Christopher Parkinson, researcher for the CVMA, project introduces us to project and some of the important resources held at the Essex Record Office.
Essex is fortunate that during the 17th and 18th centuries two antiquaries wrote manuscripts which, amongst other things, described any heraldry then present in parish churches. Richard Symonds (1617-1660), an English Royalist, produced three volumes of genealogical collections which included descriptions of heraldry in different mediums to be seen in some Essex churches. While these three volumes are now with the Royal College of Arms in London, volumes 1 (covering the Hundreds of Witham, Thurstable, Winstree, Lexden and Tendring) and volume 2 (covering the Hundreds of Clavering, Uttlesford, Freshwell, Dunmow and Hinckford) are available on microfilm at the Essex Records Office (T/B 73). William Holman (1669-1730) was a congregational minister at Stepney, Middlesex before being transferred to Halstead. He visited every town and village in Essex in order to compile a history of Essex. His manuscript is now held by the Essex Records Office in just over 500 parts (T/P 195/-/-).
My particular interest in these documents is for research in stained glass heraldry that is now lost from the county. This will be included in an appendix for a forthcoming Catalogue of the Medieval Stained Glass of Essex to be published for the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, CVMA. Although the term Medii Aevi implies the ‘middle ages’, my co-author Dr Penny Hebgin-Barnes and myself will include glass up to 1800 in the catalogue within the old (pre-Greater London) county boundary. Surviving medieval including heraldic stained glass can bee seen on the CVMA website in the picture archive section;
click on the dedication of the church and the stained glass from all periods will be displayed. While there are about 162 pre-1800 stained glass shields of arms currently surviving within the county, the Symonds and Holman manuscripts show that there was a substantially larger number of such shields in churches and secular buildings during the first half of the 18th century. Obviously their loss cannot be due to the actions of iconoclasts, but presumably caused by general decay and later ‘restorations’ where such damaged glass was removed.
Frequently over the last several months commentators have compared living through the COVID-19 pandemic to life on the Home Front in the Second World War. Is that a valid comparison? What was it really like to live through that major event? Thankfully, there are still some people who remember those years and can share their stories with us.
Southend Achievement Through Football (ATF) is an organisation dedicated to changing lives through football, especially the lives of young people at risk of exclusion. By participation in sports and other recreational activities, young people develop skills and capacities to mature into individuals and members of society. But they do not just stop at sport. ATF also helps young people develop their sense of self by finding out about their heritage.
Building on the successful Heroes and Villains project, which allowed young people to explore the stories of individuals from Southend’s past, further funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has allowed Southend ATF to encourage young people to hear the stories of residents in local sheltered accommodation. After training provided by ERO, Southend ATF interviewed 18 people specifically about their memories of the Second World War.
The participants ranged in age, from those who were still children in the 1940s, to those who were old enough to fight or serve the war effort in some other way. Thus the collection contains multiple perspectives, with different levels of understanding about current events, and different levels of impact experienced. Many of the participants grew up in London and were therefore prey to the Blitz and the stresses and strains that caused. Some were evacuated, some stayed at home. Some had family members who served in the military, some lost loved ones either at home or abroad, and some came through the ordeal relatively unscathed. Therefore there is no one common experience of what living through the War was like: it depended on personal circumstances.
For instance, the extent to which people’s lives were disrupted by air raids depended on where they were living. Robbie spent much of the War as a Land Army girl, posted to a farm outside Witham to help keep the country’s agriculture growing and fill the gaps of men sent overseas to fight.
While all the rural residents had air raid shelters, she found them unnecessary overkill in those quieter areas.
‘We [the Land Army girls] never used it, only the country people used it – they thought they were in the thick of the war, you know, and nothing ever happened.’
The difference between life in London and life outside hit home on a day trip she took to the capital early in the War, when she first saw the scale of the devastation caused by intense enemy bombing.
This heavy fire seriously affected Johnnie, who was living near the docks in East London, with repercussions lasting into his adulthood, anxieties that resurrect during fire alarms. He recalled 68 nights of constant bombing in 1940. The mental and emotional strains could be as grave as physical injuries.
‘Each night… you just wondered, is this gonna be your last night? And you never knew…. You never get over what you went through, even though all those years ago…. In fact I still have, now and again, flashbacks as to, you know, what was going on.’
The experience of evacuation varied widely too. Some people used family connections to send their children to places of safety, and these generally resulted in happier experiences. For example, Norman stayed with his grandmother in South Wales, and found life in that peaceful village so idyllic that he initially refused to return to London when his father came to collect him.
Suddenly being sent to live with strangers was a very different matter. Even for those who stayed with their siblings, it was difficult: getting used to the rural way of life, feeling conscious of imposing on the family’s space and resources, and experiencing animosity from local children. But sometimes even being evacuated with strangers could turn into a happy occasion. Joan enjoyed her experiences living on the edges of the Longleat Estate so much that she frequently returned to the area for holidays in adulthood. As she was only six or seven years old when she was sent away, she came to see her evacuee family as her adopted parents, and didn’t even recognise her mother when she finally returned to her birth family five years later. ‘Home’ was a word of shifting meanings, and it could be difficult to adjust.
However, there are common trends evident among the interviews. While the impact of rationing varied from family to family, largely dependant on how much families could grow for themselves, all participants recalled the need to ‘make do and mend’ to some extent. There was no waste, and parents had to be resourceful to acquire sufficient food and clothing for their families. While treats were limited, this made them more treasured, as some interviewees presented very vivid, detailed memories of eating their weekly sweets ration.
Another common theme is that children still found ways to play. Sometimes their normal play spaces were converted to fields of war, such as the parts of the beaches around Southend, which were fenced off both due to defences against potential invaders and to protect residents from possible mines dropped by enemy aircraft. Instead, children turned scenes of devastation into playgrounds, exploring bomb sites and collecting shrapnel to trade like marbles or Top Trumps cards. The interviewees’ experiences prove that even in the midst of great upheaval, children have a knack for play, a facet of their lives so important that the right to play is one of the rights for all children enshrined in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Finally, most participants commented on the sense of relief when celebrating VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, on 8 May 1945.
Although the War was not yet over, with fighting continuing against Japan until August, VE Day marked the start of the end: no more fear of bombs, no more disrupted nights of dashing into air raid shelters. But life did not return to normality straight away. Rationing continued into the 1950s. Servicemen returned home only gradually – Fred, who served in the Army, describes long periods of time spent in Germany and Italy after VE Day, just waiting to be sent home. He was not demobilised until 1947. And the war changed people irreversibly, meaning life could never again be the same.
Four of the interviews took place after lockdown (recorded outside, observing safe distances). These presented an opportunity to ask for comparisons directly from survivors of the Second World War, seeking reflection on how that ordeal compared to living through the COVID-19 pandemic. We will let their observations stand for themselves, without further comment or interpretation:
Many thanks go to the participants who shared their remarkable stories for future generations to learn from, and to Southend ATF for taking the time to record these precious, unique stories and then share them with ERO for others to listen and enjoy.
You can listen to themed compilations of clips from all the interviews on our SoundCloud channel.
Dr Alina Congreve introduces this exciting new network of Archives and Museums across the country. With Essex being the home to three major new towns, all falling into different stages of the movement (Harlow, Basildon and South Woodham Ferrers), it promises to be of particular relevance to this county.
Essex Record Office are excited to be the lead partner for a new national network for post-war new towns. This new network brings together the archives and museums that hold significant collections of post-war new town material. It involves 19 archives and museums from across England. The purpose of the network is to share knowledge between members about activities relating to new town archives. This includes sharing good practice in cataloguing; engaging with families and young people; working with local history and heritage societies; and making links with researchers and universities. The members of the new network are at very different stages of engagement with their new town collections, and there is significant potential for peer learning. Secondly, the network provides time and space to develop larger scale collaborative funding bids. The network is open to new members in England and we welcome interest from from museums, local history centres and academics researching new towns.
New towns mark an
important turning point in British history and are a unique contribution to
urban development. British new towns have relevance today for new towns
being rapidly developed in Asia, Africa, South America and ‘new’ new towns
being planned here in Britain. Many British new towns are facing a period of
rapid change, with the developments of the post-war period being replaced with
little thought given to the original intentions in their design, or architectural
significance of the buildings that are removed. These post-war new towns
are paradoxically popular with their long-term residents while having a poor
external perception. Greater engagement with new town archives can help
make connections between long-term New Town residents and recent arrivals,
helping to build community and aid social integration. The archive
collection of some new towns have drawn the attention of international scholars
and generated books, journal articles and symposia. Others have had
relatively little attention, in part due to the lack of cataloguing and also a
low profile of the collections. A better understanding of our post-war
new towns can be valuable in positively shaping their future, and this
understanding can be achieved through greater access to and engagement with
University of Essex MA student Grace Benham reflects on her placement spent working on a collection of oral history interviews tracing the history of women’s refuges in Essex. You can read her previous blog posts here.
Uncovering the hidden history of Women’s Refuges in Essex has been as rewarding as it has been difficult. The struggle of the women, and men, who fought to recognise the importance of protecting women from abusive histories, though tragic in its need, is incredibly inspiring.
In my academic history background, I have rarely delved into feminist history, and especially British feminist history, which surprises most as I have also been an outspoken advocate for women. This choice is rooted in two fundamental reasons: firstly, it is difficult to see the hatred and vile attitudes towards women that existed not so long ago which the matriarchs of my family would have grown up with, and it is hard to reconcile that with the privileges we hold today. But, more than this, I had never seen myself as a very ‘good’ feminist; in my younger years I failed to recognise nuance and my own privileges. But an important lesson from those who have dedicated decades of their lives for others is that, despite differences, unity for the common good is absolutely more important.
this collection was daunting to say the least. My own personal
experience with abuse in a romantic relationship which had motivated
the selection of this collection also made going through this
material hard. However, the hidden histories of Women’s Refuges
also provides a wealth of hope in the selfless willingness to help
those who need it and to fight for everything they’ve got.
The oral history collection, ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’, comprises stories from Colchester, Chelmsford, Ipswich, Grays, and Basildon and the women who worked, lived, and fought for refuges from domestic abuse (the interviews pertaining to London were beyond the remit of this placement). All stories which, although containing some collaboration and inspiration, tell of formidable and dedicated women who, born from the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, took it upon themselves to fight for Women’s Refuges in a time when domestic abuse was not taken seriously at all, let alone seriously enough.
For an example of such strength and sacrifice, one should only look to Moyna Barnham MBE, who in her interview tells of how she would go alone in the middle of the night to collect ‘battered women’, having to go up against the abusers, such a dangerous role that one night her husband even followed her to ensure her safety. Such bravery is to of course be commended, but it is also unfortunate that the police and local welfare workers were not there for these women, and it was up to independent volunteers to provide such a service.
I also believe that such a study has come at an unfortunately poignant time as the tragic rise of people, particularly women, seeking help with domestic abuse during the lockdown period of COVID-19 paints a painful picture of the persistence of the problem. It is also important in such discourse to recognise nuance. In Alison Inman’s interview, a key figure at both Basildon and Colchester Refuges, she describes how society expects a ‘perfect victim’ of domestic abuse, i.e. an innocent and naïve woman. However the reality is that domestic abuse occurs in every gender, every sexuality, every class, and every age; it is a universal problem. I feel that the current COVID-19 domestic abuse discourse highlights this problem and its nuances. A recent BBC Panorama investigation revealed not only the scale:
‘Panorama has found in the first seven weeks of UK lockdown someone called police for help about domestic abuse every 30 seconds – that’s both female and male victims.’
But this investigation also showed a lacklustre government response that should not belong to a society that has, apparently, been acknowledging this problem since the 1970s.
‘It took the Westminster government 19 days after imposing restrictions to announce a social media campaign to encourage people to report domestic abuse, as well as an extra £2m for domestic abuse helplines.’
BBC PANORAMA, 17 AUGUST 2020
Of course the lockdown was an unprecedented event that, hopefully, exists in isolation, but surely such a demonstration of the terror in some people’s homes shows in undeniable terms that domestic abuse and violence remain problems, and the services and education addressing the problem are underfunded and underrepresented. Therefore, what we can glean from this oral history collection is an invaluable educational resource on how to combat domestic abuse, and to be inspired by those who came before us.
This truly has been a transformative experience, both personally and as a historian, and I would like to extend my warmest thanks to the Friends of Historic Essex for their funding of the project.
‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Record Office (Acc. SA853)
Please Note: This blog post contains potentially upsetting material that may not be suitable for all.
Our University of Essex placement student Grace Benham reviews some themes emerging from her work on the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ oral history project about the founding of women’s refuges in Essex and London. Read her first blog post here.
In September 1976, after years of domestic abuse, Maurice Wells shot his wife Suzanne dead and held his daughter hostage in the ensuing siege of his home in Colchester. In February 1977 he was sentenced to manslaughter and served a ten-year sentence. Chris Graves, a solicitor who aided Colchester Refuge in its inception, credits the outraged reaction to such a short sentence to his own involvement, and the refuge movement as a whole.
Colchester Refuge had been in the works previous to this case. Many of the interviewees recorded for the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ project (Acc. SA853) explained how the refuge was born out of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, which had come over from America and gained its own life in Britain. However, the Wells case, a case which myself and everyone else I have discussed this with have never heard of, highlights an important theme of both the past and the present, the privatisation of domestic violence. According to the Daily Gazette, once out of prison Wells went on to commit crimes against children and told his victims that if they reported him, he could kill them like he killed his wife.
This story is one of many featured on the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ website and one of many that are unheard amongst the general public. Domestic violence is, generally, an inherently private crime as it occurs within private spheres, but the issue goes beyond just this. The prevalence of domestic violence, which only became properly acknowledged in the 1970s following the Women’s Liberation movement, created uncomfortable questions, shame and denial. It could be easy to dismiss domestic violence because it occurred ‘behind closed doors’. Alison Inman recalls a story in which a local authority in Essex refused to set up a refuge because ‘they didn’t have domestic violence within their borough’, which led to an increase in women from that area entering neighbouring refuges.
Moreover, the women who needed refuges and would go on to become residents typically were those of lower classes due to the fact that those with available resources would have other options to avoid going into a refuge. This builds a stereotype of a certain type of woman who suffered domestic violence, even though this is a problem that affects all classes, all races, all genders, all sexualities. Such women could be demonised for their choices as they had little to no one defending them. These women could also be silenced through the normalisation of violence in working class marriages. Normalisation occurred through popular culture, such as the Andy Capp comics that featured in the Daily Mirror from 1957 to 1965, which regularly portrayed domestic violence as not only humorous but as a normal and acceptable way to treat one’s wife, particularly within working class marriages.
Another facet of this conversation that has slowed bringing the issue of domestic violence the time, energy and funding it deserves are the elements of shame and denial which are intrinsically linked. Rachel Wallace, who addresses domestic violence and humour, in particular in regard to Andy Capp, makes excellent observations on how humour is used in a response to shame. She depicts how these comics would not have been a success without an audience. In validating a taboo subject that is, unfortunately, rife in our society, such an audience finds themselves validated and vindicated, and therefore the shame is diminished. Much like denial, humour is used as a defence against shame, and it is hard to argue that those who were indifferent to domestic violence would find humour in such situations. We can see examples of this use of humour within this oral history collection, with councillors joking about how their wives treat them in response to being petitioned for refuges, with change only coming, according to Moyna Barnham, when the law required councils to provide homes for ‘battered women’, a burden councils did not typically want to bear.
The future of refuges and reform around the handling of domestic violence situations require us to recognise the lessons of the past, and the need for education and recognising nuance. I had the great honour of attending a talk regarding a project titled ‘Sisters Doing it for Themselves’ , a collaborative project by the Women’s Refuge Centre and the London School of Economics. For this project, leading figures of the women’s volunteer sector in London are interviewed by schoolchildren, to not only teach oral history practices to a younger generation and collate such vital histories but also in order for both parties to learn something from the other. The main points of this talk resonated with these interviews that occurred in 2016 and 2017 regarding women’s refuges in the East of England, in that there is an emphasis going forward on education and nuance, both of which were crucial in the first founding of women’s refuges. To confront the denial, shame, blame and stereotypes around domestic violence is surely only a step in the right direction.
Wallace, Rachel. 2018. ‘”She’s Punch Drunk!!”: Humor, Domestic Violence, and the British Working Class in Andy Capp Cartoons, 1957–65.’ Journal of Popular Culture 51 (1): 129–51. doi:10.1111/jpcu.12646.
Archive catalogues can be difficult to use. There are differences between structured archive catalogues describing archival records that comply with the international cataloguing standard (ISAD-G) and a free-text Internet search box. While the homepage of Essex Archives Online looks like a basic text search box, using it like an Internet search engine will not give the best results.
Part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, involves cataloguing some of the thousands of unique sound and video recordings in the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). Cataloguing the records makes it easier for users to locate relevant material, but only if the catalogue descriptions can be found. We try to catalogue with discoverability in mind, but we thought it might be useful to share some tips on how to find sound and video archives in particular through Essex Archives Online.
As reported in an earlier blog entry, we updated Essex Archives Online to allow you to play sound and video recordings directly through the catalogue. To find these recordings, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box, and then type terms that interest you into the main text box. You will need to create an account and log before you can play the recordings, but you do not need to subscribe.
Tip: To browse all the sound recordings currently uploaded to the catalogue, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box, then type ‘sa’ in the main search box. To browse all the video recordings, select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search box’, then type ‘va’ in the main search box. We can explain why this works if you are interested, but otherwise just trust us that it (mostly) works!
However, we can only gradually upload digitised recordings to the catalogue. Also, copyright on some of the recordings prohibits us from making them available online. This means that we have many, many more sound and video recordings which cannot be played through the catalogue, but only by ordering them to play in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office (or by purchasing a copy). These recordings won’t show up if you refine your search only to ‘Audio Visual’ records. So how do you find something in the ESVA that might be of interest to you?
When we catalogue material, we give each document or recording a Reference Number. This helps to uniquely identify the recording. It’s not a random collection of letters and numbers (though it might seem like it!): each part gives clues about the document and how it fits with other material.
The Reference Numbers for all sound recordings start with ‘SA’, for ‘Sound Archive’. So the easiest way to narrow your search to find sound recordings is to include ‘sa’ as one of your search terms.
Similarly, the Reference Numbers for all video recordings start with ‘VA’, for ‘Video Archive’. To find video recordings, include ‘va’ as one of your search terms.
Tip: You will still get some results that are not sound or video recordings. Change the sort by box at the top-right to ‘Reference’. This will display your results in alphabetical order by Reference Number. Scroll down to the Reference Numbers that begin with ‘SA’ or ‘VA’.
So far so good, but how do you know what to search for? Unlike the majority of the documents in the Essex Record Office, you might find some ESVA recordings by searching for an individual’s name. If the individual has been recorded in an oral history interview, or featured in a local radio piece, then his or her name should be included in the catalogue entry.
But you will probably find more results by searching for a place or subject. For example, perhaps you want to learn more about how Willingale has changed over time. If you type in ‘Willingale’ and ‘sa’ in the search boxes, you will find eleven sound recordings, mostly oral history interviews with long-standing residents.
These might reveal information about local businesses, notable local families, services in the village – and especially people’s memories of the American servicemen stationed nearby during the Second World War.
Tip: Our search engine is not case sensitive. This means it does not matter whether you type ‘Willingale’, ‘willingale’, ‘WILLINGALE’, or ‘WiLliNGalE’: it will come up with the same results.
Or maybe you want to find out what people were eating in the early twentieth century. Try typing ‘meals’ and ‘sa’ in the search boxes. You should find oral history recordings that include memories of what the interviewees ate as children (bread, dripping, and fresh fruit and vegetables – acquired legally or otherwise – feature heavily). This clip from an interview with Rosemary Pitts of Great Waltham gives an example of what children ate in the 1920s-1930s (SA 55/4/1).
You can run an Advanced Search to better refine the results that you get. Click ‘Advanced Search’ at the top of the page. To search for a specific phrase, type this in the second box – and don’t forget to add ‘sa’ or ‘va’ to the top box. For example, try typing ‘sa’ in the top box and ‘First World War’ in the second box.
If you are searching for multiple words that might not appear as an exact phrase in the catalogue description, type your words into the top box. For example, if you are looking for information about Clacton Pier, this might be described as ‘Clacton-on-Sea Pier’, ‘Clacton Pier’, or ‘the Pier at Clacton’. To find all of these matches, type ‘Clacton’ and ‘pier’ in the top box – and add ‘sa’ or ‘va’ to the second box.
Tip: To search for sound and video recordings at the same time, type ‘sa’ and ‘va’ in the third box before clicking ‘SEARCH’.
You can also use our index search boxes from the ‘Advanced Search’ screen. Choose ‘People’, ‘Places’, or ‘Subjects’ from the ‘Refine your search’ box, and then type in the key words or names that interest you. This will only find results where your search term is a major part of the recording, and not just mentioned in passing. You will not be able to limit this search to just sound or video recordings, but if you sort the results by Reference, you can find the Reference Numbers that begin ‘SA’ or ‘VA’.
There are other finding aids that might help you locate relevant material. We have subject guides to sound and video recordings that cover: agriculture, Christmas, education, Essex dialect and accents, folk song and music, health, housing, shops and shopping, traditional English dance, transport, the First World War, and the Second World War. These are available in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, or from our website.
You can also read general user guides to Essex Archives Online on the catalogue: click ‘USER GUIDES’ at the top of the page.
Now that you can find material in the Archive, please come and listen! That is what it is here for. And do get in touch if you’re having trouble finding recordings. We would be happy to help.
But first here’s a little test for you to try. The result will be worth it, we promise.
Click ‘Advanced Search’ from the top of the page.
Make sure the ‘Refine your search’ box is set to ‘Everything’.
Grace Benham, MA History student at the University of Essex, has recently embarked on a twelve-week placement with the Essex Record Office. She is working with a collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, which documents the establishment of domestic refuges in London and the East of England (Acc. SA853).
When I chose to apply for a work placement as a part of my MA programme, applying to the Essex Record Office was an easy choice. As a Colchester resident born and bred, being able to engage with local history on such a practical level, working with an institution that holds interviews of my own grandmas on their lives – it was incredibly exciting to be accepted. I wanted to do a work placement as I wish to pursue a career in history, particularly archives, exhibitions or museums, and so such an experience is invaluable, as well as simply just really interesting.
Due to the unfortunate circumstances which have affected us all, I was unable to participate in the original placement project which required collecting oral history interviews. I therefore had a choice on which archives I would like to engage with remotely. It, again, was another easy choice: to get involved with the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews and to research, catalogue and produce blogs about it. A subject dear to my heart, I have found the study of the founding of women’s refuges in Essex and London is as inspiring as it is difficult to listen to. I have chosen to start this project by homing in on Colchester specifically, as the collection is vast and a geographical focus was the most obvious and compelling place to start.
What is immediately apparent in listening to these interviews is the incredibly dedicated and tenacious people who founded Colchester Refuge from the ground up. The practical, legal, economic, societal and emotional work required to provide a safe place and an abundance of resources for female victims of domestic violence is extremely evident and it is nothing less than admirable the way in which these predominantly women, with little to no previous experience in any related fields, fought for, and eventually founded, the refuge against the odds. I even had the honour to talk with Dr June Freeman, a key founding member of Colchester Refuge, author, and lecturer who compiled these interviews and who was the subject of several of these interviews. June made a great emphasis on what an uphill struggle they faced, as domestic violence was not even known as it is today. It was seen as a problem that should be kept private and within families, a problem which held little support from the police, courts, doctors and even social workers. The founders had to work tirelessly to convince Colchester Borough Council of the importance of a refuge and to finance such a venture without help.
Sadly, another recurring theme in the interviews is a feeling that at the time of the interviews (2017) a loss of funding and interest in domestic violence is occurring in Essex and across the country. This rings unfortunately true as current circumstances have led to a rise in domestic violence. Domestic abuse charity Refuge reports that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have increased by about 66% since lockdown began in March, while the website received a 700% increase in visits in one day. As such the opportunity to listen and learn from these oral histories is more important than ever.
We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex and the University of Essex for their financial support in making this placement possible.
If you need support to deal with domestic abuse, please call the helpline below or check out the following guidance.
Crops of every kind, including peas, were tempting targets for humans as well as natural predators, such as rabbits but mainly birds. Extensive acreages of field crops posed a challenge to protect, but an abundance of cheap human labour would have provided at least some form of bird-scaring by children armed with clappers and loud voices. Fortunately for the farmer, this was an easy job that required little skill and not much, if any, payment.
A story passed down in my family is that my great-grandfather, Henry Wiffen (1862-1946), was taken out bird scaring as one of his first jobs, presumably when he was 7 or 8. His father lit a little fire in the base of a hedge for him to keep warm by while keeping an eye out for birds. This might have been at Nightingale Hall Farm in Halstead / Greenstead Green. See George Clausen’s painting, ‘Bird Scaring – March’.
For those levels of society that could afford to have large,
planned gardens, with an appropriate number of gardeners, then there was plenty
of people on hand to protect crops from predation. However, that fickle, enigmatic
element known to all gardeners, the weather, had also to be countered. To begin
with a warm wall or sheltered corner of a garden might suffice to an aspiring
gardener. Small moveable enclosures, known as cloches, or cold frames with a
covering of ‘lights’, could be used to give protection to particular plants or small
areas of crops. If you were rich then money, and lots of it, could be thrown at
this problem, and, as with all things, technology evolved over time along with the
aspirations of the owners of grand houses. They were the early adopters of even
greater resource-intensive infrastructure, and a good example of this can be
seen in the incredible, and now lost, gardens of Wanstead House.
The plan of the house gardens park & plantations of Wanstead in the county of Essex, the seat of the Rt. Honble the El. Tylney. (ERO, I/Mo 388/1/2, 1735)
A vitally important part of a planned garden was the kitchen garden, for in an age before global trade and refrigeration only a very small amount of produce was imported. So if you wanted to eat something out of the ordinary then you had to grow it, and if you wanted to eat that something out of season then you had to make it happen. The wealthier you were the more you could eat out of season fruit and vegetables, such as peas and peaches, and the more exotic would be the produce that your gardens grew – pineapples being the most unusual and difficult to grow (the first grown in Britain is reckoned to have been in 1693 for Queen Mary II: T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.193). Grapes were also a symbol of status and perhaps the most famous vine is the 250 year-old Black Hamburg at Hampton Court Palace, which has an interesting Essex connection (see: https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/the-great-vine/#gs.2k24uk). Kitchen gardens then, were both a symbol of wealth and status as well as a practical contributor to the household economy. At Wanstead the extensive gardens were located close to the main house.
As can be seen, the kitchen gardens are on a grand scale and
laid out in a very formal manner with lots of beds and borders. From these
would have been grown all the run of the mill fruit and vegetables that would
have fed the household throughout the year. These gardens were powered by the
extensive use of manure, as often as not horse manure, to provide the soil with
the necessary body to produce large yields. As can be seen from the plan, the
stables are quite close but on the opposite side of the house from the gardens.
This would have entailed the carting of manure across the sightline of the
house or a very long detour to get it to the gardens out of sight. Wherever
practical the stables and gardens were, sensibly, located adjacent to one
another and quite often out of view altogether so as not to offend the owner
and his family with sights and smells that might not be conducive to their
sensibilities. It could be that at Wanstead we are looking at an early form of
that relationship and that by the nineteenth century the layout of an estate
had become more nuanced. A good example of a recreated kitchen garden and
stable set-up is at Audley End (http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/organic-kitchen-gardens/)
Having sheltered open borders was all very good but in order
not only to grow tender plants, but to extend the season of more general crops,
then much more intensive infrastructure was required. This is highlighted on
the 1735 plan of Wanstead with individual depictions of a green house (6 on the
plan) and two ‘stove’ houses (both marked as 11 on the plan). A greenhouse at
this stage was a light, airy building with some glazing that sheltered plants,
while the stove house was much the same but had heating of some kind, often
free-standing stoves located within the building. We think of greenhouses today
as having minimal structure and maximum glazing, but this design only came
around in the second half of the nineteenth century as developments in
cast-iron production and the decreasing cost of glass made the ‘modern’
greenhouse possible. The eighteenth-century equivalent had much more structure
and far less glazing, very much like what we would think of as an orangery. As
indicated above, these were very expensive to build and run.
While the gardens at Wanstead House were obviously
cutting-edge, they also deployed other techniques for growing fruit, vegetables
and flowers. If we look at the image of the Great Stove House we can see a
couple of examples. Firstly this sub-section of the garden is surrounded by
what appears to be wooden fencing. Not only does this define the area, but the
fencing also gives protection from damaging winds thus creating a sheltered
micro-climate. In a later period, brick walls were built which fulfilled the
same functions as a wooden fence but also had the advantage of acting as a
structure up which plants could be trained – tender ones on the south facing
walls with hardier ones on the cooler, north facing walls. Some of these walls
were built to be heated themselves by fireplaces and flues to protect crops
from frost, think outdoor radiators – but they must have been extremely
expensive to run. Not all plant protection at Wanstead was very expensive, for
in the borders are bell-shapes which are probably glass cloches, a low-tech
form of plant protection. Cloche being French for bell – hence they get their
name from their shape.
Cloches and cold frames were available to a wider
cross-section of the population than expensive greenhouses. For example, Richard
Bridgeman (d.1677) had 18 ‘cowcumber’-glasses worth 9 shillings, while
Theophilus Lingard (d.1743/4) had, among extensive possessions, 20 bell glasses
and two cucumber frames. (F.W. Steer, Farm and Cottage Inventories of
Mid-Essex, 1635-1749 (Chelmsford, 1950), pp.145, 270.) So for gardeners of
all degrees there was some form of artificial plant protection available to
give that little bit of advantage when growing crops. A more modern version of
the traditional bell cloche was the Chase barn cloche, introduced in the early
twentieth century by Major L.H. Chase. These simple forms of protection were used
in their thousands by nursery and market-gardeners to give protection to their
crops from the bad weather. However, they were susceptible, along with greenhouses,
to the rain of shrapnel that was caused by anti-aircraft fire during the Second
World War – thank goodness we don’t have that to worry about now!
While no longer bell-shaped, protective covers are still known as cloches, although it is thought that in Essex most market gardeners of the post-war years pronounced cloche as CLOTCH (sounding like BLOTCH) – no subtleties in pronunciation there! (Photo: N. Wiffen)
Dr James Bettley is an architectural historian, currently planning his next project.
Where is your office?
I’m lucky to have a study on a mezzanine floor at the back of the house that makes it feel quite separate from the rest of the house. We’ve lived here for 30 years and I’ve been working from home for 20, so the current situation doesn’t feel that strange.
Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?
There are two windows, facing east and south, with views over our garden and fields beyond. The windows are not in my direct line of site so I don’t find the view too distracting.
What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?
I’m thinking about a couple of subjects – John Bateman of Brightlingsea, and the 20th-century restorations of St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell – but the research I really want to do involves travelling in the UK and abroad, so that’s on hold for the time being. Any thoughts of publication are very remote just yet.
Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?
Generally when I’m at home I work from 8 to 6 with an hour for lunch and a walk, but I’m slipping into a more relaxed coronavirus regime of concentrated working from 9 to 1, lunch followed by a couple of hours permitted exercise or essential shopping, then catching up on emails etc until 6 or so.
Do you have a favourite online resource?
British Newspaper Archive. Endlessly diverting.
What is your favourite research beverage and snack?
Coffee, mainly. I tend not to snack, although I can’t pretend that if there’s a packet of biscuits open I don’t occasionally…
Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?
I’m easily distracted by emails, tweets etc, but not for long.
What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?
T/M 508/2. It’s only
a photograph of a map (the original’s at New College, Oxford, who owned land at
Bradwell) but it includes a vignette of ‘St Peter’s Chapel in Ruins’ that I’d like to see. But mostly I’m
simply looking forward to being able to visit the ERO and a number of other
libraries and archives again. Perhaps we’ll value you all the more after this
period of abstinence and deprivation.
Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen takes a look at how peas became so ubiquitous on the dinner tables of the nation.
Frozen peas must be the most accessible vegetable known to 21st century shoppers – such an easy convenience food to reach for all year round. Peas throughout history have been an important food source, and catalogue entries from Essex Archives Online are littered with references to them. During the middle-ages and early modern period they were grown as field crops for drying and use over winter, as an easily stored, high protein food source. Historians believe that ‘garden’ peas for eating freshly picked were an introduction from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century (T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.106). The kitchen gardens of the large country house would have produced them for the table along with market gardeners operating around towns, and it is quite probable that general gardeners, from a fairly early date, would have also done so once seed became readily available.
Through the nineteenth century the consumption of fresh(ish) peas increased, and the expansion of the railway network allowed Essex producers to send vast quantities of all sorts of fresh produce up to London – by 1850 3,900 tons of peas from surrounding counties were sold through the markets there (G. Dodds, The Food of London (London, 1856), p.387). And how were many of these peas harvested in a pre-mechanised age? Well, school log books of the period are littered with references to pupils being absent for all sorts of harvest work, not least that of pea picking, probably there alongside their mothers. The income that families made from seasonal work was not to be underestimated, and full advantage was made of these opportunities.
And it was not just women and children who helped bring in the peas. Many itinerant workers also relied on various crops, and growers were glad of the extra labour to bring in the harvest. David Smith, farmer, author and broadcaster of Broomfield, wrote of the ‘grey tattered figures of all types and ages [as] they trudged along slowly in the bright June sunlight … They would come, every year … just as they came to thousands of other farms … And so to Hill Farm, with near it the brilliant green of two to three fields of picking peas … for a fickle London market.’ (D. Smith, The Same Sky Over All (London, 1948)*, p.116).
As to quite how ‘fresh’ hand-picked peas were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is debatable. It wasn’t until freezing was first developed in the 1920s that the possibility of something akin to freshly picked peas became available to most consumers. However, without the advent of retailers with frozen sections and domestic home freezers, frozen peas eaten widely would have to wait until well into the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime, and as with most vegetables, peas would have probably been well boiled!
If you wanted to eat peas fresh from the garden then, as indicated above, you had to grow them, and it is the same today. The joy of podding peas is one of the highlights of summer – so much so that sometimes more end up being eaten before they even make it to the cook! There are lots of varieties to choose from, not least the well known and locally raised Kelvedon Wonder which harks back to the 1920s. An older variety is Ne Plus Ultra from the early nineteenth century. Perhaps you know it from the BBC television series The Victorian Kitchen Garden (1987)* when Harry Dodson and Peter Thoday resurrected the variety from some very old seed. It was alleged to reach 7 foot in height, which is probably why it waned in popularity – modern varieties are generally all dwarfing which is an advantage to growers.
There used to be many more pea varieties grown in the past, partly because there would have been regional varieties that were only available locally, but also because of the proliferation of seed companies – something which, as with many businesses, has reduced over the last 50 years or so. If we take Chelmsford based Cramphorns, they listed 15 varieties of just the second early and maincrop varieties, including Ne Plus Ultra, in their 1898 catalogue. Along with the early sorts of peas, growing a lot of different varieties meant that if one failed there were others to come along and, in a pre-refrigeration era, it extended the length of the season in which to enjoy fresh peas.
So as it is the time of year to start sowing peas I thought it might be fun to have a go at growing some Ne Plus Ultra peas – just as past gardeners in Essex would have done. I have also so challenged some colleagues and friends of the ERO to grow some to see if any of us can get them to 7 foot – all for a bit of fun I hasten to add. I’ll grow some Kelvedon Wonder as well by comparison and, weather and pests being kind, I’ll update you on how we’re all getting along as well as ruminating on other points of gardening that ‘crop’ up over the summer. For the moment though, keep your fingers crossed for a spell of dry weather as I’ll need to get on in the garden to prepare the soil.
*If you don’t know the work of David Smith then his books are well worth a read. There are copies of them in the ERO Library. If you haven’t seen The Victorian Kitchen Garden then it is available on DVD.