Meeting Reports: 2013 - 2014
Jonathan Catton, Thurrock’s Heritage and Museum Officer, attracted 88 members and visitors to hear about Thurrock’s plans for commemorating 100 years since the 1914 – 1918 Great War. There will be a display of exhibits relating to the war which will be on show in the Thameside Museum in Grays for the duration of the 5 years. The Grays and Tilbury Gazette of that era, gives detailed information on the preparations, the recruitment, the casualties and the progress of the war. There is also an on-going project to collect reminiscences from family members who remembered stories told by their elderly relatives who had lived through the First World War.
Jonathan explained that Thurrock had long been an area connected with the defence of the realm. The Royal Gunpowder Magazines at Purfleet was a military garrison with a musketry range on the Rainham marshes to test the quality of the powder. Tilbury Fort, apart from the defence of the Thames, was a mobilisation store; the parade ground was full of storage sheds. The Royal Engineers set up searchlights at Coalhouse Fort for illuminating night river attack. Kynochs Munitions Factory near Corringham was extremely busy employing hundreds of women as well as men. Wages were high because it was dangerous to work with explosives. While the home front was being organised there was great enthusiasm to join up and take part in the war “that would be over by Christmas”. Soon the enthusiasm changed to alarm as the mounting casualties proved that the war would be a series of long and hard-fought battles.
Jonathan also told a personal story of his grandfather, Percy Catton, who joined the territorials before the war. Following the outbreak of war, the territorials were mobilised and Kitchener initiated his famous recruiting campaign. Percy Catton survived Gallipoli but later became a prisoner of war.
William Tyler’s talk on the home front during the First World War did not concentrate entirely on Essex but gave us an insight into how the changed circumstances affected people in general. Prime Minister Asquith made the announcement “We are at war” on 4th August 1914, 99 years after the Battle of Waterloo. Lord Kitchener was appointed Minister of War and began his recruitment campaign.
Large numbers of men volunteered, including many from Grays and other parts of Thurrock. However, some men were reluctant to join up, claiming that as workers at Tilbury Docks they were essential to the war effort. Many of the volunteers were found to be undernourished. Most of the population only had knowledge of their immediate environment and it is said that volunteers from the north of England who marched south thought they were in France when they reached Birmingham, because they could not understand the Brummie accent. Following the terrible loss of men in France, conscription was introduced in 1916.
With so many men in the army, there were labour shortages. Women took on jobs that they had previously been excluded from. They were employed in men’s jobs such as tram drivers and conductors and worked in munitions factories.
William Tyler gave many examples of the contributions made by Essex. For example, flat pack army huts were produced in Maldon. Some Essex school children were included in the war effort by filling sandbags and received letters of thanks from the trenches.
The impact on the general population meant that the First World War was different from previous wars. The effects of the war were felt on the Home Front as well as by those in the army. There were attacks from the air in the form of Zeppelins which dropped bombs indiscriminately and struck fear into the population. Many hid in cupboards and cellars in the hope of a safe shelter. Rationing was introduced in 1918 as the war was drawing to its close.
As the war progressed, the role played by women was recognised by giving the vote to women over 30 years of age provided they were of a certain standing. However, the same Act extended the vote to almost all men over the age of 21.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 the guns fell silent. Celebrations, dancing and singing expressed the joy and relief that the war was over. Effigies of the Kaiser were burnt.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, many countries including the UK were hit by a terrible flu epidemic which killed millions. Following the war, Church and chapel attendances plummeted although war memorials listing the names of the fallen were erected in towns and villages all over Britain. It was believed that this had been the war to end all wars and that the sacrifice of so many should lead to a country fit for heroes to live in.
Dr James Canton of the University of Essex was warmly welcomed to the March meeting in anticipation of his talk on the literary “greats” of Essex. When he first came to Essex from London he held the stereotypical view of the county based on the Essex girl fixated on shopping, spray tanning and hairstyling as depicted in “The Only Way Is Essex” (TOWIE). He soon discovered a literary landscape noted for the association with famous authors such as John Clare, the poet, Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe and many more.
James Canton was inspired by Rousseau’s ten essays “Reveries of a Solitary Walker” (1778) to follow a similar plan of walking in the countryside and tracing the steps of 10 literary figures associated with particular areas of Essex. Apart from the authors still well known today, it was a fascinating insight into the works of authors who achieved great popularity such as Samuel Purchas, vicar of St Laurence and All Saints at Eastwood, Southend who published “Pilgrimage” a collection of fantastic tales from seafarers returning to Leigh-on-Sea and recounting stories of places, events and creatures never before seen or heard of by the 17th century public. Several editions were printed and it was very popular with King James I.
It was also an inspiration for the works of authors such as Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” This illustrated talk was so well received that Dr Canton sold all the copies of his book “Out of Essex” which recounts his journeys describing the 10 authors and their landscapes of mud flats, forest, river and the deep countryside of Essex.
After the AGM, in which there were no changes to the Committee, Jackie Doyle Price gave an illustrated talk on her experience of working in the Houses of Parliament. She finds it very inspiring to work in this fantastic building where great things have been achieved.
The portcullis with a crown above it is the emblem of parliament and was originally adopted by Henry VII. MPs are allowed to use it on stationary provided it is for official correspondence.
On some occasions such as Budget day or Prime Ministers Questions, the House is full but quite often there may be only five or six MPs plus the Speaker. There is a red line running each side of the dispatch box, traditionally two sword lengths apart, said to prevent disputes turning into duels. In the Members cloakroom there are loops of pink ribbon for members to hang up their swords so a duel in the Chamber was prevented. Neither the members of the government nor the opposition must cross this line although debates can get quite heated causing the Speaker to restore order.
In early days the Speaker had to remain in post as long as the House was sitting. In order to obey the call of nature, a curtain came round and a suitable receptacle enabled him to relieve himself. Nowadays the Speaker has three deputies and life is more comfortable. A newly elected MP has to make a ‘maiden speech’; our MP gave hers after six weeks, Mrs Thatcher after two years!
The members of the House of Lords scrutinise legislation proposed by the House of Commons and can suggest amendments for further consideration by the Commons. There are numerous select committees and our MP sits on the Public Accounts Committee chaired by the Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP. These committees also scrutinise government legislation.
Jackie Doyle Price gave an informative talk including amusing anecdotes. Apart from her parliamentary duties there are the concerns of local people to deal with and at the moment the proposed new Thames crossing is the biggest topic that weighs down her post-bag.
Pat and Barbara Elliot, sisters who grew up in the fifties, gave a personal view of their lives on an estate powered only by gas. The NHS was introduced by the Labour government in 1948 and children throughout the fifties benefitted from the vitamins in free orange juice, cod liver oil and rose hip syrup. Foods such as meat, bacon, sugar and sweets were still rationed but by July 1954 all rationing had ended.
King George VI died in February 1952, his daughter came to the throne heralding a new Elizabethan age. The coronation in June, 1953 was a cause for celebration. There were street parties with flags and bunting decorating the houses. The coronation was televised on small black and white screens. Many people bought a television for the occasion and family and friends gathered round the set to watch the small, flickering screen.
There were no supermarkets; some produce was delivered by horse-drawn vehicles such as green-grocery, milk and coal. The food in shops was seasonal or tinned and buying half a pound of broken biscuits was a treat. Frozen foods became available and the Elliot household invested in a gas refrigerator. Ice cream was carried home wrapped in newspaper.
Pat and Barbara covered all aspects of their childhood such as the cost of food, the magazines they read and making toys from matchboxes. They dressed in the fifties style and displayed toys and items from that era and shared some delicious cakes made from contemporary recipes which members enjoyed at the tea break.
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