Just in time for Christmas, Essex Record Office has teamed up with Museumshops.uk to make our publications available to purchase online for the very first time. Many of these publications have been printed in limited numbers and were previously only available from the Essex Record Office Searchroom.
Written and researched by Hilda Grieve and Published in 1959, “The Great Tide” told the story of the county’s relationship to the sea, the meteorological conditions preceding the flood, the events of 31 January and 1 February 1953, and the subsequent rescue, relief, and restoration efforts in meticulous detail, drawn from six years of careful, patient research. It has since been described by the writer Ken Worpole as “one of the great works of twentieth century English social history”.
This title has been out of print for some time, but was re-printed by Essex Record Office in 2020. This seminal work should be on the shelf of any student of modern history
Written by Hilda Grieve in 1954, “Examples of English Handwriting” is an illuminating exploration into the chronology of early English penmanship, drawing from six centuries worth of Essex’s parish records, Examples of English Handwriting reads much like a handbook for the aspiring historian. It is a must have for anyone seeking to read the historic documents that are cared for at ERO and countless other archives. Complete with a variety of visual examples, the work diligently elucidates semantic change, typography, abbreviations, letter strokes, and Anglo-Saxon history.
Hilda Grieve’s precious legacy as a didactic county archivist is captured in this classic work of palaeography, with this 1981 edition merging two of the prior volumes published by the Essex Record Office.
One of our most popular titles is: “Pilgrims and Adventurers”.
“No English county has stronger links with the East Coast states of America than Essex.”
On a now mythical autumnal day in 1620, an English fluyt, designated the “Mayflower”, dropped its anchor on the shores of what is now Massachusetts: its passengers, puritan separatists and adventurous individuals, would disembark onto the foreign soil following the lead of Capt. Christopher Jones, his skeleton crew, imbued with a belief in manifest destiny. Pilgrims & Adventurers explores the foundation of the United States: how the likes of Columbus & Walter Raleigh laid groundwork for a theologically ruptured England to flee in search of a New World. The book charts the initial voyage of the Essex pilgrims to the raising of the early settlements: Plymouth Colony, Providence; the attempted conversion of Indigenous Americans, and conflicting theses of Philo-Theology that would continue to divide the early colonists.
Written & published in 1992 by archivist John Smith, this work is a concise introduction to the hitherto unexplored study of the Essex people on the colonisation of North America.
The 26th October is the feast day of St Cedd, it is also Essex Day. Over on our social media we have taken you on a treasure trail of where you can find Seaxes here at the Essex Record Office. The three Seaxes will be familiar to many Essex residents as part of the logo for Essex County Council and on a red background, as their Coat of Arms. But what is a Seax and why has Essex taken it as their symbol? Customer Service Team Lead, Edward Harris delves deeper.
Essex County Council was first granted it’s Coat of Arms by the College of Arms on the 15th July 1932 comprising:
Gules, three Seaxes fessewise in pale Argent, pomels and hilts Or, pointed to the sinister and cutting edges upwards.
The somewhat archaic terms used by the College of Arms can be translated to:
Red, three Seaxes horizontal in pale silver, pommels and hilts gold, pointed to the viewers right with cutting edges upwards.
So now we know what the official Coat of Arms should look like, but we are still not given any clues as to the origin of the name Seax for the bladed weapons shown on the Coat of Arms.
The seax, (or scramasax as it is more usually called by archaeologists) is a weapon used by the Anglo-Saxon people who had displaced, at least culturally the Romano-British inhabitants of the British Isles in the 5th and 6th Centuries. The earliest evidence for the use of a Seax is from the mid 5th Century, though they would still see use in one form or another into the late 13th Century. The term Seax covers a whole family of germanic blades which varied widely in size and shape. The Anglo-Saxons widely used the distinctive broken back seax which varied in length from 30″ to as short as a few inches and, for most, it was probably a utility or defensive knife rather than a weapon of war.
It is from the Saxons that the County of Essex (along with the Ancient County of Middlesex) takes its name. The Boundary of Essex still resembles that of the Saxon Kingdom of Eastseaxe. And it is from this Saxon heritage that Essex adopted the seax as it’s symbol.
The Coat of Arms itself was in regular use well before the grant from the College of Arms in 1932 albeit unofficially. It is likely that the Arms were first assigned to the Saxon Kings of Essex by the more romantic minds of the Late 16th and early 17th Century, as the heraldry in any recognisable sense would not exist until the 12th Century.
One of the earliest mentions of a coat of arms is by Richard Verstegan who writes in 1605 of the East Saxons having two types of weapon, one long and one short. The latter being worn “privately hanging under their long-skirted coats” and “of this kind of hand-seax Erkenwyne King of the East Saxons did bear for his arms, three argent, in a field gules”
Peter Milman’s History of Essex 1771 (LIB/942.67 MUI1-6)
By the 18th Century the use of the Arms seems commonplace, in 1770, Peter Muilman published the first volume of his History of Essex. The frontispiece shows a shield with the three seaxes although with an unfamiliar shape.
The Plans for the building of the Shire Hall in Chelmsford drawn up in 1788 (Q/AS 1/1) clearly show the Seaxes emblazoned on its neo-classical portico. These wouldn’t form a part of the final design though with this space being blank in an engraving from 1795 (I/Mb 74/1/59) shortly after the building’s completion. It now houses a clock.
Engraving of Shire Hall shortly after it’s opening 1795 (I/Mb 74/1/59)
The seaxes on a red field would make numerous other appearances, among them: the Essex Equitable Insurance companies fire plate from around 1802; the Essex Local Militia ensign formed in 1809 and the Chelmsford Gazette in 1822. It appears on the cap badge of Essex Police and who remembers the single seax that appeared on the original logo for BBC Essex way back in 1986?
BBC Essex logo from 1986
The shape of the seax on Coats of Arms has led to confusion and myth. As you can see from the examples here, the shape of the Seax changes with use, the notched back of the weapon may simply be to distinguish it from a scimitar for which it is often mistaken. The notch itself has gained a myth all of its own. To many people the notch exists so that the Saxons could hook their Seax over the cap-rail of an enemy longboat to haul it closer. This sounds rather difficult to achieve, but also to justify, given that the notch doesn’t appear on any of the real world weapons categorised as Seaxes.
The Coat of Arms of Essex
Either way, the Essex Coat of Arms remains an enigmatic and iconic link to our county’s Saxon past.
I owe much of the information that I have garnered from the excellent pamphlet ‘The Coat of Arms of The County of Essex’ produced by F.W. Steer, an Archivist at Essex Record Office ,in 1949 (LIB/929.6 STE) which is well worth a read on your next visit.
The 26th October is St Cedd’s day. It is also known as Essex Day as St Cedd is Essex’s very own patron saint. Bur who is St Cedd? And why is he held in such high esteem in Essex? Archive Assistant, Robert Lee takes a look at the life of St Cedd.
St Cedd – A Hagiography
Icon of St Cedd
Cedd’s life began in the Kingdom of Northumbria under the tutelage of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne. The oldest of four brothers (Chad, Cynibil & Caelin), Cedd in particular would be unwavering to the Celtic Rite imbued to him by Aidan. Cedd’s introduction to Christianity was anti-diocesan: not liturgical and parochial, but peripatetic and abstinent. In one of very few sources on Cedd, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, emphasis is made on both Cedd and Chad’s devotion to Saint Aidan; such that four years after Aidan’s death in 651, Cedd is said to have been consecrated by the hands of his successor, Saint Finan of Lindisfarne.
Cedd’s reputation in Christendom had much to do with his proselytizing. In 653, at the behest of King Oswiu of Northumbria, Cedd journeyed into the Midlands with three other priests in order to evangelise the “Middle Angles”: an ethnic group predominantly living in Mercia. By Bede’s account, Cedd was greatly persuasive, with masses coming forward to listen to his preaching and receive baptism. Cedd’s enthusiasm would even sway the opinion of King Penda of Mercia, a long committed pagan. Later in the same year, Cedd would be recalled from Mercia and sent into Essex to aid King Sigeberht of the East Saxons. Again Cedd’s evangelism was highly successful, and Essex was thoroughly Christianised. For his efforts Cedd was ordained Bishop of the East Saxons.
Cedd attended the Synod of Whitby in 664 as a vigilant mediator between Iona (followers of the Celtic Rite) and those who followed the Roman Rite. Roman missionaries were arguing for their own computation of the calendar day of Easter, to which the predominantly Celtic northern English initially disagreed. Uncharacteristically, Cedd was won over by the catholic system, and converted to the Alexandrian computus of Easter Sunday. Following the Synod, Cedd returned to Northumbria to supervise the foundation of a monastery, but the Kingdom had been overwhelmed by the yellow plague, which would bring about Cedd’s death.
St Peters-on-the-wall in November (Copyright Edward Harris)
Perhaps appropriately, Cedd is remembered far more for his itinerant sainthood than for government of the East Saxon Church. The chapel of Saint-Peter-on-the-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea is said to have been built by Saint Cedd after his ordination. Having gone through several phases of disuse and ruination, the chapel still stands as testimony to Cedd; to God’s glory and the humility of man.
His role in converting the East Saxons and role as their bishop is the reason that Essex now claims Cedd as their patron saint.
If you would like to visit the Chapel of St Peter yourself it can be reached by taking East End Road from the brick built church in Bradwell-on-Sea for about one and a half miles, until you can see the carpark ahead of you, from there it is a ten minute walk to the Chapel. It is open all year and is well worth a visit!
The home-grown tomato season is coming to an end and to mark this, ERO Archive Assistant and vegetable patch correspondent Neil Wiffen, delves into the history of the tomato.
Tomatoes in season are one of the joys of summer, especially
if you can grow your own which, warm from the greenhouse, are a delight to eat.
In our modern world they are available all year round, but this is a rather
recent phenomenon, as with so many of our salad and soft fruit crops. It’s
really only in the last 40 or so years that they have become such staple fare
for before that, the cost of heating greenhouses was such that they were really
just another seasonal crop which came on during the summer. It has a
The tomato, which is really a fruit, originates in South
America, back to at least the eight century, and its name derives from two
Nahuatl words for ‘swelling fruit’ – xitomatl and centtomati. It
arrived in Europe sometime in the mid-sixteenth century where it was known in
Italy as pomi d’oro (golden apple), with the first English reference
being recorded in 1578. Several names were recorded by this stage including Poma
Amoris and pommes d’amour – the love apple. It is likely that this
was a corruption of an earlier name, possible the Spanish pome dei Moro,
the ‘apple of the Moors’ (T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables
(London, 2012), p.120). Philip Miller, writing in the early eighteenth century (P.
Miller, The Gardeners Dictionary (London, 1731): ERO, D/DU 588/1) called
them Love-Apples, a name which was still in use, although now subordinate to
‘tomato’, when Mrs Beeton was writing in the mid-nineteenth century (I.M.
Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London, 1861, p.252). At the
end of that century, it was still listed thus by Cramphorns in their catalogue
of 1898 (ERO, A10506 Box 7).
The tomato didn’t get off to a flying start as it was treated with suspicion, it being related, along with the potato and aubergine, to the poisonous deadly nightshade.
It took until the later nineteenth century to become more acceptable, which might have had something to do with the spread of greenhouses from the big country houses to more general growers. Tomatoes will grow outside in our climate but growing them in greenhouse will give a much better chance of successful harvest and fuller flavoured fruits.
It might also have had something to do with the Victorian mania for growing and propagating all sorts of fruits and vegetables, along with the proliferation of magazines and newspapers related to gardening which helped to spread information about new ideas and new plants, while the postal and railway systems allowed seedsmen and nursery gardeners to easily send catalogues and packets of seeds throughout the country.
It was not only private gardeners who were growing all sorts of fruit and vegetables. Urban populations were growing and needed feeding and there was a proliferation of market gardens on the outskirts of larger towns, from the later years of the nineteenth century to the 1980s. And it was here that market-gardeners and growers were producing tomatoes, earlier on grown as an outdoor crop but over time growing under glass, for local sale via a network of green grocers. However, for larger growers with access to a railway station, or later via road haulage, the massive London market was accessible. Tomatoes were not listed in 1850 among the ‘Principal kinds of vegetables sold at the London Markets’, although 260 tons of asparagus, 300 tons of marrows and a staggering 4,150 tons of turnip tops were (G. Dodd, The Food of London; a sketch (London, 1856), p.387).
The hey-day of Essex grown tomatoes was probably from the 1920s to the 1980s, although more research could really be undertaken on this subject. The rise of foreign imports, from large Dutch growers and Spanish producers, along with the decline of local retail outlets, due to the growth of supermarket chains, very much put an end small market-gardeners and growers.
To see what commercial tomato growing looked like in the early 1980s do take a look at the Essex Educational Video Unit production showing the processes involved in the commercial production of tomatoes as carried out at Spenhawk Nurseries, Hawkwell (ERO, VA 3/8/11/1):
In the last few years ‘heritage’ tomatoes have become quite common in shops and supermarkets, with fruits of different shapes, sizes and colours, very different from the post-war period when they were almost exclusively red. This is not a modern phenomenon, for Miller describes red and yellow fruits, small cherry ‘shap’d’ tomatoes and ‘hard, channell’d fruits’, possibly what we might recognise as lobed, maybe beefsteak tomatoes. Cramphorns advertised 20 varieties in 1898, which included red and yellow varieties along with cherry and currant sized fruits and the ‘irregular’ shaped President Garfield, although it was of ‘good quality’.
Of particular interest is the Dedham Favourite – was this a locally raised variety and does it still exist out there?
By 1962, 12 varieties were listed, including the well-known and comparatively recent Moneymaker but also including the older Golden Sunrise (c.1890) and Harbinger (c.1910). A special tomato,’ Cramphorn’s own Wonder of Essex headed the list. In the catalogue for 1975 eight varieties were listed.
And how to deal with a tomato? Miller states that ‘The Italians
and Spaniards eat these Apples, as we do Cucumbers, with Pepper, Oil and
Salt, and some eat them stew’d in Sauces, &c’. Meanwhile, Mrs Beeton,
says they are:
chiefly used in soups, sauces, and gravies. It is sometimes served to table roasted or boiled [into submission?], and when green, makes a good ketchup or pickle. In its unripe state, it is esteemed as excellent sauce for roast goose or pork, and when quite ripe, a good store sauce may be prepared from it.
An interesting use as an acidic sauce to accompany goose or
pork, perhaps replacing cooking apples before they were in season? The other
curious thing about these recipes is that the tomatoes are all cooked or
processed in some way. Where we regularly eat them as a salad, here they are
cooked – perhaps a hang-over from the suspicious way they were treated when
Writing about tomatoes is one thing, but it’s being able to
taste them that counts! Recently the massed ranks of the ERO staff were treated
to a ‘blind’ tomato tasting of seven different varieties, some modern, some old.
It was very gratifying to see that the old variety Harbinger, first listed over
a century ago, was the outright winner with seven votes (eight if you include
the outdoor grown version):
Golden Sunrise: 0
Artisan Bumble Bee mix:
Indigo Blue Berries: 0
Gardeners Delight: 2
Chocolate Pear: 1
Harbinger (out-door, pot
The eagle-eyed among you will surely have noted though, that
Golden Sunrise, the oldest known variety grown, received no votes, so age isn’t
While Mrs Beeton might not have mentioned bruschetta, it’s
one of my favourite ways of eating tomatoes, so I treated the staff to a taste
to celebrate the flavour of locally grown toms!
So, if you have any stories to share about tomato growing in Essex, or market gardening in the county (an under-researched and known about topic in my mind), then do a leave a message below. There’s still lots to learn about their culture in the county. And, if you fancy growing any of the tomatoes mentioned above (and I really recommend the Harbinger as a very good ‘doer’) in 2024, then a quick search of the internet will find many suppliers from whom you can purchase some seed. Just remember not to over-water and to pick out the side shoots. But hey, this isn’t Gardeners Question Time but a history blog, you’ll work it out!!!
July 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the composer William Byrd, who for over 25 years lived in Stondon Massey.
Byrd was a recusant Catholic who refused to attend the services of the Church of England. While living at Stondon Massey, Byrd composed two books of illegal Latin religious music known as the ‘Gradualia’. The first set of 1605 was dedicated to the Earl of Northampton, and the second set dated 1607 was dedicated to Byrd’s great friend and patron, Lord Petre of Writtle who lived nearby at Ingatestone Hall.
According to a household inventory dated 1608, the Petre family possessed “2 sets of Mr Byrd’s books intituled Gradualia, the first and second set”, as well as other books containing “songs” by the composer (Edwards, A C. John Petre (1975), p.138). All the pieces were probably tried out at Ingatestone Hall before publication.
At the ERO we are fortunate to have two books from the household of John, 1st Baron Petre (1549-1614) that feature music written by Byrd. Dating from around 1590, these are known as part books, as they only show one part of the composition – in this case the part for the bass singers.
Byrd’s motet Ne irascaris Domine, dating from 1589, is one of the pieces included in the Petre part books. Dating from 1589, its Latin title means ‘Be not angry O Lord’. Here it is performed by Southend-based chamber choir Gaudeamus:
William Byrd successfully managed to navigate the intrigues of being a Catholic in late Elizabethan and early Stuart England, being about 82 years old when he died. His wonderful music lives on.
With thanks to Andrew Smith. To find out more, read our previous blog post on music in the archives, which delves deeper into the music the Petre family would’ve enjoyed at Thorndon Hall and Ingatestone Hall during this period, and another post by archivist Lawrence Barker on the part book and Byrd’s Ne irascaris Domine motet.
One of the castles that is featuring in our forthcoming
conference, Above and Below: the archaeology and history of Essex castles,
is Pleshey. Set in the rolling Essex countryside, with it’s encompassing town
enclosure, Pleshey is a classic motte and bailey castle. Not only is it a good
looker but it was also at the centre of some extraordinary events, something
which its current peaceful nature might belie.
We asked Nick Wickenden, one of the speakers on Pleshey and
current President of the Essex Society for Archaeology & History, to give
us a taste of Pleshey’s interesting past.
‘Yes, the history of Pleshey is absolutely fascinating and I could go on but I will keep this very brief! Firstly, on Christmas Eve 1215, French mercenaries, acting on behalf of King John, took the Castle. So much for his acceptance of the Magna Carta! And secondly, in 1397, Dick Whittington, in his role as Mayor of London, arrived at Pleshey to escort the Duke of Gloucester away – ultimately to his doom. It is not known whether he was accompanied by his cat, but many animals will feature in the talk.’
“So far as destroying the world was concerned, well, you might just as well try to disturb a charging hippopotamus by throwing a baked bean at it.”
Patrick Moore on Halley’s Comet, Colchester Hospital Radio, 1986
Until the end of the nineteenth century, most astronomical research in Britain was funded and carried out by private individuals of independent means. There were several such individuals based in Essex, including Revd. James Pound, his nephew Revd. James Bradley, and Joseph Gurney Barclay.
The Revd. James Pound (1669-1724) was Rector of Wanstead, then in Essex, between 1707 and 1720. During this time he made various planetary observations, at first with a 15-foot telescope and then with a 123-foot ‘object glass’ telescope, which the Royal Society lent to him in 1717. The telescope was constructed by Christian Huygens and mounted in Wanstead Park on a maypole that had just been removed from the Strand and presented to Pound by Sir Isaac Newton. Pound’s observations of Jupiter, Saturn, and their satellites were used by several eminent scientists, including Edmond Halley – more on him later.
Revd. Pound tutored his nephew, James Bradley (1693-1762), in astronomy, with many of Bradley’s early observations made jointly with his uncle at Wanstead. In 1718 Bradley followed Pound in becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, and after Pound’s death in 1724 he continued to make observations from Wanstead at the Grove, the house to which his aunt had moved in her widowhood. Here he installed an instrument even the Observatory at Greenwich didn’t possess: a zenith sector of 12 ½ radius and 12 ½ º. When he left Wanstead in 1732 he left the zenith sector in place, frequently returning to carry out his research, which led to him succeeding Halley as Astronomer Royal in 1742. His research culminated in the discovery of two major phenomena: the aberration of light and nutation (wobbling) of the Earth’s axis. In 1749 Bradley moved the zenith sector to Greenwich, where it can still be seen today.
In the autumn of 1854, over a century after James Pound and James Bradley were conducting their research in Wanstead, Joseph Gurney Barclay (1816-1898) set up an observatory at his home in Knotts Green, Leyton. The ERO Library has two volumes of his Astronomical Observations published in 1865 and 1870. These include details about the observatory and its equipment as well as the observations of double-stars, planets and comets. He writes:
My Observatory is erected in the midst of the pleasure-grounds which surround my residence at Leyton, in Essex, about six miles N.E. from the City of London; its position being 51o 34’ 34” N. latitude and oh om oS.87 W. longitude, and about ninety feet above the level of the sea. The building consists of a quadrangular room, sixteen feet square, surmounted by a wooden dome, covered with copper and lined with American cloth, which I found prevented the internal condensation of vapour; it revolves on gun-metal wheels connected by a ring (in mechanical phraseology a “live-ring”).
Barclay employed the services of professional astronomers: first Herman Romberg, who left in 1864 to take up a position in the Berlin Observatory; then Charles Talmage, who wrote up Romberg’s observations for the English press and continued the work of recording “Planetary and Cometic Observations” from Knotts Green. Although comets were recorded from this observatory, none were Halley’s Comet.
Amongst the astronomical phenomena recorded from Barclay’s Leyton observatory were comets. Prior to Edmond Halley’s work, comets were widely thought to be unique objects that passed through the solar system once and then disappeared forever. Using Isaac Newton’s laws of gravitation and planetary motion, Halley calculated the orbits of several comets. He noticed that the orbits of three particularly bright comets observed in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were strikingly similar, and proposed that these three comets were, in fact, the same object making periodic returns to the inner solar system. Based on his calculations, Halley predicted that this comet would return in 1758. The comet did return as he had anticipated, but Halley died in 1742 so did not see his prediction proved accurate. To honour Halley’s ground-breaking work, this comet was later named Halley’s Comet.
Astronomers have now linked Halley’s comet to observations dating back more than 2,000 years. One such observation is its appearance in the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
As seen by the recordings of Halley’s Comet over the centuries, comets and other celestial events really capture people’s attention. Several of the diaries and personal papers looked after at the ERO have references to Halley’s Comet in 1910. In her memories of her youth in Great Waltham, Mildred Joslin recalls seeing Halley’s Comet with her family (catalogue ref: T/P 306/1 page 9):
I remember seeing Hayley’s [sic] Comet, we stood in the road at the bottom of South St, looking towards the school; it came from the right, where Cherry Garden Estate is now, but in those days it was a field. I also well remember standing in the road with my parents and several other people looking at what seemed to be flames in the sky; someone said they were the Northern Lights.
George H. Rose (1882-1956), a talented artist, working chiefly in water colours, kept diaries which present a vivid picture his youth spent his live sketching, going to art exhibitions and concerts, piano-playing, singing in his lodgings – and seeing Halley’s Comet. His entry for 18 May 1910 reads:
Fine weather. Thunderstorms nearly every night this week, owing, I believe, to Halley’s Comet which approaches nearest to the earth today. Mildred is very much alarmed at it. I, it seems, an unable to keep away from the scenes of National mourning and tonight went to watch the people passing into Westminster Hall, where the mortal remains of King Edward VII now lie in State.
Rose mentions that his companion, Mildred, was “very much alarmed” by the comet. There had been much anticipation for the comet’s arrival in the press and the belief that it was an omen did cause fear in some people, intensified by the death of King Edward VII just days before the comet arrived. It also came especially close to Earth on this occasion: so close that on 19 May 1910, Earth passed through its tail. This was the first time that the Halley’s Comet was photographed and that spectroscopic analysis could be carried out. It was also discovered that the toxic gas cyanogen was present in the tail. This led the astronomer Camille Flammarion to claim that, when Earth passed through it, this gas would lead to an end of life on Earth..
Rose, however, didn’t seem particularly impressed by the comet, writing on 23 May 1910:
The weather was grand all day, and after a visit to Robersons for some more sepia and some REED PENS I drifted to the Heath and there at last learned how to use these pens. Later after moonrise I stood among the crowd on the other side looking at the comet. There was a large crowd for such a little sight.
I remember studying Halley’s Comet at primary school when it returned in 1986. It was a very exciting topic, even though the view of the comet on this occasion wasn’t as good as in 1910. In the Colchester Hospital Radio archive – one of several hospital radio archives preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive – is an interview with the well-known astronomy writer, researcher, radio commentator and television presenter Patrick Moore (1923-2012). In the recording, Moore reassures listeners that a comet striking Earth would cause local damage but “so far as destroying the world was concerned, well, you might just as well try to disturb a charging hippopotamus by throwing a baked bean at it”.
Nowadays, astronomers can now see Halley’s Comet
at any point in its orbit, but the next time it will be visible from Earth with
the naked eye will be in 2061.
In this guest blog historian Richard Till explains how the discovery of a small document in the Thaxted community archive and recently deposited at the ERO, has provided the missing piece of the puzzle relating to chantry land in Thaxted.
on for a hundred years ago, its origins lost in the mists of time, an archive
was established in Thaxted. It was thought to be important, but no-one quite
knew why. A committee was established, but little ensued other than a decision
to lodge it in the roof of the chantry, its boxes unread and unopened.
1980s proved to be a turning point. Thaxted’s charities, Yardleys and Hunts
handed over their material to the Essex Record Office. Some of the archive may
have been handed over at the same time, but no-one knows for sure.
the spring of 2023 and everything changed. The archive was removed to Thaxted’s
Guildhall and a very competent local historian asked to index its contents.
Shortly afterwards he contacted me. In a foolscap envelope initialled by
Thaxted’s “Red Vicar”, Conrad Noel, there was a parchment document replete with
seal. I had it transcribed and handed a copy to the archive.
document was an indenture from 1551 and it solved a minor mystery. In 1548
commissioners had visited Thaxted to implement the reformation. They had
dismissed the chantry priest and sold the chantry with its 20 acres of land to
two freemen of the City of London. (ERO, D/DHT T534).
the early 17th Century, Yardleys Charity’s accounts (ERO, T/P 99/2)
showed that at some stage, the chantry, with its land, had been repatriated and
bought for the town by the then vicar, Thomas Crosby. It had been used
thereafter as an alms house and by 1615 had been handed over to a charity
headed by the mayor.
newly found indenture solved the problem. In 1551, the chantry had been sold
back to a local landowner, William Gace, thence, after a further sale, to
indenture along with its transcript is now in the possession of the Essex Record
Office and they have kindly provided a photo of the original for the archive.
I’m not holding my breath, but more may follow!
As mentioned above, a transcription translated from the original Latin was kindly deposited with the document and can be read below:
May all men now and in the future know that we Thomas Moore of the City of London, mercer, and Elizabeth, my wife, have demised and enfeoffed, and by this our present charter, have confirmed to William Gace of Thaxted in the county of Essex, yeoman, one messuage, two gardens and other lands and pastures called Buckynghams, and all the lands and pastures with their appurtenances, containing by estimation twenty acres of land, more or less, whereby they shall be now or in the future in farm or in the occupation of William Gace, situate and lying in Thaxted aforesaid, formerly belonging to the chantry called Thaxted Chantry, not long ago part or belonging or parcel of the possessions of the said late chantry, formerly being reputed or known as such. To have and to hold the aforesaid messuage, lands, pastures and the rest of the premises with their appurtenances to the aforesaid William Gace, his heirs and assigns, to the proper use of the said Gace, his heirs and assigns forever. To be held of our now king, his heirs and successors, as of his manor of East Greenwich in the county of Kent by fealty as in free socage and not in chief, for all other rents and services and demands whatsoever. And assuredly we the aforesaid Thomas Moore and Elizabeth and our heirs will guarantee and defend forever by these presents the aforesaid messuage, lands, pastures and the rest of the premises with their appurtenances to the aforesaid William Gace, his heirs and assigns, to the use aforesaid, against us the said Thomas Moore and Elizabeth and our heirs and against a certain Thomas Hayelbarne and a certain Thomas Grande and their heirs. And may those above know that we the said Thomas More and Elizabeth have assigned, appointed and established in our place our well beloved in Christ William Spyman and John Gace the elder as our true and faithful attorneys, together and separately for the entering on our behalf and in our names into the aforesaid messuage, lands, pastures and the rest of the premises with their appurtenances, and full and peaceful possession and seisin to be taken therein. And after this possession and seisin therein so taken and had, to deliver full and peaceful possession of and in the aforesaid messuage, lands and the rest of the premises with their appurtenances to the aforesaid William Gace on our behalf in our names, according to the force, form and effect of this our present charter. All whichever of our attorneys or any one of them will do, in our name, in the premises or any part of them, is approved and will be approved. In witness of which we have attached our seals to this present charter, given on the eighth day of May in the fifth year of the reign of Edward the sixth , by the grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith, and supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland
Below: by me Thomas More
(Back) (presumably endorsed on the above) Seisin and possession of this charter has been well, publicly and peacefully taken on the day and in the year within written and was delivered by the within named William Spilman and John Gace the elder in the presence of Richard Fanne, John Gawber, Thomas Savedge, William Fanne, the elder and John Pledger with others.
Tho. More his deede to Gace of Buckinghams and 20 Acares of Land to it belonginge More & wife to Gace: Feoffment of Buckinghams
The documents that ERO look after are like windows on the past, offering snapshots and vistas of lost worlds. For so many of our predecessors, a brief mention in an official document might be the only occasion that their names were recorded. For many, probably the majority before the introduction of parish registers in 1538, they remain nameless. For anyone considering that the early-modern or medieval eras offered some bucolic ‘golden age’, then it can be a salutary experience to realise that living in our own imperfect age is much preferable.
A recent example of this was when Dr Herbert Eiden, one of the researchers for the People of 1381 Project (http://www.1381.online/) was in the Searchroom chasing up the post revolt lives of some of the rebels, when he happened upon some interesting entries in manorial documents relating to Harlow, the first within a view of frankpledge recorded on 22nd June 1400:
[In the margin:] ‘M[emorandum] viii d‘
Item quod Johannes Wryght iiiid and Alicia Torples iiiid sunt leprosi et manent’ in villa apud le Cherchegate inter comunitat’ ville ad detrimentum vicinorum et contra legem. Ideo ipsi in misericordia. Et preceptum est ballivo et constabular’ amover’ eos extra vill’
This translates as:
Also [the chief pledges present] that John Wryght, 4d, and Alice Torples, 4d, are lepers and live in the town next to Le Cherchegate inside the community of the town and to the harm of the neighbours. Therefore, they are in mercy. And the bailiff and the constables are ordered to remove them from the town
Alice reappears at the end of a court
leet for 4th May 1406 when
‘It is ordered to move outside the town Alice Torples, a certain leper woman, under pain of 20s, until the next court.’
By this time John has disappeared,
perhaps he had died. We can only try and imagine the social stigma that Alice
must have suffered, let alone the symptoms of leprosy.
Such is the nature of these documents,
that directly under this entry appears one that demonstrates one of the
features law and order in the medieval world:
‘The bailiff is ordered to make a new ‘cokyngstoll’ [cucking stool] until the next court under pain of 20s.’
Our venerable 1930s OED records
‘cucking stool’ (‘an instrument of punishment formerly in use for scolds,
disorderly women, fraudulent tradespeople, etc, consisting of a chair, in which
the offender was fastened and exposed to the jeers of the bystanders, or
conveyed to a pond or river and ducked’) as being first recorded in thirteenth
century. We can only guess how often that was used.
So, there you go, we’re so much better
off in our own times and, if you have a moment, do remember poor John Wryght
and Alice Torples who didn’t have all the advantages in life that we have.
ERO is very grateful to Dr Herbert
Eiden for sharing this fascinating snapshot.
As described in our earlier blog post, this week marks the 70th anniversary of the 1953 North Sea flood, one of Europe’s worst peacetime disasters in the the twentieth century. As communities along the Essex coast gather to commemorate the lives lost, amongst them will be people who still remember the devastation caused by the flood, although most were just children at the time. But how will we remember the flood when it fades from living memory?
At the ERO, we are fortunate that the voices of many of those who experienced the flood are now preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive. The quote above comes from a recording of Mrs Rudge, interviewed a few days after the flood by Sir Bernard Braine, Canvey Island’s MP. In the recording, Mrs Rudge recalls waking up in the small hours of Sunday morning to find her bungalow in Newlands overwhelmed with water, after the tidal surge overcame the sea wall at Small Gains Creek. Nearly 80 at the time, she spent three days trapped on her dining table before being rescued, without being able to access even the “nice little bottle of whiskey” in her dressing table drawer:
The interview with Mrs Rudge is one of a precious few recordings we hold from the immediate aftermath of the flood. In the decades since, oral historians, community archives, and radio producers have continued to preserve people’s memories of that night, complementing the abundance of personal testimony woven through Hilda Grieve’s The Great Tide. To mark the 70th anniversary, we wanted to share some of those recordings, telling the story of the flood through the words of those who were there.
Interviews with people who had to escape their homes often begin with the moment they realised that they were flooded. As the tidal surge came with very little warning, in the middle of the night, many recall being woken up by the sound of the water in and around their homes. Interviewed in 1988, Audrey Frost described hearing:
“The sound of all this rushing water, it sounded like. And I just sort of tapped Derek, and I said, ‘Sounds as though we’ve got an awful lot of rain coming down.’ And with that he said, ‘My god, it ain’t rain – the sea’s come over!”
Audrey and her husband Derek lived on Gorse Way, one of the worst affected areas of Jaywick. Although it initially seemed that the sea walls had protected most of the town, the tide had breached the wall at Colne Point and swept across the marshes, surging into Jaywick from behind just before 2 AM. By the time that Audrey and Derek realised what was happening, the water was higher than the gutters of their bungalow. Thankfully, they managed to swim out of one of their windows with their eighteen month-old son, Michael, and spent the night on their roof in bitingly cold conditions before being rescued the following morning.
Like Audrey and Derek, many people in Jaywick and Canvey Island lived in bungalows, making it difficult to get above the freezing water that poured in through their letterboxes and window frames. A common theme in the interviews is the speed at which the water rose, leaving people no time to get dressed or gather possessions. Those who couldn’t make it up to their roofs climbed into their lofts, or – like Mrs Rudge – even onto their furniture as it floated on the water.
One unexpected detail mentioned by many of the interviewees was the challenge posed by lino flooring as it floated up on top of the water and became near-impossible to cross, jamming doors and windows shut. Interviewed in 1993 for the Breeze FM documentary, ‘The Great Tide’, Bill Rowland recalls trying to rescue his son’s brand-new bike at home in Parkeston Quay, Harwich:
“In those days I had a lino runner down my hall, and unthinkedly I came down the stairs, and I could see this bike standing sort of submerged in water. And I could also see the lino runner. And like a silly man, I trod on the lino, and of course, you can imagine, I did a complete somersault, because the lino was just resting on the top of the water. And I finished up in this absolutely icy water. Frozen to the bone I was.”
While some had no option but to stay put and wait for help, others made the difficult decision to try and get through the water to safety. On Canvey Island, Thelma and Donald Payne found that they couldn’t get up into the loft as a gas pipe had been laid across the hatch – and, being seven months pregnant, Thelma couldn’t fit either side of it. Although they found a temporary refuge in the external staircase of the house next door, when Thelma started having pains, they decided to make a break for it in their bath.
Others were lucky enough to have boats that hadn’t been carried away by the flood. In this interview from 2019, Malcolm MacGregor described how he managed to row his family away from their farm in Lee-over-Sands, with his sister’s Exmoor pony swimming behind them. Many of those who had their own boats, like Malcolm, were the first to help their neighbours, rescuing people from their lofts and roofs through the night.
The rescue effort
Co-ordinated rescue efforts varied across the county. The policeman Kenneth Alston arrived in Harwich at 2.30 AM, five hours after the harbourmaster raised the alarm. In the intervening time the tidal surge had inundated the town, cutting it off completely. Interviewed in 1990, Ken recalled that:
“Although the water ran over the quay, the break came from the marshes at the back, what we call Bathside. There were just earthen ramparts. Those ramparts broke and water just poured into the back of Harwich. Overwhelmed all the properties there, the schools, over the railway, into the street behind the police station. And there were panic stations I can tell you.”
While the police and the fire brigade did all they could to help people get up above the water, into the upper storeys of buildings, Ken set about getting in touch with local boat owners and fishermen, the naval training ship HMS Ganges and Trinity House, who all contributed their boats to the rescue effort the following day, when hundreds of people were evacuated out of first and second-story windows.
In Jaywick, the force of the water that surged across the marshes washed away the only police car with radio equipment, hampering rescue efforts. PC Don Harmer – who hadn’t even been to Jaywick before – crawled a mile along the sea wall through the flood water to telephone for help from Clacton. Astoundingly, once he’d delivered his report, he followed orders to crawl all the way back again.
Any available boats along the coastline arrived to help as the morning went on, manned by emergency services, fishermen, and local residents. The following day, Monday 2nd February, the BBC journalist Max Robertson talked to some of those who had been involved, who were accompanied by a cat they’d rescued:
“Well we first pushed off from Grasslands in the boat. We hadn’t been rowing many yards when we heard a woman calling for help. So we immediately made for this bungalow, and reassured her that help was on the way.”
Down on Canvey Island, Reg Stevens, Canvey Urban Council’s Engineer and Surveyor, started co-ordinating the rescue effort at around 1.25 AM, when it was clear that the sea walls would not hold. Stevens tried to warn residents using the wartime air raid sirens and sent the policemen and firemen on the island out to reach as many people as they could. As Stevens recalls, the “heroic” telephone operator stayed sitting in the floodwater until his equipment ceased to function. Fortunately, one of the ambulances on the island had been fitted with a radio the previous week, and they managed to get a message out to their MP, Bernard Braine, who helped with the rescue effort from the mainland.
As Canvey remained cut off, the rescuers had to make do with whatever they could find. Geoff Barsby, one of eight part-time firemen on Canvey at the time, recalls using collapsible canvas dinghies to help rescue people from their homes, and then a boat from Peter Pan’s Playground in Southend.
More boats from Southend, Grays, Tilbury and Thurrock arrived as the morning went on, and by 5.30 AM the army and RAF had arrived to help. Thirty-five years later, one of the borough policemen recalled arriving on Canvey early that morning:
“The thing that we noticed as soon as we got out of the van were the cries of help from people who were stranded nearby, plus the noise of the wind, and you know, the shock of seeing so much water in a residential area.”
Many of those involved in the rescue effort recount the practical difficulties of rescuing people. A common theme was the impossibility of using motor boats when there were so many obstacles under the water, forcing rescuers to row. Even that wasn’t straightforward – one interviewee who went out to rescue people from Canewdon and Foulness Island commented that:
“We hadn’t realised that there were so many underwater obstructions, because every now and then there were these ominous bangs coming from underneath the boat. We’d probably hit some farm machinery or a tree or a hedge or something like that and I thought any moment now we’re going to have a hole in our boat and we shall all be sunk.”
Another challenge was getting people off their roofs into the boats. In addition to the strength of the tide, there was always the risk that people would miss altogether, capsize the boat, or in the case of the canvas boats, go straight through the bottom. In one interview, Sammy Sampson describes how he rescued several residents of Great Wakering by encouraging them to slide down his back into the boat.
Once on dry land, survivors were taken to rest centres, co-ordinated by the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services) and the local chapters of the British Legion, amongst others. As one interviewee recalls, rescued residents of Canewdon, Foulness Island, and Wallasea Island were taken to the Corinthian Yacht Club in Burnham-on-Crouch to be given tea and support. As many of those who escaped were still in their cold, wet nightclothes, the rest centres also co-ordinated collecting and distributing clothing.
On Canvey, those who had escaped their homes initially gathered at William Read School. With the arrival of army lorries, they were taken onto the mainland and to South Benfleet School. By midday on the 1st February, journalists and photographers had started to turn up to document the ongoing rescue effort. One of the most publicised photographs at the time shows PC Bill Pilgrim carrying a child onto a lorry. As he recalls in this interview from 1988, he was just doing his job:
The rescue effort went on for days. Families were scattered across hospitals, rest centres, relatives and friends. Canvey resident Shirley Thomas (née Hollingbury) recalled becoming separated from her parents after her mother was taken to hospital:
“Being twelve years old, I had not noticed that everybody was writing their names on the paintboard in the schools that they were taken to, and I hadn’t done it. So for a couple of days my father hunted in vain for his two girls… Eventually somebody in Benfleet remembered seeing two little girls. Luckily my sister was a redhead, so it had stuck in their mind… And I can still remember my father crying– I never saw him cry again, in his lifetime.”
Despite the disruption, businesses like Jones Stores continued to operate. Interviewed by Ted Haley in 1983, Albert Jones recalls the support of the army and Southend Grocers Association in keeping them going. In the following weeks, residents slowly returned – under the watchful eye of the police, to ensure that looting didn’t take place – to see what was left of their homes.
Many had lost everything to the flood. Yet, alongside the loss, people also recall the generosity of their communities and people across the country who donated clothes, food, and furniture to help the survivors rebuild their lives. There was much press coverage of the attempts to rescue pets and reunite them with their owners, led by the PDSA. One interviewee, Alan Whitcomb, recalled how he was reunited with his tortoiseshell cat after seeing him on the television:
Another interviewee, Winnie Capser, received an RSPCA award for Gallantry and Services on Behalf of Animals for her work. Interviewed in the early 1980s by radio producer Dennis Rookard, she commented that:
“You know, you just can’t imagine it. But I always say now, if you lived through the flood, you could live through anything.”
While it might be difficult for us to imagine the flood, seventy years on, hearing the voices of the people who lived through it – their intonation and emotional cadence – brings the scale of the tragedy closer. In listening to the detail, we bear witness to the human cost of that night – and the human perseverance and courage.
You can listen to all of these clips – and more – at the listening post in our Searchroom. We’ll also be at Canvey Library on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd February, and at Harwich Museum on Saturday 4th February. Find more information here.
You can access many of the full recordings in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office. To explore the archives we hold relating to the 1953, see our source guide.
The story of the floods on Canvey Island was told in a film made by Essex County Council’s Educational Film Unit that same year, ‘Essex Floods’ (VA 3/8/4/1). You might recognise some of the audio from the documentary ‘Learning From The Great Tide’, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 earlier this week. The new interviews recorded for the documentary will be preserved in the ESVA for future generations.