Meeting Reports: 2013 - 2014

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Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 20th September, 2013

The first meeting of the winter lecture season attracted more than 80 members and visitors to hear Martyn Lockwood’s talk on Victorian murders in Essex. A retired Essex police inspector and secretary of the Police Museum, Martyn has researched the development of the police force in Essex since its inception in 1840. The constables were provided with a basic uniform plus boots, shoes and a stove pipe hat, also a rattle, truncheon and handcuffs. Before 1840 parish constables were appointed armed only with a truncheon, a lamp and no uniform. There were 220 offences for which a miscreant could be hanged including stealing rabbits, returning from transportation and being in the company of gypsies. Crowds, including children, enjoyed watching the public hangings which served as a warning to poachers, thieves, murderers etc. In Strethall village in 1849, on a dark night in February, Nehemiah Perry of Strethall Hall, heard intruders and shot a masked burglar who was creeping up the stairs. Deserted by his companions, the burglar lay dead until the morning when he was found by Nehemiah and his brother Thomas. The unidentified body was placed in the belfry of the church where ‘gawpers’ paid 3d to view it. The inquest absolved Nehemiah of blame and the body, since identified as Abraham Green, was sent to Cambridge for vivisection by surgeons. Arsenic was freely available before 1851 when it was often bought to kill rats. In Victorian times poverty often proved a burden for large families and many children never reached adulthood dying from common diseases. In 1847 a mother, Sarah Chesham, was charged with the murder of her two sons. At her trial it was proved that the boys had died from arsenic poisoning but the jury found her innocent. Her husband Richard died in 1850 and the post-mortem revealed arsenic poisoning. A bag of rice containing arsenic was found in the home and Sarah was found guilty. She was hanged at Chelmsford gaol. This trial led to the ‘Sale of Arsenic Act 1851’. Murders were often immortalised in ballads sold in ‘penny dreadfuls’ and sung to popular tunes. The speaker managed to bring some humour to this gruesome subject in this well researched and illustrated talk.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 19th October, 2013

Linda Rhodes, of Valence House Museum, entertained the audience at the October meeting with a vivid description of the formation and successful career of the Dagenham Girl Pipers. The band was formed by Mr Joseph Graves, a Congregational Minister who came to the Becontree Estate at Dagenham in 1930. Congregational services were held in a marquee in Osborne Square while funds were raised for a permanent church hall. To generate funds, Mr Graves decided to create a girls’ pipe band. Girls from the Sunday school, aged about 11 were tutored by Pipe-Major Douglas Taylor, retired from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. 18 months after the first practice the girls performed a concert to an audience of parents. Mr Graves provided the highland uniforms, adopting the Royal Stuart tartan as worn by Douglas Taylor. On Friday, 20th May 1932 the local and national press were invited to their first public concert which was a resounding success. The press reviews were full of praise and requests for bookings poured in. £500 was needed to clear the debt on the Osborne Hall but after that the band raised money for charity. From that time on the Dagenham Girl Pipers went from strength to strength. They appeared in the Lord Mayor’s Show and all over Britain and the world. They were so successful that several units were formed so that performances could take place abroad while others were performing at home. During the war a group joined ENSA and entertained the troops in 15 countries. In 1945 the band was appearing in “Happy and Glorious” at the London Palladium and they were invited to Windsor to perform for the Royal Family, along with Tommy Trinder. The Dagenham Girl Pipers celebrated 80 years in October 2010 when generations of girls met and reminisced about past performances and the success that continues to this day. Linda Rhodes is the author of “The Dagenham Girl Pipers, an 80th anniversary celebration”, a fascinating and well-illustrated account of their international fame.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 15th November, 2013

Derek Morris, a member of the East London History Society and author of several books on the area, spoke in detail on East London in the 18th century and sought to change the perception of the East End being poor, run-down and associated with criminals such as Dick Turpin, Jack the Ripper and more recently, the Kray brothers. Researching his family history he found that his ancestors lived on the north side of the Mile End Road opposite Captain James Cook. This sparked an interest in other people who lived in the East End and their trades such as brewers, distillers, sugar refiners, rope and sail makers, silk weavers and the bell foundry; these were all prosperous trades whose proprietors often lived near to their workplace in substantial houses cheek by jowl with the ‘lower orders’. Much information was gleaned from Land Tax returns, Wills, Inventories and fire insurance records. His research also covered the Tower Hamlets Militia and the numerous public houses including the ‘Hoop and Grapes’ which still exists today in Aldgate High Street. Names such as Charrington and Trueman were brewers of this period. In 1706 Thomas Twining opened a coffee shop in the Strand, selling tea, coffee and sugar. Demand for sugar rose to over 70,000 tons in England in the 18C hence the proliferation of sugar refineries throughout the East End. Merchants accrued great wealth and bought estates in Essex such as Langley Hall, Great Waltham and Orsett Hall bought in 1746 by Richard Baker, a rope maker. Derek Morris succeeded in proving that the East End was a prosperous and lively area in the 18th century.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 17th January, 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.

Thurrock Local History Society: 28th February, 2014

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.

Thurrock Local History Society: 21st March, 2014

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.

Thurrock Local History Society: 25th April, 2014

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.

Thurrock Local History Society: 16th May, 2014

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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