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.

A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench

As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we are working with volunteers to install listening benches across Essex. These solar-powered park benches play clips of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, recordings chosen and put together by our volunteers. The listening bench for Coggeshall was successfully unveiled on Tuesday 11 July. Each listening bench launch has its own character, but this was the first to include a poetry recital in honour of the bench! We loved the poem so much that we wanted to reprint it, with an introduction by another volunteer to explain how the Coggeshall bench came about.

Miall James writes:

Back in January I went into the Coggeshall Library, and one of the staff asked me if I knew anyone who’d be interested in setting up a Listening Bench. So I asked what it was, was told, and said, OK, I’ll give it a go. I recruited my friend Nic Johnson, a well known, if fairly new in Coggeshall terms, local resident, and together we enlisted the aid of two more, thought that was enough and presented ourselves to the Essex Record Office.

Photograph of volunteers with listening bench

Volunteers who worked on Coggeshall’s listening bench (L-R: Michael Horne, Nic Johnson, Miall James, Stan Haines (who opened the bench), and Sylvie Overnell).

One of the two was Michael Horne, a well-known local historian and poet (and Lord of the Manor of Little Coggeshall), who in fact wrote some of what finally went onto the bench; the other was Sylvie Overnell, a retired local teacher, with local contacts. We looked at what was required, divided up the work and got on with it. There were no arguments; we discussed what to do, agreed and got on with it. Indeed it’s wonderful what can be done if no one’s bothered about who gets the credit! Finally, after about five months’ work we were ready, and the bench was ready for use.

Photograph of Miall James and Stan Haines standing behind listening bench

Miall James with Stan Haines officially ‘opening’ Coggeshall’s listening bench

We recruited Stan Haines, who has lived in the town most of his life, and was Chairman of the Parish Council for 48 years, to officiate at the opening.

The only thing that went wrong was the weather on the day, which wasn’t as kind as it might have been!

We’ve had some very good feedback, and we feel that, with a little fine-tuning, our Listening Bench will be something our fellow citizens can enjoy for many years to come.

Michael Horne’s poem composed for the occasion

A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench at Doubleday Corner
11 July 2017

Photograph of Michael Horne in front of bench

Michael Horne reciting his poem

On this occasion so polite,
I can do nothing but endite
A hymn of praise, with joy intense,
To Coggeshall’s newborn Listening Bench.

We’ll take upon us, even now,
An eleemosynary vow
To set up Peace, Goodwill and Sense
Upon our worthy Listening Bench.

The stories that we now can hear
Bring memories back that are so dear
To all who’ve taken up residence
Near Coggeshall’s stalwart Listening Bench.

They speak of pubs and crafts and trades
From days of yore, of men and maids
Who gave our town its eminence,
Preserved now on the Listening Bench.

In times of great austerities,
With caps on pay and a pension squeeze,
When fiscal stocks we must retrench,
We’ll still possess our Listening Bench.

People will come this bench to view
Both in and outside the EU,
And accents Dutch, Peruvian, French
Will echo from our Listening Bench.

So men may come and men may go,
Enslaved by Time’s incessant flow,
But anything of permanence
Will stay within our Listening Bench.

And now I’ll cease these paltry rhymes
Unworthy of these glorious times,
Let’s shout instead, with Power Immense,
Three cheers for Coggeshall’s Listening Bench!

Check our website for details of further listening bench launches, and to keep track of our two touring benches. Can you visit them all?

Map of all 18 listening benches

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Musing on music in the Essex Sound and Video Archive

The Essex Sound and Video Archive contains a wide range of musical recordings relating to Essex musicians or Essex venues. Here our You Are Hear Project Officer, Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, reflects on the research value of some of the pieces she has enjoyed discovering.

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7)

At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, we hold a large collection of music recordings, covering a range of genres. We have a particularly strong folk collection, from amateur recordings of folk club evenings to professionally released albums. We also have classical, choral, pop, rock, and songs that defy classification.

Listening to these recordings is a pleasure. The songs can be uplifting, amusing, inspiring – or merely nice background music to help while away the hours. But does the entertainment value of this music justify long-term preservation in climate-controlled conditions? Maybe, but the recordings fulfill other purposes as well.

For starters, they showcase the talent of Essex musicians – or, in some cases, of musicians performing in Essex. We should preserve their work in the same way that local art galleries collect, commission, and display visual art. While we could rely on record labels to keep copies of everything they produce, not all musicians make it that far: a tentative performance at a folk club may be the only time an artist’s work has been captured.

Brentwood Cathedral in c. 1930 (I/Mb 52/1/21)

Brentwood Cathedral in c. 1930 (I/Mb 52/1/21)

Then, listening to this music in Essex adds extra meaning. What inspired the musicians? What is it about Brentwood that moved Chris Jones to write ‘Brentwood Gavotte’ (Acc. SA140) and Tino Moreno to compose his piece for Brentwood Cathedral Boys’ Choir (SA 19/1/64/1)? Do you hear something different in the music if you listen to it in Brentwood than if you listen in, say, Brentford?

In some cases, we hold oral history interviews recorded with Essex musicians, so you can listen to their life stories alongside their music. For example, you can listen to an interview with Peter Searles (SA 15/1/4/1/1), then listen to music by his band, Mark Shelley and the Deans (SA 15/2/1/4/1). How does this change how you perceive the music?

Lyrics can also give insights into social customs, culture, and working practices of the time in which they were written – not to mention showcasing the transient Essex dialect.

The song ‘Owd Rat Tailed Tinker’ reveals attitudes of Essex ploughmen towards Londoners, who misused their horses and looked down on their country neighbours (SA 24/221/1). Have attitudes changed since this song was recorded in the early twentieth century?

 

The folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ describes the process of harvesting barley and then brewing it into beer (SA 6/305/1). Beneath the personification of the barleycorn, the song reveals what harvest looked like before mechanisation, including men using scythes, pitchforks, cudgels, and millstones.

 

Chris Jones’ song ‘Rayleigh Good Christmas’ describes a typical Christmas scene in Rayleigh in the late twentieth century (Acc. SA140). Among other things, the lyrics mention the shop Woolworth’s, which disappeared from our high streets in 2009. He also refers to people ‘at the bank… queuing for money’. How long before this, too, is a thing of the past?

 

Future researchers might be puzzled by references to ‘The Sally Army’, but the lyrics will preserve cultural references and informal language less likely to find their way into written documents.

And then, perhaps music goes some way towards preserving the essence of a culture. Would it be too much to claim that the music in our collection presents the spirit of Essex? We will leave you to muse on this question over a motet by sixteenth-century composer Thomas Tallis, possibly written while he was organist at Waltham Abbey, performed here by The Walk Fair Singers in 1993 (SA 1/1287/1).

 

Some of the music mentioned above cannot be put online for copyright reasons, but it can be played in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office. Find out more about visiting us, or get in touch for more information. You can also order a copy, so you can listen to your favourite song while doing the housework or driving to work. Search Essex Archives Online for your favourite composer or Essex artist and see what you can discover.


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New recordings to commemorate the 1953 floods

During the night of January 31st, many of the lower-lying districts of eastern England were overwhelmed by a devastating flood.

So begins the narration to a documentary created by the department that later became the Essex County Council Educational Video Unit about the 1953 floods (VA 3/8/4/1). The documentary focuses on Canvey Island, which was severely hit by the floods, and was put together from film footage taken at the time.

The floods caused terrible suffering: people drowned or died from exposure to the bitter cold, waiting on islands of rooftops to be rescued; houses and possessions were ruined; livelihoods destroyed. But is there a purpose in holding commemorations year after year, making the same observations, telling the same stories?

We could point you to a blog entry we wrote in 2013, on the sixtieth anniversary of the floods. It cites some staggering figures of the losses suffered, illustrated by harrowing photographs showing the full extent of the flood. Is there anything more to say four years later?

Recent bad weather no doubt brought back the full fear of flood to coastal residents, particularly those who were evacuated from Jaywick. The sea defences are vastly improved, particularly with the sea wall erected round Canvey Island, but we can never guarantee safety from the threat of flood. Can the history of the 1953 floods help us when facing such threats today?

One of the audio-video kiosks touring the county for our You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place project is currently visiting Canvey Island Library. To prepare for this, we have been digitising sound and video recordings about the floods in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, including the documentary mentioned above.

Listening to memories of the survivors and those who helped the rescue efforts, like watching the contemporary film footage, gives greater impact to studying the events. Hearing the emotion in people’s voices, learning about individual experiences, brings the history to life as no text book can do.

Listen to one woman’s memories of that terrible night in this clip from a special BBC Essex programme about the floods, ‘Tide on Tide’, first broadcast in 1988 (SA 1/313/1).

Still image from the 1953 documentary about the floods on Canvey Island (VA 3/8/4/1)

Still image from the 1953 documentary about the floods on Canvey Island (VA 3/8/4/1)

More than that, people’s stories of the clear-up efforts can teach us lessons if facing similar catastrophes. The documentary shows people rowing for their lives to bring people to safety, helping at rescue centres, pulling together to rebuild the sea wall. Much of this work was done by the Army, the police, and voluntary organisations, but members of the public also pitched in to help. It is encouraging to see how whole communities came together in the face of danger. And how many smiling faces can you spot in the film footage, despite the ordeal?

Sir Bernard Braine, then MP for Canvey, praises his constituents in this clip from the ‘Tide on Tide’ programme (SA 1/313/1).

One local hero, Winne Capser, illustrates this attitude. In subsequent days, she took it upon herself to rescue pets and reunite them with their owners. We could question whether it was worth the risk. But to the owners, having these non-human members of their families back again was probably a great comfort, and a big step towards returning to normality.

Clip of Winne Capser talking about rescuing animals after the 1953 flood. This is from a Sounds of Brentwood feature on the floods produced by Dennis Rookard and broadcast in 2013 (SA 2/1/110/1).

It wasn’t just local people who helped: as news spread, people nationally and internationally were prompted to donate clothing, household goods, and food to help families get back on their feet. In Harwich, whole houses were donated from Norway to relieve evacuees temporarily accommodated in caravans on the Green.

Another clip from the Sounds of Brentwood feature, this time with Cllr Ray Howard and Fred McCave describing the donations sent from across the globe to help flood survivors (SA 2/1/110/1).

We should also raise questions about how the floods are commemorated. Jaywick lost 5% of its population – but how often is this town mentioned in comparison to Canvey or Harwich?

Further clip from the ‘Tide on Tide’ programme, talking about the impact of the flood on Jaywick, and the impact of Jaywick on public consciousness of the flood (SA 1/313/1).

We talk about the community spirit, but do we also talk about the police that were put in place to protect against looters in the aftermath? Which stories are absolute fact, and which have turned into folklore?

Clip about a thief caught stealing money from gas meters after Canvey Island had been evacuated, from the BBC Essex ‘Tide on Tide’ programme (SA 1/313/1).

By combining contemporary film footage, personal memories, newspaper reports, and official documents, we can build up a full picture of that awful night. We can then use this picture for commemorating the local heroes who saved countless lives, and for drawing inspiration to respond to future disasters.

You can watch the full documentary and some of these sound recordings through Essex Archives Online. You can visit the audio-video kiosk at Canvey Island Library, or view the same content on our second touring kiosk at Brentwood Library, until they move to their next venues at the end of March.

You Are Hear is a three-year Essex Sound and Video Archive project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. You can read more about it on our project blog site.

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Sounds of Essex captured for future generations

For our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we commissioned Sound Recordist Stuart Bowditch to capture what Essex sounds like in the present-day. Some of his recordings were made in response to historic recordings of events and places from our Archive, some in response to public suggestions about which sounds represent Essex, and some on a whim and a fancy. The recordings have been posted on our online audio map of Essex Sounds, where you can compare past and present recordings made across the county. They have also been deposited with the Essex Sound and Video Archive, so future generations can experience the sounds we hear today. What will Essex sound like in fifty years?

You can read about Stuart’s week-long trip to the north of the county in an earlier blog entry. Here, he reflects on the project as a whole. All images used with Stuart’s kind permission.

So, the recording phase of the You Are Hear project comes to a close, and I will miss it. It has been a year full of exploration and discovery, meeting a multitude of characters and learning about local skills and traditions, none of which was further than 42 miles (as the crow flies) away from where I live. I have travelled from the more familiar industrial and suburban south to the rural wilds of the north, and from the summery seaside riviera of the east to the west that seems somehow slightly detached and belonging to neighbouring counties.

We knew from the outset that the project would only be fruitful if we listened to local people, their suggestions and invaluable local knowledge. But we also knew that the ‘picture’ of Essex that could be formed from its diverse sounds would be more vivid and much wider than the stereotypical image that is often perceived. We carried out public surveys in several towns and reached out using mailing lists and social media, asking: What does Essex sound like? What sounds are connected to the place where you live? What is a sound of today or yesteryear? What sounds are new or have been lost? Questions certainly got people thinking, and we were bombarded with suggestions, clues, hints and leads to where, when and how we could find them. It was my job to take this valuable information and to try and capture the sounds for preservation in the archive; to paint that ‘picture’ of Essex as best as I could.

I drove (a 15 year-old Corsa), jumped on trains (including a Class 156 and Class 31), climbed, hiked and walked to all kinds of destinations, at all times of day and night, in all kinds of weather and every season throughout the year. I discovered new places and villages that I’d never heard of, as well as revisiting places I’m familiar with to hear them in a new ‘light’. Wherever I went, I went with an open mind, not jumping to any conclusions before arriving in order for me to capture as authentic a recording as possible. Apart from setting out with a small nugget of information, who was I to know what a place would actually sound like on any given day? There are so many variables that it’s really not helpful to try and imagine them on the way there. Upon arriving, discretion, sensitivity and impartiality were often paramount to capturing the right moment, negotiating permission or gaining access to property.

 

Photograph of cranes loading container ship

Maersk Lins being loaded at DP world, London Gateway. Listen to the sounds on the Essex Sounds page.

Working for the Essex Record Office helped to reassure people that my intentions were honourable,and that recording the sound of their activity, place of work or garden was of value, even though at first they may have thought the idea strange. It also afforded me some leverage in gaining access I wouldn’t usually be able to negotiate by myself, such as on the quayside of the DP World super port and the factory and farms of Wilkin and Sons Ltd.

 

I’ve also had to do things I never had before in order to gain access to places, such as sign disclaimers and send a scan of my passport through a week in advance to gain access to a restricted area. In fact I’ve gone to quite some lengths in the pursuit of capturing sounds: I even put my recording kit through an X-ray machine to record, amongst other things, the men who are responsible for luggage ending up in Barbados when it should have been in Lanzarote.

As well as contributing to a more detailed and colourful image of Essex and its inhabitants, I have also learned a lot during this project. People are generous with their time, knowledge, good will, and sometimes even gifts. Some people’s skills and knowledge are very niche, which is interesting, informative and essential, both in their given field and in their ability to find somewhere within society where they excel. Others were reluctantly compliant when asked by their boss to start up a particular machine so that I could record it, but reassured after a chat about the reason for my interrupting their work routine. There is a reasonably high level of trust between folk, which worked in both directions: someone letting a stranger into their house to record the aeroplanes, and me meeting a man outside the chip shop in Jaywick at 10pm with my sound recording equipment. Both situations were problem free, naturally, and led to good recordings and unique experiences for all parties.

I discovered that a big, fluffy microphone windshield apparently resembles a cute, fluffy animal, and some members of the public seemed surprised when they discovered that its owner wasn’t so. I mean, you wouldn’t put your finger onto a photographer’s lens and expect them to be happy about it, would you? But being so visible also worked the other way, as I was able stand in the middle of two hundred people drinking champagne and eating canapes for 40 minutes whilst appearing to be invisible.

Photograph of microphone in front of Royal mail vans

The microphone recording soundscapes on Halstead High Street. Did you see the microphone on our Twitter feed? It gained its own followers as it travelled round the county in search of the best sounds.

My work didn’t finish with recording. Most of the recordings were edited and uploaded to the Essex Sounds website, where you can explore the map and listen to sounds relating to that place. As part of the project, we’ve also been digitising a lot of the archived recordings, and you can hear recordings we’ve made as a comparison to archival recordings. One such location is Chelmsford Cattle Market, where you can hear what the market sounded like in the 1950s or what the site sounded like in 2016 (now the indoor High Chelmer shopping centre). You can also hear Colchester United winning a 1971 match at their Layer Road stadium, but losing in 2016 at Weston Homes Community Stadium (oh dear).

We also reached out to the general public to contribute, and many people have uploaded their own recordings to further widen the view of where we live. If you have something that you would like to contribute, please head over to the website and get clicking. Or if you’d prefer just to hear what we have all been collecting, the map is where it’s at. I hope you enjoy it.

Is there a sound of Essex that we have missed from our map? We continue to welcome public contributions of sound recordings to our Essex Sounds map. Read more about how to contribute, then get recording!

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