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.
Following on from his first blog post about the Essex folk movement oral history project and his second about the folk revival in England, MA placement student Callum Newton explores what the folk movement looked – and sounded – like in Essex from the 1960s.
Those interviewed for the Essex folk movement oral history project recall a very active folk club circuit around all areas of Essex, with the more prominent clubs being Blackmore Folk Club, Chelmsford Folk Club, and the Hoy at Anchor in Southend. Blackmore’s influence is felt particularly in the interviews, as Sue Cubbin, the interviewer, and several of the interviewees – including Simon Ritchie, Annie Harding, Jim Garrett and Paul O’Kelly – had performed either within the club or with Blackmore’s associated Morris team. Ritchie, Cubbin and Roger Johnson had also participated in running the club at various stages.
There were dozens of folk clubs across the county, however, from Harwich to Colchester and as far as Brentwood and Havering. Associated with the Essex Folk Association (EFA), or the earlier Essex District Committee of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, all of them were documented in Essex Folk News [LIB/PER 2/22/1-50], so that every club was regularly accessible to anyone involved in the movement.
Essex’s relationship with the larger London folk circuit is also evident due to its geographical relationship. Many practitioners were born in London, discovered folk and later moved to Essex, like Jill-Palmer Swift; or travelled to London specifically for folk, like Dave Vandoorn who ran his first folk club in East Ham in the 1960s despite working in Brentwood.
The close proximity no doubt enabled practitioners to travel between: many already worked in London, like Reg Beecham and Simon Ritchie; or others simply travelled to perform, like Alie Byrne and Jim Garrett. There were considerable differences between the two locations however – while Byrne cites the typically younger audience members in London,Jill Palmer-Swift had always noted the typically wider mix of ethnicities present in London’s folk clubs.
The role of folk clubs was not universal – some existed to have performers, to be watched by those who attended, while others encouraged group singing lead by a particular performer .
This was certainly the case, also, in Essex. Paul Kiff describes how the Old Ship in Heybridge acted as a more informal club, entirely focused on singarounds.
This stands in contrast to a club like Maldon Folk Club, where performers were specifically booked by the host, Rick Christian. It is crucial to consider the individual philosophies of those who ran folk clubs; Christian maintained a professional folk career, and this certainly bled into his organisation of folk festivals, where the performer tends to be the focal point. Paul Kiff, on the other hand, openly rejected festivals and artists as the centre of performance entirely, citing that it was against the tradition, while maintaining a reformist political career within the EFDSS. Ultimately, this is just one of the themes central to finding a definition for the tradition – as in, what is legitimate folk? Sometimes, the vocal, passionate people involved would split bands, or even entire clubs over their position on that question (for more on this topic, see the interviews with Simon Ritchie and Myra and Red Abbott).
Essex had a very pronounced tradition of its own – largely attributed to the song collections of Vaughan Williams but also from particularly Essex dances like ‘Sally’s Taste’, ‘The Tartar’ and ‘A Trip to Dunmow’ as discovered by John Smith and Jim Youngs (as referenced in interviews with Tony Kendall and Jill Palmer-Swift).
The songs themselves were also a point of contention by some who practiced folk music. Don Budds explained that to his band the Folk Five, folk was an orthodoxy of strictly ‘modal’ style songs like “Maids when You’re Young” or “My Bonny Boy” (see also copy of the Folk Five repertoire, SA 30/1/37/3).
Peter Chopping described folk songs as ‘workers songs; sea-shanties, capstan shanties and halyard shanties’ as well as ‘forebitter’ songs – all some form of worker chant or sea-shanty. Others were less strict; Annie Harding, for example, opted to incorporate jazz and other types of non-folk into her folk act repertoire, alongside traditional songs.
Alie Byrne is indicative of this less orthodox approach as the tradition progressed, as a relative newcomer to the folk scene even at the time of the interview. She suggests that there is a fundamental difference between performing folk and listening to folk, and that while some audiences were strict about ‘purist’ songs “they’ve heard before”, others were more appreciative of less orthodox, more experimental songs. She describes folk as a common ownership of songs, and that there is no one way to perform any song, and that every performer “owns” a song at the moment they are performing it. Byrne’s depiction of folk is a more romantic approach, though certainly this was not always generally accepted. It is certain that there was no universally accepted way to perform folk, even by the people actively performing it, and that the philosophy was actively argued inside and outside of clubs, or between clubs.
The EFDSS and the Essex Folk
The politics and philosophy of folk was felt quite heavily within Essex, induced by Essex’s relationship with the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which was seemingly tumultuous at the best of times. In 1995, the Essex Folk Association was founded from the remnants of the Essex District Committee of the EFDSS [EFN Spring 1995, LIB/PER 2/22/23]. Instead of being a regional committee of the EFDSS, the Association instead adopted affiliate status and organised its own affairs. Ivy Romney and Paul Kiff both explore the arguments for this – with Romney claiming that many believed a “non-English” designation would encourage specifically non-English style dancing and music, of which many clubs existed in Essex, such as Scottish country dancing or Irish music, to associate with the Essex movement.
The EFDSS policy, since its founding, of ‘English only’ had prevented some groups, such as Romney’s own Society for International Folk Dancing, from being incorporated properly into the folk scenes despite the universal theme of folk between them. Paul Kiff, additionally, proposed the idea of affiliated clubs within the EFDSS to give each Association its own direction behind some guiding principles, and suggested that some unspecified but consistent names had held back the folk movement within the executive of the EFDSS. This criticism of the EFDSS is explored within the interviews, with some accusing the EFDSS of gatekeeping, and others proposing that dance was always the priority for Cecil Sharp House.
Practically, as a response to the EFDSS monopoly on folk song collecting, the Essex folk movement is of note for its own individual second-revival collectors. Some of those interviewed, like Dennis Rookard and David Occomore, spent countless hours recording in folk clubs.
These collections – alongside those of other collectors, notably John Durrant and Jim Etheridge – are now housed in the Essex Record Office as part of the wider folk music collection, catalogued as SA 30. Additional recordings made by Dennis Rookard are catalogued as SA 19, and David Occomore as SA 21.
Folklore and oral history are inextricably linked because the traditions of folk were themselves an oral tradition. In a modern world, where recording equipment is practically accessible by any person, oral history with a recorder is seemingly the natural successor to this kind of oral tradition . In the spirit of Ewan MacColl’s radio ballads, which combined elements of song and interview into a documentary, folk can and does exist as a wide-ranging, permanent record of the lifestyle people lived .
A folk archive then, like the one idealised by Paul Kiff, is fundamentally an extension of the folk movement itself. The collection housed at the Essex Record Office, and the project Sue Cubbin began in 1998, is fundamentally, itself, the folk tradition in the twenty-first century.
Following on from his first blog post, MA placement student Callum Newton explores the history of folk revival in Britain, through the Essex folk movement oral histories and recordings held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.
It may appear as though there is a dichotomy between the emphasis placed on the importance of folk music in the extensive archives at the ERO, and the lack of prominence it is afforded in the British popular consciousness. To many in Britain, traditional folk music has been considered a niche interest – somewhat ignored compared to its popular cousin, pop folk. Morris dancing has often been viewed as eccentric and alien, while folk clubs have had no place within most people’s daily lives.
Yet, this limited perspective did not detract from the detailed, vibrant and quite living world those interviewed for the Essex folk movement oral history project inhabited. In many ways, it was a universe of their own, as conservators of a tradition as well as practitioners of it. It was their culture, and still is today . There should be no doubt that this is a legitimate reason for capturing the folk movement, and Essex’s role within it. If preserving the tradition, practices and knowledge is integral to folk itself, then preserving the history and making it accessible within an archive is integral to the movement too. After all, Morris sides often keep their own archives and have a designated archivist for this very same task .
However, to fully understand the intricacies of the Essex folk movement, and the
traditions practitioners incorporated into their
lifestyles, one cannot ignore the wider context in which Essex’s folk music
Where did folk music come from?
Folk, ultimately, means people. Folk music, then, must mean a music of the people. The history of the folk movement in Britain is one arranged around a question of how that definition might be interpreted. There is no clear concept behind what ‘folk music’ is, as it is one that has evolved over the last two centuries with social, political and technological impositions .
The story starts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the first ‘folk revival’, where amateur historians began their collections of folk songs and ballads by going out into the world and making a record of them . These pioneers, like Sabine Baring-Gould, Frank Kidson, Lucy Broadwood and Cecil Sharp, were limited by technology – their writings, rather than recordings, would go on to begin the collection later housed at the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) , based at Cecil Sharp House . Rooted in antiquarianism, the EFDSS assumed an authority over all English folk scholarship, enjoying a monopoly on “promoting vintage musical and dance styles” . It existed primarily as a vehicle for an academic style and rejected popular folk music, leading to a historiographical perception of gatekeeping folk music from “rowdy” people . In their own words, they were ‘protectors’ and ‘preservers’ of folk . The legacy of this philosophy would repeatedly come into conflict with the practices of the second folk revival from the 1950s and 1960s. Performance became the driver of the tradition, but the purpose of performance became hotly contested .
A history of the second folk revival in England cannot be complete without touching on the lineage of folk song collecting in the USA. The two nations were interlinked in the early movement, with collectors and performers travelling across the Atlantic. With the release of American Ballads and Folk Songs in 1934, John and Alan Lomax “set the standard for folk song collecting” globally . The USA had always been more receptive to folk music generally, allowing various collectors to rise throughout the early twentieth century to cover the huge range of popular American folk songs. In contrast, the British collections largely began and ended with the EFDSS , although a generation after the likes of Cecil Sharp, private collectors did exist, with individuals like Ralph Vaughan Williams collecting in Essex from 1903 . Yet the lack of popularity of English folk meant collectors were few and far between, or concentrated at Cecil Sharp House, while the popularity of American folk meant collections across the Atlantic were in vogue .
These worlds would start to collide during the second folk revival, particularly during Alan Lomax’s travels to England . American country music became popular during the 1940s, as American soldiers stationed in Britain began broadcasting through the American Forces Network . Eventually the British interpretation of those country folk songs became skiffle, inspired by Lonnie Donegan’s number one hit cover of ‘Rock Island Line’, in a very homemade fashion due to the relative expense of instruments . Alan Lomax arrived in Britain in 1950 and further propagated the skiffle scene by broadcasting American folk songs and collecting the English songs where he could. During this time, Lomax became the inspiration for the left-wing actor and writer, Ewan MacColl . MacColl saw folk music as a platform for the working people of Britain, to give the ‘common man’ back his music. After Lomax introduced him to A. L. ‘Bert’ Lloyd, this became a reality with the six-part radio series Ballads and Blues – though MacColl’s professional career had only really just begun .
Lomax predicted that skiffle would be a short-lived phenomenon, and that many American-inspired skiffle musicians would turn to their own folk tradition for new inspiration. After all, argued Lomax, ‘Do it Yourself’ music was, by definition, folk . MacColl accepted Lomax’s vision, but saw skiffle as only a means to an end. Despite his politically socialist internationalism, in 1958 he instituted a policy of national restriction at his Ballads and Blues club; only Americans could sing American songs in his club, he argued, in order to protect the English tradition from being replaced . To MacColl, folk music remained an image of unity for working people. This began his relationship with Topic Records, a company under the umbrella of the Worker’s Music Association based in the United States. Alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which made use of skiffle and folk as a rallying cry, MacColl became the face of political folk music, and introduced many on the left-wing spectrum to folk .
As Lomax had predicted, when skiffle music began to fall out of favour, the performers turned to folk. Skiffle clubs became folk clubs and began to attract a new generation of performers with an interest in the English tradition. These names included Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins and Bob Davenport . They arrived at folk clubs housed at a temporary location, usually in a pub, and performed for or with each other . At the height of the movement, there were hundreds of these permanent and semi-permanent clubs in London, and possibly at least one in every major city in England . There was little financial incentive for these clubs to run; often they barely broke even . And what was played in these clubs was never static, as popular folk of the Donegan strand, propagated by touring American folk artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Bob Dylan, continued to be played alongside more English traditional songs straight from the EFDSS library .
In some cases, this resulted in schisms over the legitimacy of the songs performers adopted, as with MacColl’s ruling over national songs, and also in divisions over ‘electric folk’ and ‘popular folk’ . The latter is most prevalent in the case of Bob Dylan, who was infamously jeered by a folk audience by changing his persona and style, sensing a possible decline in folk . With the professionalisation of the folk movement, particularly by bands like Fairport Convention, folk no longer existed in the vacuum of the folk clubs where everyone participated in singarounds led by a performer .
By the 1990s, folk was largely seen as being in decline. The nature of folk had changed over the decades, and the original practitioners no longer held a monopoly over the practice. As folk had become a genre rather than a lifestyle, folk festivals came to replace the folk club. JP Bean cites BBC radio’s transition to ‘fresh’ artists, with an appeal to a younger generation, for the decline in ‘traditional’ English folk . Elsewhere, folk continued to be inherited by the children of the older practitioners of the 1960s onwards, who grew up with folk and the lifestyle. The tradition, in this sense, does live on .
Britta Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional
Music, (Oxford University Press, 2005), p.25
 Ronald D.
Cohen and Rachel C. Donaldson, Roots of the Revival: American and British
Folk Music in the 1950s, (Illinois, 2014), p.7
 For the purposes of this section, the activities of the English Folk Song Society and English Folk Dance Society are being combined under the label of EFDSS, although they did not merge until 1929. In principle, though, the organisations had identical aims and goals when it comes to preservation.
 Jacqueline Simpson, and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, (Oxford, 2003) and Frederick Keel, “The Folk Song Society 1898-1948”, Journal of English Folk Dance and Song Society, 5.3 (1948), p.111
Cohen and Donaldson, Roots of the Revival, p.61
Sweers, Electric Folk, pp.31-32 and Billy Bragg, Roots, Radicals and
Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, (London, 2017), p.235
 Frederick Keel, The Folk Song Society 1898-1948, p.111
Each year the ERO offers a placement to students on the MA History course at the University of Essex, jointly funded by the university and the Friends of Historic Essex. Last year, we were lucky to be joined by Callum Newton, who catalogued the Essex folk movement oral history project, conducted by Sue Cubbin between 1998 and 2002 (SA 30/7). Over the next three blog posts, Callum delves into the oral histories and chooses some of his personal highlights from the folk collection held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive. In this post, he explains the background to the collection and explores some of the issues discussed in the interviews.
In 1998 Sue Cubbin began an oral history collection that can only be described as a passion project. Inspired by the everyday lives recorded in the Colchester Recalledproject (SA 8) she encountered through her work with the Essex Sound Archive, Sue set about conducting interviews with individuals involved in a lifestyle that she herself was deeply enmeshed with: the Essex folk movement.
Sue’s belief was that the people involved in preserving the English folk tradition had their lives completely and utterly transformed by their relationship to folk. It was not simply a hobby for those involved; many committed every day of their week to participating in different folk clubs like Blackmore or the Hoy at Anchor. These clubs were home to a dedicated group of singers and musicians, like the Folk Five, Mick and Sarah Graves and the Grand Ceilidh Club. Every year, Essex also became home to folk festivals, most famously at Leigh-on-Sea.
Over the next few years, this archive grew beyond the oral histories to include music recordings, video, photographs, scrap books and all kinds of other assorted materials, all preserved by Sue at the ERO.
From the beginning, Sue saw the project as an opportunity to help protect Essex folk by keeping a record for future generations to be inspired by. This idea is parallel to the oral nature of the folk tradition itself, in which music and dances were inherited generation after generation, by communities for future communities. The nature of this tradition in a modern world, however, was not without question. In a world with commercial records, big-name artists, and large festivals, one might ask what place a folk club might have. As we will see, many interviewees who were patrons of folk clubs asked this same question, suffering a kind of existentialism about the nature of folk and what place their lifestyle and tradition had in a country that often seemed to soundly reject it.
This series of blog posts will explore how the individuals involved interpreted their commitment to the movement, and to the folk revival overall. For the rest of this post, I shall briefly spell out the main themes of the interviews: definitions of folk; the issues posed by commercialisation; and how to keep folk alive. The second and third posts shall explore the story of the folk revival and the nature of the folk movement in Essex.
What is folk?
The definition of folk is not a simple one. To many of us, folk music is often associated with singer-songwriter artists like Bob Dylan or Judy Collins, or perhaps even American country music. Yet many of the interviewees in the collection describe folk as something more: a lifestyle that they commit entirely to, a tradition they have inherited from ‘ordinary people’ of the past. There was not one idea of folk, however. It appears everyone involved had at least their own interpretation of the philosophy.
Some describe it as a continuation of that tradition, a very tangible lineage, rather than something separate or new. But others – like Colin Cater – view this lineage as not necessarily linear.
Others felt strongly that folk was a living tradition, rather than a re-enactment, the ‘folkies’ of Essex often deriding the English Folk Dance and Song Society for aligning with the latter. Folk clubs came under especial scrutiny. Did the music enjoyed locally and communally within these clubs constitute a living tradition? Was having guest performers, on a stage, being watched in silence, contrary to the spirit of a communal folk tradition? Does folk belong to one economic class?
Or, as Paul O’Kelly suggests, is folk for personal enjoyment? Does it need to be communal at all?
Popular folk and commercialisation
Popular folk music has a fundamental connection to the definition of folk. As the folk revival progressed, many folk practitioners became professional musicians. These artists were writing music, producing records, and gigging under the guise of folk music, very often in folk clubs but certainly within the popular sphere as well. To some of the local folk practitioners, however, this was seen as a degradation of the tradition. Many practitioners thought folk should stay true to its traditional roots, as a communal activity. Putting artists on a stage, separate from its audience, was not considered within their definition of folk, and was even treated as damaging to traditional interpretations of folk music.
This debate also raged within Morris dancing. Those who were lucky enough to be given television appearances were accused of, in the words of Peter Boyce, ‘prostituting’ the tradition, because their costumes were experimental and unique, rather than by the book.
On the other hand, some viewed commercialisation positively. It provided opportunities for those with unique song-writing talent the opportunity to make a living from what they loved and gave folk a platform to present itself positively. Popular folk introduced many of the interviewees to folk clubs in the first place.
Keeping alive and communicating a folk tradition
Unlike the other issues discussed, the interviewees all agreed that more could have been done to keep the folk tradition alive, and that a lack of communication and pride in folk was to blame. Many felt that English people were ashamed of their folk roots, seeing a snobbery or embarrassment that was not present in Irish or Scottish folk traditions. Others tried to encourage the tradition, by writing new dances and songs, as a method of keeping it active and alive, instead of rehashing the older music that some had grown tired of.
Many suggested that young people simply had no interest in folk, with many alternatives for entertainment in a modernising world; none more so than Tony Kendall, who envisioned a revival based in teaching the folk tradition in primary schools across Essex and Britain.
While folk music and dance was certainly still alive when the interviews were recorded, there was an acceptance amongst practitioners that folk was in decline by the 1990s. Some feared this would lead to the folk tradition disappearing altogether, without fast acting documentation.
While the Essex folk tradition does live on, preserved by a dedicated group of practitioners, some twenty years on from when she began, the interviews and the folk song and music collection held at the Essex Record Office acts as an insurance for Essex folk. Forever can the sounds and dances of the movement be experienced and inherited, and the lives attached to the golden age of the folk movement be remembered through their own experiences, in their own words and on their own terms.
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.
In the second post focusing on Black histories at the Essex Record Office, we’ll explore some of the audio recordings preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). Including broadcasts on local radio, spoken-word poetry, and oral histories, these recordings give us an insight into the experiences of a diverse range of Black people in Essex over the past 75 years, right up until the present day.
You can explore the Black History Month display and listen to more clips in our Searchroom – check our website for opening hours.
Unfortunately, the earliest recording in the ESVA relating to Black history – a race relations meeting held at St Martin’s Church, Basildon, in December 1968 – is very poor quality, largely due to the acoustics of the venue (SA 20/2/37/1). More audible recordings can be found in the archive of BBC Essex, which broadcast events, discussions, and features across the county from 1986. While there were no programmes produced specifically for Black or ethnic minority audiences (as there were on other local radio stations outside Essex), the archive does include some recordings that help us to understand the experiences of the Black community during this period.
The clip below is from a radio programme about the work of Thurrock Community Relations Council, broadcast in 1988. The council aimed to “promote harmony, eliminate racial and cultural discrimination, and promote equal opportunities” in the area, and included representatives from the local Sikh, Vietnamese, and African-Caribbean communities. The speaker in the clip is Diana Wall, who had moved to the UK from Guyana in the 1960s and was working as a midwife in Grays.
“The older people accept me as a person in my field of work, but the younger generation sometimes do cause a little bit of a problem.”
Voices from Black communities across Essex continue to be recorded for broadcast today, both by BBC Essex and organisations like the Essex Cultural Diversity Project (ECDP), which launched ECDP Radio in 2021. In episode below, presenter Nita Jhummu talks to Sangita Mittra, Wrenay Raphael and Carlos Byles from the New Generation Development Agency, about Black History Month in Chelmsford (SA 74/2/7/1):
Other contemporary reflections on issues of identity and place have been commissioned by Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea for FPG Sounds, an online project supporting the development of new sound works by artists from or based in Southend, now archived in the ESVA (SA912). Amongst the fifteen commissions are several spoken-word pieces by Carrissa Baxter and The Repeat Beat Poet (Peter deGraft-Johnson), exploring Black British history and their own experiences.
The Repeat Beat Poet’s poem ‘One Black Lotus’, inspired by the eighteenth century Jamaican-Scottish radical and union activist William Davidson.
Over the last fifteen years, museums, arts organisations, and artists have also recorded the stories of people who moved to Essex from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as more recent experiences of those with African or Caribbean heritage.
Oral histories are some of the most powerful records of recent Black history in Essex. As historians have shown, the fact that the personal experiences of people of African descent in Britain have not generally been recorded – as we found in the first blog post – has contributed to their historical erasure. In contrast, oral histories give people the opportunity to share their stories in their own words. Quoting from the 1991 Julie Dash film, Daughters of the Dust, Dr Meleisa Ono-George has emphasised that “there is power in the knowing, but there is also power in the telling”. As the artist Everton Wright (EVEWRIGHT) describes in the clip below, the richness and complexity of these stories also provides a foundation for future generations to listen to and learn from.
In 2008, staff at Hollytrees Museum in Colchester recorded oral histories with nurses who came to work for the NHS from around the Commonwealth, including the Caribbean, for the exhibition ‘Empire of Care’. In the recordings, the interviewees talk about their memories of arriving in Essex, training to be nurses, living in Colchester during the late 1950s and 1960s, and their careers since.
Looking back over their lives, they also reflect on their achievements and the challenges they faced. In the clip below, Shirla Philogene (née Allen) describes her experience of ‘colour prejudice’ during her nursing training in Colchester. Shirla grew up in St Vincent & the Grenadines and started her training in Colchester in 1959. She received an OBE for her services to nursing leadership and development in 2000 and published a book about her experiences, Between Two Worlds, in 2008.
Another interview with Shirla is preserved in the Royal College of Nursing archive (T/374), and you can hear more clips from the interviews with Shirla, Ester Jankey, and Rosie Bobby in this blog post about the collection.
Between 2017 and 2018, EVEWRIGHT and Evewright Arts Foundation recorded thirteen oral histories with Caribbean elders across Essex. Ten-minute excerpts from the interviews were played as part of the Caribbean Takeaway Takeover exhibition at the S&S Caribbean Café in Colchester on the weekend of the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury. As with the ‘Empire of Care’ recordings, many of those interviewed describe their journeys to the UK from the Caribbean. One interviewee, Alford Gardner, travelled from Jamaica on the Windrush itself:
” When we came here, reach Tilbury, there were two Calypsonians from Trinidad and any part of the boat you walk on I mean, some little ting, ting ting, ting, ting t-ting-ting. Anything that moved on the boat, a song was made up about it!”
Alford Gardner speaking to Ionie Richards and Everton Wright in 2018 (SA 69/1/3/1)
Importantly, the oral histories record the many different experiences of the pioneers now known as the ‘Windrush generation’, and their lives in the UK beyond the point of arrival. In this clip, Alton Watkins, who passed away in May this year, reflects on his contribution to British society as a teacher and England being his home.
In 2020, EVEWRIGHT created a new installation in a passenger walkway at the Port of Tilbury. The 432 panes of glass along the walkway are collaged with photographs, passports, documents, boat passenger tickets and memorabilia. There is also a series of sound windows, where visitors can listen to some of the audio stories recorded for the Caribbean Takeaway Takeover installation, as well as new interviews recorded by Evewright Arts Foundation and donated by members of the public across the UK. The clip below is from an interview with Freda Seaton, where she describes moving to the UK from Jamaica in 1957.
This series of recordings was deposited in the ESVA earlier this year. Thanks to the generosity of the participants, we are delighted to be able to share them on our catalogue, Essex Archives Online, and our Soundcloud channel. You can also pick up a legacy publication about the installation in our Searchroom.
Another collection of recordings recently deposited in the ESVA is a series of four conversations recorded by the artist Elsa James in 2019 for ‘Black Girl Essex’, a project carried out during her four month residency for Super Black, an Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibition at Firstsite in Colchester (SA 78/1).
The thirteen participants in the conversations represent the diversity of the Black community in Essex in the twenty-first century. They varied in age, from 13 to 74, and while some moved to Essex as children, or later on in life, others were born and brought up in the county. This diversity is reflected in the recordings, as they discuss their perceptions of Essex, whether the Essex stereotype resonates with them, and their experiences of being othered.
One of the participants was the actor and director Josephine Melville, who sadly died on 20 October. Jo set up the South Essex African Caribbean Association (SEACA) in 2012 and was passionate about bringing communities together to celebrate their culture and heritage. As well as the interview with Elsa James, Jo was also involved with EVEWRIGHT’s Tilbury Bridge Walkway of Memories project, to which she contributed a recording of her parents’ experience of moving to Britain from Jamaica, and a conversation with her mother, Byrel.
In this excerpt from her conversation with Elsa, she reflects on the importance of recording and preserving Black histories in Essex.
“Moments need to be logged and treasured, so that we don’t get lost, and that our history and our presence in this area are not just told by other people, they’re told by us.”
Josephine Melville speaking to Elsa James, September 2019
We’re delighted to announce that the oral histories recorded for Communicating Connections: Sharing the Heritage of Marconi’s Wireless World are now available to explore on Essex Archives Online. You can also explore our project website, Marconi Stories, where you can learn about the project, listen to clips from the interviews and podcasts, view a gallery of digitised photographs, and download our guided walks around Marconi heritage in Chelmsford.
The oral histories with 30 former employees of the Marconi Company are at the heart of the Communicating Connections project. As the interviewees worked at the company in a huge range of roles from the 1950s to the 2000s, the recordings capture a real variety of experiences. Together, they add a human dimension to a story of technological innovation, and give a personal insight into how the company operated across the fields of broadcasting, telecommunications, navigation, and other wireless technologies. They also reveal how life in Chelmsford – and the fabric of the city itself – was shaped by the company. This living heritage will now be preserved in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the ERO for future generations to learn from and enjoy.
The clips and excerpts below provide an insight into the experiences discussed in the interviews. Most of the interviewees begin by describing how they came to work at the company. Many, like Peter Farnworth, joined as apprentices. In this clip, he talks about moving into the ‘ship room’ in the hostel for apprentices on Springfield Place in 1966.
Several female interviewees – Barbara Stephens, Joyce Allan, Maria Smith, and Val Cleare – discuss what it was like to join Marconi’s as a woman. In this clip, Barbara recalls being the only female apprentice on her course in 1974. She went on to become a trailblazer in the world of engineering.
After their apprenticeships, the interviewees went on to work in various departments across the company, often progressing into management positions. Chris Denly recalls that a job at Marconi was seen as a ‘job for life’ –
“It was going to be a job for life. [It had] its own culture; we used to go on things like ‘walkabout’, where we’d go to different departments, talking to people, communicating, and seeing what everybody else was actually up to”
The interviewees also explain the technology and equipment they worked with, often in great detail. In this clip, Malcolm Frost talks about his time working on the ‘Heli-tele’ system for aircraft, which they sold to the BBC so they could record television from the air.
As the company had customers and clients all around the world, many Marconi employees travelled abroad for work, sometimes for months or even years at a time. The interviewees often recalled their travels with Marconi as a highlight of their careers. In his interview, Bob Willis listed where he’d been –
“I’ve been to Australia and South Africa. I’ve been to Japan, Korea, Taiwan. People from India and China came over to the UK. Chinese engineers came from a couple of space companies because I had a relationship with the National Physics Laboratory.”
The interviewees also describe their memories of Marconi’s factories, workshops, laboratories, and training schools back home in Chelmsford, and the working atmosphere. In her interview, Maria Smith describes the importance of working together in the drawing offices. After she had her first child in 1977, she continued working for Marconi’s from home.
While many of the interviewees look back on their time at Marconi’s fondly, they also discuss the challenges they faced at work and the decline of the company from the 1990s. Cyril Teed worked at Marconi’s for 15 years before moving to be Chief Engineer at ITN. In this clip, he describes the changes that had occurred at Marconi’s when he returned three years later.
Like Cyril, Martyn Clarke also took part in the social side of working at Marconi’s. Here, he talks about reviewing films for the monthly Marconi magazine and making a pirate-themed float for Chelmsford Carnival.
At the end of the interviews, many of the interviewees reflect on the friendships they made, and note that they remain in touch with people they met through work – even as apprentices back in the 1950s.
“I still dream that I’m back working at Marconi’s in New Street. I don’t dream about working [elsewhere], where I worked for three times the length of time. It was a special company, it worked in a special way. And lots of friendships were made and survive to this day.”
Each of the interviews recorded through the project is now available to browse on our catalogue here. You can listen to most of the interviews on Essex Archives Online, and some of the clips featured above on our Marconi radio in the Searchroom.
Thank you to everyone who has been involved since the start of the project in August 2020: all of the interviewees; the volunteer interviewers and podcasters; the project co-ordinator, Laura Owen; and our evaluator, Pippa Smith. We are also grateful for the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Essex 2020.
University of Essex MA student Punna Athwall writes about the ‘Empire of Care’ collection of oral histories…
In 2018 the NHS celebrated its 70th anniversary. Since 5 July 1948, the NHS journey has involved major changes in terms of its organisation, professionalisation and new treatments. However, the fundamental features of universal healthcare for everyone, free at the point of delivery are the same. The recent COVID pandemic has demonstrated the value of NHS provision to keep the nation safe.
Colchester reached another milestone in 2018 when Essex County Hospital on Lexden Road closed its doors after 200 years. A joint project by Essex University and Colchester General Hospital has compiled a library of images from its history.
Ten years earlier, Hollytrees Museum hosted the ‘Empire of Care’ exhibition, which focused on the lives and and stories of the nurses who came to Colchester to work for the NHS, recruited from other countries throughout the Commonwealth Empire. As well as objects, photographs, and press cuttings, the exhibition included interviews with a number of nurses who came to train at Essex County Hospital. These oral histories provide a window into life in Colchester from the 1950s to the 1970s.
History of Essex County Hospital
In 1818, a hospital for the poor was set up on Lexden Road by the archdeacon of Colchester, Joseph Jefferson. From 1907, his voluntary institution became known as Essex County Hospital. During the early days, the hospital was financed by subscriptions, gifts, and interest on investments, as well as collections, bazaars, and fundraising by the Ladies’ Linen League and Colchester Ladies’ Collection Association. From 1920, in-patients were charged £1 a week for maintenance, reduced to 10 shillings for contributors to an insurance scheme.
By this time, the hospital included an operating room and beds for more than 80 patients in eight wards. The hospital continued to add new buildings and medical facilities to cater for increasing demand, and during the Second World War it was graded as a first-class non-teaching hospital for all types of cases, becoming part of the emergency medical service.
In 1948 the County became part of the National Health Service. Over the next 40 years, the hospital added further facilities, including new operating theatres, a radiotherapy block, a postgraduate study medical centre and a children’s wing.
Empire of Care Interviews
The ‘Empire of Care’ collection, held as part of the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA) at the Essex Record Office, includes seven interviews, from 21 minutes to over an hour long. Two of the nurses interviewed came from Malaysia, one from St Vincent, two from Trinidad and one from Braintree. Another interviewee was a local lady who supported trainee nurses.
Most of the international trainee nurses were young
– around 18 years old – when they arrived in Colchester. They all wanted to
care for others and considered nursing to be a good job. They came to England
because of a shortage of nurses. For most of them, it was the first time they
had left home, and was their first experience of air or long boat journey.
They comment that, at the beginning, they felt lonely in a strange country, with strange cultural practices and the wintry weather. However, they soon settled into their unfamiliar environment, sometimes helped by local families and by nurses from their own country who had come before them.
They all said that training was demanding and
regular work on wards was tough. They had to provide their own laced black
shoes and black stockings, and some had to buy warm clothes and coats from
their first wage.
Most felt that the matrons and sisters were stern but fair. Trainee nurses had to be quiet during ward visits by consultants. Different shifts required certain tasks to be completed to tight schedules, which could cause problems. All the nurses were dedicated to their studies and did well to complete their training successfully.
Work on wards brought all training nurses in close contact with patients, all of whom were white. They knew little about the places that the international nurses came from, but were curious to know about food and how life was back home. Some patients were surprised that Caribbean nurses spoke good English, without realising that English was their mother tongue. The Malaysian nurses mentioned that they found it difficult to understand patients when they used local slang and spoke fast.
In the clip above, Shirla recalls not being taught as well as her fellow trainees by one of the ward sisters. She was so upset that she wanted to leave and sent a telegram to her family, asking for money to go back home. The money did not materialise, and she was persuaded by another sister to return to her duties. After explaining the situation to Matron, she had no problems.
Colchester was considered a small town with few facilities – one interviewee recalled her excitement when the first coffee shop opened. On days off, some of the trainees visited their foster families or went home with local nurses. They had to leave the nurses home during holidays, but usually couldn’t return home as it was too expensive. One nurse stayed at the Methodist International Hall for her holidays. The Colchester International Club provided socialising opportunities to meet people from other countries. One of the interviewees met her husband, who was from Hong Kong, there; they had their wedding reception at her foster parent’s house.
Most of the nurses stayed in England and worked until they had families. Only one returned home to Malaysia, and she came back to England after three years. There was a general belief among international nurses that their chances of promotion were limited. Most of them left general nursing and went to London and trained in midwifery. Despite that, all the interviews were glad they came to England, and enjoyed long and successful careers.
Healthcare today in Colchester
During the 70 years since the creation of the NHS, health services in Colchester have undergone tremendous change. According to the April 2018 Annual Report, Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust provided healthcare services to around 370,000 people from Colchester and the surrounding area. It recognised that Colchester was a largely affluent area with relatively low unemployment and above average life expectancy.
However, a recurrent theme for the staff survey was that “staff from an ethnic background do not routinely feel supported to progress their careers and move into management posts”.
The Trust had a programme of work celebrating all staff and providing support such as dedicated group meetings for international new joiners. While progress has been made, it is recognised that further work is required.
In 2014 the BBC reported the shortage of trained medical staff as a major challenge for the NHS. More than a third of nurses in three Essex hospitals were from overseas due to a shortage of British-trained recruits. At Colchester Hospital, 29% of doctors and nurses came from overseas. The most popular countries for recruiting nurses are Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and the Philippines.
Recently, the Nuffield Foundation report Closing the Gap estimate that for the English NHS “an additional 5,000 internationally recruited nurses will be needed each year until 2023/24″.
Based on the current indicators, the shortage of nurses, recruitment from abroad, and barriers to promotion for Black and Asian nurses, may not have been left behind in the 1970s.
The next step in the project is to make information about the recordings available on our catalogue, Essex Archives Online, and (rights-permitting) share some the recordings online.
Ideally, we’d like volunteers to listen to the recordings, identify
the pieces performed, and write time-coded descriptions for our catalogue. For
those less familiar – or a bit rusty! – with classical music, some of the concert
programmes are available to help.
If you are interested, please get in touch with our Sound Archivist, Kate O’Neill. We would especially love to hear from you if you were involved with the EYO or CYCO yourself. You can volunteer remotely or here in the Searchroom at the Essex Record Office, so you’ll be able to get involved whether you’re based in Essex or further afield.
About the Essex Youth Orchestra
The Essex Youth Orchestra (EYO) was founded in 1957 and continues to this day as Essex Music Services’ flagship ensemble. The EYO has consistently maintained an excellent reputation for the very high standard of its performances, in part down to its history of distinguished conductors, such as John Georgiadis.
There are over 50 recordings of EYO performances in the
Essex Sound and Video Archive. They feature a range of composers, from Mozart,
Beethoven, and Bach to those with a local connection such as Holst, Britten,
and Gordon Jacob. The EYO regularly performed at local festivals and on tour,
with concerts in the USA in 1972, Israel in 1976 and East Germany in 1982.
About Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra
Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra (CYCO) was founded in
1982 to provide talented local musicians an opportunity to play in an ambitious
chamber orchestra. It also featured notable musicians, with trumpeter George
Reynolds conducting from 1984. It closed in 2007.
The CYCO archive was deposited at the Essex Record Office in 2012. Alongside programmes, posters, and press clippings, the archive includes twenty recordings of CYCO performances, from concerts at the annual Colchester Rose Show to the first performance of Alan Bullard’s ‘Colchester Suite’.
The aim of the Essex Ensembles Assembled project
The project aims to preserve recordings of the Essex Youth Orchestra and Colchester Youth Chamber Orchestra and make them available for future generations to enjoy. It is funded by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and study of sound recordings.
As an aural record, the recordings provide a unique insight into the changing nature and repertoire of youth orchestras in Essex over the past fifty years, and give a platform to local musicians, conductors and composers.
They also capture music-making that is often lost to posterity, with performances by the Second Essex Youth Orchestra as well as the First, and the occasional wrong notes and coughs from the audience.
Nevertheless, as a whole the recordings reveal a high standard of performance, and demonstrate what young people can contribute to music in Essex and beyond.
Frequently over the last several months commentators have compared living through the COVID-19 pandemic to life on the Home Front in the Second World War. Is that a valid comparison? What was it really like to live through that major event? Thankfully, there are still some people who remember those years and can share their stories with us.
Southend Achievement Through Football (ATF) is an organisation dedicated to changing lives through football, especially the lives of young people at risk of exclusion. By participation in sports and other recreational activities, young people develop skills and capacities to mature into individuals and members of society. But they do not just stop at sport. ATF also helps young people develop their sense of self by finding out about their heritage.
Building on the successful Heroes and Villains project, which allowed young people to explore the stories of individuals from Southend’s past, further funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has allowed Southend ATF to encourage young people to hear the stories of residents in local sheltered accommodation. After training provided by ERO, Southend ATF interviewed 18 people specifically about their memories of the Second World War.
The participants ranged in age, from those who were still children in the 1940s, to those who were old enough to fight or serve the war effort in some other way. Thus the collection contains multiple perspectives, with different levels of understanding about current events, and different levels of impact experienced. Many of the participants grew up in London and were therefore prey to the Blitz and the stresses and strains that caused. Some were evacuated, some stayed at home. Some had family members who served in the military, some lost loved ones either at home or abroad, and some came through the ordeal relatively unscathed. Therefore there is no one common experience of what living through the War was like: it depended on personal circumstances.
For instance, the extent to which people’s lives were disrupted by air raids depended on where they were living. Robbie spent much of the War as a Land Army girl, posted to a farm outside Witham to help keep the country’s agriculture growing and fill the gaps of men sent overseas to fight.
While all the rural residents had air raid shelters, she found them unnecessary overkill in those quieter areas.
‘We [the Land Army girls] never used it, only the country people used it – they thought they were in the thick of the war, you know, and nothing ever happened.’
The difference between life in London and life outside hit home on a day trip she took to the capital early in the War, when she first saw the scale of the devastation caused by intense enemy bombing.
This heavy fire seriously affected Johnnie, who was living near the docks in East London, with repercussions lasting into his adulthood, anxieties that resurrect during fire alarms. He recalled 68 nights of constant bombing in 1940. The mental and emotional strains could be as grave as physical injuries.
‘Each night… you just wondered, is this gonna be your last night? And you never knew…. You never get over what you went through, even though all those years ago…. In fact I still have, now and again, flashbacks as to, you know, what was going on.’
The experience of evacuation varied widely too. Some people used family connections to send their children to places of safety, and these generally resulted in happier experiences. For example, Norman stayed with his grandmother in South Wales, and found life in that peaceful village so idyllic that he initially refused to return to London when his father came to collect him.
Suddenly being sent to live with strangers was a very different matter. Even for those who stayed with their siblings, it was difficult: getting used to the rural way of life, feeling conscious of imposing on the family’s space and resources, and experiencing animosity from local children. But sometimes even being evacuated with strangers could turn into a happy occasion. Joan enjoyed her experiences living on the edges of the Longleat Estate so much that she frequently returned to the area for holidays in adulthood. As she was only six or seven years old when she was sent away, she came to see her evacuee family as her adopted parents, and didn’t even recognise her mother when she finally returned to her birth family five years later. ‘Home’ was a word of shifting meanings, and it could be difficult to adjust.
However, there are common trends evident among the interviews. While the impact of rationing varied from family to family, largely dependant on how much families could grow for themselves, all participants recalled the need to ‘make do and mend’ to some extent. There was no waste, and parents had to be resourceful to acquire sufficient food and clothing for their families. While treats were limited, this made them more treasured, as some interviewees presented very vivid, detailed memories of eating their weekly sweets ration.
Another common theme is that children still found ways to play. Sometimes their normal play spaces were converted to fields of war, such as the parts of the beaches around Southend, which were fenced off both due to defences against potential invaders and to protect residents from possible mines dropped by enemy aircraft. Instead, children turned scenes of devastation into playgrounds, exploring bomb sites and collecting shrapnel to trade like marbles or Top Trumps cards. The interviewees’ experiences prove that even in the midst of great upheaval, children have a knack for play, a facet of their lives so important that the right to play is one of the rights for all children enshrined in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Finally, most participants commented on the sense of relief when celebrating VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, on 8 May 1945.
Although the War was not yet over, with fighting continuing against Japan until August, VE Day marked the start of the end: no more fear of bombs, no more disrupted nights of dashing into air raid shelters. But life did not return to normality straight away. Rationing continued into the 1950s. Servicemen returned home only gradually – Fred, who served in the Army, describes long periods of time spent in Germany and Italy after VE Day, just waiting to be sent home. He was not demobilised until 1947. And the war changed people irreversibly, meaning life could never again be the same.
Four of the interviews took place after lockdown (recorded outside, observing safe distances). These presented an opportunity to ask for comparisons directly from survivors of the Second World War, seeking reflection on how that ordeal compared to living through the COVID-19 pandemic. We will let their observations stand for themselves, without further comment or interpretation:
Many thanks go to the participants who shared their remarkable stories for future generations to learn from, and to Southend ATF for taking the time to record these precious, unique stories and then share them with ERO for others to listen and enjoy.
You can listen to themed compilations of clips from all the interviews on our SoundCloud channel.