Meeting Reports: 2016 - 2017

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Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 16th September, 2016 - Everything Stops for Tea by Eve Regelous

Our first meeting of the season started with a change of programme from that advertised. At short notice we welcomed back Eve Regelous to give us a talk entitled Everything Stops for Tea. This was a light hearted talk depicting how the tea trade evolved into today’s afternoon tea, a social event accompanied by a biscuit and more.

In the Japanese tea ceremony, monks and local dignitaries’ swirled the tea around three times, sipped and passed the cup to their neighbour. In 1620 tea was a luxury, but by the end of the century it was traded more and Thomas Garraway sold tea as a side line to coffee. It was taken with milk in 1665, milk being added first to save cracking porcelain cups with the hot tea. The art of reading tea leaves started about this time, using dregs in the tea cup. In 1706 Twinings entered the market. Tea arrived by clipper ships to East India Docks and was first sold in Leadenhall Street and Mincing Lane, smugglers mixing tea with obnoxious substances. At auctions tea was first sold by candle, the procedure over when the candle burnt out. As tea was expensive, special ornate tea caddies with locks were made. Afternoon tea was introduced by the Duchess of Bedford in the 1840s. In 1894 Lyons Corner House started, evolving to be posher than the later ABC.

The 20th century saw a world change with the invention of tea bags. In the USA Thomas Sullivan started with fine silk bags, then muslin. The English hated the idea at first but Tetley introduced them in 1953 and now sell 200 million each day, although loose tea is still preferred by some. Harrods now sells 170 loose and 37 fruit teas.
Country houses introduced afternoon teas, also some private sources such as Betty’s of Harrogate, where orders can now be placed on line. Tea dances proliferated and London tea rooms were born. Sanderson’s of Mayfair now offer a Mad Hatters tea party. Afternoon teas at the Ritz are elegant and sophisticated and are served from 7am-7pm. At the Mayfair Fashion Week there are special cakes shaped like shoes etc.

Tea used to be a medicinal herb, with green tea gaining popularity. Caffeine is a stimulant, perking you up; Mormons and 7th Day Adventists never drink tea. Several countries now have plantations, even in the UK. Cup cakes have made a triumphant return, with tea shops thriving. The British now drink 165 million cups of tea a day.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 21st October, 2016 - Stories of Coalhouse Fort and Park by Hazel Sacco

Video report on the October meeting

We were pleased to invite the newly appointed Museum and Heritage Officer Hazel Sacco for our October meeting. She gave a very informative and interesting talk, complete with illustrations, on Coalhouse Fort.

The present fort was built 1860-1874, designed by Captain Charles Sibborn, later supervised by Gen Charles Gordon, as a defence for London against France, although there had been a blockhouse at Coalhouse Point since Tudor times. The original site is now engulfed by the Thames and is now just a ruined jetty. The battery was constructed in 1799 and incorporated into the fort in 1855, when more land was bought. By the time the fort was finished the guns were obsolete and two 12” guns were moved; they were gone by 1912 and quick firing guns were installed on the roof.

In WW1 the London Electrical Engineers were stationed there, trees were planted to disguise the fort and the Searchlight Magazine provided news and gossip. The troops used the floating bridge to go across to Gravesend and many humorous letters in the magazine were from a Norah and Gladys from the Gravesend cafe. There were also jokes and letters from women looking for suitors. Motor cycling was very popular, together with other sports, including cricket between the fort detachments. The men seemed to have had an easy time, so to relieve boredom they built a garage, and a workshop was opened in June 1916. They also built a war memorial, but this was later blown up as it was not thought a good idea to advertise deaths. However, the headstone still survives.

WW2 saw ditches dug. The Royal Naval detachment was stationed there, also the Home Guard and Wrens who signalled ships going up and down the river. The ships had to be degaussed, making them safe against magnetic mines. The Wrens lived in St Catherine’s vicarage and apparently enjoyed their time there, complete with parties.

In the 1960s the fort was acquired by Thurrock UDC. From 1980 Coalhouse Fort Project has worked to repair the fort with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund. New findings were made during restoration work by Historic England. The tunnels and magazines were extremely wet, so vegetation was cleared and the ditch excavated to real the old stone walls.
Parts of St Catherine’s Church dates from the 12th century. It was on the main road for pilgrims and there is an Iron Age settlement nearby. In WW1 it was planned to build a tower using recycled stone from Coalhouse Fort and Blockhouse, but this was stopped half way as it didn’t seem good use of the army’s time. A plaque inside commemorates WW1 deaths. 2014 saw a mini excavation when stone from the old tower was discovered.

This was a very well researched light-hearted talk, well received by our members.

Thurrock Local History Society lecture 18 November 2016 - Sad Tales of the Barking Fishing Fleet Apprentices by Linda Rhodes

At our November meeting we welcomed back Linda Rhodes, curator of Valence House Museum. She gave us a very detailed illustrated account of the sad lives of some apprentices of the Barking Fishing Fleet. Thousands of children were sent away to serve on fishing smacks, reminiscent of chimney sweeps, Oliver Twist and the like. Barking’s town quay on the River Roding is two miles from the Thames, originally marshland. In the 1830s Hewett‘s Short Blue Fleet reached its peak, smacks travelling as far as Iceland. They mainly caught cod, but also turbot, sole, haddock and whiting – lobster was particularly profitable and some smuggling took place. Being close to London was an advantage, ice being collected from the Dagenham marshes and stored in ice houses, to keep the fish fresh. In the 1840s a typical fishing boat was a well-smack, fish being kept alive in the well and half salted at sea. This was superseded by the fleeting system when cutters collected frozen boxed fish by rowing boats and fishermen were stuck in the North Sea for months on end. At one time Hewett had 120 vessels manned by 7-8 men, including 4 apprentices. The town quay’s shed and workshops were busy with sail makers, block and tackle makers, fish curers and ships’ biscuit makers. There was a steam mill there, then later a water mill. Many crewmen were lost at sea, as memorials in St Margaret’s church show.

In the 19th century boys and girls were apprenticed for a fixed number of years or until they were 21. There were strict rules – they could not marry and were under their master’s control. They were as young as eight and were orphans or had fallen on hard times. Charities and London parish overseers paid the ship owners a premium of between 3 and 14 and some owners obviously took on boys for the fee alone. Many were badly treated and thrown out after their apprenticeship finished.

The boys coiled ropes, made drinks etc and hauled in 14-16lbs weights used to determine depth, also 4-5 miles of line; it was heavy work and there were several accidents at sea. One lad fell into the ropes and was kicked overboard by his master. He was saved by a bucket lowered over the side. In 1827 an apprentice died of neglect and severe punishment, including lashing with a knotted whip in the bitter cold. The verdict at the inquest was ‘death from exposure’. In 1840 a black boy was cruelly flogged and tied to the windlass, but the verdict was ‘natural death’. One boy bringing tea to the crew in the rain was washed overboard. He could not swim, as this only prolonged drowning. In an 1863 storm 60 Barking men drowned and a further six lives were lost when three fishing smacks were struck by a steamer in 1868. Another apprentice was covered in frostbite and sores which was said to be through eating too much. He was found unconscious but died the next morning. He had congestion of the lungs due to long exposure to cold and should have had better clothing. Even the warm clothing given to the boys at the start of their apprenticeship was taken away. An open verdict was recorded at the inquest.

The fishing fleet has long gone, locating to the East Coast in the 1860s with the coming of the railways, but the quay is still there. It is very sad that most employers wanted to get profitable work from the apprentices at little cost, but this system with no wages, high premiums and no-one to stand up for them was appalling. Nowadays they are key members of the crew, a bright ending to such dreadful times.

Thurrock Local History Society meeting: 9 December 2016

We did not have a speaker at our Christmas Party in December, but members enjoyed illustrated quizzes, a raffle, plenty of good food and drink, combined with pleasant company.

Thurrock Local History Society lecture 20 January 2017 - My life as a theatrical costumier by Ann Hardy

The Society welcomed back Ann Hardy for our January lecture. Ann had always wanted to be a dressmaker, following her mother, and completed a four year apprenticeship with Marshall & Snelgrove who made bespoke clothing, nowadays only made for top actors and actresses. Debenhams took over the company and customers went elsewhere. Ann then went to work at Nathans, a theatrical costumiers, making costumes to order. Mr Nathan was a tailor and hired costumes to David Garrick. His son carried on and a friend of Charles Dickens described such costumes in his books, George Cruickshank doing the illustrations. Nathans held a Royal warrant from Queen Victoria, designing costumes for a fancy dress ball for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. They also made costumes for Lily Langtree and the play School for Scandal. Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret even wore their fancy dress outfits on the QE2.

Their work continued in cinemas and Ann read out letters of thanks from various film stars, including Ellen Terry who wore a famous beetle wing dress. In the 1950s Nathan’s secured TV work including Robin Hood and Sharpe, when they made various military uniforms. They were made to a very high standard and were put through several processes to make them look war weary, using such things as wire wool and sandpaper. In the 1960s they made clothes for The Prince and the Showgirl, making not just one, but several of the same design. Marilyn Monroe’s famous dress recently sold for $4.8million. Their work continued in the 1970s when they merged with Bermans, making costumes for Moby Dick and the first trilogy of Star Wars, among many others. The label on an old brown cloak which had been hired many times for fancy dress parties was found to be originally made for Obi-Wan Kenobi and was sold for 54,000.

By 2007 they had been taken over by Angels and now have 9 miles of costumes on their premises. They made costumes for Evita, copying the ones worn by Eva Peron and also made the Batman & Robin costumes for Only Fools and Horses. They later moved to Holborn and made armoury, using painted lightweight material, some of which was worn by Oliver Reed in Gladiators. They made several copies of suits for the Bond movies which had been made by Saville Row tailors. The workrooms where Ann worked were on the top floor, where wigs, jewellery and bespoke tailoring were made.

The costumes were always historically accurate, using traditional fabrics, often pure silk furnishing fabrics, even corsetry had to be authentic. Tea and coffee were used to make new lace look old for Edwardian times. Gold and silver jewellery was hand made for Lord of the Rings. Ann listed several films that the company provided clothes for, including Titanic and Oliver, where she made Nancy’s red dress from scratch which was then distressed by tearing, washing in hot water and sprayed with black paint.

This enjoyable talk was illustrated by several photographs showing her work. The job involves a lot of hand sewing and nowadays a degree in textile and design is needed in the theatrical costume business. Ann met the stars when she was young; she still loves the theatre but the work was long hours for little money.

Thurrock Local History Society lecture 24 February 2017 Jack the Ripper by Susan Yates

At our February meeting our Chairman Susan Yates gave us a riveting illustrated lecture on Jack the Ripper. The murders took place in Whitechapel over a three month period in 1888. It was a scary time in east London where the lowest of the low lived, renting a bed for 2d or 4d by the night. They had no possessions and only owned the clothes they stood up in. Other murders occurred in the area about the same time and the Ripper’s victims could be as many as 12. Miss Yates concentrated on just six.

Martha Tabram was married with children, but had a troubled relationship. She told trinkets and was also a prostitute. She was last seen leaving the Angel & Crown just before midnight on August 6 and although neighbours heard cries of “murder” in the small hours this was ignored as there were often such cries. Her exposed body was found in George Yard Buildings early the next morning and had been stabbed 39 times.

Mary Ann (or Polly) Nichols also had children from a failed marriage. She slept rough and was an alcoholic and prostitute. In the early hours of 31 August she left a pub in Brick Lane and needed to money for a bed for the night. She was found about 4am by a cart driver who called the police. Her throat had been cut and there were also several severe wounds to her exposed body. She was identified by a laundry mark on her petticoat.

Annie Chapman, also married with children, was depressed after her husband died. She earned some income from crochet work, selling flowers and prostitution. She was found in Hanbury Street on 8 September and had been murdered in a similar way to Polly Nichols, giving rise to the idea of a serial killer with anatomical knowledge. A newspaper described the murderer as “Jack the Ripper”.

Swedish born Elizabeth Stride was next. She left her husband and subsequent partner and earned some income from sewing and housecleaning. Her body was discovered early on 30 September in Dutfield’s Yard. Her throat had been slit and was still bleeding, suggesting that the killer had been interrupted before he could carry out further injuries.

Catherine Eddowes (aka Conway or Kelly) was found dead in Mitre Square less than an hour later, within walking distance from where Elizabeth Stride was murdered. Her face and abdomen were greatly cut about, again maybe the work of a slaughterer.

The final victim was Mary Jane Kelly, maybe Irish, and had lived with various men. Her severely mutilated body was found lying on the bed of her lodgings in Millers Court on the morning of 9 November.

Most of the victims were buried secretly and despite massive police investigation no one was ever charged. It was suggested the killer was left-handed and many suspects were put forward, even the Duke of Clarence. Others were Polish born George Chapman who was a serial killer, Aaron Kosminski, a Jewish Polish emigrant, Thomas Cutbush a medical student, Walter Sickert a painter, assistant schoolteacher Montague Druitt, American born herb-doctor Francis Tumblety and James Maybrick a cotton merchant. Perhaps we will never know who the real killer was, the debate continues.

This was a well researched lecture, accompanied by maps and gory illustrations, painting a graphic picture of Whitechapel in the 1880s.

Thurrock Local History Society lecture 17 March 2017 History of Grays by Philip Edgar

Philip Edgar took us on a nostalgic trip of Grays via his photographic collection. Originally Grays was a small port with brickworks and a brewery. In 1086 the population was only 28 and by 1670 still had only 28 houses. With the coming of the railways the population took off and was 13,000 by 1901, with wharves and jetties, barge builders and breakers yards on the waterfront.

Apart from Seabrooke’s brewery, there were many riverside pubs, including the White Hart, Anchor & Hope, The Bull, King’s Arms, Rising Sun, Sailors Return and the Green Man. There were also the Theobald Arms, The Castle, Railway Hotel and Queen’s Hotel – an enormous number for the town. The brewery has now gone, but the Co-op bakery is still there in Argent Street.

Old views of the bathing pool and boating pond on Grays beach were shown, together with the Exmouth Training Ship moored off Grays and the Gull lightship, which was once used as a clubhouse by the Yacht Club.

There were photos of the Old High Street which was demolished in the 1960s, including the Dutch House. These houses were replaced by Kings Walk, now also replaced. Several shops were shown, including Flints ironmongery which sold car and radio parts; they were the first company to broadcast at the Orsett show. Also gone are Paines Corner which was also a pawn shop, now Barclays Bank, together with Bastiani’s Ice Cream, Boatman’s jewellery shop, Horncastle’s furniture, FW Woolworths, Marks & Spencer, Westwood’s Menswear, Noads pianos and prams and the Co-op at Hathaway Road. New Road pictures showed us the Grays Building Society (remembering its scandal), Joyes (bargains galore) and the Albion Market.

Photos of the early 1900s showed no cars, with the streets empty. There was a toilet where the War Memorial now is and we were shown views of the troops going off in WW1. Park school is still there, opposite Grays Park which was the original brickworks. The fire station has now gone and the free library in Orsett Road has also been replaced, with the clock now in store. We learnt that Mr Button had moved out of Belmont Castle in London Road as the chalk works got closer. It was bombed in WW2 and the site now forms part of Badgers Dene. Lakeside grew out of the Tunnel Cement site.

We were shown photos of the railway with horses and carts awaiting passengers. This was where the roast chestnut man sold his wares and where coal merchants Carters and Layzell had their offices. The main bus stops used to be in Orsett road and some shops were pulled down to widen the road for the new routes, the Greenline and Country buses being changed to a one-man operation. We saw pictures of Harris’s coaches, who also owned houses in Parker Road and Belmont Road. The Empire Theatre in the High Street is no more; the Ritz, once a bingo hall is now a church and the Regal in New Road has long gone. The art deco State cinema still awaits renovation. The Dell, built by Alfred Russel Wallace is now to be converted into flats.

This was a trip down memory lane for many of our members.

Thurrock Local History Society lecture 21 April 2017 AGM and Update of The Dell by John Matthews 21 April 2017

At our AGM chairman Susan Yates reported that our membership had been maintained, we had received a lottery grant to enable us to have a marquee at the Orsett Show this September and members had enjoyed various speakers and outings throughout the year. All officers and committee members were re-elected.

Afterwards John Matthews gave us a detailed and extensive illustrated report on Alfred Russel Wallace and the house he built in Grays. A scientist, Wallace lived in Hertford and became a surveyor and teacher. He had always been interested in natural history and he and a friend went to South America, exploring the Amazon. Wallace went to the Rio Negro and collected specimens which he sent home and was out there for several years, compiling accurate maps. He returned home but unfortunately the ship caught fire and the specimens it was carrying were lost. Wallace was rescued but had a horrific journey home. However insurance enabled him to finance two more years and he wrote of his experience, becoming well known.

He spent many years in the Malayan Archipelago and discovered animals and birds on one island were completely different to those on another island. He was able to draw an Australian/Asian line, now known as the Wallace Line. It was later found out that the two groups had come together due to movement of continental shelves. Wallace discovered that evolution was due to the survival of the fittest, or natural selection and wrote to Charles Darwin with his findings. Darwin had been working on this idea for 20 years, so this prompted him to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859. He acknowledged Wallace at the Linnean Society where their scientific paper was read out and later published; Wallace was still in the Far East, but he was a celebrity when he returned. He lived in Barking and bought land in Grays where he built the Dell, one of the earliest buildings constructed in concrete. He lived there from 1872 to 1876 and had hoped to become a director of the Natural History Museum at Bethnal Green, but when the museum moved to Kensington he did not get the job and moved away from Grays. When Darwin died Wallace was also widely acknowledged. Alfred Russel Wallace died in 1913 and was buried at Broadstone in Dorset; he is commemorated with a plaque in Westminster Abbey.

The Society received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order to increase awareness of Wallace in Thurrock, including a lecture at the Thameside Theatre by Richard Milner. Some members visited various places where Wallace’s work was acknowledged, including the Natural History Museum and Down House where Darwin lived. A visit was also made to Plantation Gardens in Norfolk, a garden built in a quarry, reminiscent of The Dell garden, described as ‘a Welsh Valley’. We took the Wallace exhibition ‘on the road’ to various locations, purchased some books, produced booklets and a DVD. The Dell, which was owned by The Grays Convent, has now been sold with planning permission for apartments and further development, but the gardens are not to be built on, hopefully providing public access in the future.

Thurrock Local History Society lecture 19 May 2017 The History of Tilbury Fort by Kevin Diver

Henry VIII’s Tudor Block House at Tilbury was built c1539 - one of five erected at the mouth of the Thames to provide protection from invaders from the continent. It was built of brick and stone, with only nine men in the garrison. When Philip I’s Spanish Armada threatened more fortifications were needed and a five star earth works and ramparts were constructed; the fort was re-armed when Queen Elizabeth I took the throne. The soldiers were not paid and damage and looting took place.

In the Civil War the fort was held by parliament; it became a check point for passing vessels to show their loyalty to the king; there were now 69 soldiers in total. In 1660 Charles II ordered a review of the defences. The following year his chief engineer Bernard de Gomme designed a new fort. The existing fort had not been well maintained and many soldiers deserted. At that time there was no sea wall and the ferry crossing to Gravesend was from the fort.

The new Tilbury Fort was built in the 1680s, keeping the Tudor blockhouse. Its main defence was long gun lines at river level. It had 75 heavy cannon to deliver broadsides to vessels coming up the river. However, the fifth bastion of the star design was never built. Chief Engineer Sir Martin Beckman followed de Gomme to complete the fort. He had helped in the capture of Captain Blood who tried to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London, where Beckman was living.

Tilbury had been considered as an arsenal, but instead Woolwich was chosen. The Board of Ordnance increased gun power at the fort and 19,000 barrels of gunpowder were stored there. There were two moats, inner and outer with four bastions, angled to see a wide vision of fire. Creeks surrounded the fort and sluice gates operated on the very marshy ground; the area could be flooded to make landing cannon impossible, a very secure defence. Earthworks surrounded the fort and it was very well fortified. The river was closer to the fort than now and the main entrance was from the rear via a land bridge and drawbridges, from what is now Fort Road.

At the front entrance the water gate was designed to impress, with the Stuart coat of arms above the door. The gunpowder magazines had a blast wall outside, with decorated brickwork. The doors were copper lined and wooden dowels instead of nails were used on the floor to prevent any sparks. Following the 1745 Battle of Culloden 300 Scottish Jacobites were held in very poor prison conditions in the gunpowder magazines. 45 died and many were transported to Barbados. A memorial to them was placed outside the Fort, known as the Culloden stone.

In 1780 a mock attack was staged, watched by hundreds of spectators. The fort was regarrisoned 1797 and by the 1850s we were in an arms race with the rest of Europe – the French had iron ships with faster guns. In 1859 there was a Royal Commission to review defences and Coalhouse Fort was added. Tilbury Fort became a second line of defence. In 1868 General Gordon oversaw the remodelling of Tilbury Fort, with earth embankments on the front walls and 13 new rifles. Conditions were improved for the soldiers, with running water and toilets, a kitchen, chapel, schoolhouse and married quarters. Soldiers planted allotments and gardens in their spare time. However, the guns were too slow, being replaced by quick firing guns in 1901. These had been removed by 1906. The river was so well defended that Tilbury really became redundant.

In 1914 the fort was used by soldiers who left for France. The RAOC took over and ammunition was stored there. There were 75 men and anti-aircraft equipment was installed. The outer defences were abandoned, with no access from the rear and a pontoon bridge was erected across to Gravesend. At the end of WW1 the fort received redundant horses, which were sold off. By the 1920s the fort was obsolete.

In WW2 Tilbury Fort was bomb damaged. The Home Guard ran operations from the guard house and chapel. They had two spigot mortars and other guns, with trenches criss-crossing the ground to prevent gliders landing. Most of the internal buildings were demolished. The fort was handed over to the Ministry of Works in 1950 and is now managed by English Heritage. Tilbury Fort is well worth a visit in the summer holidays.





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