Shipping news

Visitors to the ERO may not notice the canal basin that lies just behind our building – although ‘Wharf Road’ is a bit of a clue. Nevertheless, into the last century the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation of 1797 (strictly, a river made navigable and not a canal) was an important means of transport for heavy freight. In its way, it is partly responsible for the ERO lying where it does: heavy freight includes coal, coal can be used to produce gas, and so it was natural for Chelmsford’s gasworks to rise beside the basin. Natural gas brought the end of the gasworks, and created a large development site handily close to the town centre.

This Ordnance Survey map from 1897 shows the system of waterways to the south west of Chelmsford town centre, where the rivers Chelmer and Can met, and where they fed into the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation. The Navigation ended at Springfield wharf, where there were timber and coal wharves for unloading the goods brought up the Navigation on barges from Heybridge Basin, 13.5 miles away. The Essex Record Office stands today between the Navigation and the Chelmer, just south of the gasometers.

Watercolour of Springield Wharf by A.B. Bamford, 1906 (I/Ba 14/2)

The main archive of the Navigation Company was deposited in the ERO decades ago (reference D/Z 36). What we did not know then is that there were some volumes missing. Three registers of ships berthing between 1886 and 1941 at the far end of the navigation – 13½ miles away in Heybridge, on the Blackwater estuary –had been loaned out to a student. They were never returned, and their whereabouts are now unknown. Fortunately, one of the researchers through whose hands they passed kept a set of photocopies. Through his kindness we have recently been able to borrow the photocopies and make a set of digital copies from them (reference T/B 694).

The digital copies we have been able to make of the missing records are now available on Essex Archives Online, catalogued as T/B 694/1, /2, and /3

The registers name vessels unloading (or occasionally loading) at Heybridge Basin, with the names of their masters and the nature and tonnage of their cargoes. Now and again a small private yacht turns up, but for the most part this is a record of freight traffic during the last years of canals as a working transport system. As you can see from the images on Essex Archives Online, even in 1886 the navigation handled quite a narrow range of bulk goods for a small band of local companies. Coal, timber, chalk, wheat – all headed up the navigation on horse-drawn lighters. At first some cargoes of fish were also landed, although these disappear after 1901. Steamships made a few entrances, but most of the navigation’s visitors were sailing vessels.

Heybridge Basin in 1910 (I/Mb 182/1/11)

Some more unusual river traffic – a funeral barge on the navigation at Hebridge, 1912 (I/Mb 182/1/11)

As its trade was taken over by rail and then by road transport, the navigation slowly shrank into a backwater. As late as 1927 the gas company was still bringing in coal, but soon only the timber trade was left – and only one customer, Brown and Son Ltd of Navigation Road, Chelmsford. The last delivery to be registered was on 21 November 1941, although commercial traffic on the navigation did not actually cease until 1972.

Brown’s timber yard in Springfield wharf. Photo by Fred Spalding (D/F 169/1/1215)

Registers of freight traffic sound un-promising, perhaps, but they are an intriguing relic of an enterprise and a way of life that marked this patch of Essex deeply and literally. Do take a look.

Views from the You Are Hear listening benches

Have you visited any of our listening benches, installed as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place? Recently Jade Hunter, a PhD student studying Geography at Queen Mary University of London, embarked on a mini tour of some of the benches to learn more about them. She shares her thoughts on her visits in a guest blog post below.

I’m currently studying for a PhD in Geography and I encountered the listening benches when writing an assignment on sound projects. My research interests lie in identity and place, specifically in Essex, so I was really keen to visit and experience benches in different locations.

I planned to visit a number of benches which I thought could demonstrate the breadth of Essex as a large, and diverse county. I work in London, and one of the things I’m always struck by is how far away people think Essex is when they live within the (blurring) city boundaries. Visiting the benches highlighted the relationship which parts of Essex have to the city. Audio at the Raphael Park bench suggests that Essex might act as ‘the lungs of London’, and the soundscapes at the Romford, Hadleigh and Chelmsford benches include birdsong, traffic and the sounds of trains delivering people from the suburbs into the city. Viewed from the bench in Hadleigh Park, Canvey Island rooftops were flanked by a ship sailing to the London Gateway super-port, showing a connectedness not just to London, but further afield.

View looking out over Estuary

View from the listening bench in Hadleigh Country Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

I was interested to hear about the history of the bench locations – listening to villagers of times past speak about specificities of life in Kelvedon, for example.


Frank Hume and Ronald Hayward describe their memories of the Crab and Winkle railway line that ran through Kelvedon, a clip from an oral history interview used on the Kelvedon listening bench (SA 44/1/25/1).

But I was most drawn to benches with audio about experiences which could be more broadly shared, in locations where it is perhaps more likely that people from across and outside the county would visit too. Perched on a hillside, the Hadleigh bench plays radio clips describing picnics and walks across the park. Feeling connected to the speaker and landscape, I shared the views they described of the estuary and Canvey Island below. This overlap creates connections across experiences, across time.

Sometimes, these overlaps can serve to emphasise differences. The first bench I visited was in Chelmsford on a cold morning in February. In a BBC Essex clip from 1992, an optimistic speaker describes the opening of the shopping centre. Sounds of buoyant crowds exploring new shops pin an alternative image over my contemporary view from the bench, the closed shutters of high street restaurants, and wind howling down the shopping streets.

BBC Essex report on the opening of The Meadows shopping centre in Chelmsford, used for the listening bench in Chelmsford (SA 1/1030/1).

Environmental factors pose risks to the benches which they may not face in museums. Some benches suffered a lack of solar-power, and weather can affect engagement in other ways. I visited the benches in the week preceding the arrival of the snow from Siberia, the ‘Beast from the East’ and so Southend Pier was closed, meaning its bench was inaccessible. There is also an enhanced risk of vandalism. The Bowers Gifford bench is located in Westlake Park, behind quiet residential avenues. It sits in silence, solar panel smashed, demonstrating the risk of liberating installations from museums. However, visiting the benches made me reflect on the difference which hosting oral histories outside of the Record Office can have, contributing to an enhanced engagement and alternative interpretation of the sounds and testimonials. The bench in Raphael Park plays a song, ‘’Owd Rat-Tayled Tinker’ in Essex dialect of the 1920s.


The ”Owd Rat Tayled Tinker from ‘Owd Lunnon Town’, sung by J. London in 1906, and used on the touring listening bench while it was at Raphael Park (SA 24/221/1).

Broadcast into the park, it can overlay a range of accents spoken by current park visitors. When I visited, this was most notably a man nearby on his mobile, with an Estuary accent like my own. This accent is associated with Romford and other parts of Essex, and influenced by post-war migration from London, as people moved out into the county.

View of the bench sitting by large oak tree

Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

My experience of Essex has been shaped by growing up in Thurrock on a suburban council estate close to industrial riverside and the greenery of Rainham Marshes. There are spots where you can see the London skyline, and remain within walking distance of the shopping centre, Lakeside. It’s easy for perceptions of a place to be shaped by media representations, or limited to your own experience of a small section of it. Visiting the benches enabled me to understand more about the variety of landscapes and people that make up Essex, and the ways in which these have changed over time and continue to do so. They made me reflect on those spaces that serve as home to smaller communities, and those which are temporarily shared and experienced by people visiting from elsewhere, the market in Romford, the country park in Hadleigh, and the pier in Southend.


Map of all 18 listening benchesCan you get to all the benches? Please note the touring bench that was in Raphael Park has now moved to outside the Finchingfield Guildhall. The touring bench in Hadleigh Park will shortly be moving to Weald Country Park.

Find out more about the benches and their current locations on our Essex Sounds website. Then share your #benchselfie with us and tell us which is your favourite clip!

RAF at 100 in Essex


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As the centenary of the founding of the RAF is marked across the country, Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen has been looking at the history of the world’s first air force in Essex.

Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first powered flight of a heavier-than-air-aircraft took place on December 17 1903, just over ten years before the outbreak of the First World War. These first aircraft, despite being primitive, were soon appreciated for their potential to assist with reconnaissance over a battlefield. In Britain the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), to support the army, was established in 1912 while the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed in July 1914. With the outbreak of war, the first deployment to support the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France was of three squadrons with around 60 aircraft.

While supporting the BEF was of primary role of the RFC, German air attacks on Britain forced the deployment of Home Defence Squadrons in order to provide some air defence against first Zeppelin and then Gotha bomber raids. The proximity of Essex to London meant that the county was an obvious place in which to base aircraft. The first squadrons were operational by September 1916 with Flights of aircraft being based at Rochford, Stow Maries, Goldhanger, North Weald, Suttons Farm and Hainault Farm.

The Sopwith Camel became one of the most iconic fighter aircraft of the First World War. It was first used on the Western Front, but eventually was used for home defence as well.

Early airfields, or landing grounds, were like early aircraft – basic. Virtually any fairly flat piece of farmland could be utilised to land and fly off aircraft and during the course of the First World War 31 locations in Essex were used with places as far apart as Beaumont near Thorpe-le-Soken, Chingford, Thaxted and Bournes Green, Shoeburyness. The most well-known of these is Stow Maries which still retains many of the buildings that were constructed to support the aircraft and personnel who were based there during the war. (You can read more about Stow Maries here.)

By 1917 official thinking was moving away from having two distinct services to support the army and navy and it was proposed that a single service would make more efficient use of resources. On the 1 April 1918 the RFC and RNAS were combined to form the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force and with over 100,000 personnel and 4,000 aircraft, at the time the world’s largest air force, a far cry from four years earlier.

After the First World War the armed services were cut back, and the RAF did not need so many landing grounds. With so few permanent buildings and infrastructure, the transition back to agriculture came quickly for most sites.

During the 1930s, as Hitler’s Nazi party rose to power and rearmed Germany, the British armed forces expanded again, albeit slowly. The RAF was at the forefront of home defence. Permanent airfields, such as those at Hornchurch, North Weald and Debden were constructed, with well-built brick accommodation for the personnel stationed there as well as large, spacious hangars to help look after the larger and more powerful aircraft that had been developed.

At this point, the aircraft were still mostly biplanes, such as the Hawker Hart and Fury and later the Gloster Gladiator, and were really just modernised versions of the Sopwith Camels of earlier days. These airfields were situated to defend London from German attacks across the North Sea, and they were the most prominent part of RAF Fighter Command’s integrated defensive system, which combined with anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons, was designed to prevent the German bombers getting though. However, their biplane fighters were starting to look antiquated when compared to the new aircraft being developed by the Luftwaffe.

Gloster Gauntlets belonging to 56 Squadron at North Weald in 1936. The Gauntlet was the last RAF fighter to have an open cockpit, and the penultimate biplane it employed. Image courtesy of North Weald Air Museum.

Fortunately for the RAF, Sidney Cam, of Hawkers, and Reginald Mitchell, of Supermarine, were both engaged in designing the next generation of fighter aircraft, this time monoplanes powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin engine and armed with eight .303 Browning machine guns – double the firepower of the Gladiator. These fighters, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, both flew from Essex airfields during the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940) and were instrumental in defeating the Luftwaffe.

Members of 41 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch during the Second World War (courtesy of Havering Libraries – Local Studies)

It was not only London and other big cities that the Luftwaffe were bombing. This photograph shows bomb damage at Campbell Road in Southend-on-Sea, 4 February 1941. Two men and six women were killed, four men and five women were injured. (D/BC 1/7/7/7)

Once the initial threat was dealt with, the ‘Few’ of the RAF had to be increased to take the fight to the Germans. As part of this expansion new airfields had to be hurriedly built, such as RAF Great Sampford, to take the new squadrons that were being formed and trained. While by the end of the Second World War there were over 20 airfields in Essex, the majority of them new, most had been built for the massive expansion of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), such as Matching and Boreham.

USAAF servicemen based at RAF Wethersfield held an Easter party for local children in Lindsell in 1944. See more photos from this occasion here. (A12844)

The majority of the RAF were stationed in the midlands and the north, these being the major concentrations of RAF Bomber Command while Fighter Command fought the Luftwaffe from the east and south of the country, North Weald, and Hornchurch retaining their importance as fighter fields. RAF Bradwell joined them later on in the war, with both night fighters and the RAF’s new Hawker Tempest in the later part of 1944, helping to combat the V1 flying-bomb menace. Things were quieter at North Weald for most of 1945, but excitement returned when Group Captain Douglas Bader, after his release from Colditz Castle in April, was briefly given command of the North Weald Sector. Bader was also chosen to organise a victory flypast on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September, which was made up of some 300 fighters and bombers from both the RAF and USAAF. Bader himself led a Spitfire formation with 11 of his colleagues which took off from North Weald to lead the flypast.

Douglas Bader, centre, led the victory flypast taking off in his own Spitfire from North Weald on 15 September 1945. Image courtesy of North Weald Airfield Museum.

Again, at the end of hostilities the size of the RAF drastically reduced. Most of the wartime-built airfields were quickly disposed of as their Nissen hut accommodation, while suitable for emergency use during the war, were far below the standard of the permanent brick-built barracks constructed in the inter-war years.

RAF Stansted Mountfitchet, opened in 1943, shown here on a 1956 Ordnance Survey map, was used by the RAF and USAAF during the war as a bomber airfield and major maintenance depot.

However, just as there had been continued improvement of aircraft from biplanes to monoplanes, so now the jet engine aircraft, such as the Gloster Meteor, now took over from the piston-engined Spitfires and Tempests. Along with the new technology so new requirements for servicing and longer runways were required, something which disadvantaged airfields close to London, such as North Weald and Hornchurch. Fast jets and the suburbs did not make for very easy bedfellows. The speeds which could be achieved by new aircraft meant airfields did not have to be so close to London to defend it, and new bases were built nearer to the coasts to intercept Russian bombers over the North Sea.

Most of the RAF bases in Essex closed in 1945 or in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. RAF Hornchurch remained open until 1962, and RAF North Weald until 1964. RAF Debden is still in the ownership of the military and home to the HQ of the Essex Wing of the RAF Air Cadets and the army’s Carver Barracks. Traces of other former RAF bases have helped to shape our modern landscape; RAF Stansted Mountfitchet became London Stansted Airport, and RAF Southend is now London Southend Airport.


With thanks to Havering Libraries – Local Studies and North Weald Airfield Museum for supplying images for this post.

Document of the Month, April 2018: Photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome, c.1918

100 years on from the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918, we have chosen this photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome during the First World War as our Document of the Month (T2603 Part 22).

Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, near Maldon, is considered to be the best preserved First World War airfield in Europe. Its 24 original buildings are Grade II* listed, and today a major project is working on restoring and interpreting the site for visitors.

Powered flight was still a very new phenomenon during the First World War; the Wright brothers had made the first powered flight only in 1903. Despite the fact that the aircraft of this time were flimsy, dangerous, unreliable and uncomfortable, in 1912 the British army had established the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and in 1914 the Royal Navy formed the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). On 1 April 1918 these two services were combined to form the RAF, the world’s first independent air force.

Aircraft were used on the battlefields, initially for reconnaissance and then as fighter planes and bombers, but they were also used for home defence. From early 1915 the Germans began air raids on Britain, first with Zeppelins and later with Gotha planes. From late 1915, Home Defence Squadrons were formed to defend against this threat.

Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196283

One of these was No. 37 Squadron, formed in September 1916. Its HQ was at Woodham Mortimer, and it had three flights, based at Stow Maries, Rochford, and Goldhanger. The job of the Squadron was to help defend the eastern approaches to London.

The first commander of Stow Maries was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, MC, DSO. Despite being aged just 19, Ridley had already served with the RFC in France and on home defence airfields. He earned his Distinguished Service Order when a mission to drop a spy behind enemy lines went wrong, and he ended up trapped on the German side. Despite having no command of either French or German, over the course of several weeks he managed to evade capture and made his way to the Netherlands. Not only did he survive to escape, he collected information on enemy activity along the way. He was no longer allowed to fly in France as it was judged that if he had crashed behind enemy lines again he would be shot as a spy, so he was assigned to home defence duties and put in command of Stow Maries.

Stow Maries was operational as a home defence airfield between May 1917 and May 1918, with 81 sorties flown to intercept enemy aircraft. At its height there were 219 staff based there, 16 of whom were aircrew, and 20 of whom were women. During this time, 10 members of 37 Squadron were killed, 8 of them in accidents (which goes to show just how dangerous flying was at this time).

Initially the airfield was equipped with BE12s, which were too slow to keep up with the German planes. Eventually it was sent Sopwith Camels and Avro 504ks, which are the planes which can be seen in our photograph. The Sopwith Camel was the most famous British fighter aeroplane of WW1 and was first introduced on the Western Front in 1917 (the beginning of the video below shows one being started up and taking off). The Camel, so-called because of the hump-shaped protective covering over its machine guns, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter plane during the First World War.

The Avro 504k is one of the greatest training aircraft ever built. It was used to equip training units first in the RFC and later the RAF. Always knows as a training aircraft, Avro 504ks were also used as an emergency home defence fighter operating against German aircraft raiders.

Stow Maries continued as an aerodrome until Spring 1919, after which the site was returned to agriculture. Many of the buildings constructed during the First World War for use by the RFC and RAF survive today, and Stow Maries is now undergoing a major conservation project and is open to visitors.

The photograph will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout April 2018.