Grace Benham, MA History student at the University of Essex, has recently embarked on a twelve-week placement with the Essex Record Office. She is working with a collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, which documents the establishment of domestic refuges in London and the East of England (Acc. SA853).
When I chose to apply for a work placement as a part of my MA programme, applying to the Essex Record Office was an easy choice. As a Colchester resident born and bred, being able to engage with local history on such a practical level, working with an institution that holds interviews of my own grandmas on their lives – it was incredibly exciting to be accepted. I wanted to do a work placement as I wish to pursue a career in history, particularly archives, exhibitions or museums, and so such an experience is invaluable, as well as simply just really interesting.
Due to the unfortunate circumstances which have affected us all, I was unable to participate in the original placement project which required collecting oral history interviews. I therefore had a choice on which archives I would like to engage with remotely. It, again, was another easy choice: to get involved with the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews and to research, catalogue and produce blogs about it. A subject dear to my heart, I have found the study of the founding of women’s refuges in Essex and London is as inspiring as it is difficult to listen to. I have chosen to start this project by homing in on Colchester specifically, as the collection is vast and a geographical focus was the most obvious and compelling place to start.
What is immediately apparent in listening to these interviews is the incredibly dedicated and tenacious people who founded Colchester Refuge from the ground up. The practical, legal, economic, societal and emotional work required to provide a safe place and an abundance of resources for female victims of domestic violence is extremely evident and it is nothing less than admirable the way in which these predominantly women, with little to no previous experience in any related fields, fought for, and eventually founded, the refuge against the odds. I even had the honour to talk with Dr June Freeman, a key founding member of Colchester Refuge, author, and lecturer who compiled these interviews and who was the subject of several of these interviews. June made a great emphasis on what an uphill struggle they faced, as domestic violence was not even known as it is today. It was seen as a problem that should be kept private and within families, a problem which held little support from the police, courts, doctors and even social workers. The founders had to work tirelessly to convince Colchester Borough Council of the importance of a refuge and to finance such a venture without help.
Sadly, another recurring theme in the interviews is a feeling that at the time of the interviews (2017) a loss of funding and interest in domestic violence is occurring in Essex and across the country. This rings unfortunately true as current circumstances have led to a rise in domestic violence. Domestic abuse charity Refuge reports that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have increased by about 66% since lockdown began in March, while the website received a 700% increase in visits in one day. As such the opportunity to listen and learn from these oral histories is more important than ever.
We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex and the University of Essex for their financial support in making this placement possible.
If you need support to deal with domestic abuse, please call the helpline below or check out the following guidance.
Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux reflects on how our soundscapes have or haven’t changed during the current lockdown.
Numerous comments have been made about how quiet it is during lockdown – that there is less air traffic, less road traffic, less general hub-bub. Eminent wildlife recordist Chris Watson has spoken of the ‘unique opportunity’ to listen to ‘astonishing’ soundscapes we can hear in our own back gardens. Audio ecologists such as Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp have described the way our ears can now tune into sounds from a much greater distance, as overall noise levels decrease – a ‘depth perception’ that we wouldn’t normally perceive.
It is true that the number of flights have drastically decreased – you can check what’s overhead right at this moment with a flight tracker website or a surprisingly interesting Twitter feed. As you will see, it is misleading to say that air traffic has stopped – people are flying home, sometimes in special planes chartered to retrieve them. Medical supplies are frantically being sent all over the globe. Can someone on a normal flight path tell us their impressions of the impact? Because there are fewer aeroplanes, does that make us notice them more?
Some noises are ‘normal’, but the current context heightens
our awareness of them. Sirens screaming are a frequent occurrence at any time,
and, particularly if you live in a city, you learn to filter them out. But now
when we hear a siren, do we assign more significance to it? Does it make us
feel worried, afraid, sad – or thankful for the emergency services?
Is there more birdsong? Or are we just noticing it more? If there is less other environmental noise, it does not make sense that the birds are singing louder – they have less to compete with to make themselves heard. Maybe the sounds are more audible, because there are fewer other distractions, and we pay more attention to them because we are at home more, out in the garden more. Or perhaps this is just our perception because lockdown coincided with spring, when birds typically become more audible.
I do not often work from home, so I cannot judge whether the amount of human activity I can hear has changed. Can I hear more conversations as people run into neighbours on the way to the shops because they are speaking to each other from further away, and therefore more loudly? Or are people more likely to chat because we all need to reach out for human contact? Can I hear more conversation as people are queuing outside shops, instead of breezing in and out?
Then there are new sounds. Communal dancing in the street. Clapping and clanging pots for frontline workers each Thursday evening.
What is really going on? What are the real pandemic
soundscapes? Let’s put these sweeping statements to the test.
First, open a window. Second, set an alarm to go off in five
minutes. Now, find somewhere comfortable to sit. Open your ears. Close your
What did you hear? This is what I heard from my lockdown
Two constant background noises: a ticking clock on the bookcase behind me, and the high-pitched chirping of birds, probably in the trees nearby.
Cars and possibly a larger vehicle driving round my block of flats, with associated noises like a car door shutting, a car engine starting up.
A runner’s footsteps rhythmically slapping the pavement.
Birds rustling tree branches as they fly off or land.
A child’s voice, distantly heard.
A sea gull squawking.
The flapping wings of a small bird fluttering near my window.
The beeping of a reversing lorry, in the distance.
Frequently, the double beep noise that’s made every time someone opens the door to the nearby convenience store.
What did you hear? How did it make you feel? It is ok if your soundscape does not have the calming, peaceful effect that is so commonly described. It is understandable to feel anxious by sounds you hear. As always in history, the individual experiences of and responses to events are complex.
The absence of sounds is not always welcome. The comforting
noise of cricket bat against ball on the village green. The happy chatter from
beer gardens on a warm Friday evening. The automated voice telling you that you
have, at last, reached your local station on your daily commute home. Or maybe
you miss some of the sounds of your workplace. For me, it’s the satisfying
clunk of a cassette tape being loaded into a player – it goes without saying
that I miss hearing the collections themselves.
Whatever you experienced, we want to hear your #StayHomeSounds. Safely from your home or garden, record what your lockdown sounds like. Then send it to us at email@example.com. It would help if you can provide information about where and when it was recorded, plus a little about why you recorded it and your reactions to those noises. We are compiling sounds on our Essex Sounds map, and we may use them for other resources. Please contact us if you want more technical details about how to make your recording.
If you want to hear what the pandemic sounds like in far-flung lands, there are a number of global sound maps you can dip into, such as at Radio Aporee and Sounds of Cities. How different is the situation in India, or Marseilles?
Or if you want some escapism, tune into BBC Essex each morning at around 9:55 a.m. for a daily soundscape of things we can’t currently enjoy, or explore our Essex Sounds map of past and present sounds of Essex.
We’ll leave you with this clip of the dawn chorus recorded on 7 May 2017, on the outskirts of Chelmsford – how does it compare with the dawn chorus you might have heard today, on #InternationalDawnChorusDay?
Andy Popperwell shares his experiences volunteering for the Essex Sound and Video Archive
Nineteen (boxes) times fifty-six (tapes) is a thousand and sixty four. That’s an awful lot of open reel tapes, even if they’re five-inch ones. This is the estimated number of remaining tapes to be processed from a collection of 79 boxes, formerly the property of the late Chris Bard, who presented Sunday morning programmes on BBC Essex for many years (Accession Number SA459).
My name is Andy Popperwell and I’ve just become a volunteer in the Sound Archive at the Essex Record Office. My task is to review these tapes and help to decide which ones should enter the Archive and which ones shouldn’t. The key criterion is whether they have relevance to Essex. Some do; some don’t.
I’ve made a start, and the range of material is fascinating. Everything from Polish Christian radio stations after the fall of communism to ecumenism in Essex villages.
Learning the archive protocols was the first step. I spent many years as a Studio Manager (Sound Engineer) in the BBC World Service, working on high-speed current affairs in 40 languages, where the pressure was to get the interviews edited as quickly as possible and into the live programmes, 24 hours a day. Here, in the calm atmosphere of the Archive, it’s a question of treating each tape reverently, making sure that temperature and humidity are appropriate and learning how to do a ‘library wind’. This means that, after listening carefully and making notes about the content, each tape is wound back at slow speed so that it’s neatly positioned on the spool and there’s no chance of physical damage.
It’s great to be learning new skills while at the same time using my previous experience to help with the work of the Archive. I’m also a volunteer at Copped Hall, on the edge of Epping Forest. It’s a 1750s mansion which was destroyed in a huge fire in 1917, and we’re restoring it. Apart from general labouring, I’m setting up Copped Hall’s own sound archive, trying to record the lives and stories of those who have worked over the last 25 years to rebuild the old place. Do come and visit us on one of our regular Tour Days – third Sunday in the month.
Both these volunteering opportunities are feeding into my other big interest: I’ve returned to being a student, doing a Masters by Research at London South Bank University. I’m interested in what Essex in general and Copped Hall in particular sounded like in past times. I hope that, as well as expanding my brain, it will be possible to use my research to recreate the soundscapes of the past, and specifically the 1750s, when the Hall was built. The Essex Record Office has a huge quantity of fascinating material to help with my research, including, for example, little pieces of paper with rhymes and poems which the Conyers family, owners of Copped Hall, wrote for each other in the middle of the eighteenth century (Catalogue Reference D/DW Z3). Handling these documents is a real privilege, and a unique connection with the past.
Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux shares snippets from just a few of the hundreds of oral history interviews with women held in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.
Women’s history is one of the areas where oral history can make a great contribution. From telling the stories of notable women who have made a significant impact in their field, to telling the equally significant stories of ‘everyday’ women who made an impact just by their daily routine, first-hand accounts can reveal subject areas that do not always make it into written records. Furthermore, they can reveal the ‘whys’ of history – motivations that prompted women to take the actions they did.
Sample collection of oral history interviews on cassette tape
The Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex Record Office is one resource for accessing such sources for women’s history. A substantial number of the oral history interviews in our recollection were recorded with women – and many were recorded by women (a discussion topic for another time – what difference does the gender of the interviewer make to the recording?).
Let’s start with some headliners. We have an interview with Elfrida Johns, who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War (Acc. SA580). Eva Hart, a Titanic survivor, recorded her memories on a number of occasions which have made it into the Archive (Acc. SA318, Acc. SA398, SA 1/323/1, and SA 19/1/14/1). Helen Welburn was the first female Superintendent of the Essex Police, on her appointment in 1970, and spoke about the major improvements she made for other women in the police force (SA 25/1/10/1). We even have the reminiscences of a Suffragette, Helena Taylor, from an edition of the Sounds of Brentwood talking magazine (SA 2/1/12/1).
We feel privileged to have the reminiscences of such accomplished women in our archives.
But we also feel privileged to have the reminiscences of so many other Essex women in our archives. Perhaps their lives did not figure in newspaper headlines; perhaps they were never known outside their village; perhaps they did not feel they had a story worth telling. However, it does not take long to get hooked into each woman’s story, no matter how mundane it seems at first, as her life unfolds over the course of the interview.
Take, for example, the many ‘New-Towners’ who have been recorded for posterity. At a young age, these women left their families and homes in East London to settle in relatively rural locations and establish their own homes, away from familial support networks. Dr Judy Attfield’s collection of interviews with Harlow residents is particularly rich in women’s accounts, fully exploring their experiences and emotions on moving to these remote locations (SA 22). For example, Mrs Summers in 1986 described her feelings when she and her husband moved to Harlow New Town in 1952 (SA 22/1364/1).
Carol Sydney (copyright EAF)
We have recently received the recollections of women who moved even further to forge new lives for themselves. The Evewright Arts Foundation recorded a number of Windrush generation immigrants about their experiences of moving to Britain. Some already had family here; some left their family behind until they had established a new home for their children. Most commented on the cold; most admitted to encountering racist attitudes. But they persevered until, like Carol Sydney, they could claim to have made a success of their lives in Britain (SA 69/1/5/1).
Life could also be a struggle for those who stayed in the same place. One of our favourites is Edie Brown, who was born in Kelvedon in 1895 and spent most of her life in Witham. She worked hard from the day she left school in her teens: working in domestic service and local industry before her marriage, then contributing to the household economy by going pea-picking or fruit-picking, sometimes before her children woke, or sometimes taking them with her. But she was never subservient: she would rather lose a job than put up with wrongful accusations or excessive demands in service (SA 59/1/7/1).
In the same collection, Elsie Hammond recalls female workers at Pinkham’s glove factory striking for more pay (SA 59/1/16/1).
Sometimes it is precisely the ‘normal’, everyday nature of an interviewee’s life that is useful to the researcher. Where else could you find detailed descriptions of household chores explained by the women who did them? Memories of helping mothers with household work allow us to reach back into the nineteenth century for the methods of housekeeping common in Essex. As technological advancements reduce domestic chores to button-pressing, without these interviews the former way of life of women kept busy full-time cooking and cleaning would otherwise be lost. With cultural change, it is also important to preserve the stories of mothers struggling to run their households on the limited budget provided by their husbands, as Connie Robinson shared about women she knew (SA 26/61/1).
Oral history interviews even give us the chance to look back on areas of private life that were formerly taboo. In later life, women were often happy to speak about their experiences of puberty or childbirth that they would not have discussed at the time.
But. There is still much about women’s experiences that is lacking in the historical record. We were intrigued by the Rebellious Sounds Archive, which captured the stories of activist women in south-west England. What more can you do to preserve the significant contributions of the women you know? Please do get in touch if you want to discuss an idea for an oral history project.
Many of these topics and more will be discussed at the Essex Women’s History Festival at the University of Essex tomorrow, part of the Snapping the Stiletto project. You will also have an opportunity to listen to these and other recordings of women from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, and to chat to Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux about our collections. There are still a few (free!) tickets, so book now!
If you cannot make it to the Festival, some of these recordings can be played online from the comfort of your own home. Look up the reference numbers on Essex Archives Online to check. Some will have a play feature; some will allow you to order the material to listen in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office; and others will advise you to contact us to arrange to hear the material.
13 February is World Radio Day: an annual day promoted by UNESCO to celebrate radio and the impact it can have. It marks the date in 1946 when the United Nations radio service was established, and it has been celebrated each 13 February since 2013. This year, the theme is ‘Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace’.
To Brits in 2019, perhaps this sounds pretentious. Isn’t radio just the poor cousin of television, and haven’t both been made redundant by online media? Who listens to radio now that there are podcasts and streaming music services?
To people in other parts of the world, radio can be a significant source of information or an arena to explore different viewpoints. Equally, in the UK, we risk underestimating and taking for granted how much we still get out of our radio service.
At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, we are fortunate to hold archived broadcasts of local radio programmes – primarily from BBC Essex, with a handful of recordings from other local stations. They are useful for researching local history, particularly for understanding local responses to events. Features also preserve random stories of weird and wonderful things. For instance, if it wasn’t for our prolific local radio producer Dennis Rookard, we would never have discovered Tino Morena, an Italian barber in Brentwood who also composed sacred choral music:
Tino Morena speaking to Dennis Rookard, SA 19/1/64/1 – come into the Searchroom to hear a sample of the music, which we cannot publish on the Internet for copyright reasons.
And then, of course, there are those early Paul Simon tapes, recorded for a folk music programme on Harold Wood Hospital Radio (SA 30/3/3/1 and SA 30/3/4/1 – also only available in the Searchroom for copyright reasons).
But local radio stations in Essex also produce meaningful programmes that encourage dialogue, thereby promoting tolerance and peace.
One of the most striking series in our archive is part of the BBC’s national ‘Sense of Place’ series, broadcast in 2002. Local radio stations produced a series of programmes about stories of everyday life in their area, which were broadcast on six successive Sundays from 28 April 2002. They aimed to give ‘insights into how different people live’ and explore ‘what makes our different communities distinctive and individual’ (from promotional BBC material, SA 1/2/8).
BBC Essex recorded seven programmes in their series (Catalogue Reference SA 1/2). Some of the most striking topics are examined below.
The fifth programme talked to Jews in the Southend area, where there is still a thriving Hebrew Congregation (SA 1/2/5/1). They spoke to a gentleman whose family were killed in the Holocaust, who shared his feelings when he goes back to visit Vienna where he once lived. They interviewed an Orthodox Jew who stands out because she always wears a head covering, but who had become a respected member of the Jewish but also wider Southend community. They also spoke to Sybil Greenstein, who regularly visited schools and hosted visits to the synagogue to tell people about her faith and demystify the religion. She got a great sense of accomplishment from informing others about what it means to be Jewish:
In the third programme, producer Anton Jarvis granted insight into an area perhaps few of us have ever experienced: daily life at Chelmsford Prison (SA 1/2/3/1).
He spoke to a variety of inmates about their experiences, their first impressions, their hopes for the future. As to be expected, different people had different responses: some created home out of their cells, some did not want to personalise their cells in any way, but just focus on getting to their home outside. Some found it an extremely trying ordeal; some survived by finding humour in the bleak situation.
An inmate of Chelmsford Prison hopes for a better life when he gets out.
In the final programme, Anton spoke to people in vulnerable housing in Colchester about how they became homeless, what they were doing to survive, and whether they felt any sense of place and belonging (SA 1/2/7/1). Many expressed similar sentiments: they were not really living anymore, just getting from one day to the next, but with little hope because it was so difficult to rise up once you hit rock bottom. Mostly, they felt alienated from the rest of society.
Homeless people in Colchester share their experiences – including endless days of walking round town with nowhere to go.
These programmes gave voice to marginalised sections of the society. They allowed a close, personal insight into what life is like for other people, views we are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. This is the power of local radio.
It continues today. When we consulted BBC Essex about this blog post, they explained some of the challenges facing them in the current politically-charged and divisive climate.
…It’s our job as a radio station to remain impartial – but ensure everyone has a voice. Sometimes, when you use interaction as we do a lot on the phones, it can be quite intimidating to listeners to present an alternative view which is opposite to the majority. I spend a lot of time with presenters explaining how to make listeners feel all views are welcome and encouraging a contrary view to air.
We compiled a ground-breaking podcast series called Brexit Britain (available here). These are individual stories about Brexit, narrated by ordinary people. Guests ranged from a young supply teacher to a pensioner and a taxi driver to a fisherman. It was the first time so-called immersive podcasts had been commissioned by BBC local radio.
Your Essex, presented by Jodie Halford 7-10pm Monday-Thursday, aims to show listeners the sides of Essex they may not be familiar with. Whether that’s race, opinions on Brexit, gender, or class, the aim is to bridge divides. We are working on two pieces at the moment which aim to bring together polarised views. One is a woman whose life has been blighted by a traveller encampment talking one-to-one with a traveller and the other is a woman opposed to the building of a new mosque in the county, talking direct to the imam. The aim of these pieces is to fulfil the BBC’s “inform and educate” remit – as well as provide a rich listening experience.
Transmission of these pieces is scheduled for April.
While most of our collections come from BBC Essex, we must also celebrate the hard work of community radio stations, including hospital radio – often largely run by volunteers, eager to spread awareness and encourage cohesion within their local communities, as well as seeking to entertain. Most are currently recruiting volunteers if you want to get involved!
Community Radio Stations in Essex
BFBSColchester: For Colchester, broadcast on 107. A Global Forces Radio station, BFBS has studios around the UK Garrisons as well as in many other MoD locations around the world. The Colchester studio concentrates mainly on 16 Air Assault Brigade and the three sites controlled from Colchester Garrison: Garrison HQ in Colchester, Wattisham Flying Station and Rock Barracks, Woodbridge. Interview subjects – and their core audience – tend to be serving personnel and their families. They also include veterans, the work of military charities, and work with the Garrison to enhance and publicise events. Colchester is currently working on four separate five-parters on objects held at the Airborne Assault Museum in Duxford, and associated with the 75th anniversaries of, respectively, D-Day, Arnhem, South of France and the Greek atrocities. These will be aired from April onwards.
BHR1287: Basildon University Hospital’s radio station.
FunkySX: For the Southend area, broadcast on 103.7.
Gateway97.8: For the Basildon / East Thurrock area, who say: ‘At Gateway 97.8, we love celebrating World Radio Day. The theme this year is Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace – our broadcasts throughout February 13th will cover this theme. Make sure you listen to Basildon and East Thurrock’s community radio station to hear the fun things we have planned!’ They are also celebrating Basildon at 70 in their programming this year.
Leisure FM: For Braintree, broadcast on 107.4, who say: ‘We broadcast only local GOOD news and events with the emphasis on “Good News”, and all feel-good music from the past 60 years.’
Phoenix FM: For the Brentwood area, broadcast on 98. Today’s programmes will include Carmel Jane Talks Business, celebrating female entrepreneurs; popular football show The West Ham Way; and Curveballs, showcasing the best of new music from local bands.
Radio Forest: Broadcasting to hospitals in Epping, Saffron Walden, Brentwood, and Harlow.
Southend Hospital Radio: Southend Hospital has been broadcasting for over 40 years. More than 60 volunteers provide a 24-hour broadcasting service, with a mix of live programmes, and information/entertainment for the patients. Some specialist shows include Southend Hospital Radio Kids
Presenter and Committee Member Alice Ryan in the studio at Southend Hospital Radio (image courtesy Southend Hospital Radio)
(presented by 11-year old Kara and Kathryn, for the youngsters on Neptune Ward), Sound of the Pirates (presented by Trevor Byford, re-living the offshore sounds of the sixties), plus Musical Moments (presented by Nick Bright and Jonny Buxton, with the smash hits of the stage and screen). As well as being available at Southend Hospital, you can listen live online. The station is a registered charity that relies on donations to stay on-air and fulfil its aims as spelt out in its Constitution: “…To relieve the effects of sickness, infirmity and old age by providing a local broadcasting service to the patients of Southend Hospital”.
Today, take some time to tune in to your local station. You might learn something new about your community, you might engage in dialogue with a different sector of society, and you might spread a little toleration and peace as a result.
On this World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, our Sound Archivist Sarah-Joy Maddeaux shares news of a new collection of moving stories that have recently been added to the archive.
What does ‘home’ mean? What does it mean to be ‘British’? What does it mean to be Black in Britain? What can we learn from our elders? And what does all of this have to do with a Caribbean restaurant in Colchester?
We are delighted to announce that we have received, catalogued, and published the interviews created by Evewright Arts Foundation for their Caribbean Takeaway Takeover exhibition. From 2017 to 2018, artist Everton Wright (EVEWRIGHT), staff, and volunteers of his art foundation recorded oral history interviews with 10 elders who moved to the UK from the Caribbean in the 1940s to 1960s.
Last summer, on the on the weekend of the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush to Tilbury, Evewright ‘took over’ the S&S Caribbean Café in St Johns Street, Colchester, redecorating the walls and tables with pictures and documents relating to these elders’ lives. Ten-minute segments from their interviews played on a loop in the café, making the exhibition fully immersive. A number of community events encouraged engagement with the exhibition, and thereby with the incredible stories of these elders.
Detail of art installation at S&S Caribbean Café, 2018 (c) Evewright
The elders generously granted us permission to make their interviews freely available through our catalogue. Search for ‘EVEWRIGHT’ on Essex Archives Online, or type ‘SA 69’ in the ‘Document reference’ box to find all ten interviews.
One of the most exciting interviews is that with Alford Gardner. Now aged 92, he is one of the few remaining passengers who travelled on the SS Empire Windrush, the first ship to bring West Indians to settle in post-war Britain. His vivid description of life on board the ship gives an impression of a fun communal experience. His optimism for the future took time to realise, as he faced initial opposition when he tried to settle in Leeds. He was treated very differently in 1948 than when he had previously spent time there as part of the Royal Air Force.
Alford Gardner describes the struggle to find accommodation in Leeds in 1948 (SA 69/1/3/1).
As a collection, the interviews reveal a number of similarities in the elders’ experiences, but also some significant differences – factors that determined whether their move was overall a positive step, or a negative one which they came to regret.
As we might expect, many commented on adjusting to cold, wet England, and coming to appreciate the heating that required houses to have chimneys, which in the Caribbean only appeared on factories or bakeries.
Nell Green‘s first impression of the houses in England (SA 69/1/4/1).
Some recalled their first taste of fish and chips – but others were glad that they could access London markets to purchase the tastes of home, such as yams, tanier, dasheen, or plantain.
In the 1940s to 1960s, British people might have felt like they were being overwhelmed by new arrivals from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth countries, an impression heightened by unfair media portrayals and some politicians stoking fear. However, to the West Indians moving to Britain, black faces were all too scarce. Many interviewees described finding and socialising with other West Indians, particularly in London. Some women became adoptive mothers, inviting young people into their homes and cooking meals for them, helping them adjust to life in this strange, cold country. Was this because it was difficult to make friends with English people? Or was it because we naturally gravitate towards those who share our heritage, with whom we can feel ‘at home’ and recapture something of the country that we left behind?
Carol Sydney‘s social life as a young trainee nurse (SA 69/1/5/1)
Experiences depended, partly, on the financial position and status of the individuals before they moved. Life was easier for those who had money to spend on decent accommodation. Life was also easier if you already had family in England to support you, or if you found a job that you enjoyed and where you were treated with respect. In contrast, it was most difficult for the earliest migrants, the Black people trying to settle in the 1950s amidst Teddy Boy attacks and ‘No cats, no dogs, no Blacks’ signs. It became a little easier for those who arrived in the 1960s and beyond. Many Black people began purchasing their rented homes using a traditional saving scheme called Susu or Pardnor. This enabled them to become landlords to other Black people seeking rooms to rent.
Don Sydney explains the Susu saving scheme that allowed West Indians to support each other in saving up for accommodation and furnishings (SA 69/1/6/1).
Yet, sadly, racist treatment was a shared experience right through the time period covered in the interviews, reported to some extent by each elder.
Carlton Darrell was dismissive of these examples of prejudice against him (SA 69/1/2/1). Is this because he felt it was inevitable, or because he considered himself fortunate compared to others?
Did Britain ever become ‘home’? Yes and no. Some indicated that they still missed their ‘home country’ and wished they could return. Others alluded to a feeling that they were not ‘foreigners’ anymore, but neither were they fully British – even though, coming from Commonwealth countries, they were British subjects before they even set foot on England’s shores.
Carol Sydney reflects on what it means to be ‘British’ (SA 69/1/5/1).
Overall, most of the interviewees were pleased with how their lives had turned out. Does this reflect the type of person they were? That they took the initiative to move to England, the so-called ‘Promised Land’, in search of self-improvement and a better life? Even if they did not believe the ‘streets paved with gold’ promise, many mentioned that Britain did hold a promise of better education, better jobs, and better salaries. Did this proactive attitude make them more resilient, more likely to be happier with what they have accomplished?
Alton Watkins looks back with satisfaction on his life and his accomplishments (SA 69/1/8/1).
They certainly contributed to British society. In their work as nurses, teachers, and midwives, they helped produce the next generation of Britain’s workers. They paid taxes. They contributed to the economy. In retirement, they are volunteering in schools, sports clubs, and libraries.
However, even now, there is more that these elders can contribute. Most of the interviewees acknowledged a persistence of racist attitudes in Britain, some indicating that it is growing worse. Perhaps the interviews, and the exhibition that was held in the summer, will help in the battle to humanise migrants and demonstrate all that they have overcome in their lives.
In this year of the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush ship arriving in Tilbury; the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the National Health Service that partly prompted recruitment calls across the Commonwealth; this year of the Windrush scandal, we are grateful to Evewright Arts Foundation for capturing these individual stories that add meaning to national headlines.
In 1992 Dilys Evans’s year four class in Hockley was learning about the First World War. When Dilys mentioned this to her neighbour, a veteran of the First World War, he immediately offered to come and speak to her class about his experiences. Fortunately for us, she recorded this meeting of generations and later deposited the tape at ERO (catalogued as SA 24/1011/1).
The veteran in question was Alf Webb, who at the time was aged 95. He volunteered for the army in 1914 aged 17, only realising the horror he had let himself in for when he arrived in France.
The whole recording is about 45 minutes long, and in it the children ask Alf questions about his wartime experiences. Alf talks about his recollections of both the mundane detail and the harsh reality of war, in a matter-of-fact and unflinching way (perhaps surprising given the audience). He talks about mud and lice, tactics and trenches, the death of friends and colleagues, and his own attitude to the war, which was to ‘try and survive and get out of this’.
Extracts of the recording are available on our SoundCloud channel (you can listen by clicking the player above), and we will shortly be publishing the whole recording online. In the meantime, you will be able to hear it at our event marking 100 years since the Armistice, ‘Is this really the last night’? Remembering the end of the First World War, on Saturday 10th November.
Alf Webb was born in Hackney in 1897. His parents were Christopher, a boot finisher, and Mary. Alf had an older sister, Rosetta, and a younger brother, Alexander, who also served in the army towards the end of the war.
Alf began his military service in the cavalry, but ended up in the Machine Gun Corps. He answers the children’s questions frankly, and clearly wanted to convey the horrors of war to them.
One of the questions put to Alf by the children was ‘Did you think the war was going to be exciting?’. He replied:
‘I did when I first joined, I thought it would be wonderful. I’d be in the cavalry you see with spurs on and riding breeches and a posh bandolier out there, I didn’t realise we was going to get blown to bits. But, when you’re young, you see there hadn’t been a war before, only the Boer War which was all open country, and so we had nothing to go on, and to a young person, I mean I was 17, I was 18 by the time I’d gone over the top, it seemed a very exciting thing, but my God, you soon alter your opinion.’
He tells the children several times how fearful he felt being at the front:
‘When you hear people saying they’ve got no fear I don’t believe them because the first time I ever went in the trenches I was frightened out of me life. There had been a bombardment and there were so many dead bodies and things lying about I was sick I was scared, and the Sergeant said to me ‘all right boy, in a few months you’ll be used to it’ and after about 3 months you are.’
British machine gun crew (Imperial War Museums)
Describing one occasion when he was firing a machine gun, he told them that in half an hour he had three different men come up to work the gun with him and each get killed in turn:
‘all you do is to push them out the way and another one comes up and takes their place. In some ways it doesn’t seem much because all you see is them fall down, fall over, but it’s very very nasty when you see the chap next to you is feeding these in and a shell or something or a burst hits him in the face and you look round and you see your mate there with no face. And there’s blood all over you. It’s not very nice, you don’t enjoy it.’
When asked by one of the class ‘How many Germans do you think you shot?’, he replied: ‘I’d have to say thousands, because with a machine gun going at 600 shots a minute … you could just see them dropping.’ Another child asked ‘How many times did you make a friend and then have to watch them die?’. Alf’s answer was: ‘Oh dozens of times. It happens all the time. There’s no way out of it.’
On the subject of how long he felt at the time the war would last, Alf told the class:
‘Well it seemed to us it was going to go on forever. There seemed to be no end to it because when things were static right from 1915 on advances used to be a matter of just a few yards and that sort of thing.’
The war did, of course, finally come to an end, and one of the children asked Alf how he felt at that time:
‘Highly elated. Actually, I’ll go onto that now. We were pushing the Germans back in 1918. After they broke through, we stopped them and then we were pushing them back. And I happened to get to a place called Verviers in north Belgium, and Spa, where the Armistice was signed was a few kilometres away up in the mountains so we was actually the first to know that an Armistice had been proclaimed. And in Verviers where we were, the villagers there opened their estaminets, like our pubs or anything, and everything was open for everybody. The troops were lighting and other people there were lighting tar barrels so we could have light, and well, there was general rejoicing, although we knew that we were still in trouble as you might say, there was no more fighting to be done. But Spa itself was a beautiful part of Belgium, it’s very hilly there. In fact they hadn’t had much trouble there before and they’d still got trams running. But the trouble was they’d got so little power that if you got on one of these trams … to go uphill you all got out and pushed it up the hill.’
The children were also interested in Alf’s love life, asking if he had a girlfriend during the war. ‘Yes,’ he replied; ‘And I’m still married to her!’ Further detail followed:
‘Actually, before the war, I was with a lot of other youngsters, we used to belong to the boys club, and there was one lot of girls that was four sisters, and the one that I married was one of them, I’d been out with all of them! We used to enjoy life, we was all friends together… We still corresponded afterwards and eventually when I came home we got married. That was in 1924 we got married, and she’s still alive today thank goodness.’
The children clearly had an understanding of the effect wartime experiences had on the mental health of many of the people who experienced it, and one child asked Alf ‘Did you dream about the war?’. He answered:
‘For the first twelve months after I was demobilised, I was quite OK. And then I used to wake up in the night and I could see all of it over again, I could see my friends being killed and dying. It was so bad that I couldn’t even go to work. I saw our local doctor, old Dr Anderson, he said ‘Look, I’ll tell you the best thing to do, you don’t want medicines, you don’t want anything like that, get away to a quiet place in the country, anywhere, where you can go out into the open air. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired. Don’t try and not think about anything, just try and enjoy it’. And that’s what I did. Actually, it might seem strange to you, but we was in London, and I went down to Battlesbridge, which is not far from here. My mother and father knew an elderly couple who were retired and bought some cottages down there, and I went down there and stopped there for three weeks. I used to get up in the morning, and there was big fields between there and the river Crouch, and I used to walk all round those, go in the Crouch swimming and that sort of thing, and at the end of three weeks, it was all gone. I don’t know if I was lucky or what it was, but that’s how it went. For the first twelve months out I didn’t feel, everything didn’t matter, and then as I say I got this reaction. And I couldn’t sleep and I used to wake up seeing it all over again, trying to push somebody away because they were dead so somebody else could take their place. Horrible feeling.’
Alf had a powerful message for the children in the class that day:
‘Anybody that tries to glorify war [is] stark raving mad. There should not be wars, there should always be a compromise… Nobody wins, you all lose… It’s all wrong.’
Alf and his pre-war sweetheart, Violet, moved to Hockley in later life. Violet died there in 1991 aged 93. Alf lived until 1997, reaching the age of 99.
Our You Are Hear Project Officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on the listening bench tour that has been running for the last two years.
On Monday we moved one of the touring You Are Hear listening benches. For the last three months, it has been sitting outside the Guildhall in Finchingfield, a beautiful building lovingly restored and used as a hub for the community. It hosts the library, museum, and a number of classes and activities.
Touring listening bench when it was situated outside the Guildhall, Finchingfield
I selected audio for the bench that showcased aspects of the village history, such as information about straw plaiting, once a significant local industry. I also included clips of memories from village residents, taken from interviews recorded by the Guildhall and recently deposited with the Essex Sound and Video Archive (Acc. SA837).
Roger Guppy sharing memories of growing up in Finchingfield, from an oral history interview recorded by the Guildhall. Used with kind permission from the Guildhall.
I hope these insights into the past helped visitors more fully appreciate the rich heritage of the village, and of the Guildhall in particular.
Neil Banks at Stansted Airport being interviewed for BBC Look East in 2016
We have now delivered the bench to its final resting place, outside the METAL arts centre in Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea (more information below). The tour has drawn to a close. In two years, this bench has visited eight locations, ranging from open spaces to shopping centres to Stansted Airport. There, it had its fifteen minutes of fame, when it was briefly featured on BBC Look East.
It has travelled more than 250 miles. The buttons have been pressed over 30,000 times. Around 150 children completed a quiz about the recordings while it was at Belfairs Woodland Centre. We have shared music, poetry, and memories from Essex people about Essex places. Recordings about the location, recordings to reflect the season, or recordings just because I like them and want to show them off.
The statistics show that we have accomplished one of our aims: thousands more people have listened to an Essex Sound and Video Archive recording than would have without the bench. But since we ‘drop and go’, leaving people to discover the bench, it is hard to measure any deeper impact.
I would like to think that the bench has made listeners look again at familiar sights. Did hearing a piece by Thomas Tallis while sitting within sight of where he was once an organist make people value the significance of Waltham Abbey Gardens?
The Walk Fair Singers and The Thameside Waits sing Thomas Tallis’ ‘O Nata Lux’ at New Hall, Boreham in 1993 (SA 1/1287/1, used by kind permission of BBC Essex).
Did the programme about the opening of Stansted Airport’s second runway show how far this busy gateway to Essex has come since its humble beginnings? Did listening to an account of travelling salesmen delivering clothes make shoppers think again about their experience at Lakeside Shopping Centre?
I would also like to think that the bench has taught listeners something new: whether they are visitors to the area or have lived nearby all their lives. For instance, did you know that over 30 species of butterfly have been spotted at Belfairs Woodland Centre, including some of the rarest in the country? Or that Raphael Park has been a public park for over 100 years, with origins as part of a private estate dating back to Saxon times?
Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.
So, have we accomplished one of the bigger aims of the project? Have we made people rethink the sounds that are around them – the changing accents, the sounds of nature blended with human noise? And have we made people think twice about this diverse, much maligned county based on the sounds that they hear?
We hope that we have – but we would love to hear it from you directly. Have you used our touring bench at any of its venues? Did you have a favourite clip? What did you think of it? Please comment below, e-mail us, or complete a short survey about the project to give us your thoughts.
METAL is an arts organisation with a base at Chalkwell Hall, Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea. This provides space for artist residencies, as well as for a variety of classes and workshops. The listening bench will be incorporated into their NetPark project, aiming to improve well-being by engaging with digital arts in an open setting. Find out more on their website.
Our other touring listening bench will remain at Weald Country Park for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile our touring audio-video kiosks are approaching the end of their tours also: it’s your last chance to catch them at the Cater Museum in Billericay or Rayleigh Town Museum.
Have you visited any of our listening benches, installed as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place? Recently Jade Hunter, a PhD student studying Geography at Queen Mary University of London, embarked on a mini tour of some of the benches to learn more about them. She shares her thoughts on her visits in a guest blog post below.
I’m currently studying for a PhD in Geography and I encountered the listening benches when writing an assignment on sound projects. My research interests lie in identity and place, specifically in Essex, so I was really keen to visit and experience benches in different locations.
I planned to visit a number of benches which I thought could demonstrate the breadth of Essex as a large, and diverse county. I work in London, and one of the things I’m always struck by is how far away people think Essex is when they live within the (blurring) city boundaries. Visiting the benches highlighted the relationship which parts of Essex have to the city. Audio at the Raphael Park bench suggests that Essex might act as ‘the lungs of London’, and the soundscapes at the Romford, Hadleigh and Chelmsford benches include birdsong, traffic and the sounds of trains delivering people from the suburbs into the city. Viewed from the bench in Hadleigh Park, Canvey Island rooftops were flanked by a ship sailing to the London Gateway super-port, showing a connectedness not just to London, but further afield.
View from the listening bench in Hadleigh Country Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.
I was interested to hear about the history of the bench locations – listening to villagers of times past speak about specificities of life in Kelvedon, for example.
Frank Hume and Ronald Hayward describe their memories of the Crab and Winkle railway line that ran through Kelvedon, a clip from an oral history interview used on the Kelvedon listening bench (SA 44/1/25/1).
But I was most drawn to benches with audio about experiences which could be more broadly shared, in locations where it is perhaps more likely that people from across and outside the county would visit too. Perched on a hillside, the Hadleigh bench plays radio clips describing picnics and walks across the park. Feeling connected to the speaker and landscape, I shared the views they described of the estuary and Canvey Island below. This overlap creates connections across experiences, across time.
Sometimes, these overlaps can serve to emphasise differences. The first bench I visited was in Chelmsford on a cold morning in February. In a BBC Essex clip from 1992, an optimistic speaker describes the opening of the shopping centre. Sounds of buoyant crowds exploring new shops pin an alternative image over my contemporary view from the bench, the closed shutters of high street restaurants, and wind howling down the shopping streets.
BBC Essex report on the opening of The Meadows shopping centre in Chelmsford, used for the listening bench in Chelmsford (SA 1/1030/1).
Environmental factors pose risks to the benches which they may not face in museums. Some benches suffered a lack of solar-power, and weather can affect engagement in other ways. I visited the benches in the week preceding the arrival of the snow from Siberia, the ‘Beast from the East’ and so Southend Pier was closed, meaning its bench was inaccessible. There is also an enhanced risk of vandalism. The Bowers Gifford bench is located in Westlake Park, behind quiet residential avenues. It sits in silence, solar panel smashed, demonstrating the risk of liberating installations from museums. However, visiting the benches made me reflect on the difference which hosting oral histories outside of the Record Office can have, contributing to an enhanced engagement and alternative interpretation of the sounds and testimonials. The bench in Raphael Park plays a song, ‘’Owd Rat-Tayled Tinker’ in Essex dialect of the 1920s.
The ”Owd Rat Tayled Tinker from ‘Owd Lunnon Town’, sung by J. London in 1906, and used on the touring listening bench while it was at Raphael Park (SA 24/221/1).
Broadcast into the park, it can overlay a range of accents spoken by current park visitors. When I visited, this was most notably a man nearby on his mobile, with an Estuary accent like my own. This accent is associated with Romford and other parts of Essex, and influenced by post-war migration from London, as people moved out into the county.
Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.
My experience of Essex has been shaped by growing up in Thurrock on a suburban council estate close to industrial riverside and the greenery of Rainham Marshes. There are spots where you can see the London skyline, and remain within walking distance of the shopping centre, Lakeside. It’s easy for perceptions of a place to be shaped by media representations, or limited to your own experience of a small section of it. Visiting the benches enabled me to understand more about the variety of landscapes and people that make up Essex, and the ways in which these have changed over time and continue to do so. They made me reflect on those spaces that serve as home to smaller communities, and those which are temporarily shared and experienced by people visiting from elsewhere, the market in Romford, the country park in Hadleigh, and the pier in Southend.
Can you get to all the benches? Please note the touring bench that was in Raphael Park has now moved to outside the Finchingfield Guildhall. The touring bench in Hadleigh Park will shortly be moving to Weald Country Park.
Find out more about the benches and their current locations on our Essex Sounds website. Then share your #benchselfie with us and tell us which is your favourite clip!
Our You Are Hearproject officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on why oral history continues to have value even in an age of high literacy rates and easy access to public platforms.
I recently had the joy of running an oral history training workshop, for a local heritage society. I always start with some theorising about oral history: why should we do it, what is its value, what need does it meet?
One of the main arguments for taking the time to create oral history recordings has traditionally been that it enables you to add a missing perspective into the historical record. The majority of the records at the Essex Record Office have been created by those in power: government records, church records, estate records of the major landed families in the county. Individuals from the ruled classes might make it into the records, but predominantly in records written about them, rather than by them. Limited literacy, limited access to writing materials, and the process of documents making their way into record offices have generally been given as reasons why the voices of everyday people are hard to find in the archive (though read this interesting challenge of the common assumption that writing paper was expensive). Oral history can change that: any individual can be interviewed about their experiences. It merely takes someone with time and a sound recorder to interview them.
Minnie Johnson’s story of her life in a traveller community is unlikely to have been known were it not for this oral history interview – she explains that she taught herself to read from comic books, but cannot write more than her name. The full interview can be heard on Essex Archives Online or our Soundcloud channel (SA 24/1925/1).
This is all excellent, and the rise of oral history ran alongside the rise of ‘history from below’ from around the 1960s. Using interviews allows historians to look at alternative histories to political and economic studies. Hearing from ‘ordinary’ people allows you to find out about everyday life for social and cultural history. Or it allows you to study political and economic history from a different perspective: how did the 1930s Depression actually affect people’s daily lives? How did Joe Bloggs feel about international relations during and after the Second World War? Without oral history interviews, these and similar questions would be very difficult to answer.
So we happily trot out these examples of why oral history interviews have value for giving a voice to the ‘ruled classes’. But is this as true today? Literacy rates are high (though not high enough). Access to writing material is prevalent. You can go into your local library and use a computer to type up your reminiscences. If you really wanted, you could probably use scrap paper from junk mail received and free pens given out at events to write down your life history without it costing you a penny.
What is more, platforms for making your voice heard are much easier to reach. There are social media channels; online petition sites; and file sharing sites that give you free and easy access to voice your opinions. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017 96% of 16-24 year-olds surveyed used social media, and 51% of 55-64 year-olds.
While there are still barriers to technology, it is much easier to find the views of everyday people. So does oral history matter now, when people can make their way into the historical record of their own volition?
Laying aside the (very large!) problem of permanent preservation of online content, I argue that oral history does still, and will continue to, play a very valuable role in filling in gaps in the record.
Facebook posts and Tweets tend to be written in immediate response to an event. They represent a person’s immediate reactions. They can be mundane, amusing, fiery, or heartbreaking, but what is written today may not be true tomorrow. They are instantly written, and often instantly forgotten.
Oral history recordings are generally collected from people towards the latter stages of their lives. Some argue that this limits their usefulness: you are relying on the supposed frailty of human memory, and on the interviewee reliving events from their current perspective, looking back in hindsight. But this is one of the characteristics that gives the oral history interview its inherent value. From a distance, the interviewee can reflect on events they experienced, what emotions they prompted, and how they reacted. This will give a more balanced insight into which events and experiences were most significant in shaping the individual, and therefore shaping the culture and society in which each lived.
Mrs Summers reflects on how she felt about moving to Harlow in 1952, from the perspective of 34 years of hindsight. The full interview, recorded by Dr Judy Attfield, can be heard on Soundcloud or Essex Archives Online (SA 22/1364/1).
In fifty years’ time, if you amassed all social media posts I have written in 2017, this would give you one impression of who I was and what happened to me. Interviewing me alongside this data will help to give a fuller picture. Firstly, you can ask me to explain further details. For example, when I posted a picture of a meal I was about to eat, you can ask how representative this meal was of what I ate on a regular basis. As mundane as social media posts can be, oral history interviews will still have value in probing the details of everyday life and culture.
Secondly, you can ask me about the events that prompted my posts, and, I hope, you will get a different, more considered insight on what was happening. How will I feel in fifty years about my experiences in 2017?
Thirdly, there will always be matters that we do not share publicly at the time, but which we are happy to discuss further down the line. Oral history interviews will perhaps highlight the most life-changing events that are otherwise absent from contemporary autobiographical records.
Access to the historical record might be widening, but there is still a place for an oral history interview, where the interviewer can prompt those reflective questions from an outside perspective. Long may it continue.
Hear more of Sarah-Joy’s musings on oral history in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex History Group talk in May. Keep an eye on our events page to book, or subscribe to receive notifications about upcoming History Group talks.
If you want to embark on your own oral history interviewing project, the Essex Sound and Video Archive can provide training to help you get started. Please contact us for more information.