Open your ears to Essex Sounds

Have you ever had an ear-opening moment?

This was a phrase used by legendary wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson in a keynote address delivered at the Sound+Environment Conference hosted by the University of Hull in June 2017. He used it in his narration of his personal journey into his career as a sound recordist, and it struck a chord. Have you ever experienced a moment where the soundscape was so startling, unexpected, beautiful, quiet, or loud that it opened your ears and heightened your awareness of the sounds around you?

The Essex Sounds audio map, Screenshot of the Essex Sounds audio mapdeveloped as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, could provide moments like that. Although you can listen to sounds recorded across the county from an enclosed, familiar location, browsing the Web at home or in a library, we hope it will spur you on to take greater notice of the sounds of your Essex in your daily routine: whether natural or man-made; everyday or unusual; familiar or unidentified. Do the sounds on the map reflect your own experiences, or does your Essex sound very different?

The free app version of Essex Sounds (available from Google Play or Apple IStore) allows more direct comparisons between the sounds on the map and present moment experiences. Travel to the location of one of our historic recordings from the Archive; play the sound; then take a few moments to listen to the present-day soundscapes. What are the similarities and differences? Is one quieter or louder? What does that tell us about broader changes in Essex?

The Sound+Environment Conference was full of presentations on how to encourage active listening. We learn to filter sounds because our atmospheres are so noisy. We tune into the sounds that we like (a loved one’s voice, the music coming through our headphones) or that give us important information (alarms, tannoy announcements) while ignoring those we do not (traffic, the music coming from other people’s headphones). But sometimes, it is enlightening to open our ears, notice the full range of noises around us, and contemplate what those sounds tell us about our environment.

The Conference was truly interdisciplinarian – there were even one or two other archivists in attendance. Many of the presenters were involved in acoustic ecology: judging the health of ecosystems based on the sounds that they make. For example, Dr Leah Barclay’s River Listening project seeks to collect data from hydrophones placed in rivers across the globe. What can the sounds tell us about the diversity of the ecosystems, and what, in turn, does that tell us about the condition of the water? Many presenters, like Stuart Bowditch who co-presented our paper on Essex Sounds, were sound artists: using varying combinations of field recordings, musical instruments, and technology to capture, mix, and remix soundscapes to make an artistic statement. Others were interested in merging the two disciplines to strengthen the field of ‘ecological sound art’ (as argued by Jono Gilmurray). The power of sound can move us to respond, initiating the culture change that ecologists warn is vital if we are to preserve ecosystems threatened by our current way of life.

For example, how do you feel after listening to the pounding sea in Stuart’s recording made at Bradwell-on-Sea?

Photograph taken on beach at Bradwell-on-Sea

Looking out over the sea from Bradwell-on-Sea

Or after hearing the number of peaceful recordings interrupted by aeroplanes rumbling overhead? Or after attentively listening to the baby owls in Joyce Winmill’s 1974 recording in Henham churchyard, an eavesdropping through time made possible by the simple technology of a microphone and tape recorder?


How does this make you feel about your Essex, how it has changed, and how it might change? What do you want your future Essex to sound like, and how do you make that happen?

Perhaps we think it is only far-flung landscapes like the Arctic Tundra or the depths of the oceans that demonstrate the majesty of nature which we must preserve. If you are thinking along those lines, stop what you are doing and open a window. Wait. Listen. What sounds do you hear? Essex Sounds is full of birdsong: some, yes, recorded in secluded environments such as wildlife reserves, but some just captured in towns, in the midst of our everyday lives.

This, too, is nature that might have changed and might change in future.

Neither is it just natural sounds that indicate change over time. Changing human activity is also evident on our sound map. Some industries have only moved. Others have largely disappeared, machinery laid to rest in museums, only resurrected for special events.


Perhaps you can identify with this collection of ‘lost sounds of Essex’, collected in 2015 when we asked people which sounds they no longer hear (Word Cloud created at

Wordcloud of suggestions of lost sounds

What other changes become apparent from playing with Essex Sounds? Is there some vital sound that is missing from the map? Please help us make it more representative by adding your own contributions. Or perhaps you are a sound artist inspired by our collection of historic and modern sounds. We would love to hear ideas about how we can reuse these sounds and present them in new ways.

But above all, please take time to listen to the present-day Essex. Wake up five minutes earlier to allow time to listen before you start your day. Pause in your commute. Think again before popping on headphones. Close your eyes and open your ears.

Would you be interested in a sound walk event around Essex, which would incorporate an introduction into active listening, making sound recordings, and editing the results? We are running a survey to gauge interest in such an event. Please let us know what you think, and you could win a discount on the ticket price.

A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench

As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we are working with volunteers to install listening benches across Essex. These solar-powered park benches play clips of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, recordings chosen and put together by our volunteers. The listening bench for Coggeshall was successfully unveiled on Tuesday 11 July. Each listening bench launch has its own character, but this was the first to include a poetry recital in honour of the bench! We loved the poem so much that we wanted to reprint it, with an introduction by another volunteer to explain how the Coggeshall bench came about.

Miall James writes:

Back in January I went into the Coggeshall Library, and one of the staff asked me if I knew anyone who’d be interested in setting up a Listening Bench. So I asked what it was, was told, and said, OK, I’ll give it a go. I recruited my friend Nic Johnson, a well known, if fairly new in Coggeshall terms, local resident, and together we enlisted the aid of two more, thought that was enough and presented ourselves to the Essex Record Office.

Photograph of volunteers with listening bench

Volunteers who worked on Coggeshall’s listening bench (L-R: Michael Horne, Nic Johnson, Miall James, Stan Haines (who opened the bench), and Sylvie Overnell).

One of the two was Michael Horne, a well-known local historian and poet (and Lord of the Manor of Little Coggeshall), who in fact wrote some of what finally went onto the bench; the other was Sylvie Overnell, a retired local teacher, with local contacts. We looked at what was required, divided up the work and got on with it. There were no arguments; we discussed what to do, agreed and got on with it. Indeed it’s wonderful what can be done if no one’s bothered about who gets the credit! Finally, after about five months’ work we were ready, and the bench was ready for use.

Photograph of Miall James and Stan Haines standing behind listening bench

Miall James with Stan Haines officially ‘opening’ Coggeshall’s listening bench

We recruited Stan Haines, who has lived in the town most of his life, and was Chairman of the Parish Council for 48 years, to officiate at the opening.

The only thing that went wrong was the weather on the day, which wasn’t as kind as it might have been!

We’ve had some very good feedback, and we feel that, with a little fine-tuning, our Listening Bench will be something our fellow citizens can enjoy for many years to come.

Michael Horne’s poem composed for the occasion

A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench at Doubleday Corner
11 July 2017

Photograph of Michael Horne in front of bench

Michael Horne reciting his poem

On this occasion so polite,
I can do nothing but endite
A hymn of praise, with joy intense,
To Coggeshall’s newborn Listening Bench.

We’ll take upon us, even now,
An eleemosynary vow
To set up Peace, Goodwill and Sense
Upon our worthy Listening Bench.

The stories that we now can hear
Bring memories back that are so dear
To all who’ve taken up residence
Near Coggeshall’s stalwart Listening Bench.

They speak of pubs and crafts and trades
From days of yore, of men and maids
Who gave our town its eminence,
Preserved now on the Listening Bench.

In times of great austerities,
With caps on pay and a pension squeeze,
When fiscal stocks we must retrench,
We’ll still possess our Listening Bench.

People will come this bench to view
Both in and outside the EU,
And accents Dutch, Peruvian, French
Will echo from our Listening Bench.

So men may come and men may go,
Enslaved by Time’s incessant flow,
But anything of permanence
Will stay within our Listening Bench.

And now I’ll cease these paltry rhymes
Unworthy of these glorious times,
Let’s shout instead, with Power Immense,
Three cheers for Coggeshall’s Listening Bench!

Check our website for details of further listening bench launches, and to keep track of our two touring benches. Can you visit them all?

Map of all 18 listening benches

HLF Logo

Disaster relief in Restoration England: brief in aid of Weymouth, Dorset, July 1666

Archivist Chris Lambert shares his selection for July’s Document of the Month

Recent tragic events have underlined the public desire to help those caught up in catastrophe.  In the 17th century, when state and society commonly saw themselves as a single Christian entity, the characteristic expression of that desire was the brief.

England had already invented social care.  An Act of 1601 had created the parish poor rate, distributed in goods or money to the deserving poor.  There were also charities providing food, fuel and housing.  These initiatives, however, dealt only with ordinary needs.  Catastrophic events involved another process, in which the state mobilized voluntary giving from society at large.

The Crown, on petition, would issue letters patent allowing the gathering of contributions from ‘all well-disposed persons’.  Individuals named in the grant would then employ collectors to carry the appeal around the country.  The original handwritten letters patent, issued under the Great Seal, tend not to survive, but in a way they hardly mattered.  The process really depended on the use of printing technology to make copies – ‘briefs’ – for distribution.  The printed copies became so familiar that their title of ‘brief’ was applied to the whole process.

This particular brief (D/P 152/7/2), from the parish records of Theydon Garnon, was issued in 1666 in aid of Melcombe Regis (Weymouth) in Dorset.  In September 1665 the town had suffered a ‘sad and lamentable fire, wherein seven and thirty houses were utterly consumed’.  Their occupants had been ‘brought to ruine’, the total loss being estimated at £3,055.  Such fires were not uncommon.  Much less usual is the note, in King Charles’s name, that ‘We Our Self was then present and an eye-witness of the said sad spectacle, and are thereby the more sensible of the said loss’.  The King had indeed been in the West Country during that summer of 1665, taking refuge from the Great Plague in London.

2017-07 D-P 152-7-2 front watermarked

Some briefs allowed for house-to-house collections, but charity being above all a Christian duty, the normal mechanism for collecting the money was the parish, then both a religious institution and the foundation of local society.  The clergy ‘published’ the brief at a Sunday service and exhorted their parishioners to contribute, the amounts raised being written on the back of the brief.  When this example reached Theydon Garnon in the summer of 1667 – almost a year after it was issued and almost two years after the fire – that one parish collected 8 shillings and 10 pence (for comparison, a few months earlier they had raised £27 5s. for the Great Fire of London).  In this case they were to deliver the money back, via the appointed persons, to the authorities in Weymouth.  They in turn were to ‘contract for the re-building of the said houses’, taking care ‘that none of them for the future be covered with thatch, or other combustible matter’.

2017-07 D-P 152-7-2 image back watermarked

Note on the back of the brief recording how much was collected: ‘Collected then in the parish church of Theydon Garnon towards the releife of the w[i]thin named the sum of eight shillings & ten pence. I say James Meggs DD Rector’

Not all briefs focused on local disasters.  Many sought to rebuild churches – including, in 1632 and again in 1678, St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Others aimed to help whole social groups.  From the late 16th century the objects of briefs included Christians taken captive by the Ottoman Turks, joined in the 1680s by Protestant refugees from the France of Louis XIV, in 1689-1690 by Irish Protestants suffering in the war between James II and William of Orange, and in 1709 by the ‘Poor Palatines’ from the Rhineland.  Briefs like these expressed a Protestant national identity, yet in 1793 they were also used to help Roman Catholic clergy fleeing revolutionary terror in France.

The system had obvious defects.  Slow, cumbersome and costly at best, it was also open to fraud.  Security measures such as expiry dates (one year, in this case) offered little real protection.  The Essex Quarter Sessions records show evidence of prosecutions – in 1647 for collections on a wholly fraudulent brief (Q/SR 333/105, Q/SBc 2/35), and in 1653 for collections on what may have been a genuine brief by someone apparently unconnected with the parties concerned (Q/SBa 2/82).  Eventually a reforming Act in 1705 tried to clean up the system, providing an elaborate system of registration, with all briefs now being printed by the Queen’s Printer.  A handful of Essex parishes still have the registers of collections that the Act required.

The earliest collections so far traced in the ERO’s holdings were in the 1570s, for the reinstatement of Collington (Colyton) Haven, a harbour in Devon.  For that purpose in 1575 the little Essex parish of Heydon raised 6s.8d.; Canewdon collected 1s.8d. in 1576/7, and then another 1s. two years later.  Briefs continued to be issued even under the Commonwealth, but seem to have been at their peak under the restored monarchy of the late 17th century.  Over time, however, fire and flood became matters mainly for the insurance industry, and the objectives of briefs were limited largely to church building.

Briefs effectively came to an end in 1828, when responsibility for churches was transferred to the Incorporated Church Building Society.  The need for large-scale relief funds eventually found expression in more secular ways.  From the late 19th century many such efforts were organized through the Lord Mayor of London.  The Titanic Disaster Fund of 1912 – later the National Disasters Relief Fund – was one of these.  Mass media and then social media opened new possibilities, and online donation sites operate very differently from the state-sponsored briefs of old, but they draw on the same urge to help strangers in need.

The document will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout July 2017.