Researching From Home

With Chris Thornton

I am probably known to many as the editor of the Victoria County History of Essex, a project researching and publishing historical accounts of communities in Essex to a standard format as a work of reference.


I am also currently Chairman of the Friends of Historic Essex, the charity that supports the ERO, and a Vice-President (and former officer) of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. My personal research interests lie in medieval economic and social history, and also landscape history and buildings. I live with my wife Lynn in the centre of Maldon and we have a daughter, Ruth, who is currently studying French and German at the University of Bristol.

Where is your ‘office’?

My ‘official’ office is a room in the centre of the house (the former dining room), but it is currently so overrun with stacked books and paperwork I can’t work in there! I have also taken over the dining table in the bay window in the lounge, which is currently occupied with the notes and books for VCH work on Harwich. My current working space is therefore another dining table in the garden room at the back of the house.

Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?

The view out of the garden room is, unsurprisingly, of the rear garden. It is only a small space, but south facing, green and peaceful, backing onto Maldon’s Quaker meeting house grounds. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me to learn that I have lost both the keys to the patio doors – so we have to exit out of the side kitchen door!

The garden attracts lots of birds which I enjoy watching, and they will probably like it even more as I have plans to dig up the lawn and plant potatoes. Planning my own personal dig for victory can certainly be (enjoyably) distracting.

What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?

I have occasional work to do seeing VCH Essex XII (part I) through the publication process, and preparing XII (part II) to start on the process later this year. I am also completing some research on Tudor sources on Harwich for VCH Essex XIII, including court rolls (ERO), the Harwich Town Book (churchwardens’ accounts) (Harwich Town Council archive) and Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills for Harwich (TNA). I have digital photographs of all or part of these sources.

I also have the final amendments to make to an edited volume Dr Thomas Plume, 1630-1704. His Life and Legacies (University of Hertfordshire Press, forthcoming 2020).

And, finally, an introductory article on Colchester’s history to accompany a new volume funded by Colchester Borough Council which brings together all of Dave Stenning’s fabulous reports on Colchester buildings.

Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?

I was always a night owl, but of recent years increasingly find I can’t work past mid-evening as my brain turns to jelly. With research and note-taking I find I can work solidly to a timetable. With writing I find I have to be in the mood and then the keyboard takes a hammering until inspiration runs out.

Do you have a favourite online resource?

A little dull, but probably the ERO, TNA and BL catalogues.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

It has to be tea. At the moment a large pot – one part English breakfast to one part Earl Grey. Snack intake is reduced due to my type 2 diabetes, but if allowed by the cake-police (Lynn) then any sort of bun or biscuit will do (I’m not that fussy), although admittedly partial to a home-made scone.

Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?

I play a few on-line games with old school friends, several of them now living in the US. It’s proved a good way of staying in contact as we berate each other about tactical ineptitude or muddled strategy.

What  are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?

Some cheery conversation with the archivists and searchroom staff, and meeting up with other researchers and asking for and sharing advice and finding out about other interesting research in progress. I think this is now called networking.

Essex Record Office receives National Lottery Heritage Fund grant

An Essex Record Office project to preserve the history and memories of former Marconi Company employees is to receive a grant of almost £100,000 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Black and white photograph of women at work in Marconi factory
Women working in Condenser and Mounting shop at Marconi’s New Street factory (D/F 269/1/3678)

Part of Essex 2020, the project, Communicating Connections: Sharing the heritage of the Marconi Company’s wireless world, is to receive £93,000 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund. Further funding has come from Chelmsford City Council’s Essex 2020 fund and the Friends of Historic Essex.

Communicating Connections aims to preserve the memories of former employees and others involved with Marconi through oral history interviews recorded by volunteers. Founded by Guglielmo Marconi, the company is famous for making the first ever transatlantic wireless communication, which was received in Newfoundland, Canada. The company also made the first wireless entertainment broadcast in the UK (renowned opera singer Dame Nellie Melba performing on 15 June 1920), and its equipment was vital for communication systems at sea, allowing the rescue of hundreds of people from the RMS Titanic and the RMS Lusitania.

“To receive such a large grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund is absolutely wonderful. This project will not only allow us to celebrate the rich history of the Marconi Company and its historical connections with Chelmsford but it will also provide an informative and educational experience for all of our residents and visitors.”

Cllr Susan Barker, Essex county council cabinet member for customer, communities, culture and corporate

Local residents and visitors will be able to learn more about Marconi, and the company’s connections to Chelmsford, via an audio trail app, while a selection from over 150,000 images at ERO and Chelmsford Museums will be digitised and made available to the public to go alongside the oral history interviews. Temporary exhibitions featuring the interviews and images will be held in the city centre and will be co-curated by a team of dedicated volunteers, with guidance from Chelmsford Museums.

The project will also give us the opportunity to make better use of existing material about the Marconi Company, such as this interview with Gerald Isted, who started working for the Company in 1923 (SA 24/825/1).

Gerald Isted recalls his work at Marconi from 1923; work at New Street assembly shop; wages (SA 24/825/1 Side B Part 5)

Richard Anderson, Archive and Collections Lead at ERO, commented: “We are delighted with the grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund as it will allow us to raise awareness of the Marconi Company and its links to Chelmsford’s heritage and history. We’re extremely grateful to the Marconi Veterans Association, Chelmsford Civic Society, the Chelmsford Science and Engineering Society, as well as Chelmsford Museums, for their help in developing the project, and to Teledyne e2V as they are directly linked to Marconi and have input into this unique industrial heritage.”

“Chelmsford City Museum are proud to partner with the Essex Record Office on the project. It fits perfectly with our mission to inspire residents and visitors to discover and explore Chelmsford’s stories through shared experiences.  In this centenary year, it offers a landmark opportunity to foster the sense of civic pride local people have in our Marconi heritage and demonstrate how this legacy continues to influence our lives today.”

Dr Mark curteis, assistant museums manager at chelmsford city museum
Black and white photograph of Marconi factory in New Street, Chlemsford
Marconi’s factory in New Street, Chelmsford, built over just 17 weeks by a workforce of over 500 people (D/F 269/1/3676). The front building is still standing, but it is easy to walk past without recognising its significance. How can we better commemorate the Marconi Company in the birthplace of radio?

“The archive is such an important local and national resource, as well as a great example of local science and creativity. Our Essex2020 funding panel were keen to support ERO’s ambition to make the archive accessible in new and creative ways. The panel were particularly supportive of the engagement of volunteers in the project and saw it as a strength that their voices and experiences would be represented.”

dr katie deverell, cultural partnerships manager at chelmsford city council and co-ordinator of chelmsford’s essex 2020 hub

Although the original project timetable is being delayed and altered due to COVID-19, keep an eye out for further announcements including opportunities to get involved with the project.

In the meantime, you can explore the world of Marconi through other Essex 2020 activities, including a virtual exhibition from Chelmsford Museum.

Introducing the 2020 University of Essex MA placement student

Grace Benham, MA History student at the University of Essex, has recently embarked on a twelve-week placement with the Essex Record Office. She is working with a collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, which documents the establishment of domestic refuges in London and the East of England (Acc. SA853).

When I chose to apply for a work placement as a part of my MA programme, applying to the Essex Record Office was an easy choice. As a Colchester resident born and bred, being able to engage with local history on such a practical level, working with an institution that holds interviews of my own grandmas on their lives – it was incredibly exciting to be accepted. I wanted to do a work placement as I wish to pursue a career in history, particularly archives, exhibitions or museums, and so such an experience is invaluable, as well as simply just really interesting.

Due to the unfortunate circumstances which have affected us all, I was unable to participate in the original placement project which required collecting oral history interviews. I therefore had a choice on which archives I would like to engage with remotely. It, again, was another easy choice: to get involved with the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews and to research, catalogue and produce blogs about it. A subject dear to my heart, I have found the study of the founding of women’s refuges in Essex and London is as inspiring as it is difficult to listen to. I have chosen to start this project by homing in on Colchester specifically, as the collection is vast and a geographical focus was the most obvious and compelling place to start.

What is immediately apparent in listening to these interviews is the incredibly dedicated and tenacious people who founded Colchester Refuge from the ground up. The practical, legal, economic, societal and emotional work required to provide a safe place and an abundance of resources for female victims of domestic violence is extremely evident and it is nothing less than admirable the way in which these predominantly women, with little to no previous experience in any related fields, fought for, and eventually founded, the refuge against the odds. I even had the honour to talk with Dr June Freeman, a key founding member of Colchester Refuge, author, and lecturer who compiled these interviews and who was the subject of several of these interviews. June made a great emphasis on what an uphill struggle they faced, as domestic violence was not even known as it is today. It was seen as a problem that should be kept private and within families, a problem which held little support from the police, courts, doctors and even social workers. The founders had to work tirelessly to convince Colchester Borough Council of the importance of a refuge and to finance such a venture without help.

Moyna Barnham describes the first steps towards starting up a women’s refuge in Colchester and the challenge of convincing people of the need for a refuge.

Sadly, another recurring theme in the interviews is a feeling that at the time of the interviews (2017) a loss of funding and interest in domestic violence is occurring in Essex and across the country. This rings unfortunately true as current circumstances have led to a rise in domestic violence. Domestic abuse charity Refuge reports that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have increased by about 66% since lockdown began in March, while the website received a 700% increase in visits in one day. As such the opportunity to listen and learn from these oral histories is more important than ever.

Alison Inman mourns the continuing need for refuges.
Friends of Historic Essex logo

We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex and the University of Essex for their financial support in making this placement possible.

If you need support to deal with domestic abuse, please call the helpline below or check out the following guidance.

National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247

Local support: https://www.essex.gov.uk/report-abuse-or-neglect/domestic-abuse

COVID-19 Domestic Violence Guidance: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-and-domestic-abuse

An Essex Quaker’s Wife – The Indomitable Mary Farmer & her Daughters

Julie Miller, a masters student from University of Essex, has taken up a research placement at the Essex Record Office, conducting an exploration into the story of John Farmer and his adventures, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, and has been jointly funded by the Friends of Historic Essex and University of Essex.  Julie will be publishing a series of updates from the 12-week project.

In part 8 of this series, we change tack to explore the life of John’s wife Mary Farmer.

There is an old saying that behind every great man there is a great woman.  In the case of John Farmer, wool comber, Quaker, traveller and slavery abolitionist, this is certainly true, in that he had an unusually independent wife.

Mary Wyatt was born 8:9mo 1665 (8th November 1665) to Thomas and Etheldered Wyatt, the eldest of twelve siblings. An annotated list of the births of her numerous brothers and sisters, and sadly the deaths of four of them in infancy, is held in the Essex Record Office archive, an unusual survival of a complete family list from the time.

The Wyatt family appear throughout the Thaxted and Saffron Walden Quaker archives, a large family who left a lasting mark on the records of their community in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Annotated list of Wyatt siblings ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle of birth & burial notes Thaxted 1665-1686 [i]

Mary Wyatt married Samuel Fulbigg of Haverhill in 1689.  Their only daughter, also called Mary was born on 16th day of 5th month 1690 (16th July 1690) in Saffron Walden.[ii]

Birth Record of Mary Fulbigg : ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes Thaxted 1665-1745

Tragically this marriage was not to last long.  Another note in the archives tells us that on 1st of 10 mo 1692 (1st December 1692) Samuel was buried, having been killed when the funnel fell from his brewing copper the previous Monday (2nd Day). This awful accident left Mary as a widow at 27 years old, with an 18-month-old baby to look after.

Burial Record of Samuel Fulbigg : ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes Thaxted 1665-1745

Originally from Somerset, John Farmer came to Saffron Walden in late 1697 or early 1698.  I first find him in a Monthly Meeting at Thaxted in April 1698 showing as donating a shilling for the relief of a Quaker in need[iii].  He was an itinerant wool comber, as was fellow Quaker Zacharias Wyatt, the younger brother of Mary Fulbigg.  It is possible that as they shared a common employment, perhaps Zacharias brought John Farmer to Saffron Walden.  Or perhaps they met when John Farmer joined their Quaker meeting, but at some point it is likely that Zacharias introduced his widowed sister Mary to John Farmer.

Mary had not been idle since being widowed.  According to a comment in John Farmer’s journal she had travelled 1400 miles in the ministry before he met her, and she had “a gift of prophesy or preaching given her by ye Lord before she was my wife”.[iv] Marriage was a welcome gift to John Farmer who had agonised in his diary about the fears of giving into temptation and vanity.  Farmer wrote in his journal that when they married 27:5mo 1698 (27th July 1698)

Ye Lord preserved mee in many Temptations from being destroyed by them. In & by his advice and help I took an honist Friend to bee my wife in ye way of marriage used amongst us”.[v]

Married life does not appear to have stopped either Mary or John from traveling. In July 1700, Sampford Women’s Meeting heard from Mary Farmer that she intended to take a journey along with another Friend, Elizabeth Spice of Saffron Walden “upon the sword of truth through Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire to visit meetings there” and permission to travel was granted. A month later the Thaxted Women’s meeting received 15 shillings from Mary, perhaps collected on her journey. [vi]

18th Century Quaker Woman, London Life 1700

Ten months later John and Mary Farmer’s only daughter Ann was born 1:3 mo 1701 (1st May 1701).[vii]  Now having two young children one might have expected Mary to settle into domestic life.  But Farmer’s journal comments that by 1714 she had travelled a further 1700 miles in her own ministry.

In December 1702 Mary Farmer was asked by the Monthly Meeting to work with two other women Friends to sell the property of deceased widow Elizabeth James and settle her funeral expenses, bringing any residue back to the Meeting.  Clearly this was a task which required someone to be held in the utmost trust and seems to have gone well.

In 1704 Mary went on an extended five-month long journey travelling in the South and West of England,  recorded in John Farmer’s journal, while he was left at home to care for the children:

“In ye year 1704 my wife was moved & inabled by ye Lord to travel 5 months in his service in ye west & south of England. Shee had a good journey & did service for ye Lord in it.  & came well home to mee & our children wch bee also well.  Blessed bee God for it. Before she went shee told ye monthly meeting of it & recived a ceirtificate from them to carry with her.”[viii]

However her husband’s description of Mary as an ‘honist friend’ was possibly a little dubious.  A significant issue had hung over the Farmer family both before, and for some years after, their marriage and related to a legacy for Mary Fulbigg (Mary Farmer’s daughter from her first marriage) from Grace Fulbigg, her grandmother, and it came to a head in 1705.

John Farmer commented in his journal that

“In ye year 1705 the enemy strove to destroy severall of us in & by a difference about Earthly things.  But blessed bee ye Lord for his making use of our friends called Quakers to save us whereby also by his Spirit in us hee ended ye difference & saved us from disstruction.”

 It was noted in the Monthly Meeting on 26th July 1698 (the day before the Farmers got married) that the permission was granted “Depending on the resolution of £10 owed to Mary Fullbigg Junior from her grandmother’s will”.[ix]  At the time £10 was worth £1070 in today’s money, the equivalent of 4 months work for a skilled tradesman at the time[x].

 It seems this issue remained unresolved until 1705 when the matter was raised by John Mascall who noted in the Monthly Meeting on 20th March that he “desires ye judgement of ye said meeting concerning JF”.  At the next meeting on 24th April John Farmer himself raised the subject, asking if the £10 given for the use of his daughter in law (step daughter) could be placed in his own hands against him offering his house as surety.  In June the Monthly Meeting asked John Farmer to sign a double bond of £16 for the use of Mary Fulbigg, and trustees were appointed, one of whom was Thomas Wyatt, Mary Farmer’s father.  But at the meeting on 28:6mo 1705 (28th October 1705) the whole family dispute came to a terrible head when Thomas Wyatt and his son Zacharias came to the monthly meeting and publicly accused Mary Farmer of destroying Grace Fulbigg’s will:

The case of difference beingthe said Mary of destroying a widdows will made by the advice of her relations before marriage to the said John and left in her own hands to address wherein was ten pounds given to a daughter which the said Mary had by a former husband.”[xi]

The meeting insisted this “mischief” be resolved immediately and at the first meeting of 1706 the Friends gathered at Henham to witness a bond given from John Farmer to John Wale of ten pounds by the direction of the quarterly meeting for the use of Mary Fulbigg.  The Meeting directed that Henry Starr should keep it for her and John Farmer eventually confirmed to the Monthly Meeting on 25th February 1706/7 that the bond was signed and sealed, and now in the hands of Henry Starr. Having sorted out the mess his wife appeared to have caused, at the same meeting John Farmer then advised them he would be heading off on his travels, but not surprisingly the somewhat irritated meeting advised him to request permission of the Quarterly Meeting first.

Perhaps the reluctance to allow him to travel was because in 1703 Zacharias Wyatt had to advise the Meeting that John Farmer had “gone forth a journey into ye Northern parts” [xii] and he had not waited to get a certificate, but asked Zacharias to procure one, and get Mary Farmer to send it on to him.  It seems clear John Farmer was always going to be a rule-breaker and Mary Farmer was something of a willing accomplice.  Perhaps it was Farmer’s need to travel that had prompted the Friends to pin down the details of Mary Fulbigg’s legacy before he took off again. 

When John Farmer travelled north eventually in 1707 Mary accompanied him to Nottingham and then came home to wait for him.  When he reappeared in September 1708 he immediately moved his family to Colchester where they then resided for three years, him working as a wool comber and she as a nurse before he decided to go travelling again, this time on a 3-year trip to pre-revolutionary America.  John Farmer moved Mary and her daughters back to Saffron Walden and the Monthly Meeting accepted them back on 20th September 1711. He noted that Mary was working as a nurse and she had decided to be amongst Friends at Saffron Walden while she nursed her now lame daughter Mary.

Despite her husband being in America Mary did not stop performing the ministry work she also felt called to do, and in March 1713 she requested and was granted a certificate to visit churches in Suffolk and Norfolk.  In July 1714 she appeared in the records again having returned a certificate for travelling in the North and had acquainted the Friends that she now intended to go to Holland[xiii]

John Farmer arrived back in the Thaxted Meeting records on 30:9mo 1714 (30th November 1714) and they were delighted to receive the many certificates he had collected from America.   However at the same meeting he announced he would be returning immediately to America and they drafted a lengthy certificate allowing him to go.  Interestingly although several women did sign the certificate, Mary Farmer was not one of them.

Before he travelled back to America John Farmer wrote out in full his journal, from the notes he had gathered on his travels, and attached to it an epistle with instructions that the Journal was to be published.  It seems this never happened, and we have to wonder with whom he left the document.  A tantalising clue lies on page 6 of the document.  Farmer is discussing financial matters and mentions when he married Mary “Her estate was valued at upwards of …” and the next word has been neatly cut out of the page.  Then he mentions “I saved for my selfe by my labour and God’s blessing upwards of …” and again the word had been cut out of the page.  It’s only a theory, but my hunch is that Mary may have removed this personal information – she did after all apparently have previous for destroying financial information! [xiv]

Extract from John Farmer’s Journal showing excisions –  Essex Record Office A13685 box 51 – page 6

A couple of letters from John Farmer to Mary survive at the Essex Record Office. One particularly poignant one is from him in Virginia dated 1st of 4mo 1716 (1st June 1716) instructing Mary to send her belongings to Philadelphia, via Anthony Morris and detailing how she and the children were to travel to him, as he now planned to settle in America.  But for some reason, which we do not know, she never went, and never saw her husband again[xv].

After a number of adventures in America detailed in my previous posts John Farmer died in 1724 and in his will he left all his English possessions to Mary Farmer. He left his American possessions to his daughter Ann.  Mary promptly sent Ann to America to claim her inheritance and Mary began her own foreign adventure, travelling to Holland and Denmark in the ministry in 1725. She also left a handwritten account of her journey, where alongside her testimony she revealed encounters with pirates, fierce storms and other adventures. [xvi] 

Extract from Mary Farmer’s Journal 1725 ERO A13685 Box 51

John’s stepdaughter Mary Fulbigg stayed in Saffron Walden and kept a notebook for many years. Her book noted that her mother Mary Farmer had died 13th of 2nd month 1747 (13th of April 1747) at the extraordinary age of 82. [xvii]

Extract – Mary Fulbigg’s Journal – ERO A13685 Box 51

So far I have found no record of what finally happened to Mary Fulbigg. The last entry in her notebook is dated 3mo 24 1762 (24th March 1762).  She would have been nearly 72 years old so perhaps she died not long afterwards. Hopefully the record lies somewhere still to be found.  Both Mary Fulbigg and Mary Farmer’s handwritten books are here in the Essex Record Office and will be part of my future study plans.

Ann Farmer finally travelled to America in early 1725. The daughter who hadn’t seen her father for ten years applied to the Thaxted Friends Men’s Meeting for a certificate to attend Philadelphia Meeting on 23: 12th 1724 (23rd February 1724/5)[xviii] to claim her inheritance. Her certificate also indicated helpfully that she was clear of any attachments in England and free to marry, should she wish to.  Ann went on to become a small part of the American founding story.  She married Benjamin Boone, uncle of the frontiersman Daniel Boone, on 31st October 1726 and had one son, John Boone born in December 1727, but sadly Ann died very shortly after of complications from childbirth, at the age of only 26[xix].  John Boone was reported to have been brought up at his Uncle Squire Boone’s house alongside his cousins including the famous Daniel (b 1734), until his father remarried in 1738.  John Boone went on to have 9 children, founding a Boone dynasty in Hunting Creek, Rowan County, North Carolina the eldest of whom, Benjamin Boone became a Baptist Reverend [xx]

I am not sure John Farmer would have approved.

Thus we come to the end of the story of the Essex Quaker and his family for now.  It is by virtue of the fact that the Thaxted and Saffron Walden Quakers kept such comprehensive records that the family’s adventures, squabbles and dedication to their faith have come down to us in such glorious detail and nearly 300 years after John Farmer died we can still hear his voice, in the twenty-thousand-word journal that he laboured over, “Written in obedience to God for ye good of souls in this and future ages[xxi].  If only he could have known just how far into the future his words would travel.


[i] ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle of birth & burial notes Thaxted

[ii] ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes Thaxted 1665-1745

[iii] ERO A13685 Microfilm T/A 261/1/1

[iv] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.22

[v] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.22

[vi] Essex Record Office A13685, Microfilm T/A 261/1/11

[vii] For more information on Quaker dating practises please see my earlier post: An Essex Quaker Goes Out into the World

[viii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.26

[ix] Essex Record Office A13685, Microfilm T/A 261/1/1

[x] National Archives Money Converter http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter. Compare £10 in 1700 with 2017 values.

[xi] Essex record Office A13685, Microfilm T/A261/1/1-5

[xii] Essex Record Office A13685 Box 1 Thaxted Monthly Meeting Minutes book 1697-1723 – 29:4m 1703 (29th July 1703)

[xiii] Essex Record Office A13685 Box 1 Thaxted Monthly Meeting Minutes book 1697-1723 – 27:5mo 1714 (27th August 1714)

[xiv]Extract from John Farmer’s Journal, Essex Record Office A13685 box 51 – p. 6

[xv] Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51 John Farmer letter from America 1:4mo 1716 (1st June 1716)

[xvi] Extract from Mary Farmer’s Journal 1725 ERO A13685 Box 51

[xvii] Extract from Mary Fulbigg’s Journal – ERO A13685 Box 51

[xviii] Essex record Office A13685, Microfilm T/A261/1/1-5

[xix] For more information relating to Ann Farmer Boone and the family see:

https://www.geni.com/people/Ann-Anne-Boone/6000000001744943746

[xx] For more information relating to Benjamin Boone the younger see:

https://www.geni.com/people/Rev-Benjamin-Boone/6000000009592914585

[xxi] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.1

Researching From Home

With Adrian Corder-Birch

Adrian Corder-Birch is retired; he has interests in local history, genealogy and industrial archaeology.

Where is your ‘office’?
I prefer to call it a study rather than an office and it is situated on the ground floor.  It contains part of my reference library, a laptop, computer and printer.  My wife, Pam, has her study in the balcony room on the first floor.

Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?
I am fortunate enough to have two windows.  One, where my main desk is, faces west towards the drive.  The other, where my computer is located, faces south across our front garden where magnolia, cherry and other trees are in full bloom, with azaleas and rhododendrons just beginning to come out.

What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?
I am currently completing research for a book about the history of the Portway family and their foundry in Halstead where tortoise stoves were manufactured.  Pam is compiling a separate book about the history of Bois Hall (now demolished) which was a former home to the Portway and many other families.  It is our intention that both books are published and launched simultaneously, when circumstances permit.

Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?
I no longer work to a strict timetable as I am retired.

Do you have a favourite online resource?
I use several online resources and it is difficult to suggest a favourite.  Those I use regularly include Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive, Free BMD and of course Essex Archives Online including Parish Registers.  I also keep an eye on EBAY and sometimes purchase items relating to Essex history.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?
A cup of tea and this time of the year a hot cross bun.

Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?
I am sometimes distracted by wildlife in the garden including squirrels climbing everywhere, noisy partridges, green woodpeckers and occasionally a spotted woodpecker.  I am very fortunate to see this wildlife, which is well worth being distracted.  The main disturbance this time of the year is from rooks, building a rookery in our oak trees and making quite a noise. 

What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?
One of the benefits of the lockdown is that I am beginning to sort through documents and photographs, which should be deposited at the Essex Record Office.  I am looking forward to normal service being resumed so that I can deliver these records, which will undoubtedly help historians in the future.  This will provide an opportunity to see the archivists and archive assistants again, many of whom I have known for some years and have become good friends, quite apart from being extremely helpful and sharing their extensive knowledge.

Essex Archives Online digital images: Wills – what will you find?

Back at the end of March Ian Beckwith kindly shared with us some of the fruits of his research he had undertaken on digital images of Parish Registers
(
Essex Archives Online: Parish Registers – what will you find?) accessed through our subscription service on Essex Archives Online. So, although the physical building may be closed for the time being, research is still possible and we enjoyed Ian’s piece so much we thought we’d ask our friends from Mersea [Island] Archive Research Group to share with us just a taste what they have found by looking through wills, of which we look after over 69,000 covering the years 1400-1858. We hope you find it as motivating as we have and, perhaps, it will tempt you to have a go yourself.

Mersea Wills

A year ago, in a world now so remote from the unfamiliar present, a new group was set up at Mersea Island Museum. To some attending the AGM at which this proposal was agreed, it offered an exciting and challenging project: to others, it may have seemed as dull as ditchwater, but worth a try. Now, after the first, gratifyingly successful year, our fortnightly meetings have been brought to an abrupt halt by the unprecedented coronavirus lockdown. In place of sociable discussions over coffee and biscuits, we now try to spend some of our hours of isolation in continuing local researches, communicating online and building on our previous shared learning experiences.

Our group goes by the initials MARG: Mersea Archive Research Group. Its aims are to help members acquire the basic skills of palaeography and to develop and extend these skills by transcribing some of the wonderful local documents preserved in Essex Record Office (ERO). We concentrate on the plentiful records from Mersea Island and nearby villages during the tumultuous Tudor and Stuart periods. Before the enforced closure, we hoped to visit ERO to see original documents, but after the first, enjoyable visit by six members, this was of course no longer possible. The obvious alternative, and one which protects fragile archives from excessive handling, is to make more use of ERO’s increasing collection of digitized documents, which currently include thousands of Essex wills and all available parish registers.  We are lucky to have such a wonderful resource available to download on payment of subscription for a variable period. Local appreciation is shared by historians outside the county – an email I received last week from a fellow researcher, commented that ‘You are so lucky with all of the digital resources from the Essex Record Office – as I found out with my Repton project as my local archive has not got nearly as many.’

So often, studying these documents can suddenly reveal an unusual, shocking or moving event recorded, almost incidentally, among pages of routine items. In his ERO Blogpost of 27 March,  Ian Beckwith told a tragic story revealed by an entry in Great Burstead’s burial register:

Elizabeth Wattes Widdow sume tyme the wife of Thomas Wattes the blessed marter of god who for his treuth suffered his merterdom in the fyre at Chelmesford the xxij day of may in A[nn]o D[o]m[ini] 1555 in the Reigne of queen mary was buryed the 10 [July] 1599 (ERO, D/P 139/1/0, Image 49).

Amazingly, a similar event was revealed in several entries in court records of East Mersea Hall Manor, this time concerning a Roman Catholic rather than Protestant martyr:

It is presented that Thomas Abell, Clark, who of the Lord holds … [one tenement called ] Stone Land; befor this court was Accused and by Acte of parlament Convicte of Treason &c Agaynst our soveraign Lord the kynge, and for that cause he is in the Tower of London in prison. (ERO D/DRc M12, unnumbered folio. This document was not digitized but photographed earlier using the £12 camera fee in the Searchroom )

Rebus of Thomas Abell in the Beauchamp Tower, Tower of London

Thomas Abell was chaplain to Queen Katherine of Aragon, who granted him the benefice of Bradwell juxta Mare. He was imprisoned in 1534 for publishing a book attacking the royal divorce, and after six years in the Tower Abell was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield. In the first year of Queen Elizabeth a letter from the queen was copied into the same East Mersea court book (D/DRc M12), granting all of Thomas Abell’s former holdings, to his brother, John Abell.

Most of the more than forty transcripts completed by MARG members have been digitized wills of the Tudor and Stuart periods. Several members of MARG with subscriptions share downloaded images for discussion with the group, purely ‘for study purposes’. We are aware of strict copyright conditions regarding ERO documents, so images are used only for a couple of weeks while being transcribed by individual members. In some cases where the language is particularly obscure, a modern translation is added. After checking, transcripts are then uploaded to the Mersea Museum website, and can be seen by accessing https://www.merseamuseum.org.uk/mmsearch.php, clicking on ‘Mersea Museum Articles books and papers’ and entering the search-term ‘MARG’. We make sure that no digital images downloaded from ERO are posted on the Mersea Museum website, or available to anyone outside the group.

One way to find refuge from each day’s disturbing Covid bulletins is to lose oneself in the no less anxious times of the 16th and 17th centuries. Wills transcribed over the past year contain a wealth of detail evoking the families, possessions and daily concerns of testators ranging from poor, illiterate villagers to prosperous landowners. Because no lord of any of the Mersea manors chose to live on the island, no great houses were built here. The lords (and lady) of West Mersea lived in splendour at St Osyth’s Priory, almost visible across the River Colne, before the terrors of civil war drove Countess Rivers into exile and bankruptcy. When her great estates and many manors were divided and sold in 1648, Peet and Fingringhoe were sold separately from the previously attached manor of West Mersea, to a rich Irish merchant. His increasing wealth and likely slave ownership were explored by two group members following a hint in the will of his tenant, the widowed Sarah Hackney.

Sarah Hackney’s digitized will (D/ABW 61/125) was made in March 1660/1. She lived in Peet Hall, formerly in the parish of West Mersea, though on the mainland, and the location of most of its manorial courts. Her will specifies the magnificent bequest of £105 and some valuable furniture to her favourite servant, John Foakes, while her brother received the comparatively paltry sum of £15. An apparently unrelated executor received the remainder of her goods and chattels, apart from her clock, to be delivered to her landlord, Thomas Frere, at the end of her lease of Peet Hall. This link led to an investigation of the will of Thomas Frere of Fingringhoe, which yielded far more exotic properties to bequeath. His will (D/ACW 17/114) contains the following unexpected legacies:

Imprimis I give & bequeath unto  Thomas Frere my sonne and to his heires executors administrators & assignes All my estate whatsoever both reall and personall in the Island of Barbadoes which was bequeathed unto mee by mr John  Jackson my late brother in law & by Elizabeth Jackson his wife my late sister or by either of them or that I have any right or title unto in the said Island of Barbadoes or else where from them or either of them, Alsoe  I give & bequeath unto the said Thomas Frere my sonne and to his heires executors administrators & assignees  all my landes plantations and other estate whatsoever both reall & personall in the Island of Antigua commonly  called Antego.

Map showing the Frere family estates in the South and East of Barbados. Thanks to MARG member Trevor Hearn for this information (http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~sfreer/barbados.html )

In contrast to the lucrative estates of a probable slave-owner is the situation of Robert Wilvet of West Mersea, who made his short will (D/ABW 39/55) in 1542. The will unusually includes an inventory of his goods, and the many debts totalling nearly £30, which he owed to others on Mersea and beyond.

The very recent changes brought about by the Reformation meant that Wilvet left no precious pennies to the church, simply hoping to be received as one of the ‘faithful and elect of Christ’. Unusually, his will names no specific bequests, even to his son, who, while named as one of three executors, had the other two to be his guides, and ‘see [th]at he Doo no Wronge nor take no Wronge’.  The inventory which follows suggests how little there was to inherit: one ‘aulde’ boat worth 6s 8d, one oar, a sail, lines, dredges and a trawling net, plus 30 shillings worth of oysters and household goods worth 3s 4d. Wilvet or his son had little hope of paying off the largest outstanding debt of ‘xix li’ [£19]. However, it is interesting to note that the equipment used by John Wilvet, in his occupation as oyster fisherman, probably changed little until the introduction of marine engines and mechanized trawling gear, many centuries later.

Such brief extracts from wills transcribed by Mersea’s MARG group can only hint at the tantalizing stories that these documents so frequently evoke.  While parish registers, rent rolls and property deeds can suggest the bare bones of a person’s life, the documents they dictated to parish priests or literate neighbours as they calmly or fearfully contemplated death, tell a far more complex story. Their possessions, activities, and bonds with family and neighbours, all come to life as we painstakingly transcribe these voices, speaking to us from another age. It is thanks to the preservation of these essentially human records, preserved and now digitized by the skill and dedication of ERO staff, that we can understand more about those who once built and inhabited our local communities.

Sue Howlett
Mersea Archive Research Group

Lockdown soundscapes

Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux reflects on how our soundscapes have or haven’t changed during the current lockdown.

Numerous comments have been made about how quiet it is during lockdown – that there is less air traffic, less road traffic, less general hub-bub. Eminent wildlife recordist Chris Watson has spoken of the ‘unique opportunity’ to listen to ‘astonishing’ soundscapes we can hear in our own back gardens. Audio ecologists such as Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp have described the way our ears can now tune into sounds from a much greater distance, as overall noise levels decrease – a ‘depth perception’ that we wouldn’t normally perceive.

It is true that the number of flights have drastically decreased – you can check what’s overhead right at this moment with a flight tracker website or a surprisingly interesting Twitter feed. As you will see, it is misleading to say that air traffic has stopped – people are flying home, sometimes in special planes chartered to retrieve them. Medical supplies are frantically being sent all over the globe. Can someone on a normal flight path tell us their impressions of the impact? Because there are fewer aeroplanes, does that make us notice them more?

Some noises are ‘normal’, but the current context heightens our awareness of them. Sirens screaming are a frequent occurrence at any time, and, particularly if you live in a city, you learn to filter them out. But now when we hear a siren, do we assign more significance to it? Does it make us feel worried, afraid, sad – or thankful for the emergency services?

Is there more birdsong? Or are we just noticing it more? If there is less other environmental noise, it does not make sense that the birds are singing louder – they have less to compete with to make themselves heard. Maybe the sounds are more audible, because there are fewer other distractions, and we pay more attention to them because we are at home more, out in the garden more. Or perhaps this is just our perception because lockdown coincided with spring, when birds typically become more audible.

I do not often work from home, so I cannot judge whether the amount of human activity I can hear has changed. Can I hear more conversations as people run into neighbours on the way to the shops because they are speaking to each other from further away, and therefore more loudly? Or are people more likely to chat because we all need to reach out for human contact? Can I hear more conversation as people are queuing outside shops, instead of breezing in and out?

Then there are new sounds. Communal dancing in the street. Clapping and clanging pots for frontline workers each Thursday evening.

What is really going on? What are the real pandemic soundscapes? Let’s put these sweeping statements to the test.

First, open a window. Second, set an alarm to go off in five minutes. Now, find somewhere comfortable to sit. Open your ears. Close your eyes.

What did you hear? This is what I heard from my lockdown workspace:

  • Two constant background noises: a ticking clock on the bookcase behind me, and the high-pitched chirping of birds, probably in the trees nearby.
  • Cars and possibly a larger vehicle driving round my block of flats, with associated noises like a car door shutting, a car engine starting up.
  • A runner’s footsteps rhythmically slapping the pavement.
  • Birds rustling tree branches as they fly off or land.
  • A child’s voice, distantly heard.
  • Pigeons cooing.
  • A sea gull squawking.
  • The flapping wings of a small bird fluttering near my window.
  • A lawnmower.
  • The beeping of a reversing lorry, in the distance.
  • Frequently, the double beep noise that’s made every time someone opens the door to the nearby convenience store.

What did you hear? How did it make you feel? It is ok if your soundscape does not have the calming, peaceful effect that is so commonly described. It is understandable to feel anxious by sounds you hear. As always in history, the individual experiences of and responses to events are complex.

The absence of sounds is not always welcome. The comforting noise of cricket bat against ball on the village green. The happy chatter from beer gardens on a warm Friday evening. The automated voice telling you that you have, at last, reached your local station on your daily commute home. Or maybe you miss some of the sounds of your workplace. For me, it’s the satisfying clunk of a cassette tape being loaded into a player – it goes without saying that I miss hearing the collections themselves.

Whatever you experienced, we want to hear your #StayHomeSounds. Safely from your home or garden, record what your lockdown sounds like. Then send it to us at explore.essex@essex.gov.uk. It would help if you can provide information about where and when it was recorded, plus a little about why you recorded it and your reactions to those noises. We are compiling sounds on our Essex Sounds map, and we may use them for other resources. Please contact us if you want more technical details about how to make your recording.

If you want to hear what the pandemic sounds like in far-flung lands, there are a number of global sound maps you can dip into, such as at Radio Aporee and Sounds of Cities. How different is the situation in India, or Marseilles?

Or if you want some escapism, tune into BBC Essex each morning at around 9:55 a.m. for a daily soundscape of things we can’t currently enjoy, or explore our Essex Sounds map of past and present sounds of Essex.

We’ll leave you with this clip of the dawn chorus recorded on 7 May 2017, on the outskirts of Chelmsford – how does it compare with the dawn chorus you might have heard today, on #InternationalDawnChorusDay?

Logo for Essex Sounds of Silence campaign with text 'Stop, listen and record this moment in history'

‘A Famous Brighton Composer’

This newspaper article, from the Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic, was found pasted inside an early 20th century scrapbook belonging to the Bradhurst family of Rivenhall Place (specifically to Minna Evangeline Wood and Augustus Maunsell Bradhurst). It, along with other articles and letters, gives us an insight into an interesting musical career.

Immediately, your eye is caught by the flamboyant photograph in the centre of the page: an elderly woman riding a tricycle with free abandon. What wonderful woman could this be? You ask, and the answer is right there: Lady Barrett-Lennard, A Famous Brighton Composer. Not only is this an elderly woman, but a high class elderly woman; certainly not the photograph one would expect of her!

Lady Emma Barrett-Lennard was baptised as Emma Wood on February 17th 1832 in London. She was baptised by her father, Sir John Page Wood, a rector. Her mother was Lady Emma Caroline Wood. She became a Barrett-Lennard on January 18th 1853 when she married Thomas Barrett-Lennard, who ascended to the baronetcy upon the death of his grandfather in 1857. Her death came, in Brighton, on June 18th 1916; less than a year after this article was written.

The main reason for the article? Her success as the composer of ‘Canadian Guns’, a patriotic song which had become a popular song to perform at events.

Another article, this one from the Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, praises a particular performance of Canadian Guns given at “Lady Lennard’s Concert Party”. This concert was the third of a series given by Lady Barrett-Lennard at different hospitals in the Folkestone area.

Alongside this article, a letter was also pasted into the scrapbook. The letter was from Lt. Col. L. G. Rennie, written to thank Lady Barrett-Lennard for her for the work her concert had done in cheering up sick and wounded soldiers.

A second letter was written from Sgd. F. Timberlake (bandmaster) thanking her for making Canadian Guns accessible to him and assuring her that he will “get the march played with the band every day to get the tuneful melody memorised by the troops”.

If this isn’t sufficient proof of Lady Barret-Lennard’s success as a musical composer, then the final thing that is need to cement this claim is the following article which seems to exist purely to sing her praises and demand more songs. Published by ‘The Bystander’ on November 10th 1915, the article is titled: “An Octogenarian Song Composer: The Elusive Personality of the Writer of Plymouth Hoe and Canadian Guns”. The writer of the article begins by marvelling at her age and gender (obviously two limitations which make her success all the more remarkable…) and blames Lady Barrett-Lennard’s modesty for the lack of success seen by her forty or so other songs.

The article suggests that her other popular song, ‘Plymouth Hoe’, was “rescued” from being “pigeon-holed” at her publishers office. According to this article it was only because she heard that people thought ‘Plymouth Hoe’ was her only song that she allowed for ‘Canadian Guns’ to be published and “not pigeon-holed”. The article ends with the hope that their writing has successfully persuaded Lady Barrett-Lennard to write more songs, or her publishers to “rescue” more of her songs from their pigeon-holes.

Of course the true proof of fame is the critics! And Lady Barrett-Lennard was not without her own critics. One critic is given a particularly amusing spotlight in the Brighton Graphic and South Coast Illustrated News in an article titled: Brighton Lady Composer: Scandalous Insinuations. (‘Lady’ clearly having been underlined to emphasise the rarity of a successful female…) The article is written around a letter which has been anonymously sent to them, signed by “Musicus”, in which Lady Barrett-Lennard is accused of paying her way to success. The most amusing point of this letter seems to be that “Musicus” has never actually heard ‘Canadian Guns’ performed and yet is disparaging it regardless. The insinuation clearly being that a woman could not have created something that is actually good enough to earn such attention and success.

Fortunately (for Lady Barrett-Lennard and for feminists everywhere), the author of the article seems as disbelieving of these accusations as Lady Barrett-Lennard’s secretary whose withering reply has also been published alongside the article.

As well as her famous songs, ‘Canadian Guns’ and ‘Plymouth Hoe’, Lady Barrett-Lennard also composed music to accompany a variety of poems. Some of these are by known poets, whilst some appear to be written by her own
acquaintances. Many of these compositions are written to accompany poems by Lord Alfred Tennyson. We are fortunate to have a book of Lady Barrett-Lennard’s songs amongst the many documents which make up our Barrett-Lennard collection.

Give peas a chance Part 2: Protection

Crops of every kind, including peas, were tempting targets for humans as well as natural predators, such as rabbits but mainly birds. Extensive acreages of field crops posed a challenge to protect, but an abundance of cheap human labour would have provided at least some form of bird-scaring by children armed with clappers and loud voices. Fortunately for the farmer, this was an easy job that required little skill and not much, if any, payment.

A story passed down in my family is that my great-grandfather, Henry Wiffen (1862-1946), was taken out bird scaring as one of his first jobs, presumably when he was 7 or 8. His father lit a little fire in the base of a hedge for him to keep warm by while keeping an eye out for birds. This might have been at Nightingale Hall Farm in Halstead / Greenstead Green. See George Clausen’s painting, ‘Bird Scaring – March’.

For those levels of society that could afford to have large, planned gardens, with an appropriate number of gardeners, then there was plenty of people on hand to protect crops from predation. However, that fickle, enigmatic element known to all gardeners, the weather, had also to be countered. To begin with a warm wall or sheltered corner of a garden might suffice to an aspiring gardener. Small moveable enclosures, known as cloches, or cold frames with a covering of ‘lights’, could be used to give protection to particular plants or small areas of crops. If you were rich then money, and lots of it, could be thrown at this problem, and, as with all things, technology evolved over time along with the aspirations of the owners of grand houses. They were the early adopters of even greater resource-intensive infrastructure, and a good example of this can be seen in the incredible, and now lost, gardens of Wanstead House.

The plan of the house gardens park & plantations of Wanstead in the county of Essex, the seat of the Rt. Honble the El. Tylney. (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

A vitally important part of a planned garden was the kitchen garden, for in an age before global trade and refrigeration only a very small amount of produce was imported. So if you wanted to eat something out of the ordinary then you had to grow it, and if you wanted to eat that something out of season then you had to make it happen. The wealthier you were the more you could eat out of season fruit and vegetables, such as peas and peaches, and the more exotic would be the produce that your gardens grew – pineapples being the most unusual and difficult to grow (the first grown in Britain is reckoned to have been in 1693 for Queen Mary II: T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.193). Grapes were also a symbol of status and perhaps the most famous vine is the 250 year-old Black Hamburg at Hampton Court Palace, which has an interesting Essex connection (see: https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/the-great-vine/#gs.2k24uk). Kitchen gardens then, were both a symbol of wealth and status as well as a practical contributor to the household economy. At Wanstead the extensive gardens were located close to the main house.

Extract from the plan of Wanstead House and gardens showing the main house and kitchen garden. The numbered parts are: 2. stables and out houses; 3. the church; 6. the greenhouse; 11. the stoves; 12. ‘kitchen gardiners house’; 17. the kitchen garden. The ‘kitchen gardiners [sic] house’ is probably what we would more familiarly know as the Head Gardener’s house. Having such an important person on hand was essential to oversee the gardens both as a security measure and for keeping a professional eye on the running of the garden. (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

As can be seen, the kitchen gardens are on a grand scale and laid out in a very formal manner with lots of beds and borders. From these would have been grown all the run of the mill fruit and vegetables that would have fed the household throughout the year. These gardens were powered by the extensive use of manure, as often as not horse manure, to provide the soil with the necessary body to produce large yields. As can be seen from the plan, the stables are quite close but on the opposite side of the house from the gardens. This would have entailed the carting of manure across the sightline of the house or a very long detour to get it to the gardens out of sight. Wherever practical the stables and gardens were, sensibly, located adjacent to one another and quite often out of view altogether so as not to offend the owner and his family with sights and smells that might not be conducive to their sensibilities. It could be that at Wanstead we are looking at an early form of that relationship and that by the nineteenth century the layout of an estate had become more nuanced. A good example of a recreated kitchen garden and stable set-up is at Audley End (http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/organic-kitchen-gardens/)

Detailed extract from the plan of Wanstead House showing the Stove House, Green House and Great Stove House (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

Having sheltered open borders was all very good but in order not only to grow tender plants, but to extend the season of more general crops, then much more intensive infrastructure was required. This is highlighted on the 1735 plan of Wanstead with individual depictions of a green house (6 on the plan) and two ‘stove’ houses (both marked as 11 on the plan). A greenhouse at this stage was a light, airy building with some glazing that sheltered plants, while the stove house was much the same but had heating of some kind, often free-standing stoves located within the building. We think of greenhouses today as having minimal structure and maximum glazing, but this design only came around in the second half of the nineteenth century as developments in cast-iron production and the decreasing cost of glass made the ‘modern’ greenhouse possible. The eighteenth-century equivalent had much more structure and far less glazing, very much like what we would think of as an orangery. As indicated above, these were very expensive to build and run.

Detail of ‘The Great Stove House’ (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

While the gardens at Wanstead House were obviously cutting-edge, they also deployed other techniques for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers. If we look at the image of the Great Stove House we can see a couple of examples. Firstly this sub-section of the garden is surrounded by what appears to be wooden fencing. Not only does this define the area, but the fencing also gives protection from damaging winds thus creating a sheltered micro-climate. In a later period, brick walls were built which fulfilled the same functions as a wooden fence but also had the advantage of acting as a structure up which plants could be trained – tender ones on the south facing walls with hardier ones on the cooler, north facing walls. Some of these walls were built to be heated themselves by fireplaces and flues to protect crops from frost, think outdoor radiators – but they must have been extremely expensive to run. Not all plant protection at Wanstead was very expensive, for in the borders are bell-shapes which are probably glass cloches, a low-tech form of plant protection. Cloche being French for bell – hence they get their name from their shape.

Cloches and cold frames were available to a wider cross-section of the population than expensive greenhouses. For example, Richard Bridgeman (d.1677) had 18 ‘cowcumber’-glasses worth 9 shillings, while Theophilus Lingard (d.1743/4) had, among extensive possessions, 20 bell glasses and two cucumber frames. (F.W. Steer, Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex, 1635-1749 (Chelmsford, 1950), pp.145, 270.) So for gardeners of all degrees there was some form of artificial plant protection available to give that little bit of advantage when growing crops. A more modern version of the traditional bell cloche was the Chase barn cloche, introduced in the early twentieth century by Major L.H. Chase. These simple forms of protection were used in their thousands by nursery and market-gardeners to give protection to their crops from the bad weather. However, they were susceptible, along with greenhouses, to the rain of shrapnel that was caused by anti-aircraft fire during the Second World War – thank goodness we don’t have that to worry about now!

Surviving Chase barn cloches about to protect Ne Plus Ultra peas from the weather and pigeons.

While no longer bell-shaped, protective covers are still known as cloches, although it is thought that in Essex most market gardeners of the post-war years pronounced cloche as CLOTCH (sounding like BLOTCH) – no subtleties in pronunciation there! (Photo: N. Wiffen)

How to pronounce ‘cloches’ if you’re speaking Essex

Researching From Home

With Julie Miller

Hi, I am Julie Miller and I am finishing my second year as a part-time History MA student at the University of Essex.  In the summer of 2019 I won a research placement at the Essex Record Office to transcribe and research a handwritten 18th century Journal by a Saffron Walden Quaker called John Farmer.  He is now the subject of my Masters’ dissertation and ongoing research.

When the lockdown was announced my stepdaughter and ten-year-old granddaughter moved in with us so we could all help look after each other.  This means the house is not quite as peaceful as before.  It’s been very special spending time with them, but Nanny Jules is now in charge of home schooling a very reluctant reader.  We have found comic poetry a great resource and my disinclined pupil is enjoying her reading much more. My husband is a Flour Miller and designated a key worker so he is working a lot of extra shifts, day and night so I am trying to keep everything running smoothly for him too.

Where is your office?

Currently my office is a summer house in the garden. Called Miller’s Rest, it was a gift from my husband for my 40th birthday and I usually use it as an art studio.  We have rigged up a rudimentary power supply and I’ve moved all my research materials and laptop up there so I can work in peace. My desk is a curious bit of Colchester history.  It was made for my Uncle out of offcuts of coffin oak from the Co-op Funeral Service workshops many years ago and I inherited it when he passed.  Because its coffin wood it’s a bit narrow, so the laptop doesn’t quite fit, but I manage, and I like the quirkiness of it. I have a really good office chair though and that makes working at an odd desk much more comfortable.

I have a radio because there is always time for Women’s Hour, and I also have a 1920s gramophone and a collection of wonderful 78s by the stars of yesteryear like Elvis, Doris Day, Bill Hayley, Dean Martin and Glen Miller. Sitting out there in the evenings with a drink and the gramophone is a real treat, till the mosquitoes from the pond start munching.

Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?

From the open doors of Miller’s Rest I can see all the way back down the garden to the rear of our 1920s house where an ill-thought out 1970s extension does nothing to improve the view.  However the side window in front of my desk looks out onto trees overhanging an ancient pond which is currently full of tadpoles.  The sparrows enjoy balancing on twigs over the pond to get a drink, or maybe a nibble on a tadpole and they are very entertaining.  The garden is always distracting, and I am drawn to my greenhouse at this time of year, but I am trying to be disciplined. Sadly there is often a full washing line too.

What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?

For the last 4 weeks I have been doing a job for one of my tutors, a 22,000-word transcription of a research interview she did with a professor of Chinese Religious History.  Not very Essex at all admittedly, but now that’s finished I am writing an article for the magazine for the Essex Society for Family History.  I was very lucky to win their 2020 Award for my research into John Farmer. They want to know more about him for their readers, and I am happy to oblige.

After the article, I will be turning my full attention to completing my dissertation, which will cover the work I did on the John Farmer Journal while I was at the ERO, and subsequent research I have done to flesh out his later story.  He was a remarkable man who visited the Native Americans and the Caribbean Islands in the 1710-1720s but was thrown out of the Philadelphia Quakers for challenging them to give up slaves and slave trading. He was described as a man of ‘indiscreet zeal’.  He was way ahead of his time and deserves to be recognised. Neil Wiffen at the ERO has challenged me to write a book about Farmer before 2024 which will be the 300th anniversary of John Farmer’s death.  No pressure there then Neil! I will also be continuing my research into John Farmer and his wife Mary for my upcoming PhD which I hope to start in October (lockdown permitting).

Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?

I try to do at least two hours a day, more if possible but with the cooking and work associated with extra people in the house it is proving tricky.  My Supervisor is starting to make chivvying noises and asking to see draft chapters, so I am beginning to feel the pressure.

Do you have a favourite online resource?

I have been lucky in that I was able to get lots of copied material from the ERO while I was on my placement, and I have visited several times since so I haven’t needed to rely on much online research.  But there are some interesting online resources in America and the UK relating to Quaker history and I have had an enjoyable ongoing discussion with a genealogist from Mobile, Alabama who had posted on the Find a Grave site, to try to resolve some errors in the family history relating to John Farmer.  Note to any researcher – do not upset an American genealogist, they take their work very seriously and luckily I was able to supply documentary proof of my research and they corrected their information.  I think that is quite an achievement.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

Well, as I am writing this on Easter Monday I suppose I would have to say Easter Egg.  However on a (what passes for) normal day I would have a ham sandwich and a packet of crisps washed down with water or diet coke.  Our family have a long tradition of tea or coffee and cake at 4pm, so that is usually when I stop work and we all come together to watch the BBC virus update before planning the evening entertainment.

Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from you research?

One of my university colleagues has set up a regular quiz on Zoom, several times a week and we all join in from our sofas which has been a lot of fun. My granddaughter has a liking for gambling with grandad’s pennies and we play Newmarket sometimes.  I like folk music so enjoy watching the online live sessions from people like Kate Rusby, Chris Leslie and While and Matthews and being a nosey parker I like seeing their homes.  Also I belong to a local shanty group and we have been using Skype to do virtual unplugged singing sessions.  Its been funny seeing everyone placing themselves in front of bookcases.

Along with that it’s regular calls to family, I am missing my little grandson a lot, and am so thankful that social media allows us to stay in touch.

What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?

I am desperate to get back into the Colchester and Saffron Walden Quaker minute books from the 17th and 18th century as I am trying to trace John Farmer in both towns, filling in some of the gaps, and also looking for more information about his amazing wife and daughters who all had their own stories to tell.  Also Mary Farmer and her daughter Mary Fulbigg left behind journals that still need transcribing, so I have lots of work ahead of me.