A day in the life of an Essex Sound and Video Archive volunteer

Andy Popperwell shares his experiences volunteering for the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Photograph of volunteer smiling at camera

Nineteen (boxes) times fifty-six (tapes) is a thousand and sixty four.  That’s an awful lot of open reel tapes, even if they’re five-inch ones.  This is the estimated number of remaining tapes to be processed from a collection of 79 boxes, formerly the property of the late Chris Bard, who presented Sunday morning programmes on BBC Essex for many years (Accession Number SA459).

My name is Andy Popperwell and I’ve just become a volunteer in the Sound Archive at the Essex Record Office.  My task is to review these tapes and help to decide which ones should enter the Archive and which ones shouldn’t.  The key criterion is whether they have relevance to Essex.  Some do; some don’t. 

I’ve made a start, and the range of material is fascinating.  Everything from Polish Christian radio stations after the fall of communism to ecumenism in Essex villages.

Photograph of an open reel tape on player

Learning the archive protocols was the first step. I spent many years as a Studio Manager (Sound Engineer) in the BBC World Service, working on high-speed current affairs in 40 languages, where the pressure was to get the interviews edited as quickly as possible and into the live programmes, 24 hours a day.  Here, in the calm atmosphere of the Archive, it’s a question of treating each tape reverently, making sure that temperature and humidity are appropriate and learning how to do a ‘library wind’. This means that, after listening carefully and making notes about the content, each tape is wound back at slow speed so that it’s neatly positioned on the spool and there’s no chance of physical damage.  

Photograph of volunteer working at tape player

It’s great to be learning new skills while at the same time using my previous experience to help with the work of the Archive.  I’m also a volunteer at Copped Hall, on the edge of Epping Forest.  It’s a 1750s mansion which was destroyed in a huge fire in 1917, and we’re restoring it.  Apart from general labouring, I’m setting up Copped Hall’s own sound archive, trying to record the lives and stories of those who have worked over the last 25 years to rebuild the old place.  Do come and visit us on one of our regular Tour Days – third Sunday in the month.

Both these volunteering opportunities are feeding into my other big interest: I’ve returned to being a student, doing a Masters by Research at London South Bank University.  I’m interested in what Essex in general and Copped Hall in particular sounded like in past times.  I hope that, as well as expanding my brain, it will be possible to use my research to recreate the soundscapes of the past, and specifically the 1750s, when the Hall was built.  The Essex Record Office has a huge quantity of fascinating material to help with my research, including, for example, little pieces of paper with rhymes and poems which the Conyers family, owners of Copped Hall, wrote for each other in the middle of the eighteenth century (Catalogue Reference D/DW Z3).  Handling these documents is a real privilege, and a unique connection with the past.

Finding our way through the National Grid

 Lawrence Barker, Archivist

The ERO has a fine collection of late 19th and early 20th century large scale OS maps (1:2500 County Series) available for public consultation in the Searchroom.  However, we wanted to extend the collection to include later 20th century National Grid maps of the same scale. Some mid-Essex maps are available to view but many, among various collections which have been donated to the ERO over the years, remain to be made so.

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Just a few of the maps awaiting sorting and cataloguing

A Map Project involving volunteers has been underway for three years to achieve this and has reached the stage where, having identified and listed our remaining maps and their locations, assessing duplication and condition, we are now ready to select those which will be added to the Searchroom collection.  The task is complex though, and involves the volunteers spreading out maps around the Searchroom whilst we are closed on Mondays so they can be sorted.

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Spreading out maps in the Searchroom ready for sorting

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Our team of volunteers comprises Michael and Jane Thomas, who are NADFAS members, John Longhurst, and Andrew Morton who acts as leader bringing his expert knowledge of maps as a former land surveyor usefully to the task.

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The sorting and listing of the 20th century National Grid maps is a long term project that will take a few years, but we are looking forward to the end result of making our map collection ever more accessible.