Document of the Month, December 2017: The Christmases of Essex

Lawrence Barker, Archivist

Our Document of the Month for December is the will of Dorothy Christmas of Chelmsford, dating from 1644 (D/ABW 58/39). Dorothy was the wife of Peter Christmas, an inn-keeper at Chelmsford, whose will of 1639 we also have showing that he left most of his estate to his widow.  The couple seem to have had no children.

‘Christmas’ is very much an Essex surname and indeed Reaney, in his Dictionary of British Surnames (1958), traced the name back to one ‘Ralph Cristemesse’ living in Essex in 1185.  Of course, the name has several variants, such as Chrismas or Crismas, which are scattered across Essex but perhaps with a concentration in the villages around Colchester in the north east.  National newspapers, such as The Daily Mail in December 2014, have already noted the record in a parish register we keep here at Essex Record Office of the burial of ‘Father Christmas’ at Dedham in 1564.

‘the marke of the said Dorothey Christmas’

Not much is known from his will what Peter Christmas left his widow but there is much more detail in Dorothy’s will about what she gave to her relations, her brother and several cousins, as well as some ‘loving friends’.  From it, we get a good idea of what her life was like from the ‘goodes’ and ‘chattells’ described; for example, how comfortable the beds were in her house (or ‘shoppe’), with their feather pillows and bolsters and flaxen sheets and coverlets.

Like most early wills, the opening statement beginning ‘In the name of God Amen’, reflects the piety of a former age.  In particular, references in this will to Jesus Christ, the ‘alsufficient Saviour and Redeemer’ and the assurance of having one’s sins forgiven and being ‘made partaker of his heavenly Kingdom with the Elect’ reflect the beliefs promoted by Luther and Calvin during the Reformation.

In 2017, we look back to the beginning of the Reformation 500 years ago, and in doing so, perhaps we might also reflect upon the religious significance that Christmas had for all those who lived at that time.

Dorothy’s will will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout December 2018.

Discovering stories of the First World War

Archives are packed with people’s stories. From the everyday to the extraordinary, the records carefully looked after in our archives give us insights into the life experiences of individuals, families, and whole communities over the last several centuries.

Some of the most powerful stories in the records we look after at ERO are of people’s experiences of the First World War. From the official to the personal, First World War records are full of stories that deserve to be discovered and shared.

Both official and personal records can give us fascinating insights into people’s experiences during the First World War

One of the privileges of working at ERO has been being able to explore the First World War stories within our collections, and to share them on this blog.

Alf Webb, for example, joined up in 1914 at the age of 17, and served throughout the whole of the war. In 1992 he talked to a class of primary school students about his recollections of both the mundane details and the harsh realities of the war, from the lice which infested his uniform to the deaths of his friends. Fortunately, the teacher who organised his talk to her class made a recording of Alf’s talk, and deposited a copy with ERO. It has been said that listening to an oral history interview is the closest we can get to time travel, since we hear real people telling us about real events that they experienced.

Listen to extracts of Alf Webb’s recollections of his First World War experiences here.

Sister Kate Luard, meanwhile, was on the first boat she could get on to France after the outbreak of the war. She served on the Western Front throughout the war, working in some of the most dangerous conditions nurses faced. Somehow she found time to write home frequently, and her letters provide highly personal insights into her experiences as a nurse. One little bundle of letters she kept were written by relatives of men who she had nursed while they died. These letters often thank her for her care of sons, brothers and nephews, and ask about the men’s last days.

Read more about Kate Luard in our previous posts about her.

Richard Udney wrote to Sister Kate Luard in June 1915 to ask her about the death of his 18-year-old nephew, 2nd Lieut. George Udney. Click for a larger version.  (D/DLu 61)

Other records tell us about how those at home managed through the tough years of the war, facing a very real prospect of invasion and potentially severe food shortages, while having to cope with the departure and often loss of loved ones.

In the decades running up to the First World War, Britain had imported more and more of its food. When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, the country had enough wheat in stock to last just 125 days. Farmers at home were faced with the huge challenge of growing enough to feed the nation, with a shortage of male agricultural workers and a shortage of horses.

Read about some of the efforts that went into producing enough food to keep the nation from starving.

The home front also faced aerial bombardment for the first time. On the night of 23 September 1916 two Zeppelins crash landed in Essex, one in Little Wigborough, where the crew walked away largely unharmed, and one in Great Burstead, where all men on board were killed.

Read eyewitness accounts of the Zeppelin crashes here.

The Zeppelin which crashed at Little Wigborough, 23 September 1916

There is some light relief amongst the darkness of so many war stories. In February 1917 the Chelmsford Chronicle reported on a ‘Romantic Essex War Wedding’, in which Miss Clara Elizabeth Potter and Driver Charles T. Kidd had married, having never met but only communicated by letter.

Read the Chronicle’s account of Clara and Charles’s romance here.

What stories are still waiting to be discovered?

If you have an idea for a project that would highlight a forgotten or unknown piece of your local First World War history, join us on Friday 8 December 2017 for a day of inspiration and practical advice on how to make your ideas into a reality.

The day will include an introduction to Heritage Lottery funding streams for First World War projects, and showcase existing community First World War research projects taking place in Essex. There will also be a presentation by the Everyday Lives in War First World War Engagement Centre on how they can support independent researchers and community groups researching the First World War, and an insight into the resources and support available from the Essex Record Office.

Find out more about the day and book your place here.

The Forgotten Essex Man: Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood

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

Ask most people to name a famous or influential person from Essex and they would most likely reel off a list including Jamie Oliver, Olly Murs, Ronnie O’Sullivan, possibly Dame Maggie Smith or even Boudicca (if you’re lucky!). It is possible that no one will mention Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, veteran of Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu and Boer Wars and commander of the Egyptian Army.

Photograph of Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, one of the many cuttings about him in Minna Evangeline Bradhurst’s scrapbook

I first learned about him through the photographs, letters and newspaper cuttings about him in the scrapbook of his niece, Minna Evangeline Bradhurst, held at the Essex Record Office. It appears that Minna was incredibly proud of her Uncle, even keeping newspaper cartoons in which he was ridiculed.

Cartoon from the Westminster Gazette of 31 May 1900 regarding clothing being sent to British troops in South Africa. Christine thought she recognised her uncle Sir Evelyn Wood, a senior army figure, depicted sewing army underwear.

Sir Evelyn was a man of his time; patriotic, loyal to the British Empire, and elaborately moustachioed. He was involved in many of the key British military campaigns throughout the second half of the nineteenth-century, and more than once was recommended for the Victoria Cross. He was also known for vanity and hypochondria, and was subject to frequent illnesses and accidents.

Born in Cressing near Braintree in 1838, Evelyn was one of 12 children of Revd Sir John and Emma Caroline Page Wood. He attended Marlborough College until the age of 14 in 1852, when he left to join the navy as a midshipman. By 1854 he was serving in the Crimea, where he was badly wounded and almost lost his left arm. Undeterred from military life, he joined the army, and was sent back to the Crimea, where almost straight away he contracted typhoid and pneumonia. His mother travelled to Scutari to bring him back to England, and nursed him back to health.

A teenage Evelyn Wood in his naval uniform, published on the flyleaf of his autobiographical ‘From Midshipman to Field Marshal’, published in 1906. The original painting was by Lady Wood.

Sir Evelyn photographed in his later years by Fred Spalding

His next major trip abroad with the army was to India, where the British army was handling the Indian Rebellion. He was awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions in this campaign. It was during his time in India that he decided to ride a giraffe for a bet, when trying to dismount he fell, the giraffe kneed him in the chest and stood on his face causing some quite severe injuries.

For the next 20 years Wood held a succession of army posts; in Ireland during the Fenian disturbances, in West Africa as part of the Ashanti Expedition, during the Zulu War he commanded troops as Brigadier-General, was mentioned 14 times in dispatches during 1878-79, and took command of operations against the Boers in South Africa in 1881. He was largely responsible for brokering the peace deal with the Boers, and was much criticised in the British press for doing so. In 1882, he led a division of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force to deal with the Arabi Revolt, and was made Sirdar of the Egyptian Army for his efforts.

He was made Deputy Lieutenant of Essex in 1897 and awarded a Knighthood in 1901. He was the author of several books on military tactics, the Battle of Waterloo and the cavalry. During the First World War, he maintained a national presence by writing regular newspaper articles praising the war effort and supporting British troops across Europe – most of which appear to be included in his niece’s scrapbook. In honour of his outstanding contribution to the cause, a road was named after him in Cressing and a public house in Chelmsford, both of which remain today.

Upon his death in 1919, his obituary appeared in newspapers around the globe (again, many of them are in the scrapbook) and he is remembered with plaques in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Brecon Cathedral in Wales, and in Marlborough College Chapel. He is buried in the Military Cemetery in Aldershot.

The Sir Evelyn Wood public house in Chelmsford. Reproduced with the kind permission of Grays & Sons.

 

Document of the Month, November 2017: Minna Bradhurst’s First World War scrapbook

Our Document of the Month for November 2017 is a scrapbook created during the First World War, which was recently purchased for the ERO by the Friends of Historic Essex. Caroline Wallace, a History MA student from the University of Essex, is currently undertaking a project to investigate its contents, and what it can tell us about life in Essex during the First World War.

Throughout the years which mark the centenary of the First World War, the Friends of Historic Essex, the charity which supports the Essex Record Office, are running the Essex Great War Archive Project. The project aims to collect First World War documents relating to Essex to add to the ERO archive so they can be preserved for current and future generations, and to conserve and highlight documents already within the collection.

The project has included purchasing relevant documents which have come up for sale, which otherwise would have remained within private collections. One such document is a scrapbook dating from 1915-1918 which was kept by Minna Evangeline Bradhurst of Rivenhall Place (now catalogued as Acc. A14491).

The book contains material from 1820 onwards, but primarily covers the First World War period from 1915 to 1918. This scrapbook is part of a set of four , the other three  all being in private hands, although the Essex Record Office does hold microfilm copies of them.

Minna was born in 1865 to an old Essex society family, the Woods. She married Augustus Maunsell Bradhurst, an American, in 1893, and the following year the couple had their only child, a daughter, Christine (sometimes known as Heaven). In later life, one of Minna’s contemporaries described her as ‘a most amusing and delightful lady, of great character, and always dressed as through for a Buckingham Palace garden party’.

The scrapbook includes much of Minna’s life which was not war-related; for example, several pages are dedicated to press cuttings about her own wedding, detailing the outfits of the bridal party, the gifts given, and the names of those who attended.

The majority of the book, however, dates from the war years. During the time that she was compiling this scrapbook, Minna witnessed the impact of the First World War on her family, society and the country. As a lady of independent means, and with time on her hands, Minna’s scrapbooks cover every aspect of her life. They hold a detailed, and personal, account of what she held to be important; the society people she took an interest in, any mention of her family in the local and national newspapers (numerous pages are dedicated to such press cuttings), photographs of loved ones and of interesting places, invitations, tickets, concert programmes, and letters that delivered both good and bad news.

Minna was the niece of Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, one of the highest  ranking, most experienced and well-known military men of the age. Minna took a great interest in her uncle’s career and achievements, and included a huge number of press cuttings about him in her scrapbook. Another cutting describes Minna winning a silver cup at a fete in Ilford for being the Essex resident with the largest number of relatives involved in the war – 64 uncles, cousins and nephews were with the armed forces in one way or another, and several female relatives were engaged in various kinds of war work.

Large amounts of the volume are dedicated to the war work of Minna’s daughter, Christine, who was in her early 20s during the war years. Christine volunteered as a general service Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) worker at Earls Colne Auxiliary Hospital and put her considerable artistic talents to use putting together fundraising concerts and events to raise money for the Essex branch of the Red Cross Society. Not only did she organise these, but she also wrote many of the plays and songs, and performed them on stage. Included in the scrapbook are many of the concert programmes from these events.

Minna’s husband, Augustus Bradhurst, volunteered as a Special Constable, and later in the war became a naturalised Briton and joined the Essex Volunteer Regiment. The scrapbook includes several pictures of him in uniform and on maneuvers in the county, along with letters about his appointments.

The material in the scrapbook has suggested several avenues for further research, some of which will be published on this blog in the coming months.

The scrapbook will be on display in the Searchroom throughout November 2017.

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If you would like to find out more about life in Essex during the First World War, join us on Saturday 25 November 2017 for the Friends of Historic Essex Autumn Lecture, which will include two talks on the Essex coast during the First World War; find out more here.

If you have a First World War project of your own that you would like to get up and running, join us for a First World War project Discovery Day on Friday 8 November 2017; full details here.

 

Changing Perceptions, Changing Essex?

Recently our You Are Hear Project Officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, has been cataloguing a collection of oral history interviews received from Epping Forest District Museum. The interviews were collected in 2004-2005 as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, called Changing Perceptions, which aimed to collect everyday accounts to illustrate how life in the district has changed over the twentieth century. Here Sarah-Joy shares some impressions from the recordings.

What do a farmer, a dentist, a magistrate, and a blacksmith have in common? No, this is not the start of a joke. The answer is that these were all people interviewed for Epping Forest District Museum’s Heritage Lottery Funded project, Changing Perceptions. The Museum kindly deposited copies of a selection of their interviews with us at the Essex Sound and Video Archive, and I have had the joy of cataloguing them (Series Reference SA 61/1/1).

The collection shares all of the wonderful features of any oral history interview: providing an intimate insight into the lives of everyday people, told in their own voices, ranging from amusing anecdotes to heartfelt memories. It also achieves its primary purpose of demonstrating exactly how much life has changed in the last century, even in the last fifty to sixty years. Even taking rose-tinted spectacles into account, a common impression running through the collection is of small towns and villages with a true community spirit, self-sufficient places with a range of shops and services and a real local character.

Photograph of Epping High Street, in what looks like the late nineteenth century

But one of the distinctive assets of this collection is its diversity. The interviewers spoke to a range of people: people from different parts of the UK, in different professions, with different backgrounds and experiences. Listening to these together forms a broader picture of the range of life within Epping Forest.

For instance, Bob Willis is a lively, frank character who was born in Suffolk in 1928 but moved to the Gaynes Park Estate, Coopersale when he was nine. He spent most of his working life at Cottis Ironworks. His interview (SA 61/1/1/5/1) gives interesting technical details about his work as a carpenter at the brickworks. It also reveals social information about the relationship between employer and employee.Then he unexpectedly casts light onto significant local events, such as the fire at Copped Hall (though he was not speaking from personal experience).

Print of Copped Hall, near Epping, which suffered a serious fire in 1917

 

The interview with retired dentists Alain Quaife and Graham Bond (SA 61/1/1/8/1) is very different. It also contains technical information about their occupation, but in the process gives a greater insight into social history. For starters, their accents are more polished: perhaps to be expected from their higher class, more educated backgrounds. They remark on changing trends in dental hygiene, exploring possible reasons for this, beyond better public awareness. While both interviewees have now been retired for over ten years, their comments about how the NHS operates, and the difference between private and public treatment, still provide an interesting insight today. A word of warning, though: some details of treatment, particularly in the early years, are so graphic they may give you virtual toothache.

 

Maureen Chalk (SA 61/1/1/4/1) and Jill Atlee (SA 61/1/1/7/1) both describe working at the Bank of England printing works in Debden, and about the experience of raising children in the area. As Jill’s interview reveals, as recently as the late 1970s, it was the norm that women left work to raise children, perhaps returning to work part-time when their children went to school. But this phase of motherhood provided some opportunities to socialise with other women in the same situation, as Maureen describes.

 

Some of the interviews might stir a response that prompts you to take action. After listening to Joyce Woods talk about her experience of serving as a magistrate (SA 61/1/1/9/1), might you consider volunteering for this valuable work? Do you have the qualities she lists as essential to being a good magistrate?

 

Or listen to the interview with retired farmer John Graham (SA 61/1/1/1/1), recorded in 2004. How does that make you feel about the state of the farming industry in Britain now?

 

The authentic stories of real people can be more persuasive than thousands of words of polemic in a newspaper feature or a commissioned report.

Do these interviews change your perceptions? Of Epping Forest, of certain professions, of life in the mid-twentieth century? And does that in turn make you reflect differently on your own neighbourhood, career, life? What will your children and grandchildren think of your Essex?

Thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, the full-length interviews can all be heard through our Essex Archives Online catalogue. Contact the Museum for access to recordings not deposited with us.

You can get further impressions of how life in Epping has changed by visiting the town’s own listening bench, located in the churchyard of St John the Baptist (St Johns Road off the High Street). Join us for the official unveiling of the bench on Saturday, 4 November 2017, at 3pm – which will still leave you time to get to the firework display of your choice!

Taking a walk into sound

Our You Are Hear project Sound and Video Digitiser, Catherine Norris, reflects on sound and why it matters ahead of our ‘Sounds in the City’ event on Friday 27 October 2017.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with sound since I was very young. My very first bedroom growing up was positioned at the back of the house and the view from my window looked out onto a street lamp. One night I heard a buzzing sound and I thought it was in my room. I would have only been four or five years old but I distinctly remember checking under the bed and in the wardrobe as I was convinced there was a giant buzzing monster in there.

I then saw the light of the lamp and walked towards the window and realised that it was the lamp making the noise; it was hypnotising. Years later when training to be a sound engineer and learning about acoustics, I realised why I heard what I did and why it appeared to be such a strong sound.

The sound that I heard was affected by the environment it was being captured in. The fact that it was night time, that there was no traffic and no one walking around, the open casing around the lamp and the location would have all had an impact on the sound and amplified it.

There are many factors in play as to why we hear what we hear, and how and why the sounds around us change depending on what the environment is like and what else is happening within it.

I love how the outside of buildings can affect what we hear because of their shape and size, what they are made out of and how they can be a sound barrier. I also really like the contrast between man-made and natural sounds and how they can mix together.

Weather, traffic, wildlife and people all add to the soundscape we hear on a daily basis. But with many of us just rushing to get from A to B it is as if we tune out of what we could be listening to. This is a shame because there is so much out there to hear and discover.

Just over a year ago, as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project at the Essex Record Office, we launched the Essex Sounds map, made up of old and new sounds captured in Essex. This got me thinking about what else we could do to create sounds, which then led on to the idea of doing a sound walk somewhere in Essex. The sound walk would be a way of encouraging people to collect sounds and create their very own soundscapes.

This idea has now grown into a fully-fledged event taking place in the city of Chelmsford on Friday the 27th of October 2017, as part of the Ideas Festival and the Art of the Possible Festival. Chelmsford is a city that is forever changing and in soundscape terms is very interesting. It’s mixture of historic and modern buildings, nature and busy streets makes it the ideal place for a walk of this kind.

The morning session will include a talk on recording soundscapes, then the sound walk around parts of Chelmsford. During the sound walk we will be recording sounds at specific locations, with myself leading the walk and providing advice on recording techniques and acoustics and how to create the best recordings.

The afternoon session will include learning the basics of editing sound recordings with specialist software at the Essex Record Office.

You don’t need to have any previous experience with recording to come on the walk as training will be given throughout the event. We will also provide recording equipment to those not bringing their own. All you need to have is a passion or interest in sound (and suitable footwear!).

It’s going to be a very interesting event, and I’m looking forward to listening to all the sounds that get recorded on the day.

Date and time: Friday 27 October, 10.00am-4:30pm
Price: £20
Location: Meet at the Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

Advance booking to our ‘Sounds in the City’ event is essential. Please book through our website, or contact us for further information.

Essex Country Houses

This guest blog post from Ben Cowell, Director General of the Historic Houses Association, is based on his talk on Essex country houses which he gave at the Essex History Group in September 2017. You can read more from Ben on his blog.

Essex is not particularly well known for its country houses. Yet there are far more of them than you might think.

The most famous is Audley End, an English Heritage property and arguably one of the country’s most important mansions. Audley End was principally built in 1605-1614, although the property that is seen today is around a third of its former size (the courtyard wings were pulled down in the 18th century). With rooms by Robert Adam and grounds by Capability Brown, Audley End certainly meets the criteria of a house of national importance.

Print of the principal front of Audley End in its original state (I/Mb 381/1/55)

Audley End today – the large principal court between the remaining building and the river was demolished in the eighteenth century

But what of Essex’s other houses? The National Trust doesn’t have a single mansion property in Essex – somewhere like Paycocke’s House at Coggeshall, charming as it is, is a sizeable merchant’s house rather than a country seat. However, the presence of a fair few Historic Houses Association (HHA) member properties alerts us to the fact that there were mansions all over the county, of which many still survive.

Map showing locations of country houses across Essex

HHA member houses in Essex include Layer Marney Tower, Ingatestone Hall, Hedingham Castle and Braxted Park. All of these houses are open to visits, or run for weddings and other events. Each is of genuine historical significance, and lived in by families who have an extended connection with their house stretching back many generations.

Hedingham Castle

The presence of so many HHA members in Essex is a sign of the attractiveness of the county as a place to site a country residence. Proximity to London, and to the major trading routes via the Thames, led to the decision of many landowners to construct substantial houses. Layer Marney was a remarkable gatehouse of the early 1520s, built from brick in an attempt to transpose Hampton Court to the Blackwater Estuary. Only Lord Marney’s death in 1523 put a brake on the ambitions behind the property. Henry VIII visited in August 1522, when on a royal progress that took in New Hall at Boreham too.

Layer Marney tower

There were plenty of houses built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Audley End may be the most famous, but in all I found 182 houses in total, many of them built between 1600 and 1800. They included huge palaces, such as Wanstead Park, built in 1715 only to be demolished (for its building materials) 110 years later. North and south of my home village of Newport are two substantial houses from the late 17th century, Shortgrove and Quendon, although the Shortgrove of today is a modern rebuilding of the house that was lost to fire in the 1960s.

Number of country houses in Essex demolished in each century, 1900-1989

The truth was that many houses were demolished – I counted 37 in total. The peak of these losses was in the 1950s, when an astonishing number of Essex mansions were either being pulled down because families were unable to keep them going (such as at Marks Hall and Easton Lodge), or were lost beneath the suburbs of east and north-east London.

Wanstead House, one of the largest houses ever built in Essex, which stood for just 110 years (I/Mp 388/1/20)

Nevertheless, many houses survived, and continue to survive, leaving their mark on Essex’s gentle rolling landscapes. Today, Essex country houses either survive through tourism (for which see the Essex houses and gardens website), or as wedding venues. Indeed, it might be said that the Essex wedding has been the saviour of many an Essex country house.

Document of the Month, October 2017: Ghost sighting at Castle Hedingham

Our Document of the Month for October tells of a dark happening. It is a letter written in 1713 that tells the tale of a ghost sighting.

The letter was written by Nicholas Jekyll of Castle Hedingham to Rev. William Holman of Halstead (D/Y 1/1/111/19). It is one of about 200 letters from Jekyll to Holman which are today at ERO, the earliest dating from 1711 and the latest to 1730.

Holman was collecting materials to write a history of Essex, and Jekyll was helping him by supplying information and commenting on his manuscripts. They did, however, sometimes correspond about other topics. In some letters Jekyll thanks Holman for gifts such as bottles of brandy and homemade elderberry wine, and in others discusses current affairs, or gives updates on members of his families who have emigrated to America.

This letter begins with mention of a book Jekyll was returning to Holman, and a request by Holman for Jekyll to do some research for him.

Jekyll’s handwriting is on the challenging side; if you see the letter while it is on display in our Searchroom you will find a transcript alongside it

The majority of the letter, however, describes the sighting of ‘an apparition of that wretched poor fellow who lately drowned himself’ near Jekyll’s house. Initially Jekyll was scornful of the report of ghost sighting, but believed he now had ‘unquestionable proof’ that it was true. The apparition had been seen ‘acting like a fellow in deep melancholly [sic]’ in the place where the man had drowned himself, before throwing itself into the water.

The letter will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout October 2017.


Harwich Society’s Memories Exchange Interviews

Recently, we have been uploading a collection of oral history interviews conducted by The Harwich Society between 2009 and 2014 (Catalogue Reference SA 49/1/2).

These twenty-four interviews are just the first instalment of an ongoing project to record the experiences of current and former residents of Harwich and Dovercourt. As with most collections of oral history interviews, they reveal shared experiences but also how life varied even in one town depending on personal circumstances.

Harwich Junior School (T/Z 241/1)

The playground of Harwich Junior School was flooded to a depth of 1½ metres (T/Z 241/1).

Most of the recordings touch on the 1953 flood. On the night of Saturday, 31 January, a storm surge caused the sea to overwhelm flood defences along the eastern coast of Britain. Harwich was one of the places affected, and the traumatic experience is unsurprisingly etched on the town’s corporate memory.

Even here, experiences varied. Some residents in Dovercourt only knew about it from news bulletins on the television. But in the Bathside area, the water rose to the first floor of people’s houses. Tom Bell and Danny Goswell, then young lads who belonged to the sailing club, were kept busy ‘fishing people out of houses’ in boats, ‘rowing around doing what we could’ (SA 49/1/2/12/1).

Evacuees sought refuge in the drill hall, where the Salvation Army was handing out blankets and cups of tea, before being billeted with family members or kind-hearted strangers with rooms to spare. The water took a week to recede, and the houses were permanently damaged. Ruby Cooper-Keeble recalls how they lost all their possessions. By the time the family moved back to the house, it had been cleaned out and redecorated, but the smell ‘stayed with it for years and years’, and ‘you could actually scrape the salt off the [wall]paper’ as it seeped out of the walls, residue from the sea salt water that flooded the home (SA 49/1/2/9/1). But as a child, she still saw the ordeal as something of an ‘adventure’.

Some people, such as Mr and Mrs Moore, never moved back (SA 49/1/2/14/1).

The interviews are full of memorable details that bring the event to life: tables laid for breakfast that neatly settled back into place once the water receded; the vigour of local hero Leonard ‘Pummie’ Rose in organising the rescue operations. The stories take different tones. Tom and Danny chuckle over how, after working all day in rescue boats, they still had the energy to go out in the evening. ‘Commandeering’ a dinghy tied up outside the police station, they rowed down the main road to the Spread Eagle pub that remained defiantly open, to enjoy a couple of Vimtos before rowing home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, recalling the childhood trauma of that long, cold, dark night spent trapped in the bedroom waiting for rescue affected one interviewee so much that it sounds as if he had to pause during the interview to compose himself.

Whether they were only onlookers or whether they lost everything, when listened to together the interviews reveal how the town rallied together to overcome this ordeal – as they had done just ten years earlier during the Second World War. From the family who tirelessly worked to restore their grandparents’ house to normal in time for Christmas (interview with Diane Butler, SA 49/1/2/11/1), to the boy who joined with his friends to build a sea wall in the sand when they moved back, ‘in our own simple way to try and stop the waves coming again’ (interview with Ray Chippington, SA 49/1/2/22/1), the town was determined to recover. And what better way to cheer flagging spirits than travelling in a ‘cavalcade of coaches’ to a football match at Wembley to support your local team in the FA Amateur Cup final? Harwich and Parkeston Football Club’s finest hour was among the happier events of 1953, as recalled by Malcolm Carter (SA 49/1/2/16/1).

The collection covers other topics as well, including experiences during the Second World War; growing up and working in Harwich; and how the town has changed. We are grateful to The Harwich Society for taking the time to capture these memories, and for allowing us to make them publicly available. We are also grateful to the participants who, as June Cummings describes, had to relive the events in the act of sharing them (SA 49/1/2/20/1).

 

You can listen to these oral history interviews in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, or, thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, in the comfort of your own home through Essex Archives Online.

It is not surprising that such a momentous event crops up in several of our other collections. You can search the subject index term ‘Floods’ to find related material, such as this film footage of the floods on Canvey Island. Or look up Hilda Grieve’s authoritative work on the 1953 floods in Essex, referred to in some of these clips: The Great Tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex (copies available in the Searchroom Library or in branch libraries across Essex).

Further afield, the East Anglian Film Archive holds a compilation of film footage of the floods which reveal the devastation caused. You can watch it for free on their website here.

Does your community have a story that should be recorded? Do you want to undertake your own oral history project? Contact us to find out more about the oral history training we provide.

Document of the Month September 2017: Farming and national survival in the First World War

This month’s Document of the Month is a small part of the story of how Britain was saved from starvation during the First World War.

100 years ago our ancestors were facing a food crisis. When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, the country had enough wheat in stock to last for just 125 days. In the decades preceding the First World War Britain had increasingly relied on imports of food, and by 1914 60% of its food supply was imported. Between 1914 and 1917 these imports were increasingly under attack by German U-boats; by 1914 the Germans were sinking one in four merchant ships in the Atlantic.[1]

Farmers at home faced the huge challenge of growing enough food to feed the nation. Not only did this mean bringing more land under arable cultivation than ever before, it meant doing so with a shortage of male agricultural workers and a shortage of horses.

In an effort to make sure the nation had enough to eat, in late 1915 the Board of Agriculture called for counties to set up War Agricultural Committees. The records of the Essex War Agricultural Committee, today looked after at ERO, can give us valuable insights into the efforts that went in to producing enough food to keep the nation alive.

The War Agricultural Committees were intended to ensure greater productivity of agricultural land and to increase the amount of land under cultivation. Despite their work, by December 1916, the Board of Agriculture was extremely concerned at the decrease in acreages of particular crops, when compared with the previous decades.  A meeting that month noted that the combined acreage for the production of wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas and carrots in Essex had fallen from 428,904 in 1874 to 324,352 in 1914. Most of this decrease was due to a drop in wheat production, which was increasingly imported from the USA.

In January 1917, a new committee was formed from members of the existing Essex War Agriculture Committee. The Executive Food Production Committee, later renamed the Agricultural Executive Committee, were required to oversee improvements on an almost full time basis. In their meetings, members discussed the loans of equipment and horses; requests for petrol, the housing of prisoners of war (often in workhouses and camps) and the employment of women on the land.  In extreme cases, they could also arrange for the removal of tenants where the land was not being farmed to their approval.

It is clear from an early stage that there were tensions between the agricultural committees and local military tribunals concerning agricultural workers. The minutes often include decisions regarding applications for exemption from call up on the grounds of work of national importance, requesting a transfer to army reserves or release from military service and for temporary leave.

At one such meeting 100 years ago this month, the Agricultural Executive Committee approved a number of applications on these grounds.  An H. J. Willett was granted a voucher to remain in employment as a tractor supervisor in Chelmsford and a Private G. Cole was allowed to join the army reserves in order to continue as a wheelwright at Pitsea. This reminds us that farmers and agricultural labourers relied on other skilled workers to maintain and improve production. It would be interesting to see whether the number of applications for exemptions increased as the war progressed and the need for greater production and for more men in the armed forces intensified.

Extract from the Essex Agricultural Executive Committee in September 1917, where applications for transfer to the army reserve or for leave and for petrol licences were discussed (D/Z 47/17)

It is thanks to the efforts of all of those men and women who worked against enormous odds to keep the nation fed during the First World War that Britain never faced famine.

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[1] Figures from World War One: The Few that Fed the Many, published by the National Farmers’ Union, accessed 5 September 2017 https://www.nfuonline.com/assets/33538