As the record office turns 80, Jonathan Scott travels to the county town of Chelmsford
Our complete guide to tracing your Essex ancestors
The county town of Chelmsford, the only city in Essex, is home to Essex Record Office (ERO), which this year is marking the 80th anniversary of its formation. The record office has put online innovation and mass digitisation at the heart of its work. Since our last visit the catalogue and in-house subscription service, Essex Ancestors, has been tweaked and expanded. Indeed even as we were going to press, the staff’s blog at essexrecordofficeblog.co.uk announced that admission records from the Essex Industrial School and Home for Destitute Boys for 1872–1914 have been digitised and are available online, featuring approximately 1,200 pupils.
Digitised School Records
The school was established in Chelmsford in 1872 to provide basic education and practical training for boys who were referred by the courts or who were living in extreme poverty. It soon moved to large, purposebuilt premises at Rainsford Road, where the boys spent half the day in the classroom; the other half focused on industrial skills, such as agriculture/gardening, carpentry and tailoring.
Hannah Salisbury, ERO’s engagement and events manager, says: “The records for the school are fantastically detailed, and even include some individually named portraits of some of the first boys to attend the school.”
Using school records, census information and newspapers, it is possible to build up a detailed picture of some of the boys’ life stories. William Swainston, for example, was admitted to the school in 1876 aged 11, after he was arrested for sleeping rough.
“He left aged 16, the school having secured him an agricultural position in Canada. He stayed in Canada, where he married Ellen Quinn, who originated from Ireland. By the time of the 1901 census the couple were living in Ontario and had three children.”
Alongside these digitised treasures, ERO holds the school’s discharge registers and logbooks; punishment, absconders’ and visitors’ books; annual reports; minutes; and photographs.
To mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which saw women over 30 years old given the vote provided they satisfied a property qualification, staff have also been investigating evidence of local suffragettes.
“One of our discoveries was the Lilley family of Clacton,” Hannah says. “Two daughters, Kate and Louise, were arrested for smashing windows in a suffragette protest in London, and spent time in Holloway as a result. Their other three sisters also campaigned, and one photograph from the Clacton Graphic shows all five sisters taking part in a protest in the town.”
‘Staff have been investigating evidence of local suffragettes’
It wasn’t just the younger generation of Lilleys who were involved in campaigning, either. Their mother hosted suffrage events at the family home in Clacton, and their father chaired local suffrage meetings.
“He also promoted the cause through his company – the shoe manufacturer Lilley & Skinner – decorating shops in the suffragette colours of purple, white and green, and even selling a slipper dyed in the colours!”
A Family’s Struggle
The archive holds several photographs from the Clacton Graphic newspaper, showing the Clacton branch of the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union at work, including all five of the Lilley sisters; one depicts four of them parading together with sandwich boards.
ERO now has its own website ( essexrecordoffice.co.uk), which is independent of the county council’s website at essex.gov.uk. This gives space to introduce collections, display information
for visitors, and offer access to the new service that launched in late 2016 – when the record office became the custodians of the civil registration records for Essex, which were previously stored in eight separate register offices around the county.
Ordering Records Online
“Now the records are centralised, we offer an online ordering service for birth, marriage and death certificates for the county,” Hannah says. The standard waiting time is five days, but there are various premium services offering a turnaround time of 48 hours, 24 hours and even two hours( see essex record office. co.uk/services/certificate-copies for terms and conditions).
The subscription service, which offers access to digitised images of key records through the catalogue ( essexarchivesonline.co.uk), has also been expanded.
“When we were last featured in the magazine back in 2014 we had uploaded images of all of our parish registers and about 20,000 of our wills,” Hannah says. “Since then we have added the remainder of our original wills, making a total of about 70,000.”
The wills date from roughly 1400 to 1858, and were proved in church courts in Essex and eastern Hertfordshire. Staff have also added images of electoral registers for 1833–1868, joining images for 1918 and 1929 that are already online.
Remote researchers can now play digitised sound and video recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, ranging from oral history interviews to home movies and radio broadcasts. These have been digitised as part of the three-year ‘You Are Hear: Sound and Sense of Place’ project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Now roughly 1,800 recordings are available to listen to or watch for free through the catalogue, or the record office’s channels on Sound Cloud and YouTube.
“We have also installed 20 listening benches and three audiovisual kiosks around the county, loaded with local recordings. With a total of 30,000 recordings in our collection, however, there is still plenty to do.”
New accessions arrive at the record office all the time, in all shapes and sizes.
“In total we’ve taken in over 1,600 new accessions over the last four years – some of these will be individual items, others will be comprised of several boxes.”
Links With America
Another new venture at the record office is the recruitment of a representative in New England, Linda MacIver. “Linda gives talks to local genealogical societies on how they can research their English, and especially Essex, ancestors, and represents ERO at events to let American researchers know about the ERO records they can access online.”
Alongside the aforementioned industrial school admission records, over the coming months staff plan to add marriage licences (from about 1665 to 1730),
indexes from the Essex County Lunatic Asylum (1853–1914), and in the longer term images of the remainder of the electoral registers held here.
The charity Friends of Historic Essex has been supporting a drive to collect First World War material over the past four years. This has seen collections of personal papers and photographs relating to Essex people and places during the war, including a set of images of nursing staff at a military hospital in Clacton, and papers from three brothers of the local Saulez family, who all served in the Army. This includes the diary of Arthur Travers Saulez, with the pencil still marking the spot where he made his last entry before being killed in action near Arras on 22 April 1917, aged 33.
A Bible Fit For A King
Another unique item held at ERO is the Broomfield Bible, which belonged to Charles I and is richly decorated with his royal coat of arms. After the Civil War the Bible came into the possession of the king’s librarian, Patrick Young. Young, originally from Scotland, ended his days in Broomfield in Essex, where his daughter had settled. His granddaughter gave the Bible to the parish church in 1723, and ultimately it was deposited with the record office for safekeeping.
The Essex Society for Family History, which runs a research centre in Chelmsford, is another good place for advice and guidance. You might also try the East of London Family History Society, which covers Newham, Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge and Havering – via the website you can download a free copy of the journal Cockney Ancestor. There’s also Waltham Forest Family History Society, which this year is celebrating its 40th birthday.
Hannah Salisbury offers some final advice for readers with Essex kin: “Talk to people about what you are researching. I’ve had a few passing conversations this year which have turned out to give me crucial clues about where to go next in research projects.”
Sailing barges at Hythe Quay in Maldon, Essex, with their distinctively coloured sails
Maldon has been known for its salt since the time of the Domesday Book. Here salt is shovelled into a storage bunker at the Maldon Crystal Salt Company in November 1948
Members of the suffragette Women’s Freedom League campaign in Chelmsford
View from the cliffs in Clactonon-Sea, 1890
The East and West India Dock Company extended the dock at Tilbury in the 1880s