University of Essex MA student Grace Benham reflects on her placement spent working on a collection of oral history interviews tracing the history of women’s refuges in Essex. You can read her previous blog posts here.
Uncovering the hidden history of Women’s Refuges in Essex has been as rewarding as it has been difficult. The struggle of the women, and men, who fought to recognise the importance of protecting women from abusive histories, though tragic in its need, is incredibly inspiring.
In my academic history background, I have rarely delved into feminist history, and especially British feminist history, which surprises most as I have also been an outspoken advocate for women. This choice is rooted in two fundamental reasons: firstly, it is difficult to see the hatred and vile attitudes towards women that existed not so long ago which the matriarchs of my family would have grown up with, and it is hard to reconcile that with the privileges we hold today. But, more than this, I had never seen myself as a very ‘good’ feminist; in my younger years I failed to recognise nuance and my own privileges. But an important lesson from those who have dedicated decades of their lives for others is that, despite differences, unity for the common good is absolutely more important.
this collection was daunting to say the least. My own personal
experience with abuse in a romantic relationship which had motivated
the selection of this collection also made going through this
material hard. However, the hidden histories of Women’s Refuges
also provides a wealth of hope in the selfless willingness to help
those who need it and to fight for everything they’ve got.
The oral history collection, ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’, comprises stories from Colchester, Chelmsford, Ipswich, Grays, and Basildon and the women who worked, lived, and fought for refuges from domestic abuse (the interviews pertaining to London were beyond the remit of this placement). All stories which, although containing some collaboration and inspiration, tell of formidable and dedicated women who, born from the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, took it upon themselves to fight for Women’s Refuges in a time when domestic abuse was not taken seriously at all, let alone seriously enough.
For an example of such strength and sacrifice, one should only look to Moyna Barnham MBE, who in her interview tells of how she would go alone in the middle of the night to collect ‘battered women’, having to go up against the abusers, such a dangerous role that one night her husband even followed her to ensure her safety. Such bravery is to of course be commended, but it is also unfortunate that the police and local welfare workers were not there for these women, and it was up to independent volunteers to provide such a service.
I also believe that such a study has come at an unfortunately poignant time as the tragic rise of people, particularly women, seeking help with domestic abuse during the lockdown period of COVID-19 paints a painful picture of the persistence of the problem. It is also important in such discourse to recognise nuance. In Alison Inman’s interview, a key figure at both Basildon and Colchester Refuges, she describes how society expects a ‘perfect victim’ of domestic abuse, i.e. an innocent and naïve woman. However the reality is that domestic abuse occurs in every gender, every sexuality, every class, and every age; it is a universal problem. I feel that the current COVID-19 domestic abuse discourse highlights this problem and its nuances. A recent BBC Panorama investigation revealed not only the scale:
‘Panorama has found in the first seven weeks of UK lockdown someone called police for help about domestic abuse every 30 seconds – that’s both female and male victims.’
But this investigation also showed a lacklustre government response that should not belong to a society that has, apparently, been acknowledging this problem since the 1970s.
‘It took the Westminster government 19 days after imposing restrictions to announce a social media campaign to encourage people to report domestic abuse, as well as an extra £2m for domestic abuse helplines.’
BBC PANORAMA, 17 AUGUST 2020
Of course the lockdown was an unprecedented event that, hopefully, exists in isolation, but surely such a demonstration of the terror in some people’s homes shows in undeniable terms that domestic abuse and violence remain problems, and the services and education addressing the problem are underfunded and underrepresented. Therefore, what we can glean from this oral history collection is an invaluable educational resource on how to combat domestic abuse, and to be inspired by those who came before us.
This truly has been a transformative experience, both personally and as a historian, and I would like to extend my warmest thanks to the Friends of Historic Essex for their funding of the project.
‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Record Office (Acc. SA853)
Please Note: This blog post contains potentially upsetting material that may not be suitable for all.
Our University of Essex placement student Grace Benham reviews some themes emerging from her work on the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ oral history project about the founding of women’s refuges in Essex and London. Read her first blog post here.
In September 1976, after years of domestic abuse, Maurice Wells shot his wife Suzanne dead and held his daughter hostage in the ensuing siege of his home in Colchester. In February 1977 he was sentenced to manslaughter and served a ten-year sentence. Chris Graves, a solicitor who aided Colchester Refuge in its inception, credits the outraged reaction to such a short sentence to his own involvement, and the refuge movement as a whole.
Colchester Refuge had been in the works previous to this case. Many of the interviewees recorded for the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ project (Acc. SA853) explained how the refuge was born out of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, which had come over from America and gained its own life in Britain. However, the Wells case, a case which myself and everyone else I have discussed this with have never heard of, highlights an important theme of both the past and the present, the privatisation of domestic violence. According to the Daily Gazette, once out of prison Wells went on to commit crimes against children and told his victims that if they reported him, he could kill them like he killed his wife.
This story is one of many featured on the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ website and one of many that are unheard amongst the general public. Domestic violence is, generally, an inherently private crime as it occurs within private spheres, but the issue goes beyond just this. The prevalence of domestic violence, which only became properly acknowledged in the 1970s following the Women’s Liberation movement, created uncomfortable questions, shame and denial. It could be easy to dismiss domestic violence because it occurred ‘behind closed doors’. Alison Inman recalls a story in which a local authority in Essex refused to set up a refuge because ‘they didn’t have domestic violence within their borough’, which led to an increase in women from that area entering neighbouring refuges.
Moreover, the women who needed refuges and would go on to become residents typically were those of lower classes due to the fact that those with available resources would have other options to avoid going into a refuge. This builds a stereotype of a certain type of woman who suffered domestic violence, even though this is a problem that affects all classes, all races, all genders, all sexualities. Such women could be demonised for their choices as they had little to no one defending them. These women could also be silenced through the normalisation of violence in working class marriages. Normalisation occurred through popular culture, such as the Andy Capp comics that featured in the Daily Mirror from 1957 to 1965, which regularly portrayed domestic violence as not only humorous but as a normal and acceptable way to treat one’s wife, particularly within working class marriages.
Another facet of this conversation that has slowed bringing the issue of domestic violence the time, energy and funding it deserves are the elements of shame and denial which are intrinsically linked. Rachel Wallace, who addresses domestic violence and humour, in particular in regard to Andy Capp, makes excellent observations on how humour is used in a response to shame. She depicts how these comics would not have been a success without an audience. In validating a taboo subject that is, unfortunately, rife in our society, such an audience finds themselves validated and vindicated, and therefore the shame is diminished. Much like denial, humour is used as a defence against shame, and it is hard to argue that those who were indifferent to domestic violence would find humour in such situations. We can see examples of this use of humour within this oral history collection, with councillors joking about how their wives treat them in response to being petitioned for refuges, with change only coming, according to Moyna Barnham, when the law required councils to provide homes for ‘battered women’, a burden councils did not typically want to bear.
The future of refuges and reform around the handling of domestic violence situations require us to recognise the lessons of the past, and the need for education and recognising nuance. I had the great honour of attending a talk regarding a project titled ‘Sisters Doing it for Themselves’ , a collaborative project by the Women’s Refuge Centre and the London School of Economics. For this project, leading figures of the women’s volunteer sector in London are interviewed by schoolchildren, to not only teach oral history practices to a younger generation and collate such vital histories but also in order for both parties to learn something from the other. The main points of this talk resonated with these interviews that occurred in 2016 and 2017 regarding women’s refuges in the East of England, in that there is an emphasis going forward on education and nuance, both of which were crucial in the first founding of women’s refuges. To confront the denial, shame, blame and stereotypes around domestic violence is surely only a step in the right direction.
Wallace, Rachel. 2018. ‘”She’s Punch Drunk!!”: Humor, Domestic Violence, and the British Working Class in Andy Capp Cartoons, 1957–65.’ Journal of Popular Culture 51 (1): 129–51. doi:10.1111/jpcu.12646.
Archive catalogues can be difficult to use. There are differences between structured archive catalogues describing archival records that comply with the international cataloguing standard (ISAD-G) and a free-text Internet search box. While the homepage of Essex Archives Online looks like a basic text search box, using it like an Internet search engine will not give the best results.
Part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, involves cataloguing some of the thousands of unique sound and video recordings in the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). Cataloguing the records makes it easier for users to locate relevant material, but only if the catalogue descriptions can be found. We try to catalogue with discoverability in mind, but we thought it might be useful to share some tips on how to find sound and video archives in particular through Essex Archives Online.
As reported in an earlier blog entry, we updated Essex Archives Online to allow you to play sound and video recordings directly through the catalogue. To find these recordings, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box, and then type terms that interest you into the main text box. You will need to create an account and log before you can play the recordings, but you do not need to subscribe.
Tip: To browse all the sound recordings currently uploaded to the catalogue, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box, then type ‘sa’ in the main search box. To browse all the video recordings, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search box’, then type ‘va’ in the main search box. We can explain why this works if you are interested, but otherwise just trust us that it (mostly) works!
However, we can only gradually upload digitised recordings to the catalogue. Also, copyright on some of the recordings prohibits us from making them available online. This means that we have many, many more sound and video recordings which cannot be played through the catalogue, but only by ordering them to play in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office (or by purchasing a copy). These recordings won’t show up if you refine your search only to ‘Audio Visual’ records. So how do you find something in the ESVA that might be of interest to you?
When we catalogue material, we give each document or recording a Reference Number. This helps to uniquely identify the recording. It’s not a random collection of letters and numbers (though it might seem like it!): each part gives clues about the document and how it fits with other material.
The Reference Numbers for all sound recordings start with ‘SA’, for ‘Sound Archive’. So the easiest way to narrow your search to find sound recordings is to include ‘sa’ as one of your search terms.
Similarly, the Reference Numbers for all video recordings start with ‘VA’, for ‘Video Archive’. To find video recordings, include ‘va’ as one of your search terms.
Tip: You will still get some results that are not sound or video recordings. Change the sort by box at the top-right to ‘Reference’. This will display your results in alphabetical order by Reference Number. Scroll down to the Reference Numbers that begin with ‘SA’ or ‘VA’.
So far so good, but how do you know what to search for? Unlike the majority of the documents in the Essex Record Office, you might find some ESVA recordings by searching for an individual’s name. If the individual has been recorded in an oral history interview, or featured in a local radio piece, then his or her name should be included in the catalogue entry.
But you will probably find more results by searching for a place or subject. For example, perhaps you want to learn more about how Willingale has changed over time. If you type in ‘Willingale’ and ‘sa’ in the search boxes, you will find eleven sound recordings, mostly oral history interviews with long-standing residents.
These might reveal information about local businesses, notable local families, services in the village – and especially people’s memories of the American servicemen stationed nearby during the Second World War.
Tip: Our search engine is not case sensitive. This means it does not matter whether you type ‘Willingale’, ‘willingale’, ‘WILLINGALE’, or ‘WiLliNGalE’: it will come up with the same results.
Or maybe you want to find out what people were eating in the early twentieth century. Try typing ‘meals’ and ‘sa’ in the search boxes. You should find oral history recordings that include memories of what the interviewees ate as children (bread, dripping, and fresh fruit and vegetables – acquired legally or otherwise – feature heavily). This clip from an interview with Rosemary Pitts of Great Waltham gives an example of what children ate in the 1920s-1930s (SA 55/4/1).
You can run an Advanced Search to better refine the results that you get. Click ‘Advanced Search’ at the top of the page. To search for a specific phrase, type this in the second box – and don’t forget to add ‘sa’ or ‘va’ to the top box. For example, try typing ‘sa’ in the top box and ‘First World War’ in the second box.
If you are searching for multiple words that might not appear as an exact phrase in the catalogue description, type your words into the top box. For example, if you are looking for information about Clacton Pier, this might be described as ‘Clacton-on-Sea Pier’, ‘Clacton Pier’, or ‘the Pier at Clacton’. To find all of these matches, type ‘Clacton’ and ‘pier’ in the top box – and add ‘sa’ or ‘va’ to the second box.
Tip: To search for sound and video recordings at the same time, type ‘sa’ and ‘va’ in the third box before clicking ‘SEARCH’.
You can also use our index search boxes from the ‘Advanced Search’ screen. Choose ‘People’, ‘Places’, or ‘Subjects’ from the ‘Refine your search’ box, and then type in the key words or names that interest you. This will only find results where your search term is a major part of the recording, and not just mentioned in passing. You will not be able to limit this search to just sound or video recordings, but if you sort the results by Reference, you can find the Reference Numbers that begin ‘SA’ or ‘VA’.
There are other finding aids that might help you locate relevant material. We have subject guides to sound and video recordings that cover: agriculture, Christmas, education, Essex dialect and accents, folk song and music, health, housing, shops and shopping, traditional English dance, transport, the First World War, and the Second World War. These are available in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, or from our website.
You can also read general user guides to Essex Archives Online on the catalogue: click ‘USER GUIDES’ at the top of the page.
Now that you can find material in the Archive, please come and listen! That is what it is here for. And do get in touch if you’re having trouble finding recordings. We would be happy to help.
But first here’s a little test for you to try. The result will be worth it, we promise.
Click ‘Advanced Search’ from the top of the page.
Make sure the ‘Refine your search’ box is set to ‘Everything’.
I am probably known to many as the editor of the Victoria County History of Essex, a project researching and publishing historical accounts of communities in Essex to a standard format as a work of reference.
I am also currently Chairman of the Friends of Historic Essex, the charity that supports the ERO, and a Vice-President (and former officer) of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. My personal research interests lie in medieval economic and social history, and also landscape history and buildings. I live with my wife Lynn in the centre of Maldon and we have a daughter, Ruth, who is currently studying French and German at the University of Bristol.
Where is your ‘office’?
My ‘official’ office is a room in the centre of the house (the
former dining room), but it is currently so overrun with stacked books and
paperwork I can’t work in there! I have also taken over the dining table in the
bay window in the lounge, which is currently occupied with the notes and books
for VCH work on Harwich. My current working space is therefore another dining
table in the garden room at the back of the house.
Do you have a view out of a window when you are working?
What is it and is it a distraction?
The view out of the garden room is, unsurprisingly, of the
rear garden. It is only a small space, but south facing, green and peaceful,
backing onto Maldon’s Quaker meeting house grounds. It won’t surprise anyone
who knows me to learn that I have lost both the keys to the patio doors – so we
have to exit out of the side kitchen door!
The garden attracts lots of birds which I enjoy watching,
and they will probably like it even more as I have plans to dig up the lawn and
plant potatoes. Planning my own personal dig for victory can certainly be (enjoyably)
What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this
result in something published?
I have occasional work to do seeing VCH Essex XII (part I)
through the publication process, and preparing XII (part II) to start on the process
later this year. I am also completing some research on Tudor sources on Harwich
for VCH Essex XIII, including court rolls (ERO), the Harwich Town Book (churchwardens’
accounts) (Harwich Town Council archive) and Prerogative Court of Canterbury
wills for Harwich (TNA). I have digital photographs of all or part of these
I also have the final amendments to make to an edited volume
Dr Thomas Plume, 1630-1704. His Life and Legacies (University of
Hertfordshire Press, forthcoming 2020).
And, finally, an introductory article on Colchester’s
history to accompany a new volume funded by Colchester Borough Council which
brings together all of Dave Stenning’s fabulous reports on Colchester
Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just
pick up your research as and when?
I was always a night owl, but of recent years increasingly
find I can’t work past mid-evening as my brain turns to jelly. With research
and note-taking I find I can work solidly to a timetable. With writing I find I
have to be in the mood and then the keyboard takes a hammering until
inspiration runs out.
Do you have a favourite online resource?
A little dull, but probably the ERO, TNA and BL catalogues.
What is your favourite research beverage and snack?
It has to be tea. At the moment a large pot – one part
English breakfast to one part Earl Grey. Snack intake is reduced due to my type
2 diabetes, but if allowed by the cake-police (Lynn) then any sort of bun or
biscuit will do (I’m not that fussy), although admittedly partial to a
Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you
from your research?
I play a few on-line games with old school friends, several
of them now living in the US. It’s proved a good way of staying in contact as
we berate each other about tactical ineptitude or muddled strategy.
What are you most
looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?
Some cheery conversation with the archivists and searchroom staff,
and meeting up with other researchers and asking for and sharing advice and
finding out about other interesting research in progress. I think this is now
An Essex Record Office project to preserve the history and memories of former Marconi Company employees is to receive a grant of almost £100,000 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Part of Essex 2020, the project, Communicating Connections: Sharing the heritage of the Marconi Company’s wireless world, is to receive £93,000 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund. Further funding has come from Chelmsford City Council’s Essex 2020 fund and the Friends of Historic Essex.
Communicating Connections aims to preserve the memories of former employees and others involved with Marconi through oral history interviews recorded by volunteers. Founded by Guglielmo Marconi, the company is famous for making the first ever transatlantic wireless communication, which was received in Newfoundland, Canada. The company also made the first wireless entertainment broadcast in the UK (renowned opera singer Dame Nellie Melba performing on 15 June 1920), and its equipment was vital for communication systems at sea, allowing the rescue of hundreds of people from the RMS Titanic and the RMS Lusitania.
“To receive such a large grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund is absolutely wonderful. This project will not only allow us to celebrate the rich history of the Marconi Company and its historical connections with Chelmsford but it will also provide an informative and educational experience for all of our residents and visitors.”
Cllr Susan Barker, Essex county council cabinet member for customer, communities, culture and corporate
Local residents and visitors will be able to learn more about Marconi, and the company’s connections to Chelmsford, via an audio trail app, while a selection from over 150,000 images at ERO and Chelmsford Museums will be digitised and made available to the public to go alongside the oral history interviews. Temporary exhibitions featuring the interviews and images will be held in the city centre and will be co-curated by a team of dedicated volunteers, with guidance from Chelmsford Museums.
The project will also give us the opportunity to make better use of existing material about the Marconi Company, such as this interview with Gerald Isted, who started working for the Company in 1923 (SA 24/825/1).
“Chelmsford City Museum are proud to partner with the Essex Record Office on the project. It fits perfectly with our mission to inspire residents and visitors to discover and explore Chelmsford’s stories through shared experiences. In this centenary year, it offers a landmark opportunity to foster the sense of civic pride local people have in our Marconi heritage and demonstrate how this legacy continues to influence our lives today.”
Dr Mark curteis, assistant museums manager at chelmsford city museum
“The archive is such an important local and national resource, as well as a great example of local science and creativity. Our Essex2020 funding panel were keen to support ERO’s ambition to make the archive accessible in new and creative ways. The panel were particularly supportive of the engagement of volunteers in the project and saw it as a strength that their voices and experiences would be represented.”
dr katie deverell, cultural partnerships manager at chelmsford city council and co-ordinator of chelmsford’s essex 2020 hub
Although the original project timetable is being delayed and altered due to COVID-19, keep an eye out for further announcements including opportunities to get involved with the project.
Grace Benham, MA History student at the University of Essex, has recently embarked on a twelve-week placement with the Essex Record Office. She is working with a collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, which documents the establishment of domestic refuges in London and the East of England (Acc. SA853).
When I chose to apply for a work placement as a part of my MA programme, applying to the Essex Record Office was an easy choice. As a Colchester resident born and bred, being able to engage with local history on such a practical level, working with an institution that holds interviews of my own grandmas on their lives – it was incredibly exciting to be accepted. I wanted to do a work placement as I wish to pursue a career in history, particularly archives, exhibitions or museums, and so such an experience is invaluable, as well as simply just really interesting.
Due to the unfortunate circumstances which have affected us all, I was unable to participate in the original placement project which required collecting oral history interviews. I therefore had a choice on which archives I would like to engage with remotely. It, again, was another easy choice: to get involved with the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews and to research, catalogue and produce blogs about it. A subject dear to my heart, I have found the study of the founding of women’s refuges in Essex and London is as inspiring as it is difficult to listen to. I have chosen to start this project by homing in on Colchester specifically, as the collection is vast and a geographical focus was the most obvious and compelling place to start.
What is immediately apparent in listening to these interviews is the incredibly dedicated and tenacious people who founded Colchester Refuge from the ground up. The practical, legal, economic, societal and emotional work required to provide a safe place and an abundance of resources for female victims of domestic violence is extremely evident and it is nothing less than admirable the way in which these predominantly women, with little to no previous experience in any related fields, fought for, and eventually founded, the refuge against the odds. I even had the honour to talk with Dr June Freeman, a key founding member of Colchester Refuge, author, and lecturer who compiled these interviews and who was the subject of several of these interviews. June made a great emphasis on what an uphill struggle they faced, as domestic violence was not even known as it is today. It was seen as a problem that should be kept private and within families, a problem which held little support from the police, courts, doctors and even social workers. The founders had to work tirelessly to convince Colchester Borough Council of the importance of a refuge and to finance such a venture without help.
Sadly, another recurring theme in the interviews is a feeling that at the time of the interviews (2017) a loss of funding and interest in domestic violence is occurring in Essex and across the country. This rings unfortunately true as current circumstances have led to a rise in domestic violence. Domestic abuse charity Refuge reports that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have increased by about 66% since lockdown began in March, while the website received a 700% increase in visits in one day. As such the opportunity to listen and learn from these oral histories is more important than ever.
We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex and the University of Essex for their financial support in making this placement possible.
If you need support to deal with domestic abuse, please call the helpline below or check out the following guidance.
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 8 of this series, we change tack to explore the life of John’s wife Mary Farmer.
There is an old saying that
behind every great man there is a great woman.
In the case of John Farmer, wool comber, Quaker, traveller and slavery
abolitionist, this is certainly true, in that he had an unusually independent
Mary Wyatt was born 8:9mo 1665 (8th
November 1665) to Thomas and Etheldered Wyatt, the eldest of twelve siblings.
An annotated list of the births of her numerous brothers and sisters, and sadly
the deaths of four of them in infancy, is held in the Essex Record Office
archive, an unusual survival of a complete family list from the time.
The Wyatt family appear
throughout the Thaxted and Saffron Walden Quaker archives, a large family who
left a lasting mark on the records of their community in the 17th
and 18th centuries.
of Wyatt siblings ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle of birth & burial notes Thaxted
Mary Wyatt married Samuel Fulbigg
of Haverhill in 1689. Their only
daughter, also called Mary was born on 16th day of 5th
month 1690 (16th July 1690) in Saffron Walden.[ii]
Birth Record of
Mary Fulbigg : ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes Thaxted
Tragically this marriage was not
to last long. Another note in the
archives tells us that on 1st of 10 mo 1692 (1st December 1692)
Samuel was buried, having been killed when the funnel fell from his brewing
copper the previous Monday (2nd Day). This awful accident left Mary
as a widow at 27 years old, with an 18-month-old baby to look after.
Burial Record of
Samuel Fulbigg : ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes
Originally from Somerset, John
Farmer came to Saffron Walden in late 1697 or early 1698. I first find him in a Monthly Meeting at
Thaxted in April 1698 showing as donating a shilling for the relief of a Quaker
in need[iii]. He was an itinerant wool comber, as was
fellow Quaker Zacharias Wyatt, the younger brother of Mary Fulbigg. It is possible that as they shared a common
employment, perhaps Zacharias brought John Farmer to Saffron Walden. Or perhaps they met when John Farmer joined
their Quaker meeting, but at some point it is likely that Zacharias introduced
his widowed sister Mary to John Farmer.
Mary had not been idle since
being widowed. According to a comment in
John Farmer’s journal she had travelled 1400 miles in the ministry before he
met her, and she had “a gift of prophesy
or preaching given her by ye Lord before she was my wife”.[iv]
Marriage was a welcome gift to John Farmer who had agonised in his diary about
the fears of giving into temptation and vanity.
Farmer wrote in his journal that when they married 27:5mo 1698 (27th
“Ye Lord preserved mee in many Temptations from being destroyed by them. In & by his advice and help I took an honist Friend to bee my wife in ye way of marriage used amongst us”.[v]
Married life does not appear to
have stopped either Mary or John from traveling. In July 1700, Sampford Women’s
Meeting heard from Mary Farmer that she intended to take a journey along with
another Friend, Elizabeth Spice of Saffron Walden “upon the sword of truth through Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire to
visit meetings there” and permission to travel was granted. A month later
the Thaxted Women’s meeting received 15 shillings from Mary, perhaps collected
on her journey. [vi]
Ten months later John and Mary Farmer’s only daughter Ann
was born 1:3 mo 1701 (1st May 1701).[vii] Now having two young children one might have
expected Mary to settle into domestic life.
But Farmer’s journal comments that by 1714 she had travelled a further
1700 miles in her own ministry.
In December 1702 Mary Farmer was
asked by the Monthly Meeting to work with two other women Friends to sell the
property of deceased widow Elizabeth James and settle her funeral expenses,
bringing any residue back to the Meeting.
Clearly this was a task which required someone to be held in the utmost
trust and seems to have gone well.
In 1704 Mary went on an extended five-month long journey
travelling in the South and West of England, recorded in John Farmer’s journal, while he
was left at home to care for the children:
“In ye year 1704 my wife was moved & inabled by ye Lord to travel 5 months in his service in ye west & south of England. Shee had a good journey & did service for ye Lord in it. & came well home to mee & our children wch bee also well. Blessed bee God for it. Before she went shee told ye monthly meeting of it & recived a ceirtificate from them to carry with her.”[viii]
However her husband’s description
of Mary as an ‘honist friend’ was
possibly a little dubious. A significant
issue had hung over the Farmer family both before, and for some years after,
their marriage and related to a legacy for Mary Fulbigg (Mary Farmer’s daughter
from her first marriage) from Grace Fulbigg, her grandmother, and it came to a
head in 1705.
John Farmer commented in his
“In ye year 1705 the enemy strove to destroy severall of us in & by a difference about Earthly things. But blessed bee ye Lord for his making use of our friends called Quakers to save us whereby also by his Spirit in us hee ended ye difference & saved us from disstruction.”
It was noted in the Monthly Meeting on 26th
July 1698 (the day before the Farmers got married) that the permission was
granted “Depending on the resolution of
£10 owed to Mary Fullbigg Junior from her grandmother’s will”.[ix] At the time £10 was worth £1070 in today’s
money, the equivalent of 4 months work for a skilled tradesman at the time[x].
It seems this issue remained unresolved until
1705 when the matter was raised by John Mascall who noted in the Monthly Meeting
on 20th March that he “desires
ye judgement of ye said meeting concerning JF”. At the next meeting on 24th April
John Farmer himself raised the subject, asking if the £10 given for the use of
his daughter in law (step daughter) could be placed in his own hands against
him offering his house as surety. In
June the Monthly Meeting asked John Farmer to sign a double bond of £16 for the
use of Mary Fulbigg, and trustees were appointed, one of whom was Thomas Wyatt,
Mary Farmer’s father. But at the meeting
on 28:6mo 1705 (28th October 1705) the whole
family dispute came to a terrible head when Thomas Wyatt and his son Zacharias came
to the monthly meeting and publicly accused Mary Farmer of destroying Grace
“The case of difference being …the said Mary of destroying a widdows will made by the advice of her relations before marriage to the said John and left in her own hands to address wherein was ten pounds given to a daughter which the said Mary had by a former husband.”[xi]
The meeting insisted this “mischief” be resolved immediately and at
the first meeting of 1706 the Friends gathered at Henham to witness a bond
given from John Farmer to John Wale of ten pounds by the direction of the
quarterly meeting for the use of Mary Fulbigg.
The Meeting directed that Henry Starr should keep it for her and John
Farmer eventually confirmed to the Monthly Meeting on 25th February
1706/7 that the bond was signed and sealed, and now in the hands of Henry
Starr. Having sorted out the mess his wife appeared to have caused, at the same
meeting John Farmer then advised them he would be heading off on his travels, but
not surprisingly the somewhat irritated meeting advised him to request
permission of the Quarterly Meeting first.
Perhaps the reluctance to allow
him to travel was because in 1703 Zacharias Wyatt had to advise the Meeting
that John Farmer had “gone forth a journey into ye Northern parts” [xii]
and he had not waited to get a certificate, but asked Zacharias to procure one,
and get Mary Farmer to send it on to him.
It seems clear John Farmer was always going to be a rule-breaker and
Mary Farmer was something of a willing accomplice. Perhaps it was Farmer’s need to travel that
had prompted the Friends to pin down the details of Mary Fulbigg’s legacy
before he took off again.
When John Farmer travelled north eventually in 1707 Mary
accompanied him to Nottingham and then came home to wait for him. When he reappeared in September 1708 he
immediately moved his family to Colchester where they then resided for three
years, him working as a wool comber and she as a nurse before he decided to go
travelling again, this time on a 3-year trip to pre-revolutionary America. John Farmer moved Mary and her daughters back
to Saffron Walden and the Monthly Meeting accepted them back on 20th
September 1711. He noted that Mary was working as a nurse and she had decided
to be amongst Friends at Saffron Walden while she nursed her now lame daughter
Despite her husband being in
America Mary did not stop performing the ministry work she also felt called to
do, and in March 1713 she requested and was granted a certificate to visit
churches in Suffolk and Norfolk. In July
1714 she appeared in the records again having returned a certificate for
travelling in the North and had acquainted the Friends that she now intended to
go to Holland[xiii].
John Farmer arrived back in the Thaxted
Meeting records on 30:9mo 1714 (30th November 1714) and they were
delighted to receive the many certificates he had collected from America. However at the same meeting he announced he
would be returning immediately to America and they drafted a lengthy
certificate allowing him to go.
Interestingly although several women did sign the certificate, Mary
Farmer was not one of them.
Before he travelled back to
America John Farmer wrote out in full his journal, from the notes he had
gathered on his travels, and attached to it an epistle with instructions that
the Journal was to be published. It
seems this never happened, and we have to wonder with whom he left the
document. A tantalising clue lies on
page 6 of the document. Farmer is
discussing financial matters and mentions when he married Mary “Her estate was valued at upwards of …” and
the next word has been neatly cut out of the page. Then he mentions “I saved for my selfe by my labour and God’s blessing upwards of …”
and again the word had been cut out of the page. It’s only a theory, but my hunch is that Mary
may have removed this personal information – she did after all apparently have
previous for destroying financial information! [xiv]
John Farmer’s Journal showing excisions – Essex Record Office A13685 box 51 – page 6
A couple of letters from John
Farmer to Mary survive at the Essex Record Office. One particularly poignant
one is from him in Virginia dated 1st of 4mo 1716 (1st
June 1716) instructing Mary to send her belongings to Philadelphia, via Anthony
Morris and detailing how she and the children were to travel to him, as he now
planned to settle in America. But for
some reason, which we do not know, she never went, and never saw her husband
After a number of adventures in
America detailed in my previous posts John Farmer died in 1724 and in his will
he left all his English possessions to Mary Farmer. He left his American
possessions to his daughter Ann. Mary
promptly sent Ann to America to claim her inheritance and Mary began her own
foreign adventure, travelling to Holland and Denmark in the ministry in 1725. She
also left a handwritten account of her journey, where alongside her testimony
she revealed encounters with pirates, fierce storms and other adventures. [xvi]
Mary Farmer’s Journal 1725 ERO A13685 Box 51
John’s stepdaughter Mary Fulbigg
stayed in Saffron Walden and kept a notebook for many years. Her book noted that
her mother Mary Farmer had died 13th of 2nd month 1747
(13th of April 1747) at the extraordinary age of 82. [xvii]
Extract – Mary
Fulbigg’s Journal – ERO A13685 Box 51
So far I have found no record of
what finally happened to Mary Fulbigg. The last entry in her notebook is dated
3mo 24 1762 (24th March 1762).
She would have been nearly 72 years old so perhaps she died not long
afterwards. Hopefully the record lies somewhere still to be found. Both Mary Fulbigg and Mary Farmer’s handwritten
books are here in the Essex Record Office and will be part of my future study
Ann Farmer finally travelled to
America in early 1725. The daughter who hadn’t seen her father for ten years
applied to the Thaxted Friends Men’s Meeting for a certificate to attend
Philadelphia Meeting on 23: 12th 1724 (23rd February
to claim her inheritance. Her certificate also indicated helpfully that she was
clear of any attachments in England and free to marry, should she wish to. Ann went on to become a small part of the
American founding story. She married
Benjamin Boone, uncle of the frontiersman Daniel Boone, on 31st
October 1726 and had one son, John Boone born in December 1727, but sadly Ann
died very shortly after of complications from childbirth, at the age of only 26[xix]. John Boone was reported to have been brought
up at his Uncle Squire Boone’s house alongside his cousins including the famous
Daniel (b 1734), until his father remarried in 1738. John Boone went on to have 9 children, founding
a Boone dynasty in Hunting Creek, Rowan County, North Carolina the eldest of
whom, Benjamin Boone became a Baptist Reverend [xx].
I am not sure John Farmer would
Thus we come to the end of the
story of the Essex Quaker and his family for now. It is by virtue of the fact that the Thaxted
and Saffron Walden Quakers kept such comprehensive records that the family’s
adventures, squabbles and dedication to their faith have come down to us in
such glorious detail and nearly 300 years after John Farmer died we can still
hear his voice, in the twenty-thousand-word journal that he laboured over, “Written in obedience to God for ye
good of souls in this and future ages” [xxi]. If only he could have known just how far into
the future his words would travel.
ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle of birth & burial notes Thaxted
ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes Thaxted 1665-1745
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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?