Curiosity Cabinet: The Dunmow Flitch

The tradition of the Dunmow Flitch Trials is commonly dated back to 1104 when a local Lord and Lady supposedly visited the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow disguised as paupers. They asked the prior if he would bless their marriage which had taken place a year and a day previously. Impressed by their apparent devotion to each other, the prior responded by presenting them with a flitch of bacon (which the Priory cook happened to have been carrying past at the time).

At this point the Lord, Reginald Fitzwalter, threw off his present garb and thanked the prior for his willingness to believe in their love. He then gifted some of his land to the Priory on the condition that a flitch of bacon would be given to any couple that could come to the Priory and prove their continued devotion to each other a year and a day after their marriage.

As charming as it is, this story has obviously been the cause of much doubt over the years – but what can’t be doubted is the fame that the Dunmow Flitch Trials had gained by the 14th century. Both William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer refer to the trials in their books, and they both used language which assumed readers were already familiar with the tradition. However, the first official record does not appear until 1445 when Mr and Mrs Richard Wright were awarded their flitch of bacon.

The tradition lapsed over the years and, in 1832, Josiah Vine’s request for a trial was refused on the grounds that it was ‘an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood’.

Fortunately, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth sought to revive the tradition in 1854 with his book ‘The Custom of Dunmow’ and in the following year he personally presented the flitch to two couples. One was a French gentleman and his English wife:  the Chevalier and Madame De Chatelain. The other was a local couple from Chipping Ongar: James Barlow, a builder, and his wife Hannah.

During the trials, both couples were required to prove their enduring love before a jury of six maidens and six bachelors. There was also an opposing council which represented the donors of the flitch of bacon and challenged the evidence with the aim to dissuade the jurors from awarding the flitch to the couple. Successful couples were then seated in the Flitch Chair and carried in a parade, at the end of which they were required to take this oath:

‘We do swear by custom of confession
That we ne’er made nuptial transgression;
Nor since we were married man and wife,
By household brawls or contentious strife,
Or otherwise at bed or at board,
Offended each other in deed or word;
Or since the parish clerk said “Amen,”
Wished ourselves unmarried again;
Or in a twelvemonth and a day,
Repented not in thought or in any way,
But continued true and in desire
As when we joined hands in the holy quire.’

After the Dunmow Flitch Trial, an album was compiled to commemorate the occasion. It consists of the following framed items: a painting of James Barlow, a sketch of James and Hannah Barlow, a commemorative certificate, and a picture of the Dunmow Town Hall. At the back of this album is a disguised compartment holding letters about the planning of the event, a programme from the day itself, a pamphlet about the history of the Dunmow Flitch and (perhaps most remarkably) the shoulder bone from the Barlow’s flitch of bacon!

Balancing the Challenges – Managing Heritage Landscapes alongside Contemporary Needs

Essex Gardens Trust and Essex Record Office joint Symposium

Saturday 2 April, 10:00am to 3.30pm at the ERO, Chelmsford

We are delighted to be holding a joint all-day symposium in Chelmsford with the Essex Gardens Trust on Saturday 2 April 2022. This event was originally conceived and planned before the pandemic and after some enforced rescheduling, is now going ahead. The theme of the day is to explore some of the many challenges that heritage landscapes and gardens face today in trying to balance competing priorities of preservation, conservation, ecology, sustainability, and public access.

We will be welcoming to Essex, Peter Hughes, QC and Chair of The Gardens Trust whose talk is entitled “Opening the gates – Conservation and the Challenges of Garden Tourism”. Peter chose this subject for his Masters’ degree dissertation in Garden and Landscape History and undertook a case study of six important gardens around the country, some in public and some in private custodianship, and interviewed head gardeners and other prominent figures involved in garden conservation.

Cressing temple walled garden

A talk by Alison Moller – Garden Historian, lecturer, and researcher – will provide the landscape context for Essex landscape heritage sites tracing the geological formation of the land beneath the historic landscapes of Essex.

Landscape Architect, Liz Lake will explore how our historic landscapes can be a source of inspiration for modern day designers and an additional reason why they should be managed and conserved. Liz will pick out key features from historic designed landscapes and looks at how they have been reworked for our times.

Stephen Smith, Historic Gardens Consultant will speak on “A Vision for Landscape Conservation”. Many historic gardens and landscapes are managed by bodies with a culture and expectation which diverges greatly from those which envisage their restoration and conservation. For example, prejudice against exotic plant species on the one hand and an underappreciation of habitat management on the other are common points of divergence. He will argue that the different approaches can be detrimental to the original vision of a conservation project. In his paper, Stephen Smith will share his observations, drawing on examples of landscape conservation schemes on the London fringes of Essex and beyond, to identify the problems as well as proffer some mutually beneficial solutions.

Meadow

And finally, Ailsa Wildig – Chair of The Tuesday Research Group, at Warley Place will talk about How Warley Place still respects its garden history – From historic garden to nature reserve looking at the challenges facing those managing and caring for Ellen Willmott’s historic garden, that was recently listed as ‘at risk’ by Historic England.

This should be a fascinating day exploring some of the challenges facing those conserving historic landscapes and gardens and will also provide the opportunity to meet or catch up with others working or with interests in these fields.

Tickets, costing £30 and include a light lunch, can be booked at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/essex-gardens-trust-essex-record-office-joint-symposium-tickets-251982946777

Essex Gardens Trust; caring about our green spaces

Curiosity Cabinet: Frost Fairs and Frozen Rivers

Hidden at the back of an otherwise innocuous court book from Ashdon Rectory is this unimposing memento of ‘an unprecedented scene’ which took place between December 26th 1813 and March 20th 1814 when the surface of the River Thames in London froze fully solid. As with numerous such occasions before this the locals of London contrived to hold an awe-inspiring ‘Frost Fair’ upon the frozen surface. This small copy of the Lord’s Prayer was printed on the Thames itself on February 5th 1814.

The tiny printed prayer is pasted in the back of the court book, under a written description of the unusual weather and some of the events that were impacted by it
(D/DU 153/4)

Such mementos were not uncommon; when Charles II visited a frost fair on January 31st 1684 he bought a printed ticket to commemorate the occasion. Held at the Museum of London, the ticket lists the members of the court who attended alongside the King. The very first documented frost fair took place even earlier than this in 1608, where one could even get a shave in the middle of the frozen river. The fairs were filled with the novelty of such everyday tasks being performed on the ice. Vendors set up funfair games, fortune telling, and stalls selling all variety of food, drink, and trinkets.

Unfortunately, the frost fair immortalised in the Ashdon Rectory court book was the last of its kind. The demolition of the medieval London Bridge in 1831, and other changes to the Thames made during the Victorian era, altered the flow of the river so that the water was deeper and swifter and did not freeze so easily.

However, there is further evidence of smaller freezes which affected the rivers in Essex as late as the 20th century. Rivers in Southend, Leigh-on-Sea and Rochford froze to dramatic spectacle in both 1905 and 1929.

Although the ice was thick enough to walk on no frost fairs were held during these smaller freezes and, looking at these photographs, we can see why no one would want to risk ice-skating on these unruly frozen waves!

An even more recent example occurred in 1963 and presented such an inhospitable scene in Southend, Benfleet, and Battlesbridge that G.A. Robinson was moved to dedicate a whole scrapbook to the icy scenes.

The first page of a leather-bound photo album which goes on to describe its aim of memorialising the 1963 freeze and refers back to the postcards which were used for a similar purpose in 1905 and 1929. (D/DU 1464/68)

Nowadays ice is found mostly on our car windscreens, making it difficult to picture such monumental scenes for ourselves. If you need more photographic evidence to fully comprehend these extreme conditions, make sure to check out our latest Curiosity Cabinet in the Searchroom.

Curiosity Cabinet: A Traditional Christmas Dessert Made Three Ways

What is the most Christmassy recipe you can think of? Does it help if we sing a song?

“Little Jack Horner

Sat in the corner,

Eating a Christmas pie;

He put in his thumb,

And pulled out a plum,

And said, “What a good boy am I!”

So, to help get us in the festive spirit, we decided to explore the different variations of plum cake recipe’s in our own archives:

‘To Make a Plumb Cake’ by Elizabeth Slany (c.1715)

“Take 4 pound of flower and 4 pound of currans ½ a pint of sack plump the currans then take a quart of ale yest ¾ of a pound of sugar 10 eggs & half the whites a little nutmeg mace & cinnamon & a few cloves a pound of almonds blanch’t & beaten fine orange flower water a quart of cream boyl’d + when you take it of the fire put a pound of fresh butter in it heit [heat] till it is blood warm then mix the spices currans & a little salt with the flower then put in yest almonds cream eggs & mix them with a spoon then set it rising you may put in some musk & ambergrease [a waxy substance that originates in the intestines of the sperm whale, with a pleasant smell, which is also used in perfumery]your oven must be very quick and you must put it in a hoop an hour or a little more will bake it your bottom must be paper.”

‘To Make a Plumb Cake’ from Elizabeth Slany’s 1715 ‘Booke of Reciepts’ (D/DR Z1)

‘Little Plumb Cakes’ by Mary Rooke (c.1770-1777)

“Take one pound of flour, six ounces of butter, half a pint of cream, a quarter pint of yeast, two eggs, a little mace shred very fine, mix these into a light paste, and set it before the fire to rise, then put a quarter or half a pound of currants and a quarter of a pound of sugar, bake them on tins.”

‘Little Plumb Cakes’ from Mary Rooke’s 18th century recipe book (D/DU 818/1)

‘Oxfordshire Baked Plum Pudding’ by the Lampet Family (c.1807-1847)

“Put one pound of stale white bread sliced into as much new milk as will soak it, and let is stand all night. Now pour the milk from it and break the bread well with the hand – add half a pound of a suet chopped fine – three quarters of a pound of raisins – a quarter of a pound of currants shaking a little flour and salt among the fruit – half a nutmeg – two or three blades of mace – a clove or two pounded very fine – a little brandy – and sugar to the taste – mix all these ingredients well up together with four eggs well beaten – bake it.”

‘Oxfordshire Baked Plum Pudding’ from the Lampet Family’s 19th century recipe book (T/B 677/2)

Let’s play spot the difference!

  • The Lampet recipe is probably the most different: it uses bread with only a little extra flour, swaps butter for milk, and is the only recipe to use suet and alcohol.
  • Elizabeth Slany’s recipe has some of the most unusual ingredients such as musk and ambergrease, and orange flower water.
  • All three recipes use: eggs, currants, mace, yeast, and sugar.
  • Elizabeth Slany and the Lampet Family add nutmeg and clove for extra flavour
  • None of the recipes include plums!

Do you make plum cake/plum pudding for Christmas? Which of these recipes is most similar to your own?

If you want to see more festive recipes, we currently have Mary Rooke’s recipe book on display in the Searchroom for a seasonal Curiosity Cabinet. Recipes on display include gingerbread and the various components of a mince pie!

Sculpture in Harlow New Town

Project Archivist, Hector Mir has been working tirelessly this year to catalogue the records of the Harlow Development Corporation with the full catalogue ready to be launched on the 1st December this year on Essex Archives Online. This project has been made possible by an Archives Revealed cataloguing grant from The National Archives.

In his post below Hector explores the records of one of Harlow’s most notable features, it’s fantastic sculpture.

 A/TH 3/10/45/2  - "City" by Gerda Rubinstein, in Bishopsfield. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation
A/TH 3/10/45/2 – “City” by Gerda Rubinstein, in Bishopsfield. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation

Since its very beginning in 1947, the Harlow Development Corporation and its General Planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd, acquired a firm commitment to link the new town they were building with the culture and the arts. This aim is especially visible in respect of sculpture. From as early as 1951 up to the present day, the new town has filled up its streets with the works of some of the most renowned sculptors.

Such important activity appears well referenced in the papers of the Harlow Development Corporation Archive, which the Essex Record Office has now opened up by creating a new online catalogue (A/TH). 

The main source comes from the file “Sculpture” (A/TH 2/6/1), which includes papers relating to “Contrapuntal Forms” by Barbara Hepsworth (1951), murals from the Festival of Britain Exhibitions (1952), Centaur’s statue (1953), Henry Moore’s “Family Group” sculpture (1955-1956), Early Memorial (1959), “Kore” sculpture (1975), sculptured head of Sir Frederick Gibberd (1979).

A/TH 3/10/15/71 - Photograph of "Family Group" by Henry Moore  in the Civic Square. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation
A/TH 3/10/15/71 – Photograph of “Family Group” by Henry Moore in the Civic Square. Henk Snoek, 1972, Copyright Harlow Development Corporation

Scattered information on sculptures, including lists of Harlow Arts Trust sculptures (June 1968) can be found in the files related to Patrons of the Arts – Harlow Arts Trust (A/TH 3/2/8/33-36), covering the whole existence of the Corporation (1948-1980). The is also a file on Play Sculptures in the sixties (A/TH 3/3/3/4).         

A sculpture unveiling has been always an important ceremony. We keep the files of three of those events: the unveiling of Henry Moore’s “Family Group” sculpture in 1956 (A/TH 3/8/3/54), which includes invitation card and programme; “Kore” sculpture in 1975 (A/TH 3/8/3/2); and the unveiling of an obelisk at Broad Walk in 1980 (A/TH 3/8/3/50 and A/TH 3/11/65), including invitation card, programme and diagram of construction.

Sculptures are also well represented in the Social Development Department Photographic Collection (A/TH 3/10). Two files with 30 photographs cover specifically the subject (A/TH 3/10/26 and A/TH 3/10/44), with pictures of “Family Group” and Bronze Cross by Henry Moore, “Wrestlers”, “Chiron” by Mary Spencer Watson, Eve by Auguste Rodin, “Contrapuntal Forms” by Barbara Hepworth, “Help” by F.E. McWilliam, “High Flying” by Antanas Brazdys, “Kore” by Betty Rea, “Motif No. 3” by Henry Moore, “Trigon” by Lynch Chadwick, “Echo” by Antanas Brazdys, “The Boar” by Elisabeth Fink, Fountain Figure and Lion by Antoine-Louise Barye. As well as another file with 12 photographs of Henry Moore’s “Family Group” Sculpture (A/TH 3/10/25). There are also loose photographs of “The Sheep Shearer” by Ralph Brown, outside Ladyshot Common Room (A/TH 3/10/8/72) and “Boy eating apple” a statue in bronze by Percy Portsmouth, commissioned by the Harlow Art Trust and situated on the wall of the Mark Hall Branch Library in The Stow (A/TH 3/10/9/10).

A/TH 3/10/26 - Folder of photographs, two photographs of "Eve" by Auguste Rodin are visible (A/TH 3/10/26/3 and  A/TH 3/10/26/4). Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/10/26 – Folder of photographs, two photographs of “Eve” by Auguste Rodin are visible (A/TH 3/10/26/3 and A/TH 3/10/26/4). Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/10/15/1 - School children in Harlow creating their own works of art. Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/10/15/1 – School children in Harlow creating their own works of art. Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.

Finally, an excellent overview can be found in the 31 page booklet ‘Sculpture in Harlow’ (A/TH 3/11/17), published by Harlow Development Corporation in 1973.

A/TH 3/11/17 - "Sculpture in Harlow" booklet, 1973.  Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/11/17 - "Sculpture in Harlow" booklet, 1973.  Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.
A/TH 3/11/17 – “Sculpture in Harlow” booklet, 1973. Copyright Harlow Development Corporation.

Tomorrow Started Yesterday

The future is in our past - Transmitting valve

Hello Traveller

You’ve just clicked on a bit of history from right here in the City of Chelmsford.

Many people know Chelmsford is the birthplace of radio, it’s where Marconi chose to build his first factory and where ideas and experiments unfolded across the years, but it’s so much more than that, it’s where our future world of communication began.

Over a hundred years before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Marconi was laying down the foundations of the communication explosion of the 21st century. One of the first truly global figures in modern 

Tomorrow started yesterday - receiver unit

communication, he was the first inventor to not only communicate globally but think globally about communication.

From telegraph to telephone and radio to the world wide web, mobile phones and satelitte navigation, the link between then, now and the future is the development of wireless communication.

Essex Record Office continues to capture and preserve our local histories with written material, historical documents, recordings and interviews. The Essex Record Office is also home to a collection of over 150,000 images that catalogue the places, people, objects and machinery of the Marconi Company. 

Artist, Elaine Tribley, was given access to this collection as part of an Essex 2020 Artist in Residence project with the ERO. Focusing on the photographed objects she produced a series of artworks enlarging and placing them into the landscapes around the Records Office 

adding reflective texts. Elaine says “I not only wanted to bring these objects to our attention, challenging their place, Marconi’s place in our future, but I also wanted to celebrate the fact that this incredible collection of photographic history is right here in our own City”.  Two of these works were chosen to be displayed at Chelmsford’s rail station to coincide with the British Science Festival being held in the City.  

To find out more about the work of the Essex Records Office visit : www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk

The Essex Record Office is based at Wharf Road, Chelmsford, Essex CM2 6YT

A PDF version of this post is available to download below.

Tales from the Parish Chest: bastardy in early modern north-Essex

For the last few months ERO has hosted two student placements jointly funded by the Friends of Historic Essex and University of Essex. They have both written for us about their experiences and what they have discovered here at ERO. In his blog post below Aaron Archer explores the huge wealth of information held within parish Poor Law documents. If you enjoy this article, Aaron has also written a separate article for the Friends of Historic Essex – News – Friends of Historic Essex

During my placement at the Essex Record Office, I have been cataloguing the parish records of north-east Essex. Dating broadly from the late seventeenth century through until the mid-nineteenth century, many of the documents contained within this collection relate to the Poor Law and the daily administration of the various parishes.

The ‘old Poor Law’ which concerns these documents began with the acts of Elizabeth I between 1598 and 1601, and effectively outlined those who were considered ‘the deserving poor’ and those that ‘refused to work’.[1] The responsibility of this poor relief system lay with the parishes, particularly the churchwardens and overseers of the poor, who enacted the day-to-day workings of the system.[2]

Whilst my time has largely involved cataloguing these various documents, such as settlement certificates, apprenticeship indentures and removal orders… I must confess – I have been unable to resist taking some notes on some of the more colourful or exceptional stories uncovered within these records!

Also, I should preface this by stating that all of what I record here has been uncovered with minimal research – and that alone should demonstrate the wealth of information and the variety of stories that one could find if you are actively seeking to research a similar topic (or looking for a research starter!).

Let us begin the examples of William Allen and Deborah Brooks. These names occur more than once each within the bastardy bonds of the parish of St Peter’s in Colchester.

On 10 June 1823, Deborah Brooks underwent a voluntary examination (D/P 178/15/2/4) relating to the illegitimate child she had recently given birth to. Such an examination was necessary to determine whether the child would be chargeable to the parish in which the examination was taking place. During this, Brooks reputed that William Allen, a blacksmith from Brightlingsea, was the father of the child. As such, Allen would be liable to pay a bastardy bond of £2 immediately to the churchwardens of St Peters for any costs incurred by parish, then a further two shillings per week in support of the child, and a further sixpence per week to support Brooks. Clearly, illegitimate births like these were costly. According to the National Archives’ currency converter, £2 was the equivalent of 13 days wages of a skilled worker.

Yet, this is not the last we hear of William Allen. On 2 December 1823, Alice Cook of St Peter’s, Colchester undertook a voluntary examination relating to her illegitimate pregnancy (D/P 178/15/2/5). Once again, the name William Allen was stated when it was questioned who the father may be. This time, William Allen was said to be a drover from Ardleigh. In this instance, Allen was ordered to pay a bastardy bond of £1, 16 shillings to St Peter’s, then a further two shillings and sixpence per week to Alice Cook and the child once it was born.

D/P 178/15/2/5 – Voluntary examination of Alice Cook 2 December 1823

Of course, this very well could have been a separate individual, however it is also a stretch that two women from the same parish became pregnant to two different men sharing the same name, and only six months apart… If these cases do indeed involve the same individual, then William Allen certainly was an unfortunate soul to fall into the same situation twice – and with only 6 months in between cases!

But we must not forget Deborah Brooks either. Her name also appears again on the 10 September 1824. Again, she underwent an examination regarding her illegitimate pregnancy, and on this occasion, Charles Wenlock, a mariner from Brightlingsea, was the reputed father (D/P 178/15/2/8). The parish of St Peter’s wrote up a bastardy bond for £4 and one shilling, plus the further weekly one shilling and sixpence for the child, and sixpence per week for Brooks, however it appears that things were not so simple for Wenlock. An attached note states that Wenlock had changed addresses during this period and thus was unaware of the money he now owed. When he was eventually found on 29 June 1827, he owed a total of 146 weeks of unpaid maintenance amounting to £10 and 19 shillings! For reference, this was about two months wages for a skilled tradesman.

D/P 178/15/2/8 – The bastardy bond of Charles Wenlock for Deborah Brook’s child, and the attached note

These stories present some interesting implications. Firstly, and most apparently, these instances offer an insight into relationships and people’s perceptions towards sex. Clearly people were frequently engaged in physical relationships outside of wedlock despite religious doctrine and expectations still being a considerable part of society. Moreover, these relationships were not just between people from neighbouring parishes, but sometimes parishes miles apart – suggesting how mobile people were on a regular basis.

Secondly, there is the suggestion that bastard births were a broader social problem for early modern parishes, and one that exacerbated an already stretched and flawed relief system. A small note amongst St Peter’s records states that in 1819 a total of £1368, 11 shillings and 4 pence was levied in local rates. Of this, £1247, 7 shillings and 1 pence was expended in poor relief alone, highlighting that there was little flexibility for further strain on the existing system. This made it imperative for parishes to ensure illegitimate births were chargeable to the correct parishes to avoid footing the bill.

Unfortunately, this did lead to more tragic examples, too. For instance, the case of Ann Bugg, whose issues with the poor relief system and an illegitimate birth proved harrowing.

On 20 April 1816, Ann Bugg, a single woman living in St Peters, was removed from the parish with her child George (D/P 178/13/2/21), and was returned to her last legal settlement, St Mary in Whitechapel. This was not unusual, as parishes were likely to remove single men and women, probably to avoid instances of illegitimate births. Yet two months later, on 10 June 1816, the churchwardens of St Mary sent a copy of Ann Bugg’s bastardy examination to St Peter’s. In it, the churchwardens of St Mary suggest that the child was chargeable to St Peter’s rather than them, as the child was born there. The emergent argument here being one of an individual removed to their legal settlement, yet her child being born in another parish, with two overseeing parties unwilling to deal with the situation by placing the responsibility on each other.

St Peter's Colchester
Engraving of St Peter’s Church Colchester

As we have already seen, however, St Peters was particularly stringent in its budgeting and chose to argue the case rather than foot the bill. The situation escalated, and the Justices of the Peace were employed to address the situation. They officially recognised the complaint of St Peters on 8 July 1816 (D/P 178/15/5/1), and two days later issued an official summons (D/P 178/15/5/2) to the churchwardens of St Mary, on the grounds of their refusal to reimburse St Peters for the costs incurred for Ann Bugg’s bastard child. The matter was to be addressed at the next Quarter Sessions.

This was not to be the last of the story, however. In 1820, the issue arose again when the parish of St Mary once again wrote to St Peters (D/P 178/15/5/3), stating they had no knowledge of Ann Bugg’s child and the birth, and therefore refused any steps towards reimbursing St Peters for all the of the costs incurred. Meanwhile, during this four-year quarrel between the two parishes, it is unknown whether Ann Bugg received any support for herself or her child from either parish.

The last mention of this case comes from a small note dated 28 June 1821 (D/P 178/15/5/4). In it, an individual named John Bugg, agreed to reimburse St Peters for the costs incurred during the entire ordeal. This amounted to £4, 14 shillings, though the note states that at this point Ann Bugg’s child had passed away since.

D/P 178/15/2 – Bundle of bastardy papers

Quite clearly, this unfortunate story highlights the problems associated with the patchwork-quilt like system of parishes and poor relief seen during the Poor Law. It both demonstrates the loss of a young life due to the financial worries and bickering of inter-parish relations, along with the neglect of individuals based on the grounds of “not our problem”. Thus, it is no surprise that the system was unsustainable and saw ‘reform’ in the 1830s – though, this had its own whole series of problems!

It should be clear by now that these parish records can contain some fascinating insights into the lives of early modern individuals. As a historian, I previously would not have considered the depth seen these documents, nor the kinds of stories I have uncovered with relatively little research. After all, these stories I have covered here have literally only come together whilst passing through the various stacks of documents that have slid across my desk.

With this piece I hope I have been able to shine a light on the stories that one can find within parish records, such as bastardy bonds and removal orders, and demonstrated the potential that they have. With them family historians can uncover a much deeper understanding of the movements of their ancestors and the struggles they faced. Meanwhile, there is plenty of room for historians to explore microhistories of individual lives of people like Deborah Brooks, William Allen, and Ann Bugg.

These parish records are fascinating, and I would strongly encourage people to expand their scope beyond the singular documents they seek. Rather than focus solely on a specific document, explore other documents within the same box number – you will be surprised at some of the stories you can uncover!

References


[1] Samantha Williams, Poverty, Gender and Life-Cycle Under the English Poor Law 1760-1834, (Croydon: Boydell Pres, 2011), p.2.

[2] W.E. Tate, The Parish Chest: A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England, Third Ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 30.

The Trial of Agnes Waterhouse – Witchcraft in Essex, 1566

In a recent internet deep-dive in search of social media inspiration, we came across a recurring statement declaring Agnes Waterhouse, a local Essex woman, as the first person executed for witchcraft in England in 1566. Marion Gibson, currently a professor at Exeter University, has kindly written this blog post for us, to tell us a little bit more about Agnes and why these claims about her are actually fake news.

Agnes Waterhouse was a widow from the village of Hatfield Peverel who was tried in Chelmsford for witchcraft in the summer of 1566. It’s as a witchcraft suspect that her name appears on a list of accused felons held by the Essex Record Office, among the Quarter Sessions rolls.

Q/SR 19/5 – Quarter Session Roll from 1566 which lists Agnes Waterhouse, Joan Waterhouse, and Elizabeth Frances as felons suspected of witchcraft from Hatfield Peverel

A “felony” was a serious crime, punishable by death, and the group of suspected felons who included Agnes passed through the lower court of Quarter Sessions in 1566 on their way to the higher court of the Assizes. There they would be tried and sentenced.

Agnes was going to the Midsummer Assizes, held in the hot months when England’s top judges got out of London and had time to sit in judgement over suspected provincial criminals. In Chelmsford the Assizes were held in the Market Cross House, which stood just in front of the present-day Shire Hall. The Essex historian Hilda Grieve describes it as:

‘an open-sided building, with eight oak columns supporting upper galleries and a tiled roof. The galleries, which overlooked the open “piazza” below, were lit by three dormer windows in the roof… the magistrates and justices sat in open court, which measured only 26 feet by 24 feet, with the officers of the law, counsel and clerks, plaintiffs and defendants, jurors, sureties, witnesses and prisoners, before and around them, while spectators, hangers-on, and those awaiting their turn, crowded into the galleries above or thronged the street outside.’

The Market Cross House was an unsatisfactory courtroom – packed, noisy and horribly public – but it was Agnes’ destination in summer 1566 after she had been accused as a witch.

Witchcraft was a crime that came to Assize courts regularly, but only after a new Witchcraft Act had been passed by Parliament in 1563. The new Act stated that witches who were convicted of lesser offences – like making farm animals sick – would be punished with one year in prison. Witches who were convicted of killing a person, however, were to be hanged.

Agnes was accused of murder by witchcraft, for which she would be executed if she was found guilty. She was said to have killed her neighbour William Fynee. When questioned, she also admitted harming pigs, cows and geese in her village. Eventually she said she had murdered her own husband in 1557 because they lived “somewhat unquietly” together; it is possible that this confession was drawn out, in part, by some guilt she may have felt over relief at his death and the relative freedom that widowhood granted her.

Agnes also confessed to owning a demonic spirit in the form of a pet cat called Sathan, given to her by her sister Elizabeth Fraunces, and this cat had killed her husband and done all the harm of which Agnes stood accused.

Elizabeth Fraunces and also Agnes’ daughter Joan were accused of witchcraft alongside her. Joan was just eighteen years old. She was accused of bewitching another teenager, the Waterhouse’s neighbour Agnes Browne. Joan and her mother, twelve year old Agnes Browne told the court, had sent a black dog to torment her. It brought her the key to the Browne family’s dairy and stole or damaged some of their butter. More seriously, the dog tempted Agnes Browne to suicide by bringing her a knife. He told her this was “his sweet dame’s knife” and when he was asked who this was, Agnes Browne said “he wagged his head to your house, mother Waterhouse”. As well as being a talking dog, this demonic tempter had a monkey’s face and a whistle hung around his neck: a strange beast to see trotting around Hatfield Peverel!

Agnes Waterhouse told Agnes Browne that she was making this story up: “thou liest” she told the girl stoutly. She added that she didn’t even own a dagger. It sounds as though Agnes Waterhouse was in court facing down Agnes Browne – and this account of the trial may be true. But Agnes Waterhouse didn’t need to confront Agnes Browne. She had in fact already pleaded guilty to witchcraft. Most accused felons fought for their lives by pleading “not guilty” but Agnes Waterhouse didn’t. Why did Agnes plead guilty, and why was she still fighting on in the courtroom after she had confessed? The answer is probably Joan. By pleading guilty and then standing beside her daughter to take the blame perhaps Agnes hoped to save Joan from execution.

A woodcutting, supposedly of Agnes Waterhouse, from a 1566 pamphlet of the trial.

The case made what we would now think of as “headlines”. Someone gave the statements of the accused witches to a London publisher, who added an eyewitness account of the courtroom scenes, a couple of very bad poems and a description of Agnes’ execution. Yes, that was her fate, and 29th July is the anniversary of her death. Agnes Waterhouse was executed with the other felons convicted at the Assizes, hanged in front of a crowd gathered at the gallows in Chelmsford. The site of her death lies on the road leading towards Writtle.

It was a sad end to Agnes’ life, but it was a golden opportunity for journalists. The publisher rushed out a booklet about the case and even added a portrait of Agnes to his story, a woodcut print labelled in blackletter font and showing a woman looking oddly pious, with her hand upraised in blessing. There’s a good reason for this mismatch between story and woodcut.

The picture isn’t actually of Agnes at all. It was just a woodcut from the publisher’s stockroom, with space in the label to insert metal blocks of type. In this way the publisher could give any name to the woman depicted. Witches were usually women, this was a picture of a woman: that would do.

This bit of fake news isn’t the only myth to get stuck to Agnes over the course of the last four hundred and fifty years, however. She’s routinely described as the first witch to be executed for witchcraft in England. In fact, witches had been being executed in England and the wider British Isles for centuries, often because they were judged under laws concerning treason or heresy. Examples include Petronilla de Meath from County Meath, who was executed in 1324 and Margery Jourdemayne from Eye in Suffolk, who was executed in 1441. Both women were burned at the stake. But it is true that Agnes is the first media superstar of the age when witch-hunting got serious in England. She’s a “first witch” because she’s the first witch we know about from a printed news story. In the sixteenth century, that was extraordinary fame.

We should remember Agnes on the anniversary of her execution. She died surrounded by her enemies, likely jeering and jostling for a better view, but she died knowing that her daughter Joan had been acquitted, just as Agnes had hoped.

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All the details of the case are taken from the news pamphlet ‘The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensforde in the Countie of Essex (1566)’.

You can read more about Agnes, including the whole text of this pamphlet, in Marion Gibson, ‘Early Modern Witches’ (London: Routledge, 2000)

In the meantime, St Andrews Church in Hatfield Peverel is probably the closest glimpse we can get of the Hatfield Peverel that Agnes knew.

Much of the building dates to the 19th century restoration, but the nave and central tower arch from the original 12th  century priory still remain and Agnes would have looked on these features much as we do now, as an enduring memento of history. (Photo by Fred Spalding c.1940)


Recreating the Record

Over the course of the UK lockdowns the music collective, Resonance have been working with the ERO to incorporate recordings preserved by us into their work, culminating in an Album which has been launched today!

Chris Adam, co-founder of Resonance takes us through the journey below together with some details about how you can purchase your own copy.

Strangely enough for a project so grounded in history, this album started from a meeting about the future. Sometime in January (I forget the actual date!), Martin [Martin Astell – the Essex Record Office Manager] and I were included in a meeting to discuss ideas incorporating digital technology into art and heritage projects in Essex. It was in this meeting I discovered the amazing resource that was essexsounds.org.uk and realised there was an opportunity for Resonance to collaborate with the Essex Record Office.

The Record Office has an extensive archive of recorded audio material from around Essex. Many of these archives are fragile and at-risk – having been initially captured decades ago on ageing formats such as reel-to-reel tapes, early records or even wax cylinders. These are continuously in the process of being digitised, in order to preserve the audio history of Essex.

All of this is probably old news to fans of the Record Office, but it struck me as a fantastic opportunity to involve the members of Resonance in an interesting project: using the archives of sound to create music that embodies the spirit of revival and restoration. Combining the old with the new.

Resonance was created with the aim of embracing an alternative side to electronic music. Many of our artists embrace the use of analogue and digital equipment, combining 1970s-inspired synthesizers with modern, digital recording methods and technology. The process isn’t all that different to the Record Office’s approach: trying to capture ephemeral one-of-a-kind sounds in a way that preserves their emotional impact.

We therefore arranged for 12 of our musicians to choose samples from the Essex Sounds website that they could use for our own compositions. Once we had cleared the sounds for licensing purposes, we were free to manipulate them however we chose. This could be cutting the samples into pieces so tiny they are perceived by the human ear as a single tone, or changing the pitch and timbre using modular synthesis (think giant electronic switchboards, and you’re not far off what this looks like!). Some of us used guitar effects pedals to change everything into unrecognisable sounds. Throughout this, computers and digital recording processes allow us to capture all these experiments and save them for arrangement and use later.

The result of these experiments is a journey that moves between dark, minimal compositions and uplifting passages that highlight the mixed history of Essex. Nostalgic sounds merge with machinery noises reminiscing of Chelmsford’s scientific and industrial heritage. Field recordings capture the Essex countryside and Southend Seafront, combined with introspective electronic melodies. The ambience of Colchester and its famous Zoo blend with trains and sampled orchestral TV programmes, inviting memories of days out around Essex and the journeys these archives capture.



A few of the initial iterations of the artwork. Due to the stochastic nature of the process around 100 different variations were made and the best selected for the final design (top left).

The artwork for the album was created from the location data of around 400 sounds from the Essex Sounds website. It is essentially a top-down map, where each of the coloured pathways start at a location one of the archived sounds is recorded. From the initial coordinates, lines (or waves) are traced through a “flow field” – a simulation of physical field that assigns a force to every pixel in the image. As the lines move through the space they flow in the direction of the underlying field. This parallels the way that sounds move from a location, following the currents of the air outward until they are heard far away from their original source.

The name of the record was a sticking point for quite some time within the collective. We knew that we wanted to use the word “record” due to its double meaning – both in the archival sense and the musical sense – but the rest of the title eluded us until we finally settled on “recreating”. This summed up the attitude we had of turning the past into something new for the future, the iterative process of recording and preserving the sounds led us into new creative directions.

That’s probably enough of my ramblings for now. Hopefully that’s given you some insight into the thought processes and background to the project, and why it was so interesting for us to work on. Please listen with an open mind and we really hope you enjoy the experience!


The album is available on the 15th July 2021, and released for download on Resonance’s bandcamp page at resonancehq.bandcamp.com.

All proceeds are going to the Friends of Historic Essex charity, who work closely with many heritage organisations to preserve Essex’s history.

For more information on the archives, visit www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk. For a closer look at the archive of sounds then the Essex Record Office have a site at www.essexsounds.org.uk with an interactive map where each sound was recorded.

Updates on Resonance events and work can be found on the Resonance Instagram (@resonancehq) and website at www.resonancehq.co.uk .

Chris Adam

What’s in a Window

Christopher Parkinson, researcher for the CVMA, project introduces us to project and some of the important resources held at the Essex Record Office.

Essex is fortunate that during the 17th and 18th centuries two antiquaries wrote manuscripts which, amongst other things, described any heraldry then present in parish churches. Richard Symonds (1617-1660), an English Royalist, produced three volumes of genealogical collections which included descriptions of heraldry in different mediums to be seen in some Essex churches. While these three volumes are now with the Royal College of Arms in London, volumes 1 (covering the Hundreds of Witham, Thurstable, Winstree, Lexden and Tendring) and volume 2 (covering the Hundreds of Clavering, Uttlesford, Freshwell, Dunmow and Hinckford) are available on microfilm at the Essex Records Office (T/B 73). William Holman (1669-1730) was a congregational minister at Stepney, Middlesex before being transferred to Halstead. He visited every town and village in Essex in order to compile a history of Essex. His manuscript is now held by the Essex Records Office in just over 500 parts (T/P 195/-/-).

St Mary Magdalene, North Ockendon, 14th century panel showing a coat of arms of the Bohun family.

My particular interest in these documents is for research in stained glass heraldry that is now lost from the county. This will be included in an appendix for a forthcoming Catalogue of the Medieval Stained Glass of Essex to be published for the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, CVMA. Although the term Medii Aevi implies the ‘middle ages’, my co-author Dr Penny Hebgin-Barnes and myself will include glass up to 1800 in the catalogue within the old (pre-Greater London) county boundary. Surviving medieval including heraldic stained glass can bee seen on the CVMA website in the picture archive section;

http://www.cvma.ac.uk/jsp/locationIndex.do?countyCode=EX,

click on the dedication of the church and the stained glass from all periods will be displayed. While there are about 162 pre-1800 stained glass shields of arms currently surviving within the county, the Symonds and Holman manuscripts show that there was a substantially larger number of such shields in churches and secular buildings during the first half of the 18th century. Obviously their loss cannot be due to the actions of iconoclasts, but presumably caused by general decay and later ‘restorations’ where such damaged glass was removed.

St Mary and St Clement, Clavering. Arms of William Barlee.