An Essex Quaker’s Indiscreet Zeal – the Final Chapter

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

In part 7 of this series, we reach the end of John Farmer’s travels.

Just over a year after he came home from his epic American journey in 1715 John Farmer travelled back to America as he had planned.

In a letter held in the journal collection at the Essex Record Office, dated Virginia 1st June 1716, he wrote to his wife Mary asking her to pack up her goods and join him in Philadelphia where they would settle permanently.  He instructed her:

‘It is best for thee to send what goods thou shalt bring into Phyladelphia to Anthony Morris but com in thy self and ye children by ye way of Maryland excypt you think it best to come in ye ship with Anthony Morris when he doth return home.’[i]

Extract of Letter John Farmer to Mary Farmer dated Virginia 1706.  Essex Record Office Cat D/NF 3 addl. A13685 Box 51

However for some reason that didn’t happen. Mary stayed in Saffron Walden, possibly still nursing her sick daughter Mary Fulbigg or perhaps she had heard that John Farmer was already sowing the seeds of personal disaster and Mary decided not to put her self and her children at odds with the wider Quaker community. For what ever reason, Mary decided not to go to America to join her husband of 17 years and as a result she never saw him again.  

John Farmer had arrived back in America as the first abolitionist arguments were at their height amongst Quakers. He had not passed comment in his journal of 1711-14 but must have witnessed the suffering of slaves in the Caribbean and on the plantations of Virginia and Maryland.  Quakers had been troubled by the slave question a few times previously[ii] but had chosen to wait for a common agreement to be felt in the Yearly and Monthly meetings, almost certainly because the senior Quaker leaders were often slave owners with significant vested interests.  The dichotomy was that Quakers believed all men were equal under God, and slave owning certainly didn’t sit well with their philosophy, but they were not yet ready to make any radical changes.

By early 1717 John Farmer had started an antagonistic anti-slavery campaign.  It’s not clear what exactly triggered his impassioned fight, but it may possibly have been as a result of reading or hearing the testimony of seasoned abolitionist campaigner and fellow Quaker William Southeby.  Southeby had been campaigning since 1696, and in 1714 had taken the Philadelphia Meeting to task saying, “it was incumbent on them ‘as leaders of American Quakerism, to take a high moral position on slavery”.[iii]   He insisted Philadelphia did their Christian duty regarding slavery without waiting for recommendation from other meetings.   The Philadelphia meeting of June 1716 censured Southeby and forced him to apologise for publishing unapproved pamphlets. By December 1718 they were warning him of disownment as he had retracted his apology and published a further paper on the subject.

For John Farmer the fight to stop Quakers owning slaves wasn’t the first time he had made a challenge against the status quo.  Back in Saffron Walden in 1701 he had infuriated the local mayor and church-wardens for refusing to pay a combined tax for repairs to the church (which Farmer scathingly called a steeple-house) and poor relief. He was only prepared to pay for the portion relating to relief of the poor, and not for church maintenance, arguing he shouldn’t pay for a roof he didn’t worship under. He wrote letters and published pamphlets explaining why Quakers should not pay tithes and was so dogged in his protest that eventually the mayor gave in and accepted a reduced payment. 

The people of Saffron Walden did inlarge ye poor tax On purpose yt there might bee thereby mony enough gathered for ye poor & for to repair ye steeple- house.  Thus they put church tax & poor tax together & called it a rate for ye relief of ye poor.  I was told yt heretofore ye church wardens of saffron walden had caused a friend to be excommunicated & imprisoned till death for refusing to pay to their worship house.  Thus they put ye parrish to charge & their honist neighbour to prison without profit to themselves.  Which troubled the people & therefore they go no more…  When they demanded ye said tax of mee I could not pay it all because I know some of it as for their worship house.  I offered to pay my part to ye poor: But ye overseer would not take it: excypt I would pay ye whole tax.[iv]

In April 1717 Farmer presented the Nantucket meeting with his pamphlet ‘Epistle Concerning Negroes’ deriding the Quakers for owning slaves, and it was received with satisfaction.  Unfortunately the pamphlet has not survived, as far as we know. Obviously emboldened by the reception he had received in Nantucket, and with his customary fervour, in 1717 John Farmer requested a meeting of Elders and Ministers at the June Yearly meeting in Newport Rhode Island which took place on 4th June 1717 and there he presented them with two documents, one his ‘Epistle Concerning Negroes’, the other his criticism of ‘Casting Lotts’ (gambling) and his opinions were not well received by the audience there. They felt he was undermining unity and stirring up division which was unacceptable. As a result Farmer was disciplined for refusing to surrender his pamphlets and continuing to campaign. Records from the time report twenty Friends laboured with him overnight to encourage him to set aside his views.  But he would not and the following morning they refused him access to meetings until he was prepared to back down which he never did. [v]

New England Yearly Meeting: Committees: Ministry: Minsters and Elders, 1707-1797

Minutes of the 1717 Newport Yearly meeting quietly record their decision on the subject of importing and keeping slaves as being to “wait for the wisdom of God how to discharge themselves in that weighty affair” but also that merchants should write to their “correspondents in the Islands to discourage them from sending anymore.” They would review it again at the 1718 meeting.  That was as far as they were prepared to go.[vi]

New England Yearly Meeting: Administrative Minutes, 1672-1735

The Friends of Philadelphia found it necessary to take subsequent action in the matter because John Farmer was undeterred and continued to disturb meetings, shouting over ministers and making a general nuisance of himself. He appealed to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in July 1718, but the Yearly Meeting felt no good would come from listening to his complaints, and that he could not be received in unity until he had accepted his writings were unacceptable. When he refused to condemn his own work he was disowned. This seemingly harsh action by the Philadelphia Quakers appears to have been a matter of some embarrassment for years to come.  John Farmer had been intemperate in his language, and impatient for change to be hurried through, but to the gentle Quakers he employed what was later described witheringly as “Indiscreet Zeal”  in the Biographical Sketch published in the journal The Friend of 1855[vii]. The editor and author John Richardson says that

his actions might have been suffered to have slept in oblivion if it were not that Friends of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have been charged several times with silencing him, because of his testimony against slavery’. “

Extract from The Friend, Vol XXVIII, Vol 40 page 316, Philadelphia, 1855

Presumably being disowned meant John Farmer lost access to the network of contacts he normally used to help him travel.  He remained in America, perhaps too poor, or too ashamed to return to England or perhaps because he was determined to keep fighting for the anti-slavery cause. The Friend Journal ponders how he may have had more success.

John Farmer may have rightly, as well as forcibly pled the cause of the slave.  If, after doing this, he had left the matter to the great Head of the Church, and whilst proclaiming his truth had endeavoured to cultivate in himself love and good will to those who differed from him, he … would have done more towards advancing the cause dear to his heart than could have been effected by denunciation or irritating language.”[viii]

Farmer is recorded as being located in and around Philadelphia for the remainder of his life, holding small meetings of like-minded friends whenever he could and presumably continuing in his trade as a wool comber.  He died in Germantown near Philadelphia in late 1724 or early 1725 at the age of about 57, having never made it back home to his family. In his will, written in August 1724, he left all his British possessions to his wife Mary, and his American possessions to his daughter Ann.  He left instructions to the executors that they put:

“no new linen on my dead body, but my worst shirt on it, and my worst handkerchief on ye head and ye worst drawers or briches on ye body and ye worst stockings on ye legs & feet. And invite my neighbours to com to my house & there thirst in moderation with a Barrel of Sider & two gallons of Rum or other spirit.”[ix]

John Farmer may have been an old sober-sides, but he made sure he got a decent send off.  Probate on the will was granted 11th January 1724/5.[x]  

Thus the story of John Farmer the Essex Quaker in America, comes to an end.  But in my last post we will look at the extraordinary women in John Farmer’s life, his daughter Ann, step daughter Mary Fulbigg and especially his wife Mary Farmer all had a role to play in the wider story of this man and their stories also deserve to be told.


[i] Letter John Farmer to Mary Farmer dated Virginia 1706.  Essex Record Office Cat D/NF 3 addl. A13685 Box 51

[ii] See my previous post An Essex Quaker in the Caribbean for more information.

[iii] Quoted in Drake, T.E., Quakers & Slavery in America, Oxford University Press, London 1950 p. 28

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

[v] New England Yearly Meeting: Committees: Ministry: Minsters and Elders, 1707-1797. New England Yearly Meeting of Friends Records (MS 902). Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries.

[vi] New England Yearly Meeting: Administrative Minutes, 1672-1735. New England Yearly Meeting of Friends Records (MS 902). Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries

[vii] The Friend, J Richardson (Ed) Vol XXVIII, Vol 40 page 316, Philadelphia, 1855

[viii] The Friend, J Richardson (Ed) Vol XXVIII, Vol 40 page 316, Philadelphia, 1855

[ix] Philadelphia County Wills: The Will of John Farmer (1724) – Copy in Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51

[x] Philadelphia County Wills: The Will of John Farmer (1724) – Copy in Essex Record Office A13685, Box 51

Researching From Home

With Dr James Bettley

Dr James Bettley is an architectural historian, currently planning his next project.

Where is your office?

I’m lucky to have a study on a mezzanine floor at the back of the house that makes it feel quite separate from the rest of the house. We’ve lived here for 30 years and I’ve been working from home for 20, so the current situation doesn’t feel that strange.

Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?

There are two windows, facing east and south, with views over our garden and fields beyond. The windows are not in my direct line of site so I don’t find the view too distracting.

What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?

I’m thinking about a couple of subjects – John Bateman of Brightlingsea, and the 20th-century restorations of St Peter’s Chapel, Bradwell – but the research I really want to do involves travelling in the UK and abroad, so that’s on hold for the time being. Any thoughts of publication are very remote just yet.

Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?

Generally when I’m at home I work from 8 to 6 with an hour for lunch and a walk, but I’m slipping into a more relaxed coronavirus regime of concentrated working from 9 to 1, lunch followed by a couple of hours permitted exercise or essential shopping, then catching up on emails etc until 6 or so.

Do you have a favourite online resource?

British Newspaper Archive. Endlessly diverting.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

Coffee, mainly. I tend not to snack, although I can’t pretend that if there’s a packet of biscuits open I don’t occasionally…

Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?

I’m easily distracted by emails, tweets etc, but not for long.

What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?

T/M 508/2. It’s only a photograph of a map (the original’s at New College, Oxford, who owned land at Bradwell) but it includes a vignette of ‘St Peter’s Chapel in Ruins’ that I’d like to see. But mostly I’m simply looking forward to being able to visit the ERO and a number of other libraries and archives again. Perhaps we’ll value you all the more after this period of abstinence and deprivation.

Give peas a chance!

Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen takes a look at how peas became so ubiquitous on the dinner tables of the nation.

Frozen peas must be the most accessible vegetable known to 21st century shoppers – such an easy convenience food to reach for all year round. Peas throughout history have been an important food source, and catalogue entries from Essex Archives Online are littered with references to them. During the middle-ages and early modern period they were grown as field crops for drying and use over winter, as an easily stored, high protein food source. Historians believe that ‘garden’ peas for eating freshly picked were an introduction from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century (T. Musgrave, Heritage Fruits & Vegetables (London, 2012), p.106). The kitchen gardens of the large country house would have produced them for the table along with market gardeners operating around towns, and it is quite probable that general gardeners, from a fairly early date, would have also done so once seed became readily available.

Frozen pea packaging from the 1970s – how times have changed! Sainsbury’s Home Freezer Pack Garden Peas (5 lb 2.267 kg).
(With thanks to our friends at the Sainsbury’s Archive (www.sainsburyarchive.org.uk/). © The Sainsbury Archive, Museum of London Docklands, 2020, SA/PKC/PRO/1/10/2/4/6/7)
 

Through the nineteenth century the consumption of fresh(ish) peas increased, and the expansion of the railway network allowed Essex producers to send vast quantities of all sorts of fresh produce up to London – by 1850 3,900 tons of peas from surrounding counties were sold through the markets there (G. Dodds, The Food of London (London, 1856), p.387). And how were many of these peas harvested in a pre-mechanised age? Well, school log books of the period are littered with references to pupils being absent for all sorts of harvest work, not least that of pea picking, probably there alongside their mothers. The income that families made from seasonal work was not to be underestimated, and full advantage was made of these opportunities.

Note about students absent pea-picking from Coggeshall National School log book
Note in Coggeshall school log book about pupils absent due to pea-picking, 9 July 1873 (E/ML 310/1)

And it was not just women and children who helped bring in the peas. Many itinerant workers also relied on various crops, and growers were glad of the extra labour to bring in the harvest. David Smith, farmer, author and broadcaster of Broomfield, wrote of the ‘grey tattered figures of all types and ages [as] they trudged along slowly in the bright June sunlight … They would come, every year … just as they came to thousands of other farms … And so to Hill Farm, with near it the brilliant green of two to three fields of picking peas … for a fickle London market.’ (D. Smith, The Same Sky Over All (London, 1948)*, p.116).

As to quite how ‘fresh’ hand-picked peas were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is debatable. It wasn’t until freezing was first developed in the 1920s that the possibility of something akin to freshly picked peas became available to most consumers. However, without the advent of retailers with frozen sections and domestic home freezers, frozen peas eaten widely would have to wait until well into the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime, and as with most vegetables, peas would have probably been well boiled!

If you wanted to eat peas fresh from the garden then, as indicated above, you had to grow them, and it is the same today. The joy of podding peas is one of the highlights of summer – so much so that sometimes more end up being eaten before they even make it to the cook! There are lots of varieties to choose from, not least the well known and locally raised Kelvedon Wonder which harks back to the 1920s. An older variety is Ne Plus Ultra from the early nineteenth century. Perhaps you know it from the BBC television series The Victorian Kitchen Garden (1987)* when Harry Dodson and Peter Thoday resurrected the variety from some very old seed. It was alleged to reach 7 foot in height, which is probably why it waned in popularity – modern varieties are generally all dwarfing which is an advantage to growers.

There used to be many more pea varieties grown in the past, partly because there would have been regional varieties that were only available locally, but also because of the proliferation of seed companies – something which, as with many businesses, has reduced over the last 50 years or so. If we take Chelmsford based Cramphorns, they listed 15 varieties of just the second early and maincrop varieties, including Ne Plus Ultra, in their 1898 catalogue. Along with the early sorts of peas, growing a lot of different varieties meant that if one failed there were others to come along and, in a pre-refrigeration era, it extended the length of the season in which to enjoy fresh peas.

The ornate cover from Cramphorn’s 1890 catalogue (ERO A10506 Box 7)

‘New Plus Ultra – one of the best; pods large and well-filled with dark green peas. Peas of delicious flavour – Height 6ft’. (From Cramphorn Ltd’s Catalogue of Vegetable and Flower Seeds (Chelmsford, 1898), (ERO A10506 Box 7) .

So as it is the time of year to start sowing peas I thought it might be fun to have a go at growing some Ne Plus Ultra peas – just as past gardeners in Essex would have done. I have also so challenged some colleagues and friends of the ERO to grow some to see if any of us can get them to 7 foot – all for a bit of fun I hasten to add. I’ll grow some Kelvedon Wonder as well by comparison and, weather and pests being kind, I’ll update you on how we’re all getting along as well as ruminating on other points of gardening that ‘crop’ up over the summer. For the moment though, keep your fingers crossed for a spell of dry weather as I’ll need to get on in the garden to prepare the soil.

A tray of Ne Plus Ultra peas grown by Neil for the ‘competition’, just before potting on.

*If you don’t know the work of David Smith then his books are well worth a read. There are copies of them in the ERO Library. If you haven’t seen The Victorian Kitchen Garden then it is available on DVD.

Researching From Home

With Dr Herbert Eiden

Dr Herbert Eiden is the research assistant of The People of 1381 project (https://www.1381.online/) and former assistant editor of Victoria County History of Essex.

Where is your ‘office’?

I have a dedicated downstairs office containing my reference library, a laptop and a desktop because I work from home regularly.

Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction?

My view is into our side garden south-east facing with a big shrub (currently in white blossoms) in front of me.

What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published?

I am building up Excel sheets of relevant manorial documents for five counties; Essex is one of them. I took lots of images of Essex manorial court rolls before the ERO closed and can work with those now (at least for a few weeks).

Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when?

I normally start at 8.30am, have a lunch break (cooked lunch!) and finish around 4.30pm.

Do you have a favourite online resource?

Manorial Documents Register; ERO online catalogue; NROcat; The National Archives Discovery catalogue; British Library Manuscript catalogue.

What is your favourite research beverage and snack?

 Nuts, sweet chilli crisps; juice, peppermint tea.

Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research?

My children

What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again?

Manorial court rolls (late 14th century) and, of course, the staff, who are always friendly, extremely helpful and hugely knowledgeable.

Essex Archives Online digital images: Parish Registers – what will you find?

While the Essex Record Office might be closed to physical researchers it is still open for remote users via our Essex Archives Online (EAO) service that contains over three-quarters of a million digital images of parish registers, wills and some other records. This service has been up and running since 2011 and in that time researchers from across the globe have made use of the service. And it is a dynamic service as new images are added as and when relevant documents have been deposited and digitized.

In this Blog post EAO user Ian Beckwith has kindly shared some of his research that he has undertaken whilst using our parish register digital images. Ian is a seasoned user of the service and has been using it for several years but if you are new to research and are thinking of possibly taking out a subscription then it is worth considering the wonderful breadth of what is available. So, to begin with Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen discusses how to get started.

During the 20 years that I have worked at ERO I have been advising researchers on how to start making use of the digital images that are on EAO and here are some of my tips.

Firstly, I would strongly recommend that before you take out a subscription you familiarize yourself with the EAO catalogue. It is completely free to search the catalogue as much as you wish. There are several ‘User Guides’ which are located at the bottom of the home page (https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/) so scroll down and have a read of these.

The cover of the Gt Burstead Parish Register – D/P 139/1/0

Secondly, have a go at searching the catalogue by trying out a simple search – try typing in the wide white text box (which contains ‘search the archive’) the name of the parish you are interested in and ‘church register’ and click ‘Search’. This will bring up instances of all sorts of registers, not just church, or parish, registers, for a certain place. Some of these won’t have digitized images associated with them so this is why it is essential to check that what you want to look at has digital images before taking out a subscription. It will, however, give you an idea of the range of documents that the ERO looks after. All the Church of England parish registers deposited in the ERO, except for a few of the most recent ones, have been digitized, so you should find that they all have the a picture frame icon at the end of their entry in the search results.

By clicking on the ‘Reference’ or ‘Description’ you will be taken to the full catalogue entry for a document which might well give you further information. You might find that it isn’t really what you’re looking for. But if it is, remember to check for the photo frame icon to find out whether there is a digital image associated with the document .

A quick way to search for parish registers in particular is to look at the ‘Parish Register’ section of EAO (top right-hand corner). Here you will be able to refine your search to the parish you are interested in. If what you are looking for isn’t there (or if it is there but doesn’t have ‘Digital images’ next to it) then don’t take out a subscription. It is worth remembering that not every parish will have records going back to 1538 so do check the catalogue before subscribing to avoid disappointment.

Every parish has its own unique number assigned to it. Great Burstead, for example, is D/P 139 and registers of baptisms, marriages and burials come under D/P 139/1. The first register, which covers 1559 to 1654, is then catalogued as D/P 139/1/0. Take time to familiarize yourself with the catalogue before taking out a subscription.

And do bear in mind that even if a parish register survives then early registers have baptisms, marriages and burial scattered throughout them so you will probably need to go hunting through the register for the entry that might be there – or might not . In the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian period it was very much down to the individual incumbent, or his deputy, as to how much effort was put into keeping the registers up to date. Not every vicar, rector or church clerk was as assiduous a record keeper as we might have liked him to have been. Fortunately, if you have a subscription to Ancestry, we have worked together with them to create a name index, which can take a lot of the leg work out your research. You can even buy digital images of what you find directly from Ancestry.

Handwriting can also be difficult to read, although some incumbents like Rev Thomas Cox in Broomfield and the famous Essex historian Rev Philip Morant, have beautifully clear handwriting. Sometimes the writing is faint or illegible and the register itself might be damaged. Remember these were working documents that have spent several centuries in damp and cold churches before being deposited at ERO.

One last thing, if you have identified that there are parish registers that you want to look though that have digital images associated with them, and you take out a subscription, then make sure that you take down the reference of what you have looked at and what you have found as you work your way through them. This will save time in the long-term and if you share your research with others you can tell others in what document you found the information.

I hope I haven’t put you off after all that but I do have one last warning: historical research can be addictive. You might start out looking for one thing but get distracted by something else. After 20 years of working at ERO I know there’s always another new topic of interest just lurking over the page!

Neil Wiffen – Archive Assistant.

If you require any assistance, having taken out a subscription, then you can contact the Duty Archivist at ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk. While the Record Office is shut, emails are being monitored remotely during the present crisis. Please bear with us though.


Parish Registers – Researching Remotely

I, like many others of my age and with underlying health conditions, am in self-isolation.  But this doesn’t mean that I can’t get on with research.  Thanks to the digital age there’s so much available on-line for the local historian to work on, e.g. Essex parish registers, which, thanks to the wonders of the ERO, are at my finger-tips on my laptop.  There’s a subscription to pay, but once you’re registered., you can log-in, click on ‘Parish Registers’ in the top bar, scroll down the page until you find ‘Choose a letter’, then ‘Choose a parish’ and finally ‘Choose a church’.  Up will come a table, telling you when your chosen registers begin, click on ‘View’ in the right hand column, and the register will appear.  You need to know that in the case of the earliest registers, the baptism, marriage and burial entries were written up in one book, sometimes in different sections of the book, sometimes together as they occurred through the year.  Later registers record baptisms, marriages and burials in dedicated volumes.  When the image of your selected register appears, click on the rubric ‘To enhance this image… ’ and the image will expand to fill the screen.  Away you go!

D/P 139/1/0

In September 1538, King Henry VIII’s Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, issued an injunction to every parish priest in England requiring him to keep a record of all baptisms, marriages, and burials in his parish.  In Essex at least seventy-five parishes have registers beginning in about 1538.  Most of these survivals are copies made in the reign of Elizabeth I, either by the incumbent or the parish clerk, from the old book, which was then apparently discarded.[i]   Many other registers begin in the reign of Elizabeth I.  Apart from the marriages, baptisms and burials that are the building blocks of family reconstitution, what else can we learn from scrutinising parish registers?

In rural Essex as elsewhere in the sixteenth century it was taken as a given that God existed.  No one’s head was bothered by whether the earth was the centre of the universe (it obviously was) or whether God was in his heaven up above while hell was down below (they undoubtedly were).[ii]  The only issue was whether God was Protestant or Catholic.  The wrong choice could cost you your life in this world and your salvation in the next.   When it came to making this choice, parishioners in England had been on something of a roller-coaster ride since 1538.   Four years before Cromwell issued his injunction introducing parish registers the Pope’s authority over the English Church had been abolished and the King had made himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.  Between 1536 and 1541 the Dissolution of the Monasteries had seen the closure of over 900 monastic foundations, the dispersal of the monks and nuns who occupied them, and the sale of their vast landed estates.  Yet the parish registers that survive from this period show that, while these upheavals were taking place, baptisms, marriages and burials carried on as normal.  The services of the Church continued to be said in Latin, in the form in which they had been since time immemorial.  It was not until 1549, two years after the death of Henry VIII, that the mass was first said in English.  Four years later the Protestant Edward VI was succeeded by his half-sister the Catholic Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, and during the next five years England returned to obedience to Rome, the services in the parish churches reverted to Latin, the traditional rites and ceremonies were restored, and images and treasures that had been hidden were brought out again, only for all this to be reversed in 1558 when Elizabeth I came to the throne: again the Pope’s authority over the English Church was abolished and the Queen was proclaimed Supreme Governor of the Church.[iii]   On May 8th 1559 the Act of Uniformity, authorising the use of the new Book of Common Prayer, received the Royal approval.  The new prayer book, which replaced all other service books, came into use on 24th June 1559.

Occasionally, however, in the midst of the routine recording of rites of passage, the registers provide glimpses of the impact of these changes at parish level.  In July 1599 the Great Burstead register recorded that

Elizabeth Wattes Widdow sume tyme the wife of Thomas Wattes the blessed
marter of god who for his treuth suffered his merterdom in the fyre at
Chelmesford the xxij day of may in A[nn]o D[o]m[ini] 1555 in the Reigne of
queen mary was buryed the 10 day 1599 so she liued a widow after his death
xlviij yeres & fro[m] the 22 of may to the 10 july & made a good end like a
good Christian woman in gods name.[iv]

D/P 139/1/0

Thomas Watts was one of almost eighty Essex men and women who were burned at the stake in the reign of Mary Tudor for refusing to recant their Protestant beliefs.[v]  A full account of Thomas Watts’ martyrdom is provided in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, more correctly titled Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563 and greatly expanded in 1570.[vi]    Described as a linen draper of Billericay, then part of the parish of Great Burstead, Thomas Watts had, according to Foxe ‘daily expected to be taken by God’s adversaries’.  Accordingly he had assigned his property to his wife and children and donated his stock of cloth to the poor.  He was arrested on April 26th 1555 and brought before Lord Rich at Chelmsford, accused of not attending church, i.e. hearing mass.   Interrogated by Sir Anthony Browne, who, with Rich, had been appointed to purge Essex of heretics, as to why he had embraced his heretical views, Watts replied that

You taught me and no one more than you.  For, in King Edward’s days
in open sessions you said the mass was abominable trumpery, earnestly
exhorting that none should believe therein, but that our belief should be
only in Christ.[vii]

It seems that Watts had also spoken treasonable words against the Queen’s husband, King Philip.[viii]  Unable to persuade Thomas Watts to recant, he was sent to Bishop Bonner, ‘the bloody bishop,  …’.[ix] Essex was then within the diocese of London and Edmund Bonner was its bishop, first under Henry VIII and again under Mary.  He remained staunchly Catholic during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth.  Although usually depicted as sadistic and merciless, it is worth noting that even Foxe acknowledges that Bonner made several attempts to persuade Watts (and others) to recant, ‘gave him several hearings, and, as usual, many arguments with much entreaty, … but his preaching availed not, and he resorted to his last revenge – that of condemnation’.  ‘I am weary to live in such idolatry as you would have me live in’, Watts is alleged to have said, and signed the confession of heresy.  Faced by his refusal, Bishop Bonner had little choice but to consign Thomas Watts to the secular arm, the Church not being allowed to take life, to suffer the penalty prescribed by the Statute De Heretico Comburando (Concerning the Burning of Heretics) of 1401, originally intended to deal with Lollards.[x]

Returned from the Bishop of London’s prison to Chelmsford, Thomas Watts was lodged at ‘Mr Scott’s, an inn in Chelmsford where were Mr Haukes and the rest that came down to their burning, who all prayed together’.  Watts then withdrew to pray by himself, after which he met his wife and children for the last time, exhorting them to have no regrets but to glory in the sacrifice he was making for the sake of Jesus.  So powerful were his words that, it is said, two of his children offered to go to the stake with him.  At the stake, after he had kissed it, he called out to Lord Rich, who was supervising the execution: “beware, for you do against your own conscience herein, and without you repent, the Lord will revenge it”. ‘Thus did this good martyr offer his body to the fire, in defence of the true gospel of the Saviour’.[xi]

It seems unlikely that Rich, a man whose name is a byword for cruelty, sadism, dishonesty, ruthlessness and treachery, possessed a conscience.  Born about 1496, Richard Rich was a lawyer who entered the service of Thomas 1st Baron Audley of Walden,, who assisted Rich to become MP for Colchester.[xii]  In 1533 Rich was knighted and became Solicitor General.  In this capacity, he used selective quotations from a private conversation with Thomas More in the Tower in evidence at More’s trial.  In 1536 he was appointed Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, charged with the disposal of former monastic estates, a position that he used to enrich himself.  In 1546 he personally tortured the Lincolnshire Protestant martyr, Ann Askew, in the Tower. During the reign of Edward VI, as Lord Chancellor, however, he presented himself as a reformer, taking part in the trials of Bishops Gardiner and Bonner. Yet in Mary’s reign he helped restore the old religion, actively persecuting those like Thomas Watts of Billericay who refused to conform. Under Elizabeth he sat on a Commission to enquire into grants made during the previous reign and was called upon to advise on the Queen’s marriage. Richard Rich died on 11th of June 1558 at Rochford and was buried at Felsted on the 8th of July.  The entry in the Felsted register gives only the bare facts. For those at Felstead who had dealings with him, Richard Rich, first baron Rich, must have been terrifying.[xiii]

In Elizabeth’s reign, others submitted to the Religious Settlement but made their resistance covertly, like the parson of Great Baddow who recorded the burial of Joan Smythe on May 1st 1572 ‘being the purificacion even of o[ur] lady St Mary’ (i.e. the evening preceding the feastday).

Ian Beckwith


[i] It is not necessarily clear by whom the registers were kept.  Although the entries for the preceding week were supposed to be read to the congregation at the principal service on Sunday, there are indications that some were written up at the year’s end (24th March), possibly from notes on slips of paper.  The penmanship of the entries remains generally of a very high standard until the last decade of the sixteenth century, when it often becomes slapdash and much less legible. 

[ii] The realisation that the world was not flat, as the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan and Drake demonstrated, did not shake the belief in this three-decker image of the universe.  

[iii] The change from Supreme Head as Henry VIII was designated, to Supreme Governor, it has been claimed, reflects the opinion that a woman could not be ‘Head’ of the Church.  However, when Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the title ‘Governor’ was retained and continued to be used by every subsequent monarch, male and female.     

[iv] ERO, D/P 139/1/0, Image 49. However, the length of her widowhood seems to have been miscalculated.

[v] J E Oxley, The Reformation in Essex to the Death of Mary, Manchester University Press, 1965, pp.210-237.  Coincidentally, my copy was withdrawn from Billericay Public Library in about 2013.

[vi] I have drawn upon an edition of 1860, published in Philadelphia.  The account of Thomas Watts’ martyrdom is on p.367. The Book of Martyrs has been blamed for inciting anti-Catholic sentiment in England.

[vii] Foxe, p.367

[viii] Mary had married Philip on 25th July 1554

[ix] Foxe, p.367

[x] Several Essex Lollards were burned at the stake in Henry VIII’s reign.  The purpose of burning was to act not just as a deterrent but also as a purgative, to rid the realm of disease.  See David Nicholls, The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation, Past & Present, Vol 121, Issue 1, November 1988, pp 49-73.

[xi] Foxe p.367. 

[xii] Thomas Audley (1488-1544), formerly MP for Colchester, a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household, Speaker of the Commons during the Reformation Parliament and Lord Chancellor of England from 1533-1544

[xiii] Born about 1496, Richard Rich was a lawyer who entered the service of Thomas Audley, who assisted him to become MP for Colchester.  In 1533 Rich was knighted and became Solicitor General.  In this capacity, he used selective quotations from a private conversation with Thomas More in the Tower in evidence at More’s trial.  In 1536 he was appointed Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, charged with the disposal of former monastic estates, a position that he used to enrich himself.  In 1546 he personally tortured the Lincolnshire Protestant martyr, Ann Askew, in the Tower. During the reign of Edward VI, as Lord Chancellor, however, he appeared as a reformer, taking part in the trials of Bishops Gardiner and Bonner, yet in Mary’s reign he helped restore the old religion, actively persecuting those who refused to conform. Under Elizabeth he sat on a Commission to enquire into grants made during the previous reign and was called upon to advise on the Queen’s marriage.

Looking for witches in St Osyth

Prof Gibson during her recent visit to ERO

I’ve recently been at the Essex Record Office looking for evidence that will help me tell the story of the “St Osyth” witches of 1582 in a new book. I say “St Osyth” in inverted commas because although the witchcraft accusations that engulfed north-east Essex in 1582 started in St Osyth, in fact there is far more evidence of their impact on surrounding communities than there is on the village itself.

In February 1582, a servant of Lord Darcy at St Osyth Priory complained that her small son was being attacked by witchcraft. Once she had accused a neighbour, Ursley Kemp, and Ursley had confessed to witchcraft then more people came forward to make accusations. More villages in the manors and parishes controlled by the Darcy family – Little Oakley, Beaumont, Moze, Thorpe and Walton le Soken, Little Clacton and others – were drawn in. At least two people were executed and four others died in prison, with multiple other imprisonments too. One woman was released as late as 1588.

This story has fascinated me since I read it as a student over 20 years ago. But there are few surviving records from St Osyth. The Priory was attacked during the Civil War and its estate and parish records were likely lost then – an epic frustration for historians. But the records of the other witch-accusing communities and authorities were more fortunate. Among these is today’s focus: a record of Elizabethan visitations made by the Colchester ecclesiastical authorities to the parishes around St Osyth.

St Osyth itself answered to the Commissary Court of the Bishop of London and, guess what, the Commissary’s early records are lost (you might almost think St Osyth’s documents were cursed…!) but the ecclesiastical team from Colchester visited most of the other witch-rich villages. In each place, they recorded the names of the minister and Churchwardens. And today I found the names of some of the accusers of the 1582 witches and learned that they were Churchwardens too.

Here’s a nice clear link between parish authorities and witch accusations. It’s easy to suppose that religious-reforming folk went after suspected witches but it’s important not to stereotype accusers: they can’t be dismissed as just “fanatical puritans” or “Anglican worthies”. But in this case there’s some documentary evidence that they were the community’s religious leaders. It’s going to need more thinking about as I carry on researching the book.

Essex Record Office is one of the most impressive and friendliest archives in the UK, and it’s come up with the goods once again. Has your village got a hidden history of witchcraft? Were your ancestors accused? Or were they accusers? Are there still stories of witches in your community? So much more to discover.

Professor Marion Gibson – University of Exeter

Back to the Future: The impact of science across Essex

Our conference on the 7th March is almost upon us and it is about time that we introduce another one of our speakers.

Ian Vance has worked in Telecommunications technology for over 50 years. He designed the first complete radio on a silicon chip that has since become the standard for all mobile phones. He held may posts in ITT, STC and Nortel and was managing director of the world-famous Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) in Harlow Essex where usable fibre optic cables were invented.

Ian will talk about the world of Telecommunications and how fibre optics research at the world-famous Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) enabled cheap telephone calls around the globe, on-line everything, and mobile phone connections

“Telcoms is all about connecting A to B. For over 140 years the technical problem has been that lots and lots of connections have been needed. Over 50 years ago a practical possibility of using fibre optics was proposed at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Harlow Essex and this proved to be the only solution that has been found, or indeed, proposed, to the problem.”

“How many Nobel Prize in Physics laureates have resided and done their work in Essex? Well one for starters is Charles Kao – the father of Fibre Optics who worked in Harlow and enabled the modern digitally connected world”

Charles Kao

“If you watch Netflix or Amazon Prime or any online service, it would not happen if usable fibre optics had not been invented in Essex in 1966”

“Mobile phones obviously use radio waves to link up the actual phone in your pocket but the cell towers are ultimately connected using fibre optics. So an invention of a practical type of fibre in Harlow in 1966 is still affecting all our lives every time we pull out our iPhone”

Ian Will be one of 6 fantastic speakers at ‘Back to the Future’ on the 7th March. Don’t miss out on your chance to hear Ian, and don’t forget to have a look at the rest of our speakers introductions on our blog.

Book here:
https://www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk/events/back-to-the-future-the-impact-of-science-across-essex/

Back to the Future: The impact of science across Essex – The Science of Archaeology

Our next speaker introduction is Dr Zoe Outram, science advisor for Historic England. She will be giving a talk on the science of archaeology as part of our conference.

Having been inspired by childhood trips to places like Avebury and West Kennet Long Barrow, Zoe has pursued a varied career centred around the archaeological sciences. She studied Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, reassessed the Iron Age chronology of the Northern Isles of Scotland for her PHD and, in 2011, completed a post-doctoral project in archaeomagnetism. Her various job roles have included: providing specialist scientific dating services, studying Viking and Norse settlements in Shetland and the Faroe Islands, lecturing in Archaeological Sciences, working as an excavator, and carrying out specialist work in environmental archaeology, geoarchaeology, and forensic archaeology.

From ‘Illustrations for a History of Colchester’ –
an album of illustrations, sketches and notes compiled by William Wire c.1845-1850 (D/Y 37/1/6)

Archaeology is amazing. It can tell us about our shared past – people and their lives, the landscapes and environments where they lived, the technology available to them, the trade and communication networks, and the issues and challenges that were faced. Archaeological Science allows us to ask new and exciting questions about this resource. Zoe will introduce a number of scientific techniques that can be applied to help us address specific questions: where is the archaeological site? How old is it? What can we learn about the people and their lives?

Hopefully that has whetted your appetite. If you don’t want to miss Zoe speaking at our conference, book now:
https://www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk/events/back-to-the-future-the-impact-of-science-across-essex/

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Back to the Future: The impact of science across Essex – The Science and History of Cloth Manufacture

We have already introduced you to two of our speakers for jam packed day of talks on the 7th March, our next introduction is for John Miners.

John has many years experience in textiles, starting his career with Samuel Courtauld & Co. Ltd in Essex. He has been involved in the sourcing and supply of historic fabrics for many restoration projects both in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the USA. His background is technical, rather than design based, and he has knowledge of the production techniques used to produce textiles in past centuries, as well as studying the social history aspects involved in the manufacture of fabrics.

In January 2018 he was appointed as Director of the Warner Textile Archive Trading Company Ltd. This archive is a rich design resource documenting the successes and innovation of Warner & Sons from the late 1800s. Owned by the Braintree Museums Trust, this Collection, the second largest archive of publicly owned textiles in the UK, comprises stunning textiles and inspirational paper designs, as well as original printing blocks, photographs and other documentary material.

John will be talking about how the local textile industry moved from the home into factories, changing from wool to silk. He will look at how Samuel Courtauld & Co changed their production methods of silk yarn using various forms of power: from hand to donkey to water to steam, then exploring the move into the production of mourning crape using machinery built to their own designs in their own workshops. In addition the history of the company up until closure in 1982 will be examined, giving information about the changes in technology.

Hopefully you will be able to join us for this fascinating subject on the 7th March. To secure your ticket, visit our website
http://www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk/events/back-to-the-future-the-impact-of-science-across-essex/

We are only half way through our introductions, so keep an eye out here on our blog for more sneaky peeks at what our speakers will be talking about.

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Back to the Future: The impact of science across Essex – Gas Manufacture and Water Purification

In our last blog post we introduced you to Dr David Crease, one of the speakers for our day long science conference on March 7th. Next up we would like to introduce you to Peter Wynn, who will be giving two talks: one about gas manufacture and one about water purification.

A view from ERO of the Gas Holders, photo courtesy of Walter Roberts

Peter is a retired senior lecturer of civil engineering at Anglia Ruskin University and a fellow of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. He has long held an interest in gas manufacture in Essex, having discovered papers from 1947 relating to issues with the Chelmsford gas holder’s foundations.

Though the dangers of unsanitary water supply were proved by Dr John Snow in 1854, his findings were not widely believed until after his death when the bacteria causing cholera was isolated in the 1880s.

In 1895, when John Clough Thresh became the Medical Officer of Health for Essex, the purification of water for human consumption was still very much a challenge. Well beyond his retirement, Thresh continued to act as a consultant for Essex County Council until his death in 1932. His work to improve the water supply for his adoptive county was considered pioneering by both his peers and by more recent researchers alike. His influence extended well beyond Essex.

Commercial supply of gas in the UK began in the early 19th century, originally by way of small gas plants installed in the premises where the gas was to be used. Following the formation of the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company in London in 1812, pioneers of public gas supply, many other companies were founded; including in Chelmsford in 1819.

Photo of coke lorries from the Spalding Collection

If we’ve managed to pique your interest, be sure to book your place at the conference now: http://www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk/events/back-to-the-future-the-impact-of-science-across-essex/

If you still aren’t quite convinced, keep an eye on our blog for more speaker introductions to entice you in!

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