Harlow Housing and Design Interviews Online

Harlow New Town was established in 1947, when the New Town Development Corporation began to purchase land around the old town and erect new housing estates. The houses primarily served to relieve housing pressures on bombed-out, overcrowded London, particularly from the East End. The first residents began moving in from 1949.

So say the textbooks, but what personal stories lie behind these brief facts? At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, we hold a wonderful collection of oral history interviews conducted by Dr Judy Attfield in the 1980s for her research project, Harlow Housing and Design (SA 22). These interviews reveal what it was like to live in the new town. Our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, has enabled us to digitise all of the original cassettes and make them freely available through Essex Archives Online.

Screenshot of SA 22 catalogue

A satisfying sight: the icons show that there is audio material attached to that catalogue entry.

At first, we thought the digitisation would be a straightforward task. Shortly after the collection was first deposited with us in 1996, we created access copies on cassette, to safeguard the original masters (our standard procedure in the Sound Archive). The access copies are all neatly labelled and clearly identified, one cassette per interview.

However, when we looked in the box containing the original cassettes, things were not quite so straightforward. We digitise from the original recording (or as near to the original recording as we can get), to capture the purest sound. On revisiting the masters, we realised that the interviewer had used one cassette for multiple interviews – a common practice when you want to make the most of the cassette tape you have. Piecing each recording together to make one complete interview has caused our digitiser, Catherine Norris, several headaches.

But now they are all digitised. Similar to our procedure with physical analogue recordings, we keep a master, uncompressed .wav file safely in storage. We then create compressed .mp3 copies as our new access copy. You can still come into the Searchroom and listen to the recordings, but you can also now listen from home, through Essex Archives Online.

Each interview is valuable in its own right, but as a collection it is even more fascinating. Dr Attfield spoke to a range of people: developers, architects, and town councillors who shed light on the planning of the new town; shopkeepers; people who moved to Harlow before the new town; and people who moved as part of the new town settlement. Putting these different viewpoints together gives a rich, rounded impression of this time in history. Some interviewees say that women found it more difficult than men to settle in new towns and felt lonely and depressed; some say that women found it easier to form new bonds because they were surrounded by women in a similar position, raising children away from their parents in unfamiliar surroundings. Some were ecstatic to have their own front doors, their own staircases in two-storey homes; some missed the familiarity of London, even if they were living in cramped, shared housing. The multiplicity of memories challenges generalisations about life in a new town. It also demonstrates (by listening to the accents of the interviewees, if nothing else) that not everyone in Harlow in the 1950s was an ex-Eastender.

The collection also serves as a good example of how to conduct an oral history interview. Dr Attfield had a specific interest in the interior design of the new houses. She directed questions to gather information on this topic. However, she also asked wider questions for context. She let her interviewees say what they wanted with minimal interventions, but also guided the interview to cover her set of questions. Occasionally she probed her interviewees for more details, or challenged their viewpoints to get a better understanding, without revealing any judgement of their opinions.

Dr Attfield made a significant research contribution in the fields of material culture, gender studies, and design history, among other overlapping areas. Based for many years at the Winchester School of Art, her book Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life (Oxford: Berg, 2000) has become a key text in her field. She passed away in 2006. We are very grateful that she deposited her recordings about Harlow with us, for future researchers to use and enjoy.

One particularly moving interview from the collection is that with Mrs Summers, who moved to the new town from Walthamstow in 1952 (SA 22/1364/1). At several points in the interview, Mrs Summers describes the long adjustment period when ‘home’ still meant London before completely settling in Harlow. As well as missing her family, in this clip she describes how she ‘couldn’t get used to the newness of things’ after coming from Walthamstow with its ‘houses with big windows… little tiny houses… nice houses… [and] grubby-looking houses’.

At a time when neighbourhood plans for vast numbers of additional houses are being developed across Essex – across the country – perhaps these experiences of new settlers can help with the process of creating new communities.

Dr Attfield published an article based on these interviews in the book that she co-edited with P Kirkham, A View from the Interior: Women and Design (London: Women’s Press, 1995). The article can be consulted at Colchester Library.

We hope to showcase clips from these recordings on a listening bench in Harlow, in time for the 70th anniversary of the New Town in 2017. If you are interested in helping to work on the bench for Harlow, please get in touch: info@essexsounds.org.uk

Essex Archives Online update – digitising our electoral registers

We have just begun the next big expansion of digitised records available through our subscription service on Essex Archives Online, with the beginning of our project to provide digital images of our electoral registers.

There are some 850 volumes in our collection of Essex electoral registers

There are some 850 volumes in our collection of Essex electoral registers

Ultimately we will be making available images of all the registers we hold from 1833-1974. The first phase of the project has just been completed, with digital images of our electoral registers from 1833-1868 now all available online. We will be releasing the images in batches, with a target completion date for the whole project of January 2018.

(There is a little caveat to this – the registers for 1918 and 1929 have been online for some time, and they will of course remain.)

While our set of Essex electoral registers is not 100% complete, it is the best surviving set of these records, and for some registers ours is the only surviving copy. This collection of some 850 volumes provides vital evidence of Essex people’s lives and locations over almost 150 years.

As with the images of Essex parish registers and wills already available online, the images of the electoral registers can be viewed free of charge in the ERO Searchroom, or as part of our online subscription packages. Information about how to find the records and how to subscribe can be found on our subscription home page.

Electoral register page for Bardfield Saling, 1851 (Q/RPr 1/10)

Electoral register page for Bardfield Saling, 1851 (Q/RPr 1/10)

 

Why digitise electoral registers?

There are two key drivers for digitising these records: 1, to make them more widely available, and 2, to preserve the originals. Electoral registers were not designed to have a long lifespan and can be somewhat fragile. As popular records they are frequently in demand, and digitisation allows us to make the information available while protecting the original documents.

 

How will the records be indexed?

As with the parish registers already available in Essex Archives Online, we are not publishing a name index, but all of the registers in this batch are arranged alphabetically – that is, electors appear in each parish in alphabetical order of surname.  This makes tracing individuals fairly easy.  In addition, each register is indexed by parish or place, and they offer great opportunities not just for family historians but also for studies of local society and urban development.  An annual list of the main property owners and occupiers in each place is a valuable addition to the online record, particularly where the local rate books (the ultimate source of much of this information) fail to survive.

 

Why do the records start in 1833?

Modern electoral registers came into being with the Great Reform Act of 1832.  The Act did not hugely increase the electorate, but for the first time it required the Clerk of the Peace – the head of the county administration – to have the annual parish lists of electors’ names ‘fairly and truly copied … in a book to be by him provided’, and to give to each elector’s name ‘its proper number, beginning the numbers from the first name’.  That book would be the electoral register for the following year. The Clerk was not required to print the registers, or to preserve them once the year was out, and before the mid-1840s only two survive in Essex. After that matters steadily improve, and from the early 1860s until 2001 the Record Office’s collection is fairly complete.

 

Who will be included in these registers?

The 1832 Reform Act expanded the electorate to some extent, but it was still limited to men aged over 21 who owned a certain amount of property. In 1851 just 11,500 county electors spoke for an Essex population of almost 370,000.

By no means all the electors for a particular parish actually lived there, or even close by, and their actual places of residence can be revealing. In 1851 the divided freehold of the King’s Head Inn at Gosfield, in the northern division of Essex, provided the qualification for 6 of the parish’s 13 electors. One lived in Chelmsford, one in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, one in London and three in Surrey.

At Braintree, three brothers from the Buxton brewing family each held a vote in respect of Hyde Farm, the farm’s ownership being split between them. According to the register, however, Sir Edward North Buxton Bt. – who was in fact the MP for South Essex – lived in Upper Grosvenor Street, Mayfair; Charles Buxton lived near the brewery in Brick Lane, Spitalfields, Middlesex; and Thomas Fowell Buxton lived in Leytonstone (Leyton), which was at least in Essex at the time, although far away in the southern division.

At Leyton, the pattern was repeated and each of the brothers qualified once more, this time through the freehold of the Three Blackbirds inn – although Thomas Fowell Buxton had apparently forgotten that he lived in the parish and gave the Spitalfields address as his place of residence.  For researchers into Victorian society, and especially the connections between land and politics, electoral registers are a mine of information.

For family historians, the names of the electors will naturally be the focus of interest, although the electors themselves are not the only people named.  For example, William Wing of Bloomsbury in London had a vote in 1851 for his house in Braintree on ‘corner of square, Miss Wing, tenant’.  She, of course, had no vote at all – but the naming of such voteless tenants increases the registers’ value to historians.  Miss Wing is known from the 1851 census as Sarah Wing, a silversmith and watchmaker living and working in Great Square, and census users might well have wondered about a possible connection with William Wing, born in Braintree but working as a watchmaker in New Bond Street in London.  Despite the gap between New Bond Street and Braintree, the electoral register evidence makes their connection almost certain, and suggests something of Sarah and William’s family arrangements.  Linking the electoral registers to other sources makes the whole data set much more powerful.

 

How did elections take place in this period?

The process of electing MPs in the 1830s-1860s was quite different to today. There were two different kinds of constituencies – counties and boroughs. The theory was that county MPs would represent landholding interests, and borough MPs the interests of the mercantile and trading classes. Before 1832 Essex sent 8 MPs to Parliament – 2 from the county seat of Chelmsford, and 2 each from the ancient boroughs of Colchester, Maldon and Harwich.

Before 1832 there was enormous variety in the size of constituencies and in voting qualifications. Polling could last up to 40 days, and there was no secret ballot. The whole system was liable to corruption and domination by local elites.

The 1832 Reform Act went some way towards resolving some of these issues. Most rotten boroughs (boroughs with tiny electorates controlled by a wealthy patron) were abolished, and seats were redistributed to growing industrial towns. Polling was limited to two days, and the qualifications for the franchise were standardised.

Essex gained two more MPs as part of the changes as the county constituency was split into two divisions, north and south, each returning two MPs, in addition to the two each still returned from the three ancient boroughs.

Flyer by John Gurdon Rebow of Wivenhoe Park, who stood as an independent candidate for North Essex in the 1847 general election. The policies he outlines here include the protection of agriculture, and of the Church of England and individual liberty. He was not successful on this occasion, but was MP for Colchester between 1857 and 1859, and again from 1865 until his death in 1870. (T/P 68/38/9)

Flyer by John Gurdon Rebow of Wivenhoe Park, who stood as an independent candidate for North Essex in the 1847 general election. The policies he outlines here include the protection of agriculture, and of the Church of England and individual liberty. He was not successful on this occasion, but was MP for Colchester between 1857 and 1859, and again from 1865 until his death in 1870. (T/P 68/38/9)

Looking to the future…

Further reforms were, of course, to come, and successive electoral registers include more and more people, until finally all men and women over 21 were granted the vote in 1928. We will continue to post updates on the blog as the electoral register project progresses, and we hope you enjoy exploring the new images.

Art in the archives

As well as looking after the archives for Essex, the ERO also looks after Essex County Council’s art collection.  Besides commissioning portraits of its chairmen ECC has never actively collected art, but has received a number of donations and bequests over the decades. Some of this art is displayed in ECC buildings, while other pieces are in storage at ERO.

Many pieces are viewable on the Art UK website, and if there is something in storage that you would like to see you can make a request for it to be made available – please contact us on ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk

The responsibility to care for ECC’s art is a relatively new one for us, and much work has been done over the last few years to organise and properly store these paintings. Now that this work is mostly complete, we can start to do more with the collection to make it available for all to use and enjoy.

Behind-the-scenes it has been a busy few months for the art collection. Staff have been trained to properly store and hang paintings, and to carry out condition checks. We have undertaken a project to digitise many of the paintings, which means we can now make images of even more of them available online. We are also in the process of hanging more paintings in public spaces in the ERO, and will shortly be launching a new page on our website as a hub for information about the collection.

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Performing a condition inspection of an oil painting

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Digitising a portrait of Barbara Villiers from the studio of Sir Peter Lely. Barbara was a mistress of Charles II – more on this painting in a future blog post

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Digitising a portrait of Barbara Villiers

We have been fortunate in this work to have the assistance of Marta Jimenez, an Art History graduate from the University of Essex who has been with us on an internship supported by the University as part of their Essex Interns scheme. As part of her work here Marta has been researching the stories behind some of the paintings, examining their subject matter and visual and artistic interpretation, and putting them into their historical context. As part of her work she has uploaded images of several paintings to our Flickr page and we will be publishing the results of some of her work here on the blog over the coming months.

More paintings have been hung in public spaces in ERO, with more to follow. Each year we offer public tours of the art collection, and groups can also book tours – just contact us on ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk

We have previously shared one of the highlights of our collection – a family portrait by Pompeo Batoni, here – and we will continue to share more highlights from the collection here on the ERO blog, so do check back in the future.

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Paintings recently hung on the ground floor of ERO, including the portrait of Barbara Villiers shown above in our Digitisation Studio

The expanding Essex electorate

As the 2015 General Election approaches, we take a look at some of the records of voting history in the Essex Record Office archives…

The right to vote is something which we are all today well accustomed to, and perhaps even take for granted. In the 2010 General Election 847,090 people voted in Essex. Not all that long ago, many of these people would have been barred from the polling station.

Turn the clock back 100 years and what we today recognise as a fair electorate would be halved straight away by the exclusion of women. Go back a little further and many men were excluded on the grounds of not owning enough property. Return to 1830, and only about 10% of the adult male population qualified to vote. Essex had a population of about 300,000 people at this time, only about 6,000 of whom could vote.

Although not exactly a scientific comparison the pictures below give you some sense of just how much the electorate expanded during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This first, slender volume from 1833-34 is one of the earliest electoral registers held at the ERO. There were so few voters at this time that they are all listed in just two volumes this size, one for the northern part of the county and one for the south.

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By the time the super-sized registers for the Walthamstow Division pictures below were created in 1914 and 1915 most men had the vote, but women were still excluded. The population in metropolitan Essex had increased considerably in this time, but even taking this into account the difference in the size of the books and the changes this represent in voting qualifications are remarkable.

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Today Essex elects 18 MPs but in the 1700s and 1800s there were only four places in Essex where polling could take place for parliamentary elections – the Boroughs of Maldon, Harwich and Colchester, and the county town of Chelmsford – with each sending two MPs to Westminster.

Elections themselves were conducted very differently too. The secret ballot was not introduced until 1872; before then, voting was done openly, by a show of hands or voices, and with lists published of who had voted for whom. Thus a vote was not exactly a free one; at a time when your landlord, boss and local magistrate might all be the same person, who would be brave enough to vote against the candidate he had put up? A further Act in 1883 (the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act) criminalised attempts to bribe voters.

Before the reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries parliamentary seats in Essex were monopolised by leading county families such as the Bramstons of Skreens, the Luthers of Brizes, the Conyers of Copped Hall, the Maynards of Easton Lodge, the Harveys of Rolls Park, the Houblons of Hallingbury Place and the Bullocks of Faulkbourne Hall. Often there was only one candidate standing; between 1734 and 1832, only 8 elections in Chelmsford were actually contested.

The ERO looks after hundreds of electoral registers dating back to the 1830s. As well as telling us something about the expansion of the electorate, they can also be useful in tracing people and their historic addresses. The registers for 1918 and 1929 have been digitised and can be viewed on Seax as they were the first years in which women could vote (married women over 30 in 1918 and all women over 21 in 1929). We are planning to continue to digitise our historic electoral registers and make them available online.

The UK has only had universal suffrage and equal voting rights for men and women since 1928 – just 87 years ago – something that is worth bearing in mind as we prepare to make our way to the polling stations on 7th May.

Threatened Collections

Project logoYou Are Hear: sound and a sense of place is the Essex Sound and Video Archive project which aims to digitise, catalogue, and share our collections, helping people connect with the county’s rich heritage through listening to the sounds of the past.

Cataloguing our recordings raises awareness of the wonderful stories and variety of musical traditions we have waiting to be discovered. Sharing our collections is in itself a worthwhile aim. However, the digitisation process is an equally significant part of the project. Without this step, our unique, irreplaceable audio collections could be lost forever.

Written records on paper or parchment are subject to threats like acidic inks eating away at paper, rusty staples wearing holes in documents, or mould forming where items have been stored in damp conditions. But if we assess the condition, rectify any problems, and keep the records stored in a stable environment, we can at least slow any further deterioration, if not stop it.

Sound and video recordings are another matter. The extreme flammability of nitrate film (used from 1895 to 1951) is well-known. Acetate film is also unstable, though less dangerous. Even with more stable polyester-based film and magnetic tape, there is a risk of deterioration as the chemicals used in the manufacturing process break down. Another danger with magnetic tape is that the base layer can become separated from the binder layer. Every playback of a tape recording puts it at risk. As for CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs, no one really knows about the long-term preservation of these, because they have not been around for long enough for us to find out (though we fear the worst).

A deteriorating reel of tape showing signs of 'spoking' (the tape shrinking and becoming tighter, pulling it taut around the centre of the reel, causing lines of tension to radiate out from the centre) and 'cupping' (the tape on the outer edges rolling in on itself)

A deteriorating reel of tape showing signs of ‘spoking’ (the tape shrinking and becoming tighter, pulling it taut around the centre of the reel, causing lines of tension to radiate out from the centre) and ‘cupping’ (the tape on the outer edges rolling in on itself)

As well as the risk of deterioration, obsolescence is another problem. Even if you have never before seen a book, you could work out how to access the information relatively quickly. But how do you access the information on a CD without a CD player? Do you have stacks of cassette tapes or cine-film reels hiding in your loft, with no way of playing them? We are carefully nursing our playback facilities so we can keep accessing these different formats, but the risk of equipment failure is high. Parts will inevitably wear out, but replacements are no longer being manufactured, and machines are no longer being supported by the suppliers. At the same time, the technical expertise to maintain the equipment is dying out as the commercial audio-visual industry moves on to digital formats.

The answer is digitisation. Unlike with written records, where the original record is easier to maintain in the long-term than electronic bits and bytes of scanned copies, with sound and video records, those electronic bits and bytes are our best hope. We can at least capture the information from obsolete formats before losing it, and then work on managing the digital versions to ensure continued access.

You Are Hear is not alone in addressing the need to digitise sound and video collections. Recently Rebekah Polding from Film London delivered a talk to the Essex History Group on the London’s Screen Archives project. This project brings together partners from local archive services, specialist institutions, private owners, and businesses that are based in London, to pool resources and ensure the city’s films are identified, saved through digitisation, and shared. They are even making some of them freely available on-line. You can find out more here.

The project is calling for anyone with films of London (including Greater London), or taken by Londoners, to donate it to the project. Get in touch with them (and us!) if you have something sitting in storage that is crying out to be saved, perhaps like this film of the annual Brandon Estate (Southwark) outing to Canvey Island in 1970:

As if trying to capture all the film about the capital city was not ambitious enough, the British Library has recently announced its new project, Save our Sounds, to try to preserve the sound heritage of the whole nation. A national audit will give a clearer picture of the extent and condition of sound archives across the country. The British Library will then be able to offer advice and discuss potential ways forward with partner institutions. You can find out more about the project here.

Edison ‘Concert’ wax cylinders in the collections of the British Library – find out more at here. Image courtesy of the British Library.

If you would like to sample just a few of the BL recordings and get a sense of their vast range, have a listen to these clips on their SoundCloud:

We are just about to submit our second-round application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to proceed with the You Are Hear project. You can subscribe to receive updates about the project here.

In the meantime, please do let us know if you have any sound or video recordings relating to Essex – we are always on the look-out for material to add to our collections. We also offer a commercial digitisation service if you have recordings at risk which you want preserved. We would be happy to discuss the options with you.

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New team member: Andy Morgan

Our Digitisation Studio is one of those hidden but vital parts of the Record Office. The Studio does all of the digitisation work for Essex Ancestors as well as processing public orders, and creates hundreds of thousands of images of our documents each year. We are glad to be welcoming a new staff member to the Studio, and here we get to know him a little better.

Name: Andy Morgan

Role: Digitiser

New Digitiser Andy Morgan at work in ERO's Digitisation Studio

New Digitiser Andy Morgan at work in ERO’s Digitisation Studio

Why did you want to work at ERO?

Having worked at ERO for a short period 3 years ago, I was interested in the historical documents that I have photographed and converted to digital images and that they may now be more accessible for the general public to research.

 

Describe an average day at ERO for you:

The day may vary from photographing public documents, wills and books, recording births deaths and marriages, some of them date back over 400 years, beautifully written with quill and ink and many describe in detail how life was many years ago.

 

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

I enjoy sailing during the warm weather and restoring my classic car.

 

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

I have not had the chance to photograph some of the oldest documents in the collection but just copying some of the early marriage certificates gives you a clue to what life was like between the two world wars with all the different types of jobs that people had at that time that are not around now like cabinet makers, Bakelite moulders, stokers and car men.

From 1939 when the second world war commenced you can clearly see how life changed for women, replacing the men away at war by working in industry, women’s land army, to transporting replacement aircraft across the country. It can all come to life when you see it in black and white apart from the fact that the book may not have been opened since the day the happy wedding day took place!