Chris Langdon is a local historian who explores ‘Southends rich and diverse history’. He has worked for Southend Museums as a learning and events officer and assistant in archiving the roll of honor at Prittlewell Priory, amongst other things. Today he is a freelance historian offering talks to all ages.
Welcome Chris. Firstly thank you for agreeing to take the time to feature in Mays Q and A.
Firstly tell me a bit more about Christory and what it offers?
Christory: History with Chris! is more or less just that; it’s history with me.
More specifically it’s south Essex history that I bring to schools, as well as talks and tours for adult learners.
I offer a range of curriculum and extra-curriculum learning sessions for school classes that also focus on local history. The talks and tours for adults are focused on popular periods and themes that people like to explore.
I also post about local history on my Facebook page, and focus on local military history on my Twitter page. Then there’s the podcast which I record for fun too. I’ve also just created a YouTube channel which I called The Christory Channel that’ll cover another format!
What set you on the path of history and heritage?
When I was a child my parents always encouraged hobbies and interests. When you collect something you learn about it. For me it was badges to begin with, later, militaria. When other kids were saving pocket money for new trainers, I was saving for webbing and helmets!
Whenever we could go away on holiday or have a day out there was often a heritage site involved. So I was always supported in immersing myself in history. We’d visit churches, castles, museums and genuinely have fun exploring these treasured places.
I also loved – I stil do – listening to my grandparents talk about their youth during the Second World War. It fascinated me and I wanted to learn more. They took me to museums and bought me books as a boy; again, I was blessed by always being encouraged to perseu my interests.
I went on my first battlefield tour when I was fourteen. We went to Normandy and I brought a tank recognition book with me. I was in my element! I still go on battlefield tours now; my last one covered the German navy in both wars and I went inside an original U-Boat which was a tick off the bucket list!
When I was a boy I wanted to work in a museum, so when I ended up working at my local museum it felt like I rather landed on my feet!
I actually visited it when I was in school for a planetarium session (which I would later manage). My best friend and mentor Rob who, together, formed the Learning & Events Team, worked there at the time.
Being local to Southend myself i love exploring the areas vast and amazing history. What would you say is your favourite or most interesting piece from Southend’s past?
I love that there are people besides myself who are passionate about the history of the area!
That’s a genuinely tough question!
I’d have to say the story of the civilian detainees and prisoners of war who were holed up on the three prison ships moored off Southend pier.
How they were perceived by the local community and how they were treated is quite an eye-opening experience and one that we can and should learn from.
There was also a facility on the site of the court on Victoria Avenue which held POWs who were used as a kind of human shield to protect the train station from air raids. Plus, another one in Rochford, where one POW escaped in November 1918 (a bit late!).
Few people know about this and I like to talk about it as it’s a generally forgotten aspect of Britain’s home front during the Great War.
That is interesting, I was aware about some POWs on the ships but not the rest.
You spent four years researching Southends World War one heritage and nearly two years researching Southends roll of honour. Why do you think it is important to have those links to the past?
Yeah, the former workhouse at Rochford housed a few POWs, and the – former – school on Victoria Avenue. There’s always something to learn!
I think it’s important to look at the 1914-1945 period because the world changed irrevocably as a result of it. On a local level Southend changed because of it. On some streets four of five or six men were killed during the Great War alone. This affects people and it’s can last more than one generation. Most of us have family who lived during that period and they, in turn, shape us. We are only one or two steps from people who were working in a munitions factory, serving as a nurse, hiding from zeppelin bombs or stuck in a trench somewhere.
It also changes the landscape of a town like Southend; with memorials built, plaques unveiled, and halls built in the memory of those who were killed. You can work for a local business with its own roll of honour. Your children might go to a club in a church hall built in 1920 in honour of the fallen. Your favourite shop might have been bombed 75 years ago and rebuilt. The park you jog in might be a memorial park.
I suppose my point is that we couldn’t escape this part of our cultural story if we wanted to. And I guess that I’m here to help connect us with that past!
I agree, local history helps us to see our identity and where we have come from. Your focus is more towards Southend and your local area. Do you think local history is just as important as more wider history such as our monarchies and england as a nation?
Absolutely. I’d go as far to say that it’s more important than the “big picture” stuff.
I’m quite the advocate of Lebvre who coined the term “History from below”: the story of normal people with normal backgrounds and what we can learn about the past through them. It’s terribly revisionist but it works!
Emperors, Kings and Queens are interesting, granted. And establishing context through historical narrative is a natural starting point, but if you make history about and for normal people it becomes quickly relatable and interesting.
If I’m talking to a group of adults, or alternatively a class of children, they are generally more interested in what people ate, what they did, and – frankly – how they went to the toilet, than how the rich and well-connected fared. It’s because that stuff is what we know in our own lives!
Local history ties into the narrative but is also more relevant because we’re looking at spaces we recognise. Whether it a local manufacturer, a school, or a place like the beach, they’re places we can see and explore ourselves.
If we were walking along the street and told a person that on the 12th August 1917 the train station they just walked out of was kit by a 100Kg high explosive bomb that killed two dozen people, it’s more relatable than telling them about the diminishing role of the Kaiser within the Prussian military state apparatus and the over reliance of pouring resources into an overseas bombing campaign.
That stuff is cool (to me, at least), but for most people they’re more interested in what happened on their own doorstep (literally and metaphorically!).
I think it helps us to identify more with our history, especially the younger generations. Which brings me to my next question. You have recently set up your own website along with a podcast which ‘explores local and regional history’. What challenges do you find you face as a freelancer in the heritage and history sector?
Yes, I created the website to tie in all of my social media and video/audio work, as well as to highlight my services.
Freelancing is a notoriously difficult field. It reminds me of the 49ers going west for gold, fame and glory, inasmuch as most end up in dire straights! If I were alive then and “went west” I see myself ending up more like like Doc Holiday!
A big challenge is putting out content regularly. I write up short and long posts for every week on Facebook and Twitter. I have a couple of months worth ready in advance which frees me up for other things. I tend to do the podcast as-and-when but it still takes a day or two to write, record, and – badly – edit it.
It takes time, and to begin with no one sees it. That’s downright demoralising! But, after time it picks up and you gain followers who legitimately enjoy the content, which is touching.
That’s all free stuff I give, and therein lies the problem! For me, this is my job, so I need to be able to pay the bills and eat.
I promote my talks and tours and other services, and I’m beginning to see work come my way, which is delightful. The trouble is that sometimes people see the free content and presume that talks and tours are free (when they’re not).
As a freelancer I’m working after years of formal education at universities, with a decade in post as a researcher, educator and events planner. I am providing a commodity and a service which is worth the fees I charge. I’m not a charlatan selling snake oil; I’m a professional who works for himself.
I think that knowing your self-worth is vitally important as a freelancer: know what you are doing is worth the fee and know what you are doing is a quality service. You’re a professional and you’re good egg! Too many freelancers have low self-esteem. I have to remind my self of my good-eggness every day.
I’ll be honest, I could talk about the heritage sector and public/private museums for days! What I will say is that prolific underfunding from government, changes to the history curriculum, and, frankly, academy status education has catastrophically messed things up.
One consequence of that is the reliance on grant money for projects involving freelancers. That’s sincerely great…when facilities get the grant money.
It is a difficult sector, not only for freelancers but for small charities and organsiations as well. As you said funding is a big issue. Hopefully with people like yourselves though, those smaller areas of history that are missed will be kept alive.
You have mentioned about your love for WW1 and 2 history, aside from those eras is there any one person, period or event in history that if you could witness who or when would it be and why?
That’s a tricky question! Whenever I’m asked this I always say that if I could live in another time I’d be born now. With better healthcare, infrastructure and life expectancy. If I lived in the past I’d probably end up in the workhouse!
That said, if I could visit a time and place I’d probably stay here in Southend, wander around and see the area how it looked in the sixteenth century and pay a visit to Lord Richard Rich at Rochford Hall. Since he practically owned the whole area and was such an influential figure in Henry VIII’s court (and the dissolution of the monasteries), I think he’d have a thing or two to say.
[For more on Richard Rich head to https://fortheloveofhistory.home.blog/2019/10/19/in-focus-richard-rich/%5D
And finally, what does the future hold for yourself and Christory?
Well, hopefully regular work in schools sharing local history! Also working with adult groups and with local projects. Maybe I’ll branch out into the staycation industry and do tours for people staying nearby for their holidays.
I’m fairly open-minded and go with the flow, so I’ll see what happens and go from there.
I would, however, like to see Southend put on the map as a city with history and heritage and play my part in that by welcoming visitors with tours and facilitating events. There are some excellent groups and individuals in the area who share that passion and lots of people who would like the city status to breathe new life into the area.
So, watch this space, as they say!
I certainly will. I wish you all the best in your history ventures.
I want to thank Chris for taking part and agreeing to be featured in this month’s Q and A.
You can find out more about the Chris and Christory on the following Social Media tags: