You Are Hear: behind the scenes

During our project You Are Hear: sound and sense of place, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we aimed to digitise some 1,800 recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA), and made them available for free through Essex Archives Online, and on SoundCloud and YouTube. But how does the digitisation process actually happen? Sound technician Catherine Norris, who has ploughed nobly through hours and hours of ESVA recordings to digitise them for You Are Hear, is here to tell us.

Catherine all smiles at the beginning of the project ensconced in one of our sound studios

It’s hard to believe that almost three years have gone by since I started working on the You Are Hear (YAH) project. It’s been a journey that has involved digitising analogue formats using many different vintage players along with digital interfaces to ensure the best digital version of the original source.

Over the course of the project I have dipped into many of our Sound Archive collections and by doing so I have learnt a lot about Essex’s heritage though oral history, music, radio broadcasts and videos. I have also enhanced my skills as a sound engineer and as a digitiser.

I have enjoyed the many different aspects of working on the project, from being involved in the digitisation process; to giving a speech at the launch of the Essex Sounds audio map; going to see listening bench launches in Galleywood and Chelmsford and chatting to the volunteers involved; and also organising and running a successful sound walk in Chelmsford.

Residents enjoying a cup of tea at the launch of the Saffron Walden listening bench. 20 benches are now in place around the county loaded with recordings that Catherine has digitised

YAH project officer Sarah-Joy Maddeaux has kept me busy and given me a steady workflow throughout and chose the content that was to be used on our audio-video kiosks, listening benches and Essex Sounds map. It has been my job to make sure I digitised the content for when she needed it by, so that it could be used for the part of the project that it was required for.

There have been different parts to my role, not just the digitisation process – but this is of course an incredibly important part. With everything that I have worked on, if I don’t get that part right everything that comes after it would not have panned out the way it should have done.

The digitisation process starts with locating and retrieving the audio and video material from storage, then checking and making sure that it is playable. Once the material has been prepared I check that I have all the equipment that I need to do the job.

For digitisation to take place I use a mixture of old and new equipment depending on what the material is that I am digitising. During the course of the project, for the majority of the content I have digitised I have used Denon cassette players, Revox reel machines and VHS players.

A unit containing (from top to bottom), a mini disc player, a cassette player, a compact disc player, a sound mixer, and a digital interface

The ReVox reel to reel machine:

A VHS player – who remembers these?

My personal favourite has to be our Sony Stereo Tapecorder (TC-630). It has lots of quirks about it and if a machine could have a personality then this one does, it certainly kept me on my toes whist I was using it!

When setting up the equipment I also have to make sure that it is cleaned before placing the material waiting to be digitised onto or into it. To do this I soak a cotton swab in an electronic cleaning solvent and use it to clean the parts of the machine where the tape will touch. It is important to do this before a digitisation but I also do this afterwards so that the equipment is well looked after and so that dirt is not left to get stuck in the tape heads.

To turn the analogue signal into a digital signal we use a digital interface. We have two, one for each studio at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. We have the Apogee Rosetta and the Prism Sound Orpheus. Both of these take an analogue signal (electromagnetic signals on tape) and convert it to digital (a series of 1s and 0s that can be read by a computer). I also use cables, a sound mixer and speakers to hear what I am doing, and a level mixer (Behringer Ultralink Pro) so I can change the signal if it is too high or low. I use a PC and a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) which allows me to record the digital version of an analogue recording. My main aim is to capture the best version I possibly can of an analogue recording, and the equipment in our studios has made sure that I have been able to do that.

The Rosetta 800 digital interface, which converts analogue signals into digital information

With each piece of work once a Master digital copy has been created, an access copy (MP3 for sound, or MP4 for video)) is next to do. I would have to access the original digital version (WAV for sound, AVI for Video) and see if there was anything I could to enhance it using a DAW. For example if there is a lot of distortion I can use various techniques in audio editing software to reduce the effect it has on the recording. Also if needed there are techniques I can use to change amplitude and compression and noise reduction.

For the project I have also created digital clips of audio and film if the whole version is not required for the benches and kiosks. I also extract picture stills from films and take photographs and scans of items with picture covers.

One of the You Are Hear kiosks at ERO – two others can be found at Saffron Walden Library and Harlow Museum

Throughout all the different processes I collate and write down information about each item. This information is added to a metadata spreadsheet where the information is kept, to help continue monitoring and preserving the digital files.

During the project I have dipped in and out of the collection Acc. SA654 which contains boxes of different BBC Essex recordings. A box which I have digitised a few recordings from during the project is Sound Of Essex. As we have come to the end of the project Sarah-Joy and I discussed what I could finish with and decided that this was good box to complete. It is a box of 31 Zonal 675 Five Inch spool, matt backed, standard play 1/4 inch tape reels that contain interesting recordings of people accents from around the county.

While I was digitising the reels we thought it would be useful to film parts of the process as a guide to show how I digitised the reels in the Sound of Essex box.

Preparing the Reel Machine for Digitisation.

Before using a reel machine it must be prepared for use by cleaning the tape heads and areas where the tape and reels will be touching.

1 Dip a cotton swab in Iso-Propyl alcohol

2 Clean the spindles, tape heads and all areas where the reel and tape may touch.

3 Use as many cotton swabs dipped in Iso-Propyl alcohol as necessary to make sure that the machine is ready to be used.

Setting up the Tape Reel Machine

The tape reel machine is key in providing the analogue signal that needs to be digitised. I place an empty reel on the second spindle.

1 On the first spindle place the reel you wish to digitise.

2 Use the guide table to thread through past the tape heads to and around the empty reel.

3 Make sure both reels are secure and that the centres are locked in place.

Creating a Digital Signal

For preservation purposes I forward and rewind the reel and briefly test the recording levels.

To create a digital signal we use –

1 The Behringer Ultralink Pro (Level Mixer) to adjust the recording levels. This is connected to the reel machine.

2 The Prism Sound Orpheus (Digital Interface) to change the analogue signal to a digital signal.

3 By using cables the digital signal is sent from the digital interface to the computer and is recorded using a digital audio workstation.

4 Once setup is complete press record on your DAW (Wavelab 8.5) and press play on the tape machine.

The Library Wind

Once digitisation is complete I can then save my master wav file and begin the next part of the process.

Part of preservation for tape reels is the library wind. We do not use the rewind button as we want the reel to be rewound in real time.

1 Take the empty reel off the first spindle.

2 Turn over the full reel and place it on the first spindle.

3 Place the empty reel on the second spindle.

4 Carefully thread the tape thread through past the tape heads to and around the empty reel.

5 Make sure both reels are secure and that the centres are locked in place.

6 Press play and continue until you reach the end of the tape.

7 Tape reel is now ready to be repackaged.

I have learnt so much over the course of the project and have enjoyed all the different aspects of digitisation but it was nice to finish with such an interesting box of reels. The digital versions of these recordings, along with hundreds of hours of other recordings, can for found on the ERO’s SoundCloud channel:

We hope that people across Essex, and beyond, will enjoy the results of the You Are Hear project for many years to come!

HLF Logo

You Are Hear Listening Bench Tour Draws to a Close

Our You Are Hear Project Officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on the listening bench tour that has been running for the last two years.

On Monday we moved one of the touring You Are Hear listening benches. For the last three months, it has been sitting outside the Guildhall in Finchingfield, a beautiful building lovingly restored and used as a hub for the community. It hosts the library, museum, and a number of classes and activities.

Touring listening bench when it was situated outside the Guildhall, Finchingfield

I selected audio for the bench that showcased aspects of the village history, such as information about straw plaiting, once a significant local industry. I also included clips of memories from village residents, taken from interviews recorded by the Guildhall and recently deposited with the Essex Sound and Video Archive (Acc. SA837).

Roger Guppy sharing memories of growing up in Finchingfield, from an oral history interview recorded by the Guildhall. Used with kind permission from the Guildhall.

I hope these insights into the past helped visitors more fully appreciate the rich heritage of the village, and of the Guildhall in particular.

Neil Banks at Stansted Airport being interviewed for BBC Look East in 2016

We have now delivered the bench to its final resting place, outside the METAL arts centre in Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea (more information below). The tour has drawn to a close. In two years, this bench has visited eight locations, ranging from open spaces to shopping centres to Stansted Airport. There, it had its fifteen minutes of fame, when it was briefly featured on BBC Look East.

It has travelled more than 250 miles. The buttons have been pressed over 30,000 times. Around 150 children completed a quiz about the recordings while it was at Belfairs Woodland Centre. We have shared music, poetry, and memories from Essex people about Essex places. Recordings about the location, recordings to reflect the season, or recordings just because I like them and want to show them off.

The statistics show that we have accomplished one of our aims: thousands more people have listened to an Essex Sound and Video Archive recording than would have without the bench. But since we ‘drop and go’, leaving people to discover the bench, it is hard to measure any deeper impact.

I would like to think that the bench has made listeners look again at familiar sights. Did hearing a piece by Thomas Tallis while sitting within sight of where he was once an organist make people value the significance of Waltham Abbey Gardens?

The Walk Fair Singers and The Thameside Waits sing Thomas Tallis’ ‘O Nata Lux’ at New Hall, Boreham in 1993 (SA 1/1287/1, used by kind permission of BBC Essex).

Did the programme about the opening of Stansted Airport’s second runway show how far this busy gateway to Essex has come since its humble beginnings? Did listening to an account of travelling salesmen delivering clothes make shoppers think again about their experience at Lakeside Shopping Centre?

I would also like to think that the bench has taught listeners something new: whether they are visitors to the area or have lived nearby all their lives.  For instance, did you know that over 30 species of butterfly have been spotted at Belfairs Woodland Centre, including some of the rarest in the country?  Or that Raphael Park has been a public park for over 100 years, with origins as part of a private estate dating back to Saxon times?

View of the bench sitting by large oak tree

Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

So, have we accomplished one of the bigger aims of the project? Have we made people rethink the sounds that are around them – the changing accents, the sounds of nature blended with human noise? And have we made people think twice about this diverse, much maligned county based on the sounds that they hear?

We hope that we have – but we would love to hear it from you directly. Have you used our touring bench at any of its venues? Did you have a favourite clip? What did you think of it? Please comment below, e-mail us, or complete a short survey about the project to give us your thoughts.

METAL is an arts organisation with a base at Chalkwell Hall, Chalkwell Park, Southend-on-Sea. This provides space for artist residencies, as well as for a variety of classes and workshops. The listening bench will be incorporated into their NetPark project, aiming to improve well-being by engaging with digital arts in an open setting. Find out more on their website.

Our other touring listening bench will remain at Weald Country Park for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile our touring audio-video kiosks are approaching the end of their tours also: it’s your last chance to catch them at the Cater Museum in Billericay or Rayleigh Town Museum.

We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex who sponsored this bench, and to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the main funders behind the You Are Hear project.Friends of Historic Essex logoHLF Logo

 

Views from the You Are Hear listening benches

Have you visited any of our listening benches, installed as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place? Recently Jade Hunter, a PhD student studying Geography at Queen Mary University of London, embarked on a mini tour of some of the benches to learn more about them. She shares her thoughts on her visits in a guest blog post below.

I’m currently studying for a PhD in Geography and I encountered the listening benches when writing an assignment on sound projects. My research interests lie in identity and place, specifically in Essex, so I was really keen to visit and experience benches in different locations.

I planned to visit a number of benches which I thought could demonstrate the breadth of Essex as a large, and diverse county. I work in London, and one of the things I’m always struck by is how far away people think Essex is when they live within the (blurring) city boundaries. Visiting the benches highlighted the relationship which parts of Essex have to the city. Audio at the Raphael Park bench suggests that Essex might act as ‘the lungs of London’, and the soundscapes at the Romford, Hadleigh and Chelmsford benches include birdsong, traffic and the sounds of trains delivering people from the suburbs into the city. Viewed from the bench in Hadleigh Park, Canvey Island rooftops were flanked by a ship sailing to the London Gateway super-port, showing a connectedness not just to London, but further afield.

View looking out over Estuary

View from the listening bench in Hadleigh Country Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

I was interested to hear about the history of the bench locations – listening to villagers of times past speak about specificities of life in Kelvedon, for example.


Frank Hume and Ronald Hayward describe their memories of the Crab and Winkle railway line that ran through Kelvedon, a clip from an oral history interview used on the Kelvedon listening bench (SA 44/1/25/1).

But I was most drawn to benches with audio about experiences which could be more broadly shared, in locations where it is perhaps more likely that people from across and outside the county would visit too. Perched on a hillside, the Hadleigh bench plays radio clips describing picnics and walks across the park. Feeling connected to the speaker and landscape, I shared the views they described of the estuary and Canvey Island below. This overlap creates connections across experiences, across time.

Sometimes, these overlaps can serve to emphasise differences. The first bench I visited was in Chelmsford on a cold morning in February. In a BBC Essex clip from 1992, an optimistic speaker describes the opening of the shopping centre. Sounds of buoyant crowds exploring new shops pin an alternative image over my contemporary view from the bench, the closed shutters of high street restaurants, and wind howling down the shopping streets.

BBC Essex report on the opening of The Meadows shopping centre in Chelmsford, used for the listening bench in Chelmsford (SA 1/1030/1).

Environmental factors pose risks to the benches which they may not face in museums. Some benches suffered a lack of solar-power, and weather can affect engagement in other ways. I visited the benches in the week preceding the arrival of the snow from Siberia, the ‘Beast from the East’ and so Southend Pier was closed, meaning its bench was inaccessible. There is also an enhanced risk of vandalism. The Bowers Gifford bench is located in Westlake Park, behind quiet residential avenues. It sits in silence, solar panel smashed, demonstrating the risk of liberating installations from museums. However, visiting the benches made me reflect on the difference which hosting oral histories outside of the Record Office can have, contributing to an enhanced engagement and alternative interpretation of the sounds and testimonials. The bench in Raphael Park plays a song, ‘’Owd Rat-Tayled Tinker’ in Essex dialect of the 1920s.


The ”Owd Rat Tayled Tinker from ‘Owd Lunnon Town’, sung by J. London in 1906, and used on the touring listening bench while it was at Raphael Park (SA 24/221/1).

Broadcast into the park, it can overlay a range of accents spoken by current park visitors. When I visited, this was most notably a man nearby on his mobile, with an Estuary accent like my own. This accent is associated with Romford and other parts of Essex, and influenced by post-war migration from London, as people moved out into the county.

View of the bench sitting by large oak tree

Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

My experience of Essex has been shaped by growing up in Thurrock on a suburban council estate close to industrial riverside and the greenery of Rainham Marshes. There are spots where you can see the London skyline, and remain within walking distance of the shopping centre, Lakeside. It’s easy for perceptions of a place to be shaped by media representations, or limited to your own experience of a small section of it. Visiting the benches enabled me to understand more about the variety of landscapes and people that make up Essex, and the ways in which these have changed over time and continue to do so. They made me reflect on those spaces that serve as home to smaller communities, and those which are temporarily shared and experienced by people visiting from elsewhere, the market in Romford, the country park in Hadleigh, and the pier in Southend.


Map of all 18 listening benchesCan you get to all the benches? Please note the touring bench that was in Raphael Park has now moved to outside the Finchingfield Guildhall. The touring bench in Hadleigh Park will shortly be moving to Weald Country Park.

Find out more about the benches and their current locations on our Essex Sounds website. Then share your #benchselfie with us and tell us which is your favourite clip!

Oral history in the post-modern age

Our You Are Hear project officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on why oral history continues to have value even in an age of high literacy rates and easy access to public platforms.

I recently had the joy of running an oral history training workshop, for a local heritage society. I always start with some theorising about oral history: why should we do it, what is its value, what need does it meet?

One of the main arguments for taking the time to create oral history recordings has traditionally been that it enables you to add a missing perspective into the historical record. The majority of the records at the Essex Record Office have been created by those in power: government records, church records, estate records of the major landed families in the county. Individuals from the ruled classes might make it into the records, but predominantly in records written about them, rather than by them. Limited literacy, limited access to writing materials, and the process of documents making their way into record offices have generally been given as reasons why the voices of everyday people are hard to find in the archive (though read this interesting challenge of the common assumption that writing paper was expensive). Oral history can change that: any individual can be interviewed about their experiences. It merely takes someone with time and a sound recorder to interview them.

Minnie Johnson’s story of her life in a traveller community is unlikely to have been known were it not for this oral history interview – she explains that she taught herself to read from comic books, but cannot write more than her name. The full interview can be heard on Essex Archives Online or our Soundcloud channel (SA 24/1925/1).

This is all excellent, and the rise of oral history ran alongside the rise of ‘history from below’ from around the 1960s. Using interviews allows historians to look at alternative histories to political and economic studies. Hearing from ‘ordinary’ people allows you to find out about everyday life for social and cultural history. Or it allows you to study political and economic history from a different perspective: how did the 1930s Depression actually affect people’s daily lives? How did Joe Bloggs feel about international relations during and after the Second World War? Without oral history interviews, these and similar questions would be very difficult to answer.

So we happily trot out these examples of why oral history interviews have value for giving a voice to the ‘ruled classes’. But is this as true today? Literacy rates are high (though not high enough). Access to writing material is prevalent. You can go into your local library and use a computer to type up your reminiscences. If you really wanted, you could probably use scrap paper from junk mail received and free pens given out at events to write down your life history without it costing you a penny.

What is more, platforms for making your voice heard are much easier to reach. There are social media channels; online petition sites; and file sharing sites that give you free and easy access to voice your opinions. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017 96% of 16-24 year-olds surveyed used social media, and 51% of 55-64 year-olds.

Graph of adult Internet usage from Office for National Statistics

While there are still barriers to technology, it is much easier to find the views of everyday people. So does oral history matter now, when people can make their way into the historical record of their own volition?

Laying aside the (very large!) problem of permanent preservation of online content, I argue that oral history does still, and will continue to, play a very valuable role in filling in gaps in the record.

Facebook posts and Tweets tend to be written in immediate response to an event. They represent a person’s immediate reactions. They can be mundane, amusing, fiery, or heartbreaking, but what is written today may not be true tomorrow. They are instantly written, and often instantly forgotten.

Oral history recordings are generally collected from people towards the latter stages of their lives. Some argue that this limits their usefulness: you are relying on the supposed frailty of human memory, and on the interviewee reliving events from their current perspective, looking back in hindsight. But this is one of the characteristics that gives the oral history interview its inherent value. From a distance, the interviewee can reflect on events they experienced, what emotions they prompted, and how they reacted. This will give a more balanced insight into which events and experiences were most significant in shaping the individual, and therefore shaping the culture and society in which each lived.

Mrs Summers reflects on how she felt about moving to Harlow in 1952, from the perspective of 34 years of hindsight. The full interview, recorded by Dr Judy Attfield, can be heard on Soundcloud or Essex Archives Online (SA 22/1364/1).

In fifty years’ time, if you amassed all social media posts I have written in 2017, this would give you one impression of who I was and what happened to me. Interviewing me alongside this data will help to give a fuller picture. Firstly, you can ask me to explain further details. For example, when I posted a picture of a meal I was about to eat, you can ask how representative this meal was of what I ate on a regular basis. As mundane as social media posts can be, oral history interviews will still have value in probing the details of everyday life and culture.

Secondly, you can ask me about the events that prompted my posts, and, I hope, you will get a different, more considered insight on what was happening. How will I feel in fifty years about my experiences in 2017? Photograph of subject being interviewed with recorder

Thirdly, there will always be matters that we do not share publicly at the time, but which we are happy to discuss further down the line. Oral history interviews will perhaps highlight the most life-changing events that are otherwise absent from contemporary autobiographical records.

Access to the historical record might be widening, but there is still a place for an oral history interview, where the interviewer can prompt those reflective questions from an outside perspective. Long may it continue.

Hear more of Sarah-Joy’s musings on oral history in the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex History Group talk in May. Keep an eye on our events page to book, or subscribe to receive notifications about upcoming History Group talks.

If you want to embark on your own oral history interviewing project, the Essex Sound and Video Archive can provide training to help you get started. Please contact us for more information.

Christmas in the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Rightly or wrongly, Christmas is a unique time of the year, imbued with centuries of traditions, celebrated on a mass level across the country – even the world – but also on an individual level. Each person picks and chooses his/her own customs to create traditions that become more sacred with each passing year that they are observed, passed down through generations and adapted as families intertwine.

It has been fun to spend the last few days putting together seasonal recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, as our first ever online audio advent calendar. It provides a chance for you to get a glimpse into the variety of unique recordings in our collection, one day at a time.

What does the selection tell us, without giving away too much about future recordings?

First, it demonstrates the tremendous variety in the Archive. We have plenty of local radio broadcasts – primarily from BBC Essex, but also recordings for specialist broadcasters such as hospital radio, and talking newspaper magazines. These are an excellent source for finding specific information, local responses to significant national events, such as the 1953 floods, or the 1987 hurricane. They also provide snapshots of the county at moments in time, through BBC Essex’s ‘A-Z of Essex Villages’ or ‘Pub of the Week’ series.

We have music, from captivating professional recordings to charmingly amateur ones. Sacred music, carols, folk songs, and fun songs. Music inspired by Essex, and music written on distant shores but performed in Essex. We hope there is something to meet everyone’s taste in our advent collection.


One example of the festive music in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, from Day 5 of our advent calendar (SA 10/1/1/19/1).

We have public talks and information broadcasts, revealing the history of traditional customs, or useful information on how to get through winter.

A large proportion of our recordings are oral history interviews with Essex people. So, secondly, the recordings emphasise the fact that Christmas is a special time of year, by the frequency with which it is mentioned in interviews. Even if the interviewee only speaks for a minute or two, the fact that the interviewer thought to ask about the festive holidays demonstrates its importance.

The ways in which people talk about Christmas when they are asked, particularly memories of childhood celebrations, also demonstrate the holiday’s significance. The sense of wonder and delight at this time of year comes back in the voice of the speaker as they recall these memories, even fifty, sixty, or seventy years later.

But this sense of delight raises an important question that must always be asked of oral history interviews. How far does the account reflect the reality? There are obvious questions about fading memories, particularly of years blurred together – was Christmas in one family celebrated in 1930 the same way as in 1925? But there are also dangers of thinking all was bright and lovely; there was just the right amount of snow; and we were all satisfied with the orange and new penny in our stocking, and wanted nothing more. Did siblings never argue? Did Mother never burn the dinner?

Do Prim Coppin’s memories of playing in the snow mask the bitter cold of the winter of 1947, and how much people suffered to endure it? A clip from an oral history interview from Day 2 of our advent calendar (SA 44/1/12/1).

Most people suggest that Christmas in ‘the past’ (that undefined age) was happier. Children wanted less. There was less pressure to strive for perfection, so parents did not overspend. Families enjoyed spending quality time together without television (or smartphones). Communities came together to enjoy carol singing, or skating on the frozen pond. Is this true? And is Christmas really so bad now? And if it is, do we not each individually have the freedom to decide how we celebrate it? What memories will our children recount in fifty years of their childhood celebrations?

Thirdly, the collection demonstrates the gaps that are still evident in our archive. The recordings were deliberately chosen as representative of the common ways that Christmas is celebrated in Essex. But what about the many other cultures now living in the county that have their own special high days and holy days? Often these minority cultures are not suitably represented in the archive. If you are a member of a community that does not celebrate Christmas, you can help: you can collect recordings about your customs and traditions. Please do get in touch with us if you want to discuss starting up this kind of project.

We hope you enjoy our first advent calendar, and please do let us know if you would like us to do it again in future (resources permitting!).

Click here to subscribe to receive daily notifications as we publish each new day’s recording.

Many of these recordings were digitised as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place.

Changing Perceptions, Changing Essex?

Recently our You Are Hear Project Officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, has been cataloguing a collection of oral history interviews received from Epping Forest District Museum. The interviews were collected in 2004-2005 as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, called Changing Perceptions, which aimed to collect everyday accounts to illustrate how life in the district has changed over the twentieth century. Here Sarah-Joy shares some impressions from the recordings.

What do a farmer, a dentist, a magistrate, and a blacksmith have in common? No, this is not the start of a joke. The answer is that these were all people interviewed for Epping Forest District Museum’s Heritage Lottery Funded project, Changing Perceptions. The Museum kindly deposited copies of a selection of their interviews with us at the Essex Sound and Video Archive, and I have had the joy of cataloguing them (Series Reference SA 61/1/1).

The collection shares all of the wonderful features of any oral history interview: providing an intimate insight into the lives of everyday people, told in their own voices, ranging from amusing anecdotes to heartfelt memories. It also achieves its primary purpose of demonstrating exactly how much life has changed in the last century, even in the last fifty to sixty years. Even taking rose-tinted spectacles into account, a common impression running through the collection is of small towns and villages with a true community spirit, self-sufficient places with a range of shops and services and a real local character.

Photograph of Epping High Street, in what looks like the late nineteenth century

But one of the distinctive assets of this collection is its diversity. The interviewers spoke to a range of people: people from different parts of the UK, in different professions, with different backgrounds and experiences. Listening to these together forms a broader picture of the range of life within Epping Forest.

For instance, Bob Willis is a lively, frank character who was born in Suffolk in 1928 but moved to the Gaynes Park Estate, Coopersale when he was nine. He spent most of his working life at Cottis Ironworks. His interview (SA 61/1/1/5/1) gives interesting technical details about his work as a carpenter at the brickworks. It also reveals social information about the relationship between employer and employee.Then he unexpectedly casts light onto significant local events, such as the fire at Copped Hall (though he was not speaking from personal experience).

Print of Copped Hall, near Epping, which suffered a serious fire in 1917

 

The interview with retired dentists Alain Quaife and Graham Bond (SA 61/1/1/8/1) is very different. It also contains technical information about their occupation, but in the process gives a greater insight into social history. For starters, their accents are more polished: perhaps to be expected from their higher class, more educated backgrounds. They remark on changing trends in dental hygiene, exploring possible reasons for this, beyond better public awareness. While both interviewees have now been retired for over ten years, their comments about how the NHS operates, and the difference between private and public treatment, still provide an interesting insight today. A word of warning, though: some details of treatment, particularly in the early years, are so graphic they may give you virtual toothache.

 

Maureen Chalk (SA 61/1/1/4/1) and Jill Atlee (SA 61/1/1/7/1) both describe working at the Bank of England printing works in Debden, and about the experience of raising children in the area. As Jill’s interview reveals, as recently as the late 1970s, it was the norm that women left work to raise children, perhaps returning to work part-time when their children went to school. But this phase of motherhood provided some opportunities to socialise with other women in the same situation, as Maureen describes.

 

Some of the interviews might stir a response that prompts you to take action. After listening to Joyce Woods talk about her experience of serving as a magistrate (SA 61/1/1/9/1), might you consider volunteering for this valuable work? Do you have the qualities she lists as essential to being a good magistrate?

 

Or listen to the interview with retired farmer John Graham (SA 61/1/1/1/1), recorded in 2004. How does that make you feel about the state of the farming industry in Britain now?

 

The authentic stories of real people can be more persuasive than thousands of words of polemic in a newspaper feature or a commissioned report.

Do these interviews change your perceptions? Of Epping Forest, of certain professions, of life in the mid-twentieth century? And does that in turn make you reflect differently on your own neighbourhood, career, life? What will your children and grandchildren think of your Essex?

Thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, the full-length interviews can all be heard through our Essex Archives Online catalogue. Contact the Museum for access to recordings not deposited with us.

You can get further impressions of how life in Epping has changed by visiting the town’s own listening bench, located in the churchyard of St John the Baptist (St Johns Road off the High Street). Join us for the official unveiling of the bench on Saturday, 4 November 2017, at 3pm – which will still leave you time to get to the firework display of your choice!

Taking a walk into sound

Our You Are Hear project Sound and Video Digitiser, Catherine Norris, reflects on sound and why it matters ahead of our ‘Sounds in the City’ event on Friday 27 October 2017.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with sound since I was very young. My very first bedroom growing up was positioned at the back of the house and the view from my window looked out onto a street lamp. One night I heard a buzzing sound and I thought it was in my room. I would have only been four or five years old but I distinctly remember checking under the bed and in the wardrobe as I was convinced there was a giant buzzing monster in there.

I then saw the light of the lamp and walked towards the window and realised that it was the lamp making the noise; it was hypnotising. Years later when training to be a sound engineer and learning about acoustics, I realised why I heard what I did and why it appeared to be such a strong sound.

The sound that I heard was affected by the environment it was being captured in. The fact that it was night time, that there was no traffic and no one walking around, the open casing around the lamp and the location would have all had an impact on the sound and amplified it.

There are many factors in play as to why we hear what we hear, and how and why the sounds around us change depending on what the environment is like and what else is happening within it.

I love how the outside of buildings can affect what we hear because of their shape and size, what they are made out of and how they can be a sound barrier. I also really like the contrast between man-made and natural sounds and how they can mix together.

Weather, traffic, wildlife and people all add to the soundscape we hear on a daily basis. But with many of us just rushing to get from A to B it is as if we tune out of what we could be listening to. This is a shame because there is so much out there to hear and discover.

Just over a year ago, as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project at the Essex Record Office, we launched the Essex Sounds map, made up of old and new sounds captured in Essex. This got me thinking about what else we could do to create sounds, which then led on to the idea of doing a sound walk somewhere in Essex. The sound walk would be a way of encouraging people to collect sounds and create their very own soundscapes.

This idea has now grown into a fully-fledged event taking place in the city of Chelmsford on Friday the 27th of October 2017, as part of the Ideas Festival and the Art of the Possible Festival. Chelmsford is a city that is forever changing and in soundscape terms is very interesting. It’s mixture of historic and modern buildings, nature and busy streets makes it the ideal place for a walk of this kind.

The morning session will include a talk on recording soundscapes, then the sound walk around parts of Chelmsford. During the sound walk we will be recording sounds at specific locations, with myself leading the walk and providing advice on recording techniques and acoustics and how to create the best recordings.

The afternoon session will include learning the basics of editing sound recordings with specialist software at the Essex Record Office.

You don’t need to have any previous experience with recording to come on the walk as training will be given throughout the event. We will also provide recording equipment to those not bringing their own. All you need to have is a passion or interest in sound (and suitable footwear!).

It’s going to be a very interesting event, and I’m looking forward to listening to all the sounds that get recorded on the day.

Date and time: Friday 27 October, 10.00am-4:30pm
Price: £20
Location: Meet at the Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

Advance booking to our ‘Sounds in the City’ event is essential. Please book through our website, or contact us for further information.

Harwich Society’s Memories Exchange Interviews

Recently, we have been uploading a collection of oral history interviews conducted by The Harwich Society between 2009 and 2014 (Catalogue Reference SA 49/1/2).

These twenty-four interviews are just the first instalment of an ongoing project to record the experiences of current and former residents of Harwich and Dovercourt. As with most collections of oral history interviews, they reveal shared experiences but also how life varied even in one town depending on personal circumstances.

Harwich Junior School (T/Z 241/1)

The playground of Harwich Junior School was flooded to a depth of 1½ metres (T/Z 241/1).

Most of the recordings touch on the 1953 flood. On the night of Saturday, 31 January, a storm surge caused the sea to overwhelm flood defences along the eastern coast of Britain. Harwich was one of the places affected, and the traumatic experience is unsurprisingly etched on the town’s corporate memory.

Even here, experiences varied. Some residents in Dovercourt only knew about it from news bulletins on the television. But in the Bathside area, the water rose to the first floor of people’s houses. Tom Bell and Danny Goswell, then young lads who belonged to the sailing club, were kept busy ‘fishing people out of houses’ in boats, ‘rowing around doing what we could’ (SA 49/1/2/12/1).

Evacuees sought refuge in the drill hall, where the Salvation Army was handing out blankets and cups of tea, before being billeted with family members or kind-hearted strangers with rooms to spare. The water took a week to recede, and the houses were permanently damaged. Ruby Cooper-Keeble recalls how they lost all their possessions. By the time the family moved back to the house, it had been cleaned out and redecorated, but the smell ‘stayed with it for years and years’, and ‘you could actually scrape the salt off the [wall]paper’ as it seeped out of the walls, residue from the sea salt water that flooded the home (SA 49/1/2/9/1). But as a child, she still saw the ordeal as something of an ‘adventure’.

Some people, such as Mr and Mrs Moore, never moved back (SA 49/1/2/14/1).

The interviews are full of memorable details that bring the event to life: tables laid for breakfast that neatly settled back into place once the water receded; the vigour of local hero Leonard ‘Pummie’ Rose in organising the rescue operations. The stories take different tones. Tom and Danny chuckle over how, after working all day in rescue boats, they still had the energy to go out in the evening. ‘Commandeering’ a dinghy tied up outside the police station, they rowed down the main road to the Spread Eagle pub that remained defiantly open, to enjoy a couple of Vimtos before rowing home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, recalling the childhood trauma of that long, cold, dark night spent trapped in the bedroom waiting for rescue affected one interviewee so much that it sounds as if he had to pause during the interview to compose himself.

Whether they were only onlookers or whether they lost everything, when listened to together the interviews reveal how the town rallied together to overcome this ordeal – as they had done just ten years earlier during the Second World War. From the family who tirelessly worked to restore their grandparents’ house to normal in time for Christmas (interview with Diane Butler, SA 49/1/2/11/1), to the boy who joined with his friends to build a sea wall in the sand when they moved back, ‘in our own simple way to try and stop the waves coming again’ (interview with Ray Chippington, SA 49/1/2/22/1), the town was determined to recover. And what better way to cheer flagging spirits than travelling in a ‘cavalcade of coaches’ to a football match at Wembley to support your local team in the FA Amateur Cup final? Harwich and Parkeston Football Club’s finest hour was among the happier events of 1953, as recalled by Malcolm Carter (SA 49/1/2/16/1).

The collection covers other topics as well, including experiences during the Second World War; growing up and working in Harwich; and how the town has changed. We are grateful to The Harwich Society for taking the time to capture these memories, and for allowing us to make them publicly available. We are also grateful to the participants who, as June Cummings describes, had to relive the events in the act of sharing them (SA 49/1/2/20/1).

 

You can listen to these oral history interviews in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, or, thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, in the comfort of your own home through Essex Archives Online.

It is not surprising that such a momentous event crops up in several of our other collections. You can search the subject index term ‘Floods’ to find related material, such as this film footage of the floods on Canvey Island. Or look up Hilda Grieve’s authoritative work on the 1953 floods in Essex, referred to in some of these clips: The Great Tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex (copies available in the Searchroom Library or in branch libraries across Essex).

Further afield, the East Anglian Film Archive holds a compilation of film footage of the floods which reveal the devastation caused. You can watch it for free on their website here.

Does your community have a story that should be recorded? Do you want to undertake your own oral history project? Contact us to find out more about the oral history training we provide.

Childhood: change or continuity?

Ah, the sounds of summer holidays: music blaring through open windows, buzzing bees, the ice cream van, an absence of school bells and cars doing the morning school run… and children playing?

If you believe the common rhetoric, children do not play outside anymore. Children spend all summer indoors glued to electronic screens and no longer have the capacity to invent games, be creative, be free. Is this true? What do Essex soundscapes and personal memories reveal about childhood through the ages?

Children at play on the beach (T/562/1 Image 53)

Sounds of children at play on Dovercourt Beach. Recorded by Stuart Bowditch in 2016 for Essex Sounds.

Childhood memories are a common topic covered in oral history interviews. Interviewers are keen to capture information about the earliest possible period, as the time within ‘living memory’ unceasingly marches forward. We often have the most vivid memories from our childhoods, the time when we are first learning about the world around us. Childhood also tends to be the happiest period, the age we are happiest to talk freely about – or at least the version we are comfortable recalling.

At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, therefore, we have numerous recordings of people talking about their childhoods. For example, this compilation describes the way that people played growing up on Castle Street, Saffron Walden, taken from a selection of interviews recorded for the Castle Street Residents’ Association Oral History Project (Acc. SA496).

Maggie Gyps, Jan Bright, and William Clarke describe playing in and around Castle Street, Saffron Walden in the mid-twentieth century.

The stories are amusing and evoke a golden age when children were free to just have fun. Adults tolerated their exuberance and gave them liberty to range far and wide, making their own games, immersing themselves in nature, packing a jam sandwich and being out all day during summers that were permanently warm and sunny. As the next interviewees remarked, it was a happier time, compared with children today who are mollycoddled, kept on a tight rein due to fears for their safety, and fed on a diet of electronic gadgets to keep them amused – and quiet.

Pearl Scopes and Bill and Daphne Carter ranged free on Marks Hall Estate in the post-war period (SA 51/2/5/1).

Or was it such a golden age? And is it drastically different now?

For our Essex Sounds website, we have two recordings of children at play in north-east Essex: one from 1962, and one made in 2016. Listen to the two and compare: is there a difference in the sounds of play?

Were children better behaved in the past? Many interviewees admit to scrumping, gleaning a bit of fruit from nearby orchards to keep them going on their day-long adventures. We laugh with Bill Carter who ‘borrowed’ his neighbour’s dog to take him rabbiting.

Bill Carter on ‘borrowing’ the neighbour’s dog at Marks Hall Estate (SA 51/2/5/1).

Or Joseph Thomas, who used to sneak into film showings at the Electric Palace in Harwich in the 1920s (SA 49/1/2/15/1).

Joseph Thomas sneaking into the cinema with his friends.

How does this compare with the mischief of those disrespectful youths of today? Will our grandchildren chuckle when they hear stories of what we got up to in our childhood?

Were these children up to no good? Image of Moulsham Street, Chelmsford by Frederick Spalding, 1910 (D/F 269/1/6)

Was childhood really happier in the past? It depends on the individual’s situation, as well as the specific time period. Many oral history interviewees describe working from a young age. Charles Reason, for example, had his first bread round from the age of seven, before he started work full-time after leaving school at 14.

Charles Reason describing his first job delivering bread rolls in Harwich in the 1920s (SA 49/1/2/7/1).

School terms were often set around the harvest seasons, as Gerald Palmer describes, because children stopped attending in order to go pea-picking or fruit-picking anyway (SA 59/1/102/1).

Excerpt from Coggeshall National School log book for 1873 showing low attendance due to pea-picking (E/ML 310/1).

Child labour was vital to the household economy. If children weren’t engaged in paid work, they were often heavily laden with chores around the house, particularly when the mother was absent, as experienced by Rosemary Pitts, whose mother died when she was thirteen years old (SA 55/4/1).

Rosemary Pitts’ memories of childhood in Great Waltham in 1939-1940.

Current scholarship studying Western societies generally traces the start of ‘childhood’ as a distinct phase of life back to the seventeenth century. The nineteenth century saw growing concern about the wellbeing of children, with increasing legislation regulating the employment of young people. In Britain, a series of Education Acts from 1870 onwards gradually made education compulsory and, eventually, free. The 1908 Children’s Act consolidated much previous legislation to protect children from exploitation and abuse (including abuse at the hands of the law). This represents a significant cultural shift: children were seen as vulnerable people to be protected rather than extra hands contributing to the household economy – or enabling cheaper manufacturing. However, many oral history interviews reveal that real change was much slower to take effect. Most people also have at least one memory of a particularly violent punishment suffered by themselves or a peer while at school, in the days of the dreaded cane.

Oral history interviews do tend towards rose-tinted depictions of the past,

(A12416 Box 1)

particularly childhood memories. However, by comparing many different stories from the same period, we can start to query the common narrative and draw conclusions from specific events rather than vague generalisations. Then we can take a fresh look at children today and reassess if things really have changed that much after all.

The United Nations’ 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child includes the right to play, recognising that it is an essential and characteristic part of childhood. In general, young people in Britain are today free to have fun in their leisure time. It will be interesting to hear how our children recall their formative years if giving oral history interviews later in life. For now, we can use Essex soundscapes to gauge whether or not children still play. What do your ears tell you about childhood in twenty-first-century Essex?

 

Hugh Cunningham’s book The Invention of Childhood (London: BBC Books, 2006) is an excellent starting place to research the history of childhood in Western societies. For further details of the oral history interviews mentioned above, or other memories of childhood, search Essex Archives Online.

Open your ears to Essex Sounds

Have you ever had an ear-opening moment?

This was a phrase used by legendary wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson in a keynote address delivered at the Sound+Environment Conference hosted by the University of Hull in June 2017. He used it in his narration of his personal journey into his career as a sound recordist, and it struck a chord. Have you ever experienced a moment where the soundscape was so startling, unexpected, beautiful, quiet, or loud that it opened your ears and heightened your awareness of the sounds around you?

The Essex Sounds audio map, Screenshot of the Essex Sounds audio mapdeveloped as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, could provide moments like that. Although you can listen to sounds recorded across the county from an enclosed, familiar location, browsing the Web at home or in a library, we hope it will spur you on to take greater notice of the sounds of your Essex in your daily routine: whether natural or man-made; everyday or unusual; familiar or unidentified. Do the sounds on the map reflect your own experiences, or does your Essex sound very different?

The free app version of Essex Sounds (available from Google Play or Apple IStore) allows more direct comparisons between the sounds on the map and present moment experiences. Travel to the location of one of our historic recordings from the Archive; play the sound; then take a few moments to listen to the present-day soundscapes. What are the similarities and differences? Is one quieter or louder? What does that tell us about broader changes in Essex?

The Sound+Environment Conference was full of presentations on how to encourage active listening. We learn to filter sounds because our atmospheres are so noisy. We tune into the sounds that we like (a loved one’s voice, the music coming through our headphones) or that give us important information (alarms, tannoy announcements) while ignoring those we do not (traffic, the music coming from other people’s headphones). But sometimes, it is enlightening to open our ears, notice the full range of noises around us, and contemplate what those sounds tell us about our environment.

The Conference was truly interdisciplinarian – there were even one or two other archivists in attendance. Many of the presenters were involved in acoustic ecology: judging the health of ecosystems based on the sounds that they make. For example, Dr Leah Barclay’s River Listening project seeks to collect data from hydrophones placed in rivers across the globe. What can the sounds tell us about the diversity of the ecosystems, and what, in turn, does that tell us about the condition of the water? Many presenters, like Stuart Bowditch who co-presented our paper on Essex Sounds, were sound artists: using varying combinations of field recordings, musical instruments, and technology to capture, mix, and remix soundscapes to make an artistic statement. Others were interested in merging the two disciplines to strengthen the field of ‘ecological sound art’ (as argued by Jono Gilmurray). The power of sound can move us to respond, initiating the culture change that ecologists warn is vital if we are to preserve ecosystems threatened by our current way of life.

For example, how do you feel after listening to the pounding sea in Stuart’s recording made at Bradwell-on-Sea?

Photograph taken on beach at Bradwell-on-Sea

Looking out over the sea from Bradwell-on-Sea

Or after hearing the number of peaceful recordings interrupted by aeroplanes rumbling overhead? Or after attentively listening to the baby owls in Joyce Winmill’s 1974 recording in Henham churchyard, an eavesdropping through time made possible by the simple technology of a microphone and tape recorder?

 

How does this make you feel about your Essex, how it has changed, and how it might change? What do you want your future Essex to sound like, and how do you make that happen?

Perhaps we think it is only far-flung landscapes like the Arctic Tundra or the depths of the oceans that demonstrate the majesty of nature which we must preserve. If you are thinking along those lines, stop what you are doing and open a window. Wait. Listen. What sounds do you hear? Essex Sounds is full of birdsong: some, yes, recorded in secluded environments such as wildlife reserves, but some just captured in towns, in the midst of our everyday lives.

This, too, is nature that might have changed and might change in future.

Neither is it just natural sounds that indicate change over time. Changing human activity is also evident on our sound map. Some industries have only moved. Others have largely disappeared, machinery laid to rest in museums, only resurrected for special events.

 

Perhaps you can identify with this collection of ‘lost sounds of Essex’, collected in 2015 when we asked people which sounds they no longer hear (Word Cloud created at Wordle.net).

Wordcloud of suggestions of lost sounds

What other changes become apparent from playing with Essex Sounds? Is there some vital sound that is missing from the map? Please help us make it more representative by adding your own contributions. Or perhaps you are a sound artist inspired by our collection of historic and modern sounds. We would love to hear ideas about how we can reuse these sounds and present them in new ways.

But above all, please take time to listen to the present-day Essex. Wake up five minutes earlier to allow time to listen before you start your day. Pause in your commute. Think again before popping on headphones. Close your eyes and open your ears.

Would you be interested in a sound walk event around Essex, which would incorporate an introduction into active listening, making sound recordings, and editing the results? We are running a survey to gauge interest in such an event. Please let us know what you think, and you could win a discount on the ticket price.