Adrian Corder-Birch is
retired; he has interests in local history, genealogy and industrial
Where is your ‘office’? I prefer to call it a study rather than an office and it is situated on the ground floor. It contains part of my reference library, a laptop, computer and printer. My wife, Pam, has her study in the balcony room on the first floor.
Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction? I am fortunate enough to have two windows. One, where my main desk is, faces west towards the drive. The other, where my computer is located, faces south across our front garden where magnolia, cherry and other trees are in full bloom, with azaleas and rhododendrons just beginning to come out.
What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published? I am currently completing research for a book about the history of the Portway family and their foundry in Halstead where tortoise stoves were manufactured. Pam is compiling a separate book about the history of Bois Hall (now demolished) which was a former home to the Portway and many other families. It is our intention that both books are published and launched simultaneously, when circumstances permit.
Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when? I no longer work to a strict timetable as I am retired.
Do you have a favourite online resource? I use several online resources and it is difficult to suggest a favourite. Those I use regularly include Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive, Free BMD and of course Essex Archives Online including Parish Registers. I also keep an eye on EBAY and sometimes purchase items relating to Essex history.
your favourite research beverage and snack?
A cup of tea and this time of the year a hot cross bun.
Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research? I am sometimes distracted by wildlife in the garden including squirrels climbing everywhere, noisy partridges, green woodpeckers and occasionally a spotted woodpecker. I am very fortunate to see this wildlife, which is well worth being distracted. The main disturbance this time of the year is from rooks, building a rookery in our oak trees and making quite a noise.
What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again? One of the benefits of the lockdown is that I am beginning to sort through documents and photographs, which should be deposited at the Essex Record Office. I am looking forward to normal service being resumed so that I can deliver these records, which will undoubtedly help historians in the future. This will provide an opportunity to see the archivists and archive assistants again, many of whom I have known for some years and have become good friends, quite apart from being extremely helpful and sharing their extensive knowledge.
Back at the end of March Ian Beckwith kindly shared with us some of the fruits of his research he had undertaken on digital images of Parish Registers (Essex Archives Online: Parish Registers – what will you find?) accessed through our subscription service on Essex Archives Online. So, although the physical building may be closed for the time being, research is still possible and we enjoyed Ian’s piece so much we thought we’d ask our friends from Mersea [Island] Archive Research Group to share with us just a taste what they have found by looking through wills, of which we look after over 69,000 covering the years 1400-1858. We hope you find it as motivating as we have and, perhaps, it will tempt you to have a go yourself.
A year ago, in a world now so remote from the unfamiliar
present, a new group was set up at Mersea Island Museum. To some attending the
AGM at which this proposal was agreed, it offered an exciting and challenging
project: to others, it may have seemed as dull as ditchwater, but worth a try.
Now, after the first, gratifyingly successful year, our fortnightly meetings
have been brought to an abrupt halt by the unprecedented coronavirus lockdown. In
place of sociable discussions over coffee and biscuits, we now try to spend
some of our hours of isolation in continuing local researches, communicating
online and building on our previous shared learning experiences.
Our group goes by the initials MARG: Mersea Archive
Research Group. Its aims are to help members acquire the basic skills of palaeography
and to develop and extend these skills by transcribing some of the wonderful local
documents preserved in Essex Record Office (ERO). We concentrate on the plentiful
records from Mersea Island and nearby villages during the tumultuous Tudor and
Stuart periods. Before the enforced closure, we hoped to visit ERO to see original
documents, but after the first, enjoyable visit by six members, this was of
course no longer possible. The obvious alternative, and one which protects
fragile archives from excessive handling, is to make more use of ERO’s increasing
collection of digitized documents, which currently include thousands of Essex wills
and all available parish registers. We
are lucky to have such a wonderful resource available to download on payment of
subscription for a variable period. Local appreciation is shared by historians
outside the county – an email I received last week from a fellow researcher,
commented that ‘You are so lucky
with all of the digital resources from the Essex Record Office – as I found out
with my Repton project as my local archive has not got nearly as many.’
So often, studying these documents can suddenly reveal an unusual,
shocking or moving event recorded, almost incidentally, among pages of routine
items. In his ERO Blogpost of 27 March, Ian
Beckwith told a tragic story revealed by an entry in Great Burstead’s burial
Elizabeth Wattes Widdow sume tyme the wife of Thomas Wattes the blessed
marter of god who for his treuth suffered his merterdom in the fyre at Chelmesford
the xxij day of may in A[nn]o D[o]m[ini] 1555 in the Reigne of queen marywas buryed the 10
[July] 1599 (ERO, D/P 139/1/0, Image 49).
a similar event was revealed in several entries in court records of East Mersea
Hall Manor, this time concerning a Roman Catholic rather than Protestant
It is presented that Thomas Abell, Clark, who of the Lord holds … [one tenement called ] Stone Land; befor this court was Accused and by Acte of parlament Convicte of Treason &c Agaynst our soveraign Lord the kynge, and for that cause he is in the Tower of London in prison. (ERO D/DRc M12, unnumbered folio. This document was not digitized but photographed earlier using the £12 camera fee in the Searchroom )
Thomas Abell was chaplain to Queen Katherine of Aragon, who granted him the benefice of Bradwell juxta Mare. He was imprisoned in 1534 for publishing a book attacking the royal divorce, and after six years in the Tower Abell was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield. In the first year of Queen Elizabeth a letter from the queen was copied into the same East Mersea court book (D/DRc M12), granting all of Thomas Abell’s former holdings, to his brother, John Abell.
Most of the more than forty transcripts
completed by MARG members have been digitized wills of the Tudor and Stuart
members of MARG with subscriptions share downloaded images for discussion with the
group, purely ‘for study purposes’. We are aware of strict copyright conditions
regarding ERO documents, so images are used only for a couple of weeks while
being transcribed by individual members. In some cases where the language is
particularly obscure, a modern translation is added. After checking,
transcripts are then uploaded to the Mersea Museum website, and can be seen by
clicking on ‘Mersea Museum Articles books and papers’ and entering the
search-term ‘MARG’. We make sure that no digital images downloaded from ERO are
posted on the Mersea Museum website, or available to anyone outside the group.
One way to find refuge from each day’s disturbing Covid bulletins is to lose oneself in the no less anxious times of the 16th and 17th centuries. Wills transcribed over the past year contain a wealth of detail evoking the families, possessions and daily concerns of testators ranging from poor, illiterate villagers to prosperous landowners. Because no lord of any of the Mersea manors chose to live on the island, no great houses were built here. The lords (and lady) of West Mersea lived in splendour at St Osyth’s Priory, almost visible across the River Colne, before the terrors of civil war drove Countess Rivers into exile and bankruptcy. When her great estates and many manors were divided and sold in 1648, Peet and Fingringhoe were sold separately from the previously attached manor of West Mersea, to a rich Irish merchant. His increasing wealth and likely slave ownership were explored by two group members following a hint in the will of his tenant, the widowed Sarah Hackney.
Sarah Hackney’s digitized will (D/ABW 61/125)
was made in March 1660/1. She lived in Peet Hall, formerly in the parish of
West Mersea, though on the mainland, and the location of most of its manorial
courts. Her will specifies the magnificent bequest of £105 and some valuable
furniture to her favourite servant, John Foakes, while her brother received the
comparatively paltry sum of £15. An apparently unrelated executor received the
remainder of her goods and chattels, apart from her clock, to be delivered to
her landlord, Thomas Frere, at the end of her lease of Peet Hall. This link led
to an investigation of the will of Thomas Frere of Fingringhoe, which yielded
far more exotic properties to bequeath. His will (D/ACW 17/114) contains the
following unexpected legacies:
Imprimis I give & bequeath unto Thomas Frere my sonne and to his heires executors administrators & assignes All my estate whatsoever both reall and personall in the Island of Barbadoes which was bequeathed unto mee by mr John Jackson my late brother in law & by Elizabeth Jackson his wife my late sister or by either of them or that I have any right or title unto in the said Island of Barbadoes or else where from them or either of them, Alsoe I give & bequeath unto the said Thomas Frere my sonne and to his heires executors administrators & assignees all my landes plantations and other estate whatsoever both reall & personall in the Island of Antigua commonly called Antego.
In contrast to the lucrative estates of a probable slave-owner is the situation of Robert Wilvet of West Mersea, who made his short will (D/ABW 39/55) in 1542. The will unusually includes an inventory of his goods, and the many debts totalling nearly £30, which he owed to others on Mersea and beyond.
The very recent changes brought about by the
Reformation meant that Wilvet left no precious pennies to the church, simply
hoping to be received as one of the ‘faithful and elect of Christ’. Unusually,
his will names no specific bequests, even to his son, who, while named as one
of three executors, had the other two to be his guides, and ‘see [th]at he Doo
no Wronge nor take no Wronge’. The
inventory which follows suggests how little there was to inherit: one ‘aulde’
boat worth 6s 8d, one oar, a sail, lines, dredges and a trawling net, plus 30
shillings worth of oysters and household goods worth 3s 4d. Wilvet or his son
had little hope of paying off the largest outstanding debt of ‘xix li’ [£19]. However,
it is interesting to note that the equipment used by John Wilvet, in his
occupation as oyster fisherman, probably changed little until the introduction of
marine engines and mechanized trawling gear, many centuries later.
Such brief extracts from wills transcribed by
Mersea’s MARG group can only hint at the tantalizing stories that these
documents so frequently evoke. While
parish registers, rent rolls and property deeds can suggest the bare bones of a
person’s life, the documents they dictated to parish priests or literate
neighbours as they calmly or fearfully contemplated death, tell a far more
complex story. Their possessions, activities, and bonds with family and neighbours,
all come to life as we painstakingly transcribe these voices, speaking to us
from another age. It is thanks to the preservation of these essentially human
records, preserved and now digitized by the skill and dedication of ERO staff,
that we can understand more about those who once built and inhabited our local
Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux reflects on how our soundscapes have or haven’t changed during the current lockdown.
Numerous comments have been made about how quiet it is during lockdown – that there is less air traffic, less road traffic, less general hub-bub. Eminent wildlife recordist Chris Watson has spoken of the ‘unique opportunity’ to listen to ‘astonishing’ soundscapes we can hear in our own back gardens. Audio ecologists such as Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp have described the way our ears can now tune into sounds from a much greater distance, as overall noise levels decrease – a ‘depth perception’ that we wouldn’t normally perceive.
It is true that the number of flights have drastically decreased – you can check what’s overhead right at this moment with a flight tracker website or a surprisingly interesting Twitter feed. As you will see, it is misleading to say that air traffic has stopped – people are flying home, sometimes in special planes chartered to retrieve them. Medical supplies are frantically being sent all over the globe. Can someone on a normal flight path tell us their impressions of the impact? Because there are fewer aeroplanes, does that make us notice them more?
Some noises are ‘normal’, but the current context heightens
our awareness of them. Sirens screaming are a frequent occurrence at any time,
and, particularly if you live in a city, you learn to filter them out. But now
when we hear a siren, do we assign more significance to it? Does it make us
feel worried, afraid, sad – or thankful for the emergency services?
Is there more birdsong? Or are we just noticing it more? If there is less other environmental noise, it does not make sense that the birds are singing louder – they have less to compete with to make themselves heard. Maybe the sounds are more audible, because there are fewer other distractions, and we pay more attention to them because we are at home more, out in the garden more. Or perhaps this is just our perception because lockdown coincided with spring, when birds typically become more audible.
I do not often work from home, so I cannot judge whether the amount of human activity I can hear has changed. Can I hear more conversations as people run into neighbours on the way to the shops because they are speaking to each other from further away, and therefore more loudly? Or are people more likely to chat because we all need to reach out for human contact? Can I hear more conversation as people are queuing outside shops, instead of breezing in and out?
Then there are new sounds. Communal dancing in the street. Clapping and clanging pots for frontline workers each Thursday evening.
What is really going on? What are the real pandemic
soundscapes? Let’s put these sweeping statements to the test.
First, open a window. Second, set an alarm to go off in five
minutes. Now, find somewhere comfortable to sit. Open your ears. Close your
What did you hear? This is what I heard from my lockdown
Two constant background noises: a ticking clock on the bookcase behind me, and the high-pitched chirping of birds, probably in the trees nearby.
Cars and possibly a larger vehicle driving round my block of flats, with associated noises like a car door shutting, a car engine starting up.
A runner’s footsteps rhythmically slapping the pavement.
Birds rustling tree branches as they fly off or land.
A child’s voice, distantly heard.
A sea gull squawking.
The flapping wings of a small bird fluttering near my window.
The beeping of a reversing lorry, in the distance.
Frequently, the double beep noise that’s made every time someone opens the door to the nearby convenience store.
What did you hear? How did it make you feel? It is ok if your soundscape does not have the calming, peaceful effect that is so commonly described. It is understandable to feel anxious by sounds you hear. As always in history, the individual experiences of and responses to events are complex.
The absence of sounds is not always welcome. The comforting
noise of cricket bat against ball on the village green. The happy chatter from
beer gardens on a warm Friday evening. The automated voice telling you that you
have, at last, reached your local station on your daily commute home. Or maybe
you miss some of the sounds of your workplace. For me, it’s the satisfying
clunk of a cassette tape being loaded into a player – it goes without saying
that I miss hearing the collections themselves.
Whatever you experienced, we want to hear your #StayHomeSounds. Safely from your home or garden, record what your lockdown sounds like. Then send it to us at email@example.com. It would help if you can provide information about where and when it was recorded, plus a little about why you recorded it and your reactions to those noises. We are compiling sounds on our Essex Sounds map, and we may use them for other resources. Please contact us if you want more technical details about how to make your recording.
If you want to hear what the pandemic sounds like in far-flung lands, there are a number of global sound maps you can dip into, such as at Radio Aporee and Sounds of Cities. How different is the situation in India, or Marseilles?
Or if you want some escapism, tune into BBC Essex each morning at around 9:55 a.m. for a daily soundscape of things we can’t currently enjoy, or explore our Essex Sounds map of past and present sounds of Essex.
We’ll leave you with this clip of the dawn chorus recorded on 7 May 2017, on the outskirts of Chelmsford – how does it compare with the dawn chorus you might have heard today, on #InternationalDawnChorusDay?
This newspaper article, from the Brighton and Hove and South Sussex Graphic, was found pasted inside an early 20th century scrapbook belonging to the Bradhurst family of Rivenhall Place (specifically to Minna Evangeline Wood and Augustus Maunsell Bradhurst). It, along with other articles and letters, gives us an insight into an interesting musical career.
Immediately, your eye is caught by the flamboyant photograph in the centre of the page: an elderly woman riding a tricycle with free abandon. What wonderful woman could this be? You ask, and the answer is right there: Lady Barrett-Lennard, A Famous Brighton Composer. Not only is this an elderly woman, but a high class elderly woman; certainly not the photograph one would expect of her!
Emma Barrett-Lennard was baptised as Emma Wood on February 17th 1832
in London. She was baptised by her father, Sir John Page Wood, a rector. Her
mother was Lady Emma Caroline Wood. She became a Barrett-Lennard on January
18th 1853 when she married Thomas Barrett-Lennard, who ascended to the
baronetcy upon the death of his grandfather in 1857. Her death came, in
Brighton, on June 18th 1916; less than a year after this article was written.
The main reason for the article? Her success as the composer of ‘Canadian Guns’, a patriotic song which had become a popular song to perform at events.
Another article, this one from the Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, praises a particular performance of Canadian Guns given at “Lady Lennard’s Concert Party”. This concert was the third of a series given by Lady Barrett-Lennard at different hospitals in the Folkestone area.
Alongside this article, a letter was also pasted into the scrapbook. The letter was from Lt. Col. L. G. Rennie, written to thank Lady Barrett-Lennard for her for the work her concert had done in cheering up sick and wounded soldiers.
A second letter was written from Sgd. F. Timberlake (bandmaster) thanking her for making Canadian Guns accessible to him and assuring her that he will “get the march played with the band every day to get the tuneful melody memorised by the troops”.
If this isn’t sufficient proof of Lady Barret-Lennard’s success as a musical composer, then the final thing that is need to cement this claim is the following article which seems to exist purely to sing her praises and demand more songs. Published by ‘The Bystander’ on November 10th 1915, the article is titled: “An Octogenarian Song Composer: The Elusive Personality of the Writer of Plymouth Hoe and Canadian Guns”. The writer of the article begins by marvelling at her age and gender (obviously two limitations which make her success all the more remarkable…) and blames Lady Barrett-Lennard’s modesty for the lack of success seen by her forty or so other songs.
The article suggests that her other popular song,
‘Plymouth Hoe’, was “rescued” from being “pigeon-holed” at her publishers office.
According to this article it was only because she heard that people thought
‘Plymouth Hoe’ was her only song that she allowed for ‘Canadian Guns’ to be
published and “not pigeon-holed”. The article ends with the hope that their
writing has successfully persuaded Lady Barrett-Lennard to write more songs, or
her publishers to “rescue” more of her songs from their pigeon-holes.
Of course the true proof of fame is the critics! And Lady Barrett-Lennard was not without her own critics. One critic is given a particularly amusing spotlight in the Brighton Graphic and South Coast Illustrated News in an article titled: Brighton Lady Composer: Scandalous Insinuations. (‘Lady’ clearly having been underlined to emphasise the rarity of a successful female…) The article is written around a letter which has been anonymously sent to them, signed by “Musicus”, in which Lady Barrett-Lennard is accused of paying her way to success. The most amusing point of this letter seems to be that “Musicus” has never actually heard ‘Canadian Guns’ performed and yet is disparaging it regardless. The insinuation clearly being that a woman could not have created something that is actually good enough to earn such attention and success.
Fortunately (for Lady Barrett-Lennard and for feminists everywhere), the author of the article seems as disbelieving of these accusations as Lady Barrett-Lennard’s secretary whose withering reply has also been published alongside the article.
As well as her famous songs, ‘Canadian Guns’ and ‘Plymouth Hoe’, Lady Barrett-Lennard also composed music to accompany a variety of poems. Some of these are by known poets, whilst some appear to be written by her own acquaintances. Many of these compositions are written to accompany poems by Lord Alfred Tennyson. We are fortunate to have a book of Lady Barrett-Lennard’s songs amongst the many documents which make up our Barrett-Lennard collection.
Crops of every kind, including peas, were tempting targets for humans as well as natural predators, such as rabbits but mainly birds. Extensive acreages of field crops posed a challenge to protect, but an abundance of cheap human labour would have provided at least some form of bird-scaring by children armed with clappers and loud voices. Fortunately for the farmer, this was an easy job that required little skill and not much, if any, payment.
A story passed down in my family is that my great-grandfather, Henry Wiffen (1862-1946), was taken out bird scaring as one of his first jobs, presumably when he was 7 or 8. His father lit a little fire in the base of a hedge for him to keep warm by while keeping an eye out for birds. This might have been at Nightingale Hall Farm in Halstead / Greenstead Green. See George Clausen’s painting, ‘Bird Scaring – March’.
For those levels of society that could afford to have large,
planned gardens, with an appropriate number of gardeners, then there was plenty
of people on hand to protect crops from predation. However, that fickle, enigmatic
element known to all gardeners, the weather, had also to be countered. To begin
with a warm wall or sheltered corner of a garden might suffice to an aspiring
gardener. Small moveable enclosures, known as cloches, or cold frames with a
covering of ‘lights’, could be used to give protection to particular plants or small
areas of crops. If you were rich then money, and lots of it, could be thrown at
this problem, and, as with all things, technology evolved over time along with the
aspirations of the owners of grand houses. They were the early adopters of even
greater resource-intensive infrastructure, and a good example of this can be
seen in the incredible, and now lost, gardens of Wanstead House.
The plan of the house gardens park & plantations of Wanstead in the county of Essex, the seat of the Rt. Honble the El. Tylney. (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)
A vitally important part of a planned garden was the kitchen garden, for in an age before global trade and refrigeration only a very small amount of produce was imported. So if you wanted to eat something out of the ordinary then you had to grow it, and if you wanted to eat that something out of season then you had to make it happen. The wealthier you were the more you could eat out of season fruit and vegetables, such as peas and peaches, and the more exotic would be the produce that your gardens grew – pineapples being the most unusual and difficult to grow (the first grown in Britain is reckoned to have been in 1693 for Queen Mary II: T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.193). Grapes were also a symbol of status and perhaps the most famous vine is the 250 year-old Black Hamburg at Hampton Court Palace, which has an interesting Essex connection (see: https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/the-great-vine/#gs.2k24uk). Kitchen gardens then, were both a symbol of wealth and status as well as a practical contributor to the household economy. At Wanstead the extensive gardens were located close to the main house.
As can be seen, the kitchen gardens are on a grand scale and
laid out in a very formal manner with lots of beds and borders. From these
would have been grown all the run of the mill fruit and vegetables that would
have fed the household throughout the year. These gardens were powered by the
extensive use of manure, as often as not horse manure, to provide the soil with
the necessary body to produce large yields. As can be seen from the plan, the
stables are quite close but on the opposite side of the house from the gardens.
This would have entailed the carting of manure across the sightline of the
house or a very long detour to get it to the gardens out of sight. Wherever
practical the stables and gardens were, sensibly, located adjacent to one
another and quite often out of view altogether so as not to offend the owner
and his family with sights and smells that might not be conducive to their
sensibilities. It could be that at Wanstead we are looking at an early form of
that relationship and that by the nineteenth century the layout of an estate
had become more nuanced. A good example of a recreated kitchen garden and
stable set-up is at Audley End (http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/organic-kitchen-gardens/)
Having sheltered open borders was all very good but in order
not only to grow tender plants, but to extend the season of more general crops,
then much more intensive infrastructure was required. This is highlighted on
the 1735 plan of Wanstead with individual depictions of a green house (6 on the
plan) and two ‘stove’ houses (both marked as 11 on the plan). A greenhouse at
this stage was a light, airy building with some glazing that sheltered plants,
while the stove house was much the same but had heating of some kind, often
free-standing stoves located within the building. We think of greenhouses today
as having minimal structure and maximum glazing, but this design only came
around in the second half of the nineteenth century as developments in
cast-iron production and the decreasing cost of glass made the ‘modern’
greenhouse possible. The eighteenth-century equivalent had much more structure
and far less glazing, very much like what we would think of as an orangery. As
indicated above, these were very expensive to build and run.
While the gardens at Wanstead House were obviously
cutting-edge, they also deployed other techniques for growing fruit, vegetables
and flowers. If we look at the image of the Great Stove House we can see a
couple of examples. Firstly this sub-section of the garden is surrounded by
what appears to be wooden fencing. Not only does this define the area, but the
fencing also gives protection from damaging winds thus creating a sheltered
micro-climate. In a later period, brick walls were built which fulfilled the
same functions as a wooden fence but also had the advantage of acting as a
structure up which plants could be trained – tender ones on the south facing
walls with hardier ones on the cooler, north facing walls. Some of these walls
were built to be heated themselves by fireplaces and flues to protect crops
from frost, think outdoor radiators – but they must have been extremely
expensive to run. Not all plant protection at Wanstead was very expensive, for
in the borders are bell-shapes which are probably glass cloches, a low-tech
form of plant protection. Cloche being French for bell – hence they get their
name from their shape.
Cloches and cold frames were available to a wider
cross-section of the population than expensive greenhouses. For example, Richard
Bridgeman (d.1677) had 18 ‘cowcumber’-glasses worth 9 shillings, while
Theophilus Lingard (d.1743/4) had, among extensive possessions, 20 bell glasses
and two cucumber frames. (F.W. Steer, Farm and Cottage Inventories of
Mid-Essex, 1635-1749 (Chelmsford, 1950), pp.145, 270.) So for gardeners of
all degrees there was some form of artificial plant protection available to
give that little bit of advantage when growing crops. A more modern version of
the traditional bell cloche was the Chase barn cloche, introduced in the early
twentieth century by Major L.H. Chase. These simple forms of protection were used
in their thousands by nursery and market-gardeners to give protection to their
crops from the bad weather. However, they were susceptible, along with greenhouses,
to the rain of shrapnel that was caused by anti-aircraft fire during the Second
World War – thank goodness we don’t have that to worry about now!
While no longer bell-shaped, protective covers are still known as cloches, although it is thought that in Essex most market gardeners of the post-war years pronounced cloche as CLOTCH (sounding like BLOTCH) – no subtleties in pronunciation there! (Photo: N. Wiffen)
Hi, I am Julie Miller and I am finishing my second year as a
part-time History MA student at the University of Essex. In the summer of 2019 I won a research
placement at the Essex Record Office to transcribe and research a handwritten
18th century Journal by a Saffron Walden Quaker called John
Farmer. He is now the subject of my
Masters’ dissertation and ongoing research.
When the lockdown was announced my stepdaughter and
ten-year-old granddaughter moved in with us so we could all help look after
each other. This means the house is not
quite as peaceful as before. It’s been
very special spending time with them, but Nanny Jules is now in charge of home
schooling a very reluctant reader. We
have found comic poetry a great resource and my disinclined pupil is enjoying
her reading much more. My husband is a Flour Miller and designated a key worker
so he is working a lot of extra shifts, day and night so I am trying to keep
everything running smoothly for him too.
Where is your office?
Currently my office is a summer house in the garden. Called Miller’s
Rest, it was a gift from my husband for my 40th birthday and I
usually use it as an art studio. We have
rigged up a rudimentary power supply and I’ve moved all my research materials
and laptop up there so I can work in peace. My desk is a curious bit of
Colchester history. It was made for my
Uncle out of offcuts of coffin oak from the Co-op Funeral Service workshops
many years ago and I inherited it when he passed. Because its coffin wood it’s a bit narrow, so
the laptop doesn’t quite fit, but I manage, and I like the quirkiness of it. I
have a really good office chair though and that makes working at an odd desk
much more comfortable.
I have a radio because there is always time for Women’s
Hour, and I also have a 1920s gramophone and a collection of wonderful 78s by
the stars of yesteryear like Elvis, Doris Day, Bill Hayley, Dean Martin and
Glen Miller. Sitting out there in the evenings with a drink and the gramophone
is a real treat, till the mosquitoes from the pond start munching.
Do you have a view out of a window when you are working?
What is it and is it a distraction?
From the open doors of Miller’s Rest I can see all
the way back down the garden to the rear of our 1920s house where an ill-thought
out 1970s extension does nothing to improve the view. However the side window in front of my desk
looks out onto trees overhanging an ancient pond which is currently full of
tadpoles. The sparrows enjoy balancing
on twigs over the pond to get a drink, or maybe a nibble on a tadpole and they
are very entertaining. The garden is
always distracting, and I am drawn to my greenhouse at this time of year, but I
am trying to be disciplined. Sadly there is often a full washing line too.
What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this
result in something published?
For the last 4 weeks I have been doing a job for one of my
tutors, a 22,000-word transcription of a research interview she did with a
professor of Chinese Religious History.
Not very Essex at all admittedly, but now that’s finished I am writing
an article for the magazine for the Essex Society for Family History. I was very lucky to win their 2020 Award for
my research into John Farmer. They want to know more about him for their readers,
and I am happy to oblige.
After the article, I will be turning my full attention to
completing my dissertation, which will cover the work I did on the John Farmer
Journal while I was at the ERO, and subsequent research I have done to flesh
out his later story. He was a remarkable
man who visited the Native Americans and the Caribbean Islands in the
1710-1720s but was thrown out of the Philadelphia Quakers for challenging them
to give up slaves and slave trading. He was described as a man of ‘indiscreet
zeal’. He was way ahead of his time and
deserves to be recognised. Neil Wiffen at the ERO has challenged me to write a
book about Farmer before 2024 which will be the 300th anniversary of
John Farmer’s death. No pressure there
then Neil! I will also be continuing my research into John Farmer and his wife
Mary for my upcoming PhD which I hope to start in October (lockdown
Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just
pick up your research as and when?
I try to do at least two hours a day, more if possible but
with the cooking and work associated with extra people in the house it is
proving tricky. My Supervisor is
starting to make chivvying noises and asking to see draft chapters, so I am beginning
to feel the pressure.
Do you have a favourite online resource?
I have been lucky in that I was able to get lots of copied
material from the ERO while I was on my placement, and I have visited several
times since so I haven’t needed to rely on much online research. But there are some interesting online
resources in America and the UK relating to Quaker history and I have had an
enjoyable ongoing discussion with a genealogist from Mobile, Alabama who had
posted on the Find a Grave site, to try to resolve some errors in the family
history relating to John Farmer. Note to
any researcher – do not upset an American genealogist, they take their work
very seriously and luckily I was able to supply documentary proof of my
research and they corrected their information.
I think that is quite an achievement.
What is your favourite research beverage and snack?
Well, as I am writing this on Easter Monday I suppose I
would have to say Easter Egg. However on
a (what passes for) normal day I would have a ham sandwich and a packet of
crisps washed down with water or diet coke.
Our family have a long tradition of tea or coffee and cake at 4pm, so
that is usually when I stop work and we all come together to watch the BBC
virus update before planning the evening entertainment.
Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you
from you research?
One of my university colleagues has set up a regular quiz on
Zoom, several times a week and we all join in from our sofas which has been a
lot of fun. My granddaughter has a liking for gambling with grandad’s pennies
and we play Newmarket sometimes. I like
folk music so enjoy watching the online live sessions from people like Kate
Rusby, Chris Leslie and While and Matthews and being a nosey parker I like
seeing their homes. Also I belong to a
local shanty group and we have been using Skype to do virtual unplugged singing
sessions. Its been funny seeing everyone
placing themselves in front of bookcases.
Along with that it’s regular calls to family, I am missing
my little grandson a lot, and am so thankful that social media allows us to
stay in touch.
What are you most looking forward to when you are able to
visit ERO again?
I am desperate to get back into the Colchester and Saffron
Walden Quaker minute books from the 17th and 18th century
as I am trying to trace John Farmer in both towns, filling in some of the gaps,
and also looking for more information about his amazing wife and daughters who
all had their own stories to tell. Also
Mary Farmer and her daughter Mary Fulbigg left behind journals that still need transcribing,
so I have lots of work ahead of me.
Julie Miller, a masters student from University of Essex, has taken up a research placement at the Essex Record Office, conducting an exploration into the story of John Farmer and his adventures, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, and has been jointly funded by the Friends of Historic Essex and University of Essex. Julie will be publishing a series of updates from the 12-week project.
In part 7 of this series, we reach the end of John Farmer’s travels.
Just over a year after he came home from his epic American journey in 1715 John Farmer travelled back to America as he had planned.
In a letter held in the journal
collection at the Essex Record Office, dated Virginia 1st June 1716,
he wrote to his wife Mary asking her to pack up her goods and join him in
Philadelphia where they would settle permanently. He instructed her:
‘It is best for thee to send what goods thou shalt bring into
Phyladelphia to Anthony Morris but com in thy self and ye children
by ye way of Maryland excypt you think it best to come in ye
ship with Anthony Morris when he doth return home.’[i]
However for some reason that
didn’t happen. Mary stayed in Saffron Walden, possibly still nursing her sick
daughter Mary Fulbigg or perhaps she had heard that John Farmer was already
sowing the seeds of personal disaster and Mary decided not to put her self and
her children at odds with the wider Quaker community. For what ever reason,
Mary decided not to go to America to join her husband of 17 years and as a
result she never saw him again.
John Farmer had arrived back in
America as the first abolitionist arguments were at their height amongst
Quakers. He had not passed comment in his journal of 1711-14 but must have
witnessed the suffering of slaves in the Caribbean and on the plantations of
Virginia and Maryland. Quakers had been
troubled by the slave question a few times previously[ii]
but had chosen to wait for a common agreement to be felt in the Yearly and
Monthly meetings, almost certainly because the senior Quaker leaders were often
slave owners with significant vested interests.
The dichotomy was that Quakers believed all men were equal under God,
and slave owning certainly didn’t sit well with their philosophy, but they were
not yet ready to make any radical changes.
By early 1717 John Farmer had started
an antagonistic anti-slavery campaign. It’s
not clear what exactly triggered his impassioned fight, but it may possibly
have been as a result of reading or hearing the testimony of seasoned abolitionist
campaigner and fellow Quaker William Southeby.
Southeby had been campaigning since 1696, and in 1714 had taken the
Philadelphia Meeting to task saying, “it
was incumbent on them ‘as leaders of American Quakerism, to take a high moral
position on slavery”.[iii] He insisted Philadelphia did their Christian
duty regarding slavery without waiting for recommendation from other
meetings. The Philadelphia meeting of
June 1716 censured Southeby and forced him to apologise for publishing
unapproved pamphlets. By December 1718 they were warning him of disownment as
he had retracted his apology and published a further paper on the subject.
For John Farmer the fight to stop
Quakers owning slaves wasn’t the first time he had made a challenge against the
status quo. Back in Saffron Walden in
1701 he had infuriated the local mayor and church-wardens for refusing to pay a
combined tax for repairs to the church (which Farmer scathingly called a
steeple-house) and poor relief. He was only prepared to pay for the portion
relating to relief of the poor, and not for church maintenance, arguing he
shouldn’t pay for a roof he didn’t worship under. He wrote letters and
published pamphlets explaining why Quakers should not pay tithes and was so
dogged in his protest that eventually the mayor gave in and accepted a reduced
people of Saffron Walden did inlarge ye poor tax On purpose yt
there might bee thereby mony enough gathered for ye poor & for to repair ye
steeple- house. Thus they put church tax
& poor tax together & called it a rate for ye relief of ye
poor. I was told yt
heretofore ye church wardens of saffron walden had caused a friend
to be excommunicated & imprisoned till death for refusing to pay to their
worship house. Thus they put ye
parrish to charge & their honist neighbour to prison without profit to
themselves. Which troubled the people
& therefore they go no more… When
they demanded ye said tax of mee I could not pay it all because I
know some of it as for their worship house.
I offered to pay my part to ye poor: But ye
overseer would not take it: excypt I would pay ye whole tax.[iv]
In April 1717 Farmer presented
the Nantucket meeting with his pamphlet ‘Epistle
Concerning Negroes’ deriding the Quakers for owning slaves, and it was
received with satisfaction. Unfortunately
the pamphlet has not survived, as far as we know. Obviously emboldened by the
reception he had received in Nantucket, and with his customary fervour, in 1717
John Farmer requested a meeting of Elders and Ministers at the June Yearly
meeting in Newport Rhode Island which took place on 4th June 1717 and
there he presented them with two documents, one his ‘Epistle Concerning Negroes’, the other his criticism of ‘Casting Lotts’ (gambling) and his
opinions were not well received by the audience there. They felt he was
undermining unity and stirring up division which was unacceptable. As a result
Farmer was disciplined for refusing to surrender his pamphlets and continuing
to campaign. Records from the time report twenty Friends laboured with him overnight
to encourage him to set aside his views.
But he would not and the following morning they refused him access to
meetings until he was prepared to back down which he never did. [v]
Minutes of the 1717 Newport
Yearly meeting quietly record their decision on the subject of importing and
keeping slaves as being to “wait for the
wisdom of God how to discharge themselves in that weighty affair” but also
that merchants should write to their “correspondents
in the Islands to discourage them from sending anymore.” They would review
it again at the 1718 meeting. That was
as far as they were prepared to go.[vi]
The Friends of Philadelphia found
it necessary to take subsequent action in the matter because John Farmer was
undeterred and continued to disturb meetings, shouting over ministers and
making a general nuisance of himself. He appealed to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
in July 1718, but the Yearly Meeting felt no good would come from listening to
his complaints, and that he could not be received in unity until he had
accepted his writings were unacceptable. When he refused to condemn his own
work he was disowned. This seemingly harsh action by the Philadelphia Quakers appears
to have been a matter of some embarrassment for years to come. John Farmer had been intemperate in his
language, and impatient for change to be hurried through, but to the gentle
Quakers he employed what was later described witheringly as “Indiscreet Zeal” in the Biographical Sketch published in the
journal The Friend of 1855[vii].
The editor and author John Richardson says that
“his actions might have been suffered to have slept in oblivion if it
were not that Friends of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have been charged several
times with silencing him, because of his testimony against slavery’. “
Presumably being disowned meant
John Farmer lost access to the network of contacts he normally used to help him
travel. He remained in America, perhaps
too poor, or too ashamed to return to England or perhaps because he was
determined to keep fighting for the anti-slavery cause. The Friend Journal ponders how he may have had more success.
“John Farmer may have rightly, as well as forcibly pled the cause of the slave. If, after doing this, he had left the matter to the great Head of the Church, and whilst proclaiming his truth had endeavoured to cultivate in himself love and good will to those who differed from him, he … would have done more towards advancing the cause dear to his heart than could have been effected by denunciation or irritating language.”[viii]
Farmer is recorded as being
located in and around Philadelphia for the remainder of his life, holding small
meetings of like-minded friends whenever he could and presumably continuing in
his trade as a wool comber. He died in
Germantown near Philadelphia in late 1724 or early 1725 at the age of about 57,
having never made it back home to his family. In his will, written in August
1724, he left all his British possessions to his wife Mary, and his American
possessions to his daughter Ann. He left
instructions to the executors that they put:
“no new linen on my dead body, but my worst shirt on it, and my worst
handkerchief on ye head and ye worst drawers or briches on ye body and ye worst
stockings on ye legs & feet. And invite my neighbours to com to my house
& there thirst in moderation with a Barrel of Sider & two gallons of
Rum or other spirit.”[ix]
John Farmer may have been an old
sober-sides, but he made sure he got a decent send off. Probate on the will was granted 11th
Thus the story of John Farmer the
Essex Quaker in America, comes to an end.
But in my last post we will look at the extraordinary women in John
Farmer’s life, his daughter Ann, step daughter Mary Fulbigg and especially his wife
Mary Farmer all had a role to play in the wider story of this man and their
stories also deserve to be told.
[i] Letter John Farmer to Mary Farmer dated Virginia
1706. Essex Record Office Cat D/NF 3
addl. A13685 Box 51
See my previous post An Essex Quaker in the Caribbean for more information.
Quoted in Drake, T.E., Quakers & Slavery in America, Oxford University
Press, London 1950 p. 28
[iv] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box
[v] New England Yearly Meeting: Committees:
Ministry: Minsters and Elders, 1707-1797. New England Yearly Meeting of Friends
Records (MS 902). Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst
[vi] New England Yearly Meeting: Administrative
Minutes, 1672-1735. New England Yearly Meeting of Friends Records (MS 902).
Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries
Dr James Bettley is an architectural historian, currently planning his next project.
Where is your office?
I’m lucky to have a study on a mezzanine floor at the back of the house that makes it feel quite separate from the rest of the house. We’ve lived here for 30 years and I’ve been working from home for 20, so the current situation doesn’t feel that strange.
Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?
There are two windows, facing east and south, with views over our garden and fields beyond. The windows are not in my direct line of site so I don’t find the view too distracting.
What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?
I’m thinking about a couple of subjects – John Bateman of Brightlingsea, and the 20th-century restorations of St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell – but the research I really want to do involves travelling in the UK and abroad, so that’s on hold for the time being. Any thoughts of publication are very remote just yet.
Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?
Generally when I’m at home I work from 8 to 6 with an hour for lunch and a walk, but I’m slipping into a more relaxed coronavirus regime of concentrated working from 9 to 1, lunch followed by a couple of hours permitted exercise or essential shopping, then catching up on emails etc until 6 or so.
Do you have a favourite online resource?
British Newspaper Archive. Endlessly diverting.
What is your favourite research beverage and snack?
Coffee, mainly. I tend not to snack, although I can’t pretend that if there’s a packet of biscuits open I don’t occasionally…
Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?
I’m easily distracted by emails, tweets etc, but not for long.
What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?
T/M 508/2. It’s only
a photograph of a map (the original’s at New College, Oxford, who owned land at
Bradwell) but it includes a vignette of ‘St Peter’s Chapel in Ruins’ that I’d like to see. But mostly I’m
simply looking forward to being able to visit the ERO and a number of other
libraries and archives again. Perhaps we’ll value you all the more after this
period of abstinence and deprivation.
Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen takes a look at how peas became so ubiquitous on the dinner tables of the nation.
Frozen peas must be the most accessible vegetable known to 21st century shoppers – such an easy convenience food to reach for all year round. Peas throughout history have been an important food source, and catalogue entries from Essex Archives Online are littered with references to them. During the middle-ages and early modern period they were grown as field crops for drying and use over winter, as an easily stored, high protein food source. Historians believe that ‘garden’ peas for eating freshly picked were an introduction from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century (T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.106). The kitchen gardens of the large country house would have produced them for the table along with market gardeners operating around towns, and it is quite probable that general gardeners, from a fairly early date, would have also done so once seed became readily available.
Through the nineteenth century the consumption of fresh(ish) peas increased, and the expansion of the railway network allowed Essex producers to send vast quantities of all sorts of fresh produce up to London – by 1850 3,900 tons of peas from surrounding counties were sold through the markets there (G. Dodds, The Food of London (London, 1856), p.387). And how were many of these peas harvested in a pre-mechanised age? Well, school log books of the period are littered with references to pupils being absent for all sorts of harvest work, not least that of pea picking, probably there alongside their mothers. The income that families made from seasonal work was not to be underestimated, and full advantage was made of these opportunities.
And it was not just women and children who helped bring in the peas. Many itinerant workers also relied on various crops, and growers were glad of the extra labour to bring in the harvest. David Smith, farmer, author and broadcaster of Broomfield, wrote of the ‘grey tattered figures of all types and ages [as] they trudged along slowly in the bright June sunlight … They would come, every year … just as they came to thousands of other farms … And so to Hill Farm, with near it the brilliant green of two to three fields of picking peas … for a fickle London market.’ (D. Smith, The Same Sky Over All (London, 1948)*, p.116).
As to quite how ‘fresh’ hand-picked peas were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is debatable. It wasn’t until freezing was first developed in the 1920s that the possibility of something akin to freshly picked peas became available to most consumers. However, without the advent of retailers with frozen sections and domestic home freezers, frozen peas eaten widely would have to wait until well into the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime, and as with most vegetables, peas would have probably been well boiled!
If you wanted to eat peas fresh from the garden then, as indicated above, you had to grow them, and it is the same today. The joy of podding peas is one of the highlights of summer – so much so that sometimes more end up being eaten before they even make it to the cook! There are lots of varieties to choose from, not least the well known and locally raised Kelvedon Wonder which harks back to the 1920s. An older variety is Ne Plus Ultra from the early nineteenth century. Perhaps you know it from the BBC television series The Victorian Kitchen Garden (1987)* when Harry Dodson and Peter Thoday resurrected the variety from some very old seed. It was alleged to reach 7 foot in height, which is probably why it waned in popularity – modern varieties are generally all dwarfing which is an advantage to growers.
There used to be many more pea varieties grown in the past, partly because there would have been regional varieties that were only available locally, but also because of the proliferation of seed companies – something which, as with many businesses, has reduced over the last 50 years or so. If we take Chelmsford based Cramphorns, they listed 15 varieties of just the second early and maincrop varieties, including Ne Plus Ultra, in their 1898 catalogue. Along with the early sorts of peas, growing a lot of different varieties meant that if one failed there were others to come along and, in a pre-refrigeration era, it extended the length of the season in which to enjoy fresh peas.
So as it is the time of year to start sowing peas I thought it might be fun to have a go at growing some Ne Plus Ultra peas – just as past gardeners in Essex would have done. I have also so challenged some colleagues and friends of the ERO to grow some to see if any of us can get them to 7 foot – all for a bit of fun I hasten to add. I’ll grow some Kelvedon Wonder as well by comparison and, weather and pests being kind, I’ll update you on how we’re all getting along as well as ruminating on other points of gardening that ‘crop’ up over the summer. For the moment though, keep your fingers crossed for a spell of dry weather as I’ll need to get on in the garden to prepare the soil.
*If you don’t know the work of David Smith then his books are well worth a read. There are copies of them in the ERO Library. If you haven’t seen The Victorian Kitchen Garden then it is available on DVD.
Dr Herbert Eiden is the research assistant of The People of 1381 project (https://www.1381.online/) and former assistant editor of Victoria County History of Essex.
Where is your ‘office’?
I have a dedicated downstairs office containing my reference
library, a laptop and a desktop because I work from home regularly.
Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and
is it a distraction?
My view is into our side garden south-east facing with a big shrub (currently in white blossoms) in front of me.
What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in
I am building up Excel sheets of relevant manorial documents for five counties; Essex is one of them. I took lots of images of Essex manorial court rolls before the ERO closed and can work with those now (at least for a few weeks).
Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your
research as and when?
I normally start at 8.30am, have a lunch break (cooked
lunch!) and finish around 4.30pm.
Do you have a favourite online resource?
Manorial Documents Register; ERO online catalogue; NROcat; The National
Archives Discovery catalogue; British Library Manuscript catalogue.
What is your favourite research beverage and snack?
Nuts, sweet chilli
crisps; juice, peppermint tea.
Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?
What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO
Manorial court rolls (late 14th century) and, of course, the
staff, who are always friendly, extremely helpful and hugely knowledgeable.