The Siren

In searching recently for Christmas items in our collection, we came across this curious typescript magazine from Christmas 1939, which is full of humorous poems, stories, articles and puzzles (D/DU 948/1). The tone for the magazine is set by its title page – a play on the double meaning of ‘siren’ as both an air raid warning and an attractive (scantily clad) woman.

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The Siren was put together by the staff of the Civil Defence Control, the part of Essex County Council which was in charge of civil defence during the Second World War.

The Civil Defence Service was charged protecting people and property from injury and damage. Following general schemes laid out by central government, there were three main strands to their work:

  • Preventative – evacuation, air raid shelters
  • Alleviative – rescue
  • Remedial – clearing of debris, first aid, restoring vital services

The nerve centre of the system was the Control Room, based at County Hall in Chelmsford.

Reading The Siren not only gives an insight into the work of the Civil Defence staff, but also shows that they had a strong sense of humour, poking fun at each other in poems, stories and songs.

The magazine opens with ‘The Cuties of the County Control’, a song about the glamour of the young women who staffed the Control Room:

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‘A Disrespectful Ditty’ on one of the following pages begins with a ‘bereavement’ – ‘We’ve lost the deep respect for our betters once we bore’, which has become lost in the blackout.

It goes on to reference various staff members, including the first County Archivist, Frederick Emmison, ‘relentlessly efficient in the middle of the night’, and steadfastly avoiding getting tipsy at the staff party.

Other verses poke fun at two of the Deputy County Controllers – Major J Meikeljohn and Mr H.P. Jamieson – before another verse spares other managers the same treatment: ‘But on these exalted persons may depend our daily bread, So you can’t expect us to rush in where angels fear to tread’.

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Later in the magazine we find a ‘Prefatory Alphabet’, which gives a wonderful insight into what was on people’s minds, such as:

‘G is for Gas-mask. Alas for humanity –

Visibly sign pf social insanity.

K is for Knitting, nocturnal and endless;

Those making the garments will certainly spend less.

M is for Molotov, Soviet minister,

Whose machinations have lately been sinister.

R is for Rota that grimly enmeshes you;

Think of the coffee that nightly refreshes you!

V is the Volume of work that oppresses

The people whose job is to clear up the messes.

W’s the Warden, ensconced in a helmet,

Who moans of the light ‘twixt the curtain and pelmet.’

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Some of the pieces do not relate directly to the war, but provide some escapism, such as this (slightly cheeky) meditation on a day out in Epping Forest:

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Even though the staff of the Civil Defence Service were engaged in serious, vital work during the war, what comes through in The Siren is a strong sense camaraderie amongst the staff. The magazine was clearly supposed to provide some light relief at a dark time; as one of the couplets of the ‘Prefatory Alphabet’ says:

‘U are the reader. We hope this experiment

Will bring you good cheer and the odd spot of merriment’

We have only been able to just begin to lift the lid on these people and their work – if anyone out there has any more information do get in touch.

Season’s eatings: mince pies through the ages

The collections at the Essex Record Office include several historic recipe books, which give us an insight into what our ancestors ate and drank. This includes how our Essex ancestors made that essential Christmas dish, mince pies.

The history of mince pies can be traced back to the 1200s, when European crusaders returned from wars in the Middle East bringing recipes containing meats, fruit and spices with them. Typically, early mince pies contained minced meat, suet, fruit, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and were large oblongs in shape.

The pies were stigmatised by the Puritan government under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s due to perceived associations with Catholicism, but people did not give up their mince pies so easily.

Mince pies began to get sweeter during the 1700s, as cheap sugar arrived in Britain from West Indian slave plantations. By the 1800s, the pies had evolved into the small, round, sweet pies that we recognise today. While suet is still used in many recipes, the inclusion of meat was largely dropped altogether.

For some of us, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a mince pie (or two). The Women’s Own meeting of Stockwell Congregational Chapel in Colchester lamented in December 1947 ‘Another austerity Christmas. No mince pies, only a bit of cake to have with our cup of tea’ (D/NC 42/5/5).

A traditional mince pie recipe which includes boiled ox tongues can be found in the recipe book of Elizabeth Slany, which she began to keep in 1715 (D/DR Z1). Elizabeth was born near Worcester, and in 1723 married Benjamin LeHook, a factor (or agent) in the City of London. Elizabeth lived to the grand age of 93, dying in 1786. The book is catalogued as D/DR Z1, and you can view images of the entire book here by the magic of Seax. Her recipes for pastry for mince pies and the mincemeat filling can be found on images 15 and 16.

Elizabeth Slany's recipe for mince pie pastry (D/DR Z1)

Elizabeth Slany’s recipe for mince pie pastry (D/DR Z1)

To make past [pastry] for Mince Pyes or Tarts

Take a quarter of flower ¾ of a pound of buttor & rub your butter in the flower make it up with boyling water.

Elizabeth Slany's recipe for mince pies, including boiled ox's tongues (D/DR Z1)

Elizabeth Slany’s recipe for mince pies, including boiled ox’s tongues (D/DR Z1)

To make Mince Pyes

Take 2 neats tongues [ox tongues] boyl them till they will peel & weigh to a pound of tongue a pound & ¾ of the best beef suet pickt clean from ye Skins shred the tongue very well by itself then shred your suet very well then take 10 pippins pared & shred fine & mix them all together then take 2 nutmegs & the like quantity of mace cloves cinamon & ginger take a pint or more of wine let ½ be sack & ½ claret so season it to your mind with the spices wine sugar salt & lemon peel shred very fine & the juice or 2, 3 or more Lemons you must put in 4 pounds of Currans & some candid orange peel & Lemon & cirton if you eat them hot you may when they are bak’t heat some sack & sugar & put it in them.

 

A slightly later recipe from the 1770s which doesn’t include meat can be found in the cookery book of Mary Rooke of Langham Hall. Mary’s (fairly alcoholic) recipe for ‘minc’d Pye meat without meat’ calls for a mixture of three pounds of grated apples, two pounds of finely chopped beef suet, two pounds of currants, two pounds of raisins, the rind and pulp of two boiled lemons, half a pint of brandy and half a pint of port wine, the juice of four lemons, sugar to taste, and half a pound of blanched, sliced almonds. The ingredients were to be mixed well then put into small jars and covered with bladder to keep them air tight. When serving the pies Mary recommended small slices candied orange and lemon to be put on top of them, and a mixture of brandy and port wine to slosh over the pies to moisten them. You can view images of Mary’s entire recipe book on our online catalogue Seax here (D/DU 818/1).

Mary Rooke's recipe for mince pie filling (D/DU 818/1)

Mary Rooke’s recipe for mince pie filling (D/DU 818/1)

A rather more modest recipe from the 1930s which omits both meat and suet altogether can be found in The Essex Cookery Book, published in several editions by the Essex Education Committee. This recipe calls for ¼ lb each of apples, raisins, currants, sultanas and sugar, 2 ozs of mixed peel, 2 ozs of margarine, 1 oz of almonds, and ½ a teaspoon each of salt and nutmeg, along with the rind and juice of 1 lemon. The fruit is to be peeled and chopped, and the ingredients mixed well before being stored in jars.

Whether you are a mince pie fan or not, we hope you have some tasty treats over the festive season.

Document of the Month, December: Christmas giving

We’ve cheated slightly in December and chosen two documents: a valuation of gifts to Sir John Bramston, 1636 (D/DEb 8) and ‘Bread and Meat given to the Poor’ at Terling, 1843 (D/P 299/28/6). Both will be on display in the Searchroom throughout December.

The custom of giving presents at Christmas has a long history.  These two documents detail gifts received by those at the extremes of the social scale – the rich and powerful and the poor and needy.

Sir John Bramston was Lord Chief Justice of England and at Christmas 1636 he received many gifts, mainly of meat and poultry, from family, friends and associates.  The list begins with a gift of 20 turkeys from his sister-in-law Mrs Aylmer and her son.  Presents included cattle, pigs, game, oysters, wine, eringoes (candied sea holly roots, a Colchester speciality) and even a silver dish.  Those giving presents included his tenants but also Lord Petre, ‘Mr Dacye the lawyer’ and the town of Chelmsford which presented him with a hogshead of claret.  The gifts were delivered to his manor of Skreens in Roxwell and the list includes sums of money given to each servant or messenger making the deliveries.

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In contrast the list of poor at Terling who were to receive money, bread and meat on Christmas Eve 1843 records the number in each family, with the number of loaves and pounds of meat given in proportion to the size of the family.  Charles Coal who had 10 in his family received 5 shillings, two loaves and 10lbs. of beef.  Notes on the list indicate that some of the poor were not deserving of money or meat.  James Church who had seven in his family was considered ‘Not deserving money or Meat’ and received only two loaves.  There were 142 recipients listed, with a total of 607 family members, who between them shared 183 loaves, 566 pounds of beef and £10 7s. 6d.

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The documents together, though separated by 200 years, provide an interesting insight into social inequalities. We can only hope that Sir John Bramston shared out his gifts and didn’t try to consume all of them himself!