Communicating Connections: oral histories and website now online!

We’re delighted to announce that the oral histories recorded for Communicating Connections: Sharing the Heritage of Marconi’s Wireless World are now available to explore on Essex Archives Online. You can also explore our project website, Marconi Stories, where you can learn about the project, listen to clips from the interviews and podcasts, view a gallery of digitised photographs, and download our guided walks around Marconi heritage in Chelmsford.

A screenshot of the homepage of the project website. The project title is on a background of a photograph of a Marconi factory, with the menu above.
The Communicating Connections project website

The oral histories with 30 former employees of the Marconi Company are at the heart of the Communicating Connections project. As the interviewees worked at the company in a huge range of roles from the 1950s to the 2000s, the recordings capture a real variety of experiences. Together, they add a human dimension to a story of technological innovation, and give a personal insight into how the company operated across the fields of broadcasting, telecommunications, navigation, and other wireless technologies. They also reveal how life in Chelmsford – and the fabric of the city itself – was shaped by the company. This living heritage will now be preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the ERO for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

The clips and excerpts below provide an insight into the experiences discussed in the interviews. Most of the interviewees begin by describing how they came to work at the company. Many, like Peter Farnworth, joined as apprentices. In this clip, he talks about moving into the ‘ship room’ in the hostel for apprentices on Springfield Place in 1966.

Interview with Peter Farnworth [SA 13/8/26/1]

Several female interviewees – Barbara Stephens, Joyce Allan, Maria Smith, and Val Cleare – discuss what it was like to join Marconi’s as a woman. In this clip, Barbara recalls being the only female apprentice on her course in 1974. She went on to become a trailblazer in the world of engineering.

Interview with Barbara Stephens [SA 13/8/3/1]

A detached building behind some elaborate gates and a fence, next to a sign that reads 'Marconi Aeradio Training School'
Marconi Aeradio Training School, Chelmsford

After their apprenticeships, the interviewees went on to work in various departments across the company, often progressing into management positions. Chris Denly recalls that a job at Marconi was seen as a ‘job for life’ –

“It was going to be a job for life. [It had] its own culture; we used to go on things like ‘walkabout’, where we’d go to different departments, talking to people, communicating, and seeing what everybody else was actually up to”

Interview with Chris Denly [SA 13/8/12/1]

The interviewees also explain the technology and equipment they worked with, often in great detail. In this clip, Malcolm Frost talks about his time working on the ‘Heli-tele’ system for aircraft, which they sold to the BBC so they could record television from the air.

Interview with Malcolm Frost [SA 13/8/19/1]

As the company had customers and clients all around the world, many Marconi employees travelled abroad for work, sometimes for months or even years at a time. The interviewees often recalled their travels with Marconi as a highlight of their careers. In his interview, Bob Willis listed where he’d been –

“I’ve been to Australia and South Africa. I’ve been to Japan, Korea, Taiwan. People from India and China came over to the UK. Chinese engineers came from a couple of space companies because I had a relationship with the National Physics Laboratory.”

Interview with Bob Willis [SA 13/8/6/1]

An old-fashioned car on a road outside a building with 'Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Works' painted on the corner.
A Marconi vehicle outside the Hall Street factory

The interviewees also describe their memories of Marconi’s factories, workshops, laboratories, and training schools back home in Chelmsford, and the working atmosphere. In her interview, Maria Smith describes the importance of working together in the drawing offices. After she had her first child in 1977, she continued working for Marconi’s from home.

Interview with Maria Smith [SA 13/8/20/1]

While many of the interviewees look back on their time at Marconi’s fondly, they also discuss the challenges they faced at work and the decline of the company from the 1990s. Cyril Teed worked at Marconi’s for 15 years before moving to be Chief Engineer at ITN. In this clip, he describes the changes that had occurred at Marconi’s when he returned three years later.

Interview with Cyril Teed [SA 13/8/14/1]

Like Cyril, Martyn Clarke also took part in the social side of working at Marconi’s. Here, he talks about reviewing films for the monthly Marconi magazine and making a pirate-themed float for Chelmsford Carnival.

Interview with Martyn Clarke [SA 13/8/21/1]

At the end of the interviews, many of the interviewees reflect on the friendships they made, and note that they remain in touch with people they met through work – even as apprentices back in the 1950s.

“I still dream that I’m back working at Marconi’s in New Street. I don’t dream about working [elsewhere], where I worked for three times the length of time. It was a special company, it worked in a special way. And lots of friendships were made and survive to this day.”

Interview with Mike Plant [SA 13/8/25/1]

Each of the interviews recorded through the project is now available to browse on our catalogue here. You can listen to most of the interviews on Essex Archives Online, and some of the clips featured above on our Marconi radio in the Searchroom.

Our Communicating Connections radio

Thank you to everyone who has been involved since the start of the project in August 2020: all of the interviewees; the volunteer interviewers and podcasters; the project co-ordinator, Laura Owen; and our evaluator, Pippa Smith. We are also grateful for the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Essex 2020.

Read previous blog posts about the project here:

Curiosity Cabinet: The 2nd Longest Reigning Monarch in British History

This year the country is celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, marking her 70th year on the throne. As the longest reigning Monarch, she is the first British King or Queen to celebrate such a milestone.

Previously, Queen Victoria had held the record for longest reign. When she died in January 1901, Victoria had been Queen for 63 years, 7 months, and 2 days.

This Great Seal was used during Queen Victoria’s reign as a guarantee of authenticity for formal documents – such as laws, treaties, and letters of dispatch.

At the time of her death, Victoria had been the only British Monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee (60 years). She passed this momentous milestone on June 22nd 1897.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was celebrated with great enthusiasm across the Empire. Southend covered their streets in bunting and put on a parade through the town.

Celebrations in Rochford began at 11am with all inhabitants directed to meet in the Market Square to sing the National Anthem, accompanied by organ. Other entertainments included a procession, a children’s tea, a bicycle race, and illuminations in the town. As ‘a Finale to the days proceedings’ there was a bonfire in the Church Meadow.

Victoria’s Life as Queen

Born on May 24th 1819, Alexandrina Victoria was 5th in line to throne. It wasn’t until her father died 8 months after her birth that anyone began to consider the possibility of her being Queen. Yet, after a heavily sheltered life at Kensington Palace, she became Queen at only 18 years old. Supposedly, her first request as Monarch was to have a single hour alone.

Amongst the attendants at her five-hour long coronation were Lord and Lady Baybrooke, whose invitation included instructions to ‘perform all such duties as are required and belong unto’ them.

Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on February 10th 1840. They had 9 children together: Edward, Victoria, Alice, Beatrice, Leopold, Alfred, Louise, Arthur, and Helena. From these children sprung 42 grandchildren. As matchmaker, Victoria arranged royal or noble marriages for her family, spreading them across Europe and earning the nickname ‘Grandmother of Europe’.

When Prince Albert died in 1861 Victoria withdrew entirely from public life. She did not return for ten years and, even then, continued to dress in mourning until her own death.

Life as Queen was not easy. Throughout her reign, Victoria survived 8 assassination attempts. Each attempt was by lone-acting assassins and most were later deemed to be mentally unfit.

The first of these attempts was by Edward Oxford who shot at Queen Victoria’s carriage on June 10th 1850 whilst she was out for a drive with her husband.

Queen Victoria’s Lasting Influences

Victoria was the first Queen to occupy Buckingham Palace. It required extensive repairs and renovations, but afterwards became the seat of power for future Monarchs (including our own Queen Elizabeth II).

Another Royal Residence which stemmed from Victoria’s influence is Balmoral Castle in Scotland. After falling in love with Scotland, Victoria and Albert bought Balmoral in 1842. They built new neo-Gothic castle on the land, which continues to be Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite residence.

We also have Queen Victoria to thank for the convoluted protocols and traditions used by our current Queen at the opening of Parliament.

After the previous building was destroyed in a fire, Victoria attended the first State Opening of Parliament in the new Palace of Westminster in 1852.

The protocols and traditions established on this day have been used by British Monarchs ever since. These traditions include the use of the Irish State Coach and the Monarch’s procession through parliament.

One of Queen Victoria’s actions which outlives her is the introduction of the Victoria Cross in 1856. Its purpose is to honour acts of great bravery and is awarded on merit instead of rank. When Victoria issued the first medals to veterans of the Crimea war, it was the very first time that officers and men had been decorated together.

End of an Era

The Victorian Era ended on January 22nd 1901 when Queen Victoria died of a stroke, aged 81 years, at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight.

Queen Victoria was succeeded by her son, Edward. As King Edward VII, he would rule for only 9 years.

Nursing Stories: Essex County Hospital, Colchester

University of Essex MA student Punna Athwall writes about the ‘Empire of Care’ collection of oral histories…

In 2018 the NHS celebrated its 70th anniversary. Since 5 July 1948, the NHS journey has involved major changes in terms of its organisation, professionalisation and new treatments. However, the fundamental features of universal healthcare for everyone, free at the point of delivery are the same. The recent COVID pandemic has demonstrated the value of NHS provision to keep the nation safe.

Colchester reached another milestone in 2018 when Essex County Hospital on Lexden Road closed its doors after 200 years. A joint project by Essex University and Colchester General Hospital has compiled a library of images from its history.

Ten years earlier, Hollytrees Museum hosted the ‘Empire of Care’ exhibition, which focused on the lives and and stories of the nurses who came to Colchester to work for the NHS, recruited from other countries throughout the Commonwealth Empire. As well as objects, photographs, and press cuttings, the exhibition included interviews with a number of nurses who came to train at Essex County Hospital. These oral histories provide a window into life in Colchester from the 1950s to the 1970s.

History of Essex County Hospital

In 1818, a hospital for the poor was set up on Lexden Road by the archdeacon of Colchester, Joseph Jefferson. From 1907, his voluntary institution became known as Essex County Hospital. During the early days, the hospital was financed by subscriptions, gifts, and interest on investments, as well as collections, bazaars, and fundraising by the Ladies’ Linen League and Colchester Ladies’ Collection Association. From 1920, in-patients were charged £1 a week for maintenance, reduced to 10 shillings for contributors to an insurance scheme.

By this time, the hospital included an operating room and beds for more than 80 patients in eight wards. The hospital continued to add new buildings and medical facilities to cater for increasing demand, and during the Second World War it was graded as a first-class non-teaching hospital for all types of cases, becoming part of the emergency medical service.

In 1948 the County became part of the National Health Service. Over the next 40 years, the hospital added further facilities, including new operating theatres, a radiotherapy block, a postgraduate study medical centre and a children’s wing.

Empire of Care Interviews

The ‘Empire of Care’ collection, held as part of the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA) at the Essex Record Office, includes seven interviews, from 21 minutes to over an hour long. Two of the nurses interviewed came from Malaysia, one from St Vincent, two from Trinidad and one from Braintree. Another interviewee was a local lady who supported trainee nurses.

Rosie Bobby describes why she decided to become a nurse, travelling in England on the SS Antilles in 1959, and arriving in Colchester (SA 77/1/2/1).

Most of the international trainee nurses were young – around 18 years old – when they arrived in Colchester. They all wanted to care for others and considered nursing to be a good job. They came to England because of a shortage of nurses. For most of them, it was the first time they had left home, and was their first experience of air or long boat journey.

Ester Jankey recalls the nurse’s home and fostering scheme for nurse trainees when she arrived in Colchester in 1969 (SA 77/1/1/1).

They comment that, at the beginning, they felt lonely in a strange country, with strange cultural practices and the wintry weather. However, they soon settled into their unfamiliar environment, sometimes helped by local families and by nurses from their own country who had come before them.

Sew Em Tan describes sending photographs to her mother and the difficulty of finding Chinese ingredients (SA 77/1/7/1).

They all said that training was demanding and regular work on wards was tough. They had to provide their own laced black shoes and black stockings, and some had to buy warm clothes and coats from their first wage.

Photograph of a replica nurse's uniform. The uniform is white and in two parts, a dress and apron, both made of a linen/cotton blend. The uniform is covered with ironed-on photographic images from former nurses at the hospital.
Replica of a nurse’s uniform that would have been worn at Essex County Hospital in the 1950s. Made by Creative Couture and Ciara Canning for the ‘Empire of Care’ exhibition at Hollytrees Museum, Colchester, in 2008. Courtesy of Colchester Museums.

Most felt that the matrons and sisters were stern but fair. Trainee nurses had to be quiet during ward visits by consultants. Different shifts required certain tasks to be completed to tight schedules, which could cause problems. All the nurses were dedicated to their studies and did well to complete their training successfully.

A photograph of two doctors in aprons carving a turkey on a hospital ward. There are also three nurses in uniform in the photograph, either side of the doctor in the middle.
The trainee nurses had to work on Christmas Day – the senior doctors carved turkey for everyone. Photograph courtesy of Colchester Museums.

Work on wards brought all training nurses in close contact with patients, all of whom were white. They knew little about the places that the international nurses came from, but were curious to know about food and how life was back home.  Some patients were surprised that Caribbean nurses spoke good English, without realising that English was their mother tongue. The Malaysian nurses mentioned that they found it difficult to understand patients when they used local slang and spoke fast.

Shirla Philogene describes her experience of prejudice on a ward (VA 77/1/5/1). ‘PTS’ stands for Preliminary Training School.

In the clip above, Shirla recalls not being taught as well as her fellow trainees by one of the ward sisters. She was so upset that she wanted to leave and sent a telegram to her family, asking for money to go back home. The money did not materialise, and she was persuaded by another sister to return to her duties. After explaining the situation to Matron, she had no problems.

A black and white photograph of 22 formally dressed people on a stage, with flowers in the background.
A photograph of the graduation ceremony for Essex County Hospital nurses, 1972. The photograph includes two of the interviewees, Ester and Sena. Courtesy of Colchester Museums.
Seng Ling Cheung recalls sewing her own dresses to go dancing at the International Club (VA 77/1/3/1).

Colchester was considered a small town with few facilities – one interviewee recalled her excitement when the first coffee shop opened. On days off, some of the trainees visited their foster families or went home with local nurses. They had to leave the nurses home during holidays, but usually couldn’t return home as it was too expensive. One nurse stayed at the Methodist International Hall for her holidays. The Colchester International Club provided socialising opportunities to meet people from other countries. One of the interviewees met her husband, who was from Hong Kong, there; they had their wedding reception at her foster parent’s house.

Gillian Nicholson, one of the ‘foster parents’ for the international nurses, recalls hosting a wedding at her house (VA 77/1/4/1).

Most of the nurses stayed in England and worked until they had families. Only one returned home to Malaysia, and she came back to England after three years. There was a general belief among international nurses that their chances of promotion were limited. Most of them left general nursing and went to London and trained in midwifery. Despite that, all the interviews were glad they came to England, and enjoyed long and successful careers.

Sew Em Tan reflects on her career in nursing (SA 77/1/7/1).

Healthcare today in Colchester

During the 70 years since the creation of the NHS, health services in Colchester have undergone tremendous change. According to the April 2018 Annual Report, Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust provided healthcare services to around 370,000 people from Colchester and the surrounding area. It recognised that Colchester was a largely affluent area with relatively low unemployment and above average life expectancy.

However, a recurrent theme for the staff survey was that “staff from an ethnic background do not routinely feel supported to progress their careers and move into management posts”.

The Trust had a programme of work celebrating all staff and providing support such as dedicated group meetings for international new joiners. While progress has been made, it is recognised that further work is required.

In 2014 the BBC reported the shortage of trained medical staff as a major challenge for the NHS. More than a third of nurses in three Essex hospitals were from overseas due to a shortage of British-trained recruits. At Colchester Hospital, 29% of doctors and nurses came from overseas. The most popular countries for recruiting nurses are Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and the Philippines.

Recently, the Nuffield Foundation report Closing the Gap estimate that for the English NHS an additional 5,000 internationally recruited nurses will be needed each year until 2023/24″.

Based on the current indicators, the shortage of nurses, recruitment from abroad, and barriers to promotion for Black and Asian nurses, may not have been left behind in the 1970s.

Accessing the interviews

You can now read full summaries of each interview in the ‘Empire of Care’ collection on Essex Archives Online (reference SA 77/1). To listen to the interviews in the Searchroom, contact ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk.

Call for volunteers: Essex Ensembles Assembled

Do you have an ear for music? An investigative streak? An interest in audio archives? Or, even better, all three?

We are looking for volunteers to help catalogue recordings of the Essex Youth Orchestra (EYO) and Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra (CYCO) from the 1960s to the 2000s.

The recordings have recently been digitised as part of the ‘Essex Ensembles Assembled’ project, funded by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC).

The next step in the project is to make information about the recordings available on our catalogue, Essex Archives Online, and (rights-permitting) share some the recordings online.

Ideally, we’d like volunteers to listen to the recordings, identify the pieces performed, and write time-coded descriptions for our catalogue. For those less familiar – or a bit rusty! – with classical music, some of the concert programmes are available to help.

If you are interested, please get in touch with our Sound Archivist, Kate O’Neill.
We would especially love to hear from you if you were involved with the EYO or CYCO yourself. You can volunteer remotely or here in the Searchroom at the Essex Record Office, so you’ll be able to get involved whether you’re based in Essex or further afield.

About the Essex Youth Orchestra

The Essex Youth Orchestra (EYO) was founded in 1957 and continues to this day as Essex Music Services’ flagship ensemble. The EYO has consistently maintained an excellent reputation for the very high standard of its performances, in part down to its history of distinguished conductors, such as John Georgiadis. 

Essex Youth Orchestra perform Holst’s ‘Brook Green Suite’ in Thaxted Church on the 75th anniversary of the Thaxted Music Festival, 28 December 1989 [SA 1/927/1]. Recorded by BBC Essex.

There are over 50 recordings of EYO performances in the Essex Sound and Video Archive. They feature a range of composers, from Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach to those with a local connection such as Holst, Britten, and Gordon Jacob. The EYO regularly performed at local festivals and on tour, with concerts in the USA in 1972, Israel in 1976 and East Germany in 1982.

The first performance of Gordon Jacob’s ‘Sinfonia Brevis’, performed by Essex Youth Orchestra at Saffron Walden County High School, 5 April 1975 [SA881].

About Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra

Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra (CYCO) was founded in 1982 to provide talented local musicians an opportunity to play in an ambitious chamber orchestra. It also featured notable musicians, with trumpeter George Reynolds conducting from 1984. It closed in 2007.

Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra performing at the Colchester Rose Show in July 1984 [SA645]. Do you recognise the piece being performed?

The CYCO archive was deposited at the Essex Record Office in 2012. Alongside programmes, posters, and press clippings, the archive includes twenty recordings of CYCO performances, from concerts at the annual Colchester Rose Show to the first performance of Alan Bullard’s ‘Colchester Suite’.

Presenter Liz Mullen explains the inspiration behind Alan Bullard’s ‘Colchester Suite’, commissioned for Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra in 1983 [SA645]. From ‘Folio’, Anglia Television’s arts programme.

The aim of the Essex Ensembles Assembled project

The project aims to preserve recordings of the Essex Youth Orchestra and Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra and make them available for future generations to enjoy. It is funded by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and study of sound recordings.

As an aural record, the recordings provide a unique insight into the changing nature and repertoire of youth orchestras in Essex over the past fifty years, and give a platform to local musicians, conductors and composers.

They also capture music-making that is often lost to posterity, with performances by the Second Essex Youth Orchestra as well as the First, and the occasional wrong notes and coughs from the audience.

Nevertheless, as a whole the recordings reveal a high standard of performance, and demonstrate what young people can contribute to music in Essex and beyond.

Conductor John Georgiadis and four Essex Youth Orchestra members talk about their involvement with the orchestra on the EYO’s 30th anniversary in 1987. Recorded by BBC Essex [SA 1/1291/1].
Collage of black and white photographs of the Essex Youth Orchestra in concert and on outings.
A collage of photographs from an Essex Youth Orchestra concert programme.

Curiosity Cabinet: The Dunmow Flitch

The tradition of the Dunmow Flitch Trials is commonly dated back to 1104 when a local Lord and Lady supposedly visited the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow disguised as paupers. They asked the prior if he would bless their marriage which had taken place a year and a day previously. Impressed by their apparent devotion to each other, the prior responded by presenting them with a flitch of bacon (which the Priory cook happened to have been carrying past at the time).

At this point the Lord, Reginald Fitzwalter, threw off his present garb and thanked the prior for his willingness to believe in their love. He then gifted some of his land to the Priory on the condition that a flitch of bacon would be given to any couple that could come to the Priory and prove their continued devotion to each other a year and a day after their marriage.

As charming as it is, this story has obviously been the cause of much doubt over the years – but what can’t be doubted is the fame that the Dunmow Flitch Trials had gained by the 14th century. Both William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer refer to the trials in their books, and they both used language which assumed readers were already familiar with the tradition. However, the first official record does not appear until 1445 when Mr and Mrs Richard Wright were awarded their flitch of bacon.

The tradition lapsed over the years and, in 1832, Josiah Vine’s request for a trial was refused on the grounds that it was ‘an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood’.

Fortunately, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth sought to revive the tradition in 1854 with his book ‘The Custom of Dunmow’ and in the following year he personally presented the flitch to two couples. One was a French gentleman and his English wife:  the Chevalier and Madame De Chatelain. The other was a local couple from Chipping Ongar: James Barlow, a builder, and his wife Hannah.

During the trials, both couples were required to prove their enduring love before a jury of six maidens and six bachelors. There was also an opposing council which represented the donors of the flitch of bacon and challenged the evidence with the aim to dissuade the jurors from awarding the flitch to the couple. Successful couples were then seated in the Flitch Chair and carried in a parade, at the end of which they were required to take this oath:

‘We do swear by custom of confession
That we ne’er made nuptial transgression;
Nor since we were married man and wife,
By household brawls or contentious strife,
Or otherwise at bed or at board,
Offended each other in deed or word;
Or since the parish clerk said “Amen,”
Wished ourselves unmarried again;
Or in a twelvemonth and a day,
Repented not in thought or in any way,
But continued true and in desire
As when we joined hands in the holy quire.’

After the Dunmow Flitch Trial, an album was compiled to commemorate the occasion. It consists of the following framed items: a painting of James Barlow, a sketch of James and Hannah Barlow, a commemorative certificate, and a picture of the Dunmow Town Hall. At the back of this album is a disguised compartment holding letters about the planning of the event, a programme from the day itself, a pamphlet about the history of the Dunmow Flitch and (perhaps most remarkably) the shoulder bone from the Barlow’s flitch of bacon!

Balancing the Challenges – Managing Heritage Landscapes alongside Contemporary Needs

Essex Gardens Trust and Essex Record Office joint Symposium

Saturday 2 April, 10:00am to 3.30pm at the ERO, Chelmsford

We are delighted to be holding a joint all-day symposium in Chelmsford with the Essex Gardens Trust on Saturday 2 April 2022. This event was originally conceived and planned before the pandemic and after some enforced rescheduling, is now going ahead. The theme of the day is to explore some of the many challenges that heritage landscapes and gardens face today in trying to balance competing priorities of preservation, conservation, ecology, sustainability, and public access.

We will be welcoming to Essex, Peter Hughes, QC and Chair of The Gardens Trust whose talk is entitled “Opening the gates – Conservation and the Challenges of Garden Tourism”. Peter chose this subject for his Masters’ degree dissertation in Garden and Landscape History and undertook a case study of six important gardens around the country, some in public and some in private custodianship, and interviewed head gardeners and other prominent figures involved in garden conservation.

Cressing temple walled garden

A talk by Alison Moller – Garden Historian, lecturer, and researcher – will provide the landscape context for Essex landscape heritage sites tracing the geological formation of the land beneath the historic landscapes of Essex.

Landscape Architect, Liz Lake will explore how our historic landscapes can be a source of inspiration for modern day designers and an additional reason why they should be managed and conserved. Liz will pick out key features from historic designed landscapes and looks at how they have been reworked for our times.

Stephen Smith, Historic Gardens Consultant will speak on “A Vision for Landscape Conservation”. Many historic gardens and landscapes are managed by bodies with a culture and expectation which diverges greatly from those which envisage their restoration and conservation. For example, prejudice against exotic plant species on the one hand and an underappreciation of habitat management on the other are common points of divergence. He will argue that the different approaches can be detrimental to the original vision of a conservation project. In his paper, Stephen Smith will share his observations, drawing on examples of landscape conservation schemes on the London fringes of Essex and beyond, to identify the problems as well as proffer some mutually beneficial solutions.

Meadow

And finally, Ailsa Wildig – Chair of The Tuesday Research Group, at Warley Place will talk about How Warley Place still respects its garden history – From historic garden to nature reserve looking at the challenges facing those managing and caring for Ellen Willmott’s historic garden, that was recently listed as ‘at risk’ by Historic England.

This should be a fascinating day exploring some of the challenges facing those conserving historic landscapes and gardens and will also provide the opportunity to meet or catch up with others working or with interests in these fields.

Tickets, costing £30 and include a light lunch, can be booked at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/essex-gardens-trust-essex-record-office-joint-symposium-tickets-251982946777

Essex Gardens Trust; caring about our green spaces

Curiosity Cabinet: Frost Fairs and Frozen Rivers

Hidden at the back of an otherwise innocuous court book from Ashdon Rectory is this unimposing memento of ‘an unprecedented scene’ which took place between December 26th 1813 and March 20th 1814 when the surface of the River Thames in London froze fully solid. As with numerous such occasions before this the locals of London contrived to hold an awe-inspiring ‘Frost Fair’ upon the frozen surface. This small copy of the Lord’s Prayer was printed on the Thames itself on February 5th 1814.

The tiny printed prayer is pasted in the back of the court book, under a written description of the unusual weather and some of the events that were impacted by it
(D/DU 153/4)

Such mementos were not uncommon; when Charles II visited a frost fair on January 31st 1684 he bought a printed ticket to commemorate the occasion. Held at the Museum of London, the ticket lists the members of the court who attended alongside the King. The very first documented frost fair took place even earlier than this in 1608, where one could even get a shave in the middle of the frozen river. The fairs were filled with the novelty of such everyday tasks being performed on the ice. Vendors set up funfair games, fortune telling, and stalls selling all variety of food, drink, and trinkets.

Unfortunately, the frost fair immortalised in the Ashdon Rectory court book was the last of its kind. The demolition of the medieval London Bridge in 1831, and other changes to the Thames made during the Victorian era, altered the flow of the river so that the water was deeper and swifter and did not freeze so easily.

However, there is further evidence of smaller freezes which affected the rivers in Essex as late as the 20th century. Rivers in Southend, Leigh-on-Sea and Rochford froze to dramatic spectacle in both 1905 and 1929.

Although the ice was thick enough to walk on no frost fairs were held during these smaller freezes and, looking at these photographs, we can see why no one would want to risk ice-skating on these unruly frozen waves!

An even more recent example occurred in 1963 and presented such an inhospitable scene in Southend, Benfleet, and Battlesbridge that G.A. Robinson was moved to dedicate a whole scrapbook to the icy scenes.

The first page of a leather-bound photo album which goes on to describe its aim of memorialising the 1963 freeze and refers back to the postcards which were used for a similar purpose in 1905 and 1929. (D/DU 1464/68)

Nowadays ice is found mostly on our car windscreens, making it difficult to picture such monumental scenes for ourselves. If you need more photographic evidence to fully comprehend these extreme conditions, make sure to check out our latest Curiosity Cabinet in the Searchroom.

Curiosity Cabinet: A Traditional Christmas Dessert Made Three Ways

What is the most Christmassy recipe you can think of? Does it help if we sing a song?

“Little Jack Horner

Sat in the corner,

Eating a Christmas pie;

He put in his thumb,

And pulled out a plum,

And said, “What a good boy am I!”

So, to help get us in the festive spirit, we decided to explore the different variations of plum cake recipe’s in our own archives:

‘To Make a Plumb Cake’ by Elizabeth Slany (c.1715)

“Take 4 pound of flower and 4 pound of currans ½ a pint of sack plump the currans then take a quart of ale yest ¾ of a pound of sugar 10 eggs & half the whites a little nutmeg mace & cinnamon & a few cloves a pound of almonds blanch’t & beaten fine orange flower water a quart of cream boyl’d + when you take it of the fire put a pound of fresh butter in it heit [heat] till it is blood warm then mix the spices currans & a little salt with the flower then put in yest almonds cream eggs & mix them with a spoon then set it rising you may put in some musk & ambergrease [a waxy substance that originates in the intestines of the sperm whale, with a pleasant smell, which is also used in perfumery]your oven must be very quick and you must put it in a hoop an hour or a little more will bake it your bottom must be paper.”

‘To Make a Plumb Cake’ from Elizabeth Slany’s 1715 ‘Booke of Reciepts’ (D/DR Z1)

‘Little Plumb Cakes’ by Mary Rooke (c.1770-1777)

“Take one pound of flour, six ounces of butter, half a pint of cream, a quarter pint of yeast, two eggs, a little mace shred very fine, mix these into a light paste, and set it before the fire to rise, then put a quarter or half a pound of currants and a quarter of a pound of sugar, bake them on tins.”

‘Little Plumb Cakes’ from Mary Rooke’s 18th century recipe book (D/DU 818/1)

‘Oxfordshire Baked Plum Pudding’ by the Lampet Family (c.1807-1847)

“Put one pound of stale white bread sliced into as much new milk as will soak it, and let is stand all night. Now pour the milk from it and break the bread well with the hand – add half a pound of a suet chopped fine – three quarters of a pound of raisins – a quarter of a pound of currants shaking a little flour and salt among the fruit – half a nutmeg – two or three blades of mace – a clove or two pounded very fine – a little brandy – and sugar to the taste – mix all these ingredients well up together with four eggs well beaten – bake it.”

‘Oxfordshire Baked Plum Pudding’ from the Lampet Family’s 19th century recipe book (T/B 677/2)

Let’s play spot the difference!

  • The Lampet recipe is probably the most different: it uses bread with only a little extra flour, swaps butter for milk, and is the only recipe to use suet and alcohol.
  • Elizabeth Slany’s recipe has some of the most unusual ingredients such as musk and ambergrease, and orange flower water.
  • All three recipes use: eggs, currants, mace, yeast, and sugar.
  • Elizabeth Slany and the Lampet Family add nutmeg and clove for extra flavour
  • None of the recipes include plums!

Do you make plum cake/plum pudding for Christmas? Which of these recipes is most similar to your own?

If you want to see more festive recipes, we currently have Mary Rooke’s recipe book on display in the Searchroom for a seasonal Curiosity Cabinet. Recipes on display include gingerbread and the various components of a mince pie!

Sculpture in Harlow New Town

Project Archivist, Hector Mir has been working tirelessly this year to catalogue the records of the Harlow Development Corporation with the full catalogue ready to be launched on the 1st December this year on Essex Archives Online. This project has been made possible by an Archives Revealed cataloguing grant from The National Archives.

In his post below Hector explores the records of one of Harlow’s most notable features, it’s fantastic sculpture.

 A/TH 3/10/45/2  - "City" by Gerda Rubinstein, in Bishopsfield. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation
A/TH 3/10/45/2 – “City” by Gerda Rubinstein, in Bishopsfield. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation

Since its very beginning in 1947, the Harlow Development Corporation and its General Planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd, acquired a firm commitment to link the new town they were building with the culture and the arts. This aim is especially visible in respect of sculpture. From as early as 1951 up to the present day, the new town has filled up its streets with the works of some of the most renowned sculptors.

Such important activity appears well referenced in the papers of the Harlow Development Corporation Archive, which the Essex Record Office has now opened up by creating a new online catalogue (A/TH). 

The main source comes from the file “Sculpture” (A/TH 2/6/1), which includes papers relating to “Contrapuntal Forms” by Barbara Hepsworth (1951), murals from the Festival of Britain Exhibitions (1952), Centaur’s statue (1953), Henry Moore’s “Family Group” sculpture (1955-1956), Early Memorial (1959), “Kore” sculpture (1975), sculptured head of Sir Frederick Gibberd (1979).

A/TH 3/10/15/71 - Photograph of "Family Group" by Henry Moore  in the Civic Square. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation
A/TH 3/10/15/71 – Photograph of “Family Group” by Henry Moore in the Civic Square. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation

Scattered information on sculptures, including lists of Harlow Arts Trust sculptures (June 1968) can be found in the files related to Patrons of the Arts – Harlow Arts Trust (A/TH 3/2/8/33-36), covering the whole existence of the Corporation (1948-1980). The is also a file on Play Sculptures in the sixties (A/TH 3/3/3/4).         

A sculpture unveiling has been always an important ceremony. We keep the files of three of those events: the unveiling of Henry Moore’s “Family Group” sculpture in 1956 (A/TH 3/8/3/54), which includes invitation card and programme; “Kore” sculpture in 1975 (A/TH 3/8/3/2); and the unveiling of an obelisk at Broad Walk in 1980 (A/TH 3/8/3/50 and A/TH 3/11/65), including invitation card, programme and diagram of construction.

Sculptures are also well represented in the Social Development Department Photographic Collection (A/TH 3/10). Two files with 30 photographs cover specifically the subject (A/TH 3/10/26 and A/TH 3/10/44), with pictures of “Family Group” and Bronze Cross by Henry Moore, “Wrestlers”, “Chiron” by Mary Spencer Watson, Eve by Auguste Rodin, “Contrapuntal Forms” by Barbara Hepworth, “Help” by F.E. McWilliam, “High Flying” by Antanas Brazdys, “Kore” by Betty Rea, “Motif No. 3” by Henry Moore, “Trigon” by Lynch Chadwick, “Echo” by Antanas Brazdys, “The Boar” by Elisabeth Fink, Fountain Figure and Lion by Antoine-Louise Barye. As well as another file with 12 photographs of Henry Moore’s “Family Group” Sculpture (A/TH 3/10/25). There are also loose photographs of “The Sheep Shearer” by Ralph Brown, outside Ladyshot Common Room (A/TH 3/10/8/72) and “Boy eating apple” a statue in bronze by Percy Portsmouth, commissioned by the Harlow Art Trust and situated on the wall of the Mark Hall Branch Library in The Stow (A/TH 3/10/9/10).

A/TH 3/10/26 - Folder of photographs, two photographs of "Eve" by Auguste Rodin are visible (A/TH 3/10/26/3 and  A/TH 3/10/26/4). Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/10/26 – Folder of photographs, two photographs of “Eve” by Auguste Rodin are visible (A/TH 3/10/26/3 and A/TH 3/10/26/4). Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/10/15/1 - School children in Harlow creating their own works of art. Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/10/15/1 – School children in Harlow creating their own works of art. Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.

Finally, an excellent overview can be found in the 31 page booklet ‘Sculpture in Harlow’ (A/TH 3/11/17), published by Harlow Development Corporation in 1973.

A/TH 3/11/17 - "Sculpture in Harlow" booklet, 1973.  Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/11/17 - "Sculpture in Harlow" booklet, 1973.  Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/11/17 – “Sculpture in Harlow” booklet, 1973. Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.

Curiosity Cabinet: A Crash Course on Wax Seals

Our latest Searchroom Curiosity Cabinet features a selection of wax seals and seal matrixes from our collection. For those of you who can’t visit to see the display in person, we thought we’d share a bit more information here.

Wax seals were first used in the Middle Ages, although the Roman’s practiced a similar method with bitumen and the Ancient Mesopotamians made seal-indents in clay tablets. One of the first English examples of a wax seal being used in an official capacity was by Edward the Confessor c.1042-1066.

People used their coat of arms, family crest, or any other iconography that was important to them. Mythological symbols were particularly common.

An ‘applied seal’ is when the wax is applied directly to the page. However, the seal can also be arranged to hang on a tag or cord which is known as a pendant seal. Larger pendant seals are sometimes encased in cases, called skippet’s, which protect them from damage.

The size of the seal often correlated with the importance and status of the person whom it belonged to. This Great Seal for Queen Victoria, enclosed in its own metal skippet, is the perfect example!

As well as being used to authenticate the document, applied seals were useful in making sure that letters were not tampered with – a broken seal was a sure sign that the contents of your letter were no longer private! Today they are mostly used for decoration on posh stationery, such as invitations.

The wax impression is created using a ‘seal matrix’, which features a negative image; this is pressed into the wax to produce the positive image. The most popular type of seal matrix is the signet ring, evidence for which dates back as far as Ancient Egypt. Signet rings have also been used as symbols of wealth and power throughout history and were often destroyed when their owner died to prevent forgeries.

This seal matrix, dated to the early 14th century seal matrix, was dug up near the Little Dunmow Priory almost 100 years ago. It probably belonged to one of the priors.

If you want to see the full display, including a soap box full of seals and a 17th century seal matrix, it will feature in the Curiosity Cabinet until November. The Great seal of Queen Victoria is really something impressive to see in person – our photo does not do justice to its size!