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.

Give peas a chance Part 2: Protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researching From Home

With Julie Miller

Hi, I am Julie Miller and I am finishing my second year as a part-time History MA student at the University of Essex.  In the summer of 2019 I won a research placement at the Essex Record Office to transcribe and research a handwritten 18th century Journal by a Saffron Walden Quaker called John Farmer.  He is now the subject of my Masters’ dissertation and ongoing research.

When the lockdown was announced my stepdaughter and ten-year-old granddaughter moved in with us so we could all help look after each other.  This means the house is not quite as peaceful as before.  It’s been very special spending time with them, but Nanny Jules is now in charge of home schooling a very reluctant reader.  We have found comic poetry a great resource and my disinclined pupil is enjoying her reading much more. My husband is a Flour Miller and designated a key worker so he is working a lot of extra shifts, day and night so I am trying to keep everything running smoothly for him too.

Where is your office?

Currently my office is a summer house in the garden. Called Miller’s Rest, it was a gift from my husband for my 40th birthday and I usually use it as an art studio.  We have rigged up a rudimentary power supply and I’ve moved all my research materials and laptop up there so I can work in peace. My desk is a curious bit of Colchester history.  It was made for my Uncle out of offcuts of coffin oak from the Co-op Funeral Service workshops many years ago and I inherited it when he passed.  Because its coffin wood it’s a bit narrow, so the laptop doesn’t quite fit, but I manage, and I like the quirkiness of it. I have a really good office chair though and that makes working at an odd desk much more comfortable.

I have a radio because there is always time for Women’s Hour, and I also have a 1920s gramophone and a collection of wonderful 78s by the stars of yesteryear like Elvis, Doris Day, Bill Hayley, Dean Martin and Glen Miller. Sitting out there in the evenings with a drink and the gramophone is a real treat, till the mosquitoes from the pond start munching.

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

From the open doors of Miller’s Rest I can see all the way back down the garden to the rear of our 1920s house where an ill-thought out 1970s extension does nothing to improve the view.  However the side window in front of my desk looks out onto trees overhanging an ancient pond which is currently full of tadpoles.  The sparrows enjoy balancing on twigs over the pond to get a drink, or maybe a nibble on a tadpole and they are very entertaining.  The garden is always distracting, and I am drawn to my greenhouse at this time of year, but I am trying to be disciplined. Sadly there is often a full washing line too.

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

For the last 4 weeks I have been doing a job for one of my tutors, a 22,000-word transcription of a research interview she did with a professor of Chinese Religious History.  Not very Essex at all admittedly, but now that’s finished I am writing an article for the magazine for the Essex Society for Family History.  I was very lucky to win their 2020 Award for my research into John Farmer. They want to know more about him for their readers, and I am happy to oblige.

After the article, I will be turning my full attention to completing my dissertation, which will cover the work I did on the John Farmer Journal while I was at the ERO, and subsequent research I have done to flesh out his later story.  He was a remarkable man who visited the Native Americans and the Caribbean Islands in the 1710-1720s but was thrown out of the Philadelphia Quakers for challenging them to give up slaves and slave trading. He was described as a man of ‘indiscreet zeal’.  He was way ahead of his time and deserves to be recognised. Neil Wiffen at the ERO has challenged me to write a book about Farmer before 2024 which will be the 300th anniversary of John Farmer’s death.  No pressure there then Neil! I will also be continuing my research into John Farmer and his wife Mary for my upcoming PhD which I hope to start in October (lockdown permitting).

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

I try to do at least two hours a day, more if possible but with the cooking and work associated with extra people in the house it is proving tricky.  My Supervisor is starting to make chivvying noises and asking to see draft chapters, so I am beginning to feel the pressure.

Do you have a favourite online resource?

I have been lucky in that I was able to get lots of copied material from the ERO while I was on my placement, and I have visited several times since so I haven’t needed to rely on much online research.  But there are some interesting online resources in America and the UK relating to Quaker history and I have had an enjoyable ongoing discussion with a genealogist from Mobile, Alabama who had posted on the Find a Grave site, to try to resolve some errors in the family history relating to John Farmer.  Note to any researcher – do not upset an American genealogist, they take their work very seriously and luckily I was able to supply documentary proof of my research and they corrected their information.  I think that is quite an achievement.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

Well, as I am writing this on Easter Monday I suppose I would have to say Easter Egg.  However on a (what passes for) normal day I would have a ham sandwich and a packet of crisps washed down with water or diet coke.  Our family have a long tradition of tea or coffee and cake at 4pm, so that is usually when I stop work and we all come together to watch the BBC virus update before planning the evening entertainment.

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

One of my university colleagues has set up a regular quiz on Zoom, several times a week and we all join in from our sofas which has been a lot of fun. My granddaughter has a liking for gambling with grandad’s pennies and we play Newmarket sometimes.  I like folk music so enjoy watching the online live sessions from people like Kate Rusby, Chris Leslie and While and Matthews and being a nosey parker I like seeing their homes.  Also I belong to a local shanty group and we have been using Skype to do virtual unplugged singing sessions.  Its been funny seeing everyone placing themselves in front of bookcases.

Along with that it’s regular calls to family, I am missing my little grandson a lot, and am so thankful that social media allows us to stay in touch.

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

I am desperate to get back into the Colchester and Saffron Walden Quaker minute books from the 17th and 18th century as I am trying to trace John Farmer in both towns, filling in some of the gaps, and also looking for more information about his amazing wife and daughters who all had their own stories to tell.  Also Mary Farmer and her daughter Mary Fulbigg left behind journals that still need transcribing, so I have lots of work ahead of me.

Researching From Home

With Dr James Bettley

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

Where is your office?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a favourite online resource?

British Newspaper Archive. Endlessly diverting.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

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

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

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

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

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

Give peas a chance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Wiffen – Archive Assistant.

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


Parish Registers – Researching Remotely

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

D/P 139/1/0

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

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

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

Elizabeth Wattes Widdow sume tyme the wife of Thomas Wattes the blessed
marter of god who for his treuth suffered his merterdom in the fyre at
Chelmesford the xxij day of may in A[nn]o D[o]m[ini] 1555 in the Reigne of
queen mary was buryed the 10 day 1599 so she liued a widow after his death
xlviij yeres & fro[m] the 22 of may to the 10 july & made a good end like a
good Christian woman in gods name.[iv]

D/P 139/1/0

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Beckwith


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

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

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

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

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

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

[vii] Foxe, p.367

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

[ix] Foxe, p.367

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

[xi] Foxe p.367. 

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

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

Looking for witches in St Osyth

Prof Gibson during her recent visit to ERO

I’ve recently been at the Essex Record Office looking for evidence that will help me tell the story of the “St Osyth” witches of 1582 in a new book. I say “St Osyth” in inverted commas because although the witchcraft accusations that engulfed north-east Essex in 1582 started in St Osyth, in fact there is far more evidence of their impact on surrounding communities than there is on the village itself.

In February 1582, a servant of Lord Darcy at St Osyth Priory complained that her small son was being attacked by witchcraft. Once she had accused a neighbour, Ursley Kemp, and Ursley had confessed to witchcraft then more people came forward to make accusations. More villages in the manors and parishes controlled by the Darcy family – Little Oakley, Beaumont, Moze, Thorpe and Walton le Soken, Little Clacton and others – were drawn in. At least two people were executed and four others died in prison, with multiple other imprisonments too. One woman was released as late as 1588.

This story has fascinated me since I read it as a student over 20 years ago. But there are few surviving records from St Osyth. The Priory was attacked during the Civil War and its estate and parish records were likely lost then – an epic frustration for historians. But the records of the other witch-accusing communities and authorities were more fortunate. Among these is today’s focus: a record of Elizabethan visitations made by the Colchester ecclesiastical authorities to the parishes around St Osyth.

St Osyth itself answered to the Commissary Court of the Bishop of London and, guess what, the Commissary’s early records are lost (you might almost think St Osyth’s documents were cursed…!) but the ecclesiastical team from Colchester visited most of the other witch-rich villages. In each place, they recorded the names of the minister and Churchwardens. And today I found the names of some of the accusers of the 1582 witches and learned that they were Churchwardens too.

Here’s a nice clear link between parish authorities and witch accusations. It’s easy to suppose that religious-reforming folk went after suspected witches but it’s important not to stereotype accusers: they can’t be dismissed as just “fanatical puritans” or “Anglican worthies”. But in this case there’s some documentary evidence that they were the community’s religious leaders. It’s going to need more thinking about as I carry on researching the book.

Essex Record Office is one of the most impressive and friendliest archives in the UK, and it’s come up with the goods once again. Has your village got a hidden history of witchcraft? Were your ancestors accused? Or were they accusers? Are there still stories of witches in your community? So much more to discover.

Professor Marion Gibson – University of Exeter