The Reach of The Marconi Photographic Section

Lewis Smith, the Essex Record Office’s Engagement Fellow, takes a look at some of the things in the Marconi Photographic Section’s archive.

Founded by Guigielmo Marconi in 1897, the Marconi Company (which held various names over its lifetime) were pioneers in wireless technology. Famously based in Chelmsford (regulars in the area will draw attention to places like ‘Marconi Road’ and ‘Navigation Road’), his technologies helped to shape the world we live in today: so much of our lives are a result of their research, from radio to navigation, from aeronautics to maritime, from communications continent to continent.


A11449 – 16748 MARCONI CO. TRADE MARK OR LOGO, 1947.

One part of the most interesting parts of the Marconi Company’s history was the Marconi Photographic Section, whom took hundreds of pictures over the organisation’s lifetime. These records are now stored at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford. Unfortunately, this collection remains largely underused – so the British Society for the History of Science and Essex Record Office tasked me to spend some time scoping out the Marconi Photographic Section’s archive, working out what kind of images are within and, perhaps most importantly, work out how they can be used. Whilst I have only been in the archive for a relatively short period of time (since the beginning of October), there are some very interesting historical angles in desperate need of further research – from business to imperial history, from labour to marketing history.


A11449 – 78774, MAP OF NADGE RADAR CHAIN, 1968

One thing to note is that there are a lot of pictures of non-descript machines and circuitry – fans of the history of electronic engineering need look no further: historians of oscilloscopes, transmitters and receivers, power supplies, RADAR arrays, and pretty much all kinds of specialist electronic engineering will find something of interest here. These images present an extensive product history of Marconi’s inventions and patents. Perhaps more generally appealing, there is a lot for those interested in maritime and aeronautical history: one of the key ideas that came about from wireless communication was the idea of wireless navigation, and Marconi fitted many different pieces of equipment to aircraft and ships to aid in their navigation around the globe.


A11449 – 15771, TYPE D.F.G.26 RECEIVER WITH OSCILLOSCOPE TYPE O.R.3, 1945

But the view of higher international politics, engineering and industry are only one side of the coin: the prevalence of this technical equipment masks ordinary life. The archive presents us with a rich social history of the worker and their working practices. Workers, many male and female, black and white, British and international, are presented in the factories assembling intricate circuits. To look at the ethnography behind the people in these pictures reveals the clear shifts, both natural and forcible, in middle and working class employment. Notice particularly with image 2015 – everyone is happy and content, giving the viewer the impression that everything was okay working for Marconi. It wasn’t always this sweet.


A11449 – 2015, GIRLS WINDING & LACQUERING SHOP AT WORKS, 1919

As this is evidently the photographic archive of a business, there is huge scope for a business historian. These photographs are frozen moments in time, specifically captured because they want to show a particular angle, person, product or scene – why one moment and not another? Why one person over another? Why one place over another? More specifically, there are multiple photographs of how the Marconi Company attempted to market itself in a world of innovation: some of the most interesting pictures are of the exhibits set up to advertise wireless communication at various exhibitions.


A11449 – 2464, MARCONI STAND, AERO EXHIBITION, OLYMPIA, 1920

What is most interesting about the archive is the company’s vast spread throughout the globe: as with any history of the twentieth century, Empire remains front and centre. Imperial conquerors can come and go as they please, but radio technology meant the constant connection between colony and coloniser. Furthermore, the concept of technological Imperialism remained hot in this period: teaching others how to use Marconi equipment orients them towards using that equipment for a long time, forcing the colony to ask for technical help from the coloniser. This relationship is observable in the photographic archives as Marconi equipment was placed in different colonies, greatly expanding the imperial nation’s reach.


A11449 – 3070, MAHARAJAH USING A MARCONI TELEPHONE IN INDIA, No date.

Art lovers may also find something worthwhile in the archives. There are photographs of many different artistic drawings by members of staff in the collection depicting a variety of different scenes. The collection features many talented artists, as well as plastic models of Marconi scenes and vehicles, models of scientific principles, and copious drawings. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that science and art are two separate unconnected topics, but the collection features some stunning images which clearly appeal to the art behind science.


A11449 – 14559, PAINTING ENTITLED “VOICE OF FREEDOM”, 1943.

This collection is for use in the Essex Record Office under Accession A11449 in over 100 individual boxes. This project hopes to eventually digitise and map these images to show the company’s reach. I have spent time electronically tagging the pictures with keywords: if you would be interested in looking at this spreadsheet or further discussing the project, do contact me at lcsmit@essex.ac.uk. Whether for research or for a casual perusal, this collection really has a lot to offer!

An Essex Quaker Visits the Native Americans

Julie Miller, a masters student from University of Essex, has taken up a research placement at the Essex Record Office, conducting an exploration into the story of John Farmer and his adventures, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, and has been jointly funded by the Friends of Historic Essex and University of Essex.  Julie will be publishing a series of updates from the 12-week project.

In May 1713 John Farmer was in Maryland attending the Western Shore Yearly Meeting of Friends..

“Afterwards I staid som time in Maryland & wrought with my hands at wool combing… While I was here I received fresh orders from Christ to have meetings amongst Indians in order to their convershon to Christ & to go to Virginia & Pensilvaina & ye west Indies in his service.” [i]

Farmer then set out to meet the local Native American communities properly and having had a good meeting amongst friends he commented that he had given testimony amongst “Indians and some Chief Indians and they were glad of it and marvelled that no such thing had been before offered to them”[ii]

He went on to say an interpreter spoke Farmer’s testimony and prayer at a meeting “to which the Indians several times gave their approbation in their way by giving a sound” [iii]. We can only wonder what form that sound took.

In August 1713 Farmer was at the Mulberry Grove plantation in Maryland at an evening meeting at George Truit’s house, where they were joined by a Native American priest, an interpreter and a number of other Native Americans.  Later in the evening they were joined by the “Indian King” who “spake very good English” and invited Farmer to visit their settlement.   In September 1713 he had a memorable visit lodging with the “Shuana Indians” at Conestoga on the Susquehanna River, staying in what he described as an “Indian King’s Palace”, where he slept on “bare [bear] skins on scaffolds before a good fire, for it was a cold frosty night”[iv]

Extract of page 8 of Part 2 of the Journal of John Farmer dated December 1714.  Essex Record Office Cat D/NF 3 addl. A13685 Box 50

In September 1713 Farmer was at the Philadelphia yearly meeting where he told the assembled Friends that he wanted to spend more time with the Native Americans and he received a Certificate of Unity from the Philadelphia Friends and received help and translators to hold meetings in Pennsylvania and share his testimony of the story of Jesus.

Farmer spent six months travelling and preaching with the Native Americans.  On 9th October 1713 there was a

large meeting amongst Indians nere Brandy Wine River in Chester County in Pennsylvania. Where a honest Swede did well Interpret for mee. It was a large & satisfactory meeting to the Indians & to our friends & to mee at the End. Whereof the Indians said that they were pleased with what they heard in the meeting.”[v]

John Farmer was aware that the Native Americans had a belief in God and the Devil and a concept of heaven and hell:

“The Indians have a beliuef of God. & that hee hath a son. & that hee is Good. & that the good people when they dy goe to him: & bee alwais in pleasure. But after ye bad people dy they are alwaise in affliction. The Indians also say yt there is a Divel who is bad & ye Author of badness & they are afraid of him.” [vi]

Virginia and Maryland Map Augustine & Moll Hermann C1700

But he reported that much trouble was being caused in the Native American communities by rum.  One man told him about a dream story he had heard:

The Indian in a trance had one com to him & bid him goe back & live well & then when hee dyed hee should be amongst thouse Indians who were in pleasure. Hee was asked why then did hee live badly by drinking to much Rum. Hee answered that before white people cam amongst them they were good & kind one to another but now they are becom bad & hard to one a nother that they may have wherewithal to buy Rum.”[vii]

At a meeting on 18th October 1713 at Conestoga, Farmer met up with Philadelphia Friends Hugh Lowden and Andrew Job.  At a meeting they convinced the Native Americans there to send one of their sons to Philadelphia to be taught to read and write in order that he could translate and ensure that “the love that hath hitherto been between you and us continuew between our Children and your Children after us, which the Indians assented to” [viii].

Farmer was obviously interested in the Native American’s spiritual understanding of the world around them and he reported the story of one hunter’s unearthly encounter:

“Ye sd Indian had bad luck in hunting. At wch hee was troubled & then see a man in white Raiment stand before him. Who asked him why hee was troubled & further said dost thou not know yt there is a great God who ruleth althings & giveth good luck to whome hee please? Do thou live well & teach ye Indians to do so too & then hee will give thee good things. The Indian asked him his name where upon hee gave himselfe ye name of a bird (wch the Indians say is so holy yt hee never tocheth ye ground) & then vanished out of the Indian’s sight.” [ix]

Within the journal I have not found references to Native American communities resisting or objecting to the conversations with John Farmer in particular and the Quaker’s in general.   He was not the first Quaker visitor, Thomas Chalkley had been at Conestoga in 1706 and had a good relationship with a female tribal leader who he called “an old Empress” who had dreamed that a friend of William Penn’s would be visiting and had advised her people to allow them to preach. Thus the foundations had already been laid for Native Americans to be receptive to the Quaker message.  At least initially.[x]

By November 1713 John Farmer was back in Philadelphia where he tallied up the miles he had travelled since arriving in America and found it to be 5607 miles.   It was then time to start planning for the next part of his journey, to the Caribbean Islands.

And so we leave our intrepid Essex Friend in Philadelphia, waiting for the ship to take him all the way to Barbados.


[i] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.50

[ii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.50

[iii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.50

[iv] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.50

[v] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.55

[vi] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.56

[vii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.56

[viii] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.55

[ix] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.56

[x] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.55

For further information see Thomas Chalkey’s Journal for 1706 chap 45: http://www.archive.org/stream/journalofthomasch00chal/journalofthomasch00chal_djvu.txt

Operation Market Garden: 75 Years Ago Today

Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen looks at a military operation crucial to ending the Second World War, which took place over 17-19 September 1944.

Essex played a vital role throughout the Second World War, being crucially placed to help in the defence of London, home to many important industries, as well as being a base for many British and American aircraft taking the fight to the Germans in occupied Europe. By the late summer of 1944, following on from the success of the Normandy invasion and liberation of much of occupied western Europe, there was a real hope that, after five years, the war could be finished before the start of 1945.

Flushed with the success of the advance across France and into Belgium the British commander, Field Marshall Montgomery, planned a new offensive for mid-September to drive a spearhead of troops that would outflank German defences by crossing the rivers Meuse, Waal and Lower Rhine. This would allow the deployment of armoured and mechanised forces to drive on Berlin and finish the war. In order to enable the ground forces to cross the many rivers in their way, para-troops and glider-borne infantry would be deployed to capture the bridges crossing them, creating a ‘carpet’ of friendly troops to make the advance of the ground forces as easy, and, crucially, as swift as possible.

Three airborne divisions were used: the American 82nd and 101st Airborne and the British 1st Airborne, the latter to be dropped furthest away from the relieving ground forces – their objective being the bridge at Arnhem. The airborne phase of the plan was codenamed MARKET while the ground-based operation was given the name of GARDEN. The lightly armed and equipped airborne troops had to be relieved as quickly as possible by the ground units – speed was of the essence. Perhaps the joint operation is most well-known to us from the 1977 film – A Bridge Too Far.

The 101st Airbrone Division was reinforced with 12 glider serials on September 18, 1944. In this photo, Waco gliders are lined up on an English airfield in preparation for the next lift to Holland. Apart from the serial number on the tail (the nearest is 339953) there are no other markings, which suggests these gliders are yet to be issued to the units that are going to use them. By U.S. Army Signal Corp – http://www.amazing-planet.net/operation-market-garden-chronology.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6080516

The operation commenced on Sunday 17 September. The first many people in Essex knew of it was when the vast aerial armadas of gliders (over 2,000 of these were on hand) and their tug aircraft (almost 2,000, mainly the famous Douglas C-47 Dakota, were available) flew over the county (the author’s father, then a teenager, retained vivid memories of the aircraft flying low over Broomfield on their way to mainland Europe). It is this phase of the operation that concerns us here.

Due to the large force of paratroops and gliders that were required, along with the dropping of supplies, several days of flying had to be undertaken to bring in more troops and equipment. This just added to the complex nature of running an airborne operation, increasing the risks inherent in conducting a successful engagement. The weather played a crucial part: gliders really did need quite still and stable conditions.to be launched. Conditions were not always kind. Early morning fog and mist delayed the launching of further reinforcement flights. By 19 September conditions had deteriorated, but resupply and reinforcement flights had to continue despite the risks.

In the afternoon of 19 September, at 13:15, an American Waco CG-4 glider broke its tow rope and came down in a field, ending up in a ditch in High Easter. Fourteen soldiers and the two crew hadn’t made it to the continent. Shortly afterwards, at 14:05, another CG-4 came down for the same reason, along with its pilot and six soldiers, near to Spitals Farm, Tolleshunt D’Arcy.

We know about these gliders because they were recorded in the Air Raid Precautions records which are still held at the Essex Record Office. These incidents are from the Crashed Aircraft series of records – three extracts below (C/W 1/11, click to enlarge images).

Of interest are the details contained in each report. A six-figure map grid reference is quoted for each report, which allows us to accurately plot where the event took place. These references correlate to the GSGS 3906 War Office series of maps (c.1940), which is different from our current National Grid Ordnance Survey (OS) map references. Luckily ERO has a set of these maps, and we include an extract to show where in High Easter the glider landed.

As the GSGS 3906 series of maps are at a 1:25,000 scale we have also included an extract of the same area from a 2nd Edition 6 Inch OS (1895) map which, while from the nineteenth century, does show the area in more detail. Also, being mapped on an individual county basis means that these earlier maps cover a different area. This allows us to also show Blunts farm, which is mentioned in the report but which is just off of the GSGS map extract – thus observing the First Law of Local History Research which says that whatever part of the county you are researching will always be on at least two maps, but often four!

Extract from GSGS Prov. Ed. 1:25,000 map, sheet 59/22NE, c.1940.
Extract from GSGS Prov. Ed. 1:25,000 map, sheet 59/22NE, c.1940. This kilometre square shows the area in which the glider came down. The six-figure grid reference, 099349, places it in the top right-hand corner.
Extract from 2nd Ed. 6 inch OS, sheet 33SW, 1895. ‘X’ marks the spot in this larger scale map. Possibly it was the northern boundary to this field that contained the ditch the glider ended up in?

The glider that came down in High Easter was recorded as having the following numbers on it: 274026 (serial number?), 29B (individual aircraft squadron number?) and 6413. The entry for the second glider is even more revealing. We know that the aircraft number in this case was 340369 and that the pilot was called Lionel Neyer with Sergeant Prupey[?]. They had taken off from Greenham Common. This would mean that this glider at least was being towed by a Dakota from the 438th Troop Carrier Group. (R.A. Freeman, UK Airfields of the Ninth then and now (London [1994]), p.16).

That’s about all we know, so over to you. What can you tell us about these events? Did you have a relative living in High Easter or Tolleshunt D’Arcy who was eyewitness to these momentous happenings? Do you know what happened to Flying Officer Neyer and Sergeant Prupey? Are you an expert on WACO CG-4 gliders and can tell us more about them? Comment below, or e-mail us to share your stories and research.

An Essex Quaker’s American Adventure 1711 – 1713

Julie Miller, a masters student from University of Essex, has taken up a research placement at the Essex Record Office, conducting an exploration into the story of John Farmer and his adventures, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, and has been jointly funded by the Friends of Historic Essex and University of Essex.  Julie will be publishing a series of updates from the 12-week project.

In this installment we will look at some of the encounters John Farmer had in pre-revolutionary America.

Having returned to Essex in England from his Irish adventures in May 1711, and not being one to stay in a place for long, by Autumn 1711 John Farmer was off on his travels again.  Before travelling John Farmer’s wife Mary, step daughter Mary Fulbigg and 10-year-old daughter Ann moved from Colchester where they had settled in 1708, back to Saffron Walden. John explained further in his journal:

“I staid at home a little with my wife & helped hur to remove to Saffron Walden. For shee thought it best for hur in my absence to bee there amongst hur relations with hur lame daughter whom she hoped there to help in to busness whereby shee might git hur a living: which shee could not doo at Colchester.  But Colchester is ye best place of ye 2 for my wifes nursing & my woolcoming.  Whereby wee earned good wages there untill my wife was taken from it by hur daughters sickness & I was taken from it by ye Lords sending mee to Ireland as aforesaid”.[i]

John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.46

After putting his affairs in order John Farmer set off from Gravesend on 1st November 1711 on a ship called the Thomas of London, captained by Master Benjamin Jerrum.  The voyage was uneventful, and John Farmer was allowed to hold meetings on board and landed in Maryland at the beginning of March 1711/12 having spent 4 months at sea.  Having been met of the ship by well-known Quaker Richard Johns Senior, John Farmer stayed with Mr Johns at his house ‘Clifts’, in Calvert County while he travelled within Maryland, and held several meetings along the Western Shore before travelling on to Virginia where he held a further eighteen meetings. 

In Virginia Farmer was troubled by reports that local Quakers had been imprisoned for refusing to help build garrisons or fortifications.  This reluctance was due to a key principle of the Quaker movement, the Peace Testimony declared by founder George Fox in 1660, which was a vow of pacifism that endures to this day.[ii]  Quakers refused to have any part in building fortifications and rejected all weapons of war. Farmer recounted stories of the harm done by the local Native American people to settlers who had been persuaded to take up arms, and the Quakers saved by tribespeople when they held no weapons: 

“For I have been cridditably Informed yt som friends hereaway for severall years (in obedience to Christ) have refused to make use of Garrisons & carnall weapons for their defence against Indians: & have Insteed thereof made use of faith in God  & prayer to God: & hee hath saved them from beeing destroyed by Indians …who did destroy their neighbours who did use weapons, particularly one man whom his neighbours perswaded to carry a gun, but the Indians seeing him with a gun shot him deadly and they afterwards said that it was his carrying a gun that caused them to kill him which otherwise they would not have done.”

Moving on to North Carolina John Farmer was troubled to hear of a recent massacre 20 miles away and reported in his journal that he heard a Quaker had forcibly taken land from the local native Americans, “whereas hee might have bought his land for an iron pottage pot.”

Herman Moll: New England, New York, New Jersey and Pensilvania, (sic)1729

Native American communities had suffered considerably at the hands of the new settlers who raided the villages and kidnapped the people to be sold into slavery and stole land. The tribes had also suffered substantial population decline after exposure to the infectious diseases endemic to Europeans. As a result, under the leadership of Chief Hancock, the southern Tuscarora allied with the Pamlico, the Cothechney, Coree, Woccon, Mattamuskeet and other tribes to attack the settlers in a series of coordinated strikes that took place in Bath County, North Carolina on 22nd September 1711 and which heralded the start of the Tuscarora War that lasted until 1715. [iii]

John Farmer described the suffering of that Quaker family in the Bath County Massacre though it is clear where he felt the fault lay.

“These Indians haveing been much wronged by English French & pallitins did at last come sudenly upon ym & kiled & took prisoners, as i was told 170 of them & plundered & burnt their houses. Amongst the rest ye said Friend was kiled as he lay sick in his bedd & his wife & 2 young children wer caried away captive & Induered much hardship.  But upon a peace made with ye Indians they were delivered & returned to Pensilvania.” [iv]

Travelling back to Virginia and then Maryland John Farmer attended the 1711 Yearly Meeting at West River on the Western Shore of Maryland but there he contracted ‘ague & feavor’ which made him too ill to travel for four weeks and began what he called a “sickly time for mee and others”.  This was almost certainly Malaria which was endemic at the time. Eventually he recovered, and travelled on to New York, Rhode Island and Nantucket Island before arriving in Dover, New England. He was not specific about the date, but it was sometime in 1712.  Farmer recorded that he held many meetings amongst Friends and others “notwithstanding the danger from the Indian Wars which had long been destructive in this part of New England.”[v]  

In the winter of 1712 Farmer was in Rhode Island where he nearly died after being injured in a fall from his horse.  But by May 1713 he was recovered enough to attend meetings at Long Island, East and West Jersey and back to Maryland where he spent some time working at wool combing again, presumably to increase his depleted funds. 

It was here that “I received fresh orders from Christ to have meetings amongst Indians in order to their conversation to Christ and to go to Virginia and Pensilvania and the West Indies in his service”.[vi]  And thus the next year’s travel was planned. 

And that is where we can leave John Farmer, planning his first expedition to take the Quaker message to the Native American people.  And those encounters will make up the content of the next article.


[i] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.44

[ii] To George Fox, this principle served a two-fold purpose, as a protest against the horrors of the English Civil Wars, and to try to mitigate the opportunity for violence to be done to Quakers, if they were perceived as peaceful, if rather disruptive, themselves.  For more information see M Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay, 2017, Verso, London Ch 1, p.19

[iii] The Tuscarora War was fought in North Carolina from September 1711 until February 1715 between the British, Dutch, and German settlers and the Tuscarora Native Americans. The Europeans enlisted the Yamasee and Cherokee as Indian allies against the Tuscarora, who had amassed several allies themselves. Principal targets were the planters along the Roanoke, Neuse, and Trent rivers and the city of Bath. They mounted their first attacks on 22nd September 1711 and killed hundreds of settlers. One witness, a prisoner of the Tuscarora, recounted stories of women impaled on stakes, more than 80 infants slaughtered, and more than 130 settlers killed. The militia and approximately 500 Yamasee marched into Tuscarora territory and killed nearly 800, and after a second assault on the main village, King Hancock, the Tuscarora chief, signed a treaty. After a treaty violation by the English, war erupted again.  The militia and about 1,000 Indian allies travelled into Tuscarora territory. Approximately 400 Tuscarora were sold into slavery.  The remaining Tuscarora fled northward and joined the Iroquois League as the Sixth Nation.

For more information about these events see

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuscarora_War

https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/tuscarora-war/

https://tuscaroranationnc.com/tribal-history

[iv] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.46

[v] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.47

[vi] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p.50

An Essex Quaker Goes Into the World -The Scottish Journey 1707-08

Julie Miller, a masters student from University of Essex, has taken up a research placement at the Essex Record Office, conducting an exploration into the story of John Farmer and his adventures, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, and has been jointly funded by the Friends of Historic Essex and University of Essex.  Julie will be publishing a series of updates from the 12-week project.

Before looking at the next phase of John Farmer’s life I wanted to look first at the complexities associated with the diaries or journals of people living before the 1750s.

The Wool Comber. Image from The Book of English Trades 1827.

In 1751 England and her empire, including the American colonies, still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which was now eleven days ahead of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and in use in most of Catholic Europe. Years were counted from New Year’s Day being on March 25th, so for example 24th of March was in 1710 and March 25th was in 1711. In addition Quaker’s provided an extra difficulty as they refused to recognise the common names for days of the weeks, or months as they were associated with pagan deities or Roman emperors. So a Quaker would write a date as 1:2mo 1710 which was actually the 1st April 1710 as March was counted as the first month.

In 1751 this all changed when the British government decreed the Gregorian form of calendar was to be adopted and the year would be counted from 1st January 1752. At the 1751 London Meeting for Sufferings the Quakers issued a document advising Friends how to adjust to the new way of counting years but refused to acknowledge the naming of days and months as being based on ‘Popish Superstition’.i

London Meeting of the Sufferings Advice on Regulation Commencement of the Year, 1751, Essex Record Office – A13685 Box 53.

John Farmer’s Journal, stored at the Essex Record Office, is a handwritten account of one man’s travels in the eighteenth century taking the Quaker message to communities in Ireland, Scotland, America and even the Caribbean Islands. Because he was writing in the first quarter of the 18th Century he used old style dating , and the Quaker method for numbering days and months as described above. A first day is a Sunday, a first month is March, so I have calculated all dates into Common Era notation, and dual dated years for dates shown between January and March.

Farmer wrote the journal after he returned in 1714 from his first American journey. He was born in Somerset in 1667, brought up a Baptist, and almost immediately following his Baptism in 1684 he sought fellowship with the Quakers of Stogumber in Somerset and Cullompton in Devon and began work as an itinerant wool comber. He travelled throughout England with his trade before settling in Saffron Walden where he married a fellow Quaker, widow and nurse Mary Fulbigg in 1698 and started family life with his wife, her daughter Mary from her earlier marriage, and they were joined in 1701 by another daughter, Ann. However both John and his wife were also drawn to preaching the Quaker testimony and were prepared to travel many miles in the ministry.

John Farmer quotes numerous biblical tracts within his journal, but one resonates in particular as being his inspiration: “And he said unto ym go ye into all ye world & preach ye gospel to every creature.”ii Gospel of St. Mark, chapter 16, verse 15. And John Farmer certainly travelled far and wide to preach the gospel wherever he could.

The first section of his journal details his intention to have the book published, “for ye good of soules now and in future ages”. The second part details his religious testimony, his early life in Somerset before his conversion to Quakerism, and his struggles with keeping true to his faith. He goes on to describe his travels, alone or occasionally with his wife. He travelled throughout Britain and Ireland holding public meetings to preach his testimony, sometimes with disastrous and occasionally unwittingly humorous results.  The third section of the journal is an account of his journey through the eastern states of America, visiting Native American communities and travelling to the islands of the Caribbean, in an extraordinary expedition that lasted nearly 3 years. We will be looking at the various places he visited and the adventures he had in later posts.

In 1705 Farmer obtained a certificate giving the Thaxted Quaker Monthly Meeting’s blessing on his idea of travelling to ‘severall parts of England.”iii

Certificate for John Farmer to travel in the ministry, dated 24th of 2nd mo 1705 (24th April 1705) Essex Record Office – A13685 Box 47 Bundle F5.

However when he asked the Saffron Walden Friends to approve his revised plan which was to now include Scotland and Ireland in 1706 he reported there was some opposition to the scheme. A letter in the Essex Record Office archive gives us a clue to the possible attitude of the Thaxted Friends. Written by John Mascall of Finchingfield and dated 25th 2nd month 1707 (25th April 1707) Mascall tells the monthly meeting that “Reciting the case of the Talents Given; to some more, some lesse, which everyone is fitfull to and not go beyond it” he had advised John Farmer to “weight a while… to exercise his talents nearer to home…”iv which must have been very disappointing to a man so desperate to take his testimony out into the world.

This delay led to John Farmer suffering what he saw as God’s chastisement for the delay with a 4-month long bout of piles, an affliction he described as ‘Himrodicall paine’. Clearly this was not a condition beneficial to long expeditions on horseback.

Eventually a certificate was issued by the Thaxted meeting in May 1707 , interestingly signed by both Mary Farmer and the previously doubtful John Mascall, and so John Farmer began his travels in earnest. He and Mary went to Nottingham, and then John went on alone to Scotland.

Certificate for John Farmer to travel in the ministry, dated 29th of 3rd mo 1707 (29th May 1707) Essex Record Office – A13685 Box 47 Bundle F5.

Whilst in Durham on his way to Scotland John Farmer sent a loving letter to his wife Mary, dated 16th June 1707 where he asks her to send mail care of “Bartie Gibson the Blacksmith of Edinburgh”. He reminds Mary to keep the children reading the bible and “tell ym I would have them remember their creator & love him more than their Idolls”.vi

John made his first visit of six months to Ireland which he briefly covers in saying that he “attended all the meetings there and held several meeting at inns and on the street where people were attentive and civil.” He then headed back to Scotland again where he mentions preaching in Port Patrick, Stranraer, Govern, Ayr, Douglas and elsewhere. He complained some Scottish people were rude and in Penrith, Cumberland (Cumbria) he was assaulted at a Sunday meeting when: “the Divil raged & stired up a man to abuse mee by throwing dirt in my face & striking mee”vii

In Ormskirk John Farmer was imprisoned for a night by the Constable for holding a meeting in the street. From Lancashire where Mary met up again with her husband, the Farmers travelled homeward, stopping in London for the 1708 yearly meeting before going home to Colchester where they had now settled, and where they remained until January 1711 when the urge to travel struck John Farmer yet again.

In the next post we will look at Farmer’s 1711 visit to the West of Ireland, where he was not widely welcomed.


i London Meeting of Sufferings Advice on Regulating Commencement of the Year, 1751, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 52

ii John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p1

iii Thaxted Monthly Meeting Minutes 1705, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 47 Bundle F5

iv Letter from John Mascall 1707, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 47 Bundle F5

v Certificate for John Farmer to travel in the ministry 1705, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 47 Bundle F5

vi Letter from John Farmer to Mary Farmer Durham 1707 Essex Record Office Cat D/NF 3 addl. A13685 Box 51

vii John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p28 [1] John Farmer Journal, Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51, p28

Changing land usage in Essex

Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen reflects on the changing pattern of land usage and the historic value of meadows to the Essex landscape.

There is currently much in the media about climate change and environmental degradation. We hear on almost a daily basis about the threat to different ecosystems and landscapes, as well as about worldwide species loss. We in the UK are not immune, and subjects such as the loss of meadows and the threat to bees are now quite common topics of discussion. Recently the BBC reported that, ‘over 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s, that’s a startling 7.5 million acres (3 million hectares). Species-rich grassland now only covers a mere 1% of the UK’s land area’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20150702-why-meadows-are-worth-saving).

What have bees and meadows got to do with the Essex Record Office (ERO), we hear you ask? Well, working among our wonderful archives we are used to seeing lost landscapes of the past as depicted in maps or described in documents – a land before industrial agriculture and large-scale urbanisation.

One important, almost universal feature of any parish’s landscape would have been that ‘species-rich grassland’ mentioned by the BBC. They were generally described as meadows, which the ERO’s trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (1933) defines as, ‘a piece of land covered with grass that is mown for use as hay. In later use often extended to include any piece of grass land’ (pasture, on the other hand, was used for general grazing of livestock). Look at any tithe, enclosure or estate map and there the meadows will be, often listed and somewhere along the way appraised as well.

Part of 1609 map of White Roding showing meadowland
Extract from John Walker junior’s 1609 ‘trewe and perfect’ plan of the ‘landes belonging to the Mannor of Mascalls Bury … within the parish of White Roodinge’ (D/DC 27/1118). It depicts the ‘Longe’ and ‘Shorte’ meadows adjacent to the moated house. Another important aspect of the farm and household economy, the orchard, can also be seen close by the house. Do note the spelling of arable as ‘Eareable’ – one can almost hear the Essex accent across the centuries!

— An image of the same location from Google Satellite, 2019.

The importance of meadows to people in the past was immense, particularly before the introduction of fodder crops, such as turnips, through the 17th and 18th centuries. Meadows were mown for hay in summer which was then used to feed overwintering livestock. Therefore the amount of hay harvested determined the number of cattle that could be kept over-winter. So a good hay crop was an essential product of the agricultural year, with the whole community coming together to ensure it was harvested and stored successfully.

The high regard that meadows were held in can be seen by how they were valued. When the Escheator compiled the Inquisition Post Mortem (TNA, C 134/74/19) on the death of Nicholas Dengayne in 1322/3, his manors of Colne Engaine and Prested Hall (Feering) were valued. The 240 acres of arable land in the former was valued at 4 pence per acre, while 140 acres in the latter was 3 pence per acre. By comparison the 6 acres of mowing meadow at Colne Engaine and 5 acres at Prested Hall were all valued at 2 shillings per acre –  the equivalent of 24 pence per acre, or six to eight times the value of the arable land.

Quite what types of grasses and flowers these ‘traditional’ meadows were made up of is unknown, but we have to assume in an age before widespread use of agricultural chemicals they were very species rich with lots of insects as well. Not all ‘grassland’ was equal to a well-established meadow. By the 1930s 302,803 acres of ‘permanent grass’ was recorded in Essex (The Land of Britain: the Report of The Land Utilisation Survey of Britain part 82 Essex, copy  in ERO Library, Box 95), of which 92,300 was for hay – possibly this was mainly ancient meadows. The remaining 210,503 acres might not have been of the highest quality but rather a result of the agricultural depressions of pre and post First World War. This would have been the case with the 38,977 acres of ‘rough grazing’ – not all grassland was equal!

A local meadow in glorious technicolour! Along with various grasses there is knapweed, scabious and lady’s bedstraw. The honeyed aroma of the latter is intoxicating on a sunny day!

Now, we are beginning to appreciate our meadows once more and recognise their value as habitats to vital wildlife. While there has been a great loss of meadows, more are being planted, for example by conservation charity Plantlife. Perhaps our maps and documents will guide where new meadows could be sown?

What can you find out about your local landscape history? Check our introduction to the main sources for starting a place history, then come and explore what we have in our Searchroom.

Time for an Index: Essex Record Office in partnership with Ancestry.com

After a lot of work we are finally able to announce that the Essex Record Office, working alongside Ancestry.com have launched a new searchable index of the Essex parish registers. Searching for your Essex ancestors is now easier than ever!

In celebration of our new partnership with Ancestry.com, Edward Harris, Customer Service Team Lead, takes a look at some of the stories found in the pages of our parish registers. Read on for more information about what we have been working on with Ancestry.com.

D/P 94/1/1 – Parish register for St Mary the Virgin, Chelmsford.

The Parish Registers of England, containing as they do the records of baptisms, marriages and burials made by the Church of England are frequently the start and the backbone of a genealogist’s journey into family history. Prior to 1837 and the start of civil registration, they are essential for family history. Unfortunately they are all too often the end of that journey. When the next link cannot be made or one elusive great, great, great, great grandparent fails to materialise, it is usually normally the pages of a parish register that we are gazing at.

Despite the frustrations so many of us hardy researchers are well aware of, it cannot have escaped our notice that within this great national collection there are a countless stories. These stories provide snippets of the joys and sorrows of everyone, whether normal or extraordinary. They can be better than any soap opera but always tantalising because of what they often don’t tell us and the questions they can’t answer for us. We decided to take a retrospective look at some of the stories we have unearthed over the years at the Essex Record Office where a helpful curate or vicar has decided to provide us with a few extra snippits of information.

The parish burial register for St Mary the Virgin in Hatfield Broad Oak includes in its pages the sad and untimely death of 5 year old Betsy Rogers burnt to death, and two extraordinary marginal notes on that page give a clue as to how:

D/P 4/1/26 – The burial register for St Mary the Virgin, Hatfield Broad Oak showing the burial of Betsey Rogers.

Feb.y 7. A frost of 7 weeks broke up today. Temperature 12° below freezing point! Many persons frozen to death. One at Gt Canfield, one at Sawbridgeworth.

The seat of Lord Rendlesham (Rendlesham Hall, Suffolk) burnt to the ground, damage = 100,000£; The seat of Lord Sandwich (Hinchinbroke, Huntingdonshire) also destroyed by fire with title deeds, fine pictures, etc.; The Argyle Rooms, Regent St, London also destroyed by fire. Lyceam also…All in Jan.y in Feb.y arising from the unusual heating of flues etc. in consequence of the uncommon severity of the season.

The register for Little Clacton contains a very sad and somewhat mysterious story dating from 1592, when a bride, Prudence Lambert, hanged herself the morning after her wedding to Clement Fenn.

D/P 80/1/1 – Marriage register for Little Clacton showing the marriage of Clement Fenn and Prudence Lambert.

Clement Fenn singleman, and Prudence the late wife of Nycholas Lambert, wch dwelt in Little Clacton Lodge; were maryed uppon Teusdaye [six], the xvth day of August; but the (most accursed creature), did the verye next morning, desperatelie hang her selfe, to the intolerable grieffe of her new maryed husband, and the dreadfull horror and astonishment of all the countrye.

Prudence’s burial is recorded two days later in the same register.

D/P 80/1/1 – Burial register for Little Clacton showing the burial of Prudence Fenn.

Prudence Fen, now the wife of Clem[e]nt Fen, and late the wife of the above named Nicholas Lambert; was buried out of the compas of Christian burial; in ye furthest syde of the churchyard northward; uppon the xviith daye of August; for that shee most accursedlie hanged her selfe.

A slightly happier story is found in the parish register from Ugley (one of Essex’s more esoteric place names) in 1759 which records the baptism of:

Anne daughter of John Grimshaw, a Sailor in the Dreadnought Man of War, & Jane his wife found in Labour in the Road, & taken care of by the Parish, was born June 27th & baptized July 7th

D/P 373/1/2 – baptism register for Ugley including Anne’s birth.

From these stories of life and death, to the sort of story that leaves family historians pulling out their hair in frustration.

In 1862 the baptism register for St Mary Magdalene in Harlow recorded the reason for its early closure. The registers had been removed from the church by the curate Revd William Raymond Scott who took them to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands). The curate had travelled to accompany the new Bishop of Honolulu to the island, but also to chaperone 70 young women destined for a life in Australia.

The registers would survive a mutiny, make a brief stop at the Falkland islands and Australia before reaching Hawaii. Fortunately the registers did return to the church 2 years after leaving these shores and so are still available to researchers.

D/P 533/1/1 – parish register for Harlow with note explaining closure of registers.

Fortunately, provided the register in question isn’t on a voyage around the world, searching the Essex parish registers is now easier than ever!

Since 2011, the Record Office’s service Essex Archives Online (www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk) has been making Church of England parish registers – and some other documents – available as digital images. Off-site, this works as a subscription scheme, offering various lengths of subscription between 1 day and 1 year. Some documents on the system, such as wills, come with their own name indexes, but the parish registers do not. Subscribers looking for a particular baptism, marriage or burial have often had to work through a whole parish year by year.

The ERO has now teamed up with Ancestry, the world’s largest online commercial family history website, to offer a new way to access the data. Ancestry have created a name index to the parish register images, and Ancestry users can click straight through from the index to Essex Archives Online in order to buy a copy of the indexed image. Images are emailed out automatically on payment; each one costs £2.99 including VAT.

Essex Archives Online expands as new registers are deposited, but currently it holds about 600,000 images of Anglican parish registers deposited either in the ERO itself or in Waltham Forest Archives. The registers cover the whole of the present county of Essex, including Southend and Thurrock – and also including parts of north-east London that used to be in Essex. Depending on the parish and the event in question, they cover the whole period from 1538 almost up to the present day. Ancestry’s new index covers all the baptisms up to 100 years ago; all the marriages up to 84 years ago; and all deposited burial registers, whatever their date.

For those with large family trees to discover the subscription option is still available, but for anyone who needs an image now and again the new system is easier, quicker and cheaper!

Oral history in the post-modern age

Our You Are Hear project officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on why oral history continues to have value even in an age of high literacy rates and easy access to public platforms.

I recently had the joy of running an oral history training workshop, for a local heritage society. I always start with some theorising about oral history: why should we do it, what is its value, what need does it meet?

One of the main arguments for taking the time to create oral history recordings has traditionally been that it enables you to add a missing perspective into the historical record. The majority of the records at the Essex Record Office have been created by those in power: government records, church records, estate records of the major landed families in the county. Individuals from the ruled classes might make it into the records, but predominantly in records written about them, rather than by them. Limited literacy, limited access to writing materials, and the process of documents making their way into record offices have generally been given as reasons why the voices of everyday people are hard to find in the archive (though read this interesting challenge of the common assumption that writing paper was expensive). Oral history can change that: any individual can be interviewed about their experiences. It merely takes someone with time and a sound recorder to interview them.

Minnie Johnson’s story of her life in a traveller community is unlikely to have been known were it not for this oral history interview – she explains that she taught herself to read from comic books, but cannot write more than her name. The full interview can be heard on Essex Archives Online or our Soundcloud channel (SA 24/1925/1).

This is all excellent, and the rise of oral history ran alongside the rise of ‘history from below’ from around the 1960s. Using interviews allows historians to look at alternative histories to political and economic studies. Hearing from ‘ordinary’ people allows you to find out about everyday life for social and cultural history. Or it allows you to study political and economic history from a different perspective: how did the 1930s Depression actually affect people’s daily lives? How did Joe Bloggs feel about international relations during and after the Second World War? Without oral history interviews, these and similar questions would be very difficult to answer.

So we happily trot out these examples of why oral history interviews have value for giving a voice to the ‘ruled classes’. But is this as true today? Literacy rates are high (though not high enough). Access to writing material is prevalent. You can go into your local library and use a computer to type up your reminiscences. If you really wanted, you could probably use scrap paper from junk mail received and free pens given out at events to write down your life history without it costing you a penny.

What is more, platforms for making your voice heard are much easier to reach. There are social media channels; online petition sites; and file sharing sites that give you free and easy access to voice your opinions. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017 96% of 16-24 year-olds surveyed used social media, and 51% of 55-64 year-olds.

Graph of adult Internet usage from Office for National Statistics

While there are still barriers to technology, it is much easier to find the views of everyday people. So does oral history matter now, when people can make their way into the historical record of their own volition?

Laying aside the (very large!) problem of permanent preservation of online content, I argue that oral history does still, and will continue to, play a very valuable role in filling in gaps in the record.

Facebook posts and Tweets tend to be written in immediate response to an event. They represent a person’s immediate reactions. They can be mundane, amusing, fiery, or heartbreaking, but what is written today may not be true tomorrow. They are instantly written, and often instantly forgotten.

Oral history recordings are generally collected from people towards the latter stages of their lives. Some argue that this limits their usefulness: you are relying on the supposed frailty of human memory, and on the interviewee reliving events from their current perspective, looking back in hindsight. But this is one of the characteristics that gives the oral history interview its inherent value. From a distance, the interviewee can reflect on events they experienced, what emotions they prompted, and how they reacted. This will give a more balanced insight into which events and experiences were most significant in shaping the individual, and therefore shaping the culture and society in which each lived.

Mrs Summers reflects on how she felt about moving to Harlow in 1952, from the perspective of 34 years of hindsight. The full interview, recorded by Dr Judy Attfield, can be heard on Soundcloud or Essex Archives Online (SA 22/1364/1).

In fifty years’ time, if you amassed all social media posts I have written in 2017, this would give you one impression of who I was and what happened to me. Interviewing me alongside this data will help to give a fuller picture. Firstly, you can ask me to explain further details. For example, when I posted a picture of a meal I was about to eat, you can ask how representative this meal was of what I ate on a regular basis. As mundane as social media posts can be, oral history interviews will still have value in probing the details of everyday life and culture.

Secondly, you can ask me about the events that prompted my posts, and, I hope, you will get a different, more considered insight on what was happening. How will I feel in fifty years about my experiences in 2017? Photograph of subject being interviewed with recorder

Thirdly, there will always be matters that we do not share publicly at the time, but which we are happy to discuss further down the line. Oral history interviews will perhaps highlight the most life-changing events that are otherwise absent from contemporary autobiographical records.

Access to the historical record might be widening, but there is still a place for an oral history interview, where the interviewer can prompt those reflective questions from an outside perspective. Long may it continue.

Hear more of Sarah-Joy’s musings on oral history in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex History Group talk in May. Keep an eye on our events page to book, or subscribe to receive notifications about upcoming History Group talks.

If you want to embark on your own oral history interviewing project, the Essex Sound and Video Archive can provide training to help you get started. Please contact us for more information.

Harwich Society’s Memories Exchange Interviews

Recently, we have been uploading a collection of oral history interviews conducted by The Harwich Society between 2009 and 2014 (Catalogue Reference SA 49/1/2).

These twenty-four interviews are just the first instalment of an ongoing project to record the experiences of current and former residents of Harwich and Dovercourt. As with most collections of oral history interviews, they reveal shared experiences but also how life varied even in one town depending on personal circumstances.

Harwich Junior School (T/Z 241/1)

The playground of Harwich Junior School was flooded to a depth of 1½ metres (T/Z 241/1).

Most of the recordings touch on the 1953 flood. On the night of Saturday, 31 January, a storm surge caused the sea to overwhelm flood defences along the eastern coast of Britain. Harwich was one of the places affected, and the traumatic experience is unsurprisingly etched on the town’s corporate memory.

Even here, experiences varied. Some residents in Dovercourt only knew about it from news bulletins on the television. But in the Bathside area, the water rose to the first floor of people’s houses. Tom Bell and Danny Goswell, then young lads who belonged to the sailing club, were kept busy ‘fishing people out of houses’ in boats, ‘rowing around doing what we could’ (SA 49/1/2/12/1).

Evacuees sought refuge in the drill hall, where the Salvation Army was handing out blankets and cups of tea, before being billeted with family members or kind-hearted strangers with rooms to spare. The water took a week to recede, and the houses were permanently damaged. Ruby Cooper-Keeble recalls how they lost all their possessions. By the time the family moved back to the house, it had been cleaned out and redecorated, but the smell ‘stayed with it for years and years’, and ‘you could actually scrape the salt off the [wall]paper’ as it seeped out of the walls, residue from the sea salt water that flooded the home (SA 49/1/2/9/1). But as a child, she still saw the ordeal as something of an ‘adventure’.

Some people, such as Mr and Mrs Moore, never moved back (SA 49/1/2/14/1).

The interviews are full of memorable details that bring the event to life: tables laid for breakfast that neatly settled back into place once the water receded; the vigour of local hero Leonard ‘Pummie’ Rose in organising the rescue operations. The stories take different tones. Tom and Danny chuckle over how, after working all day in rescue boats, they still had the energy to go out in the evening. ‘Commandeering’ a dinghy tied up outside the police station, they rowed down the main road to the Spread Eagle pub that remained defiantly open, to enjoy a couple of Vimtos before rowing home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, recalling the childhood trauma of that long, cold, dark night spent trapped in the bedroom waiting for rescue affected one interviewee so much that it sounds as if he had to pause during the interview to compose himself.

Whether they were only onlookers or whether they lost everything, when listened to together the interviews reveal how the town rallied together to overcome this ordeal – as they had done just ten years earlier during the Second World War. From the family who tirelessly worked to restore their grandparents’ house to normal in time for Christmas (interview with Diane Butler, SA 49/1/2/11/1), to the boy who joined with his friends to build a sea wall in the sand when they moved back, ‘in our own simple way to try and stop the waves coming again’ (interview with Ray Chippington, SA 49/1/2/22/1), the town was determined to recover. And what better way to cheer flagging spirits than travelling in a ‘cavalcade of coaches’ to a football match at Wembley to support your local team in the FA Amateur Cup final? Harwich and Parkeston Football Club’s finest hour was among the happier events of 1953, as recalled by Malcolm Carter (SA 49/1/2/16/1).

The collection covers other topics as well, including experiences during the Second World War; growing up and working in Harwich; and how the town has changed. We are grateful to The Harwich Society for taking the time to capture these memories, and for allowing us to make them publicly available. We are also grateful to the participants who, as June Cummings describes, had to relive the events in the act of sharing them (SA 49/1/2/20/1).

 

You can listen to these oral history interviews in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, or, thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, in the comfort of your own home through Essex Archives Online.

It is not surprising that such a momentous event crops up in several of our other collections. You can search the subject index term ‘Floods’ to find related material, such as this film footage of the floods on Canvey Island. Or look up Hilda Grieve’s authoritative work on the 1953 floods in Essex, referred to in some of these clips: The Great Tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex (copies available in the Searchroom Library or in branch libraries across Essex).

Further afield, the East Anglian Film Archive holds a compilation of film footage of the floods which reveal the devastation caused. You can watch it for free on their website here.

Does your community have a story that should be recorded? Do you want to undertake your own oral history project? Contact us to find out more about the oral history training we provide.

New recordings to commemorate the 1953 floods

During the night of January 31st, many of the lower-lying districts of eastern England were overwhelmed by a devastating flood.

So begins the narration to a documentary created by the department that later became the Essex County Council Educational Video Unit about the 1953 floods (VA 3/8/4/1). The documentary focuses on Canvey Island, which was severely hit by the floods, and was put together from film footage taken at the time.

The floods caused terrible suffering: people drowned or died from exposure to the bitter cold, waiting on islands of rooftops to be rescued; houses and possessions were ruined; livelihoods destroyed. But is there a purpose in holding commemorations year after year, making the same observations, telling the same stories?

We could point you to a blog entry we wrote in 2013, on the sixtieth anniversary of the floods. It cites some staggering figures of the losses suffered, illustrated by harrowing photographs showing the full extent of the flood. Is there anything more to say four years later?

Recent bad weather no doubt brought back the full fear of flood to coastal residents, particularly those who were evacuated from Jaywick. The sea defences are vastly improved, particularly with the sea wall erected round Canvey Island, but we can never guarantee safety from the threat of flood. Can the history of the 1953 floods help us when facing such threats today?

One of the audio-video kiosks touring the county for our You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place project is currently visiting Canvey Island Library. To prepare for this, we have been digitising sound and video recordings about the floods in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, including the documentary mentioned above.

Listening to memories of the survivors and those who helped the rescue efforts, like watching the contemporary film footage, gives greater impact to studying the events. Hearing the emotion in people’s voices, learning about individual experiences, brings the history to life as no text book can do.

Listen to one woman’s memories of that terrible night in this clip from a special BBC Essex programme about the floods, ‘Tide on Tide’, first broadcast in 1988 (SA 1/313/1).

Still image from the 1953 documentary about the floods on Canvey Island (VA 3/8/4/1)

Still image from the 1953 documentary about the floods on Canvey Island (VA 3/8/4/1)

More than that, people’s stories of the clear-up efforts can teach us lessons if facing similar catastrophes. The documentary shows people rowing for their lives to bring people to safety, helping at rescue centres, pulling together to rebuild the sea wall. Much of this work was done by the Army, the police, and voluntary organisations, but members of the public also pitched in to help. It is encouraging to see how whole communities came together in the face of danger. And how many smiling faces can you spot in the film footage, despite the ordeal?

Sir Bernard Braine, then MP for Canvey, praises his constituents in this clip from the ‘Tide on Tide’ programme (SA 1/313/1).

One local hero, Winne Capser, illustrates this attitude. In subsequent days, she took it upon herself to rescue pets and reunite them with their owners. We could question whether it was worth the risk. But to the owners, having these non-human members of their families back again was probably a great comfort, and a big step towards returning to normality.

Clip of Winne Capser talking about rescuing animals after the 1953 flood. This is from a Sounds of Brentwood feature on the floods produced by Dennis Rookard and broadcast in 2013 (SA 2/1/110/1).

It wasn’t just local people who helped: as news spread, people nationally and internationally were prompted to donate clothing, household goods, and food to help families get back on their feet. In Harwich, whole houses were donated from Norway to relieve evacuees temporarily accommodated in caravans on the Green.

Another clip from the Sounds of Brentwood feature, this time with Cllr Ray Howard and Fred McCave describing the donations sent from across the globe to help flood survivors (SA 2/1/110/1).

We should also raise questions about how the floods are commemorated. Jaywick lost 5% of its population – but how often is this town mentioned in comparison to Canvey or Harwich?

Further clip from the ‘Tide on Tide’ programme, talking about the impact of the flood on Jaywick, and the impact of Jaywick on public consciousness of the flood (SA 1/313/1).

We talk about the community spirit, but do we also talk about the police that were put in place to protect against looters in the aftermath? Which stories are absolute fact, and which have turned into folklore?

Clip about a thief caught stealing money from gas meters after Canvey Island had been evacuated, from the BBC Essex ‘Tide on Tide’ programme (SA 1/313/1).

By combining contemporary film footage, personal memories, newspaper reports, and official documents, we can build up a full picture of that awful night. We can then use this picture for commemorating the local heroes who saved countless lives, and for drawing inspiration to respond to future disasters.

You can watch the full documentary and some of these sound recordings through Essex Archives Online. You can visit the audio-video kiosk at Canvey Island Library, or view the same content on our second touring kiosk at Brentwood Library, until they move to their next venues at the end of March.

You Are Hear is a three-year Essex Sound and Video Archive project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. You can read more about it on our project blog site.

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