Meeting reports 2003 -2004

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Society meeting 19th September, 2003

The English Gentleman and his Country Estates

Our programme for the new season began with a lively and interesting talk by Georgina Green. This history of English country estates and gardens began with the more formal Elizabethan layout of straight lines, and knot gardens formed by planting low hedges of the box shrub in intricate shapes. Later, after the fashion of the neo-classical Italian architecture, Palladian style mansions were built and the grounds became less formal so that statues in the classical style could be placed in attractive corners and temples reflected in the waters of an artificial lake. Rivers and streams were often diverted and ornamental bridges were also built and trees planted to enhance the scenery. These elaborate grounds were a status symbol and often included a deer park. Lancelot 'Capability' Brown', the famous landscape gardener of the 18th century, was an innovator of this style of contrived informality. He was in demand at many great estates including Blenheim Palace.

Joseph Paxton, an architect and gardener, landscaped the gardens of the Duke of Devonshire and built a huge glass-house, remarkable for its height and length. He later designed the Crystal Palace which housed the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851.

The lecture was accompanied by excellent slides.

Society meeting 17th October, 2003

Alfred Russel Wallace and the House he built in Grays

This was a very popular and well-attended lecture. Dr Beccaloni began with Wallace’s life story. He was born in Usk, Monmouthshire in 1823, educated at a Grammar School and in 1837 learnt the surveying trade. He had been interested in Botany from an early age. This interest became all-consuming and in 1848 Wallace set sail for the Amazon where he collected specimens of butterflies and insects which he sent back to his agent in London. Collections of butterflies were very popular in Victorian times and the proceeds of sales funded his trip. Unfortunately, his own private collection was lost when his ship sank and he was rescued at sea. Between 1854 and 1862 Wallace travelled in the Malay Archipelago. It was at Sarawak that he wrote a paper on natural selection and sent it to Charles Darwin. Darwin, who had worked on his theory of evolutuion for many years, was amazed to find that Wallace had arrived at the same conclusion as himself. Darwin arranged to have his own and Wallace’s writings on natural selection presented before the Linnean Society in London on 1st July 1858, while Wallace was still in Malaysia. Darwin published ‘The Origin of the Species’.

Wallace returned to England in 1862 and married Annie Mitten in 1866. They moved to Barking but Wallace did not like the surroundings. He decided to move to Grays and leased some land in a disused chalk quarry where he liked the views over the river and where there was ample space to make a garden full of rare plants. He decided to build his house of cement, this material being produced locally. Dr Beccaloni gave a good account of the building process and after several trials and tribulations, Wallace was pleased with the house which he called ‘The Dell’.

Unfortunately, Wallace’s young son died and the family only stayed in the house for four and a half years. He lived in several places after Grays but none of the houses survive. A plaque has been placed on ‘The Dell’, now Grade II listed, to commemorate Alfred Russel Wallace who independently arrived at the same Theory of Evolution as Darwin and was also the author of many important publications as well as his autobiography ‘My Life’.

In 1908 Wallace received the Order of Merit. He died at his home near Wimborne, Dorset in 1913.

Society meeting 21st November 2003

ARCHIVE FILMS, presented by John Stocks of the East Anglian Film Archive

Before showing the films, John Stocks gave a short talk on the origin of moving films, the quality of the early archives and the work of the East Anglian Archive. He also touched on modern techniques with digital cameras and computers.

The films ranged from 1896 to the 1960s and showed the progression from silent films, films with music added, to black and white with sound and ending with colour and sound. Among John Stock's selection was a film of the Fleet coming in at Southend which showed the streets decorated with flags and bunting, plus ships and submarines coming up the estuary with several views of the pier. There was a very good record of farming in the twenties, also bringing in the harvest at Thaxted culminating in morris dancing, a harvest supper and a service of thanksgiving in the church. An outing of factory children, in the thirties, to Theydon Bois showed some very happy scenes.

A film of the floods of 1953, and the effect on Van den Berg and Jurgens, the margarine factory, aroused a great deal of interest. The evening ended with an amusing film, in colour, of events at a Butlin's Holiday Camp at Clacton in the sixties.

East Anglian Film Archive:

The Christmas Meeting
Friday 12th December 2003

Stuart Thurrock

Wine and soft drinks were available for members and visitors to open the meeting.

Five members of the committee and Chris Harrold, a patron, presented a reading of 'Stuart Thurrock'. This consisted of a miscellany of information and quotes from the reign of James I to Queen Anne which had a bearing on life in Thurrock as well as more detailed information on wages, hours of work and type of work e.g. on the land, on the river, in markets and extracting chalk. Included were eminent names such as Sir Richard Saltonstall, one-time Mayor of London, Edward Barrett, Lord Newburgh of Belhus, James Temple and Edward Whalley, notorious as regicides, as well as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys and others connected with Thurrock. It also covered the responsibilities of the Parish for caring for the poor and destitute

After the reading, a buffet and drinks were enjoyed by all. A display of the Stuart Age showing all the monarchs and Oliver Cromwell plus prints of various aspects of life in Stuart times, created much interest.

Society Meeting
16th January, 2004

Discoveries on the Thames Foreshore by Fiona Haughey

This meeting was very well attended, approaching a hundred members and visitors. Fiona Haughey is a well known archaeologist and has worked on digs at various sites all over the world as well as working with the ‘Time Team’ for Channel 4 television. The lecture described her work on the Thames foreshore extending from Teddington to Erith. The constant movement of the tide on the foreshore has revealed the remains of a pre-historic forest and such structures as fish traps, jetties and causeways from pre-bronze age to mediaeval times. The slides that accompanied the lecture also showed some of the fine artifacts that have been retrieved from the foreshore such as swords, other weapons and domestic articles as well as human skulls. Sometimes such items are scooped up in the dredgers which work along the Thames.

Fiona leads working parties, adults and school children on open days, along the Thames shore. She is keen to encourage enthusiastic members of the society to form a group, under her guidance, to investigate the foreshore in the Thurrock area. Several members expressed an interest in this activity.

Society Meeting
27th February 2004

Beneath the City Streets – London’s Unseen History by Peter Lawrence

Peter Lawrence is well known to our members and as usual he attracted a large number of members and visitors. His lecture began by describing three of the several rivers that still run through London from the north and the south into the Thames. In the main, these rivers are concealed by the roads that were built over them in the 19th century.

The three rivers described all flow from the north of London. First the Westbourne which runs down through Hyde Park, and was dammed to form the Serpentine, also making the boundary between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens; the second was the Fleet which runs from Holborn. This river was navigable but was enclosed in a conduit when the Farringdon Road was built over it. The third river, the Tyburn, flows from Regent’s Park down to St James’ Park where it forms a lake and on to the Thames by Westminster.

The lecture also included descriptions of the tunnel system under Whitehall, the construction of the Embankment, the sewerage system, which is made up of 1,000 miles of sewer pipes under London, and the London Underground. Plus Brunel’s Rotherhithe to Wapping tunnel under the Thames which took 19 years to dig 1200 ft. During the second world war the Plessey engineering company set up a factory in the Underground between Gants Hill and Wanstead in order to avoid the German bombing.

The lecture was illustrated with interesting slides which contributed to a very enjoyable evening which brought to light a little known aspect of London.

Society Meeting
19th March 2004

"The Forgotten Men" - The Royal Gunpowder Factory Explosions, 1940 by Bryn Elliot

Bryn Elliot began his lecture with a short history of gunpowder and the Royal Gunpowder Factory which was built in the 18th century to provide gunpowder for the army & navy during the wars with the French. In 1843 there was an explosion and 7 lives were lost. The factory was expanded during the Zulu wars and Boer War to cope with the extra demand for gunpowder. The gunpowder travelled by canal to Woolwich Arsenal, rather than rail, to reduce the risk of sparks causing an explosion.

During the First World War women worked at the factory. They were very well trained so the number of accidents was very low. After the war the workers were not needed and the expertise which was necessary to ensure the safety of the employees was lost.

At the beginning of the Second World War there was no skilled workforce to fulfil the demand for gunpowder. People were coming in not trained sufficiently to handle the explosive ingredients such as nitro glycerine.

The winter of 1940 was very cold and the freezing temperatures made the process even more dangerous. On 18th January 1940 the first explosion occurred killing 5 men. The force of the explosion was heard as far away as Brighton in Sussex. The roof was blown off the Abbey church and windows blown in. In the town of Waltham Abbey shop fronts were wrecked. On 20th April 1940 another explosion killed five men.

In 1943 the factory was closed because it was too close to London and was a target for German bombers. It became an experimental station and finally closed in 1991. It is now a Heritage Centre.

The workers killed in 1940, known as the forgotten men, were commemorated fifty years later by a service at the Abbey church to which relatives and friends were invited. Gravestones were erected in the graveyard although, due to the nature of their death, no bodies had been interred.

Society AGM
23rd April 2004

As it was St. Georges day, Susan Yates (the chairman) began the meeting by leading a rousing chorus of Land of Hope and Glory. She then opened the formal business and gave a review of the year including the final event in our golden anniversery celebrations - the Fred Dibnah celebrity lecture. She concluded with an appeal for ordinary members to help man the stand at local shows. The secretary/treasurer explained that the societies surplus for 2003-4 was misleading since a large amount of our lottery grant will have to be returned. The officers and committee members were all re-elected.

After the AGM, Jonathan Catton gave an illustrated talk on recent museum, activities. He mentioned the success of a "heraldry day" which had included a "performance" by one of our patrons - Chris Harrold. Jonathan talked about an exhibition showing the multicultural history of the Thurrock area and mentioned that the tours of Tilbury Fort and New Tavern Fort (Gravesend) are about to restart. These are part of the "cross-fire" partnership with Gravesham Council.

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