Richard de Southchurch and the Incendiary Birds

Sheriffs in the Middle Ages had many duties to perform besides collecting fines and taxes, and the costs they incurred could be deducted from the sums due to the Exchequer. For example, in 1257 the sheriff of Essex was ordered to provide bridges and hurdles for the equipment of a hundred ships for the passage of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, from Yarmouth to Germany. In 1262, his successor received a mandate to have the ways leading to London watched and guarded, as robberies and murders had been committed on men going to the dedication of the church of St Paul. In September 1264 the sheriffs of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex were commanded to guard the seashore in defence of the realm against aliens. For this purpose they were allowed to levy additional money if they did not have sufficient funds in hand.

The story of the task placed upon the shoulders of Richard de Southchurch, sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire in 1265–7, has found its way into many history books. The reign of Henry III was a time of successive rebellions and disputes between supporters of the king. The leader of one such dispute was Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who had been a supporter of Simon de Montfort before changing decides and playing a crucial part in his defeat at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. But differences remained.

The siege of Kenilworth, 1266 ( ‘the longest siege in medieval history’)

In April 1267 the baronial forces under Gilbert de Clare entered London, which rose in their support, and the king’s army, abandoning the siege of Ely, marched south and lay at Stratford, then just outside London in Essex, for seven weeks. During this period provisions ran short and the sheriffs of both Kent and Essex scoured the countryside for military stores. Richard de Southchurch, according to the villagers of Chafford hundred, took ‘for the sustenance of the king’s host’ wheat, oats, cheese, bacon, pease, and beef, as well as ropes for making cords for the arbalests and catapults; picks, calthrops and spades to lay low the walls of London; tow and eggs for dressings, linen for bandages, chickens to feed the wounded, and finally cocks, forty of them, which he proposed to use as incendiary bombs, by tying fire to their feet and sending them flying into London to burn it down.

Stories of using birds in this way are found in many sagas and poems of the early Middle Ages. Success would depend upon the homing instincts of birds that nested in the town and ventured out by day; they could be caught, loaded with flammable material, and then released to return home as incendiaries. Cirencester was supposed to have been captured in this way in 879. It is less likely that Richard de Southchurch’s cocks would have chosen to fly into London, which was not their home, and it seems that the sheriff was having a laugh at the expense at the good folk of Chafford hundred; they declared on oath that the supplies were taken to his own manor of Southchurch – now part of Southend – in the opposite direction from London. He was allowed 200 marks (about £172,000) at the Exchequer for all the things he had taken for the king’s use, and never paid a penny for them.

Southchurch Hall, rebuilt in the mid-14th century, but still surrounded by a moat that was dug in the late 12th century. Now in the care of Southend Museums.

Richard de Southchurch’s later misdemeanours, which included being present at the theft of a hart at the king’s forest of Chelmsford (fined 100 shillings, but pardoned) and perjury (fined 1000 pounds, but acquitted in return for surrendering the manor of Hatfield Peverel), support the suggestion that his exploit with the forty cocks was an act of deliberate dishonesty.

[The story of Richard de Southchurch and the siege was told by Helen Cam in The Hundred and the Hundred Rolls (1930), pp. 101–2; in 1916 she had published a detailed article on the Legend of the Incendiary Birds (English Historical Review, vol. 31, pp. 98–101). A more recent scholar, Michael Prestwich, is in no doubt that Richard de Southchurch ‘succeeded in a confidence trick’ by obtaining the supplies for his own use at others’ expense (Edward I (1988), pp. 58–9). For the other examples of sheriff’s obligations, see Cam, p. 100, and W. A. Morris, The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300 (1927), pp. 225, 236–7, & 271.]

Top Ten Essex families (i)

Looking down the list of past Essex High Sheriffs, it soon becomes apparent that names crop up repeatedly, sometimes in clusters, sometimes spread over many centuries. At least eight families provided four sheriffs, too many to make it into the Top Ten, which starts with those who came up with five.

Monument to Ralph Wiseman (died 1608) and his wife Elizabeth (died 1594) in St Mary and All Saints’ Church, Rivenhall. The monument was erected by Ralph following his wife’s death, in about 1598, and is thought to be the work of Garat Johnson the Elder. On the front of the chest are kneeling figures of their children, three boys and three girls.

The earliest of these is the Wiseman family, who appear only briefly on the shrieval stage between 1591 and 1660. They came to prominence in the reign of Henry VIII: John Wiseman was knighted at the Battle of the Spurs in 1513 and was one of Henry’s Auditors. His son John bought an estate at Great Canfield, which the family held until 1733; this branch of the family supplied William Wiseman, appointed sheriff in 1638, who had been created baronet in 1628 and died in 1643. Another branch lived at Rivenhall, the first sheriff being Ralph, appointed 1590, whose fine monument is in the church there. His son Sir Thomas was sheriff in 1611, and his son, also Sir Thomas, was appointed in 1658. He died during his term of office, which was completed by his son William, who at the Restoration in 1660 was able to buy himself a baronetcy at the special bargain price of £500. He was elected MP for Maldon four times, before his death in 1688. His widow sold Rivenhall Place, which had been built by Ralph, to the Western family, one of whom, Thomas Burch Western of Felix Hall, was High Sheriff in 1850–1 (and Lord-Lieutenant 1869–73).

Felix Hall, Kelvedon, in 2004: semi-ruined but still inhabited. It has since been restored.

Just overlapping with the Wisemans were the Abdy family. Anthony Abdy, an alderman of the City of London who died in 1640, settled at Albyns, Stapleford Abbots, where he built a house that was demolished in 1954 following war damage.  His son Thomas, created baronet in 1641, was sheriff in 1651–2; his seat was Felix Hall, Kelvedon, the first of four sheriffs (of four different families) to occupy that house. Sir Robert Abdy of Albyns, created baronet in 1660, and sheriff in 1660–1, was his younger brother. John Rutherford Abdy, sheriff in 1809–10, was great-grandson of Sir William Abdy, 4th baronet of Rivenhall, but this line died out with the death of the 7th baronet in 1868. Meanwhile the Albyns baronetcy had also died out, in 1759, but a new one was created in 1849 for Thomas Neville Abdy, High Sheriff in 1875–6. He was succeeded in 1877 by his son William, High Sheriff in 1884.

Faulkbourne Hall, seat of the Parker family.

That brings us firmly into the 19th century, and two families who quickly made their mark upon the shrievalty: the Parkers and the Courtaulds.  John Oxley Parker, farmer and estate agent of Woodham Mortimer Place, was High Sheriff in 1883–4, and his son Christopher William Parker, of Faulkbourne Hall, in 1906–7. Colonel Richard Cecil Oxley Parker (nephew of J. O. P., son of one of the founding partners of Strutt & Parker) was High Sheriff in 1942–3, John Oxley Parker (son of C. W. P.) in 1948–9, and his son Christopher William Oxley Parker in 1961–2.

Coming even closer to the present day, George Courtauld of Cut Hedge, Halstead, was High Sheriff in 1896–7, his son Samuel Augustine Courtauld of The Howe, Halstead, in 1916–17, and nephew William Julien Courtauld of Penny Pot, Halstead, in 1921–2, Augustine Courtauld (son of S. A. C.) of Spencers, Great Yeldham, in 1953–4, and George Courtauld’s great-grandson, also George, of Colne Engaine, in 2001–2.

[Many of the individuals mentioned here will be found in Essex Worthies: a biographical companion to the county by William Addison (1973).]

Garden Parties

Most High Sheriffs have a summer party of one sort or another. We’ve just got back from Norfolk’s, which took the form of drinks and nibbles followed by a circus show in the wonderful Yarmouth Hippodrome, Britain’s last surviving circus building (as opposed to tent). It was built in 1903 by the legendary circus showman George Gilbert (designed by R. S. Cockrill of Lowestoft – his Hippodrome there, also for Gilbert, was later converted to a concert hall and demolished in 1999). The arena can be flooded for water spectacles, rather in manner of the Colosseum in Rome.

In Essex we still stick to the traditional teatime garden party with marquee, although who knows what future High Sheriffs may choose to do. Flooding on these occasions is usually due to rain, and one has to plan accordingly; but this year the rain had come a week or so ahead, enough to ensure that the grass was as green and flowerbeds as colourful as they ever get in our little patch of Essex, and the day itself was sunny and hot.

A good showing of hats.

It’s as well to ask from time to time what the point of these occasions is, and there’s more to it than laying on a good tea for the ‘usual suspects’ and giving them the opportunity to nose round somebody else’s garden, important though these aspects of the occasion are. For me, the point of the garden party is to thank those who, in their daily lives, devote much of their lives to public service, without which society as we know it, and which we perhaps take for granted, simply could not function. Public service takes many forms.  It may mean doing voluntary work, for no financial reward.  It may mean doing a job, often poorly paid, that most people don’t want to do because it is unpleasant or stressful in one way or another.  Or it may mean taking a job that is less well paid than another job that you might be qualified for, because you believe that the less well paid job is more worthwhile.

Most of the guests at the High Sheriff’s Garden Party fit into one or other of those categories. Moreover, for every guest it would be possible to invite a hundred more, equally deserving, and the hope is that those attending, when they next see those they work with, will let them know how much their efforts are appreciated.

A reassuring police presence: Chief Constable BJ Harrington, PC Steve Judd, Rob Fortt, and cadets.

Two good examples of public service were provided at our party by the Essex Marching Corps, and Castle Point & Rochford Volunteer Police Cadets. This particular group of police cadets is the largest in the county and their leader, PC Steve Judd, has put in an extraordinary number of hours of his own time to get them to that position. Without the cadets’ help, our temporary car park in an adjacent field would undoubtedly have been the scene of considerable chaos, and they did a splendid job.

The Essex Marching Corps

The Essex Marching Corps is the only remaining independent marching band in Essex, and their mission is to enable all young people regardless of ability, financial means or family situation, to make music. Instruments, training and uniform are provided free of charge; the band meets in a hall in South Benfleet that the volunteers and parents literally built themselves, and which they can hire out to supplement the income they receive in grants and donations. They made a huge contribution to the afternoon, and in spite of the heat managed to look very smart in their new uniforms.

The High Sheriff conducting ‘Slaidburn’ (or giving a very convincing impression of doing so).

The afternoon was rounded off by the bell ringers of St Peter’s Church, who rang melodiously as guests were departing. As many guests commented afterwards, it put the seal on a quintessentially English event.

Armed Forces Day(s)

Armed Forces Day is a relatively recent event, dating back to 2006, and for the first three years known as Veterans’ Day. But it has become firmly established in the nation’s calendar and provides an opportunity to acknowledge the debt we owe to the current men and women who serve in the Navy, Army, and Air Force, complementing the respects we pay on Remembrance Day to those have lost their lives.

Armed Forces Day is held on the last Saturday in June, but often it spills over into the next day and for us, at least, the week leading up to it had a distinctly military flavour. It began on Monday morning, with the raising of a flag over the Civic Centre in Chelmsford: a simple ceremony, led by the mayor, Councillor Bob Massey, and his chaplain, the Revd Carol Ball, attended also by Steve Bennett DL and the Hon. Recorder of Chelmsford, His Honour Judge Gratwicke. The Drum Corps from King Edward VI Grammar School and the Royal British Legion were on parade. Similar events were held in Colchester and elsewhere in the county.

Lucy’s night-vision helmet appears to go rather well with her coat.

On Tuesday we went to an open evening at the Warley Army Reserve Centre organised by 124 (Essex) Transport Squadron, whose reservists provide support to the Royal Logistic Corps as part of the UK Reaction Force. As such these part-timers, who come from all walks of civilian life, can find themselves deployed anywhere in the world, including in recent years Afghanistan and Iraq. Reservists we talked to included a builder, the manager of a job centre, and a clerk from the Family Court, the last of these never happier than when driving her MAN Logistic Support Vehicle (a 6-tonne truck) off road. After a presentation of claps to three long-serving reservists by Dennis Rensch DL we were able to look round various displays and demonstrations, including nuclear and chemical contamination suits of the type familiar from the clean-up after the Salisbury novichok attack, and weapons – two of the men there were in top 50 of reservist marksmen. Supper followed, including a fine sausage casserole cooked by the Regimental Catering Team, and the chance to talk to reservists and their families who, like all service families, have a lot to put up with in terms of disruption to their lives and anxiety.

The Mayor of Brentwood, Councillor Keith Parker, taking aim at Warley Army Reserve Centre.
Little Totham’s Tommies: there, but not there.

Friday afternoon saw us close to home at Little Totham, where the Lord-Lieutenant was unveiling the village’s first war memorial, in the shape of three ‘Tommy’ silhouettes made specially in steel. Among the guests was the Tommies’ designer, Martin Barraud. In the evening we went up to Carver Barracks, Wimbish, for a cocktail party and Beating Retreat with the officers of 35 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal & Search). Goodness, but the Army do these things well (including but not just the cocktails) and are unfailingly hospitable and welcoming. There was something timeless about the Beating Retreat ceremony, which was performed by the Band of Parachute Regiment. Along one side of the parade ground was a large tent for guests, and in front of it a row of sofas for senior officers and VIPs, including Mick Biegel DL who took the salute. There was a smaller tent to one side for other officers, who kept a low profile until the moment came to sing the Corps song, ‘Hurrah for the C.R.E.’, which originated during the South African War and is in a mixture of English and Zulu. Before that, the moment when the flag is lowered and Sunset Hymn is played never fails to be spine-tingling.

The view from the sofa.
Before the parade: ready for a hot day on Canvey Island.

The big day, and the hottest of the year so far, was Saturday. The morning took us to Canvey Island, where they lay on a very fine parade, service, and displays. The parade, headed by the Sutherland Pipes and Drums and including serving men and women as well as veterans (one Chelsea Pensioner), the Royal British Legion, and the Canvey Air Cadets’ Band, as well as Army cadets and the full range of scouts, sea scouts, guides, etc, took us though the centre of town to the war memorial in front of the Paddocks Community Centre, where chairs had been set out on the grass for the open-air service, mostly in the shade. When that was over we turned down the offer of refreshments to get to Colchester in time for the second half of the Garrison Show, where we were guests of the Garrison Commander, Lt-Col Steve Caldwell, and the new Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier John Clark. The main afternoon event was the Essex and Veterans and Cadet Armed Forces Day parade, led by our old friends the Band of the Parachute Regiment. Owing to the heat, we were encouraged to spend less time inspecting the cadets than would normally be the case; even so, by the time they marched off there were fourteen fewer in the ranks than at the beginning, that number having fainted or been pulled out as they showed signs of being about to. The Veterans all survived to parade another day – one we talked to had been at Little Totham yesterday and was going to be at Maldon on Sunday.

The Battle of Abbey Field: combat demonstration by the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment.

All these events, in their different ways, allowed us civilians to show our appreciation of what the Armed Forces do on behalf of us all, to make their work better known and understood, and to strengthen their links with the communities in which they are based. Their service to Queen and Country means service to us all, for which they deserve our respect and gratitude.

The Totham connection (iii): Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny

Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, with trophy, from his memoirs Forty Years of a Sportsman’s Life (1910)


Sir Claude’s monument in St Peter’s Church, Great Totham

It is almost impossible to write anything about Great Totham without mentioning Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, 4th baronet (1847–1935), a remarkable character: a sportsman in the widest sense of the word, and someone who frequently crops up in anthologies in Great British Eccentrics. The family came to England in 1785/6 as Huguenot refugees and settled in Camberwell, an area that has since become known and Champion Hill. Their house in Great Totham, like their house in Camberwell, was called Champion Lodge, and had been built in 1877 not long before Sir Claude bought it. Here he laid out a private steeplechase course; the house was filled with hunting trophies; and he was an intrepid balloonist. A tramp who asked him for money had to earn it by first engaging in a bout of fisticuffs. He thought nothing of walking the 45 miles from Great Totham to London in order to win a wager of half a crown. He was never High Sheriff, and would have been, in many ways, quite unsuited for the position; at the age of 67, for example, he struck a police constable at Bungay races (where he was acting as steward) and was fined £20. On the other hand, he was well qualified because, unlike most High Sheriffs (one hopes and suspects), he would have relished that part of the role that required him to see that death sentences were carried out.

The entrance hall of Champion Lodge, Great Totham

On Monday 18 May 1885, James Manson alias Lee was hanged at Chelmsford Prison (then known as Springfield Gaol) for the murder of Inspector Simmons of Essex County Constabulary at Romford on 20 January. Those present included the Sheriff’s Marshall, Mr D. Powell; Mr Walter Gepp, taking the place of his brother Charles, the Under Sheriff, who had sprained his ankle; and Messrs F. Smee and D. Thompson from the Under-Sheriff’s office. The High Sheriff himself (J. F. Lescher of Hutton Park, Brentwood) was not present, although he had been at the prison earlier; but Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, with no official function and for no obvious reason, walked in the procession from the condemned cell to the scaffold (Essex Standard, 23 May 1885, p. 8). Sir Claude later claimed that he had been there in his capacity as a magistrate, although no one had actually required his presence.

The executioner was James Berry, who carried out 131 hangings in England between 1884 and 1891. Later in 1885 three men were convicted of the murder of a policeman near Penrith and sentenced to hang at Carlisle on 8 February 1886. A triple hanging was a rare event and attracted a good deal of press attention. Berry was assisted in his task by one ‘Charles Maldon’, soon exposed in the press as Sir Claude. This caused an outcry, with questions asked of the Home Secretary in the House of Commons as to whether he now approved of amateur hangmen. When interviewed in his ‘elegant mansion’ by a reporter from the Yorkshire Post, ‘Mr Maldon’ defended his actions by saying that ‘I have a great dislike to ordering anyone to do things I should not like to do myself. It is within the bounds of possibility that I might be High Sheriff in the course of years; I have not been pricked out yet, but if I were I should have to serve. We will suppose that one of these “martyrs,” one of these Fenian fellow, was to be hanged. The executioner might be threatened, and it is possible that we might not be able to get a hangman. I would not order anyone to do what I could not do myself.’ A triple hanging, where Berry would be in need of an assistant, seemed a good opportunity for Sir Claude to learn the necessary skills, so he offered his services. He allowed Berry to keep the £5 that he had been given to pay his assistant, and tipped him another fiver on top (Carlisle Reporter, 26 February 1886, p. 3).

There is little doubt that Sir Claude’s actions, and his subsequent comments, would have put paid to any prospect of his becoming High Sheriff.  There is such a thing as being too keen to carry out certain duties.

Sheriffs Act 1887

[Much of the above is based on ‘The amateur hangman: a Victorian sportsman’s pastime’ by Fred Feather, one of a series of History Notebooks published by Essex Police Museum.]

Fellow Travellers

I’ve been a-gipsying, or, rambles among our gipsies and their children in their tents and vans, by George Smith of Coalville, published in 1883. Smith’s rambles took him into Essex. In spite of the somewhat picturesque illustrations (see below), he found nothing romantic about Gypsies, and his mission was to end their way of life and restore them to God.

There was an astonishing headline in the Maldon & Burnham Standard recently: ‘Travellers “most polite we have dealt with”’ (the online version went for the more predictable ‘Traveller crackdown set after encampment on the Prom in Maldon’). A police spokesman said, ‘The travellers moved off the prom at Maldon and I have got to say they were the most polite, cleanest and engaging group of travellers I have had the pleasure to police.’ It is rare to read a ‘good news’ story about Travellers, but Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month provides an excuse to look beyond the stereotypes.

That is certainly what Essex Police’s Gypsy, Traveller and Rural Engagement Team (GTRET) do, based on my experience of spending a couple of days with them. They are a small team (a sergeant, four constables, and a special constable), covering the whole county, and their remit includes not just enforcing the law as far as unauthorised encampments are concerned, but dealing with a whole range of crimes that come under the umbrella of ‘rural’, such as wildlife crime, hare coursing, theft of agricultural machinery, and heritage crime, notably nighthawking (illegal metal detecting). Because they have to spend a lot of time driving round the county in their distinctive Ford Ranger pickups, they are the most visible police presence in the remoter parts of Essex.

Unauthorised encampments are a fact of life, given that there are no transit sites for Travellers in Essex, and there are clearly defined ways of dealing with them, occasionally under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, but more commonly by Court Order, a process which in most parts of Essex is handled by the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU), run by the County Council.

The great thing about both the GTRET and the ECTU is that they treat Gypsies and Travellers as individuals, who have the same rights and are deserving of the same respect as any other members of the public. In the last few years we all, and especially those of us involved with public services and the judiciary, have quite rightly been trained and educated to treat all people equally, whatever their race, colour, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Somehow Gypsies and Travellers seem to have been overlooked in that process. It is now becoming something of cliché to say that language and behaviour directed towards Gypsies and Travellers is the last accepted form of racism, but still it goes on.

One day this week Lucy and I were honoured to be asked to attend a Travellers Forum in Chelmsford Prison. These events are arranged every couple of months by Sister Philomena of the Prison’s Chaplaincy Team, and they provide an opportunity for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers to come together to celebrate their heritage in a way that has long been available to other heritage and faith groups. On this occasion we were joined by Eddie Gilmore and Breda Power of the Irish Chaplaincy in London, as well as an Irish band of a fiddler and two accordion players. About twenty prisoners were present, and two officers – one of them a Traveller herself, the only Traveller prison officer (so I am told) in the country. After an hour or so of music and singing and a lot of good-natured chat, much of it between family members (brothers, fathers and sons) a traditional Gypsy dish of bacon, cabbage and potato was served, cooked earlier in the prison kitchen. It went down well.

A friendlier and more polite bunch of men you could not hope to meet, and it was a privilege to sit down with them and share their food. They did not need to give us a card, before we left, thanking us for coming to see them and, as one wrote, ‘learning more about us’. We could all do with learning more about them, and trying to understand them and their way of life. And as Sister Philomena said afterwards, ‘whatever we do for our men, however small, is never lost’.

The Gypsy, Traveller and Rural Engagement Team was renamed the Rural Engagement Team in October 2019, when it was also announced that the unit would be enlarged to about double its previous strength.

More children, some animals

Essex Schools Food and Farming Day, now in its twelfth year, is an event organised by the Essex Agricultural Society in partnership with Writtle University College and Essex County Council. This year it saw some 3000 primary school children from all over Essex gathered in the showground at Writtle, where they were exposed to a variety of stands and displays that told them about all aspects of food and farming. The idea is to show them that cornflakes are made from maize, which has to be grown in a field, and that milk comes from cows before it gets into a bottle or, more likely, a plastic carton.

In this it works magnificently, and the children, aged 8 to 11, were clearly enjoying a grand day out. Displays of raw cereals proved surprisingly popular. People dressed as tomatoes and cucumbers were mobbed. And Tim and Harry, the well-groomed Golden Guernsey goats, patiently received a lot of attention, but such handsome creatures are no doubt used to it.

What was noticeable was that the farm machinery, once so popular with small boys (and of course girls), failed to grab their attention. They were much more interested in making pyjamas from bananas, and other eco-friendly ways of turning what would otherwise be plant waste into something useful, or saving water. They seemed less than impressed by a big piece of kit that was used to spray the fields with chemicals, essential though they are if a growing population is to be fed with the food that it needs and especially the meat which the majority crave.

The children may not have been avoiding from the stalls offering samples of venison burgers and pork products – on the contrary – but there is no doubt that as a generation they are more conscious of the environment than the majority of their elders.

That same evening, as the sunshine was turning to light rain, we drove down to Hawkwell to meet the 4th Rochford Scouts, for a litter-pick that had been organised by Rochford District Councillor Julie Gooding. Our hunting ground was a large playing field behind Clements Hall Leisure Centre, and at first sight it wasn’t very promising, as there wasn’t much sign of litter; but the long grass and scrub round the edge yielded rich pickings, much of it recyclable. It was fun, and there was some friendly competition, but the scouts were fully aware of the environmental value of what they were doing, and of the long-term damage that discarded plastic is doing as well as the immediate damage caused by broken glass. I wasn’t surprised to learn that one of the young leaders, currently doing her GCSEs, wants to be a marine biologist.

I hope it’s not too grasping to mention at this stage that I’m raising money for the High Sheriffs’ Fund by taking part in litter picks across the county during my year in office. But I need to take every opportunity, because I fear that my efforts are likely to be eclipsed by 7-year-old Daniel Walker, who has so far raised £2800 for Farleigh Hospice by litter-picking in Great Notley. This week he walked away with the ‘Inspirational Role Model’ award (young person winner) at the Braintree District Volunteer Awards, well-deserved recognition of his efforts.

Daniel Walker receiving his award from the Chairman of Braintree District Council, Councillor Angela Kilmartin, and the High Sheriff

Dorothy Lodge, with whom (as it happens) I used to sit as a magistrate, was the adult winner, and overall Volunteer of the Year; but, particularly when it comes to the environment, the Daniel Walkers of this world can provide as much inspiration as the David Attenboroughs.

With apologies to the Braintree & Witham Times.

Stronger together

Life is full of surprises these days, and ‘A Night of Music’ held in St Botolph’s Church, Colchester, contained more than its fair share. The first was the Amici Mixed Choir from Okinawa, Japan – about ninety of them, with an average age of 77 – singing ‘Home, Sweet Home’ in Japanese, accompanied on grand piano. Their repertoire also included Handel, Mascagni (Cavelleria Rusticana), and a Hokkaido folksong. The came all the way from Okinawa for this one concert and, apart from a little sightseeing, are heading straight back. The standard of their performance was second to none.

Meanwhile we had been eagerly awaiting the Bao-Lai Junior High School Chorus, sitting patiently in the north aisle in their traditional costume. They swept on like a tropical storm, dancing and singing, some as young as 11. It was exhilarating stuff, totally unfamiliar traditional songs, for the most part wild and energetic but with one breath-taking passage of delicate whistling birdsong. They have won many international prizes since they were founded in 2015, and it is not hard to see why. They come from a district in southern Taiwan where the majority of the population is composed of the indigenous Bunun ethnic group, one of sixteen official aboriginal groups in Taiwan; our neighbour, the Deputy Representative of the Taipei Representative Office in London, said he did not understand their language, but he did not need to (and neither did we) to appreciate their performance.

Click here to see what happened next

These two very different choirs came to Colchester thanks to the Colchester Military Wives Choir, who have achieved a formidable reputation themselves in the seven years of their existence. They are part of a growing network of military wives choirs across the forces, made up of veterans, mothers of soldiers and, of course, military wives. The benefits they bring in terms of boosting morale and building community spirit are enormous, and they have performed for many charities as well.

Click here for the video

It is easy to slip into clichés and draw predictable morals from events such as these. Music transcends cultural and political barriers. The two visiting choirs achieved more in the course of the evening than a month of trade talks ever could, and it was more than politeness towards our overseas guests that brought the audience to its feet for two standing ovations. The final pieces were especially poignant and symbolic. First, the Military Wives singing ‘We Will Remember Them’, followed by ‘Stronger Together’, the theme song (by Gareth Malone) of the military wives movement; then all three choirs singing together ‘Amazing Grace’.

The Bao-Lai Junior High School Chorus, with members of the Colchester Military Wives Choir, and (left to right) the Mayor of Colchester. the High Sheriff, Nicholas Charrington DL, the Chairman of Essex County Council, the First Secretary of the Japanese Embassy, and the High Steward of Colchester.

After that, all descended into near chaos with group photos on the staging. The traditionally-costumed Taiwanese turned out to have jeans under their robes, and quickly found their trainers. Getting them into the right place, to the satisfaction of the photographer, required much arm waving. A small party of elderly Japanese men made light work of pushing the grand piano out of the way. Gifts were distributed, including bags of goodies from Okinawa containing origami birds and boxes of what look like biscuits, and from Colchester intriguing parcels of fudge and little jars Tiptree honey. I would guess that everyone left feeling a lot better about the world than when they arrived.

The Amici Mixed Choir, with Colchester Military Wives Choir in the front, and assorted dignitaries (as above).

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 its 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 extension 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.