Childhood: change or continuity?

Ah, the sounds of summer holidays: music blaring through open windows, buzzing bees, the ice cream van, an absence of school bells and cars doing the morning school run… and children playing?

If you believe the common rhetoric, children do not play outside anymore. Children spend all summer indoors glued to electronic screens and no longer have the capacity to invent games, be creative, be free. Is this true? What do Essex soundscapes and personal memories reveal about childhood through the ages?

Children at play on the beach (T/562/1 Image 53)

Sounds of children at play on Dovercourt Beach. Recorded by Stuart Bowditch in 2016 for Essex Sounds.

Childhood memories are a common topic covered in oral history interviews. Interviewers are keen to capture information about the earliest possible period, as the time within ‘living memory’ unceasingly marches forward. We often have the most vivid memories from our childhoods, the time when we are first learning about the world around us. Childhood also tends to be the happiest period, the age we are happiest to talk freely about – or at least the version we are comfortable recalling.

At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, therefore, we have numerous recordings of people talking about their childhoods. For example, this compilation describes the way that people played growing up on Castle Street, Saffron Walden, taken from a selection of interviews recorded for the Castle Street Residents’ Association Oral History Project (Acc. SA496).

Maggie Gyps, Jan Bright, and William Clarke describe playing in and around Castle Street, Saffron Walden in the mid-twentieth century.

The stories are amusing and evoke a golden age when children were free to just have fun. Adults tolerated their exuberance and gave them liberty to range far and wide, making their own games, immersing themselves in nature, packing a jam sandwich and being out all day during summers that were permanently warm and sunny. As the next interviewees remarked, it was a happier time, compared with children today who are mollycoddled, kept on a tight rein due to fears for their safety, and fed on a diet of electronic gadgets to keep them amused – and quiet.

Pearl Scopes and Bill and Daphne Carter ranged free on Marks Hall Estate in the post-war period (SA 51/2/5/1).

Or was it such a golden age? And is it drastically different now?

For our Essex Sounds website, we have two recordings of children at play in north-east Essex: one from 1962, and one made in 2016. Listen to the two and compare: is there a difference in the sounds of play?

Were children better behaved in the past? Many interviewees admit to scrumping, gleaning a bit of fruit from nearby orchards to keep them going on their day-long adventures. We laugh with Bill Carter who ‘borrowed’ his neighbour’s dog to take him rabbiting.

Bill Carter on ‘borrowing’ the neighbour’s dog at Marks Hall Estate (SA 51/2/5/1).

Or Joseph Thomas, who used to sneak into film showings at the Electric Palace in Harwich in the 1920s (SA 49/1/2/15/1).

Joseph Thomas sneaking into the cinema with his friends.

How does this compare with the mischief of those disrespectful youths of today? Will our grandchildren chuckle when they hear stories of what we got up to in our childhood?

Were these children up to no good? Image of Moulsham Street, Chelmsford by Frederick Spalding, 1910 (D/F 269/1/6)

Was childhood really happier in the past? It depends on the individual’s situation, as well as the specific time period. Many oral history interviewees describe working from a young age. Charles Reason, for example, had his first bread round from the age of seven, before he started work full-time after leaving school at 14.

Charles Reason describing his first job delivering bread rolls in Harwich in the 1920s (SA 49/1/2/7/1).

School terms were often set around the harvest seasons, as Gerald Palmer describes, because children stopped attending in order to go pea-picking or fruit-picking anyway (SA 59/1/102/1).

Excerpt from Coggeshall National School log book for 1873 showing low attendance due to pea-picking (E/ML 310/1).

Child labour was vital to the household economy. If children weren’t engaged in paid work, they were often heavily laden with chores around the house, particularly when the mother was absent, as experienced by Rosemary Pitts, whose mother died when she was thirteen years old (SA 55/4/1).

Rosemary Pitts’ memories of childhood in Great Waltham in 1939-1940.

Current scholarship studying Western societies generally traces the start of ‘childhood’ as a distinct phase of life back to the seventeenth century. The nineteenth century saw growing concern about the wellbeing of children, with increasing legislation regulating the employment of young people. In Britain, a series of Education Acts from 1870 onwards gradually made education compulsory and, eventually, free. The 1908 Children’s Act consolidated much previous legislation to protect children from exploitation and abuse (including abuse at the hands of the law). This represents a significant cultural shift: children were seen as vulnerable people to be protected rather than extra hands contributing to the household economy – or enabling cheaper manufacturing. However, many oral history interviews reveal that real change was much slower to take effect. Most people also have at least one memory of a particularly violent punishment suffered by themselves or a peer while at school, in the days of the dreaded cane.

Oral history interviews do tend towards rose-tinted depictions of the past,

(A12416 Box 1)

particularly childhood memories. However, by comparing many different stories from the same period, we can start to query the common narrative and draw conclusions from specific events rather than vague generalisations. Then we can take a fresh look at children today and reassess if things really have changed that much after all.

The United Nations’ 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child includes the right to play, recognising that it is an essential and characteristic part of childhood. In general, young people in Britain are today free to have fun in their leisure time. It will be interesting to hear how our children recall their formative years if giving oral history interviews later in life. For now, we can use Essex soundscapes to gauge whether or not children still play. What do your ears tell you about childhood in twenty-first-century Essex?


Hugh Cunningham’s book The Invention of Childhood (London: BBC Books, 2006) is an excellent starting place to research the history of childhood in Western societies. For further details of the oral history interviews mentioned above, or other memories of childhood, search Essex Archives Online.

Queen Elizabeth I and some Essex churchwardens’ accounts

This guest blog post is by Marion E. Colthorpe, who has been investigating the people and places visited by Queen Elizabeth I since the 1970s. Her work expanded until she had discovered the whereabouts of the Queen on every day of her reign, along with what she was doing and who she was with. This research has included many different kinds of document, including a good number of records from the Essex Record Office. The results of Marion’s research, totalling 3,324 pages, have recently been published online by the Folger Shakespeare Library as The Elizabethan Court Day by Day. Here she shares with us how churchwardens’ accounts help to trace the Queen’s travels.

When I began to trace Elizabeth I’s whereabouts throughout her reign I made sure to read every churchwardens’ account I could find, because whenever the Queen passed through or even near a parish it was obligatory for the church bells to be rung; if they were not the Queen’s Almoner levied a fine, and the church door was sealed up until the fine was paid. There are a number of payments for ringing, and a fine for not ringing, in the accounts held by the Essex Record Office. (In Essex, as in other counties, considerably more parish registers have survived than churchwardens’ accounts, so there are a limited number to select from).

On her first ‘progress’ through Essex and Suffolk in 1561, on her way from Sir William Petre at Ingatestone, whose lavish expenditure is described in F.G. Emmison’ s  Tudor Secretary: Sir William Petre  (London, 1961), Chelmsford St Mary (now Chelmsford Cathedral)  paid [July 22]  ‘To the ringers when the Queen came through the town, 6s8d; paid for drink for them, 12d’.

The accounts of the churchwarden’s of St Mary’s in Chelmsford (D/P 94/5/1) include money paid to the bell ringers for their services in ringing the bells when the queen passed through the town, and for drink for them:
‘It[e]m paid to the rynggares when the queen cam thorowe the towne – vis viiid’
‘It[e]m paid for drynk for them – xiid’

The Queen was on her way to stay at Harwich, at an inn, August 2-5.  There the churchwardens had been preparing for several days, making payments from July 25 onwards to masons and labourers from neighbouring villages for working on the town gates, and to an Ipswich ‘stainer’ for ‘setting of the Queen’s Majesty’s great Arms of England upon the town gates, 15s’, and to ‘four poor folks in carrying of sand and water to the workfolks’ hands, 20d’. Also to three women and the Sexton ‘for washing and making clean of the church and chancel, 20d’. Whilst the Queen was at Harwich, the wardens on August 3 paid 6s8d ‘to the trumpeters’ and the same ‘to them that did bear the bottles’.

The Queen sailed up the Orwell to Ipswich on August 5. On August 25, back in Essex, Great Dunmow wardens ‘Paid to the good wife Barker for ale for them that did ring when the Queen’s Grace came through the parish, 8d’. The Queen was on her way from Lord Rich, at Little Leighs (he founded Felsted School in 1564; his monument is in Felsted Church), to Lord Morley at Great Hallingbury.

The Great Dunmow churchwardens’ accounts (D/P 11/5/1) include this payment in 1561: ‘It[em] payd to the good wife barker for ale for the[m] yt dyd rynge when ye Quenes grace ca[me] thorow ye p[ari]she – viii d’

The Queen next passed through Great Dunmow in September 1571 on her way from Horham Hall, Thaxted, to Little Leighs again;  in September 1578 it was Great Easton which  paid  ‘To the ringers when the Queen lay at Horham, 3d’.

In September 1579  the Queen stayed several days at New Hall, Boreham, with her close friends the Earl and Countess of Sussex, where entertainment included music,  speeches by Jupiter and goddesses, and a tournament. Chelmsford St Mary ‘Paid for 8 ringers two days when the Queen’s Majesty was at New Hall, 6s8d; paid the same time to the Almoner’s man, for unsealing the church door, 5s’.

Drawing of New Hall Palace by Ian Dunlop, based on a ground plan of the palace, engravings by George Vertue and an engraving after a drawing in the Laurentian Library, Florence. From Palaces and Progresses of Elizabeth I, Ian Dunlop, 1962 (I/Mb 42/1/27)

The Earl of Sussex died on 9 June 1583 at his Bermondsey, Surrey, home.  In his will he described in detail the hangings (tapestries) and furnishings at New Hall at the Queen’s visit.  On July 8 his funeral procession left Bermondsey, was conducted through London by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, and a Chelmsford churchwarden noted  ‘About 6 or 7 afternoon with much royalty was the body of the right honourable Earl the Earl of Sussex  and late Lord Chamberlain to the Queen’s Majesty brought through the town to New Hall to be buried in Boreham Church’.   The funeral was next day at St Andrew’s, where his monument remains. By her own will in 1589 the Countess of Sussex founded Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (with a bequest of £5,000).

From early in the reign it became the custom to celebrate the Queen’s Accession Day (17 November 1558). Thus in 1578 Great Easton paid ‘To the ringers the 17th of November 1578 to ring in token of Queen Elizabeth’s joyful entrance to the Crown of England, 20d’. The day was usually known (incorrectly) as ‘Coronation Day’, or ‘Crownation Day’, and also as the Queen’s day, the Queen’s night, the Queen’s holiday, or St Hugh’s day (being his feast day).

The Great Easton churchwarden’s accounts (D/P 232/8/1) record a payment to the parish bell ringers on 17th November 1578:
‘It[em] payed to the ryngers the xviith of November 1578 to rynge in token of queen Elyzabethes joyfull Entrance to the crowne of England – xxd’

The Great Easton wording in 1579 was ‘Spent on the Coronation day to the ringers, 3s4d; for two books of prayer to be used on the Coronation Day, and Articles of religion, 16d’. Over the years parishes paid for bells, bell-ropes, ‘victuals’ for ringers, and seats in the church.

It may be added that in other Essex records F.G. Emmison found several reports of fights in Essex churches on Coronation Eve and Coronation Day.  (Elizabethan Life: Morals & the Church Courts (Chelmsford, 1973), chapter on ‘Religious Offences’).

The Queen’s birthday (7 September 1533) was also celebrated, but the custom was not widespread, although in Essex Hornchurch churchwardens made payments,  such as in 1592:  ‘Laid out for six ringers of the birthday of our most gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth, 6d’. In contrast, on Accession Day there were 10 ringers, who received 10 shillings. In 1597 Hornchurch ‘Paid to the ringers when the Queen came to Havering and her birthday, 6d’. The Queen was at Havering royal manor-house from August 19-31, where she hunted in Waltham Forest.

Churchwardens also made occasional references to national events. There was a ‘great earthquake’ on 6 April 1580, when considerable damage was caused in London and southern England. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued an ‘Order of Prayer … to avert and turn God’s wrath from us … to be used in all Parish Churches’.   Chelmsford St Mary paid on April 28 ‘For two books of prayers concerning the earthquake to be read in the church Wednesdays and Fridays, 8d’.

When the Queen decided to assist the Low Countries, in rebellion against their Spanish rulers, her principal favourite the Earl of Leicester passed through Essex on his way to Holland in December 1585. Chelmsford St Mary paid  [Dec 4]   ‘To the ringers at the right honourable the Earl of Leicester his coming through Chelmsford, 6d’;  and in the same account  ‘Laid out for two prayer books for the praying for the Queen’s Majesty, 8d’.

The Earl was again in Chelmsford in July 1588 when St Mary paid [July 24]   ‘For ringing when my Lord of Leicester came, 12d’. The Earl wrote on July 25 from Tilbury Camp that he went to Chelmsford ‘ to take order for the bringing of all the soldiers hither this day’. On the most famous visit of her reign the Queen stayed overnight on August 8 at Edward Rich’s Saffron Garden house at Horndon-on-the-Hill; she made not one but several speeches at Tilbury.

A fleet commanded by Lord Howard and the Earl of Essex left for Cadiz in Spain in June 1596. The Queen herself had written a prayer ‘at the departure of the fleet’.  Hornchurch paid 3d ‘For a book which was to pray for the fleet’. According to Francis Bacon, in just 14 hours on June 21 the Spanish Navy was destroyed and Cadiz was taken, one of the most notable exploits of the reign.

The Queen died on 24 March 1603. There would be no more payments such as that at South Weald Church  in 1590: ‘Paid Weaver’s wife and is for the ringers’ dinners and suppers and for the next day ringing for the Crownation of our gracious good Queen whom God long preserve, Amen. 12s6d’.

A turnip a day keeps the doctor away

An unseasonably soggy August day seemed a good opportunity to share Elizabeth Slany’s recipe for a ‘Syrup of Turnips for a cold’.

We have written about Elizabeth’s recipes before; her recipe book (catalogued as D/DR Z1) is one of the most substantial recipe books in our collection, and includes recipes for food and drink and medicines for both people and animals, dating from the early-mid 1700s. This recipe comes from the earlier part of the book, which we believe is in Elizabeth’s own writing.To make Syrup of Turnips for a cold

Take a peck of turnips pare them & slice them then take these following herbs of each one handfull maidenhair, scabious, agrimony betony rosemary harts tongue liver wort hore hound colts foots unset hyssop 2 ounces of liquorice scrape it & slide it thin the same quantity of elicampane one ounce of Annisseeds bruised then put half your slic’t turnip into a pot then lay yr herbs & other things upon them then lay on the rest of your turnips & past it up with dough & bake it with brown bread & when you have taken it out of the oven the oven [sic] and let it cool then mash your turnips & herbs together then strain them through a canvas cloth & make thereof Syrup with half sugar candy you must put 2 pound of sugar to one pound of juice take it at night going to bed or in the night upon a liquorice stick & keep yourself warm after it

Or, to restate it in a way that is perhaps easier for our modern eyes to read:

  1. Peel and slice a peck (2 gallons) of turnips
  2. Collect a handful each of the following herbs:
    1. Maidenhair (maidenhair fern, which was still in use in cough syrups into the nineteenth century)
    2. Scabious (a plant of the honeysuckle family of flowering plants, traditionally used as a folk medicine to treat scabies)
    3. Agrimony (a plant which grows slender cones of small yellow flowers with a long history of medicinal use for treatment of a wide range of ailments)
    4. Betony (a plant with purple flowers used as another ‘cure-all’)
    5. Rosemary (this fragrant Mediterranean herb has traditionally been used to treat a variety of disorders)
    6. Hart’s-tongue – also known as hart’s-tongue fern, has been used both internally (e.g. for dysentery) and externally (e.g. for burns)
    7. Liverwort (a perennial herb with a long history of medicinal use, including for liver ailments, healing wounds, and bronchial conditions)
    8. Horehound (this herbaceous plant with white flowers has appeared in numerous books on herbal remedies over several centuries, and modern scientific studies have investigated its antimicrobial and anticancer properties)
    9. Coltsfoot (a member of the daisy family with yellow flowers and hoof-shaped leaves, coltsfoot has been used in herbal remedies for respiratory diseases for centuries, but today it is known to be potentially toxic)
    10. Hyssop (a plant widely used in herbal remedies, especially as an anti-septic and cough reliever)
  3. Scrape and thinly slice 2 ounces of liquorice – the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra, which has been used in herbal medicines for sore throats and related illnesses, as well as a range of other conditions
  4. Elizabeth’s instructions next call for 2 ounces of elicampane, another root. She doesn’t specify how it should be prepared, but it could either be turned into syrup or powdered (elicampane appears in The English Physician Enlarged, With Three Hundred and Sixty-Nine Medicines Made of English Herbs, by Nicholas Culpepper, Gentleman, Student in Physick and Astrology, 1770, which recommends that the roots of elicampane could be preserved with sugar into a syrup or conserve, or dried and powdered then mixed with sugar. Both were recommended for stomach complaints, and ‘to help the Cough, Shortness of Breath, and wheezing in the Lungs.’)
  5. Bruise one ounce of aniseeds (seeds of the anise plant, used in herbal medicines for a range of complaints including a runny nose and as an expectorant)
  6. Put half the sliced turnips in a pot, and cover them with the herbs and liquorice, then lay the rest of the turnips on top
  7. Cover the whole mixture with pastry dough
  8. Elizabeth’s next instruction is to bake the mixture ‘with brown bread’ – perhaps this means it should stay in the oven for the time it takes a loaf of brown bread to cook but if anyone has any other ideas of the meaning of this do leave a comment
  9. Remove from the oven – and presumably take off the pastry lid
  10. Mash the turnip and herb mixture, then strain it through a cloth
  11. To each 1lb of the resulting juice, add 2lb sugar to make a syrup
  12. Take the syrup before bed, or during the night, on a stick of liquorice and keep yourself warm after taking it

With a total of 13 ingredients added to the turnip and then plenty of sugar added at the end, this sounds like an elaborate cold remedy, and would presumably have been out of reach of most ordinary people. If you have other historical cold remedies do leave them in the comments below; hopefully we won’t need them as summer wears on but it might be best to be prepared.

Document of the Month, August 2017: Salvation for sale

Indulgence granted to John and Lucy Prince of Theydon Garnon by John Kendale, turcipelerius of Rhodes and Commissary of Pope Sixtus IV, 10 April 1480 (D/DCe Q2)

Our Document of the Month for August 2017 is a medieval indulgence – a certificate granted by the Catholic Church to absolve the bearer of sin, and reduce any punishment they would receive either in this life or in purgatory.

The document dates from 1480, but we have chosen to highlight it in 2017 because this year marks 500 years since Martin Luther’s publication of his Ninety-Five Theses, an event which is generally seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The Ninety-Five Theses is also known as the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, and criticised the way the Catholic Church was granting these documents.

Indulgences had originally been intended to be a reward for piety and good deeds, but the system had become increasingly commercialised, with indulgences being sold. In 1517 Pope Leo X offered indulgences to those who contributed alms towards the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In Germany a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, was prominent in selling indulgences and the saying ‘As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs’ is attributed to him.

Luther attacked the sale of indulgences not only for their commercialisation, but also because he contended that the Pope had no right to grant indulgences on God’s behalf. He also argued that the selling of indulgences discouraged people from truly repenting of their sins or performing acts of mercy.

This particular indulgence was granted to John and Lucy Prince, ‘in consideration of [their] devotion to the Roman Church and willingness to aid the sacred and necessary expedition against the perfidious Turk and for the defence of the Isle of Rhodes and the Catholic Faith’ [Suarum pro expeditione contra perfidos turchos christinai nominis hostes in defensionem insule Rhodi et fidei catholice facta].

The indulgence was granted by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, at their English headquarters of St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell. The Knights Hospitallers were a religious and military order charged with defending the Holy Land. Having been based originally in Jerusalem, by this time they had bases across Europe and operated their military activity from the island of Rhodes.

In 1480, the year this indulgence was granted, the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmet II laid siege to Rhodes; granting indulgences was one of the ways the Knights Hospitallers raised money for its defence. Mehmet II had been waging a largely successful campaign against Christian forces since 1453 when he captured Constantinople (Istanbul). Rhodes did not fall until 1522 when it was captured by Suleiman the Magnificent, Mehmet’s great-grandson.

The indulgence gave the Princes the right to choose their own confessor with the power to absolve all sins, other than murder of a priest, violence against a bishop or disobedience towards the Pope. It also granted the right for a full remission and indulgence of sins once during their lifetime and once at the point of death.

The Protestant Reformation centred round the principle that salvation could be achieved by faith alone, not by faith and good works, as emphasised by the Catholic Church. In this Luther built on the works of humanists such as Erasmus. The subsequent emphasis on translating the Bible from Latin into the vernacular (i.e. English) was intended to make it more accessible to everybody.

These principles resonated across Europe in the 16th century, and we can find evidence of them in the ERO collections. In 1588, for example, John Brockise of Havering Green, Hornchurch, a painter, left a will (D/AEW 9/10) in which he bequeathed his most precious possessions. After bequests of furniture to his children, he left to Samuel Brockis the Paraphrase of Erasmus on the Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles ‘in consideration that he shalbe good to my wife and to the reste of his bretherne and sister after my desese’ or his wife had the power to withhold the bequest. He left to his son Robert ‘one bybell’ translated by Miles Coverdale on the same basis. Miles Coverdale first translated the Bible into English in 1535.

So this one little document which is today looked after as part of the collections at ERO is a small part of a big story about a transforming world. We will not ever know what sin John and Lucy Prince felt they needed an indulgence for, but in the world of medieval Catholic belief it was better to be safe than sorry.

 The indulgence will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout August 2017.