Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 16 September 2022: Digitising the Museum Collection

At our first meeting of the season we welcomed Michelle Savage, curator of the Thurrock Museum. She presented a project that will be a boon to local historians - digitising the museum collection. Following on from Hazel Sacco, this was originally a project started at Coalhouse Fort.

Our thriving museum responds to enquires, provides education in-house and going into schools - the Stone Age to the Iron Age being part of school history. Children are invited to come to the museum and see behind the scenes, involving the Battle of Britain, rationing, WW2 air raids etc. The museum gallery has extensive displays, some interactive. It also hosts events and attends open days at such as High House and had a stand at the Orsett Show this year.

There are about 30,000 objects in the museum, which are undergoing an inventory, alongside digitisation. During lockdown some displays and cabinets were cleaned and refurbished. The museum relies heavily on the volunteers who help in research, social media, education etc. There are also three part-time staff to help with the important task of digitisation.

Michelle is looking to the future when maybe we could display the mammoth found at Aveley, on loan from the British Museum. She is keen to consistently record every object or collection, looking for the story behind it. More work needs to be done with schools and local memories such as evacuation. There is a long way to go, with lottery funding to kick start the collection inventory, some objects having no information. It all starts with an accession number, then logged onto a database, with efforts made to find out more. There are only the bare bones at the moment but it will be searchable. The audience was asked to suggest searches ‑ Tilbury Hospital, Grays Fire Station, Grays beach, allotments and the Empire cinema were looked at, with variable success.

The next step is to make all this information accessible, eventually on-line. We need to identify what's missing and find out more about the objects we have, which may take years. At the moment the museum cannot take in more objects and maybe some of their collection could be donated elsewhere, freeing up space for new acquisitions relating to Thurrock heritage. They would like to use members of the public to help, maybe from home. Once digitising is complete more needs to be found out about objects, looking to see what's relevant to Thurrock, with more involvement with schools. There could be an education out-reach programme and satellite displays across Thurrock.

Michelle and her team are hoping to receive more funding for extra staff so that they can continue to identify, carry out research, record and share their findings. She concluded her talk by asking why is the museum important, how can we make it important to more people and what's the purpose of the museum? This was a very interesting presentation by Michelle, giving food for thought for all of us to be aware of the history around us.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 21 October 2022: 70th Anniversary Celebration

At our October meeting we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Society with a buffet meal.

We had Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price, Leader of the Tory Council Mark Coxshall, Mayor James Halden, Cllrs Qasar Abbas, Debbie and Paul Arnold and former Mayor Tunde Ojitola as our guests at a splendid buffet at St John's Church Hall. A good time was had by all and our guests wished us well for the next 70 years.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 18 November 2022: Spas of Essex by Dr Emma Connell

For our November meeting we welcomed Dr Emma Cannell, who worked with the Essex Garden Trust research group during lockdown, concentrating on resorts and spa towns.  It involved a lot of detective work, using vital sources including maps and photos. She gave us the background of Christian and pagan spas, citing Bath, Baden Baden and Kos. It was thought that waters from spas and holy wells had healing properties, using hot or cold water, either drunk or used for bathing. Some of this has been backed up by scientific evidence, minerals being shown as curative in some cases.  Many spas had large windows and people also went there for the social scene, even from the Iron Age.

Emma looked at Essex spas and wells, including Runwell, and Cash’s well at Fobbing, the earliest being that at Wanstead in 1629. She set the scene for Thurrock, looking at why spas and wells did not survive, sometimes a street name or school giving a clue of their existence.

Her first example was at Hockley, found in a back garden and at its peak in the 17-19th century. Asthma symptoms were better when the water was drunk, up to 1½ pints of water four times a day. It boasted that the water cured all, including kidney problems and rickets, supplemented by sea bathing at Southend, with pleasure grounds opened in 1843. A hotel was built, with sometimes 150 guests sitting down to a meal, including clergy from London. It passed through several hands and was saved from demolition in 1967; it is now a pub, Grade II listed. Maybe it failed for lack of leisure experiences nearby as Hockley was rural.

Next Emma covered Dovercourt. This was small and insignificant, but as sea bathing grew in popularity the local MP saw the possibility of development into a spa town after finding a chalybeate spring. It opened in 1854, the same day as the railway connection and also accessed by paddle steamer. It included a reading room, library etc., with patients being encouraged to exercise. Ambitions for a spa town were dashed, being declared bankrupt in 1859. After that there was reduced access. It was used in WW1 but after this the building was considered unsafe. There was a competition to decide what to do next, but there were no entries. It was demolished in 1920 and there is still a public park on the site, with information boards.

The last spa examined was that at West Tilbury, the most successful well in the county. Mr Kellaway had a well dug and felt better after drinking the water; also if calves were given this water they had fewer stomach problems. Its properties, said to cure heartburn etc., were looked into in 1740. It was recommended by several doctors, including Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians. Tilbury was different from other spas; the water always being sold off site.  Sales increased, even exported to the East and West Indies. The water was stable, not effervescent but in 1803 Joseph Schweppes started selling sparkling water, brought to England – maybe the competition was too much and it lost its popularity.

Emma’s enjoyable talk gave us an insight into past pleasures, long forgotten.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: Friday 16th, December: Christmas meeting and Social

Unfortunately, our Christmas meeting had to be cancelled due to road conditions following heavy snow earlier in the week

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 20 January 2023: History of Corringham & Stanford

At our January meeting Phil Edgar showed how parts of the borough had changed throughout the years in a photographic display.  Stanford le Hope and Mucking  are close, but Mucking is the oldest parish, being mentioned in the Domesday Book. It was larger in Saxon times as the Mucking dig in the 1950s showed, some artefacts now in the Thurrock and British Museums. The church closed in 1952, but there is still a school and the Crown public house.

Stanford le Hope had its marshes, Boorman’s flour mill and railway tavern; the  cattle market was in Victoria Road. Phil showed several photos of The Green, showing how Barclays Bank once stood there, complete with steeple, also the blacksmiths and the Cock and Magpie Inn which became Lloyds Bank. The Doctor’s House is now the Inn on the Green. St Margaret’s church underwent a major restoration in 1887, when the new tower was added.

Stanford wharf even has a small beach. We were shown Ivy Walls where Joseph Conrad lived, St Joseph’s church built in 1910, also a school for workers at Kynoch which opened in 1912. The railway station was originally called the Horndon Halt, with no footbridge between platforms. Seabrooke’s brewery was bought by Charrington’s then pulled down. Also shown were the Regent cinema and Hassenbrook Hall.

St Mary’s Corringham is over 1000 years old, the oldest church in Thurrock, with a large pond behind. Many photos showed the fire crew, blacksmiths, Giffords Cross, the building of Gable Hall school and Herd Lane school. There were several views of Kynochtown (later Coryton) which was more like a village, employing more women than men, some apparently being prostitutes sent from London!  They had their own railway, school and hotel. Accommodation for men and women was segregated. In 1954 the Queen Mother visited to see the new houses built there. The expansion of the nearby Mobil Oil refinery meant the village being demolished in the 1970s.

Fobbing has the White Lion pub and St Michael’s church, where John Pell who invented the long division sign was the vicar. He also built their first school. Phil concluded with the Five Bells in Vange, the boundary of which used to go right up to where Basildon is now.

As our Christmas meeting was cancelled due to bad weather, the talk was followed by festive  refreshments and a raffle. 

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 17 February 2023: Broomsticks and Bedknobs

At our February meeting our chairman Susan Yates' talk was entitled Broomsticks and Bedknobs. It covered witches, those on broomsticks as we can imagine, but the bedknobs referred to those women who 'bewitched' men.

Besom brooms are a symbol of witches, but in fact witches in the 1450-1650s were probably just herbalists, which ran in families, certainly not looking like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. They were persecuted across Europe, over 500 being hung. A hundred of them were in Essex, pursued by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s. He was born in Suffolk where his father was a vicar and trained as a lawyer. He moved to Manningtree where he accused six women of trying to kill him by witchcraft.

One test for a witch involved immersion in water – if they floated they were guilty, but innocent if they drowned. Their pets were known as familiars, who they suckled. Hopkins was known as the 'Lady Pricker' - moles were another sign of witchcraft: if they didn't bleed when pricked then you were a witch. Other tortures included the penalty of death by hanging and sleep deprivation. The Salem witch trials in America are famous, and there were also some in Pendle, Lancashire, where many shops still display witchcraft themes.

The Canewdon village sign depicts a witch, probably the only one in England, a place which still blocks off the church on Hallowe'en. It seemed a strange place when Susan visited, the village eerily deserted. At St Osyth there is The Cage, said to be haunted, where a witch was locked up. She was Ursula Kemp, a local midwife, accused of killing a baby and later hanged. In 1921 her possible skeleton was found with rivets, suggesting someone accused of witchcraft. The bones were sent to a museum and may have later been re-buried in St Osyth.

Regarding bedknobs, another type of witchcraft involving men being led astray, Susan cited many famous people. She used Anne Boleyn as an example, bewitching Henry VIII. Also Queen Caroline who married George IV and had a liaison with Thomas Manby, the hotel in Southend where they stayed still displaying a plaque on the wall. Lord Nelson was led astray by Lady Emma Hamilton, who is said to have danced naked at Uppark to entertain visitors. Disraeli was another, a love story of his secret affair with Lady Henrietta Sykes. Disraeli had several affairs, preferring older women who wanted to mother him, before he entered the world of politics. HG Wells was bewitched by Rebecca West; when he dropped her she wrote a long bitter letter.

There were several witches in Thurrock, including Elizabeth Fox in Aveley, others in Bulphan, East Tilbury, Fobbing, Grays and Horndon. There were four in Ockendon and three in Tilbury. This was a sobering journey through the world of witchcraft, leaving us feeling glad that we no longer have witchfinders.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 17 March 2023: Social History of the Allotment by Dr Twigs Way

At our March meeting we welcomed back Dr Twigs Way, consultant in garden history, giving us an extensive and witty history of the allotment.

Rural plots go back to earlier times. When over 5 million acres of land were enclosed during 1760-1818 the poor were deprived of their rights to common land and campaigns were launched for recompense. Various schemes were put forward, reliant on philanthropy and by the mid -1850s a general enclosure act provided for plots. Some parishes had no allotments, encouraging movement of labour and tenant farmers feared labourers would rely on their own produce instead of working, also promoting marriage and too many children, thus a burden on poor relief. In 1884 franchise was extended, councils having to provide allotments. There were many rules for tenants, with some threatened with the sack for working their plot on a Sunday or not attending church services. Also there was no poor relief if you had an allotment.

Urban allotments started in the 18th century with guinea gardens for the middle classes. They were used for leisure with summer houses etc. They had hedges, fencing etc. but fell out of favour when more houses had gardens. The early 20th century craze for allotments were tended by white collar workers, with many postcards issued. This had huge social consequences for families and was important to social structure. In WW1 allotments grew to 1.5 million or more, encouraging people to grow food to beat the U-boats, with many grounds dug up. We were shown images of two beautiful paintings of the Grays Globe Pit allotments in WW1 that have recently been cleaned and framed.

During the inter-war period there was a slump in take-up with some grounds being restored almost overnight. In WW2 Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, put forward the need to grow our own food with a Dig for Victory campaign aimed at one allotment plot for at least every five households. Allotments were created everywhere, including bomb sites. There were official war artists and photographers to capture the scene. Everyone joined in, including Boys Brigades, many being set up for children.

Allotment work was mostly a male preserve but in WW2 more women were involved. There was huge propaganda, creating a competing fervour, dubbed 'the Allotment Army'. The BBC also had a radio show keeping up morale. After the war some were closed down, said to be for 'boring old men'. The government needed land to be released for housing and open space. The Thorpe Report laid out a plan for identical sheds etc. on allotments, keeping to certain standards. Allotments were re-named Leisure Gardens (1979-82) where a family could relax and house their car. This plan for Identical plots was not successful.

In the 1980s Friends of the Earth got involved and tried to save allotments, citing 'The Good Life' and more campaigners joined in. There was a diverse population, with migrants used to growing their own generic food. This was helped by the wildlife cause and some waste areas were turned into wildlife areas. Flowers were allowed on sites with hens and other livestock, including bees, being introduced - worthy of being painted.

There is now a wider variety of people than ever before tending to plots. There is a press for community gardens with campaigns to save our allotments, getting children involved. If we know more of their history, they are more likely to be saved.

This was a very informative and entertaining lecture, opening our eyes to what is happening on our doorstep.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 11 April 2023: Wallace by Dr George Beccaloni ARCS, DIC, FLS

After the AGM at our April meeting we welcomed Dr George Beccaloni, a new patron for the Society, talking about Alfred Russel Wallace, a local legend. Wallace discovered the process of evolution by natural selection. He was born in 1823, leaving school at 14, when he worked for a land surveyor. Making maps began his interest in natural history and he collected specimens. He was an avid reader, being inspired by books on selection. Aged 25 he went up the Amazon with his friend Henry Bates to seek evidence of evolution. He first collected butterflies and birds. He travelled up the Rio Negro and produced a map, which is now used as a standard, together with several hand-drawn maps. Poor health led him back to the UK but tragically the ship caught fire and sank, losing specimens and his travel notes, only a few drawings being rescued. After spending ten days adrift he landed at Deal. He had come to the conclusion that creatures separated by water evolved into a different species.

In 1854 he left on a collecting expedition to the Archipelago in Indonesia for eight years. This was a resounding success, resulting in 10,000 specimens, many of which were unknown, with some being named after him. He also came to the conclusion that the geographical distribution of plants and animals had evolved through natural selection and the survival of the fittest. He divulged this theory in 1856 and was urged to publish his findings. In 1867 he published an essay on the Sarawak Law, showing how new species evolved. He proposed the imaginary line between Asia and Australia, now known as the Wallace line.

He contacted Charles Darwin who had also come to a similar conclusion and had sat on his theory for twenty years. They had mutual respect for each other and jointly sent a paper to the Linnean Society, which was much praised, but it was Darwin who published his findings first in The Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Wallace wrote many articles and books, including two volumes of The Geographical Distribution of Animals.

He moved to Grays, where he obtained the lease of four acres of land which included an old chalk pit, on which to build a house in concrete because there was a nearby cement works and a supply of gravel on the site. He named it The Dell, a large three-storey house, paid for by his earnings and his book on spiritualism. He had a well dug and piped water to the house. He moved in in 1872 amid well laid out picturesque gardens, with the entrance from Dell Road. He planned to settle there for life, but sold up after four years, perhaps for financial reasons or the death of his son. There were several owners, including Grays Convent and in 2002 a plaque to Wallace was unveiled there. It is now Grade II listed owing to its concrete construction and was sold to a property developer in 2017 who turned the house into flats and built several others around it.

Alfred Russel Wallace died in 1913, aged 90. He is widely respected and Dr Beccaloni's very detailed and informative story of his life and findings made this 'Grays boy' come alive, remembered today by roads named after him.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 19 May 2023: My amazing life as an A & E nurse

At our May meeting Gary Jones gave us an interesting talk on the workings of an A & E Nurse, having joined the NHS as a cadet in 1969, working up to Head of A & E Nursing at Orsett. He described his work at the hospital, also his personal experience at roadside emergencies. He was involved in the development of paramedics at Orsett Hospital A & E and in the early 1970s started a mobile accident team, described as Thurrock's 4th emergency service.

Gary spoke of various accidents he attended including a West Thurrock worker trapped at the top of an industrial chimney in poor weather and a lorry hanging over a road barrier. He also experienced a terrifying journey on the A128 in the snow to trapped motorists and another where a pole had gone through a man's chest, where his clothing acted as a seal.

When Tilbury celebrated 500 years since Queen Elizabeth I gave her speech it was a hot weekend and a complete mobile service was set up to deal with the crowds – mainly fainting and dehydration due to the heavy costumes. There were regular exercises at Stansted airport, the PLA and Shell Haven and also practices on the M25 just before it opened. A recreation of the Herald of Free Enterprise accident was very realistic, using a mobile team from Orsett.

In 1986 Casualty started on the BBC, at first only showing night duty and they looked at A & E at Bristol as an example. The NHS invited the BBC to their conference to listen to nurses and Gary was involved. At Orsett A & E at that time there was only a junior casualty officer, with no consultants. It was thought the programme would not last, but temporary buildings at White City were replaced by a permanent structure in Bristol. After series three Gary became involved again when they expanded to show day and night casualties, using a mobile accident team. They looked for stories, which Gary supplied, including an accident at Grays in 1977 involving hydrochloric acid. Gary made friends with the cast, especially Charlie Fairhead (now 75), inspired by real nurse Peter Salt.

After leaving the NHS in 1992 Gary went back in a consulting role. Over the years paramedic training expanded; at first they only did basic first aid. Now they are a profession in their own right with more of a team approach between doctors, nurses and paramedics. Gary is still involved and teaching, whilst enjoying retirement. This was an insight into the workings of part of our National Health Service which so many of us take for granted.

Our new season of lectures starts in September at St John's Church Hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays. Further details will be shown on this website shortly.