Disaster relief in Restoration England: brief in aid of Weymouth, Dorset, July 1666

Archivist Chris Lambert shares his selection for July’s Document of the Month

Recent tragic events have underlined the public desire to help those caught up in catastrophe.  In the 17th century, when state and society commonly saw themselves as a single Christian entity, the characteristic expression of that desire was the brief.

England had already invented social care.  An Act of 1601 had created the parish poor rate, distributed in goods or money to the deserving poor.  There were also charities providing food, fuel and housing.  These initiatives, however, dealt only with ordinary needs.  Catastrophic events involved another process, in which the state mobilized voluntary giving from society at large.

The Crown, on petition, would issue letters patent allowing the gathering of contributions from ‘all well-disposed persons’.  Individuals named in the grant would then employ collectors to carry the appeal around the country.  The original handwritten letters patent, issued under the Great Seal, tend not to survive, but in a way they hardly mattered.  The process really depended on the use of printing technology to make copies – ‘briefs’ – for distribution.  The printed copies became so familiar that their title of ‘brief’ was applied to the whole process.

This particular brief (D/P 152/7/2), from the parish records of Theydon Garnon, was issued in 1666 in aid of Melcombe Regis (Weymouth) in Dorset.  In September 1665 the town had suffered a ‘sad and lamentable fire, wherein seven and thirty houses were utterly consumed’.  Their occupants had been ‘brought to ruine’, the total loss being estimated at £3,055.  Such fires were not uncommon.  Much less usual is the note, in King Charles’s name, that ‘We Our Self was then present and an eye-witness of the said sad spectacle, and are thereby the more sensible of the said loss’.  The King had indeed been in the West Country during that summer of 1665, taking refuge from the Great Plague in London.

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Some briefs allowed for house-to-house collections, but charity being above all a Christian duty, the normal mechanism for collecting the money was the parish, then both a religious institution and the foundation of local society.  The clergy ‘published’ the brief at a Sunday service and exhorted their parishioners to contribute, the amounts raised being written on the back of the brief.  When this example reached Theydon Garnon in the summer of 1667 – almost a year after it was issued and almost two years after the fire – that one parish collected 8 shillings and 10 pence (for comparison, a few months earlier they had raised £27 5s. for the Great Fire of London).  In this case they were to deliver the money back, via the appointed persons, to the authorities in Weymouth.  They in turn were to ‘contract for the re-building of the said houses’, taking care ‘that none of them for the future be covered with thatch, or other combustible matter’.

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Note on the back of the brief recording how much was collected: ‘Collected then in the parish church of Theydon Garnon towards the releife of the w[i]thin named the sum of eight shillings & ten pence. I say James Meggs DD Rector’

Not all briefs focused on local disasters.  Many sought to rebuild churches – including, in 1632 and again in 1678, St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Others aimed to help whole social groups.  From the late 16th century the objects of briefs included Christians taken captive by the Ottoman Turks, joined in the 1680s by Protestant refugees from the France of Louis XIV, in 1689-1690 by Irish Protestants suffering in the war between James II and William of Orange, and in 1709 by the ‘Poor Palatines’ from the Rhineland.  Briefs like these expressed a Protestant national identity, yet in 1793 they were also used to help Roman Catholic clergy fleeing revolutionary terror in France.

The system had obvious defects.  Slow, cumbersome and costly at best, it was also open to fraud.  Security measures such as expiry dates (one year, in this case) offered little real protection.  The Essex Quarter Sessions records show evidence of prosecutions – in 1647 for collections on a wholly fraudulent brief (Q/SR 333/105, Q/SBc 2/35), and in 1653 for collections on what may have been a genuine brief by someone apparently unconnected with the parties concerned (Q/SBa 2/82).  Eventually a reforming Act in 1705 tried to clean up the system, providing an elaborate system of registration, with all briefs now being printed by the Queen’s Printer.  A handful of Essex parishes still have the registers of collections that the Act required.

The earliest collections so far traced in the ERO’s holdings were in the 1570s, for the reinstatement of Collington (Colyton) Haven, a harbour in Devon.  For that purpose in 1575 the little Essex parish of Heydon raised 6s.8d.; Canewdon collected 1s.8d. in 1576/7, and then another 1s. two years later.  Briefs continued to be issued even under the Commonwealth, but seem to have been at their peak under the restored monarchy of the late 17th century.  Over time, however, fire and flood became matters mainly for the insurance industry, and the objectives of briefs were limited largely to church building.

Briefs effectively came to an end in 1828, when responsibility for churches was transferred to the Incorporated Church Building Society.  The need for large-scale relief funds eventually found expression in more secular ways.  From the late 19th century many such efforts were organized through the Lord Mayor of London.  The Titanic Disaster Fund of 1912 – later the National Disasters Relief Fund – was one of these.  Mass media and then social media opened new possibilities, and online donation sites operate very differently from the state-sponsored briefs of old, but they draw on the same urge to help strangers in need.

The document will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout July 2017.

Document of the Month, August 2014: Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund, Colchester Branch, minutes

Each month a document is put on display in our Searchroom. Our document for July has been chosen by Archivist Katharine Schofield to look at first responses in Essex to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

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The Great War began on 4 August 1914, one hundred years ago this month.  On the eve of war, the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey reportedly said, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life time’.  On 4 August Germany invaded Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan to capture Paris quickly by attacking through neutral countries.  As one of the guarantors of Belgian neutrality under the Treaty of London in 1839, Britain declared war on Germany.

The most pressing need was to bring the army up to strength, and the Reserves were called up immediately, often causing hardship to their families who were dependent on their wages.  As representatives of a garrison town the governing body of Colchester were particularly aware of the possible difficulties and on 5 August set up a committee ‘to consider what steps can be taken for alleviating the distress likely to be felt by the wives and families of men called on Active Service and of those losing their regular employment owing to dislocation of trade’.

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One of the Committee’s resolutions at their first meeting on 5 August, the day after war was declared, was to ask the Mayor to issue a handbill asking people not to panic buy

On 7 August the Prince of Wales appealed in The Times for money to establish a national fund to relieve distress among the families of reservists.  By midnight £250,000 had been raised and within a week £1 million.  On 10 August Colchester voted to make their committee the Colchester Branch of the National Relief Fund.

The minutes for 10 August record offers of help from local residents.  These ranged from making clothes, the services of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, to nursing by the local Convent and a number of ladies, including of German soldiers if required.  Mrs Francis offered to establish a ward in a large room off Maldon Road, the local MP placed at the disposal of the Committee 200 duck, and a list of workmen discharged ‘on account of slackness of trade’ was to be compiled.

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Offers of help from residents in Colchester received by 10 August 1914, including the services of the 4th Colchester Boy Scouts and the 2nd Colchester Girl Guides

The minute book will be on display in the Searchroom throughout August.

If you would like to find out more about First World War records at ERO, join us at our next Discover: First World War records at ERO workshop on 6 August 2014. This workshop talks you through some of the fascinating wartime records that we hold here, and also looks at how to research names on local war memorials, or to trace your First World War Ancestors. Tickets are £10 and can be booked by telephoning 01245 244644.


New team member: Sarah-Joy Maddeaux

We have recently welcomed a new team member to work on our HLF-funded project You Are Hear: sound and a sense of placeThe project aims to digitise and catalogue historically valuable sound recordings, and then make these available in different ways.

Name: Sarah-Joy Maddeaux

Role: Archivist / Project Officer on the Essex Sound and Video Archive ‘You Are Hear’ project



Why did you want to work at ERO?

Most of my career has involved working on my own or with one other archivist, so I’m pleased to get support and encouragement from working with other archivists for a change. The project, which seeks to make our sound and video recordings more accessible through digitisation, cataloguing, and sound installations across the county, appealed to me as a great opportunity to promote archives, something I’m always keen to do, as well as develop new skills for my future career.


Describe an average day at ERO for you:

So far I have been mostly desk-bound, spending my time making initial contacts with community groups across Essex who might want to get involved with the project. Soon I will start actually going out and meeting people to raise enthusiasm for the project – but I’ll still have to chain myself to the desk from time to time to grapple with copyright permissions for the recordings and other background research. Long term, it’s hard to see how an ‘average’ day might unfold, which is both exciting and slightly unnerving!


What do you do when you’re not at ERO?

I just moved to the area for the job, so I have been spending my free time getting settled. I like walking, so I’m looking forward to exploring the countryside. I also spend time reading and visiting friends and family.


Can you tell us about an interesting document you have come across while at ERO?

I haven’t had chance to get my hands on many documents yet. I did enjoy watching an amusingly cheesy promotional video produced by Chelmsford Borough Council in around 1990, trying to entice people to visit or move to the city, the ‘Heart of Essex’ (VA 7/1/1). Among other things, it boasted about plans for a new development on King’s Head Meadow – now The Meadows Shopping Centre – and the eclectic architecture in the new development at South Woodham Ferrers, which they admitted might not be to everyone’s taste.

You Are Hear

The Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA) has been awarded £53,700 by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place project. The grant will fund the development phase of the project, to progress plans so the ESVA can apply for a full grant at a later date.

The project aims to digitise and catalogue historically valuable sound recordings and videos held in the archive, focussing on collections of oral history interviews. This wealth of digitised recordings will then be presented in different ways, enabling Essex residents in particular to learn about, interact with and enjoy the recordings, helping them to use the sounds of Essex people and places over the last 100 years to develop or enhance their sense of place.

A few of the oral histories currently stored on cassette tapes which the project aims to digitise

 The project will work with a range of community groups in villages and towns throughout Essex, enabling them to engage with the recordings and to use them to reflect upon where they live. They will learn about Essex accents and dialect, and be taught how to edit and work with sound recordings to create audio montages about the place where they live. The montages created by the groups will be uploaded to sonic park benches placed in the locations to which the recordings relate. The project will also install interactive audio and video kiosks at the Essex Record Office and create an online audio map allowing users to compare historic and contemporary sounds from the same place.

The Essex Sound and Video Archive was established at the Essex Record Office in 1987 and is one of the most important audio-visual archives in the East of England. Its collections are unique and include a broad range of recordings such as oral history, radio broadcasts, talking magazines, dialect recordings and lots of music. Highlights include recordings of Guglielmo Marconi, George Ewart Evans, Paul Simon, Kenny Ball, Max Wall, David Lloyd and many more.

Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, said: “HLF is please to support this project – so much of our history is told through stories, sound and recordings. This funding will help to develop project plans further and give the local community the opportunity to engage with their cultural heritage and enhance their sense of place”.