Final reflections on an ERO placement

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.

Tackling 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.’

BBC PANORAMA PROGRAMME BROADCAST 17 AUGUST 2020

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.

Blue circular logo for Friends of Historic Essex

Sources:

‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Record Office (Acc. SA853)

BBC Panorama report on domestic abuse during lockdown, published 17 August 2020

If you need support to deal with Domestic Abuse, please call the helpline below or check out the following guidance.

National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247

Local support: https://www.essex.gov.uk/report-abuse-or-neglect/domestic-abuse

COVID-19 Domestic Violence Guidance: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-and-domestic-abuse

Confronting the history of domestic violence

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.

Chris Graves reviews the Maurice Wells case and its impact on the women’s refuge movement. From the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews, Acc. SA853.

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 Womanwebsite 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.

Alison Inman describes a local authority’s denial that domestic violence was a problem in their region. From the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews, Acc. SA853.

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.

Alison Inman on the development of stereotypes around domestic violence victims. From the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews, Acc. SA853.

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.

Moyna Barnham on the problem of unwelcome jokes encountered in the campaign to set up women’s refuges. From the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews, Acc. SA853.

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.

Joan Bliss on the changes within the women’s refuge movement and the need for continued education of society. From the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews, Acc. SA853.


We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex and the University of Essex for their financial support in making this placement possible.

Additional Resources

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.

‘Sisters Doing it for Themselves’ project website

‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ project website

Daily Gazette newspaper article about Maurice Wells

Newspaper report in The Times on the Maurice Wells case.

If you need support to deal with domestic abuse, please call the helpline below or check out the following guidance.

National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247

Local support: https://www.essex.gov.uk/report-abuse-or-neglect/domestic-abuse

COVID-19 Domestic Violence Guidance: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-and-domestic-abuse

Finding sound and video recordings on Essex Archives Online

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.

Screenshot showing option to find a-v material on Essex Archives Online

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’.

Video demonstrating how to find sound and video recordings using index searches.

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.

  1. Click ‘Advanced Search’ from the top of the page.
  2. Make sure the ‘Refine your search’ box is set to ‘Everything’.
  3. In the top box, type ‘cucumber’ and ‘halstead’.
  4. In the second box, type ‘SA’.
  5. Click on the result.
  6. Enjoy.

Introducing the 2020 University of Essex MA placement student

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.

Moyna Barnham describes the first steps towards starting up a women’s refuge in Colchester and the challenge of convincing people of the need for a refuge.

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.

Alison Inman mourns the continuing need for refuges.
Friends of Historic Essex logo

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.

National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247

Local support: https://www.essex.gov.uk/report-abuse-or-neglect/domestic-abuse

COVID-19 Domestic Violence Guidance: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-and-domestic-abuse

Give peas a chance Part 2: Protection

Crops of every kind, including peas, were tempting targets for humans as well as natural predators, such as rabbits but mainly birds. Extensive acreages of field crops posed a challenge to protect, but an abundance of cheap human labour would have provided at least some form of bird-scaring by children armed with clappers and loud voices. Fortunately for the farmer, this was an easy job that required little skill and not much, if any, payment.

A story passed down in my family is that my great-grandfather, Henry Wiffen (1862-1946), was taken out bird scaring as one of his first jobs, presumably when he was 7 or 8. His father lit a little fire in the base of a hedge for him to keep warm by while keeping an eye out for birds. This might have been at Nightingale Hall Farm in Halstead / Greenstead Green. See George Clausen’s painting, ‘Bird Scaring – March’.

For those levels of society that could afford to have large, planned gardens, with an appropriate number of gardeners, then there was plenty of people on hand to protect crops from predation. However, that fickle, enigmatic element known to all gardeners, the weather, had also to be countered. To begin with a warm wall or sheltered corner of a garden might suffice to an aspiring gardener. Small moveable enclosures, known as cloches, or cold frames with a covering of ‘lights’, could be used to give protection to particular plants or small areas of crops. If you were rich then money, and lots of it, could be thrown at this problem, and, as with all things, technology evolved over time along with the aspirations of the owners of grand houses. They were the early adopters of even greater resource-intensive infrastructure, and a good example of this can be seen in the incredible, and now lost, gardens of Wanstead House.

The plan of the house gardens park & plantations of Wanstead in the county of Essex, the seat of the Rt. Honble the El. Tylney. (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

A vitally important part of a planned garden was the kitchen garden, for in an age before global trade and refrigeration only a very small amount of produce was imported. So if you wanted to eat something out of the ordinary then you had to grow it, and if you wanted to eat that something out of season then you had to make it happen. The wealthier you were the more you could eat out of season fruit and vegetables, such as peas and peaches, and the more exotic would be the produce that your gardens grew – pineapples being the most unusual and difficult to grow (the first grown in Britain is reckoned to have been in 1693 for Queen Mary II: T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.193). Grapes were also a symbol of status and perhaps the most famous vine is the 250 year-old Black Hamburg at Hampton Court Palace, which has an interesting Essex connection (see: https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/the-great-vine/#gs.2k24uk). Kitchen gardens then, were both a symbol of wealth and status as well as a practical contributor to the household economy. At Wanstead the extensive gardens were located close to the main house.

Extract from the plan of Wanstead House and gardens showing the main house and kitchen garden. The numbered parts are: 2. stables and out houses; 3. the church; 6. the greenhouse; 11. the stoves; 12. ‘kitchen gardiners house’; 17. the kitchen garden. The ‘kitchen gardiners [sic] house’ is probably what we would more familiarly know as the Head Gardener’s house. Having such an important person on hand was essential to oversee the gardens both as a security measure and for keeping a professional eye on the running of the garden. (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

As can be seen, the kitchen gardens are on a grand scale and laid out in a very formal manner with lots of beds and borders. From these would have been grown all the run of the mill fruit and vegetables that would have fed the household throughout the year. These gardens were powered by the extensive use of manure, as often as not horse manure, to provide the soil with the necessary body to produce large yields. As can be seen from the plan, the stables are quite close but on the opposite side of the house from the gardens. This would have entailed the carting of manure across the sightline of the house or a very long detour to get it to the gardens out of sight. Wherever practical the stables and gardens were, sensibly, located adjacent to one another and quite often out of view altogether so as not to offend the owner and his family with sights and smells that might not be conducive to their sensibilities. It could be that at Wanstead we are looking at an early form of that relationship and that by the nineteenth century the layout of an estate had become more nuanced. A good example of a recreated kitchen garden and stable set-up is at Audley End (http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/organic-kitchen-gardens/)

Detailed extract from the plan of Wanstead House showing the Stove House, Green House and Great Stove House (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

Having sheltered open borders was all very good but in order not only to grow tender plants, but to extend the season of more general crops, then much more intensive infrastructure was required. This is highlighted on the 1735 plan of Wanstead with individual depictions of a green house (6 on the plan) and two ‘stove’ houses (both marked as 11 on the plan). A greenhouse at this stage was a light, airy building with some glazing that sheltered plants, while the stove house was much the same but had heating of some kind, often free-standing stoves located within the building. We think of greenhouses today as having minimal structure and maximum glazing, but this design only came around in the second half of the nineteenth century as developments in cast-iron production and the decreasing cost of glass made the ‘modern’ greenhouse possible. The eighteenth-century equivalent had much more structure and far less glazing, very much like what we would think of as an orangery. As indicated above, these were very expensive to build and run.

Detail of ‘The Great Stove House’ (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)

While the gardens at Wanstead House were obviously cutting-edge, they also deployed other techniques for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers. If we look at the image of the Great Stove House we can see a couple of examples. Firstly this sub-section of the garden is surrounded by what appears to be wooden fencing. Not only does this define the area, but the fencing also gives protection from damaging winds thus creating a sheltered micro-climate. In a later period, brick walls were built which fulfilled the same functions as a wooden fence but also had the advantage of acting as a structure up which plants could be trained – tender ones on the south facing walls with hardier ones on the cooler, north facing walls. Some of these walls were built to be heated themselves by fireplaces and flues to protect crops from frost, think outdoor radiators – but they must have been extremely expensive to run. Not all plant protection at Wanstead was very expensive, for in the borders are bell-shapes which are probably glass cloches, a low-tech form of plant protection. Cloche being French for bell – hence they get their name from their shape.

Cloches and cold frames were available to a wider cross-section of the population than expensive greenhouses. For example, Richard Bridgeman (d.1677) had 18 ‘cowcumber’-glasses worth 9 shillings, while Theophilus Lingard (d.1743/4) had, among extensive possessions, 20 bell glasses and two cucumber frames. (F.W. Steer, Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex, 1635-1749 (Chelmsford, 1950), pp.145, 270.) So for gardeners of all degrees there was some form of artificial plant protection available to give that little bit of advantage when growing crops. A more modern version of the traditional bell cloche was the Chase barn cloche, introduced in the early twentieth century by Major L.H. Chase. These simple forms of protection were used in their thousands by nursery and market-gardeners to give protection to their crops from the bad weather. However, they were susceptible, along with greenhouses, to the rain of shrapnel that was caused by anti-aircraft fire during the Second World War – thank goodness we don’t have that to worry about now!

Surviving Chase barn cloches about to protect Ne Plus Ultra peas from the weather and pigeons.

While no longer bell-shaped, protective covers are still known as cloches, although it is thought that in Essex most market gardeners of the post-war years pronounced cloche as CLOTCH (sounding like BLOTCH) – no subtleties in pronunciation there! (Photo: N. Wiffen)

How to pronounce ‘cloches’ if you’re speaking Essex

Researching From Home

With Dr James Bettley

Dr James Bettley is an architectural historian, currently planning his next project.

Where is your office?

I’m lucky to have a study on a mezzanine floor at the back of the house that makes it feel quite separate from the rest of the house. We’ve lived here for 30 years and I’ve been working from home for 20, so the current situation doesn’t feel that strange.

Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?

There are two windows, facing east and south, with views over our garden and fields beyond. The windows are not in my direct line of site so I don’t find the view too distracting.

What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?

I’m thinking about a couple of subjects – John Bateman of Brightlingsea, and the 20th-century restorations of St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell – but the research I really want to do involves travelling in the UK and abroad, so that’s on hold for the time being. Any thoughts of publication are very remote just yet.

Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?

Generally when I’m at home I work from 8 to 6 with an hour for lunch and a walk, but I’m slipping into a more relaxed coronavirus regime of concentrated working from 9 to 1, lunch followed by a couple of hours permitted exercise or essential shopping, then catching up on emails etc until 6 or so.

Do you have a favourite online resource?

British Newspaper Archive. Endlessly diverting.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

Coffee, mainly. I tend not to snack, although I can’t pretend that if there’s a packet of biscuits open I don’t occasionally…

Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?

I’m easily distracted by emails, tweets etc, but not for long.

What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?

T/M 508/2. It’s only a photograph of a map (the original’s at New College, Oxford, who owned land at Bradwell) but it includes a vignette of ‘St Peter’s Chapel in Ruins’ that I’d like to see. But mostly I’m simply looking forward to being able to visit the ERO and a number of other libraries and archives again. Perhaps we’ll value you all the more after this period of abstinence and deprivation.

Give peas a chance!

Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen takes a look at how peas became so ubiquitous on the dinner tables of the nation.

Frozen peas must be the most accessible vegetable known to 21st century shoppers – such an easy convenience food to reach for all year round. Peas throughout history have been an important food source, and catalogue entries from Essex Archives Online are littered with references to them. During the middle-ages and early modern period they were grown as field crops for drying and use over winter, as an easily stored, high protein food source. Historians believe that ‘garden’ peas for eating freshly picked were an introduction from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century (T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.106). The kitchen gardens of the large country house would have produced them for the table along with market gardeners operating around towns, and it is quite probable that general gardeners, from a fairly early date, would have also done so once seed became readily available.

Frozen pea packaging from the 1970s – how times have changed! Sainsbury’s Home Freezer Pack Garden Peas (5 lb 2.267 kg).
(With thanks to our friends at the Sainsbury’s Archive (www.sainsburyarchive.org.uk/). © The Sainsbury Archive, Museum of London Docklands, 2020, SA/PKC/PRO/1/10/2/4/6/7)
 

Through the nineteenth century the consumption of fresh(ish) peas increased, and the expansion of the railway network allowed Essex producers to send vast quantities of all sorts of fresh produce up to London – by 1850 3,900 tons of peas from surrounding counties were sold through the markets there (G. Dodds, The Food of London (London, 1856), p.387). And how were many of these peas harvested in a pre-mechanised age? Well, school log books of the period are littered with references to pupils being absent for all sorts of harvest work, not least that of pea picking, probably there alongside their mothers. The income that families made from seasonal work was not to be underestimated, and full advantage was made of these opportunities.

Note about students absent pea-picking from Coggeshall National School log book
Note in Coggeshall school log book about pupils absent due to pea-picking, 9 July 1873 (E/ML 310/1)

And it was not just women and children who helped bring in the peas. Many itinerant workers also relied on various crops, and growers were glad of the extra labour to bring in the harvest. David Smith, farmer, author and broadcaster of Broomfield, wrote of the ‘grey tattered figures of all types and ages [as] they trudged along slowly in the bright June sunlight … They would come, every year … just as they came to thousands of other farms … And so to Hill Farm, with near it the brilliant green of two to three fields of picking peas … for a fickle London market.’ (D. Smith, The Same Sky Over All (London, 1948)*, p.116).

As to quite how ‘fresh’ hand-picked peas were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is debatable. It wasn’t until freezing was first developed in the 1920s that the possibility of something akin to freshly picked peas became available to most consumers. However, without the advent of retailers with frozen sections and domestic home freezers, frozen peas eaten widely would have to wait until well into the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime, and as with most vegetables, peas would have probably been well boiled!

If you wanted to eat peas fresh from the garden then, as indicated above, you had to grow them, and it is the same today. The joy of podding peas is one of the highlights of summer – so much so that sometimes more end up being eaten before they even make it to the cook! There are lots of varieties to choose from, not least the well known and locally raised Kelvedon Wonder which harks back to the 1920s. An older variety is Ne Plus Ultra from the early nineteenth century. Perhaps you know it from the BBC television series The Victorian Kitchen Garden (1987)* when Harry Dodson and Peter Thoday resurrected the variety from some very old seed. It was alleged to reach 7 foot in height, which is probably why it waned in popularity – modern varieties are generally all dwarfing which is an advantage to growers.

There used to be many more pea varieties grown in the past, partly because there would have been regional varieties that were only available locally, but also because of the proliferation of seed companies – something which, as with many businesses, has reduced over the last 50 years or so. If we take Chelmsford based Cramphorns, they listed 15 varieties of just the second early and maincrop varieties, including Ne Plus Ultra, in their 1898 catalogue. Along with the early sorts of peas, growing a lot of different varieties meant that if one failed there were others to come along and, in a pre-refrigeration era, it extended the length of the season in which to enjoy fresh peas.

The ornate cover from Cramphorn’s 1890 catalogue (ERO A10506 Box 7)

‘New Plus Ultra – one of the best; pods large and well-filled with dark green peas. Peas of delicious flavour – Height 6ft’. (From Cramphorn Ltd’s Catalogue of Vegetable and Flower Seeds (Chelmsford, 1898), (ERO A10506 Box 7) .

So as it is the time of year to start sowing peas I thought it might be fun to have a go at growing some Ne Plus Ultra peas – just as past gardeners in Essex would have done. I have also so challenged some colleagues and friends of the ERO to grow some to see if any of us can get them to 7 foot – all for a bit of fun I hasten to add. I’ll grow some Kelvedon Wonder as well by comparison and, weather and pests being kind, I’ll update you on how we’re all getting along as well as ruminating on other points of gardening that ‘crop’ up over the summer. For the moment though, keep your fingers crossed for a spell of dry weather as I’ll need to get on in the garden to prepare the soil.

A tray of Ne Plus Ultra peas grown by Neil for the ‘competition’, just before potting on.

*If you don’t know the work of David Smith then his books are well worth a read. There are copies of them in the ERO Library. If you haven’t seen The Victorian Kitchen Garden then it is available on DVD.

Essex Archives Online digital images: Parish Registers – what will you find?

While the Essex Record Office might be closed to physical researchers it is still open for remote users via our Essex Archives Online (EAO) service that contains over three-quarters of a million digital images of parish registers, wills and some other records. This service has been up and running since 2011 and in that time researchers from across the globe have made use of the service. And it is a dynamic service as new images are added as and when relevant documents have been deposited and digitized.

In this Blog post EAO user Ian Beckwith has kindly shared some of his research that he has undertaken whilst using our parish register digital images. Ian is a seasoned user of the service and has been using it for several years but if you are new to research and are thinking of possibly taking out a subscription then it is worth considering the wonderful breadth of what is available. So, to begin with Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen discusses how to get started.

During the 20 years that I have worked at ERO I have been advising researchers on how to start making use of the digital images that are on EAO and here are some of my tips.

Firstly, I would strongly recommend that before you take out a subscription you familiarize yourself with the EAO catalogue. It is completely free to search the catalogue as much as you wish. There are several ‘User Guides’ which are located at the bottom of the home page (https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/) so scroll down and have a read of these.

The cover of the Gt Burstead Parish Register – D/P 139/1/0

Secondly, have a go at searching the catalogue by trying out a simple search – try typing in the wide white text box (which contains ‘search the archive’) the name of the parish you are interested in and ‘church register’ and click ‘Search’. This will bring up instances of all sorts of registers, not just church, or parish, registers, for a certain place. Some of these won’t have digitized images associated with them so this is why it is essential to check that what you want to look at has digital images before taking out a subscription. It will, however, give you an idea of the range of documents that the ERO looks after. All the Church of England parish registers deposited in the ERO, except for a few of the most recent ones, have been digitized, so you should find that they all have the a picture frame icon at the end of their entry in the search results.

By clicking on the ‘Reference’ or ‘Description’ you will be taken to the full catalogue entry for a document which might well give you further information. You might find that it isn’t really what you’re looking for. But if it is, remember to check for the photo frame icon to find out whether there is a digital image associated with the document .

A quick way to search for parish registers in particular is to look at the ‘Parish Register’ section of EAO (top right-hand corner). Here you will be able to refine your search to the parish you are interested in. If what you are looking for isn’t there (or if it is there but doesn’t have ‘Digital images’ next to it) then don’t take out a subscription. It is worth remembering that not every parish will have records going back to 1538 so do check the catalogue before subscribing to avoid disappointment.

Every parish has its own unique number assigned to it. Great Burstead, for example, is D/P 139 and registers of baptisms, marriages and burials come under D/P 139/1. The first register, which covers 1559 to 1654, is then catalogued as D/P 139/1/0. Take time to familiarize yourself with the catalogue before taking out a subscription.

And do bear in mind that even if a parish register survives then early registers have baptisms, marriages and burial scattered throughout them so you will probably need to go hunting through the register for the entry that might be there – or might not . In the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian period it was very much down to the individual incumbent, or his deputy, as to how much effort was put into keeping the registers up to date. Not every vicar, rector or church clerk was as assiduous a record keeper as we might have liked him to have been. Fortunately, if you have a subscription to Ancestry, we have worked together with them to create a name index, which can take a lot of the leg work out your research. You can even buy digital images of what you find directly from Ancestry.

Handwriting can also be difficult to read, although some incumbents like Rev Thomas Cox in Broomfield and the famous Essex historian Rev Philip Morant, have beautifully clear handwriting. Sometimes the writing is faint or illegible and the register itself might be damaged. Remember these were working documents that have spent several centuries in damp and cold churches before being deposited at ERO.

One last thing, if you have identified that there are parish registers that you want to look though that have digital images associated with them, and you take out a subscription, then make sure that you take down the reference of what you have looked at and what you have found as you work your way through them. This will save time in the long-term and if you share your research with others you can tell others in what document you found the information.

I hope I haven’t put you off after all that but I do have one last warning: historical research can be addictive. You might start out looking for one thing but get distracted by something else. After 20 years of working at ERO I know there’s always another new topic of interest just lurking over the page!

Neil Wiffen – Archive Assistant.

If you require any assistance, having taken out a subscription, then you can contact the Duty Archivist at ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk. While the Record Office is shut, emails are being monitored remotely during the present crisis. Please bear with us though.


Parish Registers – Researching Remotely

I, like many others of my age and with underlying health conditions, am in self-isolation.  But this doesn’t mean that I can’t get on with research.  Thanks to the digital age there’s so much available on-line for the local historian to work on, e.g. Essex parish registers, which, thanks to the wonders of the ERO, are at my finger-tips on my laptop.  There’s a subscription to pay, but once you’re registered., you can log-in, click on ‘Parish Registers’ in the top bar, scroll down the page until you find ‘Choose a letter’, then ‘Choose a parish’ and finally ‘Choose a church’.  Up will come a table, telling you when your chosen registers begin, click on ‘View’ in the right hand column, and the register will appear.  You need to know that in the case of the earliest registers, the baptism, marriage and burial entries were written up in one book, sometimes in different sections of the book, sometimes together as they occurred through the year.  Later registers record baptisms, marriages and burials in dedicated volumes.  When the image of your selected register appears, click on the rubric ‘To enhance this image… ’ and the image will expand to fill the screen.  Away you go!

D/P 139/1/0

In September 1538, King Henry VIII’s Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, issued an injunction to every parish priest in England requiring him to keep a record of all baptisms, marriages, and burials in his parish.  In Essex at least seventy-five parishes have registers beginning in about 1538.  Most of these survivals are copies made in the reign of Elizabeth I, either by the incumbent or the parish clerk, from the old book, which was then apparently discarded.[i]   Many other registers begin in the reign of Elizabeth I.  Apart from the marriages, baptisms and burials that are the building blocks of family reconstitution, what else can we learn from scrutinising parish registers?

In rural Essex as elsewhere in the sixteenth century it was taken as a given that God existed.  No one’s head was bothered by whether the earth was the centre of the universe (it obviously was) or whether God was in his heaven up above while hell was down below (they undoubtedly were).[ii]  The only issue was whether God was Protestant or Catholic.  The wrong choice could cost you your life in this world and your salvation in the next.   When it came to making this choice, parishioners in England had been on something of a roller-coaster ride since 1538.   Four years before Cromwell issued his injunction introducing parish registers the Pope’s authority over the English Church had been abolished and the King had made himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.  Between 1536 and 1541 the Dissolution of the Monasteries had seen the closure of over 900 monastic foundations, the dispersal of the monks and nuns who occupied them, and the sale of their vast landed estates.  Yet the parish registers that survive from this period show that, while these upheavals were taking place, baptisms, marriages and burials carried on as normal.  The services of the Church continued to be said in Latin, in the form in which they had been since time immemorial.  It was not until 1549, two years after the death of Henry VIII, that the mass was first said in English.  Four years later the Protestant Edward VI was succeeded by his half-sister the Catholic Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, and during the next five years England returned to obedience to Rome, the services in the parish churches reverted to Latin, the traditional rites and ceremonies were restored, and images and treasures that had been hidden were brought out again, only for all this to be reversed in 1558 when Elizabeth I came to the throne: again the Pope’s authority over the English Church was abolished and the Queen was proclaimed Supreme Governor of the Church.[iii]   On May 8th 1559 the Act of Uniformity, authorising the use of the new Book of Common Prayer, received the Royal approval.  The new prayer book, which replaced all other service books, came into use on 24th June 1559.

Occasionally, however, in the midst of the routine recording of rites of passage, the registers provide glimpses of the impact of these changes at parish level.  In July 1599 the Great Burstead register recorded that

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 mary was buryed the 10 day 1599 so she liued a widow after his death
xlviij yeres & fro[m] the 22 of may to the 10 july & made a good end like a
good Christian woman in gods name.[iv]

D/P 139/1/0

Thomas Watts was one of almost eighty Essex men and women who were burned at the stake in the reign of Mary Tudor for refusing to recant their Protestant beliefs.[v]  A full account of Thomas Watts’ martyrdom is provided in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, more correctly titled Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563 and greatly expanded in 1570.[vi]    Described as a linen draper of Billericay, then part of the parish of Great Burstead, Thomas Watts had, according to Foxe ‘daily expected to be taken by God’s adversaries’.  Accordingly he had assigned his property to his wife and children and donated his stock of cloth to the poor.  He was arrested on April 26th 1555 and brought before Lord Rich at Chelmsford, accused of not attending church, i.e. hearing mass.   Interrogated by Sir Anthony Browne, who, with Rich, had been appointed to purge Essex of heretics, as to why he had embraced his heretical views, Watts replied that

You taught me and no one more than you.  For, in King Edward’s days
in open sessions you said the mass was abominable trumpery, earnestly
exhorting that none should believe therein, but that our belief should be
only in Christ.[vii]

It seems that Watts had also spoken treasonable words against the Queen’s husband, King Philip.[viii]  Unable to persuade Thomas Watts to recant, he was sent to Bishop Bonner, ‘the bloody bishop,  …’.[ix] Essex was then within the diocese of London and Edmund Bonner was its bishop, first under Henry VIII and again under Mary.  He remained staunchly Catholic during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth.  Although usually depicted as sadistic and merciless, it is worth noting that even Foxe acknowledges that Bonner made several attempts to persuade Watts (and others) to recant, ‘gave him several hearings, and, as usual, many arguments with much entreaty, … but his preaching availed not, and he resorted to his last revenge – that of condemnation’.  ‘I am weary to live in such idolatry as you would have me live in’, Watts is alleged to have said, and signed the confession of heresy.  Faced by his refusal, Bishop Bonner had little choice but to consign Thomas Watts to the secular arm, the Church not being allowed to take life, to suffer the penalty prescribed by the Statute De Heretico Comburando (Concerning the Burning of Heretics) of 1401, originally intended to deal with Lollards.[x]

Returned from the Bishop of London’s prison to Chelmsford, Thomas Watts was lodged at ‘Mr Scott’s, an inn in Chelmsford where were Mr Haukes and the rest that came down to their burning, who all prayed together’.  Watts then withdrew to pray by himself, after which he met his wife and children for the last time, exhorting them to have no regrets but to glory in the sacrifice he was making for the sake of Jesus.  So powerful were his words that, it is said, two of his children offered to go to the stake with him.  At the stake, after he had kissed it, he called out to Lord Rich, who was supervising the execution: “beware, for you do against your own conscience herein, and without you repent, the Lord will revenge it”. ‘Thus did this good martyr offer his body to the fire, in defence of the true gospel of the Saviour’.[xi]

It seems unlikely that Rich, a man whose name is a byword for cruelty, sadism, dishonesty, ruthlessness and treachery, possessed a conscience.  Born about 1496, Richard Rich was a lawyer who entered the service of Thomas 1st Baron Audley of Walden,, who assisted Rich to become MP for Colchester.[xii]  In 1533 Rich was knighted and became Solicitor General.  In this capacity, he used selective quotations from a private conversation with Thomas More in the Tower in evidence at More’s trial.  In 1536 he was appointed Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, charged with the disposal of former monastic estates, a position that he used to enrich himself.  In 1546 he personally tortured the Lincolnshire Protestant martyr, Ann Askew, in the Tower. During the reign of Edward VI, as Lord Chancellor, however, he presented himself as a reformer, taking part in the trials of Bishops Gardiner and Bonner. Yet in Mary’s reign he helped restore the old religion, actively persecuting those like Thomas Watts of Billericay who refused to conform. Under Elizabeth he sat on a Commission to enquire into grants made during the previous reign and was called upon to advise on the Queen’s marriage. Richard Rich died on 11th of June 1558 at Rochford and was buried at Felsted on the 8th of July.  The entry in the Felsted register gives only the bare facts. For those at Felstead who had dealings with him, Richard Rich, first baron Rich, must have been terrifying.[xiii]

In Elizabeth’s reign, others submitted to the Religious Settlement but made their resistance covertly, like the parson of Great Baddow who recorded the burial of Joan Smythe on May 1st 1572 ‘being the purificacion even of o[ur] lady St Mary’ (i.e. the evening preceding the feastday).

Ian Beckwith


[i] It is not necessarily clear by whom the registers were kept.  Although the entries for the preceding week were supposed to be read to the congregation at the principal service on Sunday, there are indications that some were written up at the year’s end (24th March), possibly from notes on slips of paper.  The penmanship of the entries remains generally of a very high standard until the last decade of the sixteenth century, when it often becomes slapdash and much less legible. 

[ii] The realisation that the world was not flat, as the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan and Drake demonstrated, did not shake the belief in this three-decker image of the universe.  

[iii] The change from Supreme Head as Henry VIII was designated, to Supreme Governor, it has been claimed, reflects the opinion that a woman could not be ‘Head’ of the Church.  However, when Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the title ‘Governor’ was retained and continued to be used by every subsequent monarch, male and female.     

[iv] ERO, D/P 139/1/0, Image 49. However, the length of her widowhood seems to have been miscalculated.

[v] J E Oxley, The Reformation in Essex to the Death of Mary, Manchester University Press, 1965, pp.210-237.  Coincidentally, my copy was withdrawn from Billericay Public Library in about 2013.

[vi] I have drawn upon an edition of 1860, published in Philadelphia.  The account of Thomas Watts’ martyrdom is on p.367. The Book of Martyrs has been blamed for inciting anti-Catholic sentiment in England.

[vii] Foxe, p.367

[viii] Mary had married Philip on 25th July 1554

[ix] Foxe, p.367

[x] Several Essex Lollards were burned at the stake in Henry VIII’s reign.  The purpose of burning was to act not just as a deterrent but also as a purgative, to rid the realm of disease.  See David Nicholls, The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation, Past & Present, Vol 121, Issue 1, November 1988, pp 49-73.

[xi] Foxe p.367. 

[xii] Thomas Audley (1488-1544), formerly MP for Colchester, a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household, Speaker of the Commons during the Reformation Parliament and Lord Chancellor of England from 1533-1544

[xiii] Born about 1496, Richard Rich was a lawyer who entered the service of Thomas Audley, who assisted him to become MP for Colchester.  In 1533 Rich was knighted and became Solicitor General.  In this capacity, he used selective quotations from a private conversation with Thomas More in the Tower in evidence at More’s trial.  In 1536 he was appointed Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, charged with the disposal of former monastic estates, a position that he used to enrich himself.  In 1546 he personally tortured the Lincolnshire Protestant martyr, Ann Askew, in the Tower. During the reign of Edward VI, as Lord Chancellor, however, he appeared as a reformer, taking part in the trials of Bishops Gardiner and Bonner, yet in Mary’s reign he helped restore the old religion, actively persecuting those who refused to conform. Under Elizabeth he sat on a Commission to enquire into grants made during the previous reign and was called upon to advise on the Queen’s marriage.

Back to the Future: The impact of science across Essex – Gas Manufacture and Water Purification

In our last blog post we introduced you to Dr David Crease, one of the speakers for our day long science conference on March 7th. Next up we would like to introduce you to Peter Wynn, who will be giving two talks: one about gas manufacture and one about water purification.

A view from ERO of the Gas Holders, photo courtesy of Walter Roberts

Peter is a retired senior lecturer of civil engineering at Anglia Ruskin University and a fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. He has long held an interest in gas manufacture in Essex, having discovered papers from 1947 relating to issues with the Chelmsford gas holder’s foundations.

Though the dangers of unsanitary water supply were proved by Dr John Snow in 1854, his findings were not widely believed until after his death when the bacteria causing cholera was isolated in the 1880s.

In 1895, when John Clough Thresh became the Medical Officer of Health for Essex, the purification of water for human consumption was still very much a challenge. Well beyond his retirement, Thresh continued to act as a consultant for Essex County Council until his death in 1932. His work to improve the water supply for his adoptive county was considered pioneering by both his peers and by more recent researchers alike. His influence extended well beyond Essex.

Commercial supply of gas in the UK began in the early 19th century, originally by way of small gas plants installed in the premises where the gas was to be used. Following the formation of the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company in London in 1812, pioneers of public gas supply, many other companies were founded; including in Chelmsford in 1819.

Photo of coke lorries from the Spalding Collection

If we’ve managed to pique your interest, be sure to book your place at the conference now: http://www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk/events/back-to-the-future-the-impact-of-science-across-essex/

If you still aren’t quite convinced, keep an eye on our blog for more speaker introductions to entice you in!

Part of:

An Essex Quaker in the Caribbean 1713-14

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

This time we are looking at the most exotic leg of John Farmer’s first American journey when he toured the islands of the Caribbean.

In the course of nearly two years Farmer had travelled through Pennsylvania, the Jerseys, to New York, Nantucket Island, Long Island, Boston, Rhode Island, and Virginia, holding meetings wherever and whenever he could, bringing his Quaker Testimony and gathering Certificates of Unity from the various Friends’ Meetings he visited along the way.

Certificates were important documents as Quakers travelled only with the agreement of their fellow Friends, and their home meeting would issue a Certificate confirming their unity with the testimony that individual gave, and in return meetings who received that testimony would give a certificate confirming their satisfaction. 

An example here is from Thaxted, held here at the Essex Record Office, confirming their approval for John Farmer to travel in 1707, and their unity with him and his testimony. Note it is signed by his wife Mary Farmer as well as a number of other Quakers.[i]

Essex Record Office A13685 Box 47 Certificate for J Farmer to travel 29.3rd mo. 1707 (29th May 1707)

Arriving in Philadelphia at the end of October 1713 John Farmer reviewed his progress so far:

“I cast up my account of the miles I had traveled in North America & found it to bee 5607 miles. Friends of Phyladelpha & Samuel Harrison merchant a friend of London beeing there & having there a ship bound to Barbados were very kinde to mee & John Oxly (a minister of Phyladelpha) who went with mee: som in laying in Provishon for us & Samuel Harrison in giving us our passage to Barbados. Wee went on board the latter end of the 9th month 1713 [November 1713] [ii].

Wee had a pritty good voyage & had som meetings on board in our passage to Barbados where wee arrived the 5th of the 11th month 1713’ [5th January 1713/14].” [iii]

Quakers had been appearing in the Caribbean since the early 1650s, some coming as transported slaves from Britain, punished for being Quakers but others seeking the religious and career freedoms denied in their home countries.  In Britain religious dissenters were denied the option of going to university or taking up the professions, so many became businessmen, and the Caribbean colonies offered opportunities for trade, running large plantations and owning ships, as well as a greater freedom of religious expression than in Britain in the second half of the 17th Century.[iv]    

 The trade in cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco required huge numbers of slave workers, many owned by Quaker families. There was a divided spirit within Quakers about the trade in human beings, and the owning of slaves.  As early as 1671 the founder of Quakerism George Fox had suggested slaves should be considered indentured servants and liberated after a given period of time, perhaps 30 years, and that they should be educated in Quaker religious beliefs[v].  The difficulty this caused was that Quakers believed all men to be born equal, and therefore by bringing their slaves into the Quaker brotherhood it meant they should be considered of one blood with their white masters. This dilemma meant that there was disquiet for the next 100 years in Quaker communities as they wrestled with the issue of whether or not they should keep and trade in slaves. 

Quakers in the Colonies[vi]

Despite travelling through the slave owning states in America and the Caribbean Islands John Farmer passed no comment on the slavery situation in his 1711-14 Journal.  For now he was silent on the matter.  Almost inevitably, John Farmer eventually waded into this highly controversial dispute, with catastrophic results, but that is a story for another day.

John Farmer made a four-month tour of the Caribbean islands of Nevis, St Kitts (which he called Christopher’s Island as Quakers did not recognise saints), Anguilla and Antigua holding several meetings.

In Barbados he held a large meeting in ‘Brigtoun’ (Bridgetown) where he remarked that the public were very civil.  In Anguilla he wrote disapprovingly that the Quaker congregation had “fell away into drunkenness and other sins which so discouraged the rest that of late they kept no meeting.” [vii]

Antigua was more successful, and he held 26 meetings and stayed five weeks bearing “Testimony for God against the Divell and his rending, dividing works on this island.’  But on one occasion in Parham, Antigua, Farmer again fell afoul of the local priest who “Preached against Friends [and] some of his hearers threatened to do me a mischief if I came there away and had another meeting.” [viii]

Map of St Kitts 1729

 In Charlestown on Nevis, Farmer again endured the tradition of protest by charivari (protest by rough music) something which had also happened in Ireland on a previous journey[ix], but this time with fiddles rather than Irish bagpipes and with somewhat darker consequences. John Farmer encountered a troublesome Bristol sea captain who decided to have fun at the intrepid Quaker’s expense, and paired up with an innkeeper to disrupt Farmer’s meetings by arranging for loud and continuous fiddle playing to drown out his preaching.  Farmer mused in his journal on the fact that the sea captain died a few days later of a “fevor & disorder” reflecting that God’s judgement may have come down upon the disturber of his meeting, reporting with some satisfaction that “at his buriell the Church of England preacher spake against people making a mock & game of religion”.[x]

Farmer wrote in his journal that while in Barbados he received instruction from God to go home to England for a short time before going back to America.  Perhaps this was a clue to the next phase of his life.  He took ship for England on the Boneta of London, sailing from Antigua 24th May 1714 and he landed safely back in London where his wife and daughters were waiting for him.  They then travelled on to Holland and also visited friends and family in Somerset and the south west before arriving home in Saffron Walden on 28th November 1714.

This is where the John Farmer journal finishes, but his story went on for another 10 years.  A story of passionate anti-slavery campaigning that cost John Farmer very dear. 

And that will be the story to be told in my next post about John Farmer’s extraordinary life.



[i] Essex Record Office A13685 Box 47 Certificate for J Farmer to travel 29.3rd mo. 1707 (29th May 1707)

[ii] A note on the dating processes used prior to 1751: Years were counted from New Year’s Day being on March 25th, so for example 24th of March was in 1710 and March 25th was in 1711.  In addition Quakers provided an extra difficulty as they refused to recognise the common names for days of the week, or months as they were associated with pagan deities or Roman emperors.  So a Quaker would write a date as 1:2mo 1710 which was actually the 1st April 1710 as March was counted as the first month.  In 1751 this all changed when the British government decreed the Gregorian form of calendar was to be adopted and the new year would be counted from 1st January 1752. See my previous post An Essex Quaker Goes Out into the World.

[iii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p57

[iv][iv] For more information relating Quakers and the Slave trade see

Drake, T.E., Quakers & Slavery in America, Oxford University Press, London 1950

Rediker, M. The Fearless Benjamin Lay, 2017, Verso, London

Soderlund, J.R, Quakers & Slavery, A Divided Spirit, Princeton, 1985

[v] Drake, T.E., Quakers & Slavery in America, Oxford University Press, London 1950 pp. 6-9

[vi] Quakers in the Colonies: www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/268

[vii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p57

[viii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p57

[ix] See previous post An Essex Quaker in Ireland, to understand more about protest by music.

[x] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p58