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

You Are Hear Up North

For the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we commissioned a Sound Recordist, Stuart Bowditch, to capture some of the sounds of Essex in 2015/2016. We compiled suggestions from members of the public, gathered at survey events held last year, of typically Essex sounds that should be recorded. We also had some specific items in mind to compare with historic sounds already in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.

Stuart has busily been recording here, there, and everywhere to get a wide range of recordings. They will be deposited with the archive, so future generations can hear what Essex sounded like in 2015-2016. Clips are also being pinned to our online audio map of Essex Sounds. There, you can compare the sounds of today with sounds of similar places or events from days gone by (click on the ‘old and new’ option at the top of the page).

At the end of June, Stuart went on a week-long recording trip to the north of the county. Here are some of his thoughts after day one of his trip.

Day One of my Trip to North Essex: 13 June 2016

After packing my bags and picking up some kit from the studio I set off for the wilds of north Essex, happy to be leaving the south behind. Farewell to the estuary, to the busy Victorian terraces and crowded roads with a particular style of driving. It felt good to wave goodbye. And then say hello to a long queue on the A130. But despite that, I made it to the Essex Record Office to pick up some project flyers before heading to my first port of call, Marks Tey. Not exactly north, but the gateway to the Gainsborough Line, which takes you due north to Sudbury, via Chappell and Bures.

Photograph of platform at Marks Tey station with microphone in the foreground

The roving microphone at Marks Tey station

I’d sought permission to record from Abellio Greater Anglia but hadn’t heard back, so I asked at the station when I arrived. My slightly unusual request was met with some surprise and puzzlement, but after a couple of phone calls the station manager gave me permission, and I set off with my instructions not to stand next to the edge of the track. So I recorded a few trains passing through the station (a class 360 to Ipswich stopping and departing, a class 90 Intercity to Liverpool Street, a class 66 freight train to Felixstowe port and another class 360 to Liverpool Street) and waited for the Sudbury train to arrive.

 

The driver and guard seemed okay to have me on board, and I duly recorded the whole journey through Chappel & Wakes Colne and Bures to Sudbury. I wasn’t sure if it was just the way of things, but there were no announcements or tickets checked during the entire journey, which would have made the listening experience of recording a little bit more informative. On the return journey, however, an announcement was made about the ticket machine not working, which was a shame to miss as it added some personality to the soundscape.

I broke the journey at Bures and took a walk around town. I had to backtrack a few
hundred metres after I discovered that my tripod attachment had fallen off, but
luckily I found it next to a huge puddle in Water Lane.

Photograph of large puddle on Water Lane

Photograph of River Stour, with microphone in foreground

Roving microphone by the River Stour

 

I bought a sandwich from the local delicatessen and found a very nice spot next to the River Stour from which to eat it and also to record. It was slightly raining, but that did nothing to  deter the house martins, ducks and ducklings, and occasional passersby from enjoying the peaceful moment.

 

Back in Marks Tey, I loaded up the car and drove west, through Coggeshall to see if my friend Walt was in. He wasn’t. That’s a shame as he said it’s particularly quiet standing in his garden and had invited me over to record one day. I had to leave that for another time. So I proceeded further along the A120 and saw a sign for Stisted. My friend Ed had said it was a particularly beautiful village, so I decided to take a detour. The buildings are great, so I decided to park up at the Village Green. As I did so the school bell was chiming, but unfortunately it had stopped by the time I had set up the microphone. I waited for half an hour there, but the bell never chimed again. However, I did get a great recording of the birds on the green which included chaffinch, greenfinch, robin and blackbird. There was also a reasonably continuous stream of cars making turns at the junction, but when they weren’t present the quietness was really pronounced and the recording will clearly indicate the impact that motor vehicles have on the sonic environment. I may return tomorrow if I’m in that area to try and record the school bell.

Photograph of Stisted village green with microphone in the foreground

Roving microphone by Stisted village green

 

Next on the list was Halstead High Street, and I decided to make two recordings here, one at the bottom of the hill and one at the top. There was a constant flow of traffic along the high street, including many vans and heavy goods vehicles. There were also plenty of passersby going about their daily business, including people of all ages and social standings. One of the interesting things about this project is picking up the different accents and languages that can be heard in different parts of Essex today, and coming from the south of the county it was interesting to note that in an hour on Halstead high street I didn’t hear a single foreign language. The recording at the bottom of the hill features two van drivers loading parcels and letters from the Post Office and some children playing.

Photograph of Post Office workers loading vans with microphone in foreground

 

The recording at the top of hill was made next to the war memorial as light rain was falling, and also captured the moment that St. Andrew’s Church struck 5 o’clock.

 

The first day of recording had felt reasonably productive, and despite the promise of some traditionally British inclement weather the next day I was looking forward to more roaming and recording.

All of Stuart’s recordings from his trip up north are collected here on the Essex Sounds website. You can follow Stuart’s progress with his latest recordings on his Twitter account: @stuartbowditch.E-invite to launch event

To hear more about Stuart’s adventures, plus talks from the rest of the project team and guest speaker Martin Newell, come to our official Essex Sounds launch. The event will be held at Colchester Town Hall on Wednesday 28 September 2016, from 6:00pm to 9:00pm. Attendance is free, but please register on our Eventbrite page.

Sound and video recordings now available on Essex Archives Online

Did you know that the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex Record Office holds over 30,000 recordings of oral history interviews, music, local radio and television broadcasts, and much more? The best way to discover all the treasures in the Archive is to search Essex Archives Online – and now you can also play a sample of the recordings directly from the website.

Screenshot of video player on Essex Archives Online

With the latest update to our online catalogue, we can now embed audio and video recordings from hosting websites such as Soundcloud and YouTube. This means you can listen or watch our recordings without having to go to a different site – recordings like this ‘Haunted Essex’ clip from an EastWard Hospital Television programme.

You can also search specifically for items that have audio or video recordings attached to the catalogue entry. From the main search page, choose ‘Audio Visual’ from the ‘Refine your search’ drop-down box.

Screenshot showing option to find a-v material on Essex Archives Online

Why not try it now? For example, try searching for ‘school’ – and remember to first select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box.

This is also an option on the Advanced Search page. Please note that this will only return results where we have uploaded digital copies of the recordings. There are many more amazing treasures in the Archive yet to be digitised, so do get in touch if you cannot find what you are looking for.

Maybe you are not specifically looking for audio or video material, but, as you search the A-v iconwhole catalogue, you might come across some relevant recordings. You can quickly spot which results have audio-visual content, because you will see this icon on the results page.

You will need to create an account on Essex Archives Online and log in before you can view or listen to the content. However, you do not need to purchase a subscription: the material is absolutely free to play, and can be played as often as you like. So you can scrutinise, frame by frame, this 1980s video of St Cedd’s School Choir performing at the Chelmsford Cathedral Festival to see if you recognise anyone.

Or perfect your Anglo-Saxon.

This means you no longer have to travel to the Essex Record Office to use Essex Sound and Video Archive material (but of course we would be happy to help you with your research in the Searchroom if you do want to visit). Instead, you can play recordings from the comfort of your own home – or in the library, or an Internet café, or your garden if your Wi-Fi is strong enough (but please be considerate of others when listening).

This material is being made available for free thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place. The material available online will continue to grow as we digitise more of our recordings over the next two years of the project. Follow us on Soundcloud or YouTube to be alerted to new uploads.

For more information about You Are Hear, you can go to the project blog site or the Essex Sounds website, or you can sign up to receive news updates.

We would love to hear what you think about the content we have added so far. Please also let us know if you experience any problems using the site.

All these recordings are being made available under a Creative Commons (Attribution Non-Commercial) licence. If you wish to use any material for commercial purposes, please get in touch. You can also contact us about recordings that have not yet been uploaded.

For more information about the Essex Sound and Video Archive and the digitisation and consultancy services we provide, please visit our website.

HLF Logo

Historic sounds of Essex – coming to a town near you

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, You Are Hear Project Officer

If a bench could talk, what would it say? The listening benches being installed across the county by the Essex Record Office do talk, and they tell you stories and play you recordings of local history past and present – recordings like these memories of growing up on Marks Hall Estate by Pearl Scopes and Bill and Daphne Carter (SA 51/2/5/1, full interview available on the Discovering Coggeshall YouTube channel).

 

Thanks to National Lottery players, eight sound benches are being installed across the county this summer, with two others touring country parks, towns, and villages as part of You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place. At the same time, two interactive audio-video kiosks will tour public places, with a third installed at the Essex Record Office (ERO).

You Are Hear is a three-year, £276,800 project to digitise, catalogue, and make available many of the historically significant sound and video recordings in the ERO’s Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). The project is mainly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), with additional support from the Essex Heritage Trust and the Friends of Historic Essex.

The sound benches will be loaded with recordings that tell the story of the location in which they are placed. You will be able to choose which recording you’d like to hear, and it will be played to you through the in-built speakers.

Permanent benches will be located in Basildon, Castle Hedingham, Colchester, Great Dunmow, Great Waltham, Harwich, Kelvedon, and Saffron Walden.

Cartoon map of Essex showing location of benches

Location of the first eight benches being installed this summer

The first bench was launched in Castle Park, Colchester, on Saturday 4 June.

Picture of Cllr Young cutting ribbon on bench

Cllr Julie Young, Mayor of Colchester, opening the listening bench in Castle Park

You can find the bench near the entrance to the Castle. It features clips from oral history interviews recorded by the Colchester Recalled Oral History Group, who also selected the clips and put them together for the bench. Councillor Annie Feltham, Colchester Borough Council Portfolio Holder for Business, Leisure and Opportunities, said:

“This bench is a great new way for the people of Colchester and visitors to learn about local history through a shared social experience. Hearing real audio clips of voices and sounds, of people who have lived and worked in Colchester over the years, will really bring their stories to life.”

Two more sound benches will be touring the county from June, starting at Stansted Airport and Belhus Woods Country Park. See if you can visit them all! Send us a picture of you with each bench, and tell us which clip was your favourite.

Image of the touring kiosk

The touring kiosks that will visit libraries and museums across the county (image courtesy of blackbox-av)

Two audio-video touchscreen kiosks filled with a selection of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive will also be touring from 4 July. The kiosks will first visit Chelmsford Museum and Loughton Library, before embarking on a tour that will take them the length and breadth of Essex.

A third kiosk will be permanently installed at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.

The project is working with community groups in villages and towns throughout Essex, helping them to reflect upon where they live by engaging with the recordings. Each group created a montage of clips about their community from recordings in the Archive, which will be played on the sound benches.

Councillor John Spence, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Finance, with responsibility for Heritage, Culture and the Arts, said:

“So often we rely on the eye to bring archives to life; creating this aural dimension not only lets blind people like me have the experience, it actually immerses you in the sounds of the period, or place.”

Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, said:

“this is a fantastic way for local people and visitors to get a sense of the history of these places, and what life was like for local communities over the years. We are delighted that, thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to fund this project to bring local history, and local benches, to life!”

The two listening benches will visit the following locations this year:

  • June – August 2016: Stansted Airport and Belhus Woods Country Park
  • September – November 2016: Hatfield Forest and Cudmore Grove Country Park
  • December 2016 – February 2017: intu Lakeside Shopping Centre and Thorndon Country Park
  • March – May 2017: Battlesbridge Antiques Centre and Cressing Temple

The two audio-video kiosks will visit these venues this year:

  • July – September 2016: Chelmsford Museum and Loughton Library
  • October – December 2016: Zinc Arts, Ongar and Fingringhoe Wick Visitor Centre
  • January – March 2017: Canvey Island Library and Brentwood Library
  • April – June 2017: Jaywick Martello Tower and Caxton Books and Gallery, Frinton-on-Sea / The Naze Education and Visitor Centre

For the latest news on tour dates and community installations, keep an eye on our Essex Sounds website.

We are still taking bookings for the second year of the tours, and looking for volunteers to help with the second round of community bench installations. Please get in touch by e-mail or on 033301 32467 if you have any suggestions.

To find out more about the project and subscribe to receive updates, visit http://www.essexrecordofficeblog.co.uk/you-are-hear/

You can also listen to our recordings as they are being digitised through our Soundcloud channel.

A day in the life of Chelmsford Library: 5 April 2016

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, You Are Hear Project Officer

What does a library sound like in 2016? A zoo, apparently.

 

Stereotypically, libraries are quiet places, where everyone must speak in hushed tones. They are places for reading and studying, solitary activities that create minimal noise and require a calm, peaceful environment. But is that still what is required of a twenty-first-century public library in the middle of a busy city?

Unfortunately the Essex Sound and Video Archive does not have many recordings of what libraries sounded like in the past. To rectify this for future generations, I spent a day in Chelmsford Library, capturing the different soundscapes over the course of the nine and a half hours when it was open to the public. All the recordings were made on Tuesday, 5 April 2016: a beautiful sunny day during the school Easter holidays. I was using only a handheld Zoom H1 digital recorder (recorded as wav files and later converted to mp3s).

I arrived at the Library shortly before it opened at 9:00 am. I expected to be the first one at the door. I expected to have plenty of time to establish myself in the best location before the general public started to trickle in and create noise. But there were already people waiting at the door to get in, mostly students intent on studying for looming exams. From the start of the day to the very end, I was never the sole member of the public inside.

By the time I had set up my equipment and started to record about half an hour later, the Library was already a busy hive of activity. Among other things, a member of staff agrees to put up a community notice: the Library serves as an information point about local activities.

 

At first, I sat on a chair placed halfway between the front doors and the issue desk, opposite the self-issue machines. Periodically you can hear people using the machines, returning books into the bins provided. But you can also hear the ding of staff issuing books at the desk, followed by the more traditional stamp as they put the due date in the book: here they are not insistent on people using the self-issue machines.

 

In the early afternoon, I worked upstairs. It being exam season, these study desks were almost all occupied. Though some of the noise travelled up, and a siren infiltrated the windows from outside, this area provided something of the peace and quiet traditionally associated with libraries, allowing people to focus on their work.

 

Later in the day, I worked by the public access computers. This area was even quieter: perhaps because it was later in the day and there were fewer people in the library, or perhaps because it was shielded from the general activity in the open area. Surprisingly, there were few technological noises, such as dings and beeps of error messages. There was only an occasional burst of typing: perhaps less than there would have been thirty years ago, when operating systems relied more on keyboards than mice? There is also the unmistakeable, clean sound of someone opening a fizzy drink: the library has an amenable policy of allowing people to drink inside, even by the computers: something my mother never allowed her IT students to do (nor her children at home).

 

Different activities took place over the course of the day. A read-aloud book group meets once a month to enjoy reading together, as well as discussing the text. They are currently working their way through Simon Armitage’s Walking Away, and, after reading for a time, they broke into a discussion of Armitage’s prose versus his poetry.

 

The Library’s sensory wall was also open in the morning, in the children’s section. This is actually a corner: two walls full of gadgets that produce different sounds and lights, touchy-feely parts with different textures, mirrors, and play-things. It was fun watching the children interact with each other and the wall.

 

Elsewhere in the children’s section, the Library proved that it is still about reading. Listen out for the sound of a woman reading a book aloud to a captive audience.

 

The Library provided so much enjoyment that for one boy it was a devastating blow when he was told that the back end of the children’s section had to be closed off for a private booking.

 

The different soundscapes of all these different activities come together into one great crescendo of noise when you stand on the stairs. Children, adults, machines working and playing – mixed with the conversations you can hear from County Hall offices that adjoin the Library – create a busy atmosphere. There are no librarians demanding quiet here.

 

The 1850 Public Libraries Act was the first piece of legislation granting town councils the right to use money raised through rates on the establishment and running of a public library facility. There were restrictions: it only applied to boroughs with a population of over 10,000, and they could only spend a set proportion of the rates on libraries (the legislation was extended to smaller towns and even parishes by the 1855 Public Libraries Act). Significantly, any such library would have to operate on the basis of free admission.

The use of library spaces has undeniably changed in the last 150 years, with a resulting impact on the sounds you hear inside. There is less whispering and rustling of pages. Libraries now offer more than books and study spaces: from public computers (increasingly important to combat digital exclusion) to social groups; meeting spaces to play rooms. We can speculate about how libraries will change in future, and how this will affect the soundscapes. Nevertheless, the service they provide remains true to the original purpose of the act: providing facilities ‘for the Instruction and Recreation of the People’.

The soundscape at Chelmsford Library did get gradually quieter over the course of the day. By the time I returned to the stairs at around 6:15 pm, the children had gone home, the students had packed up for the day, and the few people remaining were quickly checking out books and printing off documents before the Library shut. Staff went through the closing-up routine on computers and machines. It was noticeably quieter. That stereotypical hush had finally descended on the Library, but creating an aura of settling down to sleep and preparing for another busy day the next day.

 

Perhaps this one last clip is sufficient to demonstrate the valuable role that public libraries continue to play.

 

I echo this customer’s thanks: I am very grateful to the staff at the library for facilitating my recording visit.

Does your local library sound different? What about your college or university library, or an institutional or workplace library? We want to add the soundscapes you experience to our audio map of Essex Sounds, created as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project. You can find instructions on our ‘contribute’ page, or get in touch to ask for more information.

You can listen to all of these clips, finishing with a more extended version of the recordings, on our Soundcloud channel here.

HLF Logo