Working with animals and children

Never do it, said W. C. Fields (supposedly – don’t write in), but then being High Sheriff has little to do with show business, apart from the occasional dressing up. There’s quite a lot that can go wrong with holding a goat, but this particular one was very well behaved and presumably used to being handled by strangers, and I was appropriately dressed in tweed rather than velvet. I didn’t catch it’s name, but it was one of two that we met at Abberton Rural Training in Wormingford, along with ART’s CEO, Jacqui Stone, chairman Paul Roberts, and a number of trustees (see photo above). ART was established 2014 following a Section 106 requirement as part of the expansion to the Abberton Reservoir (hence the name), and moved a couple of years ago to occupy the old village school at Wormingford, down a very narrow lane by the church in one of the most rural parts of North Essex, on the slope that leads down to the River Stour and Suffolk. Here a wide variety of people with a range of issues are helped back into the community: in ART’s words, they run courses in rural skills for the ‘long-term unemployed, those with barriers, and wounded and injured service personnel and veterans’. The goats have their part to play in this process (see photo below), working alongside a dedicated management team and number of part-time tutors.

The goats were a one-off. The children (no ‘kids’ puns, please) were equally well behaved, and there were three lots of them. The first appeared at the Essex Community Foundation’s reception at Layer Marney Tower: a group of six from All Saints’ Primary School, Maldon, where the imaginative head, Philip Brown, has come up with a scheme called Maldon Up whereby children in Year 6 make weekly visits to Longfield Care Home in the town, talking to them and playing games, to the great benefit of both children and residents. It’s an initiative that should be widely copied. Mr Brown runs what seems to be the very best sort of old-fashioned village school, in that he went there himself and has sent his children there too; and he cheerfully admits that much of the burden of delivering his wilder schemes falls on the shoulders of his deputy, Mrs White.

Year 6 students from All Saints’ School, Maldon, with Mrs White (left), Mr Brown (right), and Nick Alston, chairman of the Essex Community Foundation
(Essex CF Pics)

The next lot we encountered came from a wide geographical area (including Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Suffolk) and were taking part in the regional finals of the Magistrates’ Court Mock Trial competition. This is organised by Young Citizens for 12–14 year olds; there’s a separate Crown Court-style competition for 15–18 year olds. After what must be a great deal of preparation (with some input from magistrate mentors) the children stage a trial, taking all the parts (magistrates, legal adviser, usher, lawyers, defendant, witnesses) with just a single real magistrate acting as chairman, and more magistrates judging their performance. It is all surprisingly true to life, although it must be said that the acquittal of the defendant in the two cases we watched (assault of a taxi driver) came as a bit of a surprise. But it’s the process, rather than the outcome, that’s being judged. The winners, Sir John Hampden Grammar School from High Wycombe, go through to the national finals at the Royal Courts of Justice in June. What an amazing experience that will be for them! As for the runners-up, they have had the experience of spending half a day in Chelmsford Crown Court, and will have learnt a lot about what goes on in the magistrates’ courts, where all criminal cases start and where 95 per cent are concluded – an aspect of the criminal justice system that is rarely understood except by those directly involved in it. So much work goes into the mock trials, on the part of the students, their teachers, magistrates and court staff, and Young Citizens, but it is time well spent.

From the Rhyme v Crime anthology, illustrated by artists from the amazing Acorn Village, Mistley

Finally, to Harwich, to help present prizes to winners in a ‘Rhyme against Crime’ competition organised by the Harwich and District Community Crime Prevention Panel – a competition run within local schools to highlight crime-related issues and allow the children themselves to express an opinion about them in verse. On reflection I was wrong in what I said earlier about the High Sheriff having little to do with show business: this was an evening of razzamatazz, compered by Nigel Spencer MBE DL, chairman of the HDCCPP, and it included not just the prizewinners and runners-up reading their poems, but very enjoyable and accomplished musical interludes by Harwich Sing (community choir), Nicole Dube and Freya Potticary, and Harwich Rock School. The themes that the children chose for their verses were varied, but all seemed deeply felt and there was a sense of outrage that their elders and not betters are behaving in ways that makes life a misery for other people. Leading themes were graffiti and other antisocial behaviour, cyber bullying, and (among the older ones especially) knife crime:

Artist Louise; she’s a member of Harwich Sing, too.

The Totham connection (ii): W. P. Honywood

W. P. Honywood, by Robert Nightingale of Maldon
(Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service: Colchester Collection)

Great Totham has a rather better claim, as it were by proxy, to William Philip Honywood of Marks Hall, who was High Sheriff in 1851. He was the second member of his family to hold the office, but the example of his predecessor, John Lamotte Honywood, sheriff in 1689–90, is not particularly inspiring: he hanged himself in 1694. At that time he was M.P. for Essex, having previously been elected in 1679 and 1681.

For almost all of the 19th century the Honywood family were lords of the manor of Great Totham, lay rectors of the parish, and the principal landowner – in fact they owned almost the entire village, having purchased the manor of Jepcracks in 1749 and Great Totham Hall in 1765. The estates passed through several branches of the family over the years (and now I’m quoting from my own guide to St Peter’s Church), but those who took more interest in Great Totham than might be expected, considering that they lived a good ten miles away, were Filmer Honywood (who sponsored the enclosure of the parish in 1805) and W. P. Honywood, who died in 1859 at the age of 35. The latter built the Honywood School in Hall Road (perhaps with the proceeds of the enclosure), which opened in 1857 and is still in regular use as a parish and community room.  After his death a stained glass window was erected in the church by his tenants, ‘as a token of their respect for his memory’; in his will, which he made two days before he died, he confirmed his tenants ‘in their present occupations at their present rents for the term of twenty-one years from Michaelmas last’, an extraordinarily generous gesture.

The Honywood, Great Totham, with Honywood’s arms over the door

His widow Frances continued to take a close interest in the village (she donated the pulpit when the church was restored in 1878–9), until her death in 1895; her heir, her husband’s second cousin, rapidly became bankrupt, and most of the estate was sold off in 1897. Marks Hall itself, near Coggeshall, was demolished in 1951; the house was surrounded by magnificent gardens which are being partly restored and are open to the public.

Fireman’s lift

The former administration block of Runwell Hospital

Runwell Hospital, which closed in 2010, opened in 1937 as a mental hospital for the boroughs of Southend-on-Sea and East Ham, both then in the county of Essex. It was state-of-the-art, being built on the colony plan, with ward blocks widely spaced out on the 509-acre site. Since the closure of the hospital most of the original buildings (designed by architects Elcock & Sutcliffe) have been demolished; prominent survivals are the administration block (shown here) and the chapel, the latter in rather a sorry state and awaiting alternative use. Otherwise the site is being developed for housing (‘St Luke’s Park’, named after the chapel).

Brockfield House, entrance, showing some of the pictorial panels by Jacqueline Seifert.

One part of the site was retained for a secure hospital: Brockfield House, which opened in 2009 and was in its own very different way equally state-of-the-art. It provides forensic mental health services for people detained under the Mental Health Act or Court Order, in conditions of low and medium security (Broadmoor Hospital, to make the obvious comparison, provides treatment and care in condition of high security). When it opened it was compared, not unkindly, with a hotel, so sensitively was it designed and so well is it equipped. There are high security fences, but the layout of the building is such that they are kept to a minimum.

Lucy and I went there last week for a Firebreak pass-out. Firebreak is a five-day course run by Essex County Fire & Rescue Service that aims to improve the lives and increase the confidence and self-esteem of a wide range of people of all ages (but mostly young people) and in all situations. The Service runs dozens of courses each year, and the one in Brockfield House must be one of the more complex to organise. Normally they take place at fire stations, but in this case all the equipment (including a fire engine) must be brought to the site each day. A regular component of the course is working with ladders, but that is clearly not an option in secure hospital. It is not always possible to find enough suitable candidates, so on this occasion there was a team of eight, rather than the usual twelve, meaning they had to work that bit harder.

After passing through security and being issued with personal alarms (which we never came close to wanting to use) we met the lead instructor, Mark Crouch, and his colleagues in the hospital gym, and then trooped out to an area at the back of the hospital where seating was set up for the spectators – ourselves, a few patients’ family members, hospital staff, and quite few graduates of previous Firebreak courses who were still at the hospital. The team of eight were put through their paces, deploying hoses, performing CPR on a dummy, and generally going through the drill. At the end they lined up (by this time in quite a prolonged shower of rain) and I presented them with their certificates (dummies, actually, the real thing being more like a log book that was inside in the dry). Then we all returned to the gym for much-needed tea and biscuits.

I wish: I wish more people could witness an event like this and see what wonderful work Mark and his colleagues are doing to improve the lives of the people they work with. The positive effect, on the current team and older graduates, was plain to see. I wish more people knew of the dedication of the staff at Brockfield House, who provide a very high level of care. I wish I could include some photographs of the drill, and of the individual team members, all of whom were delightful to talk to. I wish more of their families had been there to support them and be proud of what they had achieved in just five days. I wish them the best of luck for the future, and hope that this experience has helped speed them along the road to recovery.

It was a joyful occasion, and one for celebration, but we felt sad as we drove out through the high gates, not knowing what lay ahead for the people we had met, nor indeed what had brought them there in the first place.

All in a day’s work

The Maldon Shed.

Maldon Cemetery was opened in 1855, a time when many municipal cemeteries were opened and the old town churchyards were closed in response to a number of Burial Acts passed from 1852 onwards. The Corporation (as it then was) would be surprised by the cemetery as it is today. It still lies outside the built-up area of the town, west of what was a railway line and is now a by-pass, but only one of its two chapels is still standing (and is still occasionally used). The other brick building in the cemetery was a mortuary, but is now a Shed; that is to say, one of the growing number of Sheds (usually Men’s, but not necessarily) that, to quote the Men’s Sheds Association, are similar to garden sheds – a place to pursue practical interests at leisure, to practice skills and enjoy making and mending. The difference is that garden sheds and their activities are often solitary in nature while Men’s Sheds are the opposite. They’re about social connections and friendship building, sharing skills and knowledge, and of course a lot of laughter.

The idea seems to have originated in Australia and Maldon’s Shed, opened in 2014, was one of the first in this country; it was set up with the support of Maldon District Council (which owns the building) and is run with the support of Maldon and District Community Voluntary Service (CVS). So successful has it been that the CVS has gone on to facilitate the Essex Shed Network, funded by the Essex Community Foundation and the Community Resilience Fund, and by the National Lottery Community Fund. There are now eighteen sheds in the county, either open or in the process of being set up.

Headstone of Maldon’s VC, Private Frederick Corbett, erected in 2004 over his previously unmarked grave. He was awarded the VC in 1883 an died in 1912.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the old cemetery, a lot of work has been done in recent years to clear undergrowth and to maintain the cemetery in a state where it can be enjoyed by visitors as well as providing a haven for wildlife. Much of this work is being done by volunteers, under the Council’s Parks and Countryside Community Officer, Sue Finch, and I was able to see them in action pulling brambles from hedges and tidying up round a pond. At the same time, on the western boundary of the modern cemetery, two Community Payback teams were working to clear an overgrown ditch.

A German visitor starting up the steam pumping engine ‘Marshall’, under the watchful eye of trustee and volunteer co-ordinator Ray Anderton.

Just over a mile north of this hive of activity is another: the Museum of Power at Langford. It started life as Langford Pumping Station, completed in 1927, whose original purpose was to pump seven million gallons of drinking water every day across the county to Southend. To perform this heroic feat it was equipped with two steam-driven Lilleshall engines; a third, named Marshall, was installed in 1931, and this is the only one that survives. We saw it being run on compressed air, but on high days on holidays, or when someone is prepared to pay for the coal, it runs on steam. Around it has been collected a wondrous and varied collection of engineering artefacts, all looked after by a team of volunteers with just a single paid member of staff. It’s a wonderful place to visit, as a German family was discovering when I was there with the Chairman of Maldon District Council, Henry Bass – clearly the word is spreading.

St George’s Day in Colchester

The Mayor of Colchester, Councillor Peter Chillingworth, taking the salute at the Scouts’
St George’s Day Parade

There has been some confusion this year over when to celebrate St George’s Day, much to the joy of political and theological commentators. 23 April is the normal date, but (as far as the Church of England is concerned) when a feast day falls during Easter Week, as St George’s Day did this year, it is postponed until the Monday following the First Sunday after Easter, i.e. 29 April. In Colchester, St George’s Day was celebrated this year on 28 April; that is to say, it was the day of the Civic Service for St George’s Day, and the Colchester Scouts’ St George’s Day Parade. Mercifully, as the Civic Service involved a procession from the Town Hall to St Peter’s Church, and the parade was (obviously) outside, the April showers did not do their stuff at the crucial moments, although I fear the scouts will not have escaped entirely. It was good to see so many of them marching past, in what seemed to the uninitiated a bewildering variety of uniforms.

After all that excitement, Lucy and I made our way to the Synagogue off Priory Street, where the Colchester & District Jewish Community had invited us to attend their Yom H’Shoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day) service. This was a completely new experience for us, and one that was both moving and delightful. Proceedings started with the lighting of six candles, each candle representing one million Jews lost, before the regular afternoon service, conducted mostly in Hebrew, partly sung, but with some sections in English, perhaps for the benefit of visitors like ourselves. There was then a selection of reflections and readings (in English) specifically for Yom H’Shoah. I was honoured to be asked to give one of the readings; Will Quince M.P. gave another, Celia Edey, deputising for the Lord-Lieutenant, another. There was something very simple and elegant about the service, both in the way it was conducted and in the words themselves, that added greatly to its poignancy and power. On top of that, we could not have been made to feel more welcome. This may be a small community, but it is a very vibrant one. For tea and cakes afterwards we were joined by the two Police Community Support Officers who had been assigned to keep a watchful eye over us, a reminder that the events we were commemorating have very real contemporary resonance.

What do we mean by public service?

The homely interior of St Thomas’s Church, Upshire.

Public service can take many forms, as I found out one day last week when I visited Epping Forest District Council. I was a little early for my first appointment in Waltham Abbey so stopped off at St Thomas’s, Upshire, a delightful Arts and Crafts church of 1901–2 that I haven’t visited for many years. It was paid for by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, who was High Sheriff in 1905–6 (yet another of my predecessors it’s hard to live up to). As it happened, the church was open, because a Community Payback team were working in the churchyard, as they often do here. It’s enforced public service, to be sure, otherwise known as unpaid work, part of a community sentence, but public service nonetheless; and as well as being a punishment it benefits the church and the wider community, taking the pressure off their own volunteers and saving them the expense of hiring contractors to do the job. Nor must we forget the public service of the churchwarden who was there to open up the church, direct operations, and provide refreshments throughout the day.

Monument to Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton Bt in St Thomas’s Church, Upshire.

In Waltham Abbey, next to the new leisure centre, I saw another form of public service in operation: the District Council had organised a Community Clean Up Day, as their contribution to Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean. There’s an area of open grassland there between two housing estates, and dotted round the edge were the bright yellow gilets of litter-pickers; and as it was a warm sunny day, in the school holidays, lots of children were joining in with the adults. It was a good scene, with Council employees on hand to provide the necessary equipment, tackle any hazardous items that were found, and take away the rubbish afterwards.

Litter-picking in Waltham Abbey: fun for all the family.

Later in the day I visited the Jobcentre Plus at Loughton, where the regular Department of Work and Pensions staff work together with staff from the District Council to provide a service that goes way beyond what one would expect of a job centre – especially if, like me, your recent experience of such places is based on the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. They do that bit extra to get people back into work or simply back on to their feet by, for example, making sure they have suitable clothes for a job interview, which seems to me to be a very good use of taxpayer’s money.

Back at home, there was a letter from the Under-Sheriff’s office with a cheque for £500 for me to send to a security guard as a reward for tackling a man who was armed with a machete and was attempting to rob a Tesco Express in Clacton. As reported in the press, the man was jailed for six years at Chelmsford Crown Court last month and the judge nominated the security guard for a High Sheriff’s Court Award in recognition of his bravery and public spiritedness. As well as receiving the cheque, he will be invited to a ceremony early next year at the Crown Court, together with other recipients of Court Awards and their families, so that we can thank them in person for what is another form of public service.

The Totham connection (i): Sir John Sammes

All Saints Church, Little Totham, Sammes monument

Great Totham cannot claim a High Sheriff as its own. The closest we can get, geographically, is Sir John Sammes, who was High Sheriff in 1606, and whose monument is in Little Totham Church. His father, also John, who had purchased the manor of Little Totham and Goldhanger in the early 1590s, lived at Langford Hall.  Young John was born in about 1576, and made a good marriage to the daughter of Sir John Garrard, a wealthy haberdasher, alderman, and Lord Mayor of London; he served as a soldier in Ireland and was knighted in 1599. He avoided being appointed sheriff in 1601, but did not escape in 1606; while in office he was fined £100 by the Court of Wards for negligence in executing process, thus demonstrating why he had previously been reluctant to serve.

Little Totham Hall.
The painted brick range to the right is probably part of the house built by Sir John Sammes.

Sammes went on to hold many other public offices in Essex, including as a Justice of the Peace, and was elected M.P. for Maldon in 1610 and 1614 (this brief account of his life is based on the excellent History of Parliament website). At about this time he rebuilt Little Totham Hall, next to All Saints Church, of which only a fragment now remains; the expense of the house (said to have cost him about £1,400) put him badly in debt, and he fled to the United Provinces (now The Netherlands) to escape his creditors. Some time after 1625 he was appointed governor of the Dutch town of IJzendijke, where he died and was buried, but the date of his death is not known.

The monument at Little Totham, on which he appears in armour, is really the tomb of his widow Isabel, who died in 1633, and commemorates also their son Sir Garrard, who had died in 1630.