The Foxearth and District Local History Society

Committee Announcements
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Meetings, announcements and notices for the Foxearth and District Local History Society, and associated organisations.

The Horsehair-weaving Industry: John Miners, 14th February 2017

The multi-coloured samples of woven horse hair that John Miners brought along to the Society's meeting on 14th February were a long way removed from the bits of stuffing that some of us recalled from the inside of old sofas and in his detailed and well-illustrated talk John took us through the processes that turned this natural protein fibre into a versatile and immensely durable fabric. John is now a freelance textile consultant who began his career as an apprentice at Courtaulds; as a school leaver, whose family lived opposite the factory, he reasoned that a job there would allow him to minimise the time between getting out of bed and clocking in for work - but he moved on!

John Boyd Ltd is the only remaining weaver of horse hair in the UK and is based in Castle Cary in Somerset. John Boyd was the son of a Scottish merchant and he came to England in his early 20s as a travelling draper. He started his horse hair weaving business in 1837 in a chapel yard and by 1841 he employed about 30 weavers. By 1851 his enterprise had grown to 30 women, 9 men and 34 children involved in various operations. The children fed the horse tails into the looms and this had to be done in single strands- and alternately, because the hair is thicker at the top end of the tail, to ensure an even weave. With the coming of the 1870 Education Act, which forbade the employment of children under 13, mechanical feed machines were devised. At this time most of the hair used came from the local area where horse breeding was popular for agriculture and transport. Later in the century hair had to be imported because of increased mechanisation and nowadays most of the raw material comes from Mongolia. Before any hair gets near a loom it has to be washed - and conditioned -and sorted by hand (a process called hackling) to remove short, discoloured or brittle pieces. Hair never wears out and can be dyed any colour and the woven product is much in demand by antique restorers as well as modern furniture manufacturers for hotels, restaurants, shoes etc. In the weaving the hair is the weft - the horizontal strand (maximum length 26") - and this is combined with cotton, usually, as the vertical warp.

John Boyd did much for the town building cottages and terraces for his workers; at the turn of the century the company employed about 200 people such was the popularity of horse hair fabric.


John was warmly thanked by Secretary Clare Mathieson for a most interesting talk which generated many questions from the 22 members and guests present.
It was noted that John Geddes - member and past Treasurer - was seriously ill in hospital and best wishes for his speedy recovery were expressed.

Clare reminded members that the next meeting would be the AGM on 14th March - 7.30pm in Foxearth Village Hall -with cheese and wine. Please bring wedding photographs (yours, your parents, your grandparents?) and be prepared to be anecdotal!

Clare also pointed out that there were seats available on the trip to Harwich on July 11th (guided tour of the historic centre and the Redoubt Fort) and anyone wishing to be included should contact her without delay.

Foxearth and District Local History Society Christmas Dinner: 13th Dec 2016

It has become traditional in the last few years to hold the annual dinner of the Foxearth and District Local History Society in the George at Cavendish and in 2016 the event took place on Tuesday 13th December. Twenty six members enjoyed their menu choices amidst paper hats and cracker "jokes" and furrowed their brows over a challenging history crossword and quiz. President Ashley Cooper complimented Secretary Clare Mathieson and the committee on its programme selection and particularly on the involvement of members at some meetings

Clare gave details of the programme of events for 2017 which would include talks on historical aspects of weaving and a weaver at Waterloo, histories of the Quay and the Sue Ryder Foundation, Pentlow Hall and Church, Constable and Gainsborough and Foxearth in the Great War. In July there will be a guided tour of Harwich and the Redoubt Fort. The first meeting of the new Year will be on 14th February at 7.30pm in Foxearth Village Hall when John Miners will talk about the history of weaving with horse hair (Horse tales!)

'Hev yer gotta loight boy', North Essex Ballads 11th October 2016

  "Hev yer gotta loight boy" was not a phrase uttered by Keith Lovell in his entertaining exploration of Local History through North Essex ballads at the meeting of the District Society on 11th October- but it illustrates the expert way in which he recited a selection of these folk legends.
A retired priest, Keith is well-known locally for his series of books on village signs and these were on display. As a proud  Essex man - and keen Colchester united supporter - Keith spoke about his long-held fascination with the ballads which date from around the end of the 19th century and which were collected mainly by Charles Edward Benham of the established family of printers and newspaper proprietors in Colchester. Charles Benham was a versatile character; a writer, artist and inventor of a toy known as Benham's top which when spinning gives different effects in colour perception. This is now used as a diagnostic tool in eye conditions.

  In an authentic accent - and pausing occasionally to elucidate a bit of obscure dialect - Keith read a number of ballads dealing with a variety of human emotions. There was a ballad of astonishment at the sale of a farm - and what was going to happen to the workers, one about the hopeless love a country lad had for Julia, the parson's daughter and - in a ballad of wrath- the speaker rages about the weather, which is never right, and which " fair do make me hollyriled"! Another tells of the mournfulness of an old man facing death and the sad theme was continued in the tale of Jimmy Kingdom who fell off a haystack onto some iron and was never quite right in the head subsequently.  A warning to someone  proposing to spend the first night in a haunted house was very graphic and there was the colourful story of Old Bill, a chancer and artful character, who got up to all sorts of tricks. Paternal pride was evident as a father recounted his son's transition from country bumpkin to well travelled and well turned-out gent. Finally frustration with "New fangled ways" was depicted in a tirade against the Board schools; "put 'em in the fields and let 'em larn to sow"!

This was a lovely talk giving great amusement to the 14 members present and Keith was warmly thanked by Secretary Clare Mathieson.

Clare reminded members of the need to book their places for the Annual Dinner at The George, Cavendish on 13th December and to make their menu selections.

Next Meeting:  Tuesday 8th November 7.30pm in Foxearth Village Hall when Lynda Rumbold will present some archive film


The dissolution of the monasteries in Suffolk: by Pip Wright 13th September 2016

Prolific Suffolk author and historian, Pip Wright, was the speaker at the meeting of the Society on 13th September; his subject was the dissolution of the monasteries in Suffolk.

Although this nationwide demolition  act is generally seen as the wish of King Henry VIII to distance England from the church of Rome, for various reasons numerous monasteries were falling into disuse much earlier. In the 14th century relations with France were turbulent and England wanted to  rid itself of the many French  monks who were around and this led to the closure of some orders. Then there was often intense rivalry between the towns and the abbeys- Wymondham being a particular example. The abbots in the large institutions were powerful men many sitting in the House of Lords. The religious belief that death was followed by an uncomfortable (at least) period in purgatory during which the soul was cleansed in readiness for its arrival in heaven caused people to make donations to "good" causes e.g. monasteries, in the hope of easing the purgatory experience. Thus monasteries became very rich and in order to attract more  wealth they tended to indulge in lavish entertaining, hunting etc. Endowments would often include large estates which encompassed fairs, markets, mills: in fact they became businesses which were perceived as being against the traditional ethos of piety and sacrifice with which the Benedictine, Augustinian, Franciscan and Cistercian founders were associated.

King Henry's Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey - who was born in Ipswich - wanted make the town a seat of learning by building a college there as good as that of Kings in Cambridge. In order to raise the money for this he closed the monasteries where corruption was rife and built his educational establishment of which only the gateway remains today. On Wolsey's death in 1530 his secretary, Thomas Cromwell was appointed Chief Minister to the King and he raised funds for the exchequer by continuing Wolseys's closures..In 1536 of 80 monasteries in Suffolk 77 were closed . So whilst the wholesale dissolution was initiated primarily for financial reasons, Henry - having declared himself as head of the church in England - no doubt saw the process as an act of  revenge on Pope Clement VII for his refusal to annul the King's heirless marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

This was a most interesting talk clearly delivered, based upon detailed research and illustrated with numerous slides of  local monasteries, mainly in ruins. On behalf of 15 members present Pip was warmly thanked by Secretary Clare Mathieson.

Next meeting: October 11th 7.30pm in Foxearth Village Hall when Keith Lovell will talk explore local history through North Essex ballads.


The History of the Breeding of Budgerigars: 14th June 2016

We always knew that there was bird life in Pentlow but the full extent of it was only revealed to members of the District Society when they visited the home of Ghalib and Janice Al-Nasser in the village on 14th June. Ghalib and Janice are world renowned experts on the breeding and exhibition of budgerigars; a lifelong passion for them both which has earned them over 700 certificates and numerous awards and international recognition. A visit to their web site shows the extensive commitment and involvement they both have to their hobby and they hold many official positions in budgerigar clubs in the Home Counties and Midlands. Ghalib has lectured and judged in over 30 countries and is considered to be the world leading authority on colour mutation in the birds.

Ghalib gave a full account of the history of the bird from the time that John Gould (1804 to 1881) a British ornithologist brought a collection back from Australia where they were - and still are - prolific in the wild. There is thought to be about 5 million at present in the world of many colour variations. Their natural life span is between 5 and 8 years but in captivity they will usually survive a little longer. Being very social birds they exist in large flocks living - in the wild - on grass seed. When it comes to nesting they tunnel into trees, the hen laying usually about six eggs at two-day intervals making hatching and subsequent feeding a progressive business. In the 1950s budgerigars were the most popular pets in England - fascinating for their splendid mimicry (if one has the patience) but nowadays in third place after dogs and cats. At Woburn Abbey the Duke of Bedford kept a large aviary and deliberately released a number of budgerigars into the English countryside where some developed a homing instinct and returned to their cages.

At the end of this most interesting talk - and before some delicious refreshment - the 14 members present were shown around the enormous and impressive bird room. This houses about 400 budgerigars (very noisy!) at various levels of life from fairly newly-born chicks to birds being prepared for a Cambridge show at the coming weekend. All birds are tagged when just a few weeks old and recorded. Some are champions and others are being groomed for stardom. The hard work and devotion that the carers put in to this enterprise was evident and Ghalib and Janice were warmly thanked by Alan Fitch for a very special evening.

Next meeting: A visit to the mediaeval excavations at Goldingham Hall, Bulmer on Tuesday 12th July. Secretary Clare Mathieson will circulate details to members.

The Beefeater and the Tower of London in English History: 10th May 2016

About 28 members and guests of the District Local History Society were "sent to the Tower" on 10th May when Kevin Kitcher - Yeoman Warder of the Tower of London (and Borley resident) gave a fascinating talk about the role of the Beefeater and the prominent part the Tower has played in English history. As one of 37 Yeoman Warders, Kevin's job includes the guardianship of the Crown Jewels, the security of the premises (the daily Ceremony of the Keys) and taking part in various state occasions for which different uniforms may be worn. All of these functions are centuries old but nowadays Beefeaters also act significantly as tour guides for which extensive knowledge of the Tower is required - and this was amply demonstrated in Kevin's address.<

The buildings comprising this London landmark occupy an eighteen and a half acre site the main structure being the White tower erected in 1078 by William the Conqueror. As well as being a royal residence this served as a prison from 1100 of which the first occupant was Bishop Ranulf Flambard; he was also the first escapee as he got the guards drunk and made off using ropes which had been secreted in the wine barrels he was able to import. In the Tudor period many notables were imprisoned in the Tower including Elizabeth 1, Ann Boleyn, Guy Fawkes - and, within living memory, Rudolf Hess for a few days in 1941. The building became less of a royal residence and more a place of confinement, torture and death. It was also used for the manufacture and storage of gunpowder. There were three established categories of prisoner: close prisoners were those in close custody (Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, for example, both executed); the second category were liberty prisoners meaning those who had a right of access to the outer boundary of the complex; thirdly there were pledgemen being those who had given a pledge to return (or to provide a substitute!)

King Henry VII formed the Yeomen Warders in 1485 and the Tudor rose forms part of their badge. All Yeomen (there is, at present, one woman!) Warders are senior NCOs retired from the armed forces after at least 22 years experience and with good conduct and long service medals. It is a requirement that they live in one of the 43 tied houses on the site. One of the warders is designated as Ravenmaster to care for the birds which have been associated with the Tower - and its superstitions - or some centuries.

This was an extremely entertaining talk delivered with wit by Kevin and containing a great mass of facts, dates and anecdotes - but can we really believe some of the questions that American tourists are reputed ask of the tour guides! Alan Fitch thanked Kevin for his fine contribution and all present showed their warm appreciation.

Next meeting: 14th June 7.30pm in Pentlow at the kind invitation of Janice and Ghalib Al Nasser who will talk about The history of the Budgerigar

The History of WalnutTree Hospital 9th Feb 2016

The District Society had the pleasure, on 9th February, of hearing local author and historian, Phyllis Felton, talk about Walnutree hospital. Mrs Felton dealt in general with the origins of the hospital and more particularly with nurse training there. Her very interesting talk displayed deep research of the former aspect and authoritative knowledge of the latter as she had been a member of the nurse training school in the 1960s with a subsequent long career at the hospital.

Traces of Iron Age and Saxon habitation indicate that the site goes back about 4,000 years but modern history dates from 1702 when the first workhouse was established. This was demolished in 1837 and a purpose-built workhouse was erected. In the 1930s it became a hospital and Poor Law institution with overnight accommodation for vagrants. In 1955 it was formally designated as a geriatric hospital. In 1960 it had 140 beds, a dispensary run by the sisters and other supporting services such as pathology, laundry, catering, portering, maintenance and two gardeners to cope with the extensive grounds. A full-time medical officer and a physiotherapist each served the hospital for 30 years giving the facility an admired reputation for consistent service to the community.

Nurse training at Walnutree began in 1942. Classroom work was combined with "hands-on" experience at the bedside. Supervision of trainees was given by the Matron who would stress the qualities required and expected of a nurse. First and foremost was the vocation - you had to want to be a nurse. Along with this went compassion, tolerance, observational skills etc. Training had to given in manual lifting techniques as there were no hoists available and before the coming of sterile packs, sterilization methods had to be learned. Nurse training at the hospital ended in 1970. Mrs Felton had an enormous selection of photographs on show. Inevitably for an amenity which had been a vital part of community welfare for so long there were recollections of some of the associated characters which sounded a chord with a few of the 15 members present! Nostalgia reigned!

Secretary Clare Mathieson thanked Mrs Felton warmly for her fascinating contribution to the evening.

Next meeting: Tuesday 8th March 7.30pm in Foxearth VIllage Hall for the Annual General Meeting with cheese and wine.

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