Are you interested in local history? Maybe you know someone who worked for the Marconi Company? Communicating Connections have a unique opportunity for you to get directly involved in the collection of some of Chelmsford’s most well-known history. Find out more about how to get involved in this exciting project as a Volunteer Oral History Interviewer below.
Connections’ is an oral history-based community heritage project funded by the
National Lottery Heritage Fund, with contributions from Essex 2020 and the
Friends of Historic Essex. It will explore the heritage of the Marconi Company,
one of the most famous telecommunications and engineering companies in the
world, based in Chelmsford. We will collect and archive oral history interviews
with past employees of the company which will then inform an exhibition and a
heritage trail app. Chelmsford is known locally as the ‘birthplace of radio’,
so we want to share this heritage with the local and wider community.
We’re looking for 6 volunteer oral history interviewers to conduct 30
interviews in total with veterans of the Marconi Company. Full training in oral
history interviewing will be provided by the Oral History Society and further
support will be available throughout the project so there’s no need for prior
oral history or interviewing experience.
We anticipate that interviewing will begin in November 2020, but please
note this may change due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and government
guidelines. All activities and interviews will be risk assessed and Covid-19
procedures will be in place.
Lewis Smith, the Essex Record Office’s Engagement Fellow, takes a look at some of the things in the Marconi Photographic Section’s archive.
Founded by Guigielmo Marconi in 1897, the Marconi Company
(which held various names over its lifetime) were pioneers in wireless
technology. Famously based in Chelmsford (regulars in the area will draw
attention to places like ‘Marconi Road’ and ‘Navigation Road’), his
technologies helped to shape the world we live in today: so much of our lives are
a result of their research, from radio to navigation, from aeronautics to
maritime, from communications continent to continent.
One part of the most interesting parts of the Marconi
Company’s history was the Marconi Photographic Section, whom took hundreds of
pictures over the organisation’s lifetime. These records are now stored at the
Essex Record Office in Chelmsford. Unfortunately, this collection remains
largely underused – so the British Society for the History of Science and Essex
Record Office tasked me to spend some time scoping out the Marconi Photographic
Section’s archive, working out what kind of images are within and, perhaps most
importantly, work out how they can be used. Whilst I have only been in the
archive for a relatively short period of time (since the beginning of October),
there are some very interesting historical angles in desperate need of further
research – from business to imperial history, from labour to marketing history.
One thing to note is that there are a lot of pictures
of non-descript machines and circuitry – fans of the history of electronic
engineering need look no further: historians of oscilloscopes, transmitters and
receivers, power supplies, RADAR arrays, and pretty much all kinds of
specialist electronic engineering will find something of interest here. These
images present an extensive product history of Marconi’s inventions and
patents. Perhaps more generally appealing, there is a lot for those interested
in maritime and aeronautical history: one of the key ideas that came about from
wireless communication was the idea of wireless navigation, and Marconi fitted
many different pieces of equipment to aircraft and ships to aid in their
navigation around the globe.
But the view of higher international politics, engineering
and industry are only one side of the coin: the prevalence of this technical
equipment masks ordinary life. The archive presents us with a rich social
history of the worker and their working practices. Workers, many male and
female, black and white, British and international, are presented in the
factories assembling intricate circuits. To look at the ethnography behind the
people in these pictures reveals the clear shifts, both natural and forcible,
in middle and working class employment. Notice particularly with image 2015 –
everyone is happy and content, giving the viewer the impression that everything
was okay working for Marconi. It wasn’t always this sweet.
As this is evidently the photographic archive of a business,
there is huge scope for a business historian. These photographs are frozen
moments in time, specifically captured because they want to show a particular
angle, person, product or scene – why one moment and not another? Why one
person over another? Why one place over another? More specifically, there are
multiple photographs of how the Marconi Company attempted to market itself in a
world of innovation: some of the most interesting pictures are of the exhibits
set up to advertise wireless communication at various exhibitions.
What is most interesting about the archive is the company’s vast spread throughout the globe: as with any history of the twentieth century, Empire remains front and centre. Imperial conquerors can come and go as they please, but radio technology meant the constant connection between colony and coloniser. Furthermore, the concept of technological Imperialism remained hot in this period: teaching others how to use Marconi equipment orients them towards using that equipment for a long time, forcing the colony to ask for technical help from the coloniser. This relationship is observable in the photographic archives as Marconi equipment was placed in different colonies, greatly expanding the imperial nation’s reach.
Art lovers may also find something worthwhile in the
archives. There are photographs of many different artistic drawings by members
of staff in the collection depicting a variety of different scenes. The
collection features many talented artists, as well as plastic models of Marconi
scenes and vehicles, models of scientific principles, and copious drawings. It
is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that science and art are two separate
unconnected topics, but the collection features some stunning images which
clearly appeal to the art behind science.
This collection is for use in the Essex Record Office under Accession A11449 in over 100 individual boxes. This project hopes to eventually digitise and map these images to show the company’s reach. I have spent time electronically tagging the pictures with keywords: if you would be interested in looking at this spreadsheet or further discussing the project, do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Whether for research or for a casual perusal, this collection really has a lot to offer!
13 February is World Radio Day: an annual day promoted by UNESCO to celebrate radio and the impact it can have. It marks the date in 1946 when the United Nations radio service was established, and it has been celebrated each 13 February since 2013. This year, the theme is ‘Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace’.
To Brits in 2019, perhaps this sounds pretentious. Isn’t radio just the poor cousin of television, and haven’t both been made redundant by online media? Who listens to radio now that there are podcasts and streaming music services?
To people in other parts of the world, radio can be a significant source of information or an arena to explore different viewpoints. Equally, in the UK, we risk underestimating and taking for granted how much we still get out of our radio service.
At the Essex Sound and Video Archive, we are fortunate to hold archived broadcasts of local radio programmes – primarily from BBC Essex, with a handful of recordings from other local stations. They are useful for researching local history, particularly for understanding local responses to events. Features also preserve random stories of weird and wonderful things. For instance, if it wasn’t for our prolific local radio producer Dennis Rookard, we would never have discovered Tino Morena, an Italian barber in Brentwood who also composed sacred choral music:
Tino Morena speaking to Dennis Rookard, SA 19/1/64/1 – come into the Searchroom to hear a sample of the music, which we cannot publish on the Internet for copyright reasons.
And then, of course, there are those early Paul Simon tapes, recorded for a folk music programme on Harold Wood Hospital Radio (SA 30/3/3/1 and SA 30/3/4/1 – also only available in the Searchroom for copyright reasons).
But local radio stations in Essex also produce meaningful programmes that encourage dialogue, thereby promoting tolerance and peace.
One of the most striking series in our archive is part of the BBC’s national ‘Sense of Place’ series, broadcast in 2002. Local radio stations produced a series of programmes about stories of everyday life in their area, which were broadcast on six successive Sundays from 28 April 2002. They aimed to give ‘insights into how different people live’ and explore ‘what makes our different communities distinctive and individual’ (from promotional BBC material, SA 1/2/8).
BBC Essex recorded seven programmes in their series (Catalogue Reference SA 1/2). Some of the most striking topics are examined below.
The fifth programme talked to Jews in the Southend area, where there is still a thriving Hebrew Congregation (SA 1/2/5/1). They spoke to a gentleman whose family were killed in the Holocaust, who shared his feelings when he goes back to visit Vienna where he once lived. They interviewed an Orthodox Jew who stands out because she always wears a head covering, but who had become a respected member of the Jewish but also wider Southend community. They also spoke to Sybil Greenstein, who regularly visited schools and hosted visits to the synagogue to tell people about her faith and demystify the religion. She got a great sense of accomplishment from informing others about what it means to be Jewish:
In the third programme, producer Anton Jarvis granted insight into an area perhaps few of us have ever experienced: daily life at Chelmsford Prison (SA 1/2/3/1).
He spoke to a variety of inmates about their experiences, their first impressions, their hopes for the future. As to be expected, different people had different responses: some created home out of their cells, some did not want to personalise their cells in any way, but just focus on getting to their home outside. Some found it an extremely trying ordeal; some survived by finding humour in the bleak situation.
An inmate of Chelmsford Prison hopes for a better life when he gets out.
In the final programme, Anton spoke to people in vulnerable housing in Colchester about how they became homeless, what they were doing to survive, and whether they felt any sense of place and belonging (SA 1/2/7/1). Many expressed similar sentiments: they were not really living anymore, just getting from one day to the next, but with little hope because it was so difficult to rise up once you hit rock bottom. Mostly, they felt alienated from the rest of society.
Homeless people in Colchester share their experiences – including endless days of walking round town with nowhere to go.
These programmes gave voice to marginalised sections of the society. They allowed a close, personal insight into what life is like for other people, views we are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. This is the power of local radio.
It continues today. When we consulted BBC Essex about this blog post, they explained some of the challenges facing them in the current politically-charged and divisive climate.
…It’s our job as a radio station to remain impartial – but ensure everyone has a voice. Sometimes, when you use interaction as we do a lot on the phones, it can be quite intimidating to listeners to present an alternative view which is opposite to the majority. I spend a lot of time with presenters explaining how to make listeners feel all views are welcome and encouraging a contrary view to air.
We compiled a ground-breaking podcast series called Brexit Britain (available here). These are individual stories about Brexit, narrated by ordinary people. Guests ranged from a young supply teacher to a pensioner and a taxi driver to a fisherman. It was the first time so-called immersive podcasts had been commissioned by BBC local radio.
Your Essex, presented by Jodie Halford 7-10pm Monday-Thursday, aims to show listeners the sides of Essex they may not be familiar with. Whether that’s race, opinions on Brexit, gender, or class, the aim is to bridge divides. We are working on two pieces at the moment which aim to bring together polarised views. One is a woman whose life has been blighted by a traveller encampment talking one-to-one with a traveller and the other is a woman opposed to the building of a new mosque in the county, talking direct to the imam. The aim of these pieces is to fulfil the BBC’s “inform and educate” remit – as well as provide a rich listening experience.
Transmission of these pieces is scheduled for April.
While most of our collections come from BBC Essex, we must also celebrate the hard work of community radio stations, including hospital radio – often largely run by volunteers, eager to spread awareness and encourage cohesion within their local communities, as well as seeking to entertain. Most are currently recruiting volunteers if you want to get involved!
Community Radio Stations in Essex
BFBSColchester: For Colchester, broadcast on 107. A Global Forces Radio station, BFBS has studios around the UK Garrisons as well as in many other MoD locations around the world. The Colchester studio concentrates mainly on 16 Air Assault Brigade and the three sites controlled from Colchester Garrison: Garrison HQ in Colchester, Wattisham Flying Station and Rock Barracks, Woodbridge. Interview subjects – and their core audience – tend to be serving personnel and their families. They also include veterans, the work of military charities, and work with the Garrison to enhance and publicise events. Colchester is currently working on four separate five-parters on objects held at the Airborne Assault Museum in Duxford, and associated with the 75th anniversaries of, respectively, D-Day, Arnhem, South of France and the Greek atrocities. These will be aired from April onwards.
BHR1287: Basildon University Hospital’s radio station.
FunkySX: For the Southend area, broadcast on 103.7.
Gateway97.8: For the Basildon / East Thurrock area, who say: ‘At Gateway 97.8, we love celebrating World Radio Day. The theme this year is Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace – our broadcasts throughout February 13th will cover this theme. Make sure you listen to Basildon and East Thurrock’s community radio station to hear the fun things we have planned!’ They are also celebrating Basildon at 70 in their programming this year.
Leisure FM: For Braintree, broadcast on 107.4, who say: ‘We broadcast only local GOOD news and events with the emphasis on “Good News”, and all feel-good music from the past 60 years.’
Phoenix FM: For the Brentwood area, broadcast on 98. Today’s programmes will include Carmel Jane Talks Business, celebrating female entrepreneurs; popular football show The West Ham Way; and Curveballs, showcasing the best of new music from local bands.
Radio Forest: Broadcasting to hospitals in Epping, Saffron Walden, Brentwood, and Harlow.
Southend Hospital Radio: Southend Hospital has been broadcasting for over 40 years. More than 60 volunteers provide a 24-hour broadcasting service, with a mix of live programmes, and information/entertainment for the patients. Some specialist shows include Southend Hospital Radio Kids
Presenter and Committee Member Alice Ryan in the studio at Southend Hospital Radio (image courtesy Southend Hospital Radio)
(presented by 11-year old Kara and Kathryn, for the youngsters on Neptune Ward), Sound of the Pirates (presented by Trevor Byford, re-living the offshore sounds of the sixties), plus Musical Moments (presented by Nick Bright and Jonny Buxton, with the smash hits of the stage and screen). As well as being available at Southend Hospital, you can listen live online. The station is a registered charity that relies on donations to stay on-air and fulfil its aims as spelt out in its Constitution: “…To relieve the effects of sickness, infirmity and old age by providing a local broadcasting service to the patients of Southend Hospital”.
Today, take some time to tune in to your local station. You might learn something new about your community, you might engage in dialogue with a different sector of society, and you might spread a little toleration and peace as a result.
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)
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)
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
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.