouraged to donate a pound in weight of particular necessities) and to be the secretary of the Rivenhall War Savings Association. These fundraising efforts were not unusual for a woman of Christine’s social position. Many middle and upper class ladies used their society connections to raise money for the Red Cross across the country, often in combination with voluntary work in the Red Cross hospitals, work depots and convalescence homes.

Details from Rivenhall parish magazine about a fundraiser organised by Christine in aid of the Essex Red Cross Society.

A letter to the people of Rivenhall with details about a Red Cross entertainment to be held, and the Rivenhall War Saving Association, of which Christine was the secretary.

A poster advertising War Saving Certificates, advertising for people to apply to Christine at Rivenhall Place for information.

After the war, Christine married and had a daughter (who, it turns out, of her own who, it transpires, is the mother of the current home secretary The Right Honourable Amber Rudd MP). It appears that Christine carried on singing and dancing on stage for a few years, but any trace of her in later life has not been found.

Document of the Month, January 2018: Ruggles-Brise visitors book

Ruth Costello, Archivist

As many of us return from visiting family and friends over the Christmas and New Year period, it’s interesting to look at a document from a recent deposit of records to see how one family recorded their visits to and from relatives.

Click for larger version

These pages are from an album which was used as a combination of an autograph book and a visitors’ book and belonged to one of the Ruggles-Brise family of Finchingfield (Accession A14635 box 19).  It seems to have been taken with the family on visits, as well as being used at the family home of Spains Hall.

The left hand page shows a photograph of Keswick Hall in Norfolk (the home of Agatha Gurney, who later became Agatha Ruggles-Brise).  Members of the family clearly stayed there in January 1903, but remained at Spains Hall in January 1904.  Most of the signatures are by members of the Ruggles-Brise family, including the then owner of Spains Hall, Archibald Weyland, his wife Mabel, some of their children, his brother Harold and sister in law Dorothea.

Does this sketch of ‘The Cake Walk’ show a dance move done by the guests at Keswick Hall celebrating over New Year in 1903?

It’s not clear who is the rider shown falling head first off her horse in the rather alarming sketch.  The self-portrait of a Guardsman is signed as Alan G. Tritton, who we know lived nearby at Lyons Hall, Great Leighs.  It is sobering to see this, knowing that the author of the jokey little drawing was killed in action ten years later in 1914.

A self-portrait sketch showing a rider falling off her horse

Self-portrait sketch by Alan G. Tritton, who was later killed in action during the First World War

This accession is one of just over 200 received by the Essex Record Office last year.  Some may consist of a single photograph and are available promptly to order via our online catalogue; others (like this deposit) may run to a large number of boxes. Work is currently underway to identify, list and box the records, and when this work is complete it will be made available to researchers.

The autograph book will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout January 2018.

‘And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised’: Christmas on an Ambulance Train

With thanks to Tim Luard

We all hope to spend Christmas having an enjoyable time with family and friends but, of course, that is not always to be.

100 years ago, millions of people were away from home, swept up in the First World War. Perhaps the best-known Christmas story of the Western Front is the Christmas Truce of 1914, when peace briefly invaded some parts of the battlefields of the Western Front. Any let up was, however, only very temporary, as is shown through the letters sent home over Christmas 1914 by Sister Kate Luard.

Kate served as a nurse throughout the First World War, and was at this time working on Ambulance Trains in Northern France. These special trains were kitted out with bunk beds to transport sick and wounded troops from the front to base hospitals, or to ports from which they would be evacuated back to England.

The letters below are all included in Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, which was published anonymously during the war. A copy is available in the ERO library.

Wednesday 23rd December, 1914

We loaded up at Lillers late on Monday night with one of the worst loads we’ve ever taken, all wounded, half Indians and half British.

You will see by Tuesday’s French communiqués that some of our trenches had been lost, and these had been retaken by the H.L.I. [Highlight Light Infantry], Manchesters, and 7th D.G.’s [Dragoon Guards].

It was a dark wet night, and the loading people were half-way up to their knees in black mud, and we didn’t finish loading till 2 a.m., and were hard at it trying to stop hæmorrhage, &c., till we got them off the train at 11 yesterday morning; the J.J.’s [lice] were swarming, but a large khaki pinny tying over my collar, and with elastic wristbands, saved me this time. One little Gurkha with his arm just amputated, and a wounded leg, could only be pacified by having acid drops put into his mouth and being allowed to hug the tin.

Interior of Ambulance Train at Boulogne. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205249852

Another was sent on as a sitting-up case. Half-way through the night I found him gasping with double pneumonia; it was no joke nursing him with seven others in the compartment. He only just lived to go off the train.

Another one I found dead about 5.30 a.m. We were to have been sent on to Rouen, but the O.C. Train reported too many serious cases, and so they were taken off at B. It was a particularly bad engine-driver too.

I got some bath water from a friendly engine, and went to bed at 12 next day.

We were off again the same evening, and got to B. this morning, train full, but not such bad cases, and are on our way back again now: expect to be sent on to Rouen. Now we are three instead of four Sisters, it makes the night work heavier, but we can manage all right in the day. In the last journey some of the worst cases got put into the top bunks, in the darkness and rush, and one only had candles to do the dressings by. One of the C.S.’s was on leave, but has come back now. All the trains just then had bad loads: the Clearing Hospitals were overflowing.

The Xmas Cards have come, and I’m going to risk keeping them till Friday, in case we have patients on the train. If not, I shall take them to a Sister I know at one of the B. hospitals.

We have got some H.A.C. [Honourable Artillery Company] on this time, who try to stand up when you come in, as if you were coming into their drawing-room. The Tommies in the same carriage are quite embarrassed. One boy said just now, “We ‘ad a ‘appy Xmas last year.”

“Where?” I said.

“At ‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,” he said, beaming.


Christmas Eve, 1914

And no fire and no chauffage, and cotton frocks; funny life, isn’t it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of “‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,”—British, Germans, French, and Russians. We are just up at Chocques going to load up with Indians again. Had more journeys this week than for a long time; you just get time to get what sleep the engine-driver and the cold will allow you on the way up.

8 p.m.—Just nearing Boulogne with another bad load, half Indian, half British; had it in daylight for the most part, thank goodness! Railhead to-day was one station further back than last time, as the —— Headquarters had to be evacuated after the Germans got through on Sunday. The two regiments, Coldstream Guards and Camerons, who drove them back, lost heavily and tell a tragic story. There are two men (only one is a boy) on the train who got wounded on Monday night (both compound fracture of the thigh) and were only taken out of the trench this morning, Thursday, to a Dressing Station and then straight on to our train. (We heard the guns this morning.) Why they are alive I don’t know, but I’m afraid they won’t live long: they are sunken and grey-faced and just strong enough to say, “Anyway, I’m out of the trench now.” They had drinks of water now and then in the field but no dressings, and lay in the slush. Stretcher-bearers are shot down immediately, with or without the wounded, by the German snipers.

Etaples Hospital Siding : a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at night (Art.IWM ART 3089) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19897

And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. By this evening they were most of them revived enough to enjoy Xmas cards; there were such a nice lot that they were able to choose them to send to Mother and My Young Lady and the Missis and the Children, and have one for themselves.

The Indians each had one, and salaamed and said, “God save you,” and “I will pray to God for you,” and “God win your enemies,” and “God kill many Germans,” and “The Indian men too cold, kill more Germans if not too cold.” One with a S.A. [South Africa] ribbon spotted mine and said, “Africa same like you.” [Kate also served as a military nurse in South Africa during the Boer War.]

Midnight.—Just unloaded, going to turn in; we are to go off again at 5 a.m. to-morrow, so there’ll be no going to church. Mail in, but not parcels; there’s a big block of parcels down at the base, and we may get them by Easter.

With superhuman self-control I have not opened my mail to-night so as to have it to-morrow morning.


Christmas Day, 1914

11 a.m.—On way up again to Béthune, where we have not been before (about ten miles beyond where we were yesterday), a place I’ve always hoped to see. Sharp white frost, fog becoming denser as we get nearer Belgium. A howling mob of reinforcements stormed the train for smokes. We threw out every cigarette, pipe, pair of socks, mits, hankies, pencils we had left; it was like feeding chickens, but of course we hadn’t nearly enough.

Every one on the train has had a card from the King and Queen in a special envelope with the Royal Arms in red on it. And this is the message (in writing hand)—

With our best wishes for Christmas, 1914.

May God protect you and bring you home safe.

Mary R. George R.I.”

That is something to keep, isn’t it?

A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box. These tins containing small gifts were distributed to all troops as a Christmas present from the royal family. Image from the Imperial War Museum.

An officer has just told us that those men haven’t had a cigarette since they left S’hampton, hard luck. I wish we’d had enough for them. It is the smokes and the rum ration that has helped the British Army to stick it more than anything, after the conviction that they’ve each one got that the Germans have got to be “done in” in the end. A Sergt. of the C.G. [Coldstream Guards] told me a cheering thing yesterday. He said he had a draft of young soldiers of only four months’ service in this week’s business. “Talk of old soldiers,” he said, “you’d have thought these had had years of it. When they were ordered to advance there was no stopping them.”

After all we are not going to Béthune but to Merville again.

This is a very slow journey up, with long indefinite stops; we all got bad headaches by lunch time from the intense cold and a short night following a heavy day. At lunch we had hot bricks for our feet, and hot food inside, which improved matters, and I think by the time we get the patients on there will be chauffage.

The orderlies are to have their Xmas dinner to-morrow, but I believe ours is to be to-night, if the patients are settled up in time.

Do not think from these details that we are at all miserable; we say “For King and Country” at intervals, and have many jokes over it all, and there is the never-failing game of going over what we’ll all do and avoid doing After the War.

7 p.m.— Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature.

This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.—Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [injured] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.

We are wondering what the chances are of getting to bed to-night.

4 a.m.—Very late getting in to B.; not unloading till morning. Just going to turn in now till breakfast time. End of Xmas Day.

Letters from the Western Front: Sister Kate Luard’s 1917

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager, with thanks to Caroline Stevens for sharing extracts from Kate’s letters relating to the Battle of Passchendaele

As 2017 draws to a close we may well reflect on what the year has brought, to ourselves, our families and friends, and the wider world.

Doubtless our ancestors did the same thing 100 years ago, as the First World War dragged on into the new year.

Sister Kate Luard, an Essex nurse who volunteered for military service, had by this time been serving as a nurse on the Western Front for three years and three months. She must have seen countless soldiers suffering from all sorts of unthinkable wounds pass through her wards, and still there was no end in sight.

1917 brought some of the biggest challenges and most dangerous situations that Kate would face during the war, and these are detailed in the letters she sent home to her family. To help put the letters into a geographical context, please see the map at the end of this post which tracks some of the locations where Kate wrote from during 1917. Many of the letters quoted here are reproduced in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France, 1914-1918 – these are referenced here as UW.

Some of Kate Luard’s letters sent to her family during her First World War service

From early March until early June 1917 Kate was with No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) in Warlencourt, in between Bapaume and Beaumont-Hamel. Her early letters from there describe the business of getting the CCS ready to go, in preparation for what would become the Battle of Arras. The construction of huts and tents took place in the snow and within range of the German guns. On Sunday 4th March she wrote of her first night there:

We had a lively night last night. We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars. (Sunday 4th March 1917, UW)

In her role as sister in charge, Kate was not only responsible for organising the nursing staff and orderlies, but also for running the Mess and keeping everyone fed:

Feeding them is going to weigh heavily no my chest. It is one person’s job to run a Mess at the Back of Beyond, and I have this Hospital (700 beds) to run for night and day, with the peculiar difficulties of a new-born unfinished Camp, and emergency work. For the Mess you settle a rice putting, but there is no rice, and the cows have anthrax, so there’s no fresh milk, and the Canteen has run out of Ideal milk. Well, have a jam tart; lots of jam in the British Army, but no flour, no suet, no tinned fruits, no eggs, no beans or dried peas, not one potato each. But there is bacon, ration bread and tinned butter (when you can get it), jam, marmalade sometimes, cheese, stew, Army biscuits, tea, some sugar, and sometimes mustard, and sometimes oatmeal and cornflour. Also we have only 1½ lbs of coal per person per day, so when that is used up you have to go and look for wood, to cook your dinner and boil your water. Everyone is ravenous in this high air and outdoor life, and so long as there’s enough of it, you can eat anything. None of them I hope will grumble if we can work up the true Active Service spirit, but it is an anxiety. (Monday 12 March 1917, UW).

Once the hospital was ready to go but the fighting not yet begun, Kate and two other nurses took the opportunity to explore the surrounding areas:

Then you come to what was Gommécourt. It must have been, when it existed, full of orchards, and half in and half out of a wood. Now there is one wall of one house left. The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom. Some are dry and clean and have the beds still in them. You step over unexploded shells, bombs and grenades of every description – and we saw one aerial torpedo – an ugly brute. I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ and snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me… Here you get to see the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad? (Friday 23 March 1917, UW)

(Q 4915) Branchless trees and shattered house. Gommecourt, March 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205237124

The Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. The following day Kate wrote:

The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday… all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night… All are doing 16 hours on and 8 off and some of us 18 on and 6 off… Stretchers on the floor are back-breaking work, and one’s feet give out after a certain time, but as long as one’s head and nerves hold out, nothing else matters and we are all very fit… The wards are like battlefields, with battered wrecks in every bed and on stretchers between the beds and down the middles… The Theatre teams have done 70 operations in the 24 hours. (Tuesday 10 April, UW)

By 25th July 1917 Kate and No. 32 CCS had moved on to Brandhoek, to specialise in treating severe abdominal wounds. They were stationed close behind the lines at what would become the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Kate was in charge of 40 nurses and almost 100 nursing orderlies.

This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back. We are entirely under Canvas, with huge marquees for Wards, except the Theatre which is a long hut. The Wards are both sides of a long, wide central walk of duckboards. (Friday 27 July, UW)

The Interior of a Hospital Tent (Art.IWM ART 1611) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23728

Everything has been going at full pitch – with the 12 Teams in Theatre only breaking off for hasty meals – the Dressing Hut, the Preparation Ward and Resuscitation and the four huge Acute Wards, which fill up from the Theatre; the Officers’ Ward, the Moribund and German Ward. Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he [Fritz] began putting over high explosives. Everyone had to put on tin hats and carry on. They burst on two sides of us, not 50 yards away – no direct hits on to us but streams of hot shrapnel.  …. they came over everywhere, even through our Canvas Huts in our quarters. Luckily we were so frantically busy. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again. Of course, a good many die, but a great many seem to be going to do. We get them one hour after injury, which is our ‘raison d’être’ for being here. It is pouring rain, alas, and they are brought in sopping. (July 31st, 11pm)

Stretcher bearers at Passchendaele (Imperial War Museums)

It has been a pretty frightful day – 44 funerals yesterday and about as many  to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is terrific. (Wednesday, August 1st, UW)

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. [War Office] and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466. (Monday, September 3rd, UW)

On 5 September Kate was allowed a spell of leave and she returned to England for a couple of weeks, returning to France at the end of September. She spent the remainder of the year with two other Casualty Clearing Stations – No. 37 at Godeswaersvelde and then No.54 CCS at Merville before rejoining No.32 CCS at Marchelepot in early 1918. At Christmas, she wrote home to her father:

My darling father,

This is timed I hope to bring you my very dear love on Xmas Morning – I do hope you will all have a happy day…

This 4th Christmas in France looks like being a comparatively peaceful one so far, but the peacefulness is only on the surface. Both sides are stiffening up like two dogs showing their teeth…

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own Troupe, and the rivalry is keen.  Some are excellent. We Three Sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers.  We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3 DG’ s and 2nd Black Watch & others, now commanding Welsh Battalions.  Each concert party has its star “Girl” marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall.  Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely silk stockings & high heels!

We’ve had a bitter North Wind & frost today & all have chilblains but not badly. Still only our 3 heroes in the Ward.

Best love to all

Your loving daughter

KEL [Kate Evelyn Luard]

(ERO ref. D/DLu 55/13/1, included in postscript of new edition of Unknown Warriors)

There were 11 more months of the war in store, and Kate remained on the Western Front to the end. You can read more of her letters in Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. 






Locations mentioned in this blog post where Kate’s letters were sent from (click each marker for more information):

Christmas in the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Rightly or wrongly, Christmas is a unique time of the year, imbued with centuries of traditions, celebrated on a mass level across the country – even the world – but also on an individual level. Each person picks and chooses his/her own customs to create traditions that become more sacred with each passing year that they are observed, passed down through generations and adapted as families intertwine.

It has been fun to spend the last few days putting together seasonal recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, as our first ever online audio advent calendar. It provides a chance for you to get a glimpse into the variety of unique recordings in our collection, one day at a time.

What does the selection tell us, without giving away too much about future recordings?

First, it demonstrates the tremendous variety in the Archive. We have plenty of local radio broadcasts – primarily from BBC Essex, but also recordings for specialist broadcasters such as hospital radio, and talking newspaper magazines. These are an excellent source for finding specific information, local responses to significant national events, such as the 1953 floods, or the 1987 hurricane. They also provide snapshots of the county at moments in time, through BBC Essex’s ‘A-Z of Essex Villages’ or ‘Pub of the Week’ series.

We have music, from captivating professional recordings to charmingly amateur ones. Sacred music, carols, folk songs, and fun songs. Music inspired by Essex, and music written on distant shores but performed in Essex. We hope there is something to meet everyone’s taste in our advent collection.

One example of the festive music in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, from Day 5 of our advent calendar (SA 10/1/1/19/1).

We have public talks and information broadcasts, revealing the history of traditional customs, or useful information on how to get through winter.

A large proportion of our recordings are oral history interviews with Essex people. So, secondly, the recordings emphasise the fact that Christmas is a special time of year, by the frequency with which it is mentioned in interviews. Even if the interviewee only speaks for a minute or two, the fact that the interviewer thought to ask about the festive holidays demonstrates its importance.

The ways in which people talk about Christmas when they are asked, particularly memories of childhood celebrations, also demonstrate the holiday’s significance. The sense of wonder and delight at this time of year comes back in the voice of the speaker as they recall these memories, even fifty, sixty, or seventy years later.

But this sense of delight raises an important question that must always be asked of oral history interviews. How far does the account reflect the reality? There are obvious questions about fading memories, particularly of years blurred together – was Christmas in one family celebrated in 1930 the same way as in 1925? But there are also dangers of thinking all was bright and lovely; there was just the right amount of snow; and we were all satisfied with the orange and new penny in our stocking, and wanted nothing more. Did siblings never argue? Did Mother never burn the dinner?

Do Prim Coppin’s memories of playing in the snow mask the bitter cold of the winter of 1947, and how much people suffered to endure it? A clip from an oral history interview from Day 2 of our advent calendar (SA 44/1/12/1).

Most people suggest that Christmas in ‘the past’ (that undefined age) was happier. Children wanted less. There was less pressure to strive for perfection, so parents did not overspend. Families enjoyed spending quality time together without television (or smartphones). Communities came together to enjoy carol singing, or skating on the frozen pond. Is this true? And is Christmas really so bad now? And if it is, do we not each individually have the freedom to decide how we celebrate it? What memories will our children recount in fifty years of their childhood celebrations?

Thirdly, the collection demonstrates the gaps that are still evident in our archive. The recordings were deliberately chosen as representative of the common ways that Christmas is celebrated in Essex. But what about the many other cultures now living in the county that have their own special high days and holy days? Often these minority cultures are not suitably represented in the archive. If you are a member of a community that does not celebrate Christmas, you can help: you can collect recordings about your customs and traditions. Please do get in touch with us if you want to discuss starting up this kind of project.

We hope you enjoy our first advent calendar, and please do let us know if you would like us to do it again in future (resources permitting!).

Click here to subscribe to receive daily notifications as we publish each new day’s recording.

Many of these recordings were digitised as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place.