Reports of Meetings at Southend-on-Sea

Southend-on-Sea Pier today
(picture by Mrs Heather Feather)

The pier as your ancestors would have known it

28th November 2020
S.E.Branch Annual General Meeting
The S.E.Branch held a "late" A.G.M. on Zoom at the end of November 2020. The meeting was conducted by Vice President Fred Feather. Following the chairman’s and financial reports the elections were held. The members of the current committee were re-elected "en bloc" and a new committee member, Mandie Adams, was also elected and welcomed.

"Necro Tourism" - the Magnificent Seven     by Fred Feather
This brief meeting was followed by an illustrated talk by Fred Feather entitled "Necro Tourism". After several summer trips to the "Magnificent Seven" London garden cemeteries plus one or two others,Fred showed us some of the more interesting or unusual memorials that can be found. One particularly imposing chest tomb in Bunhill Fields commemorates Dame Mary Page who died in 1728 aged 55. Apparently she requested the wording in her will and one side says: "In 67 months she was tap'd 66 times. Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation". What a brave lady! It has been suggested that she suffered from Meigs’ Syndrome.

There are several books and websites available which tell where well known people are buried, either in London or around the country. Who knows who you might find when looking for the grave or a relative?
Heather Feather ESFH 366
March 2020
From its core influence within industry (transporting coal from places like Sunderland, Cardiff and Swansea), to tourism with the ferrying of people to exotic places, to the likes of the day-trippers to the seaside, the railways are so very much a part of our history.

We need to look back to those earlier times (the 1840s) when the distribution of goods was expensive and difficult. The coming of the railways changed all that. These were improvements that were ground-breaking at the time.

With the introduction of passenger services another ‘industry’ was soon to follow - tourism. ‘Set in all the right places, paradise could be gained in less than 2 hours’, so the poster might have told us as we boarded the train to our favourite destination. This was all about luxury with scenery to match. We’re talking hotels capable of accommodating 100 guests or more, replete with croquet, squash, tennis and perhaps a swimming pool by the 1890s. The seaside holiday was born, the leisure brought pleasure-seekers determined to enjoy every part that was theirs by rights.

The day-tripper had not yet been invented. For most it was not until the ‘Holidays with Pay Act’ of 1938 came into force (and this only applied to those employed in industry) which allowed workers time off for trips to the seaside, the nearest for many Londoners being Southend-on-Sea. It was only then that they, too, were able to enjoy the freedoms that were previously denied them.

Thank you Adrian for the journey back in time, a journey of which many of us had only a very limited knowledge.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
February 2020
HOME GROWN: THE STORY OF EKCO                              by Bob Delgano
“The Southend based company whose continuing breakthrough in electronics saw a future others could benefit from and this was at a time when Britain was lagging behind other countries in its approach to selling what it had. EKCO secured a foothold and kept it” - Bob Delgano.

Whether it be manufacturing their own products or supplying components for other companies, several of which were government-run organisations, the range and diversity of output was extraordinary, and it kept them there thanks to the team of experts who were mindful of the way certain products could be improved. The company’s founder, Eric Kirkham Cole, (1901-1966) recognised those qualities for without them, he felt, EKCO was just another company desperate to survive in an extremely competitive market where price was often the mainspring for future contracts.

So what sort of products did the company produce that would see them dominate the field of electronics for so long? These ranged from radios and radiograms, televisions (many had Bakelite cabinets, that smelly stuff which some will remember as rather unpleasant), plastics (their toilet seats were a definite winner), clocks (those somewhat iconic affairs from the 1940s and 1950s everyone seem to have on their desk or sideboard), electric blankets, a whole range of equipment for the aero industry (radar, telecommunications apparatus), heating products, washing machines. The firm were also heavily involved in nuclear development. They also manufactured Geiger counters.

There is now evidence that the monitoring of the German Enigma Code transmissions first began at Southend, Eric heading a team using shortwave radio to plot the number of times messages were being sent by German naval intelligence, Bletchley Park’s Commander Ellingworth recognising what could be achieved if they used EKCO – the list of credits is endless.

By the1930s radios were selling like hot cakes, and this was happening at a time when the USA Wall Street Crash of 1929 markedly affected businesses in the UK, to the extent that 100s of companies were forced to close.

The film Bob had with him drew on many of the elements that represented the EKCO approach to business. Technology was about exploring avenues. This suited the character of a man who demanded as much of himself as he did those who worked for him. Production line assembly techniques marked the crest of the company’s success with the Priory Crescent factory in Southend-on-Sea employing around 7,000 by the 1950s.

As with any successful business, the potential for failure is high and this finally happened when EKCO merged with Pye in the 1960s. What had been a monopoly was now a part-share in an ever-shifting market, more cut-throat and competitive than it was when EKCO first went into business producing battery eliminators back in the 1920s.

A further threatening presence came with the importation of the Japanese 625-line colour televisions offering quality at extremely competitive prices. By the mid-1960s, practically every other television manufacturer found itself facing the same loss of trade. For EKCO this meant the stockpiling of 100s of black and white 405-line televisions for a market that was virtually non-existent. You could say the demise of EKCO as a company happened around this time.

Southend had never had a company which employed so many people under one roof. We should be proud to say it was a local lad who had done this. And yet other than the EKCO Social and Sports Club, what is there that reminds us that Eric Kirkham Cole ever existed? No statue, no plaque. Shame on you, Southend Borough Council, for failing to acknowledge what he did for the town!

Chris Poole and Peter C Brown wrote in 2014 a book entitled EKCO Sounds which is about the company. Chris shares his experiences with others who also worked there; a collective knowledge which for me works so well. Seeing things from the inside gives one a sense of being there at a time when the company was undergoing change - technological breakthrough being the central issue. Contributions also include those from Eric’s son, Derek. OK, it does get a tad technical at times. That aside, EKCO Sounds is a thoroughly good read and is certainly worth the money. Available from Estuary Publishing at £9.99
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
January 2020
St John Ambulance in Southend during the Great War 1914-1918                              by Mick Morning
Our speaker, Mick Morning, explained the inner workings of the service and how crucial it was during the four years of conflict.

Many were drawn to the St John service from the ranks of the armed forces, those who had since retired, to young men described as ‘unfit for service’, mostly owing to injury during combat. That did not mean they were not able play an important role as part of a team of volunteers working for organisations like the St John Ambulance Brigade (SJAB). But men were not the only ones who made up the numbers. Women were also recruited. The Edith Cavell/Florence Nightingale approach to nursing was eagerly championed by St John Ambulance and the Red Cross as part of their training programme.

The First World War loomed large in everyone’s life, not just abroad, but in towns throughout Britain. Southend-on-Sea was one of them. During one unsuccessful raid on London a team of Gotha bombers were forced back, unable to offload their lethal cargo. Carrying that much hardware back to Germany was dangerous, and so they dropped everything they had on Southend. Thirty people died and a lot of property was damaged, much of it beyond repair. During two earlier bombing raids a team of Zeppelins took the lives of three people. Once again there was damage to property.

Other than Rochford Hospital, 5 miles away, the one in Warrior Square had only eight beds to cope with a growing population; until 1936 there was no Southend General, hence the need for organisations like St John and the Red Cross. Improvisation was the name of the game in the early years of the Great War; tents, vans, property that had been vacated. Working in tandem, they ran a number of auxiliary hospitals in Southend; often using the Kursaal (the amusement park on the seafront) because of its size’, the Overcliff Hotel (again on the seafront), the Hotel Metropole (later renamed the Palace Hotel, placed at the top of Pier Hill), to name but a few. Dependant on the type of injuries involved, duties also included visiting people in their own homes. This was usually the responsibility of the team of nurses, those same volunteers who, like their male counterparts, had put themselves forward at the outset of war offering to help in any way they could.

The SJAB works in some of the world’s most dangerous places, whether through providing first aid, administering drugs or other medical care, the same policy holds true. This charity has a museum in Clerkenwell, London which is free to visit and holds a valuable collection of artefacts including books, paintings, ceramics, glass and illuminated manuscripts. (
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
December 2019
Seeing It Through Their Songs    by Michael Gandy - Fellow Society of Genealogists
For some, the December 2019 talk could be a “once in a lifetime experience,” but I have been lucky and seen it twice. At Alexandra Palace last April I invited Michael to our branch meeting and asked him to repeat his barnstorming performance I had seen at Barking decades ago. “I probably can’t sing now” he said. “I am not sure that you could then” I graciously offered “but who cared!”

So, a packed audience heard how life was different in Victorian times, and how songs from London were 99% cheerful, even if the subject would now cause the “snowflakes” to be howling for counselling. “Always marry a widow. They come with a house and furniture” was word for word my memory. Michael explained that cheerful songs did not go down well in Glasgow, Cardiff or Dublin, where audiences wanted to weep over “Mother McCree,” “My ain folk,” or “Myfanwy”. While Marie Lloyd’s (1870-1922) suggestive movements and innuendo did not meet an expected response in Yorkshire and the North, and her act “died” on stage!

Michael then sang (?) a few dozen songs. To some of them the audience joined in, to the others, everyone was busy laughing too much to sing. I was longing for his big finish, our refreshment ‘supervisor’ forgave him for the stewed tea, then, joy - he sang it! The song of the Boer War baby, who was christened with the name of every South African General (inc. Smuts and Roberts), battles (inc. Spion Kop and Majuba Hill,) irrelevancies (inc. Armoured Train) and much more. He invited the audience to join in. They defied him. So he sang it the third time at twice the speed. I could not get all the names down.

This 90 minute master-class left everyone happy and knowing more about their forebears than they did before he came in. Oh, I do hope that other members read this and request he is booked for their branch as I want to hear it again. Please!
Fred Feather (ESFH 27/366) Standing in for Martin Roberts – he missed it!
November 2019
Essex - The Way We Were
There was no guest speaker this month. Instead, our very own genealogy wiz, Reg Wells, provided the entertainment. ‘Essex the Way We Were’ is part of the British Film Series of videos of which Reg has quite a few.

The film was interspersed with scenes of the countryside from the 1930s where vast areas of Essex were still covered by farmland, much of it owned by the landed gentry (stately homes, there were plenty of those). Villages were often closed off from one another, ‘theirs was a foreign country and not one we chose to share,’ was the comment offered by many an old timer.

Life was hard, the hours were long and families barely survived on the weekly wage farm labourers would have earned. Most still lived in tied cottages; people went to church on Sundays; at harvest time you did the same. The expressions on the faces of those who were filmed (wonderful characters many of them) gave one a sense of being there. Several in the audience may have known folk like them.

The pastoral idyll of the ‘30s and ‘50s has since been swept away thanks to the pressures of modern day living (housing), of which Essex is the perfect example - ‘and they all look just the same...’ Two entirely different worlds. Watching the film in 2019 even the ‘swinging 60’s’ seems quaintly old fashioned. When it came to Southend (filmed during the 1960s), what we heard was more of a put-down. Talk about plumy. This was followed by a sing-along, cockney style. Our East End cousins would have cringed if they’d heard it. Apart from that, the rest was fine.

The 1953 floods at Canvey (of which there was film) were seen at that time as the worst disaster ever recorded. The number of those who lost their lives in Canvey was 58; and 13,000 were evacuated from their homes. An island lying below sea level doesn’t stop people wanting to live there. ‘I was born and brought up on Canvey, for me this is home, and always will be’ commented one of the surviving islanders interviewed soon afterwards. Here the flooding was seen as cyclical.

Comparisons can be quite something. This one certainly was. I’m sure everyone enjoyed the film as much as I did. Thanks Reg for allowing us the opportunity to see it.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH3860)
October 2019
Dating Old Photographs    by Tom Doigt
Dating old photographs is not easy, but with an expert on hand the various brick walls start to crumble. Tom Doig’s specialism covers the years when photography was beginning to be recognised as an art form.

For this session, Tom concentrated on the 1860s to the 1880s; what to look for within the pictures themselves, clues like dress code, hairstyle (especially women’s), the various props used by the studio, how the subject held themselves (sitting or standing) during the time it took to take the photo - sometimes up to four minutes to secure an image, plus the type of mounts that were used, all of which help to narrow down a date on a particular picture.

Another pointer is information on the back of the photo saying who the photographer was and where they ran their business. Many often moved premises, so if you happen to find them at another address, say 5-10 years later, you’ll have some idea as to when the picture was taken. Here business directories are an invaluable source, and many are now listed online.

Several members of the audience had photos they wanted help with. Their queries were soon solved as Tom knew almost instantly which decade they belonged to.

The advice then is, if you’re still unsure about dates, seek advice. Family history magazines often include lots of information on dating old photographs; specialist publications are another source; articles on the web, or again, speak to experts like Tom. (Readers may recall that in the March 2018 edition of the Historian an article was published by Jayne Shrimpton entitled Dating Dress in Old Family Photographs and this is available from the Historian archive section of our website)

Pictures That Contradict Themselves
Tom showed a photograph of a man wearing clothes from the 1850-60s, yet that did not seem to fit with the information on the back of the photo, regarding the photographer. There was no photographer of that name during those years and not until the 1880s can he be found. The answer is a simple one.

The older generation – we’re talking men mostly here - often wore clothes they’d had for decades. Why worry about 'dressing up' just to have your picture taken, so on went the same 'best suit' they'd bought 20 or even 30 years ago. This might explain the problem you're hoping to solve. Even more so when you're unsure who the person was other than they're some member of the family. I've faced the same problem many a time when it comes to 'unknowns'.

So yes, it can be an uphill struggle trying to date old photographs.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
September 2019
The Rossi Ice Cream Family   by Patricia Volante
Our speaker for this month’s talk was Patricia Volante who came to talk about Rossi’s, the people who make ‘real ice cream’ here in sunny Southend.

Massimiliano Agostino Rossi was born in Vallerotonda in central Italy in 1889. At the age of 12 his parents sent him to Scotland to work with an uncle making syrups for fizzy drinks. Agostino (as everyone called him) was quick to learn. The pair continued working together when the uncle went into business making ice cream. That move would prove to be the wellspring of future success for the young lad.

By 1911 Agostino is living in Plaistow, one of Glasgow’s poorer districts. He then had his own business, again selling ice cream. He often felt homesick - his parents, his cousins and many of his friends still lived in that tiny village in the Lazio region of Italy. It was during one of his visits back home that he was to meet his future wife Anna who lived in the next village. The couple married in 1918 and went on to have seven children.

Things continued to go well with the business, though not for Anna. Scotland’s dank, dreary weather affected her health. They had to move. Agostino had a cousin in Stockton-on-Tees who was a cafe owner, and so they moved there, though not for very long. On a visit to London, Agostino spotted a poster advertising “Sunny Southend-on-Sea”. Soon it was up sticks once more. This time he knew he’d found what he wanted, a chance to expand the business as never before.

In 1931 he opened his first shop at 37 High Street, Southend-on-Sea. That was soon followed by others in the High Street and those on the seafront. It was a boom time for the business. The quality and range of products said it all and one of the best sellers was the 99, a combination of cone and ice cream topped with a Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate Flake. Now that’s ice cream as it should be!

In 1950, Agostino was diagnosed with cancer. Following an operation he travelled to Valvori to convalesce. He died on 6 December 1950. The family finally decided to sell the business in 2007, the Rossi name and same high standards being maintained by the new owners. Agostino would never have believed what’s happened since.

Patricia, who married Fernando, son of Agostino, has written a book about the family. Published last year, Rossi’s the Story of Southend’s Favourite Ice Cream, might be described as a travelogue and one that follows many interesting paths. Patricia’s book is available online from Estuary Publishing at £7.99 (

Nb. Francis Rossi, frontman of the rock band Status Quo, is a cousin. His father also made and sold ice cream. Some of you may have seen Francis on the Beeb (BBC) recently, still rockin’ and rollin’ to the max!
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
July 2019
Edith Cavell, her life and work   by Robert Rush
Originally a talk given by Robert Rush to the Southend branch in July 2019 this is an article written by Robert Rush and Martyn Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860) which will appear as a feature article in the December 2019 issue of The Essex Family Historian.

The story of an extraordinary woman whose positive beliefs in nursing advanced both the policies and practices within the profession. A life cut short that would shock the world.

Even as a young girl, Edith Cavell knew she wanted to do something meaningful with her life but she didn’t know what that might be. One could say that was decided for her when she helped raise funds to pay for a room the Sunday School could use near her home at Swardeston, Norfolk where her father was rector of the parish. She was only 12 years old at the time.

We can see the sort of person she was – someone driven by the need to help others she cared about. Edith would soon realise what she wanted to do with her life, take up a career in nursing.

In 1886 she first found work as a governess at the home of another vicar, the Rev Charles Meers Powell, rector of Steeple Bumpstead, Essex. Responsibilities included looking after the vicar’s four very active children and invalid wife; but there were other obligations besides this: a range of household duties and church work soon became routine. Being a dogsbody wasn’t for her.

Edith then spent time at a number of hospitals and institutions which by then saw her overseeing other nurses. Patients died at an alarming rate often caused by the conditions they were housed under. Edith was exhausted by the stress of it all. She knew she needed something else.

By 1890 she was in Belgium having been recommended for her skills as a governess, something she would have experienced and nurtured during her time at Steeple Bumpstead. Here she was working for the François family at their chateau near the Dutch/German border. The François’ also had four equally lively children. She stayed until 1905 having had to return to Britain to look after her father who by then was close to death, he died that same year.

Recommendation followed recommendation and with it a reputation for high standards in nursing. Again her innate sense of purpose often found her working extremely long hours. But that was the character of this woman.

L’ECOLE BELGE D’INFIRMIERES DIPLOMEES,   a pioneering training school for lay nurses on the outskirts of Brussels. Here she shared responsibilities with Marie Depage, wife of Dr Antoine Depage who ran the infirmary, later to become director of the school in her own right.

Two stranded British soldiers had found their way to the school. What followed was an escape plan masterminded by Prince and Princess De Croy to shelter 200 other soldiers to neutral territory in Holland. Edith was said to have been involved; she was accused of concealing French, British and Belgium soldiers and helping them to escape; that she was also a spy. None of this was true. She wouldn’t have risked it, not when there were that many nurses under her care.

The sermon, according to Robert was rather long, taking an hour instead of the 45 minutes usually allotted to afternoon guests, but then the life of someone like Edith Cavell deserves that amount of time considering what she meant to the people of this country when they heard of her execution by firing squad, a callous, meaningless execution carried out on the orders of one man, Baron von der Lancken. Several of his fellow officers had already pleaded for clemency on the grounds that shooting this woman was wrong. He knew that too, allegedly having previously stated Nurse Cavell had helped save German as well as allied lives. (One suspects ‘Crazy Horse’ wasn’t into bargaining by then.) He wanted a victim, and she was it. Instead he got a heroine and with it Germany’s condemnation as a band of murdering misfits. Within eight weeks of her death recruitment into the British Army (this was before conscription) had doubled.

Patriotic songs were being sung about her, her name paraded like a freedom banner promising success under tragic circumstances, not just for our Edith but for the millions of lives that were sacrificed for a war that still had a further three years to run.

After the war her remains were brought to Westminster Abbey for the first part of a burial service on 15 May 1919. A special train then brought her to Thorpe Station, Norwich from where a great procession followed her to the Cathedral where she was laid to rest at Life’s Green. There is a statue of her near her grave.

October 12th 1915 is fixed in the minds of many who admire this woman. Thousands of other nurses had risked their lives caring for the sick and dying, working in makeshift buildings close to the front lines where the distribution of medicines was often poorly met. From trainee nurse to ward sister, every one of them was an “Edith Cavell”.

Nb. Other than Elsie Knocker, later Baroness de T'Serclaes, and Mairi Chisholm, who worked together in Belgium, their many honours including the Chevaliers de I’Ordre de Leopold (equivalent to the VC or DSO) few British nurses received any form of medal for their services during the Great War.

June 2019
Tales of Foulness Island   by Bob Dalgarno
Bob was a stand-in speaker, as the advertised talk about the St John Ambulance Brigade had been put off.
Bob showed two short films about the island, the first was "Home on the Range." It was descriptive of this secret place where, to get on it, you were required to pass through a Ministry of Defence Police checkpoint, also to get off it. It told of the quietness and tranquil lifestyle, where doors to houses and cars could be safely left unlocked. That the residents could be often identified at work in Southend-on-Sea, by accents queried as "Australian."
The second film went deeper into the particular sound and use of words in the long-term residents' conversations.

Bob then answered questions and comments about the history of the island and of times when it was notorious for smuggling and bare-knuckle fighting. There was always a threat of inundation from the surrounding sea, and the possibility of new airport at Maplin Sands.
Altogether an instructive afternoon!
Fred Feather (ESFH 366)
May 2019
British Prisoners of War 1914-19   by Fred Feather
Germany had made no plans to house its prisoners. That soon changed once they realised how many had been captured. Just how many are we talking about? The official War Office number, combining both Britain and Empire throughout all divisions, was 192,848. Spread throughout Germany, in buildings that ranged from former warehouses, old farmsteads, abandoned factories to prisons no longer in use. Crumbling ruins in other words. Conditions were often appalling. The same could be said of the food. As one soldier put it, 'Things were so bad even the rats had moved house!' Treatment was dependent upon the attitude of the commandant and that filtered through to the guards running the camp. Get a bad one and that was hell on earth for the rest of your 'stay' there - 'extremely vicious' are the words to describe what some internees experienced; from getting bayonetted for not obeying orders on time, to reducing a soldier's rations for lacking the skills needed to do certain work they'd been given. Others were singled out in the same way a bully exercised power over someone and continued doing so.

There were exceptions. Doeberitz was a large camp approximately 8 miles from Berlin and was situated close to an important German military training centre. A more relaxed approach to internment, as evidenced by the 100s of photos, posters and banners that were printed. Fred's presentation included plenty of examples! (There was a theatre, a wood and canvas affair made by the prisoners themselves). Many of those who regularly attend meetings at Southend will know Shirley Rowe. Included among the thousands of internees was her father, Sidney Charles Clark (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve), who was captured near Antwerp in December 1914 and from there, interned at Doeberitz.

Relaxing meant what exactly? Amateur dramatics was very popular including cross-dressing - from wordplay to whimsy, the humour was nonstop. Sidney was often with a group called 'The Foolies'. Dressed as a chocolate soldier, imagine the roars of laughter that must have brought! Making fun of Jerry was another way of relieving the tedium of internment. He just never understood the English sense of humour. Mock the enemy in any way we could was the name of the game. If you weren't into showbiz stunts you shared your feelings with others by writing and drawing, as surviving books like "The Link" demonstrate (

Contrary to that view is an artilleryman's report on the internet, alleging that not everyone agreed about Doeberitz, suggesting it offered up the same harsh treatment as all the other camps. He said that hunger was a constant and the camp was equally mean with its portions of stale bread and slop. But you won't see it in those pictures, the enemy made sure of that. We did too, our smiling faces, our comedy antics there mask the horror of internment. Repatriation came as a welcomed relief but for many, like Sidney, 4 years was a long time.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
March 2019
The Wandsmen of St Paul’s Cathedral   by Patrick Wilkins
Patrick is the Honorary Secretary to the Wandsmen.

The myriad demands placed on those who cared for the Cathedral was seen to increase, especially during Victoria’s reign. And so it was that a group of men, all of them volunteers, who regularly attended church services, offered to run the many functions that were held there. This was in 1861, and it's still like that today, only now women make up the number of Wandsmen who are willing to take on these responsibilities which are vital to the running of St Paul's. 'God’s Bouncers', as a paper once called them, even includes actors amongst its members.

One such was John Arnatt. His 50 years as an actor, both on stage and in film, saw him take on a variety of roles, although he is perhaps best remembered for playing the Deputy Sheriff of Nottingham in the fourth and final season of the 1955-60 TV series 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' starring Richard Greene, which several of us oldies will recall when everything on the box came in black and white. And to think, our Deputy Sheriff was born in Petrograd (St Petersburg) on the eve of the Russian revolution. Within a few months his parents, Francis* and Ethel Marion, fled Russia leaving behind everything.

As Patrick said during his talk: 'You find yourself chatting with members of the royal family, politicians, heads of state, dignitaries, and people like Bishop Desmond Tutu. He just couldn't stop laughing; such a wonderful man, and so down-to-earth.'

A thoroughly interesting insight into a world few of us would know. Thank you Patrick for taking us there.

* Francis Arnatt had been general manager for Vauxhall Motors in Petrograd.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
February 2019
Sidetracked      by Meryl Catty
Ever found yourself going offstream – that scintillating newspaper article you thought had some connection with your James Stevens, a goodie-two-shoes whose whole life was so bland and uninteresting, and yet here was a man with the same name courting sensation 24/7. The dailies couldn't get enough of him, and neither could you, all these years later. You're hooked, and you know it.

Our guest, Meryl Catty, has spent eons getting sidetracked, so let's see what she has to offer in the way of intrigue, scandal, misfortune and mayhem and try, if we can, to understand the lives of those who were written about, weren't, in some way, similar to ours, here in the 21st century.

We'll take a selection, otherwise we could find ourselves filling page after page of this publication.

Bigamy: The crime of having 2 wives or husbands at once, and sometimes more, if you could get away with it; the latter mostly applies to men, by the way; a crime much akin to adultery in that both are a violation of the marriage bed. It didn't seem to bother many of our forebears, including the Victorians, who were into bigamy bigtime. Few couples went before the courts because of the cost, therefore only the extremely well-off were seen to pursue that route, royalty amongst them, as in the case of Harriet, wife of Sir Charles Mordaunt, who was known to have had an adulterous affair with Bertie, Prince of Wales, one of royalty's great womanisers; both inside and out of marriage he went freelance. Perhaps we'll leave things there. That's just another sidetrack…

The use of surnames as Christian names is something the British have practised for centuries, mostly because the name has died out and the family or families wish to retain it, or that it came from the wife's side of the family who had aristocratic connections. They were usually given to the eldest son. Take, for example, the following surnames – most of which still exist - that have seen themselves transformed: Plantagenet - Plantagenet Somerset Fry (Peter George Robin Fry), remember him? – Litton, Mordaunt, Catesby, Chicheley, Waldegrave, Courtenay, Seymour. Surnames are another of Meryl's all-consuming passions.

I'm sure Meryl won't mind my stepping in on the next one.
Men of the cloth weren't always what they appeared to be. The Reverend William Morice, vicar of St Nicholas, Plumstead during the 1640s, got himself into all sorts of trouble. Given his tendency to get drunk and swear a lot, he also liked kissing the girls without their permission, like the time when he went to his local and 'put one' on the pub's landlady. The Committee for Plundered Ministers had him removed from the living of St Nicholas, to be palmed off on the parishioners at Kenilworth. The Earl of Monmouth, who was patron of the living of St Nicholas, knew nothing of his misdemeanours. 'But then, no one tells me anything!' Kenilworth wanted him gone, but he refused to leave, this time using threatening language and more besides!

Mad, bad and dangerous to know, that's why history remembers them, and why we pick up on them more often than we realise. It's the Nice Guys who go unnoticed.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)

December 2018
Lest We Forget: the history and work of the CWGC   by Glenn Hearnden
Look no further than this month's speaker if you want a thorough history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Glenn Hearnden couldn't be more qualified to talk on the subject for that's how passionate he is about the organisation he knows so well.

As recent as Balaclava, Sebastopol, Crimea and the Boer War conflicts respect for the dead was practically zero. Unless, that is, one happen to be 'of the right family'. The ordinary soldier was seen as cannon fodder, not that a similar attitude didn't exist during the Great War, which, after all, was still in the hands of the same group of individuals: we won't mention any names.

It took someone like Sir Fabian Ware to recognise the need for change - that every man who fought and died in the war, regardless of creed or culture, deserved the right to be honoured. They had families and loved ones like anyone else. Such was the strength of his reasoning. In this he gained support from Generals Nevil Macready and Douglas Haig, Winston Churchill and the American millionaire banker Burdett Coutts. Others were soon to follow. He had in mind to construct a series of monuments at a number of sites throughout the world. What was first set in motion all those years ago is the framework behind which the CWGC continues its work caring and maintaining them today.

The bodies of those who died during battle were mostly buried in mass graves near where they fell. Imagine trying to identify someone not knowing who they were, or which regiment they belonged to. The dogtag (1916) provided all the necessary information. It couldn't account for those who'd lost their tags. Most were never identified and were simply listed as 'missing presumed dead'. The construction of monuments went somewhere towards righting that wrong, "The Grave of the Unknown Soldier" as it came to be known.

There are some 2,500 war cemeteries in 153 countries. Other memorials also come under that mandate. This takes into account graveyards, cemeteries and memorials in many towns and villages. There are 4 cemeteries in Southend: Sutton Road. No. of casualties: 289; North Road. No. of casualties: 25; St John the Baptist. No. of casualties: 2; Borough Council. Civilian War Dead: 65.

The CGWC website ( couldn't be easier to use. It also contains a 'how to search' helpline, a step-by-step guide on the best way to go about obtaining what you need. Gather as much information beforehand (from the family and from other websites, e.g. Ancestry's military records). This will better one's chances of success. Believe me, there's lots to find once you do. Remember this is a worldwide facility covering both world wars.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
November 2018
It's been quite a while since Meryl Catty last came to Southend, so it was nice to welcome her back again and listen to another of her talks.
On this occasion Meryl spoke about the Goodwins of Twickenham, who come from her husband's side of the family. For that, we have to step back 300 years.

On 8 June 1718, at St John's, Wapping, Samuel Goodwin and Susannah Wyatt became husband and wife. Soon afterwards they would return to Samuel's home parish of Twickenham where Samuel continued work as a plumber whilst Susannah took to her duties of homemaker. Together they went on to have 15 children, which wasn't uncommon for couples during the Georgian period. This was countered by the number of deaths in any one year: London was its own breeding ground for epidemics, brought about by poor living conditions, inadequate sanitation, infectious diseases, often coming in from other countries, all of which effected the very young - Susannah's children amongst them.

We know that because her Little Book tells us these details, including births, marriages and deaths within the family; unusual changes in the weather; the annual Frost Fairs; the London Earthquake of 1749; 'the flood at Twickenham that was one foot higher than it was 115 Years ago' - British Evening Post, March 15 1774.

Susannah is writing for herself, but that's something we can share. Richmond Local Studies have the book. So if you have any Goodwins or Wyatts in the family that you think might be connected, do get in touch and make arrangements to see it. She also left a will in March 1780, viewable online via

Susannah Goodwin's 85 years saw her outlive several members of her own family (besides her children who died so tragically young - before their first birthday in most instances). She also happens to have eclipsed the reign of 5 monarchs. But then Susannah was destined for longevity in whatever century she chose to exist. Living in Twickenham probably helped!
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
October 2018
THATCHING The life of a present-day thatcher - recorded on video in 2016 by G. Hudgell.
Mr Hudgell sadly died in June this year. We might think of this film as his legacy, as a tribute to all who work to preserve the many traditions which make our countryside what it is, and not some chocolate-box version of something it never has been.

I've devised the following Question and Answer session only because all 3 of our computers said NO to the video when a third of the way through. Luckily Steve the thatcher, who appears on the film (a man with 50 years experience behind him), took centre-stage to provide the 10 questions and answers that make up this quiz on thatching.

1. What's the best straw for thatching?
2. Where do thatcher's get their straw from?
3. Why throw water over fresh straw?
4. What is the average lifespan of a thatched roof?
5. What special qualities have reed and straw over tiles?
6 Which is more expensive, reed or straw?
7. Other than to cover the roofs of barns, cottages, houses, and the odd church, what is straw used for? Again, think thatching.
8. What frequently gets in the way of many of today's thatchers?
9. Any idea what the word 'yelm' means?
10. For how long has Steve's family been thatchers?

Answers to the quiz on thatching 1. Long straw given its strength and durability.
2. Just about anywhere. Polish straw is much in demand these days.
3. To give it flexibility prior to thatching.
4. From 35 - 75 years; some are known to last longer than 75 years.
5. Both are natural products, in the sense that they 'wax and wane' with the seasons. Their reaction to the elements is part of their strength.
6. Reed. It tends to last longer. One could also argue that reed is visually more attractive than straw. But then it's a buyer's market for those prepared to pay for it.
7. To cover corn and haystacks which would otherwise rot during a harsh winter.
8. RED TAPE. The sheer theatrics of a bunch of ridiculous rules smothers enterprise, explained Steve. Several thatchers are known to have refused future contracts with existing clients because of the way they'd been drawn up. These are craftsmen, for pity's sake!
9. A bundle of straw laid straight for thatching
10. 200 years and counting, that's if we include the next generation of thatchers, i.e., Steve's son plus a nephew of his.
Finally, and by the way you don't have to answer this one. The term 'It's raining cats and dogs' is said to have its origins from the early years of thatching, when cats and dogs would cuddle in thatched roofs during storms and then be washed out during heavy rains. Thatched roofs slant. Hardly the ideal place to seek shelter, but it makes for a fun story nonetheless.

It was a shame that things went the way they did. But we had Steve who more than made up for what we didn't get to see on the video.

Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
September 2018
LETTERS FROM LEIGH by Jen and Ed Simpson
U3A members, Jen and Ed Simpson, are also part of the team of volunteers at Leigh Heritage Centre where Jen acts as Project Manager. The Centre recently came into possession of a tin box (mostly containing letters) kindly donated by a relative of the family to whom it once belonged. Snapshots of the family and others mementoes (including a family tree supplied by our very own Eric Jude) made for a very interesting afternoon's talk.

The letters date from 1874 where Juliana Stuart King was writing to her youngest son Robert Stuart King (known in the family as Bob) during his time as a pupil at Felsted School in Essex. On leaving the school and studying for a degree in theology at university, Robert Stuart takes holy orders. Ordained by his uncle Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln (younger brother of Walker King, Robert Stuart's father), he then became rector of St James', Grimsby in 1889. There is a pattern emerging, as you will see.

The letters continue and form the background to the two families, the Kings and the Stuarts - Stuart being Juliana's maiden name. Juliana was proud of her Stuart lineage and being a strong-minded woman she obviously felt she needed to 'keep things in the family'. (Future generations used it as their middle name).

Juliana's husband Walker was already a minister when they married in 1850. By 1851, the Kings were at Stone near Gravesend in Kent, where Walker was assistant curate to his father (also called Walker) who was otherwise residing at Walcot, Bath with the rest of the brood during the time the census was taken. Walker junior became rector of St Clement's, Leigh-on-Sea in 1860 and continued as Canon until his death in 1892; Juliana dying on Christmas Day 1896, aged 78).

Robert had been curate to his father shortly before his death, taking over as rector, and afterwards as Canon of St Clements for the rest of his life - like his father. Their time being spent not just as priests, but caring for the people of Leigh.

The letters laid the groundwork for Letters from Leigh. Published last year, the book explores the history of both families. Highly recommended for those with a Leigh connection, or simply because it happens to be a thoroughly good read. Enquiries with Leigh Heritage Centre as to availability.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)

Note from the Editor - See book review of Letters from Leigh which appeared in the December 2017 edition number 163 page 8 of The Essex Historian.
July 2018
WOMEN'S LAND ARMY - by Carol Harris
If you like your talks delivered with gusto and passion then you should have been here in July when Carol Harris spoke about the Women's Land Army. The year is 1917 and 100s of women are being asked to serve their country and work as land girls, for the lads who normally do the work are away fighting. Britain is in crisis on the food front given that the war had gone on longer than expected. This was hard, dirty work but that never fazed them, the girls who were willing to do the work - and do it well. And what they didn't know (the technicalities) they learnt on the job, including dealing with tractors that played up, which was frequent according to one girl who had the honour of dealing with the 'the cursed Fordson' during her time as a Land Girl. She was one of the few who were born and brought up in the countryside, unlike most girls who came from literally all walks of life.

1917-19. The raising of hemlines to counter the possibility of dirtying one's skirt proved totally impractical: it was time for a rethink. The Land Girls needed clothing similar to men's; three-quarter-length corduroy breeches, long woollen socks, all-weather gabardine jackets and woollen cloaks, boots and wellingtons, and sometimes a tie for special occasions, like a march past in London to show the nation women were 'doing their bit'. What we see from the many posters (smiling faces as the sun goes down) is a myth, a sort of Alice in Wonderland version of how things really were. Reality was work and keep on working whatever the task might be. For many this was a whole new experience, something they would never have done had it not been for the war. Some never went home once the war ended; their lives were here now, in the countryside amongst the many friends they'd made, including boyfriends they plan to marry.

1939-50. The Land Girls had come a long way but it didn't end with the Great War. The Second World War asked the same of them again, only now it was mostly their daughters who took up the challenge. By then, at least, the machinery was acres ahead of the ones their mums had to put up with! A splendid statue of a Land Girl and a 'Timber Jill' stands in the grounds of the National Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire. Set amongst 60 hectares of stunning woodland and gardens, the statue is one of 300 memorials honouring men and women who served the nation. You can see a picture of the statue by going to the web and putting in: Women's Land Army - Wikipedia.
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
June 2018
THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON - by David Williams
David Williams spoke about the blaze in 1666 that well-nigh destroyed the Capital. The Great Fire of London spread throughout the City and on to its outer limits within practically the blinking of an eye, so rapid in fact, that people hardly had time to escape the flames that threatened to engulf their homes: 97 churches and 13,000 houses were razed to the ground over an area of some 160 hectares. At least 9 people died during the blaze.
'Where could they escape to?' commented Samuel Pepys in his diary of September 1666. The recent drought and the strength of the wind from the east were the demons behind the fire, close enough to Samuel's house to make him decide it was time to leave, but not before securing all his belongings (including gold to the value of £2,350) and take the boat (arrangements secured) and head for Woolwich and safety. By then everyone was fleeing for their lives. As we have seen, some didn't make it. Samuel Pepys's diary gives a vivid account of what took place, caused by a spark from a bakery in Pudding Lane. The Lord Mayor of London, one Thomas Bloodworth, dismissed the fire as nothing and went back to bed. Stupidity? But then he'd never been credited with much else. You might say the same for others.

This was a tragedy, absolutely, though it wasn't a lesson which was learned. Timber-built, pitch-coated houses, warehouses of oil, tallow and spirits, narrow streets and passageways, that was London before the fire, and so it was afterwards. The City Fathers wanted things that way.
Martyn Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
May 2018
The Medway Queen - her history and restoration - by Mark Bathurst
Many a baby-boomer smiles when they think of the Medway Queen, climbing on board with the family and a boat-load of other passengers at Southend Pier to spend time at Margate along the coast in Kent. The journey itself was part of the fun - watching the paddles on either side of her. We loved it as kids. But this proud little vessel was more than just a pleasure steamer.

During her time at sea, the Medway Queen saw service at the evacuation of Dunkirk as part of the 'little ships' whose 100s of crewmen fought valiantly during World War 2. Fitted with guns, she successfully shot down 3 enemy aircraft. She also spent time as a minesweeper. Her principal claim to fame (for that's what it was), is that she managed to save the lives of over 7,000 soldiers and sailors, 'more than any other vessel below the size of a destroyer'.

As a youngster she seems to have been a bit accident-prone. On one occasion (1929) we find her getting into an argument with the pier. Join the club, Miss Medway, you were'nt the first. All this and more from our speaker, Mark Bathurst, on a boat that was everything to everyone who has sailed with her during her time at sea. But the story doesn't end here.

Heroine, pleasure craft. For all sorts of reasons she is a ship worth preserving, and that is exactly what happened in 1963 when the Medway Queen was scheduled to be scrapped by her last owner. Backed by the Daily Mail and a number of public and private organisations, enough money was raised (£15,000 initially) to secure the ship's future and from there restoration began. Funds were significantly boosted when the National Lottery Heritage Memorial Fund gave a grant of £1.8 million to restore the ship's hull. Work continues at Gillingham in Kent.

Reading from an already prepared script wasn't what I expected, not from someone as knowledgeable as Mark. I think it's a fair criticism as I wasn't the only one who felt like this. Other than that, I'm sure all 52 of us in the audience enjoyed recalling the time when this spirited 94 year old was as much a part of the scene as the Southend pier is today.

There are plans which could see her returning to Southend. Now that would be something.
For more information about the Medway Queen see
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)
April 2018
The Brushmakers Society - by Ken Doughty
The National Society of Brushmakers and General Workers saw its beginnings in Manchester in 1747. From there the Society went through several name changes, gaining in popularity and increasing its membership as it grew. By 1983 the NSBGW had merged with the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trades Union which in turn became part of the GMB Trade Union. Ken's interest came after he discovered he had brushmaker ancestors. He now runs a Family History Society, one which allows others whose forebears were also brushmakers to share what they have and at the same time understand what it was like being a brushmaker when their man was learning his craft and honing his skills.

To put you in the picture as to the way it operated as an organisation, unlike guilds and livery companies, the Brushmakers was in fact a Trade Union, the first in the country as it happens. It ran on the same lines as its counterparts by providing mutual support and protection to its members, something the society has always done, though at a pretty high price if we go back to what it cost in 1880 - 20 shillings a year, take the cost or you're not a member. Most dug deep into their pockets and decided to subscribe. Some brushmakers were itinerants, journeyman/tramps who went from town to town looking for work: they were often called tramps because they were on the move. Using the term was not a slight on their character.

London, arguably, could be seen as the centre of the trade. The core of its manufacture was made up mostly of items like hairbrushes, nailbrushes, toothbrushes, clothes brushes, shoe brushes, paint and artists' brushes, plus a whole range of other products to do with jobs for both inside and outside the home. This was highly skilled work - the more intricate stages were often done by women, either at home or in factories. It took up to 4 hours to make a toothbrush: we're talking 'handmade' and not what they roll out nowadays in most parts of China, which is where it all began. Or was it the Greeks or the Romans who got there first, as one author suggests, before countries like Germany, Holland and France were making brushes, as evidenced by the number of line drawings and woodcuts from the 16th-17th centuries?

Many of the factories were based in the East End of London - and some were still trading in the 1990s. The East End therefore might be the first port of call when looking for those ancestors who were brushmakers. For more information see
Martin Haydn Roberts (ESFH 3860)

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