The Trial of Agnes Waterhouse – Witchcraft in Essex, 1566

In a recent internet deep-dive in search of social media inspiration, we came across a recurring statement declaring Agnes Waterhouse, a local Essex woman, as the first person executed for witchcraft in England in 1566. Marion Gibson, currently a professor at Exeter University, has kindly written this blog post for us, to tell us a little bit more about Agnes and why these claims about her are actually fake news.

Agnes Waterhouse was a widow from the village of Hatfield Peverel who was tried in Chelmsford for witchcraft in the summer of 1566. It’s as a witchcraft suspect that her name appears on a list of accused felons held by the Essex Record Office, among the Quarter Sessions rolls.

Q/SR 19/5 – Quarter Session Roll from 1566 which lists Agnes Waterhouse, Joan Waterhouse, and Elizabeth Frances as felons suspected of witchcraft from Hatfield Peverel

A “felony” was a serious crime, punishable by death, and the group of suspected felons who included Agnes passed through the lower court of Quarter Sessions in 1566 on their way to the higher court of the Assizes. There they would be tried and sentenced.

Agnes was going to the Midsummer Assizes, held in the hot months when England’s top judges got out of London and had time to sit in judgement over suspected provincial criminals. In Chelmsford the Assizes were held in the Market Cross House, which stood just in front of the present-day Shire Hall. The Essex historian Hilda Grieve describes it as:

‘an open-sided building, with eight oak columns supporting upper galleries and a tiled roof. The galleries, which overlooked the open “piazza” below, were lit by three dormer windows in the roof… the magistrates and justices sat in open court, which measured only 26 feet by 24 feet, with the officers of the law, counsel and clerks, plaintiffs and defendants, jurors, sureties, witnesses and prisoners, before and around them, while spectators, hangers-on, and those awaiting their turn, crowded into the galleries above or thronged the street outside.’

The Market Cross House was an unsatisfactory courtroom – packed, noisy and horribly public – but it was Agnes’ destination in summer 1566 after she had been accused as a witch.

Witchcraft was a crime that came to Assize courts regularly, but only after a new Witchcraft Act had been passed by Parliament in 1563. The new Act stated that witches who were convicted of lesser offences – like making farm animals sick – would be punished with one year in prison. Witches who were convicted of killing a person, however, were to be hanged.

Agnes was accused of murder by witchcraft, for which she would be executed if she was found guilty. She was said to have killed her neighbour William Fynee. When questioned, she also admitted harming pigs, cows and geese in her village. Eventually she said she had murdered her own husband in 1557 because they lived “somewhat unquietly” together; it is possible that this confession was drawn out, in part, by some guilt she may have felt over relief at his death and the relative freedom that widowhood granted her.

Agnes also confessed to owning a demonic spirit in the form of a pet cat called Sathan, given to her by her sister Elizabeth Fraunces, and this cat had killed her husband and done all the harm of which Agnes stood accused.

Elizabeth Fraunces and also Agnes’ daughter Joan were accused of witchcraft alongside her. Joan was just eighteen years old. She was accused of bewitching another teenager, the Waterhouse’s neighbour Agnes Browne. Joan and her mother, twelve year old Agnes Browne told the court, had sent a black dog to torment her. It brought her the key to the Browne family’s dairy and stole or damaged some of their butter. More seriously, the dog tempted Agnes Browne to suicide by bringing her a knife. He told her this was “his sweet dame’s knife” and when he was asked who this was, Agnes Browne said “he wagged his head to your house, mother Waterhouse”. As well as being a talking dog, this demonic tempter had a monkey’s face and a whistle hung around his neck: a strange beast to see trotting around Hatfield Peverel!

Agnes Waterhouse told Agnes Browne that she was making this story up: “thou liest” she told the girl stoutly. She added that she didn’t even own a dagger. It sounds as though Agnes Waterhouse was in court facing down Agnes Browne – and this account of the trial may be true. But Agnes Waterhouse didn’t need to confront Agnes Browne. She had in fact already pleaded guilty to witchcraft. Most accused felons fought for their lives by pleading “not guilty” but Agnes Waterhouse didn’t. Why did Agnes plead guilty, and why was she still fighting on in the courtroom after she had confessed? The answer is probably Joan. By pleading guilty and then standing beside her daughter to take the blame perhaps Agnes hoped to save Joan from execution.

A woodcutting, supposedly of Agnes Waterhouse, from a 1566 pamphlet of the trial.

The case made what we would now think of as “headlines”. Someone gave the statements of the accused witches to a London publisher, who added an eyewitness account of the courtroom scenes, a couple of very bad poems and a description of Agnes’ execution. Yes, that was her fate, and 29th July is the anniversary of her death. Agnes Waterhouse was executed with the other felons convicted at the Assizes, hanged in front of a crowd gathered at the gallows in Chelmsford. The site of her death lies on the road leading towards Writtle.

It was a sad end to Agnes’ life, but it was a golden opportunity for journalists. The publisher rushed out a booklet about the case and even added a portrait of Agnes to his story, a woodcut print labelled in blackletter font and showing a woman looking oddly pious, with her hand upraised in blessing. There’s a good reason for this mismatch between story and woodcut.

The picture isn’t actually of Agnes at all. It was just a woodcut from the publisher’s stockroom, with space in the label to insert metal blocks of type. In this way the publisher could give any name to the woman depicted. Witches were usually women, this was a picture of a woman: that would do.

This bit of fake news isn’t the only myth to get stuck to Agnes over the course of the last four hundred and fifty years, however. She’s routinely described as the first witch to be executed for witchcraft in England. In fact, witches had been being executed in England and the wider British Isles for centuries, often because they were judged under laws concerning treason or heresy. Examples include Petronilla de Meath from County Meath, who was executed in 1324 and Margery Jourdemayne from Eye in Suffolk, who was executed in 1441. Both women were burned at the stake. But it is true that Agnes is the first media superstar of the age when witch-hunting got serious in England. She’s a “first witch” because she’s the first witch we know about from a printed news story. In the sixteenth century, that was extraordinary fame.

We should remember Agnes on the anniversary of her execution. She died surrounded by her enemies, likely jeering and jostling for a better view, but she died knowing that her daughter Joan had been acquitted, just as Agnes had hoped.

——————————————————————————————————————–

All the details of the case are taken from the news pamphlet ‘The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex (1566)’.

You can read more about Agnes, including the whole text of this pamphlet, in Marion Gibson, ‘Early Modern Witches’ (London: Routledge, 2000)

In the meantime, St Andrews Church in Hatfield Peverel is probably the closest glimpse we can get of the Hatfield Peverel that Agnes knew.

Much of the building dates to the 19th century restoration, but the nave and central tower arch from the original 12th  century priory still remain and Agnes would have looked on these features much as we do now, as an enduring memento of history. (Photo by Fred Spalding c.1940)


What’s in a Window

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/-/-).

St Mary Magdalene, North Ockendon, 14th century panel showing a coat of arms of the Bohun family.

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;

http://www.cvma.ac.uk/jsp/locationIndex.do?countyCode=EX,

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.

St Mary and St Clement, Clavering. Arms of William Barlee.

A History of the County of Essex Vol XII St Osyth to the Naze:

North-East Essex Coastal Parishes. Part 1: St Osyth, Great and Little Clacton, Frinton, Great Holland and Little Holland

The latest volume of the Victoria County History of the County of Essex has been presented to Martin Astell the Essex Record Office Manager. This is the first of two volumes covering the North East Essex coastal parishes, from St Osyth to Walton on the Naze. Boydell and Brewer are also offering a spectacular 35% off for a limited period only. More details on that can be found below. All of the Victoria County History volumes draw heavily on the documents which are held at the Essex Record Office.

Boydell & Brewer - A Special Offer: Save 35%

The nine Essex parishes lying in a coastal district between St Osyth and the Naze headland at Walton encompass a number of distinct landscapes, from sandy cliffs to saltmarshes, recognised as environmentally significant. The landscape has constantly changed in response to changing sea levels, flooding, draining and investment in sea defences. Inland, there was an agriculturally fertile plateau based on London Clay, but with large areas of Kesgrave sands and gravels, loams and brickearths. Parts were once heavily wooded, especially at St Osyth.

The district was strongly influenced by the pattern of estate ownership, largely held by St Paul’s Cathedral from the mid-10th century. About 1118-19 a bishop of London founded a house of Augustinian canons at St Osyth, which became one of the wealthiest abbeys in Essex. Most other manors and their demesnes in the district were small and their demesne tenants were of little more than local significance.

Martin Astell, the Essex Record Office Manager adds the ERO’s copy of volume XII to the Searchroom shelves.

The area’s economy was strongly affected by the coast and its many valuable natural resources, including the extraction or manufacture of sand, gravel, septaria, copperas and salt, and activities such as fishing, tide milling, wrecking and smuggling. However, it remained a largely rural district and its wealth ultimately depended upon the state of farming. Until the eighteenth century it specialised in dairying from both sheep and cattle, but afterwards production shifted towards grain.

The coastal area has produced significant evidence of early man and was heavily exploited and settled in prehistory. The medieval settlement pattern largely conformed to a typical Essex model, with a complex pattern of small villages, hamlets and dispersed farms, many located around greens or commons.

Contents

Introduction: The North East Essex Coast; St Osyth; Great and Little Clacton; Frinton; Great Holland; Little Holland; Glossary; Note on Sources; and, Bibliography.

Offer Price £61.75 / $107.25

https://boydellandbrewer.com

Order online at www.boydellandbrewer.com - just enter the offer code BB883 at the checkout Code expires 31.12.2020
Please address all UK and international orders to: Tel: 01243 843291 e-mail customer@wiley.com
Please address all North American orders to: Tel: 610-853-9131 e-mail: casemate@casematepublishers.com

Memories of the Second World War

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.

Advertising poster for Land Army, with the title integrated and positioned in the lower quarter, in red and in dark blue. The text is integrated and placed in the upper right, in black, and across the bottom edge, in light blue. All set against a white background. image: a shoulder-length depiction of a member of the Women's Land Army, smiling and looking directly at the viewer. The text reads: "Keep the farms going while the men are fighting. Join the Womens Land Army. A vital war job... a healthy open-air life"
Copyright: © IWM Art.IWM PST 16608. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/33506


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.

Robbie describes her shock on her first visit to Liverpool Street, London, after the War had started.

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.

Joan describes the upsetting experience of coming ‘home’ to a family she barely knew after so long spent with another family as an evacuee.

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.

John and Violet share their memories of their weekly sweets rations, precious treasures to be guarded and savoured.

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.

VE-DAY CELEBRATIONS IN LONDON. (HU 92607) Women and children at a VE-Day street party in Stanhope Street, London NW1. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205090481

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.

Johnnie describes the immense sense of relief he felt on VE Day, and acknowledges that he was very lucky to have survived the War, living by the docks in East London.

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:

Essex Record Office · Comparing the Second World War to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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.

Or you can find out more about accessing the whole collection on Essex Archives Online (Acc. SA892).

The Association of New Town Archives and Museums

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 post-war archives.

To find out more about the network please contact Richard Anderson at Essex Record Office on Richard.anderson@essex.gov.uk or Dr Alina Congreve the network co-ordinator on alina@congrevemail.co.uk

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

Researching From Home

With Chris Thornton

I am probably known to many as the editor of the Victoria County History of Essex, a project researching and publishing historical accounts of communities in Essex to a standard format as a work of reference.


I am also currently Chairman of the Friends of Historic Essex, the charity that supports the ERO, and a Vice-President (and former officer) of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History. My personal research interests lie in medieval economic and social history, and also landscape history and buildings. I live with my wife Lynn in the centre of Maldon and we have a daughter, Ruth, who is currently studying French and German at the University of Bristol.

Where is your ‘office’?

My ‘official’ office is a room in the centre of the house (the former dining room), but it is currently so overrun with stacked books and paperwork I can’t work in there! I have also taken over the dining table in the bay window in the lounge, which is currently occupied with the notes and books for VCH work on Harwich. My current working space is therefore another dining table in the garden room at the back of the house.

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

The view out of the garden room is, unsurprisingly, of the rear garden. It is only a small space, but south facing, green and peaceful, backing onto Maldon’s Quaker meeting house grounds. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me to learn that I have lost both the keys to the patio doors – so we have to exit out of the side kitchen door!

The garden attracts lots of birds which I enjoy watching, and they will probably like it even more as I have plans to dig up the lawn and plant potatoes. Planning my own personal dig for victory can certainly be (enjoyably) distracting.

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

I have occasional work to do seeing VCH Essex XII (part I) through the publication process, and preparing XII (part II) to start on the process later this year. I am also completing some research on Tudor sources on Harwich for VCH Essex XIII, including court rolls (ERO), the Harwich Town Book (churchwardens’ accounts) (Harwich Town Council archive) and Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills for Harwich (TNA). I have digital photographs of all or part of these sources.

I also have the final amendments to make to an edited volume Dr Thomas Plume, 1630-1704. His Life and Legacies (University of Hertfordshire Press, forthcoming 2020).

And, finally, an introductory article on Colchester’s history to accompany a new volume funded by Colchester Borough Council which brings together all of Dave Stenning’s fabulous reports on Colchester buildings.

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

I was always a night owl, but of recent years increasingly find I can’t work past mid-evening as my brain turns to jelly. With research and note-taking I find I can work solidly to a timetable. With writing I find I have to be in the mood and then the keyboard takes a hammering until inspiration runs out.

Do you have a favourite online resource?

A little dull, but probably the ERO, TNA and BL catalogues.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

It has to be tea. At the moment a large pot – one part English breakfast to one part Earl Grey. Snack intake is reduced due to my type 2 diabetes, but if allowed by the cake-police (Lynn) then any sort of bun or biscuit will do (I’m not that fussy), although admittedly partial to a home-made scone.

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

I play a few on-line games with old school friends, several of them now living in the US. It’s proved a good way of staying in contact as we berate each other about tactical ineptitude or muddled strategy.

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

Some cheery conversation with the archivists and searchroom staff, and meeting up with other researchers and asking for and sharing advice and finding out about other interesting research in progress. I think this is now called networking.

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

Researching From Home

With Adrian Corder-Birch

Adrian Corder-Birch is retired; he has interests in local history, genealogy and industrial archaeology.

Where is your ‘office’?
I prefer to call it a study rather than an office and it is situated on the ground floor.  It contains part of my reference library, a laptop, computer and printer.  My wife, Pam, has her study in the balcony room on the first floor.

Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?
I am fortunate enough to have two windows.  One, where my main desk is, faces west towards the drive.  The other, where my computer is located, faces south across our front garden where magnolia, cherry and other trees are in full bloom, with azaleas and rhododendrons just beginning to come out.

What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?
I am currently completing research for a book about the history of the Portway family and their foundry in Halstead where tortoise stoves were manufactured.  Pam is compiling a separate book about the history of Bois Hall (now demolished) which was a former home to the Portway and many other families.  It is our intention that both books are published and launched simultaneously, when circumstances permit.

Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?
I no longer work to a strict timetable as I am retired.

Do you have a favourite online resource?
I use several online resources and it is difficult to suggest a favourite.  Those I use regularly include Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive, Free BMD and of course Essex Archives Online including Parish Registers.  I also keep an eye on EBAY and sometimes purchase items relating to Essex history.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?
A cup of tea and this time of the year a hot cross bun.

Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?
I am sometimes distracted by wildlife in the garden including squirrels climbing everywhere, noisy partridges, green woodpeckers and occasionally a spotted woodpecker.  I am very fortunate to see this wildlife, which is well worth being distracted.  The main disturbance this time of the year is from rooks, building a rookery in our oak trees and making quite a noise. 

What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?
One of the benefits of the lockdown is that I am beginning to sort through documents and photographs, which should be deposited at the Essex Record Office.  I am looking forward to normal service being resumed so that I can deliver these records, which will undoubtedly help historians in the future.  This will provide an opportunity to see the archivists and archive assistants again, many of whom I have known for some years and have become good friends, quite apart from being extremely helpful and sharing their extensive knowledge.