Folk in Essex: Part Two

Following on from his first blog post, MA placement student Callum Newton explores the history of folk revival in Britain, through the Essex folk movement oral histories and recordings held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.

It may appear as though there is a dichotomy between the emphasis placed on the importance of folk music in the extensive archives at the ERO, and the lack of prominence it is afforded in the British popular consciousness. To many in Britain, traditional folk music has been considered a niche interest – somewhat ignored compared to its popular cousin, pop folk. Morris dancing has often been viewed as eccentric and alien, while folk clubs have had no place within most people’s daily lives.

Yet, this limited perspective did not detract from the detailed, vibrant and quite living world those interviewed for the Essex folk movement oral history project inhabited. In many ways, it was a universe of their own, as conservators of a tradition as well as practitioners of it. It was their culture, and still is today [1]. There should be no doubt that this is a legitimate reason for capturing the folk movement, and Essex’s role within it. If preserving the tradition, practices and knowledge is integral to folk itself, then preserving the history and making it accessible within an archive is integral to the movement too. After all, Morris sides often keep their own archives and have a designated archivist for this very same task [2].

Daniel Fox on the role of archives in Morris [SA 30/7/1/25/1]. Read a transcript here.
Poster for Morris Dancing at Westminster Abbey. The top section features the text in white and black on a red background. The bottom section features an illustration of a Morris dancer on a background of a Union Jack.
Poster for Morris Dancing, a considerable part of the folk movement [SA 30/2/3/4].

However, to fully understand the intricacies of the Essex folk movement, and the traditions practitioners incorporated into their lifestyles, one cannot ignore the wider context in which Essex’s folk music collection exists.

Where did folk music come from?

Folk, ultimately, means people. Folk music, then, must mean a music of the people. The history of the folk movement in Britain is one arranged around a question of how that definition might be interpreted. There is no clear concept behind what ‘folk music’ is, as it is one that has evolved over the last two centuries with social, political and technological impositions [3].

The story starts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the first ‘folk revival’, where amateur historians began their collections of folk songs and ballads by going out into the world and making a record of them [4]. These pioneers, like Sabine Baring-Gould, Frank Kidson, Lucy Broadwood and Cecil Sharp, were limited by technology – their writings, rather than recordings, would go on to begin the collection later housed at the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) [5], based at Cecil Sharp House [6]. Rooted in antiquarianism, the EFDSS assumed an authority over all English folk scholarship, enjoying a monopoly on “promoting vintage musical and dance styles” [7]. It existed primarily as a vehicle for an academic style and rejected popular folk music, leading to a historiographical perception of gatekeeping folk music from “rowdy” people [8]. In their own words, they were ‘protectors’ and ‘preservers’ of folk [9]. The legacy of this philosophy would repeatedly come into conflict with the practices of the second folk revival from the 1950s and 1960s. Performance became the driver of the tradition, but the purpose of performance became hotly contested [10].

Excerpt from ‘A Bicycle Ride With Vaughan Williams’ by Tony Kendall, which presents the story of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first visit to Ingrave, where he recorded his first folk song [SA 30/1/7/1]. Read a transcript here.
Front cover of 'That Precious Legacy: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Essex Folksong' by Sue Cubbin. The text is in red over a map of Ingrave, with a large photographic portrait of Vaughan Williams to the right.
That Precious Legacy, by Sue Cubbin (2006) [C/DR 1/136] . Vaughan Williams is often extolled as the best source of Essex folk songs, due to his collecting in the country in the early twentieth century.

A history of the second folk revival in England cannot be complete without touching on the lineage of folk song collecting in the USA. The two nations were interlinked in the early movement, with collectors and performers travelling across the Atlantic. With the release of American Ballads and Folk Songs in 1934, John and Alan Lomax “set the standard for folk song collecting” globally [11]. The USA had always been more receptive to folk music generally, allowing various collectors to rise throughout the early twentieth century to cover the huge range of popular American folk songs. In contrast, the British collections largely began and ended with the EFDSS [12], although a generation after the likes of Cecil Sharp, private collectors did exist, with individuals like Ralph Vaughan Williams collecting in Essex from 1903 [13]. Yet the lack of popularity of English folk meant collectors were few and far between, or concentrated at Cecil Sharp House, while the popularity of American folk meant collections across the Atlantic were in vogue [14].

David Occomore on researching Essex folk music at Cecil Sharp House and beyond [SA 30/7/1/5/1]. Read a transcript here.

These worlds would start to collide during the second folk revival, particularly during Alan Lomax’s travels to England [15]. American country music became popular during the 1940s, as American soldiers stationed in Britain began broadcasting through the American Forces Network [16]. Eventually the British interpretation of those country folk songs became skiffle, inspired by Lonnie Donegan’s number one hit cover of ‘Rock Island Line’, in a very homemade fashion due to the relative expense of instruments [17]. Alan Lomax arrived in Britain in 1950 and further propagated the skiffle scene by broadcasting American folk songs and collecting the English songs where he could. During this time, Lomax became the inspiration for the left-wing actor and writer, Ewan MacColl [18]. MacColl saw folk music as a platform for the working people of Britain, to give the ‘common man’ back his music. After Lomax introduced him to A. L. ‘Bert’ Lloyd, this became a reality with the six-part radio series Ballads and Blues – though MacColl’s professional career had only really just begun [19].

Red and Myra Abbott discuss Alan Lomax’s radio show [SA 30/7/1/20/1]. Read a transcript here.
Newspaper cutting titled 'New folk club launched'. The text - about Benfleet and Canvey Folk Club - sits above a photograph of the folk club, a group of ten men and women gathered around a violinist.
Folk clubs were founded for many different purposes. Some, like the Hoy, were offshoots of other clubs due to disagreements on song policy [SA202].

Lomax predicted that skiffle would be a short-lived phenomenon, and that many American-inspired skiffle musicians would turn to their own folk tradition for new inspiration. After all, argued Lomax, ‘Do it Yourself’ music was, by definition, folk [20]. MacColl accepted Lomax’s vision, but saw skiffle as only a means to an end. Despite his politically socialist internationalism, in 1958 he instituted a policy of national restriction at his Ballads and Blues club; only Americans could sing American songs in his club, he argued, in order to protect the English tradition from being replaced [21]. To MacColl, folk music remained an image of unity for working people. This began his relationship with Topic Records, a company under the umbrella of the Worker’s Music Association based in the United States. Alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which made use of skiffle and folk as a rallying cry, MacColl became the face of political folk music, and introduced many on the left-wing spectrum to folk [22].

Poster for 'The Windmill Folk Club' at Old Windmill Hall, Upminster. The poster is a relatively simple design in cream and brown.
London’s folk scene was integral to the development of the second wave of folk music – particularly in the case of its connection to Essex [SA 30/2/3/4].
Colin Cater on the influence of Ewan MacColl [SA 30/7/1/7/1]. Read a transcript here.

As Lomax had predicted, when skiffle music began to fall out of favour, the performers turned to folk. Skiffle clubs became folk clubs and began to attract a new generation of performers with an interest in the English tradition. These names included Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins and Bob Davenport [23]. They arrived at folk clubs housed at a temporary location, usually in a pub, and performed for or with each other [24]. At the height of the movement, there were hundreds of these permanent and semi-permanent clubs in London, and possibly at least one in every major city in England [25]. There was little financial incentive for these clubs to run; often they barely broke even [26]. And what was played in these clubs was never static, as popular folk of the Donegan strand, propagated by touring American folk artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Bob Dylan, continued to be played alongside more English traditional songs straight from the EFDSS library [27].

Peter Chopping tells an anecdote about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott visiting Dartford Folk Club [SA 30/7/1/22/1]. Read a transcript here.

In some cases, this resulted in schisms over the legitimacy of the songs performers adopted, as with MacColl’s ruling over national songs, and also in divisions over ‘electric folk’ and ‘popular folk’ [28]. The latter is most prevalent in the case of Bob Dylan, who was infamously jeered by a folk audience by changing his persona and style, sensing a possible decline in folk [29]. With the professionalisation of the folk movement, particularly by bands like Fairport Convention, folk no longer existed in the vacuum of the folk clubs where everyone participated in singarounds led by a performer [30].

Poster for 'Gardner and Christian Harmony Duo'. The text encircles a black and white photograph of two men with long hair and guitars, kneeling on some grass.
Poster for Art Gardner and Rick Christian [SA 30/2/3/4]. Pop folk was viewed as both a benefit and drawback to folk as a whole – with disagreements about watering down the tradition versus finding a wider audience for folk.
‘These Things Happen’ by Rick Christian [SA 30/1/24/1], originally published in 1996 on an album of the same name. Read a transcript here.

By the 1990s, folk was largely seen as being in decline. The nature of folk had changed over the decades, and the original practitioners no longer held a monopoly over the practice. As folk had become a genre rather than a lifestyle, folk festivals came to replace the folk club. JP Bean cites BBC radio’s transition to ‘fresh’ artists, with an appeal to a younger generation, for the decline in ‘traditional’ English folk [31]. Elsewhere, folk continued to be inherited by the children of the older practitioners of the 1960s onwards, who grew up with folk and the lifestyle. The tradition, in this sense, does live on [32].

Jim Garrett talks about his musical daughter [SA 30/7/1/24/1]. Read a transcript here.

[1] Folk Singing in Essex from the 1960s, Sue Cubbin SA 30/7/3/37

[2] Essex Record Office, Interview with Daniel Fox, 6 April 2000, SA 30/7/1/25/1

[3] Britta Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music, (Oxford University Press, 2005), p.25

[4] Ronald D. Cohen and Rachel C. Donaldson, Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, (Illinois, 2014), p.7

[5] For the purposes of this section, the activities of the English Folk Song Society and English Folk Dance Society are being combined under the label of EFDSS, although they did not merge until 1929. In principle, though, the organisations had identical aims and goals when it comes to preservation.

[6] Jacqueline Simpson, and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, (Oxford, 2003) and Frederick Keel, “The Folk Song Society 1898-1948”, Journal of English Folk Dance and Song Society, 5.3 (1948), p.111

[7] Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of the Revival, p.61

[8] Sweers, Electric Folk, pp.31-32 and Billy Bragg, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, (London, 2017), p.235

[9] Frederick Keel, The Folk Song Society 1898-1948, p.111

[10] Bragg, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, p.253

[11] Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of the Revival, p.14

[12] Ibid, p.17

[13] Tony Kendall, “Through Bushes and Briars: Vaughan Williams’ earliest folk-song collecting”, in Ralph Vaughan Williams: In Perspective, ed. By Lewis Foreman, (Tonbridge, 1998), pp.48-55

[14] Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of Revival, p.21

[15] Ibid, p.40

[16] Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of Revival, p.19

[17] John Robert Brown, A Concise History of Jazz, (Fenton, 2006), p.142 and JP Bean, Singing from the Floor: A History of British Folk Clubs, (London, 2014), pp.1-2

[18] Bean, Singing from the Floor, p.1

[19] Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of Revival, p.44 and Bragg, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, pp.252-253

[20] Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of Revival, p.96

[21] Bragg, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, pp.367-368

[22] Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of Revival, pp.20, 40, p.130 and Interview with Myra and Red Abbott, 9 February 2000 [SA 30/7/1/20/1]

[23] Bean, Singing from the Floor, p.2

[24] Julia Yvonne Mitchell, “Subterranean Bourgeois Blues: The Second English Folk Revival, c. 1945-1970”, (unpublished doctoral thesis, University College London, 2014), p.62

[25] Bean, Singing from the Floor, p.xiii

[26] Mitchell, “Subterranean Bourgeois Blues”, p.63

[27] Bean, Singing from the Floor, pp.3, 18-19, 30, 56, 68

[28] Folk Singing in Essex from the 1960s, Sue Cubbin [SA 30/7/3/37]

[29] Bean, Singing from the Floor, p.31 and Sweers, Electric Folk, pp.23, 30

[30] Sweers, Electric Folk, p.23 and Bean, Singing from the Floor, p.3

[31] Bean, Singing from the Floor, p.350

[32] Ibid, p.326

Folk in Essex: Part One

Each year the ERO offers a placement to students on the MA History course at the University of Essex, jointly funded by the university and the Friends of Historic Essex. Last year, we were lucky to be joined by Callum Newton, who catalogued the Essex folk movement oral history project, conducted by Sue Cubbin between 1998 and 2002 (SA 30/7). Over the next three blog posts, Callum delves into the oral histories and chooses some of his personal highlights from the folk collection held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive. In this post, he explains the background to the collection and explores some of the issues discussed in the interviews.

Photograph of an office, with a corner desk and pinboard in the background. A woman, Sue Cubbin, is sitting side on at the desk, looking at a piece of paper in front of a reel-to-reel tape machine.
Sue Cubbin pictured in 1999 [C/DR 6/84].

In 1998 Sue Cubbin began an oral history collection that can only be described as a passion project. Inspired by the everyday lives recorded in the Colchester Recalled project (SA 8) she encountered through her work with the Essex Sound Archive, Sue set about conducting interviews with individuals involved in a lifestyle that she herself was deeply enmeshed with: the Essex folk movement.

‘Essex Folk Theme’ written and performed by the Jack Forbes Band [SA 30/3/6/1]. The recording was one of several played on Essex Radio’s Essex Folk programme in autumn 1981.

Sue’s belief was that the people involved in preserving the English folk tradition had their lives completely and utterly transformed by their relationship to folk. It was not simply a hobby for those involved; many committed every day of their week to participating in different folk clubs like Blackmore or the Hoy at Anchor. These clubs were home to a dedicated group of singers and musicians, like the Folk Five, Mick and Sarah Graves and the Grand Ceilidh Club. Every year, Essex also became home to folk festivals, most famously at Leigh-on-Sea.

‘Get a Little Table’ performed by Sarah and Mick Graves, recorded by Jim Etheridge at Chelmsford Folk Club on 18 July 1982 [SA 30/6/402/1]. The song was originally a music hall tune and is known by several names – including ‘The Lincolnshire Wedding Song’ (or ‘The Lancashire Wedding Song’). Read a transcript here.
Newspaper cutting dated Wednesday, November 11, 1970, showing a photograph of a group of people gathered around a guitar. The photograph is captioned 'Last Sunday at the Fitzwimare School the Rayleigh Society of Folk Dance and Song held a very successful musical evening."
Myra Abbott (left) started the Southend and the Hoy at Anchor Folk Clubs in the 1960s [SA202]

Over the next few years, this archive grew beyond the oral histories to include music recordings, video, photographs, scrap books and all kinds of other assorted materials, all preserved by Sue at the ERO.

Sue Cubbin explains the oral history project to Myra and Red Abbott [SA 30/7/1/20/1]. Read a transcript here.

From the beginning, Sue saw the project as an opportunity to help protect Essex folk by keeping a record for future generations to be inspired by. This idea is parallel to the oral nature of the folk tradition itself, in which music and dances were inherited generation after generation, by communities for future communities. The nature of this tradition in a modern world, however, was not without question. In a world with commercial records, big-name artists, and large festivals, one might ask what place a folk club might have. As we will see, many interviewees who were patrons of folk clubs asked this same question, suffering a kind of existentialism about the nature of folk and what place their lifestyle and tradition had in a country that often seemed to soundly reject it.

The front cover of a bright yellow programme. At the top is the emblem of Chelmsford Folk Club, a bridge, and at the bottom is an illustration of a man playing a violin and the text 'folk for enjoyment'.
Programme for Chelmsford Folk Club, which ran from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s [SA 30/2/3/4]
‘I Sowed Some Seeds’ performed by Martin Carthy, recorded by Jim Etheridge at Chelmsford Folk Club on 17 October 1982 [SA 30/6/425/1]. The song is based on the traditional song ‘The Hostess’s Daughter’, documented by Sabine Baring-Gould. Carthy released ‘I Sowed Some Seeds’ on his 1982 album, ‘Out of the Cut’. Read a transcript here.

This series of blog posts will explore how the individuals involved interpreted their commitment to the movement, and to the folk revival overall. For the rest of this post, I shall briefly spell out the main themes of the interviews: definitions of folk; the issues posed by commercialisation; and how to keep folk alive. The second and third posts shall explore the story of the folk revival and the nature of the folk movement in Essex.

What is folk?

The definition of folk is not a simple one. To many of us, folk music is often associated with singer-songwriter artists like Bob Dylan or Judy Collins, or perhaps even American country music. Yet many of the interviewees in the collection describe folk as something more: a lifestyle that they commit entirely to, a tradition they have inherited from ‘ordinary people’ of the past. There was not one idea of folk, however. It appears everyone involved had at least their own interpretation of the philosophy.

Some describe it as a continuation of that tradition, a very tangible lineage, rather than something separate or new. But others – like Colin Cater – view this lineage as not necessarily linear.

Colin Cater proposes his circular theory of inheritance within the folk tradition [SA 30/7/1/7/1]. Read a transcript here.

Others felt strongly that folk was a living tradition, rather than a re-enactment, the ‘folkies’ of Essex often deriding the English Folk Dance and Song Society for aligning with the latter. Folk clubs came under especial scrutiny. Did the music enjoyed locally and communally within these clubs constitute a living tradition? Was having guest performers, on a stage, being watched in silence, contrary to the spirit of a communal folk tradition? Does folk belong to one economic class?

Paul Kiff explains why he is principally against performance-centric folk clubs [SA 30/7/1/11/1]. Read a transcript here.

Or, as Paul O’Kelly suggests, is folk for personal enjoyment? Does it need to be communal at all?

Paul O’Kelly talks about individuality in folk music [SA 30/7/1/18/1]. Read a transcript here.
Poster for 'Touchwood: Electric folk & soft rock', with a white background and text in pink and green. To the left is an illustration of a tree, an imp, and a frog, and to the top right is a moon with a hat and face.
Poster for Touchwood, electric folk and soft rock [SA 30/2/3/4]. Folk had many definitions for the people who practiced and played it. Some rejected more popular forms, instead arguing that folk music was an older tradition of inheritance.

Popular folk and commercialisation

Popular folk music has a fundamental connection to the definition of folk. As the folk revival progressed, many folk practitioners became professional musicians. These artists were writing music, producing records, and gigging under the guise of folk music, very often in folk clubs but certainly within the popular sphere as well. To some of the local folk practitioners, however, this was seen as a degradation of the tradition. Many practitioners thought folk should stay true to its traditional roots, as a communal activity. Putting artists on a stage, separate from its audience, was not considered within their definition of folk, and was even treated as damaging to traditional interpretations of folk music.

Paul Kiff explains why commercialisation is anti-folk [SA 30/7/1/11/1]. Read a transcript here.

This debate also raged within Morris dancing. Those who were lucky enough to be given television appearances were accused of, in the words of Peter Boyce, ‘prostituting’ the tradition, because their costumes were experimental and unique, rather than by the book.

Peter Boyce explains the split between Chingford and Albion Morris over ‘electric Morris’ [SA 30/7/1/14/1]. Read a transcript here.

On the other hand, some viewed commercialisation positively. It provided opportunities for those with unique song-writing talent the opportunity to make a living from what they loved and gave folk a platform to present itself positively. Popular folk introduced many of the interviewees to folk clubs in the first place.

Sarah Graves explains the benefits of commercialisation [SA 30/7/1/19/1]. Read a transcript here.
Poster for 'Folk Concert'. The text is in blue on a white background and reads 'Folk Concert for The Linda Sargant Disneyland Fund in The Brentwood Odeon at Midnight - 2.30 on Friday December 7th. Featuring Touchwood, The Riggers, Dave Royall, Tony Maloney.". There are also small illustrations at the top and to each corner.
Poster for a folk concert [SA 30/2/3/4]. The Essex folk movement was not immune from commercialisation. Many viewed the potential to make a living from their lifestyle and practice as a positive element of folk music.

Keeping alive and communicating a folk tradition

Unlike the other issues discussed, the interviewees all agreed that more could have been done to keep the folk tradition alive, and that a lack of communication and pride in folk was to blame. Many felt that English people were ashamed of their folk roots, seeing a snobbery or embarrassment that was not present in Irish or Scottish folk traditions. Others tried to encourage the tradition, by writing new dances and songs, as a method of keeping it active and alive, instead of rehashing the older music that some had grown tired of.

Jill Palmer-Swift on how the folk tradition was still alive by virtue of new dances being written [SA 30/7/1/4/1]. Read a transcript here.

Many suggested that young people simply had no interest in folk, with many alternatives for entertainment in a modernising world; none more so than Tony Kendall, who envisioned a revival based in teaching the folk tradition in primary schools across Essex and Britain.

Tony Kendall on his plans to encourage young people to respect and participate in the folk tradition [SA 30/7/1/13/1]. Read a transcript here.

While folk music and dance was certainly still alive when the interviews were recorded, there was an acceptance amongst practitioners that folk was in decline by the 1990s. Some feared this would lead to the folk tradition disappearing altogether, without fast acting documentation.

Ivy Romney on her fear of losing traditional dances to the decline of the folk movement [SA 30/7/1/8/1]. Read a transcript here.
Black and white photograph of a group of people gathered at a party, next to a handwritten yellow label. The label reads 'Ivy Romney 80th Birthday Folk Dance Party at Alresford Village Hall. Guests from many Essex Dance Clubs'.
Ivy Romney (centre) played an important role within the English Folk Dance and Song Society – particularly in advocating for recognition for international folk dances [A14095]

While the Essex folk tradition does live on, preserved by a dedicated group of practitioners, some twenty years on from when she began, the interviews and the folk song and music collection held at the Essex Record Office acts as an insurance for Essex folk. Forever can the sounds and dances of the movement be experienced and inherited, and the lives attached to the golden age of the folk movement be remembered through their own experiences, in their own words and on their own terms.

‘Bonny Ship The Diamond’, performed live by the Skinners Rats, formed by Peter Chopping [SA 30/1/24/1]. The recording was published in 2001 on ‘Folk Festival’, a CD produced for Walton Folk Festival. The song is a traditional whaling tune. Read a transcript here.

Find out more about folk archives preserved at the Essex Record Office in this guide: Sources on Folk Music.

#WorldBeeDay – bee boles and the Essex Beekeepers’ Association

To celebrate #WorldBeeDay on 20th May, we take a look at the the Essex Beekeepers’ Association archive held at the Essex Record Office.

Before the invention of the modern wooden beehive in the mid-nineteenth century, bees were often housed in bee boles – a row of recesses each large enough to hold a coiled-straw hive called a skep. These bee boles were typically built in to south-facing garden walls.

In 1967, the Epping Forest Division of the Essex Beekeepers’ Association repaired the bee bole at Tilty, near Dunmow in Essex. Their Annual Report for the year includes an account of the work carried out by their volunteer construction team made up of a retired schoolmaster, a draughtsman/artist, a joiner/carpenter, a police officer, and a postman. The bee bole is flint with brick arch supports and the top storey of the structure was almost entirely rebuilt by the team. They left a time capsule inside the bee bole containing some monthly circulars published by the Division and some mead with a note reading: “We believe that the structure was part of a Priory known to have existed here before the dissolution of the monasteries, and we hope that it will be as long again before this honey jar and contents are discovered”. The Priory mentioned is the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary at Tilty. The nearby Church of St Mary, originally the Abbey chapel, has flint and stone chequerwork below the east window. The front cover of the Annual Report (pictured below) is beautifully illustrated by Mr H. C. Moss and depicts the repaired bee bole.

EBKA and The Essex Beekeeper handwritten in capitals with black ink, above a black and white drawing of the Tilty bee bole with six recesses, in two rows of three, all in boxes surrounded by a black and white 3d cube design
Front cover of the Essex Beekeepers’ Association Annual Report for 1967 (ref: LIB/638.142).

The annual report is held at the ERO as part of the Essex Beekeepers’ Association archive. The collection includes their first minute book covering 1880-1910 containing the minutes of their inaugural meeting at 90 High Street, Chelmsford on 14 July 1880 and a label for a jar of honey. The label was selected on 12 April 1897 when it was agreed that 20,000 should be printed by Mr A D Woodley at a cost of £5.

A thin cardboard label designed to wrap around a glass honey jar. Heraldic design with The Essex Beekeepers' Association" and "Pure Honey" written in banners around the Essex county coat of arms
County honey label, 1897 (ref: D/Z 142/1).

You may also be interested in a previous blog on the changing pattern of land usage and the historic value of meadows to the Essex landscape which is available to read here.

Of leprosy and cucking stools

The documents that ERO look after are like windows on the past, offering snapshots and vistas of lost worlds. For so many of our predecessors, a brief mention in an official document might be the only occasion that their names were recorded. For many, probably the majority before the introduction of parish registers in 1538, they remain nameless. For anyone considering that the early-modern or medieval eras offered some bucolic ‘golden age’, then it can be a salutary experience to realise that living in our own imperfect age is much preferable.

A recent example of this was when Dr Herbert Eiden, one of the researchers for the People of 1381 Project (http://www.1381.online/) was in the Searchroom chasing up the post revolt lives of some of the rebels, when he happened upon some interesting entries in manorial documents relating to Harlow, the first within a view of frankpledge recorded on 22nd June 1400:

[In the margin:] ‘M[emorandum] viii d

Item quod Johannes Wryght iiiid and Alicia Torples iiiid sunt leprosi et manent’ in villa apud le Cherchegate inter comunitat’ ville ad detrimentum vicinorum et contra legem. Ideo ipsi in misericordia. Et preceptum est ballivo et constabular’ amover’ eos extra vill’

This translates as:

Remember 8d

Also [the chief pledges present] that John Wryght, 4d, and Alice Torples, 4d, are lepers and live in the town next to Le Cherchegate inside the community of the town and to the harm of the neighbours. Therefore, they are in mercy. And the bailiff and the constables are ordered to remove them from the town

Alice reappears at the end of a court leet for 4th May 1406 when

‘It is ordered to move outside the town Alice Torples, a certain leper woman, under pain of 20s, until the next court.’

By this time John has disappeared, perhaps he had died. We can only try and imagine the social stigma that Alice must have suffered, let alone the symptoms of leprosy.

Such is the nature of these documents, that directly under this entry appears one that demonstrates one of the features law and order in the medieval world:

‘The bailiff is ordered to make a new ‘cokyngstoll’ [cucking stool] until the next court under pain of 20s.’

Engraving of a woman being ducked on a 'cucking stool' or ducking stool.

Our venerable 1930s OED records ‘cucking stool’ (‘an instrument of punishment formerly in use for scolds, disorderly women, fraudulent tradespeople, etc, consisting of a chair, in which the offender was fastened and exposed to the jeers of the bystanders, or conveyed to a pond or river and ducked’) as being first recorded in thirteenth century. We can only guess how often that was used.

So, there you go, we’re so much better off in our own times and, if you have a moment, do remember poor John Wryght and Alice Torples who didn’t have all the advantages in life that we have.

ERO is very grateful to Dr Herbert Eiden for sharing this fascinating snapshot.

“I got out of bed, and when I looked outside, I was in the sea” 

As described in our earlier blog post, this week marks the 70th anniversary of the 1953 North Sea flood, one of Europe’s worst peacetime disasters in the the twentieth century. As communities along the Essex coast gather to commemorate the lives lost, amongst them will be people who still remember the devastation caused by the flood, although most were just children at the time. But how will we remember the flood when it fades from living memory?

At the ERO, we are fortunate that the voices of many of those who experienced the flood are now preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive. The quote above comes from a recording of Mrs Rudge, interviewed a few days after the flood by Sir Bernard Braine, Canvey Island’s MP. In the recording, Mrs Rudge recalls waking up in the small hours of Sunday morning to find her bungalow in Newlands overwhelmed with water, after the tidal surge overcame the sea wall at Small Gains Creek. Nearly 80 at the time, she spent three days trapped on her dining table before being rescued, without being able to access even the “nice little bottle of whiskey” in her dressing table drawer:

Florence Rudge interviewed by Bernard Braine in 1953 [SA 1/656/1]. Read a transcript here.

The interview with Mrs Rudge is one of a precious few recordings we hold from the immediate aftermath of the flood. In the decades since, oral historians, community archives, and radio producers have continued to preserve people’s memories of that night, complementing the abundance of personal testimony woven through Hilda Grieve’s The Great Tide. To mark the 70th anniversary, we wanted to share some of those recordings, telling the story of the flood through the words of those who were there.

Rising tides

Interviews with people who had to escape their homes often begin with the moment they realised that they were flooded. As the tidal surge came with very little warning, in the middle of the night, many recall being woken up by the sound of the water in and around their homes. Interviewed in 1988, Audrey Frost described hearing:

“The sound of all this rushing water, it sounded like. And I just sort of tapped Derek, and I said, ‘Sounds as though we’ve got an awful lot of rain coming down.’ And with that he said, ‘My god, it ain’t rain – the sea’s come over!”

Audrey Frost interviewed in 1988 by the Clacton and District Local History Society [SA 16/759/1]. Read a transcript here.

Audrey and her husband Derek lived on Gorse Way, one of the worst affected areas of Jaywick. Although it initially seemed that the sea walls had protected most of the town, the tide had breached the wall at Colne Point and swept across the marshes, surging into Jaywick from behind just before 2 AM. By the time that Audrey and Derek realised what was happening, the water was higher than the gutters of their bungalow. Thankfully, they managed to swim out of one of their windows with their eighteen month-old son, Michael, and spent the night on their roof in bitingly cold conditions before being rescued the following morning.

Like Audrey and Derek, many people in Jaywick and Canvey Island lived in bungalows, making it difficult to get above the freezing water that poured in through their letterboxes and window frames. A common theme in the interviews is the speed at which the water rose, leaving people no time to get dressed or gather possessions. Those who couldn’t make it up to their roofs climbed into their lofts, or – like Mrs Rudge – even onto their furniture as it floated on the water.

One unexpected detail mentioned by many of the interviewees was the challenge posed by lino flooring as it floated up on top of the water and became near-impossible to cross, jamming doors and windows shut. Interviewed in 1993 for the Breeze FM documentary, ‘The Great Tide’, Bill Rowland recalls trying to rescue his son’s brand-new bike at home in Parkeston Quay, Harwich:

“In those days I had a lino runner down my hall, and unthinkedly I came down the stairs, and I could see this bike standing sort of submerged in water. And I could also see the lino runner. And like a silly man, I trod on the lino, and of course, you can imagine, I did a complete somersault, because the lino was just resting on the top of the water. And I finished up in this absolutely icy water. Frozen to the bone I was.”

While some had no option but to stay put and wait for help, others made the difficult decision to try and get through the water to safety. On Canvey Island, Thelma and Donald Payne found that they couldn’t get up into the loft as a gas pipe had been laid across the hatch – and, being seven months pregnant, Thelma couldn’t fit either side of it. Although they found a temporary refuge in the external staircase of the house next door, when Thelma started having pains, they decided to make a break for it in their bath.

Donald and Thelma Payne recorded in 1999 by Stephen Hussey, as part of the ‘Headline History’ oral history project [SA 13/6/4/1]. Read a transcript here.

Others were lucky enough to have boats that hadn’t been carried away by the flood. In this interview from 2019, Malcolm MacGregor described how he managed to row his family away from their farm in Lee-over-Sands, with his sister’s Exmoor pony swimming behind them. Many of those who had their own boats, like Malcolm, were the first to help their neighbours, rescuing people from their lofts and roofs through the night.

Malcolm MacGregor recorded by Carol Dawson in 2019 as part of the ‘Tides of Tendring’ oral history project [SA 84/5/1]. Read a transcript here.

The rescue effort

Co-ordinated rescue efforts varied across the county. The policeman Kenneth Alston arrived in Harwich at 2.30 AM, five hours after the harbourmaster raised the alarm. In the intervening time the tidal surge had inundated the town, cutting it off completely. Interviewed in 1990, Ken recalled that:

“Although the water ran over the quay, the break came from the marshes at the back, what we call Bathside. There were just earthen ramparts. Those ramparts broke and water just poured into the back of Harwich. Overwhelmed all the properties there, the schools, over the railway, into the street behind the police station. And there were panic stations I can tell you.”

While the police and the fire brigade did all they could to help people get up above the water, into the upper storeys of buildings, Ken set about getting in touch with local boat owners and fishermen, the naval training ship HMS Ganges and Trinity House, who all contributed their boats to the rescue effort the following day, when hundreds of people were evacuated out of first and second-story windows.

In Jaywick, the force of the water that surged across the marshes washed away the only police car with radio equipment, hampering rescue efforts. PC Don Harmer – who hadn’t even been to Jaywick before – crawled a mile along the sea wall through the flood water to telephone for help from Clacton. Astoundingly, once he’d delivered his report, he followed orders to crawl all the way back again.

Don Harmer recorded by Anton Jarvis for the Breeze FM documentary, ‘The Great Tide’, broadcast in 1993 [SA 24/827/1]. Read a transcript here.

Any available boats along the coastline arrived to help as the morning went on, manned by emergency services, fishermen, and local residents. The following day, Monday 2nd February, the BBC journalist Max Robertson talked to some of those who had been involved, who were accompanied by a cat they’d rescued:

“Well we first pushed off from Grasslands in the boat. We hadn’t been rowing many yards when we heard a woman calling for help. So we immediately made for this bungalow, and reassured her that help was on the way.”

Down on Canvey Island, Reg Stevens, Canvey Urban Council’s Engineer and Surveyor, started co-ordinating the rescue effort at around 1.25 AM, when it was clear that the sea walls would not hold. Stevens tried to warn residents using the wartime air raid sirens and sent the policemen and firemen on the island out to reach as many people as they could. As Stevens recalls, the “heroic” telephone operator stayed sitting in the floodwater until his equipment ceased to function. Fortunately, one of the ambulances on the island had been fitted with a radio the previous week, and they managed to get a message out to their MP, Bernard Braine, who helped with the rescue effort from the mainland.

Reg Stevens, also recorded by Anton Jarvis for the Breeze FM documentary, ‘The Great Tide’, broadcast in 1993 [SA 24/827/1]. Read a transcript here.

As Canvey remained cut off, the rescuers had to make do with whatever they could find. Geoff Barsby, one of eight part-time firemen on Canvey at the time, recalls using collapsible canvas dinghies to help rescue people from their homes, and then a boat from Peter Pan’s Playground in Southend.

Geoff Barsby recorded by Ted Haley in 1983 [SA 20/1138/1]. Read a transcript here.

More boats from Southend, Grays, Tilbury and Thurrock arrived as the morning went on, and by 5.30 AM the army and RAF had arrived to help. Thirty-five years later, one of the borough policemen recalled arriving on Canvey early that morning:

“The thing that we noticed as soon as we got out of the van were the cries of help from people who were stranded nearby, plus the noise of the wind, and you know, the shock of seeing so much water in a residential area.”

Many of those involved in the rescue effort recount the practical difficulties of rescuing people. A common theme was the impossibility of using motor boats when there were so many obstacles under the water, forcing rescuers to row. Even that wasn’t straightforward – one interviewee who went out to rescue people from Canewdon and Foulness Island commented that:

“We hadn’t realised that there were so many underwater obstructions, because every now and then there were these ominous bangs coming from underneath the boat. We’d probably hit some farm machinery or a tree or a hedge or something like that and I thought any moment now we’re going to have a hole in our boat and we shall all be sunk.”

Another challenge was getting people off their roofs into the boats. In addition to the strength of the tide, there was always the risk that people would miss altogether, capsize the boat, or in the case of the canvas boats, go straight through the bottom. In one interview, Sammy Sampson describes how he rescued several residents of Great Wakering by encouraging them to slide down his back into the boat.

Once on dry land, survivors were taken to rest centres, co-ordinated by the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services) and the local chapters of the British Legion, amongst others. As one interviewee recalls, rescued residents of Canewdon, Foulness Island, and Wallasea Island were taken to the Corinthian Yacht Club in Burnham-on-Crouch to be given tea and support. As many of those who escaped were still in their cold, wet nightclothes, the rest centres also co-ordinated collecting and distributing clothing.

Interview broadcast on BBC Essex in 1988 as part of the programme ‘Tide on Tide’ [SA 1/313/1]. Read a transcript here.

On Canvey, those who had escaped their homes initially gathered at William Read School. With the arrival of army lorries, they were taken onto the mainland and to South Benfleet School. By midday on the 1st February, journalists and photographers had started to turn up to document the ongoing rescue effort. One of the most publicised photographs at the time shows PC Bill Pilgrim carrying a child onto a lorry. As he recalls in this interview from 1988, he was just doing his job:

PC Bill Pilgrim interviewed for the 1988 BBC Essex programme ‘Tide on Tide’ [SA 1/313/1]. Read a transcript here.

The rescue effort went on for days. Families were scattered across hospitals, rest centres, relatives and friends. Canvey resident Shirley Thomas (née Hollingbury) recalled becoming separated from her parents after her mother was taken to hospital:

“Being twelve years old, I had not noticed that everybody was writing their names on the paintboard in the schools that they were taken to, and I hadn’t done it. So for a couple of days my father hunted in vain for his two girls… Eventually somebody in Benfleet remembered seeing two little girls. Luckily my sister was a redhead, so it had stuck in their mind… And I can still remember my father crying– I never saw him cry again, in his lifetime.”

Despite the disruption, businesses like Jones Stores continued to operate. Interviewed by Ted Haley in 1983, Albert Jones recalls the support of the army and Southend Grocers Association in keeping them going. In the following weeks, residents slowly returned – under the watchful eye of the police, to ensure that looting didn’t take place – to see what was left of their homes.

The famous bear outside Jones Stores, with a sign reading ‘Bear up! Canvey will rise again’

Many had lost everything to the flood. Yet, alongside the loss, people also recall the generosity of their communities and people across the country who donated clothes, food, and furniture to help the survivors rebuild their lives. There was much press coverage of the attempts to rescue pets and reunite them with their owners, led by the PDSA. One interviewee, Alan Whitcomb, recalled how he was reunited with his tortoiseshell cat after seeing him on the television:

Dr Alan Whitcomb recorded in 2004 for the ’12 Foot Under’ project [SA481]. Read a transcript here.
People holding pets and other animals rescued from the flood

Another interviewee, Winnie Capser, received an RSPCA award for Gallantry and Services on Behalf of Animals for her work. Interviewed in the early 1980s by radio producer Dennis Rookard, she commented that:

“You know, you just can’t imagine it. But I always say now, if you lived through the flood, you could live through anything.”

While it might be difficult for us to imagine the flood, seventy years on, hearing the voices of the people who lived through it – their intonation and emotional cadence – brings the scale of the tragedy closer. In listening to the detail, we bear witness to the human cost of that night – and the human perseverance and courage.

Further listening

You can listen to all of these clips – and more – at the listening post in our Searchroom. We’ll also be at Canvey Library on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd February, and at Harwich Museum on Saturday 4th February. Find more information here.

You can access many of the full recordings in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office. To explore the archives we hold relating to the 1953, see our source guide.

The story of the floods on Canvey Island was told in a film made by Essex County Council’s Educational Film Unit that same year, ‘Essex Floods’ (VA 3/8/4/1). You might recognise some of the audio from the documentary ‘Learning From The Great Tide’, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 earlier this week. The new interviews recorded for the documentary will be preserved in the ESVA for future generations.


Black History Month at the ERO: Part 2

In the second post focusing on Black histories at the Essex Record Office, we’ll explore some of the audio recordings preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). Including broadcasts on local radio, spoken-word poetry, and oral histories, these recordings give us an insight into the experiences of a diverse range of Black people in Essex over the past 75 years, right up until the present day.

You can explore the Black History Month display and listen to more clips in our Searchroom – check our website for opening hours.

Unfortunately, the earliest recording in the ESVA relating to Black history – a race relations meeting held at St Martin’s Church, Basildon, in December 1968 –  is very poor quality, largely due to the acoustics of the venue (SA 20/2/37/1). More audible recordings can be found in the archive of BBC Essex, which broadcast events, discussions, and features across the county from 1986. While there were no programmes produced specifically for Black or ethnic minority audiences (as there were on other local radio stations outside Essex), the archive does include some recordings that help us to understand the experiences of the Black community during this period.

The clip below is from a radio programme about the work of Thurrock Community Relations Council, broadcast in 1988. The council aimed to “promote harmony, eliminate racial and cultural discrimination, and promote equal opportunities” in the area, and included representatives from the local Sikh, Vietnamese, and African-Caribbean communities. The speaker in the clip is Diana Wall, who had moved to the UK from Guyana in the 1960s and was working as a midwife in Grays.

“The older people accept me as a person in my field of work, but the younger generation sometimes do cause a little bit of a problem.”

Diana Wall talks about her experience of racism in Grays on BBC Essex, 1988 (SA 1/240/1). Read a transcript here.

Voices from Black communities across Essex continue to be recorded for broadcast today, both by BBC Essex and organisations like the Essex Cultural Diversity Project (ECDP), which launched ECDP Radio in 2021. In episode below, presenter Nita Jhummu talks to Sangita Mittra, Wrenay Raphael and Carlos Byles from the New Generation Development Agency, about Black History Month in Chelmsford (SA 74/2/7/1):

Other contemporary reflections on issues of identity and place have been commissioned by Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea for FPG Sounds, an online project supporting the development of new sound works by artists from or based in Southend, now archived in the ESVA (SA912). Amongst the fifteen commissions are several spoken-word pieces by Carrissa Baxter and The Repeat Beat Poet (Peter deGraft-Johnson), exploring Black British history and their own experiences.

The Repeat Beat Poet’s poem ‘One Black Lotus’, inspired by the eighteenth century Jamaican-Scottish radical and union activist William Davidson.

Over the last fifteen years, museums, arts organisations, and artists have also recorded the stories of people who moved to Essex from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as more recent experiences of those with African or Caribbean heritage.

Oral histories are some of the most powerful records of recent Black history in Essex. As historians have shown, the fact that the personal experiences of people of African descent in Britain have not generally been recorded – as we found in the first blog post – has contributed to their historical erasure. In contrast, oral histories give people the opportunity to share their stories in their own words. Quoting from the 1991 Julie Dash film, Daughters of the Dust, Dr Meleisa Ono-George has emphasised that “there is power in the knowing, but there is also power in the telling”. As the artist Everton Wright (EVEWRIGHT) describes in the clip below, the richness and complexity of these stories also provides a foundation for future generations to listen to and learn from.

The artist EVEWRIGHT speaking on ECDP Radio, 2021 (SA 74/2/5/1). Read a transcript here.

In 2008, staff at Hollytrees Museum in Colchester recorded oral histories with nurses who came to work for the NHS from around the Commonwealth, including the Caribbean, for the exhibition ‘Empire of Care’. In the recordings, the interviewees talk about their memories of arriving in Essex, training to be nurses, living in Colchester during the late 1950s and 1960s, and their careers since.

Looking back over their lives, they also reflect on their achievements and the challenges they faced. In the clip below, Shirla Philogene (née Allen) describes her experience of ‘colour prejudice’ during her nursing training in Colchester. Shirla grew up in St Vincent & the Grenadines and started her training in Colchester in 1959. She received an OBE for her services to nursing leadership and development in 2000 and published a book about her experiences, Between Two Worlds, in 2008.

Shirla Philogene describes her experience of prejudice during her nursing training (VA 77/1/5/1). Read a transcript here. To listen to the full interview, please get in touch.

Another interview with Shirla is preserved in the Royal College of Nursing archive (T/374), and you can hear more clips from the interviews with Shirla, Ester Jankey, and Rosie Bobby in this blog post about the collection.

Picture of the redecorated Caribbean Cafe in Colchester
Detail of art installation at S&S Caribbean Café, 2018. Image: EVEWRIGHT.

Between 2017 and 2018, EVEWRIGHT and Evewright Arts Foundation recorded thirteen oral histories with Caribbean elders across Essex. Ten-minute excerpts from the interviews were played as part of the Caribbean Takeaway Takeover exhibition at the S&S Caribbean Café in Colchester on the weekend of the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury. As with the ‘Empire of Care’ recordings, many of those interviewed describe their journeys to the UK from the Caribbean. One interviewee, Alford Gardner, travelled from Jamaica on the Windrush itself:

” When we came here, reach Tilbury, there were two Calypsonians from Trinidad and any part of the boat you walk on I mean, some little ting, ting ting, ting, ting t-ting-ting. Anything that moved on the boat, a song was made up about it!”

Alford Gardner speaking to Ionie Richards and Everton Wright in 2018 (SA 69/1/3/1)

Importantly, the oral histories record the many different experiences of the pioneers now known as the ‘Windrush generation’, and their lives in the UK beyond the point of arrival. In this clip, Alton Watkins, who passed away in May this year, reflects on his contribution to British society as a teacher and England being his home.

Alton Watkins reflects on his life in England (SA 69/1/8/1). Read a transcript here.
Tilbury Bridge Walkway of Memories installation by EVEWRIGHT. Image: John Ferguson.

In 2020, EVEWRIGHT created a new installation in a passenger walkway at the Port of Tilbury. The 432 panes of glass along the walkway are collaged with photographs, passports, documents, boat passenger tickets and memorabilia. There is also a series of sound windows, where visitors can listen to some of the audio stories recorded for the Caribbean Takeaway Takeover installation, as well as new interviews recorded by Evewright Arts Foundation and donated by members of the public across the UK. The clip below is from an interview with Freda Seaton, where she describes moving to the UK from Jamaica in 1957.

Freda Seaton talking to Nadine Persaud in August 2020 (SA 69/2/10/1). Read a transcript here.

This series of recordings was deposited in the ESVA earlier this year. Thanks to the generosity of the participants, we are delighted to be able to share them on our catalogue, Essex Archives Online, and our Soundcloud channel. You can also pick up a legacy publication about the installation in our Searchroom.

Installation view, Black Girl Essex, Firstsite. Image: Ollie Harrop.

Another collection of recordings recently deposited in the ESVA is a series of four conversations recorded by the artist Elsa James in 2019 for ‘Black Girl Essex’, a project carried out during her four month residency for Super Black, an Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibition at Firstsite in Colchester (SA 78/1).

The thirteen participants in the conversations represent the diversity of the Black community in Essex in the twenty-first century. They varied in age, from 13 to 74, and while some moved to Essex as children, or later on in life, others were born and brought up in the county. This diversity is reflected in the recordings, as they discuss their perceptions of Essex, whether the Essex stereotype resonates with them, and their experiences of being othered.

One of the participants was the actor and director Josephine Melville, who sadly died on 20 October. Jo set up the South Essex African Caribbean Association (SEACA) in 2012 and was passionate about bringing communities together to celebrate their culture and heritage. As well as the interview with Elsa James, Jo was also involved with EVEWRIGHT’s Tilbury Bridge Walkway of Memories project, to which she contributed a recording of her parents’ experience of moving to Britain from Jamaica, and a conversation with her mother, Byrel.

In this excerpt from her conversation with Elsa, she reflects on the importance of recording and preserving Black histories in Essex.

“Moments need to be logged and treasured, so that we don’t get lost, and that our history and our presence in this area are not just told by other people, they’re told by us.”

Josephine Melville speaking to Elsa James, September 2019

Black History Month at the ERO: Part 1

Note: Some of the records discussed in this blog post contain language that you may find offensive or distressing.

As the destination for the Empire Windrush, which arrived at the Port of Tilbury on 21 June 1948, Essex has a prominent place in recent Black British history. However, people from African and Caribbean backgrounds have been part of the history of this county for centuries, and as Essex becomes an increasingly diverse place today, new histories continue to be made.

Black History Month is held every October to celebrate the lives and achievements of Black people in the UK. At the ERO, it is an opportunity to reflect on the histories of Black people that are preserved here, and to share their stories and voices more widely.

The display cabinet in our Searchroom is currently home to the earliest fragment of Black history at the ERO, dating from 1580, and the most recent, dating from 2022. There are also parish registers, newspapers, photographs, books and sound recordings to look at and listen to in the drawers below and on the listening post nearby.

In Part 1 of this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the parish registers on display, which date from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. In Part 2, we’ll explore much more recent recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive. In comparison to the parish registers, which often record Black people as the ‘other’, many of the recordings preserved in the ESVA record the experiences of Black people in their own words.

Parish registers

The Rayleigh parish register displayed at the top of the case contains the earliest mention we have found of a Black individual in our collections; the burial record of Thomas Parker, ‘a certayne darke mane’ in Rayleigh in 1579/1580*. While the use of the word ‘dark’ is not always an indication that the person was of African descent or origin, it was often used to describe those who were.

Image of a baptism record in a parish register in secretary hand, with the relevant text highlighted. The text reads: "a certayne dark mane called Thomas Parker".
Burial record of Thomas Parker, 1579/1580 (D/P 332/1/3)

More commonly, the church ministers or wardens who kept the parish registers described people of African or Caribbean descent as ‘Negro’ or ‘a Black’. These terms are obviously outdated and offensive today. Yet, to the present-day researcher, these references highlight the existence of Black people in Essex during this period; in most cases, the entries in the registers are the only record of their lives that has survived. By giving us their names, and the date and place they were baptised, married, or buried (and sometimes, if they were a servant, the name of their employer), they provide a glimpse into who they were, and allows us to understand more about the Black population in Essex as a whole.

In some cases, where the same name appears in more than one parish register or document, we can build up a more detailed picture. This register from the parish of St Mary the Virgin, Woodford, records the baptism of George Pompey, ‘a black at Madm Bettons’, in October 1699.

Photograph of an open parish register on display in a case in the Searchroom at the record office. The entries are all handwritten, and the relevant entry reads: "George Pompey, a black at Mdm Bettons, was baptised Oct 27".
Parish register for St Mary the Virgin, Woodford, including the record of George Pompey’s baptism in 1699 (D/P 167/1/3A)

Another reference to ‘George Pompey a Black, servant to Sir Fisher Tench’ can be found in the parish register for Leyton, which records his burial on 3 September 1735. Fisher Tench was a city merchant who was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade; as well as owning a plantation in Virginia, he was also sub-Governor of the Royal Africa Company and Director of the South Sea Company.

Image of a handwritten burial record in a parish register. The text reads: "George Pompey, a Black Servant to Sir Fisher Tench".
Burial record of George Pompey, 1735 (D/P 45/1/2)

The inscription on George’s headstone noted that he died aged 32, after working for the Tench family for over twenty years – probably at the Great House in Leyton, which they built in the early 1700s. It is possible that George’s age was mistaken, and that this is the same George that was baptised in Woodford thirty-six years earlier. It is not impossible, however, that there were two people called George Pompey in the area at the time; during this period it was common for enslaved people to be given classical names, like Pompey, when they were baptised.

As well as baptisms and burials, the registers also recorded the marriages that took place in each parish, including inter-racial marriages. This parish register from Little Baddow shows that Sarah, ‘a Black woman servant at Graces’ was baptised on 30 November 1712, and married Edward Horsnail the next day, on 1 December. Their daughter, also called Sarah, was baptised on 25 February the following year (it wasn’t unusual at this time for children to be born only a few months after a marriage took place).

Image of a series of handwritten entries in a parish register. The text reads: "A Black woman servant at Graces was baptised Sarah the, November 30th. Edward Horsnaill & Sarah Rogers a black widower were married December 1st.... Sarah Horsnail daughter of Edward Horsnail was baptised February 25th."
Record of the baptism and marriage of Sarah Horsnail, and the baptism of her daughter, 1712 (D/P 35/1/1)

Ten years later, the rector of Little Braxted recorded the marriage of Cleopatra Manning ‘a black, of Fryerning’ to John Coller ‘of ye parish of Ingatestone’. Interestingly, the marriage bond beside the register below shows that John applied to marry Cleopatra by licence, which meant that banns did not have to be read out in church.

Photograph of an open parish register beside a marriage bond license in a display case in the Searchroom at the record office. There is a printed caption below the register with the archive references for each item.
Marriage records for Cleopatra Manning and John Coller, 1723 (D/P 224/1/1 and D/ABL 1723/44)

Parish registers like these record an increasing number of Black people living and working in Essex from the seventeenth century.

This increase was inextricably linked to the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. Several prominent families in Essex owned plantations in the Caribbean and benefited financially from the labour of enslaved people**. While some Black people arrived in Essex as seamen, labourers, or artisans, either from London or abroad, others were brought to the county to work as servants.

The legal status of this group of people was ambiguous. While some rulings stated that enslaved people became free on arrival on British soil, or after being baptised, others suggested that they could continue to be treated as property. In 1772, the judgement in the Somerset v. Stewart case stated that ‘no master’ was allowed ‘to take a slave by force to be sold abroad’. Although some people understood this to mean the abolition of slavery in England, the practice continued, and it was not until 1833 that it was formally outlawed.

Very few people are identified in the parish registers as ‘slaves’; more commonly, people are listed as being ‘of’ or ‘belonging to’ their masters – like Rebecca Magarth, who was recorded in the Broomfield parish register in January 1736/7 as ‘belonging to Edward Kelsall’ (D/P 248/1/1). A much greater number are listed as servants. The experiences of these people would have varied enormously, both between individuals and over the time period. It is likely, however, that many would not have been free to leave their employers or been paid for their labour.

Beyond the memoirs of people like Mary Prince, who had been enslaved on Bermuda and Antigua before being brought to England as a servant in 1828, very little has survived that can tell us about these experiences. However, other documents from the archive do record examples of of agency and resistance. Alongside the activities of white abolitionists, like John Farmer, Thomas Fowell Buxton and Anne Knight, the records show that hundreds of people in Essex attended lectures given by formerly enslaved people about their experiences, usually in America. In the 1840s, the author and activist Moses Roper spoke in more than a dozen places across the county, including Stockwell Congregational Chapel in Colchester. A volume from the church records suggests the audience of 1,500 was ‘the greatest number’ the chapel had ever seen. Seven years later, the same volume details a lecture at the Friends’ Meeting House by Frederick Douglass, a leader of the abolitionist and civil rights movement in the USA .

Image of a handwritten entry in a church register. The text reads: "September 30th NB. Moses Roper, an escaped American slave, spoke for upwards of two hours, to an audience of perhaps 1500 persons - certainly the greatest number that ever got into Stockwell Chapel. He exhibited the whips, chains etc. We sold 101 of his books, at 2s each & next day the sale amounted to 141. May good arise to the sacred cause of religious and civil freedom."
Entry in a book kept by Stockwell Congregational Chapel, 1848 (D/NC 42/1/1B)

Some traces also remain of those mentioned in the parish registers outside the archive. While George Pompey’s headstone in Leyton no longer survives, other memorials commemorating the lives of Black people during this period can still be seen today. In 2018, Elsa James’s Forgotten Black Essex project highlighted the story of Hester Woodley, who died in Little Parndon in 1767, aged 62. Hester and her adult daughter Jane were brought to Essex from a plantation on Montserrat in around 1740, to work for Bridget Woodley. When she died, the Woodley family erected a memorial in St Mary’s Church ‘as a grateful remembrance of her faithfully discharging her duty with the utmost attention and integrity’. Although it was intended as a tribute, the inscription makes it clear that Hester was considered the property of the family, ‘to whom she belonged during her life’.

Another memorial in St Andrew’s Church, Heybridge, remembers Eleanor Incleden, who died in 1823 aged 45 (a record of her burial can be found in the Heybridge parish register, D/P 44/1/6). Eleanor had worked at Heybridge Hall for Oliver Hering, Deputy Lieutenant of Essex, and his wife Mary, who erected the memorial: a ‘small tribute of respect and gratitude to her exemplary worth, and the merits and sorrows of her son’. It also notes that Eleanor was Jamaican, so it is possible that she was brought to Essex from Paul Island, the Hering’s sugar estate on Jamaica.

In 2022, the gravestone of Joseph Freeman in the non-conformist cemetery on New London Road, Chelmsford, was given Grade II listed status. Freeman had been born into slavery in Louisiana around 1830, but managed to liberate himself at the start of the American Civil War. He then moved to Essex, settled down with a local woman in Moulsham, and worked at the London Road Iron Works until his death in 1875.

Photograph of the gravestone for Joseph Freeman. The inscription reads: "Erected by his Christian friends, to the memory of Joseph, a slave in New Orleans who escaped to England and became also a Freeman in Christ. He was employed for several years at the London Road Iron Works till his death at the age of 45 on the 28th Nov 1875. Reader! Have you been made free from the slavery of sin."
Joseph Freeman’s gravestone in the non-conformist cemetery on New London Road, Chelmsford

These are a small sample of the records that include references to Black people from this period. We keep a running list of all the references to people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds we find in the parish registers. If you would like to see the full list, please email ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk. You can also find out more about some of these records in this earlier blog post.

For more information, see:

Thanks also to Evewright Arts Foundation and Elsa James for shedding light on Black histories in Essex, and recording new histories to preserve for future generations.

*Thomas was buried on 12 February in the year that we would call 1580; at the time, however, New Year was marked on 25 March rather than 1 January, so contemporaries would have thought of it as still being 1579.

**Examples include the Neave family of Dagnam Park, the Conyers of Copped Hall, and the Palmers of Nazeing Hall, who were all awarded compensation under the Slave Compensation Act of 1837. Records relating to their involvement in plantations, including lists of enslaved people who worked on them, are held at the ERO. For a detailed list of these, email ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk.

Thomas Baker of Fobbing and the Peasants’ Revolt

The Essex Record Office recently hosted the launch for the database of ‘The People of 1381’ (an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project). As part of the launch
Katharine Schofield and Diane Taylor curated a surprise pop-up exhibition of relevant sources kept at the ERO.
In this blog Dr Herbert Eiden (Research Assistant for ‘The People of 1381’ project) reflects on why one of these documents holds particular interest.

Amongst the documents on display at the launch event– mainly manorial court rolls – was this rather inconspicuous property deed dating from four years before the revolt.

Grant of lands in Basildon, Laindon, Ramsden Crays, Nevendon and Fobbing, 25 October 1377 (D/DHf T41/56)

In the list of witnesses in the otherwise unremarkable grant of lands and tenements in Laindon, Ramsden Crays, Nevendon and Fobbing is one Thomas Baker. This is very likely the Thomas Baker who was named by the contemporary chronicler Henry Knighton as the ‘first mover’ of the rebellion.

In several inquests after the rising Baker was accused of having been present at Brentwood on 30 May 1381, when a royal commission enquiring into non-payment of the third poll tax was put to rout. Afterwards he ordered messengers to proclaim the uprising in south-Essex and probably beyond the Thames in Kent.

He was also charged with taking part in the attack on Cressing Temple and Coggeshall. He was found guilty as charged and drawn and hanged in Chelmsford on 4 July 1381.

It is known from an escheator inquisition taken eight years after the rising that, at the time of his death, Thomas held of the abbot of Waltham Holy Cross a croft called ‘Bakerescroft’ containing 6 acres of land in Fobbing as well as a messuage with garden of Joan de Bohun, countess of Hereford, and lady of the manor of Fobbing.

Map of estate of Thomas Drew in Fobbing and Corringham, 1781 (D/DCx P1)

This map, dated four hundred years after the Peasants’ Revolt, shows Bakers Croft in Fobbing: a smallholding of more than 6 acres of land. It has been identified as possibly being the land of the rebel Thomas Baker.

Yet, nothing is known about his life up to 1381.

The manorial documents of Fobbing in the second half of the 14th century are lost. This is where this snippet of information from the deed fits in nicely. Witnesses to medieval deeds were trustworthy local men of some standing. We can therefore infer that Thomas Baker was prominent in his area before he assumed a leading role in the repulsion of the tax commission.

A final twist is revealed by the presence of two other witness names. One, Geoffrey Darsham, or Dersham, who was the Earl of Oxford’s steward in south-east Essex, had his manor house of Barnhall in Downham destroyed and livestock stolen, and John Onywand, another of the deed’s witnesses, was a member of the jury presenting this allegation in 1381.

It is intriguing that three of the six people coming together in October 1377 to witness a land transaction found themselves on different sides of the divide only four years later: a rebel, a victim of the rebels, and a juror.

For more about the Peasants’ Revolt visit http://www.1381.online/

Communicating Connections: oral histories and website now online!

We’re delighted to announce that the oral histories recorded for Communicating Connections: Sharing the Heritage of Marconi’s Wireless World are now available to explore on Essex Archives Online. You can also explore our project website, Marconi Stories, where you can learn about the project, listen to clips from the interviews and podcasts, view a gallery of digitised photographs, and download our guided walks around Marconi heritage in Chelmsford.

A screenshot of the homepage of the project website. The project title is on a background of a photograph of a Marconi factory, with the menu above.
The Communicating Connections project website

The oral histories with 30 former employees of the Marconi Company are at the heart of the Communicating Connections project. As the interviewees worked at the company in a huge range of roles from the 1950s to the 2000s, the recordings capture a real variety of experiences. Together, they add a human dimension to a story of technological innovation, and give a personal insight into how the company operated across the fields of broadcasting, telecommunications, navigation, and other wireless technologies. They also reveal how life in Chelmsford – and the fabric of the city itself – was shaped by the company. This living heritage will now be preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the ERO for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

The clips and excerpts below provide an insight into the experiences discussed in the interviews. Most of the interviewees begin by describing how they came to work at the company. Many, like Peter Farnworth, joined as apprentices. In this clip, he talks about moving into the ‘ship room’ in the hostel for apprentices on Springfield Place in 1966.

Interview with Peter Farnworth [SA 13/8/26/1]

Several female interviewees – Barbara Stephens, Joyce Allan, Maria Smith, and Val Cleare – discuss what it was like to join Marconi’s as a woman. In this clip, Barbara recalls being the only female apprentice on her course in 1974. She went on to become a trailblazer in the world of engineering.

Interview with Barbara Stephens [SA 13/8/3/1]

A detached building behind some elaborate gates and a fence, next to a sign that reads 'Marconi Aeradio Training School'
Marconi Aeradio Training School, Chelmsford

After their apprenticeships, the interviewees went on to work in various departments across the company, often progressing into management positions. Chris Denly recalls that a job at Marconi was seen as a ‘job for life’ –

“It was going to be a job for life. [It had] its own culture; we used to go on things like ‘walkabout’, where we’d go to different departments, talking to people, communicating, and seeing what everybody else was actually up to”

Interview with Chris Denly [SA 13/8/12/1]

The interviewees also explain the technology and equipment they worked with, often in great detail. In this clip, Malcolm Frost talks about his time working on the ‘Heli-tele’ system for aircraft, which they sold to the BBC so they could record television from the air.

Interview with Malcolm Frost [SA 13/8/19/1]

As the company had customers and clients all around the world, many Marconi employees travelled abroad for work, sometimes for months or even years at a time. The interviewees often recalled their travels with Marconi as a highlight of their careers. In his interview, Bob Willis listed where he’d been –

“I’ve been to Australia and South Africa. I’ve been to Japan, Korea, Taiwan. People from India and China came over to the UK. Chinese engineers came from a couple of space companies because I had a relationship with the National Physics Laboratory.”

Interview with Bob Willis [SA 13/8/6/1]

An old-fashioned car on a road outside a building with 'Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Works' painted on the corner.
A Marconi vehicle outside the Hall Street factory

The interviewees also describe their memories of Marconi’s factories, workshops, laboratories, and training schools back home in Chelmsford, and the working atmosphere. In her interview, Maria Smith describes the importance of working together in the drawing offices. After she had her first child in 1977, she continued working for Marconi’s from home.

Interview with Maria Smith [SA 13/8/20/1]

While many of the interviewees look back on their time at Marconi’s fondly, they also discuss the challenges they faced at work and the decline of the company from the 1990s. Cyril Teed worked at Marconi’s for 15 years before moving to be Chief Engineer at ITN. In this clip, he describes the changes that had occurred at Marconi’s when he returned three years later.

Interview with Cyril Teed [SA 13/8/14/1]

Like Cyril, Martyn Clarke also took part in the social side of working at Marconi’s. Here, he talks about reviewing films for the monthly Marconi magazine and making a pirate-themed float for Chelmsford Carnival.

Interview with Martyn Clarke [SA 13/8/21/1]

At the end of the interviews, many of the interviewees reflect on the friendships they made, and note that they remain in touch with people they met through work – even as apprentices back in the 1950s.

“I still dream that I’m back working at Marconi’s in New Street. I don’t dream about working [elsewhere], where I worked for three times the length of time. It was a special company, it worked in a special way. And lots of friendships were made and survive to this day.”

Interview with Mike Plant [SA 13/8/25/1]

Each of the interviews recorded through the project is now available to browse on our catalogue here. You can listen to most of the interviews on Essex Archives Online, and some of the clips featured above on our Marconi radio in the Searchroom.

Our Communicating Connections radio

Thank you to everyone who has been involved since the start of the project in August 2020: all of the interviewees; the volunteer interviewers and podcasters; the project co-ordinator, Laura Owen; and our evaluator, Pippa Smith. We are also grateful for the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Essex 2020.

Read previous blog posts about the project here:

Curiosity Cabinet: A Crash Course on Wax Seals

Our latest Searchroom Curiosity Cabinet features a selection of wax seals and seal matrixes from our collection. For those of you who can’t visit to see the display in person, we thought we’d share a bit more information here.

Wax seals were first used in the Middle Ages, although the Roman’s practiced a similar method with bitumen and the Ancient Mesopotamians made seal-indents in clay tablets. One of the first English examples of a wax seal being used in an official capacity was by Edward the Confessor c.1042-1066.

People used their coat of arms, family crest, or any other iconography that was important to them. Mythological symbols were particularly common.

An ‘applied seal’ is when the wax is applied directly to the page. However, the seal can also be arranged to hang on a tag or cord which is known as a pendant seal. Larger pendant seals are sometimes encased in cases, called skippet’s, which protect them from damage.

The size of the seal often correlated with the importance and status of the person whom it belonged to. This Great Seal for Queen Victoria, enclosed in its own metal skippet, is the perfect example!

As well as being used to authenticate the document, applied seals were useful in making sure that letters were not tampered with – a broken seal was a sure sign that the contents of your letter were no longer private! Today they are mostly used for decoration on posh stationery, such as invitations.

The wax impression is created using a ‘seal matrix’, which features a negative image; this is pressed into the wax to produce the positive image. The most popular type of seal matrix is the signet ring, evidence for which dates back as far as Ancient Egypt. Signet rings have also been used as symbols of wealth and power throughout history and were often destroyed when their owner died to prevent forgeries.

This seal matrix, dated to the early 14th century seal matrix, was dug up near the Little Dunmow Priory almost 100 years ago. It probably belonged to one of the priors.

If you want to see the full display, including a soap box full of seals and a 17th century seal matrix, it will feature in the Curiosity Cabinet until November. The Great seal of Queen Victoria is really something impressive to see in person – our photo does not do justice to its size!