As the record of­fice turns 80, Jonathan Scott trav­els to the county town of Chelms­ford

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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 es­sexrecord­of­fice­ 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 ( es­sexrecord­of­, which is in­de­pen­dent of the county coun­cil’s web­site at es­ 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.­vices/cer­tifi­cate-copies for terms and con­di­tions).

The sub­scrip­tion ser­vice, which of­fers ac­cess to digi­tised images of key records through the cat­a­logue ( es­sexarchiveson­, 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

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