You are Hear! Sounds of history
What does Essex sound like? This is what the project You Are Hear: Sound and Sense of Place has been exploring over the last three years. This Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA) project, principally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has digitised hundreds of hours of archive recordings, put them online, and taken them on the road on listening benches and audio-visual kiosks.
Essex now has 20 listening benches, each loaded with ESVA recordings related to their location, chosen by local heritage and community groups. Through embedding these recordings in the places they relate to, the ERO team hope to give people a chance to make connections with the past, and a greater understanding of the place around them. One listener had quite a surprise when she pressed play on the Chelmsford bench and one of the speakers was her grandmother, who had passed away some years previously.
Many of the recordings on the benches are oral histories, which can give a real sense of what it was like to live in the past. Often people recall memories from their childhood. On the Castle Hedingham bench, Monica Nash describes the local school being shared with evacuees during World War II; the local children attended school in the morning, and the evacuees in the afternoon. In Harwich, meanwhile, Joseph Thomas speaks of how he and his friends would sneak in to silent films in the Electric Palace Cinema. They would pool their money for two of the boys to buy tickets, who would then let the rest of the boys in through a back door in the gentlemen’s toilets.
World War II often features in the memories people share. Eloise Warwick Smith of Burnham on Crouch tells how the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS) in the town set up a canteen for troops in the local drill hall.
She says: ‘I well remember how we all went down and scrubbed and dusted to get it ready. In a very short time it was manned completely for 24 hours a day.’
They also knitted socks, and made shirts and camouflage nets. ‘What a filthy game that was,’ she adds. ‘All working with hessian and ropes, we got in such a terrible mess.’
A speaker featured on the Southend bench recalls how in the run up to D-Day the town was full of troops and the Thames was packed with boats.
‘From this beach you couldn’t see Kent at all… we’d never seen a sight like it.’
Many recordings feature details of daily life, while others discuss momentous events. In Harwich we hear from Bett Calver, who experienced the 1953 floods in the town. She describes a, ‘wall of water. It smashed down right in front of us… A great big wave, huge, huge, I can see it now, I can really see it now… there was kids screaming and crying. That broke your blimmin’ heart, that really did.’
You can find out the exact locations of the listening benches, and listen to recordings of Essex past and present, at www.essexsounds.org.uk
The aftermath of the 1953 Flood in Harwich, which was witnessed by Bett Calver
Residents enjoying a cup of tea at the launch of the Saffron Walden listening bench, in the grounds of the town museum
Travelling bench at Rapael Park
The touring bench outside Finchingfield Guildhall. Recordings on the bench when it was located here included clips about straw plaiting, once a significant local industry