Another Tramp to Essex

Our Irish Research Council New Foundations Award allows us to revisit the Clark archive in Chelsmford, Essex, and we travel there this Sunday (April 14) in order to spend a week with the material. This time will be really important for us and for the development of the project: because we now know Clark’s letters to his patron and bookseller John Russell Smith really well, this week in the Public Records Office will be spend re-photographing the archive but also coming to terms with what else is there. Chiefly, we have to tackle Clark’s awe-inspiring – and quite intimidating – commonplace book (this seemed to appeal to the audience at our seminar to the School of English, February 27, even though we just mentioned it briefly). We also need time to come to terms with the various other items and ephemera in the archive: his prints and manuscript poems, along with the ephemera and periodicals that Clark liked to amass and study.

We also would like to have occasion during this week to walk the ground on which Clark walked; in other words, we want familiarise ourselves with his locality, and we hope to be able to travel to Great Totham where Clark’s house, Great Totham Hall, still stands. Even though Clark was born in Heybridge, much of his life was spent in this village and his letters to London as well as his prints and pamphlets were for the most part put together here. Clark was extremely interested in local history and dialect, and his letters (and literary compositions) are full of evidence with his engagement with Essex folklore, speech and customs, and events, as well as objects like maps. Almost every letter has a reference to his travels through the locality and his knowledge of what is happening in other parts of Essex, to the extent that what survives is an imaginative map of sorts of his context. We can map his activities but as well we can recover a sense of what daily life was like for the people of Victorian Essex: Clark mentions harvest-time, the postal services, the impact of the improving rails system, the arrival of balloons in the skies, as well as the regular events that market the calendar for him and his neighbours: Tiptree Races (which took place on 25 July, St James’ Day, his fondness for which Clark recorded in verse), Epping Hunt (also praised in a poem) and the various market-days at Maldon, Chelmsford, Colchester and Witham. One lengthy epistle to John Russell Smith (16 July 1839) records the plans that the gentlemen made to meet at Tiptree Races that year; Clark is astonished and excited that his friend in books will actually come to Essex, saying: “I certainly am surprised that a citizen of London should condescend to travel 40 miles expressly to visit humble ‘Old Tiptree’”. Since they had only corresponded and never met, Clark has to describe to Russell Smith what he will wear, and they arrange to meet at a specific location:

My plan is this – to meet at the Priory Gate, which is only a stone’s throw aside from the scene of revelry (or devilry?) at about 7 O’Clock … each wearing in order to make “assurance doubly sure” a small piece of white ribbon in the button hole of his coat – this is the plan the good folks pursue when they introduce themselves to each other in answer to matrimonial advertisement, &c. I am sure if we adopt this plan there can be no blunder as to meeting. Our dress will be a further clue – (I had nearly forgot to mention this essential point) – mine will be a very dark claret coloured coat, with black silk buttons – light mixed coloured trousers, – largeish patterned plaid waister, & black hat …

Though most of our time will be spent in the archive, we hope to at least visit the house at Great Totham (sketched here for John Russell Smith by Clark, and included in a letter dated 19 March 1842) and in part map Clark’s locality for ourselves.

Clark's House

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