The ‘eccentric female explorer’

 “Only ignorant fools think that because one likes sugar, one cannot like salt” Marianne North, Recollections of a Happy Life.

For much of the population in 2020, travel restrictions have been a common source of discontent, despite the understandable unavoidability of these measures. However, the relative freedom we would usually have had nowadays would have seemed quite the enigma to England’s Nineteenth-Century women, from whom the ‘public sphere’ was already cut off. In this blog, I would like to share the adventures of the ‘eccentric female explorer (s)’, who became ‘a Victorian icon of adventurous travel’ (Wagner, Travel, 175). Women like Norfolk’s Margaret Fountaine travelled ‘in search of adventure, out of necessity, for health reasons, and to contribute to a growing market for publications on ethnography, geography, botany, or zoology’ (Wagner, Travel, 175), sometimes benefitting from a ‘temporary male status’ (Wagner, Travel, 179).  Some met prominent figures, for example,  Marianne North met Charles Darwin and attended a dinner at The White House (though she had been mistaken for the PM’s daughter!). Those who were ‘flaunting conventions and encountering the extraordinary’ (Wagner, Travel, 176), are admirable, and I would like to introduce a couple of these fascinating women, their pursuits and their travel writing.

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A Generous Gift Compromised by Events? The will of Alice Spratt, widow, of Eccles against the Sea

The will of Alice Spratt [1] dated January 11th 1558/1559 [2] clearly shows counter-Reformation tendencies despite the fact that Catholic Queen Mary had died in the previous November and her younger sister Elizabeth now sat on the throne. Alice bequeaths her soul to ‘Almytghtie god And to our blissed ladye sainte Marye and to all the gloryous companye of heaven’, firmly Catholic sentiments which would have been heavily suppressed in her lifetime during the reign of Protestant King Edward VI [1547-1553] However, Catholicism was restored as the state religion during Mary’s reign and it seems still tolerated in the early days of Protestant Elizabeth’s reign.

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John Fenn – A Dereham Man: The Diaries of Sir John Fenn, 1786-1794

Taken from documents held at the Norfolk Record Office, NRO, MC 525/1

Sir John Fenn was a man most notably known for his publication of the Paston Letters.  But his eight engagement diaries, spanning 1786 to 1794 tell us so much more than that about this Georgian gentleman.  He was a man known for many things but above all else, he was a Dereham man.  This blog focuses on his life in (East) Dereham and Norfolk.

Sir John Fenn (Serpell)
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Examining Marriage Licence Bonds

Illustration of a wedding at Topcroft, Norfolk. NRO, ANF Bishop’s Transcripts, 1828.

Marriage licence bonds for the Archdeaconry of Norfolk, 1704-1886, and for the Peculiar of the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral, 1705-1860, have recently been indexed by a group of dedicated Norfolk Record Office volunteers.

In a few cases, the backstory to some of these bonds (rarely given in the document itself) is recounted in other sources.  One such story relates to Mahershalalhashbaz Tuck and Emily Beddoe who applied for a licence to be married at East Dereham on 20th December 1866. Their wedding took place there a few days later.

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World Day for Audiovisual Heritage

On October 27th, heritage organisations across the world will join in celebration of World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Founded by UNESCO in 2005, World Day for Audiovisual Heritage (WDAVH) is an international day with the aim of celebrating audiovisual heritage documents and raising awareness of current risks that jeopardise their long-term preservation.

What is audio visual heritage? 

Audiovisual documents include moving image, such as films and television programmes, and recorded sound, such as radio programmes, music, oral history interviews, and recordings of nature. Norfolk Record Office safeguards many forms of audiovisual heritage documents and is home to both the East Anglian Film Archives, and a substantial sound archive.

  Norfolk Record Office is the East of England hub for the national audio preservation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, one of ten UK wide heritage organisations working alongside the British Library to digitise the UK’s rare and at-risk audio archives.

Examples of audio formats (Clockwise from top left: Reel-to-reel magnetic audiotape on player, vinyl disc on player, compact cassette tape, wax cylinders, reel-to-reel magnetic audio tape in box)

Why are audio archives at risk?

Audio archives may include a wide range of formats, such as reel-to-reel magnetic audiotape, compact cassette tape, MiniDisc, CD, vinyl, or shellac discs. These formats vary not only in the materials that they are made from, but also in the playback equipment that they each require.  

Technical Obsolesce: 

  One of the main risks for audio archives is technical obsolescence. Technology is continually progressing and developing, and as formats become outdated the playback equipment that they require ceases to be manufactured. Each format therefore has a finite window of time in which it will be able to be played, as the playback equipment becomes increasingly more difficult to obtain, maintain, or repair. Across the world, heritage organisations have been carefully stockpiling equipment, spare parts, service manuals and other accessories that have been or shortly will be discontinued, and ensuring the retention of maintenance and operational skills. 

   It is estimated that there is a ten to fifteen-year window for safeguarding at risk sound recordings before irremediable loss occurs due to the obsolescence of playback equipment. The challenge for heritage organisations is to digitise as much existing material as possible without compromising quality or meaning, to ensure that audio archives are preserved for future generations

David, the Norfolk Record Office Audio Preservation Engineer working on the digital conversion of recordings

Physical deterioration:

   Another risk that threatens audiovisual documents is the physical decay of the carrier. Unlike printed or handwritten text which may remain fully human-readable even when damaged, damage to audio recordings will result in a loss of information such as a glitch or skipped track, or in a worst case scenario the recording being totally unreadable by playback equipment. The protection of the carrier (e.g. a disc or magnetic audio tape) is paramount to the preservation of the recording, and poor handling, poorly maintained equipment or poor storage can result in irreversible damage. 

   Many audiovisual carriers, such as magnetic recordings, have relatively short life expectancies due to their physical composition, and are prone to natural deterioration and decay over time. Preventative conservation measures must be put in place to monitor and delay the decomposition of the original carrier, and the most high-risk cases must be prioritised for digital preservation to ensure that the audiovisual content is transferred from the jeopardised carrier.  

   The sound archives at Norfolk Record Office are preserved within a designated tape store in the Record Office strong rooms. Audio formats such as magnetic audio tape require different optimum conditions for long term preservation to that of paper or parchment, and so having a separate store allows for the relative temperature and humidity levels to be maintained at a different level to those of the main strong rooms. 

Magnetic audiotape reels stored in the Norfolk Record Office Tape Store

   The audio archive holdings are checked for any signs of natural decay, and occasionally specialist treatment must be carried out to stabilise at-risk sound carriers. For example, magnetic audiotape is prone to a natural deterioration of the binders (the glue) that holds the magnetisable oxide particles to the tape. Over time the binders absorb moisture from the air, causing them to breakdown and rendering the tape unplayable, a condition referred to as ‘Sticky Shed Syndrome’. This can be temporarily reversed by a process called ‘baking’ the tape, a temperature controlled process of removing the moisture from the binder to allow for the tape to temporarily be returned to a playable state in which it is necessary to create a copy of the threatened audio. 

David, the Norfolk Record Office Audio Preservation Engineer preparing a reel of magnetic audiotape for ‘Baking’ in the Norfolk Record Office Conservation Lab

Public access: 

Another reason why it is necessary to digitally preserve sound archives is accessibility. Today, the most practical means of making a sound recording available to members of the public is via a digital copy of the original, listened to either in-situ at a heritage organisation or online. It is likely that future viewers and listeners will access audio heritage in a purely digital environment, and so it is important that audio archives are digitised for both preservation purposes as well as for ensuring that they are compatible with modern technology to allow for public access.

To discover collections that have been digitally preserved at Norfolk Record Office, follow the Norfolk Record Office social media channels for sound clips and behind the scenes footage.

YouTube: Norfolk Record Office

Facebook: @norfolkrecordoffice

Twitter: @NorfolkRO

Instagram: norfolk_record_office

In this video, Cataloguing Manager Helen Busby shares extracts from one of her favourite collections, the audio archives of the British Antarctic Survey:

Introduction into the sound archives of the British Antarctic Survey

So far, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage nationwide has digitally preserved over 200,000 rare and at-risk sound recordings. To find out more information about what is happening in Unlocking Our Sound Heritage hubs around the country, visit the British Library Sound Heritage Twitter page: @BLSoundHeritage

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Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: a British musical prodigy

Revered as one of Britain’s greatest black composers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is most remembered for his choral masterpiece Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. 

Through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation project, a recording of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast performed at the 28th Aldeburgh Festival in 1975 has recently been digitally preserved at Norfolk Record Office. In this blog we will explore the life of this prominent composer, and the trilogy of Hiawatha cantatas that brought him international critical acclaim. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, an area just around the corner from Fetter Lane which was described by the writer Charles Dickens as being “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner”. It is thought that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was named after the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and from the age of five Coleridge-Taylor showed his own artistic talents when starting to learn the violin. His musical gift quickly became apparent, and when he turned fifteen, he was accepted into the Royal College of Music initially as a violinist. After two years, he changed his direction of study to composition, and under the guidance of Charles Stanford (one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music), began to develop as a skilful composer.       

Surrounded by blooming musical talent, many of Coleridge-Taylor’s early concerts took place at the Royal College of Music and featured instrumental performances from his fellows, including the composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Coleridge-Taylor’s talents were clear and well nurtured, and in the face of racial prejudice he was defended by those around him: when overhearing a racial insult towards Coleridge-Taylor from a fellow student, tutor Charles Stanford declared that Coleridge-Taylor had “more music in his little finger” than the other student had in “his whole body”.

   Word began to spread of the talented young composer. August Jaeger, an editor at the London based publishing company Novello & Co was tipped off about Coleridge-Taylor’s work even before it was publicly performed, and Novello’s published the first of a series of Coleridge-Taylor’s anthems. Coleridge-Taylor won the Lesley Alexander composition prize two years running (1895 and 1896). His first major commission came upon the recommendation of the composer Edward Elgar, who proposed Coleridge-Taylor for a commission by the Three Choirs Festival, describing Coleridge-Taylor as “still wanting recognition”, and “far away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men”. Coleridge-Taylor premiered his melodic piece Ballade in A Minor at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, gaining immediate success. 

   In 1898 Coleridge-Taylor composed what would become his most renowned work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The piece was inspired by a poem The Song of Hiawatha written by Henry Longfellow, which relates the fictional tale of an Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha and the tragedy of his love for Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. Coleridge-Taylor was the first composer to use the already popular poem as inspiration for a musical work, and the piece became an immediate success, first premiering at the Royal College of Music. The composer Arthur Sullivan, although terminally ill, insisted upon attending: “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried”.

   Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was a step away from heavily serious or religious choral works, instead combining light tuneful melodies with adventurous narrative, and exotic costumes of feathers and animal skins which captured the public imagination.  

The work was internationally acclaimed, touring three times in the United States despite the black community’s ongoing battle against racism. In an age where amateur choirs and sheet music were a key part of popular culture, hundreds of thousands of copies of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast were sold worldwide. However, despite being a pivotal work in Coleridge-Taylor’s career, the piece did not lead him to financial prosperity. Having had no conception of just how successful the piece would be, Coleridge-Taylor sold the work outright for a sum of £25 15s, meaning that he did not financially benefit from its later success. 

   Coleridge-Taylor wrote two sequels to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha (October 1899) and Hiawatha’s Departure (March 1900). These two subsequent works however, did not receive the same acclaim and were criticised by former champions of his work including August Jaeger and Edward Elgar. 

    Coleridge-Taylor was a family man, married to fellow Royal College of Music graduate Jessie Sarah Fleetwood Walmisley, and father to a son (Hiawatha) and daughter (Gwendolen, later Avril), both of whom went on to have their own musical careers. Coleridge-Taylor continued to work prolifically to support his family, composing and conducting, and teaching at institutions including the Trinity College of Music (1903), and Crystal Palace School of Art and Music (1905). He was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt during his first tour of America in 1904, which was a rare event at the time for a man of African descent. However, despite his success and fame, his private life was not exempt from racial harassment, both himself and his family being targets of racial abuse.

    Coleridge-Taylor’s life was tragically short. On 1st September 1912 he died of pneumonia at the age of 37. It is thought that overwork was a contributing factor, and his death provoked warm tributes in the press, and a funeral procession through Croydon that was lined for three and a half miles by crowds with their heads bared. A memorial concert produced £1440 for the family, a substantial sum when Coleridge-Taylor’s annual income in the year of his death was estimated at less than £200. His death revealed to the music world the fact that Coleridge-Taylor and his family did not receive any royalties from the hugely commercial Hiawatha’s Wedding, a scandal which assisted with the development of The Performing Rights Society who worked to put in place a legislation on rights and royalties. 

    The first version of Coleridge-Taylor’s final commission, Violin Concerto, is believed to have been lost in the same year as his death, when it went down with the RMS Titanic on its way to the US premiere.

     Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast continued to be hugely popular after Coleridge-Taylor’s death, with ten seasons of a large costumed ballet version running at the Royal Albert Hall between 1928 and 1939. Audiences flocked to see the spectacular large-scale performances, attending in fancy dress of feathers and bows and arrows, and joining in with the better-known numbers. 

     Following the end of the Second World War Coleridge-Taylor’s music largely disappeared from the public sphere, a shift in popular music and the decline of amateur choral-tradition changing the atmosphere and public appetite. In 1975 Coleridge-Taylor became the first black recipient of a blue heritage plaque, which was erected on his former home at 30 Dagnall Park, South Norwood. 

  Today Samuel Coleridge-Taylor continues to be highly regarded within musical circles, his talents reflected by the huge successes and quantities of compositions achieved during his short life. 

   These extract of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast are from the Norfolk Record Office sound archives and have been digitally preserved through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation project. They are excerpts from a recording of a broadcast of a 1975 performance at the 28th Aldeburgh Festival, performed by the Aldeburgh Festival Singers and English Chamber Orchestra at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk. 

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Allan Glaisyer Minns: The First Black Mayor of a British Town

October is Black History month: how many people know that the first ever black mayor of any British town was in Norfolk?

Allan Glaisyer Minns was one of ten children of John and Ophelia Minns (nee Bunch) of Inagua in the Bahamas.  Theirs is an extraordinary story: Allan, his brother and sister, all came to England and lived in Thetford for many years, playing an important part in community life.  In 1904, Allan became Mayor of Thetford – the first black mayor of any town in Britain.

Their paternal grandfather, John Minns, had emigrated from England to the Bahamas.  His partner Rosette was a freed slave from Africa – the story is that she saved John from drowning after a ship they were both travelling in sank – One of their children, also John, married a lady named Ophelia Bunch – nothing is known of her ethnic background.  John and Ophelia had ten children, three of whom were to come to Thetford.

The eldest, Pembroke Minns, was born in Inagua in 1840.  At the age of eighteen he moved to England to study at Guy’s Hospital, qualifying as a doctor in 1862.  In that year he came to Thetford as a physician, working in the town for half a century.  He became physician to Thetford Cottage Hospital, and served on the Borough Council for three years.  Pembroke never married.  At some time in the 1880s, his sister Ophelia, seventeen years his junior, came to Thetford, living with her brother in his house in King Street for the remainder of his life: he died in 1912.

Allan Glaisyer Minns. Norfolk Record Office, BOL 6/36

Allan Glaisyer Minns was born in Inagua in 1858.  Just like Pembroke, he trained at Guy’s, and, on qualifying as a doctor, he too came to Thetford, purchasing a practice in the town in 1888.  He played an important part in town life, being Medical Officer at Thetford Workhouse and Honorary Medical Officer of Thetford Cottage Hospital.  He published several article in the Thetford and Watton Times in the early 1900s; they were on themes like ‘Fresh Air and Common Sense’.  He was also a keen gardener and a founder of Thetford Horticultural Society.  He had his own house in White Hart Street.

In 1903, he was elected to Thetford Borough Council.  Just one year later, he was chosen by his fellow councillors to be Mayor, a position he held for two years (1904-5 and 1905-6).  He was the deputy mayor for the next two years and continued to serve on the Council afterwards.

In 1914, John Archer became mayor of Battersea.  Many people thought he was the first black person to become a British mayor: this is still given as a fact in some books.  Even at the time, however, some authorities recognised that Minns had the prior claim.  The American-published Negro Year Book for 1914 noted Archer’s election adding, ‘This is the second time in the history of that country [Britain] that “a man of color” has been elected mayor of a town.  In 1904, Mr Allen Glaser Minns, a colored man from the West Indies, was elected mayor of the borough of Thetford, Norfolk’.

Over the last twenty years, Minns’ story has become much better known, achieving full recognition in 2016 when he appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the first time.  The article was written by Richard Maguire, whose conclusion cannot be bettered:

‘Allan Glaisyer Minns was born in the Bahamas a quarter of a century after the Caribbean system of slavery had ended. His grandmother had been enslaved, and his uncles had been born into slavery and manumitted as children. Access to a good education in the Bahamas and then medical training in England, allied with his own hard work, allowed him to build an important role in Victorian and Edwardian society, becoming a respected physician, a leader of his community, and the first black mayor of an English town.’

Black History Month is a good time for Norfolk to celebrate Allan Glaisyer Minns and his extraordinary achievement.

Written by Frank Meeres

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The Unusual Burial Request of Stephen Kendall, singleman of Hempstead cum Eccles, Norfolk

Introduction

The wills of 16th and 17th century testators can provide researchers with some remarkable insights into the lives of ordinary people by telling us their actual thoughts and beliefs, albeit in a stylised form, as opposed to what written history wanted later generations to believe. The underlying beliefs of the testators can then be matched to their actions to explain why and how they make provisions for preserving their souls, and through their various bequests of money and goods how they provide for family, friends and the wider community.  

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