Document of the Month, April 2018: Photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome, c.1918

100 years on from the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918, we have chosen this photograph of Stow Maries Aerodrome during the First World War as our Document of the Month (T2603 Part 22).

Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, near Maldon, is considered to be the best preserved First World War airfield in Europe. Its 24 original buildings are Grade II* listed, and today a major project is working on restoring and interpreting the site for visitors.

Powered flight was still a very new phenomenon during the First World War; the Wright brothers had made the first powered flight only in 1903. Despite the fact that the aircraft of this time were flimsy, dangerous, unreliable and uncomfortable, in 1912 the British army had established the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and in 1914 the Royal Navy formed the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). On 1 April 1918 these two services were combined to form the RAF, the world’s first independent air force.

Aircraft were used on the battlefields, initially for reconnaissance and then as fighter planes and bombers, but they were also used for home defence. From early 1915 the Germans began air raids on Britain, first with Zeppelins and later with Gotha planes. From late 1915, Home Defence Squadrons were formed to defend against this threat.

Firemen hose down the smouldering remains of Cox’s Court off Little Britain in the City of London after a Gotha air raid on 7 July 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196283

One of these was No. 37 Squadron, formed in September 1916. Its HQ was at Woodham Mortimer, and it had three flights, based at Stow Maries, Rochford, and Goldhanger. The job of the Squadron was to help defend the eastern approaches to London.

The first commander of Stow Maries was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, MC, DSO. Despite being aged just 19, Ridley had already served with the RFC in France and on home defence airfields. He earned his Distinguished Service Order when a mission to drop a spy behind enemy lines went wrong, and he ended up trapped on the German side. Despite having no command of either French or German, over the course of several weeks he managed to evade capture and made his way to the Netherlands. Not only did he survive to escape, he collected information on enemy activity along the way. He was no longer allowed to fly in France as it was judged that if he had crashed behind enemy lines again he would be shot as a spy, so he was assigned to home defence duties and put in command of Stow Maries.

Stow Maries was operational as a home defence airfield between May 1917 and May 1918, with 81 sorties flown to intercept enemy aircraft. At its height there were 219 staff based there, 16 of whom were aircrew, and 20 of whom were women. During this time, 10 members of 37 Squadron were killed, 8 of them in accidents (which goes to show just how dangerous flying was at this time).

Initially the airfield was equipped with BE12s, which were too slow to keep up with the German planes. Eventually it was sent Sopwith Camels and Avro 504ks, which are the planes which can be seen in our photograph. The Sopwith Camel was the most famous British fighter aeroplane of WW1 and was first introduced on the Western Front in 1917 (the beginning of the video below shows one being started up and taking off). The Camel, so-called because of the hump-shaped protective covering over its machine guns, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter plane during the First World War.

The Avro 504k is one of the greatest training aircraft ever built. It was used to equip training units first in the RFC and later the RAF. Always knows as a training aircraft, Avro 504ks were also used as an emergency home defence fighter operating against German aircraft raiders.

Stow Maries continued as an aerodrome until Spring 1919, after which the site was returned to agriculture. Many of the buildings constructed during the First World War for use by the RFC and RAF survive today, and Stow Maries is now undergoing a major conservation project and is open to visitors.

The photograph will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout April 2018.

Document of the Month, March 2018: Humphry Repton’s ‘Red Book’ for Stansted Hall

March 2018 marks 200 years since the death of one of England’s most influential landscape gardeners, Humphry Repton. To mark this, we have chosen for March’s Document of the Month Repton’s ‘Red Book’ for Stansted Hall, commissioned in 1791 by William Heath (D/DQ 29/1).

Repton worked as a design consultant, visiting his clients’ properties and making suggestions for how picturesque views might be created within the landscape. He is best known for his ‘Red Books’ – reports he created for his wealthy clients which outlined his suggested changes, bound in Morocco leather. These books include beautiful watercolour sketches with flaps that can be lifted to show the views before and after Repton’s proposals. The Red Books served a dual purpose; they showcased Repton’s ideas to his client, but they might also be shown to admiring friends and hopefully secure further commissions.

In the book for Stansted Hall Repton sets out suggestions for creating what he considered would be picturesque views from and towards the house. His first observation was that the house was rather sprawling, and suffered from an unbalanced appearance due to one of its four towers being shorter than the other three. He recommended that the house should not be extended any further, but that the smaller tower should be built up to match the others, and the sprawling buildings to the side be concealed with planting, allowing a cupola or clock turret to peek up above the trees.

The Stansted Red Book includes one of Repton’s famous ‘lift the flap’ pages. With the flap down, we see a watercolour of the house as it stood.

A flap showing part of the existing view can be lifted…

…to reveal to the client the changes Repton was proposing. In this case, the building up of the shorter tower to match the others, and concealing part of the building with planting.

Repton also suggested covering the red brick building in a grey-white stucco wash, due to his ‘full conviction how much more important as well as picturesque a stone coloured building appears than one of red bricks … this alteration will [also] have a prodigiously pleasing effect from the turnpike road’.

Repton’s impression of what Stansted Hall would look like if rendered in white stucco, which he considered a vast improvement on its red brick exterior

He also offered suggestions for creating an impression that everything within the views belonged to the estate, which meant concealing other buildings and public roads behind planting:

The park

I call the Lawn immediately surrounding a mansion by the name of Park, whether it supports deer or other stock. This sort of Park does not take its consequence from real extent, but from its supposed magnitude, and chiefly from its unity, or the appearance of all belonging to the same proprietor: high roads, hedges & houses belonging to other persons near the Mansion, always tend to lessen its importance, while plantations increase it.

To this end, Repton suggested concealing the vicarage which was near the hall with a plantation, and rerouting the approach road to carefully craft the views seen by visitors as they arrived.

Landscape gardening was not the career that had been intended for Repton. He was born in 1752 in Bury St Edmunds, the son of an excise collector. His parents had 11 children; Humphry was one of only 3 who survived infancy. He attended grammar school in Bury St Edmunds, and then in Norwich when his family moved there when Humphry was 10. Intended for a career as a merchant, at age 12 Repton was sent to live with a wealthy family in the Netherlands to learn Dutch and French. Returning to Norwich aged 16, he was apprenticed into the textile industry. He was, however, more talented in the arts than in trade, and was not a successful businessman.

In 1773 he married Mary Clarke, and having inherited some money he retired from business and set himself up in the north Norfolk countryside to live the life of a gentleman. After a few years, however, the money was running out. In 1786 Repton moved his family to Hare Street near Romford, and turned his skills at sketching and writing to a career as a landscape gardener.

His favourite commissions were from the established gentry and aristocracy, when sometimes he would be invited to stay at his clients’ grand houses. A large proportion of his work, however, was for villas of the nouveaux riches around London who had made their money in business and trade. By the end of his career, Repton believed he had prepared over 400 Red Books and reports, including for several properties in Essex.

In addition to his work for private clients, Repton also published treatises on the principles and practice of landscape gardening. These helped to secure his reputation and his influence on the field of landscape gardening.

Repton’s career had a rather sad end. Commissions became fewer and further between, something he blamed on the effects of the Napoleonic Wars, with new taxes and dramatic inflation reducing the amount of money the wealthy had to spend on luxuries such as landscaping.

In January 1811 the carriage he was travelling in returning from a ball overturned on an icy road and Repton sustained serious injuries from which he never fully recovered. He continued to work, visiting sites in his wheelchair, often in great pain. He died on 24 March 1818 at Hare Street, and is buried at Aylsham church in his beloved Norfolk.

The Stansted Hall Red Book will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout March 2018.

Document of the Month, January 2018: Ruggles-Brise visitors book

Ruth Costello, Archivist

As many of us return from visiting family and friends over the Christmas and New Year period, it’s interesting to look at a document from a recent deposit of records to see how one family recorded their visits to and from relatives.

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These pages are from an album which was used as a combination of an autograph book and a visitors’ book and belonged to one of the Ruggles-Brise family of Finchingfield (Accession A14635 box 19).  It seems to have been taken with the family on visits, as well as being used at the family home of Spains Hall.

The left hand page shows a photograph of Keswick Hall in Norfolk (the home of Agatha Gurney, who later became Agatha Ruggles-Brise).  Members of the family clearly stayed there in January 1903, but remained at Spains Hall in January 1904.  Most of the signatures are by members of the Ruggles-Brise family, including the then owner of Spains Hall, Archibald Weyland, his wife Mabel, some of their children, his brother Harold and sister in law Dorothea.

Does this sketch of ‘The Cake Walk’ show a dance move done by the guests at Keswick Hall celebrating over New Year in 1903?

It’s not clear who is the rider shown falling head first off her horse in the rather alarming sketch.  The self-portrait of a Guardsman is signed as Alan G. Tritton, who we know lived nearby at Lyons Hall, Great Leighs.  It is sobering to see this, knowing that the author of the jokey little drawing was killed in action ten years later in 1914.

A self-portrait sketch showing a rider falling off her horse

Self-portrait sketch by Alan G. Tritton, who was later killed in action during the First World War

This accession is one of just over 200 received by the Essex Record Office last year.  Some may consist of a single photograph and are available promptly to order via our online catalogue; others (like this deposit) may run to a large number of boxes. Work is currently underway to identify, list and box the records, and when this work is complete it will be made available to researchers.

The autograph book will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout January 2018.

Document of the Month, December 2017: The Christmases of Essex

Lawrence Barker, Archivist

Our Document of the Month for December is the will of Dorothy Christmas of Chelmsford, dating from 1644 (D/ABW 58/39). Dorothy was the wife of Peter Christmas, an inn-keeper at Chelmsford, whose will of 1639 we also have showing that he left most of his estate to his widow.  The couple seem to have had no children.

‘Christmas’ is very much an Essex surname and indeed Reaney, in his Dictionary of British Surnames (1958), traced the name back to one ‘Ralph Cristemesse’ living in Essex in 1185.  Of course, the name has several variants, such as Chrismas or Crismas, which are scattered across Essex but perhaps with a concentration in the villages around Colchester in the north east.  National newspapers, such as The Daily Mail in December 2014, have already noted the record in a parish register we keep here at Essex Record Office of the burial of ‘Father Christmas’ at Dedham in 1564.

‘the marke of the said Dorothey Christmas’

Not much is known from his will what Peter Christmas left his widow but there is much more detail in Dorothy’s will about what she gave to her relations, her brother and several cousins, as well as some ‘loving friends’.  From it, we get a good idea of what her life was like from the ‘goodes’ and ‘chattells’ described; for example, how comfortable the beds were in her house (or ‘shoppe’), with their feather pillows and bolsters and flaxen sheets and coverlets.

Like most early wills, the opening statement beginning ‘In the name of God Amen’, reflects the piety of a former age.  In particular, references in this will to Jesus Christ, the ‘alsufficient Saviour and Redeemer’ and the assurance of having one’s sins forgiven and being ‘made partaker of his heavenly Kingdom with the Elect’ reflect the beliefs promoted by Luther and Calvin during the Reformation.

In 2017, we look back to the beginning of the Reformation 500 years ago, and in doing so, perhaps we might also reflect upon the religious significance that Christmas had for all those who lived at that time.

Dorothy’s will will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout December 2018.

Document of the Month, October 2017: Ghost sighting at Castle Hedingham

Our Document of the Month for October tells of a dark happening. It is a letter written in 1713 that tells the tale of a ghost sighting.

The letter was written by Nicholas Jekyll of Castle Hedingham to Rev. William Holman of Halstead (D/Y 1/1/111/19). It is one of about 200 letters from Jekyll to Holman which are today at ERO, the earliest dating from 1711 and the latest to 1730.

Holman was collecting materials to write a history of Essex, and Jekyll was helping him by supplying information and commenting on his manuscripts. They did, however, sometimes correspond about other topics. In some letters Jekyll thanks Holman for gifts such as bottles of brandy and homemade elderberry wine, and in others discusses current affairs, or gives updates on members of his families who have emigrated to America.

This letter begins with mention of a book Jekyll was returning to Holman, and a request by Holman for Jekyll to do some research for him.

Jekyll’s handwriting is on the challenging side; if you see the letter while it is on display in our Searchroom you will find a transcript alongside it

The majority of the letter, however, describes the sighting of ‘an apparition of that wretched poor fellow who lately drowned himself’ near Jekyll’s house. Initially Jekyll was scornful of the report of ghost sighting, but believed he now had ‘unquestionable proof’ that it was true. The apparition had been seen ‘acting like a fellow in deep melancholly [sic]’ in the place where the man had drowned himself, before throwing itself into the water.

The letter will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout October 2017.


Document of the Month, August 2017: Salvation for sale

Indulgence granted to John and Lucy Prince of Theydon Garnon by John Kendale, turcipelerius of Rhodes and Commissary of Pope Sixtus IV, 10 April 1480 (D/DCe Q2)

Our Document of the Month for August 2017 is a medieval indulgence – a certificate granted by the Catholic Church to absolve the bearer of sin, and reduce any punishment they would receive either in this life or in purgatory.

The document dates from 1480, but we have chosen to highlight it in 2017 because this year marks 500 years since Martin Luther’s publication of his Ninety-Five Theses, an event which is generally seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The Ninety-Five Theses is also known as the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, and criticised the way the Catholic Church was granting these documents.

Indulgences had originally been intended to be a reward for piety and good deeds, but the system had become increasingly commercialised, with indulgences being sold. In 1517 Pope Leo X offered indulgences to those who contributed alms towards the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In Germany a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, was prominent in selling indulgences and the saying ‘As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs’ is attributed to him.

Luther attacked the sale of indulgences not only for their commercialisation, but also because he contended that the Pope had no right to grant indulgences on God’s behalf. He also argued that the selling of indulgences discouraged people from truly repenting of their sins or performing acts of mercy.

This particular indulgence was granted to John and Lucy Prince, ‘in consideration of [their] devotion to the Roman Church and willingness to aid the sacred and necessary expedition against the perfidious Turk and for the defence of the Isle of Rhodes and the Catholic Faith’ [Suarum pro expeditione contra perfidos turchos christinai nominis hostes in defensionem insule Rhodi et fidei catholice facta].

The indulgence was granted by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, at their English headquarters of St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell. The Knights Hospitallers were a religious and military order charged with defending the Holy Land. Having been based originally in Jerusalem, by this time they had bases across Europe and operated their military activity from the island of Rhodes.

In 1480, the year this indulgence was granted, the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmet II laid siege to Rhodes; granting indulgences was one of the ways the Knights Hospitallers raised money for its defence. Mehmet II had been waging a largely successful campaign against Christian forces since 1453 when he captured Constantinople (Istanbul). Rhodes did not fall until 1522 when it was captured by Suleiman the Magnificent, Mehmet’s great-grandson.

The indulgence gave the Princes the right to choose their own confessor with the power to absolve all sins, other than murder of a priest, violence against a bishop or disobedience towards the Pope. It also granted the right for a full remission and indulgence of sins once during their lifetime and once at the point of death.

The Protestant Reformation centred round the principle that salvation could be achieved by faith alone, not by faith and good works, as emphasised by the Catholic Church. In this Luther built on the works of humanists such as Erasmus. The subsequent emphasis on translating the Bible from Latin into the vernacular (i.e. English) was intended to make it more accessible to everybody.

These principles resonated across Europe in the 16th century, and we can find evidence of them in the ERO collections. In 1588, for example, John Brockise of Havering Green, Hornchurch, a painter, left a will (D/AEW 9/10) in which he bequeathed his most precious possessions. After bequests of furniture to his children, he left to Samuel Brockis the Paraphrase of Erasmus on the Four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles ‘in consideration that he shalbe good to my wife and to the reste of his bretherne and sister after my desese’ or his wife had the power to withhold the bequest. He left to his son Robert ‘one bybell’ translated by Miles Coverdale on the same basis. Miles Coverdale first translated the Bible into English in 1535.

So this one little document which is today looked after as part of the collections at ERO is a small part of a big story about a transforming world. We will not ever know what sin John and Lucy Prince felt they needed an indulgence for, but in the world of medieval Catholic belief it was better to be safe than sorry.

 The indulgence will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout August 2017.

Disaster relief in Restoration England: brief in aid of Weymouth, Dorset, July 1666

Archivist Chris Lambert shares his selection for July’s Document of the Month

Recent tragic events have underlined the public desire to help those caught up in catastrophe.  In the 17th century, when state and society commonly saw themselves as a single Christian entity, the characteristic expression of that desire was the brief.

England had already invented social care.  An Act of 1601 had created the parish poor rate, distributed in goods or money to the deserving poor.  There were also charities providing food, fuel and housing.  These initiatives, however, dealt only with ordinary needs.  Catastrophic events involved another process, in which the state mobilized voluntary giving from society at large.

The Crown, on petition, would issue letters patent allowing the gathering of contributions from ‘all well-disposed persons’.  Individuals named in the grant would then employ collectors to carry the appeal around the country.  The original handwritten letters patent, issued under the Great Seal, tend not to survive, but in a way they hardly mattered.  The process really depended on the use of printing technology to make copies – ‘briefs’ – for distribution.  The printed copies became so familiar that their title of ‘brief’ was applied to the whole process.

This particular brief (D/P 152/7/2), from the parish records of Theydon Garnon, was issued in 1666 in aid of Melcombe Regis (Weymouth) in Dorset.  In September 1665 the town had suffered a ‘sad and lamentable fire, wherein seven and thirty houses were utterly consumed’.  Their occupants had been ‘brought to ruine’, the total loss being estimated at £3,055.  Such fires were not uncommon.  Much less usual is the note, in King Charles’s name, that ‘We Our Self was then present and an eye-witness of the said sad spectacle, and are thereby the more sensible of the said loss’.  The King had indeed been in the West Country during that summer of 1665, taking refuge from the Great Plague in London.

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Some briefs allowed for house-to-house collections, but charity being above all a Christian duty, the normal mechanism for collecting the money was the parish, then both a religious institution and the foundation of local society.  The clergy ‘published’ the brief at a Sunday service and exhorted their parishioners to contribute, the amounts raised being written on the back of the brief.  When this example reached Theydon Garnon in the summer of 1667 – almost a year after it was issued and almost two years after the fire – that one parish collected 8 shillings and 10 pence (for comparison, a few months earlier they had raised £27 5s. for the Great Fire of London).  In this case they were to deliver the money back, via the appointed persons, to the authorities in Weymouth.  They in turn were to ‘contract for the re-building of the said houses’, taking care ‘that none of them for the future be covered with thatch, or other combustible matter’.

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Note on the back of the brief recording how much was collected: ‘Collected then in the parish church of Theydon Garnon towards the releife of the w[i]thin named the sum of eight shillings & ten pence. I say James Meggs DD Rector’

Not all briefs focused on local disasters.  Many sought to rebuild churches – including, in 1632 and again in 1678, St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Others aimed to help whole social groups.  From the late 16th century the objects of briefs included Christians taken captive by the Ottoman Turks, joined in the 1680s by Protestant refugees from the France of Louis XIV, in 1689-1690 by Irish Protestants suffering in the war between James II and William of Orange, and in 1709 by the ‘Poor Palatines’ from the Rhineland.  Briefs like these expressed a Protestant national identity, yet in 1793 they were also used to help Roman Catholic clergy fleeing revolutionary terror in France.

The system had obvious defects.  Slow, cumbersome and costly at best, it was also open to fraud.  Security measures such as expiry dates (one year, in this case) offered little real protection.  The Essex Quarter Sessions records show evidence of prosecutions – in 1647 for collections on a wholly fraudulent brief (Q/SR 333/105, Q/SBc 2/35), and in 1653 for collections on what may have been a genuine brief by someone apparently unconnected with the parties concerned (Q/SBa 2/82).  Eventually a reforming Act in 1705 tried to clean up the system, providing an elaborate system of registration, with all briefs now being printed by the Queen’s Printer.  A handful of Essex parishes still have the registers of collections that the Act required.

The earliest collections so far traced in the ERO’s holdings were in the 1570s, for the reinstatement of Collington (Colyton) Haven, a harbour in Devon.  For that purpose in 1575 the little Essex parish of Heydon raised 6s.8d.; Canewdon collected 1s.8d. in 1576/7, and then another 1s. two years later.  Briefs continued to be issued even under the Commonwealth, but seem to have been at their peak under the restored monarchy of the late 17th century.  Over time, however, fire and flood became matters mainly for the insurance industry, and the objectives of briefs were limited largely to church building.

Briefs effectively came to an end in 1828, when responsibility for churches was transferred to the Incorporated Church Building Society.  The need for large-scale relief funds eventually found expression in more secular ways.  From the late 19th century many such efforts were organized through the Lord Mayor of London.  The Titanic Disaster Fund of 1912 – later the National Disasters Relief Fund – was one of these.  Mass media and then social media opened new possibilities, and online donation sites operate very differently from the state-sponsored briefs of old, but they draw on the same urge to help strangers in need.

The document will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout July 2017.

Document of the Month, April 2017: ‘An Easter in Paris’, 1908

Jane Bass, Archivist

D/DU 2318/33

Are you hoping to slip away for a short break this Easter?

Our Document of the Month for April is an account of a four-day trip to Paris over Easter 1908 written by Albert Samuel Lugg (1883-1943), a solicitor of Great Baddow.

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Lugg describes his journey in detail, beginning with the train from Chelmsford to London, which took two hours to cover the distance of 30 miles (Lugg, like many modern travellers, was not impressed).

The boat trip from Newhaven in East Sussex to Dieppe on the Normandy coast was a very rough passage and Lugg describes being nearly thrown to the floor of the boat and not feeling ‘at all well’ during the crossing.IMG_3282 1080 watermark

Hopefully he felt his journey had all been worth it when he arrived in Paris. Like any sightseer today, Lugg visited many of the famous sites and monuments in Paris, including the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Palace de Versailles, the Louvre, and buildings erected especially for the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

He visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame on Good Friday, and his account of his trip describes what he calls ‘a very strange ceremony’ of kissing sacred relics at the altar rail. In other parts of the church boys dressed in white sat at tables on which was laid a crucifix; visitors could kiss the crucifix and make a donation.

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Albert also describes seeing the Pantheon and was shown over the vaults and saw the ‘graves of a good many French celebrities’.

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Lugg was especially impressed with the Eiffel Tower. He and his companion saw it on their first day and returned on their last day when the ascended to the top – an experience Lugg wrote he would ‘never forget … The view from the top is absolutely beyond description’.

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Just as now, traffic was a feature of city life, with Lugg writing that pedestrians had to be careful not to be knocked down when crossing roads due to the ‘thousands’ of motor cars on the streets.

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On their last day, Lugg and his companion had intended to rise at 6am to visit the market to see the ‘barrels of snails and thousands of frogs’ which could be purchased. Having packed so much in to their trip, however, they must have been rather worn out, Lugg writing that ‘our beds had a very restraining effect upon us’.

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Six years after Lugg’s 1908 trip to Paris, the city was not far from the front lines of the First World War, being bombarded by German aircraft and artillery. The citizens endured shortages, rationing, and influenza.

Albert Lugg’s account of his holiday will be on display in the Searchroom throughout April 2017.

Document of the Month, March 2017: Jam and Jerusalem come to Essex

Our Document of the Month for March 2017 has been chosen by Archivist Katharine Schofield, who has selected the earliest record of the Women’s Institute in Essex, the minutes of the Broomfield WI who began meeting in May 1917.

The Women’s Institute can trace its origins back to Ontario, Canada in 1897.  In Britain the WI was created in part to cope with food shortages during the First World War and to help rural communities generally.  The first British meeting was held in Anglesey in 1915.

In Essex there were twenty-two WIs in existence by the end of 1917, with minutes surviving for the County Federation of Essex Women’s Institutes (Accession A8980 Box 1) and for the WIs at Broomfield (Accession A11304 Box 1), Epping (Accession A13888 Box 1) and Woodham Ferrers (Accession A11292 Box 39).  The earliest record of a meeting was at Broomfield on 12 May 1917, followed by Woodham Ferrers on 6 June and Epping on 13 September.

Minutes from the first meeting of the Broomfield WI on 12 May 1917 - the earliest  WI meeting in Essex for which we have any records

Minutes from the first meeting of the Broomfield WI on 12 May 1917 – the earliest WI meeting in Essex for which we have any records

The WI was promoted by Mrs Alfred Watt, one of Canada’s first female university graduates.  Madge Watt had been widowed and in 1913 came to Britain with the intention at least in part to establish the WI here.  The First World War and the need for increased food production gave her the opportunity, working in partnership with the Agricultural Organisation Society (AOS).

Mrs Watt and a representative from the Society toured the county addressing prospective groups.  In April 1917 Mrs Watt spoke to a group of women at Chelmsford and presumably this inspired smaller groups to invite her to speak in their villages.  She was too ill to attend the first meeting of the Broomfield WI so Mr Nicholson from the AOS spoke instead.

It was proposed that a WI be started ‘to help food scarcity’, and Mr Nicholson described the WI as ‘a centre round which a group of women banded themselves together to help themselves and their country’.  They would be able to do this ‘1st by releasing men from the land, 2nd by increasing food supply by cultivating vacant land, 3rd by preventing waste’.  There would be co-operation in buying seeds, tools, cooking and preserving utensils.  The WI also made war savings collections and helped village schools and industries.  The meetings themselves offered women the opportunity to work on home-made clothing, see demonstrations and hear about keeping livestock, goats, bees, rabbits and poultry and conserving fruit and vegetables, as well as an opportunity to enjoy ‘the social element’.

In Woodham Ferrers the rector had arranged the meeting and spoke about the ‘beneficial advantages’ before introducing Mrs Watt.  By the time that the Epping WI was started the County Federation had been established and the speakers were Lady Petre and Mrs Watt.

Most of these initial meetings were then given over to the practicalities of setting the group up and electing officers for future meetings.  By 1917 there was an established national organisation to provide guidance, suggestions for talks and demonstrations, as well as supply badges and other items.  Both Woodham Ferrers and Epping WIs purchased a book for their minutes stamped on the front ‘Agricultural Organisation Society’ at a cost of 6s.

The first organised meeting of the Broomfield WI was held on 6 June.  The minutes record that the first competition, making cakes or biscuits without flour, had ten entries with two prizes awarded and the first talk, arranged for the next meeting, was to be a demonstration of fruit bottling.  The Epping WI talks for 1917 were on the subjects of ‘parcels for the Front’, sugar substitutes and the care of children in winter.  The first competition in Epping was the best home-made Christmas gift, cost not to exceed 6d.  At Epping there was some discussion about the membership fees ‘amongst the poorer people’ with a suggestion that these might be paid at a rate of 2d. per month.  It was also agreed ‘by large majority’ that members could bring their children to meetings and that a volunteer would look after them in a separate room.

Minutes from the second meeting of the Broomfield WI on 6 June 1917. A competition was held for baking cakes and biscuits without flour, and a demonstration of fruit bottling was organised for the next meeting.

Minutes from the second meeting of the Broomfield WI on 6 June 1917. A competition was held for baking cakes and biscuits without flour, and a demonstration of fruit bottling was organised for the next meeting.

The singing of Jerusalem was not associated with the WI until the early 1920s, but the first meeting at Woodham Ferrers concluded with the singing of the National Anthem.

In September the County Federation met for the first time at the Shire Hall in Chelmsford, with Lady Petre subsequently serving as the first president.  The County Federation minutes record an organisation which grew rapidly from 1917.  By the end of 1918 the number of groups in Essex had more than doubled.  There had been classes on basket and glove making, boot mending, cobbling, rush work and straw plaiting, as well as lectures on housecraft, including mending leaks and repairing taps.

Although the WI was established with the aim of helping the war effort during the First World War, the organisation was keen that they should continue after the war.  In December 1918, only a month after the Armistice, the County Federation’s half-yearly report reiterated that while the production of food was of primary importance, ‘due weight’ should be given to the subject of Housecraft and the promotion of local handicrafts or industries.  The WI should ‘arouse interest in local history’ as well as teach the ‘principles and duties of citizenship’.  It should be a ‘valuable means to promote businesslike methods among women of all classes.’

The minutes of the first meeting of the Broomfield WI will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout March 2017.

Document of the Month, February 2017: Photograph of Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, aka Fanny and Stella

As February is LGBT history month, we have chosen this photograph from the Frederick Spalding Collection (D/F 269/1/3696), dating from c.1869.  Frederick Park (left) and Ernest Boulton (right) were presumably photographed by Spalding in his Chelmsford studio while they toured Essex as part of a small theatrical company.  They often dressed in women’s clothing when not on stage, calling themselves Fanny Graham and Stella Boulton.

D-F-269-1-3696 1080 watermarked

Park (the son of one the Masters of the Court of Common Pleas) was articled to Gepps, the Chelmsford solicitors; Boulton was the son of a London stockbroker.  They were arrested by the Metropolitan Police in April 1870 while wearing women’s clothing at a London theatre and charged with six others with “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence”.  Their arrest and subsequent trial the following year was reported in detail in newspapers throughout the British Isles.  After the ‘not guilty’ verdict, Frederick Park emigrated to the US, dying there in 1881 at the age of 34. Ernest Boulton continued performing, touring in small theatre productions with his brother Gerard until his death in 1904.

A print of the photograph will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout February 2017.