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!

Document of the Month September 2017: Farming and national survival in the First World War

This month’s Document of the Month is a small part of the story of how Britain was saved from starvation during the First World War.

100 years ago our ancestors were facing a food crisis. When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, the country had enough wheat in stock to last for just 125 days. In the decades preceding the First World War Britain had increasingly relied on imports of food, and by 1914 60% of its food supply was imported. Between 1914 and 1917 these imports were increasingly under attack by German U-boats; by 1914 the Germans were sinking one in four merchant ships in the Atlantic.[1]

Farmers at home faced the huge challenge of growing enough food to feed the nation. Not only did this mean bringing more land under arable cultivation than ever before, it meant doing so with a shortage of male agricultural workers and a shortage of horses.

In an effort to make sure the nation had enough to eat, in late 1915 the Board of Agriculture called for counties to set up War Agricultural Committees. The records of the Essex War Agricultural Committee, today looked after at ERO, can give us valuable insights into the efforts that went in to producing enough food to keep the nation alive.

The War Agricultural Committees were intended to ensure greater productivity of agricultural land and to increase the amount of land under cultivation. Despite their work, by December 1916, the Board of Agriculture was extremely concerned at the decrease in acreages of particular crops, when compared with the previous decades.  A meeting that month noted that the combined acreage for the production of wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas and carrots in Essex had fallen from 428,904 in 1874 to 324,352 in 1914. Most of this decrease was due to a drop in wheat production, which was increasingly imported from the USA.

In January 1917, a new committee was formed from members of the existing Essex War Agriculture Committee. The Executive Food Production Committee, later renamed the Agricultural Executive Committee, were required to oversee improvements on an almost full time basis. In their meetings, members discussed the loans of equipment and horses; requests for petrol, the housing of prisoners of war (often in workhouses and camps) and the employment of women on the land.  In extreme cases, they could also arrange for the removal of tenants where the land was not being farmed to their approval.

It is clear from an early stage that there were tensions between the agricultural committees and local military tribunals concerning agricultural workers. The minutes often include decisions regarding applications for exemption from call up on the grounds of work of national importance, requesting a transfer to army reserves or release from military service and for temporary leave.

At one such meeting 100 years ago this month, the Agricultural Executive Committee approved a number of applications on these grounds.  An H. J. Willett was granted a voucher to remain in employment as a tractor supervisor in Chelmsford and a Private G. Cole was allowed to join the army reserves in order to continue as a wheelwright at Pitsea. This reminds us that farmers and agricultural labourers relied on other skilled workers to maintain and improve production. It would be interesting to see whether the number of applications for exemptions increased as the war progressed and the need for greater production and for more men in the armed forces intensified.

Extract from the Essex Agricultural Executive Committee in September 1917, where applications for transfer to the army reserve or for leave and for petrol licences were discussed (D/Z 47/17)

It is thanks to the efforts of all of those men and women who worked against enormous odds to keep the nation fed during the First World War that Britain never faced famine.

__________________________________________

[1] Figures from World War One: The Few that Fed the Many, published by the National Farmers’ Union, accessed 5 September 2017 https://www.nfuonline.com/assets/33538

Document of the Month, January 2016: A New Year present from Scotland

Archivist Chris Lambert tells us about his choice for the first Document of the Month of 2016.

This month’s choice is an unusual document that reached us recently from a local house clearance, thanks to some alert neighbours (Acc. A14346).

What they rescued was a small bag of account books relating to a farming business at Little Saling, near Braintree.  Amongst them was this exercise book, apparently bought in Leith, the port for Edinburgh, and used to keep accounts for the coastal trade, mainly in the 1860s.  This opening relates to a vessel called the Paragon, which in January 1866 made what seems to have been a regular run between Leith and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands.  Many packages are not itemized, but with the names of both the sender and the consignee we still get a good picture of trade in the outer islands of Britain.  On this voyage, the Orknies took considerable quantities of Usher’s ale, tea, sugar, biscuits, and a hogshead of spirits.

2016-01-05 Rendall 1080

Click for larger version

And just what is this document doing in Essex? A loose note of 1880 gives us the clue, referring to J.D. Rendall of ‘Breckaskaell’ (the modern Backaskaill on the Orkney island of Papa Westray).  In about 1889, John David Rendall – born on Westray around 1836 – moved himself, his wife and children to Little Saling in Essex, buying Gentlemans Farm from its absentee owner.  Rendall himself died in 1904, but his family stayed on the farm, part of that wave of Scottish farmers who helped to revive Essex agriculture after the depression of the late 19th century.

Intriguingly, some other loose papers list ‘kelp made on the shores of Narness’, 1875-?1887.  The use of fertiliser made from seaweed was hardly an option at Little Saling, but an interest in unconventional methods, and an eye for new opportunities, were just what Essex agriculture needed.

The book will be on display in the Searchroom throughout January 2016.

Recording of the Month, August 2014: John Barleycorn

Our Sound Archivist Martin Astell brings us another highlight from the Essex Sound and Video Archive…

SA 6/305/1

I am led to believe that August is the time for harvesting spring barley, so I thought this folk song would be a suitable choice for this month as it describes and celebrates the processes traditionally involved in turning barley into beer.

In the song the character of John Barleycorn is a personification of the cereal who undergoes a series of attacks – such as being ‘cut down at his knees’, being bound to a cart and being placed in a kiln ‘for to roast his bones’ – which correspond to the cultivation of the crop as well as the malting and brewing processes.

The example we provide is sung by Ernie Austin and was included in a compilation of Essex dialect stories and songs called All Manner of What which was created by Essex County Council’s Education Resources Centre in the 1970s for use in schools.

 

New Accession: photograph of farm labourers

New accessions arrive at ERO all the time, in all shapes and sizes.

One recent arrival is this photograph of farm labourers in Good Easter (D/DU 2905/1), taken in c.1905, a time when farming was still in recovery from the effects of the agricultural depression which had begun in the mid-1870s.

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D/DU 2905/1

It was very kindly donated to us by Geof Garwood, whose grandfather George Pavitt is the young man fifth from the left.

All too often historic photographs come to us today without any information about where or when they were taken, or who the people pictured are, so we are lucky in this case that the photograph was donated by a descendant who could give us some more details.

Shortly after leaving the photograph with us, Geof also came across his grandfather’s Long Service Certificate presented by the Essex Agricultural Society in 1948, for 50 years’ service at Falconers Hall in Good Easter, suggesting that this is where the photograph was most likely taken. There is some more information about George in the catalogue entry for the photograph here.

Geof has now donated the long service certificate to be kept with the photograph, and while he was here we also looked at some maps of Good Easter, and found his grandfather’s baptism and his grandparents’ marriage in the Good Easter parish registers. The photograph and certificate help to add personal colour and depth to these existing records in our collection.

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Geof Garwood (right) and ERO archivist Chris Lambert examine Geof’s grandfather George Pavitt’s Long Service Certificate, presented to him by the Essex Agricultural Society in 1948.

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Looking up the location of the farm on which George Pavitt worked in Good Easter

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Looking up Geof’s grandparents in the Good Easter parish registers

Depositing your records at ERO (either as gifts or as long-term loans) achieves two things; firstly, the records benefit from our specialist storage facilities and are cared for by experts; and secondly they are made available to researchers, not only in Essex but around the world through our online catalogue Seax.

If you have something that relates to the history of Essex places or people that you would like to deposit with us, do get in touch to discuss it, either on ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk or 01245 244644.

And if you recognize any of George Pavitt’s fellow workers in Good Easter, we would be delighted to know.

Great British Railway Journeys: Ipswich to Chelmsford

As episode 17 of series 5 of Great British Railway Journeys airs on BBC2 and Michael Portillo takes in some of the sights of our great county, we thought we would share some items from our collection to accompany his experience of oyster dredging on Mersea Island, and his visits to a model farm at Tiptree and to the world’s first purpose-built radio factory, Marconi’s in Chelmsford.

 

Oyster dredging on Mersea Island

Mersea Island lies 9 miles south-east of Colchester, in the estuary of the Blackwater and Colne rivers. It is joined to the mainland by a causeway, and there is evidence of human habitation stretching back to pre-Roman times. Oysters have been gathered and consumed on Mersea for centuries, with oyster shells being found next to the remains of Celtic salt workings. The gathering of uncultured oysters gradually gave way to cultivation, and Mersea oysters were exported by the barrel load to Billingsgate Fish Market in London, and further afield to the continent.

Competition amongst oyster gatherers in Essex has sometimes led to outbreaks of violence; during the reign of Edward III for example, a disagreement between men from Brightlingsea, Alresford, Wivenhoe, Fingringhoe, Mease, Salcott and Tollesbury over fishing rights resulted in the drowning of three men.

Mersea’s history of oyster fishing is evident in records held in our collection. Our will collection shows how prevalent the oyster trade was amongst Mersea inhabitants, such as this one of Frances Brand, an oyster dredger of West Mersea, dated 1763 (D/ABW 101/1/38). The will includes arrangements for Brand’s two oyster smacks: ‘I give and bequeath all those my two smacks or dredging vessles with the boats dredges and other the appurtances to them and every of them belonging unto my son William Brand upon condition that he my said son … shall therewith carry on the dredging business for the support and maintenance of himself, my wife and my other three children untill he my said son William shall attain … one and twenty years hereby earnestly requiring him so to do.’

Will of Francis Brand, oyster dredger of West Mersea, 1763 (D/ABW 101/1/38)

Will of Francis Brand, oyster dredger of West Mersea, 1763 (D/ABW 101/1/38)

West Mersea postcard 18

Postcard showing marshland and boats on West Mersea

Mersea Museum’s website has several great historic photographs of the Mersea oyster trade, such as this one, of members of the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Company men outside the Packing Shed circa 1908.

 

Model farm at Tiptree

Before broadcast, we are making an educated guess that the ‘model farming establishment in Tiptree’ is the farm set up by John Joseph Mechi (1802-1880) in the 1840s. Mechi, having made a fortune as a razor-strop manufacturer, decided to turn his attention to farming and apply his talents to the improvement of agriculture.

In 1841 he bought 130 acres of poor, wet heathland in Tiptree, in one of the least productive districts in Essex, and proceeded to improve it by such means as deep drainage, removing hedges and trees, redesigning buildings and the use of steam-powered machinery. He persevered until his model farm turned a handsome profit. Mechi was exceptional amongst agricultural improvers for publishing details of his experiments in books, pamphlets and newspaper articles. He even published annual statements of his farm’s income and expenditure, explaining his failures as well as justifying his successes. His well-known publication How to Farm Profitably (1857) had, in various forms, a circulation of thousands of copies. Sadly, his career ended in disappointment, as the failure of his banking interests deprived him of the funds needed for his style of farming, and this, together with the effects of several bad seasons at Tiptree Hall Farm, led to the liquidation of his affairs shortly before his death.

John Joseph Mechi (I/Pb 13/3/1)

John Joseph Mechi (I/Pb 13/3/1)

 

Tiptree Hall Farm one year after Mechi designed it. The main buildings are on the north and east sides, giving shelter from the coldest winds. The barn contained a horse-powered threshing machine. When not driving the threshing machine, the horse gear could be used to drive a chaff-cutter or corn mill. Within a year Mechi had decided to exchange horse power for steam power.

Tiptree Hall Farm one year after Mechi designed it. The main buildings are on the north and east sides, giving shelter from the coldest winds. The barn contained a horse-powered threshing machine. When not driving the threshing machine, the horse gear could be used to drive a chaff-cutter or corn mill. Within a year Mechi had decided to exchange horse power for steam power.

 

Marconi’s – the world’s first purpose-built radio factory

Guglielmo Marconi established the world’s first wireless factory in a former silk mill in Hall Street in Chelmsford in 1898, when he was aged just 23. Chelmsford was chosen because Marconi needed electrical power, and in the 1890s Chelmsford was the place to be for electricity, thanks to the pioneering work of R.E.B. Crompton and Frank Christy.

In June 1912, a replacement 70,000 square foot purpose-built factory was opened in New Street. The factory was completed in an astonishing 17 weeks by a workforce of over 500 people. The factory provided employment for thousands of men and women; although the machine shop remained the preserve of men, women were employed for the more delicate aspects of the production of wireless transmitters.

Women at work in Marconi's New Street factory in Chelmsford

Women at work in Marconi’s New Street factory in Chelmsford

Marconi wireless equipment was used by ships and coastal stations to communicate with one another in Morse code. During the First World War, operators at New Street intercepted German radio transmissions for the British government, and Marconi engineers also developed the technology for ground-to-air communication with aeroplanes. During the Second World War, Marconi’s played a crucial role in the development of radar.

After the First World War, engineers at New Street began to experiment with wireless voice transmissions. The first publicised entertainment broadcast in Britain took place at the factory in June 1920, when Dame Nellie Melba performed. Her singing could have been picked up anywhere across Europe by someone with receiving equipment. By 1931 there was one wireless licence for every three homes in the country.

Shortly after the New Street factory opened, local photographer Fred Spalding took a series of photographs of the new facility. Click here to view more of the photographs from a previous blog post.

 

Check back here tomorrow for more to accompany Michael’s visit to Tilbury.