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Artist’s statement, additional info and full credits:

Public Record: Estuary

Poetry of calamity at sea, set on the Essex shoreline.

“The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.” – Paul Virilio

Public Record: Estuary is an audio poetry cycle inspired by archival reports of 19th-century sea disasters on the Thames Estuary in Essex. The poems borrow the characters, events and, in many cases, direct sampled texts from Victorian newspaper reports and other archived writing. With commissioned music and sound design, and a cast of poets reading the poems, this piece provides an accompaniment to the region’s contemporary landscape.

Public Record: Estuary is based on true events, but it is not meant to express factual information. It is a means of finding poetry clinging to the heart of historical events. It is a way to use events that occurred more than a century ago to alter the way we see the landscape of today. I hope that the sounds, the language, and the ideas in Public Record: Estuary will resonate with the landscapes in which we hear them – sometimes harmonizing, sometimes clashing – but less from a historical perspective than from a poetic one.

That being said, below you will find further information about each of the poems in this piece: the archival sources for the texts, the names of the readers on the audio, and a few background notes from me.

Justin Hopper

DOWNLOAD the soundtrack.

Listed sources provided inspiration and, in many cases, texts sampled for the work. Readers are listed in alphabetical order, not order of appearance.


Part 1: High Water Mark

High Water Mark of Ordinary Tides

Sources: Inspired by various tracts on British sea law

Reader: Justin Hopper

An introductory poem, this sonnet sets out the themes of the overall piece: false divisions and hand-drawn lines that disconnect people from their places and their selves.

At Essence, Marine

Sources: “A London Naturalist’s Holiday”, Recreative Science, September, 1861, and “Iron-Clads vs. Heavy Guns”, New York Times, Oct. 23, 1864.

Reader: Lucy Greeves

This is one of a few poems in the piece representing perceptions of the Estuary from outside voices. The texts are taken largely from an 1861 article by members of a London naturalists society after their day-trip to Leigh and Southend. It is from a moment when the still-pristine countryside and seascape is first being cut across by rails and bathed in by holidaymakers – the moment between fields and factories; agrarian centre and entertainment hub.

The Terror of Saint Clement

Sources: Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Sat., May 1, 1880 “The Terror”; Chelmsford Chronicle, Fri., March 21, 1873, “Discovery of a Large Anchor”; The Golden Legend, “Life of St. Clement”; Several articles depicting departure of Sir John Franklin’s expedition.

Reader: Ray Morgan

When Sir John Franklin set out from the Estuary in 1845 on his fateful journey to the Arctic, one of his ships – the Terror – lost its anchor off the Essex coast. Forty years after the Terror and its crew disappeared forever, a Leigh fisherman found the anchor, covered in kelp, the ship’s name carved into its wood. Leigh’s church is dedicated to Saint Clement – who died a martyr, thrown into the sea tied to an anchor. The poem joins these two points to sketch a tribute to the dangerous, unheralded lives of those who work the sea.

Immersion of Baptists at Leigh

Sources: Essex County Chronicle, Friday, Aug. 31, 1900.

Reader: Adrian Green

The Wild Red Deer

Sources: The Open Air, by Richard Jefferies, 1885.

Reader: Ray Morgan

Puff of White Smoke

Sources: Iron-Clads vs. Heavy Guns, New York Times, Oct. 23, 1864.

Reader: Stuart Bowditch

Change, change, change – of the cultural, natural and technological environment. As Hank said, “I’m gonna find me a river, one that’s cold as ice / and when I find me that river, Lord I’m gonna pay the price / I’m going down in it three times, but Lord I’m only coming up twice.”


Part 2: Shifting of Grounds

Prologue: Wherefore its Shifting of Grounds

Sources: Report on the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Industry of the Thames Estuary, published 1908 (data from preceding decade); The Standard, July 26, 1845, “The Late Steam-Boat Accident”; Account of the wreck of the Embleton of Mr. A. Leon Marsh, 1952.

Reader: Adrian Green

The poems in this section broadly comprise a narrative arc about two Leigh fishing families connected through a series of events. This prologue tells of the state of the fisheries, describing a place in transition that sounds familiar to the Estuary today; a mood of uncertainty – of clashes between “low” and “high”; “old” and “new”.

Florry Rand

Sources: The Newsman, July 5, 1884, “Rescue by Boys at Leigh”.

Readers on audio: Ray Morgan, Jo Overfield

Two 9-year-old boys, one each from the two families this section follows – Cotgrove and Noakes – rescue a drowning girl named Florry Rand from the Creek. Some fishermen superstitiously avoided learning to swim, feeling that it is worse to anger the ocean by cheating its wrath.

Gave Up the Ghost

Sources: The Newsman, August 8, 1891, “Still They Come! Two More Whales Captured”; “Of the Spermaceti Whale” by Thomas Browne, from Pseudodoxia Epidemica, third book, 1646; Moby Dick by Herman Melville, 1851.

Readers: Stuart Bowditch, Justin Hopper, Ray Morgan, Jo Overfield

A group of Leigh fishermen kill and take possession of a sperm whale caught in the Thames, displaying its body for money at famed fisherman Michael Tomlin’s wharf. Meanwhile, a shanty-like incantation warns us about both forsaking the sea and damning the land.

A Letter

Sources: London Standard, Wed., 2 Sept, 1868, “A Whale in the Channel, To the Editor”.

Reader: Adrian Green

The portentous nature of a whale caught in the Estuary is attended to in a letter to the London Standard, from Mr. E. Whimper of Leigh.

Too Close to his Liking: The Violet and the Embleton

Sources: The Morning Post, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 1899, “Leigh Fishermen Drowned”; The Essex County Chronicle, Friday, May 11, 1900, “Wreck Inquiry, May 8 The Disaster to a Leigh Smack”; Board of Trades Wreck Report No. 6036: ‘Violet’ and ‘Embleton’”, 1900.

Readers: Syd Moore, Ray Morgan, Jo Overfield + additional choristers Stuart Bowditch, Adrian Green, Justin Hopper

In 1899 a barque called the Embleton, as it was being pulled out of the Estuary by the tugboat Goole, cut through a small fishing smack called the Violet. Two men were killed – men named Cotgrove and Noakes, who died, as Eliot would have it, “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, /… I had not thought death had undone so many.” A metaphorical end to the century; a victory of iron, steam and speed over the small ways of wood and cloth.

Each smack and barque / That slips from the Oaze / Into Ray Gut, / Touches with its shadow / The shifting, sallow / Outline of January’s hollow

Chews its clewed-up fingers / Across sea dunes / And whale-roads / That rain, steam and speed / Gut in clunks and grunts. / They feint against January

With timorous gusts, / And counter with time-honed / Thrusts, but the sand’s bones

They all become / In the shadow, becalmed / At stoic Crowstone.

Epilogue: She Divided

Sources: The Liverpool Mercury, July 24, 1900, “The Sinking of the Embleton”.

Reader: Justin Hopper

Karma can be slow, karma can be quick: a mere 19 months after the Embleton cut through the Violet, the offending boat was, itself, divided. Not far off the Irish shore, the ocean liner Campania sliced the Embleton in half. Dread and the launch of the 20th century. The invention of the ocean liner was the invention of the divided Embleton.


Part 3: Brought Up By the Trawl

Brought Up By the Trawl

Sources: “A London Naturalist’s Holiday” from Recreative Science, September, 1861.

Reader: Lucy Greeves

A voice from London offers, as interlude, a glimpse of Leigh through the eyes of the natural history enthusiast. A foreshadowing, too, of several pieces that revolve around those caught in the nets that trawled the Estuary – fishing nets, and nets of myth and time; of, as Mr. Joyce would have it, “…nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

Inquest at the Crooked Billet

Source: Southend Standard, Oct. 8, 1873, “Inquest at the Crooked Billet”.

Readers: Jo Overfield, Adrian Green

John Gillson’s grandson Thomas, only 9 years old, sank in the Estuary, “Taking the oar with him”. The death was shown to be an accident during an inquest into Thomas Gillson’s death, held at the Crooked Billet pub by the local coroner’s authority, the aptly named Mr. Codd. There, the assembled determined that Thomas Gillson died of an accident, and bid John Gillson good luck and congratulations for having survived the storm – at least physically.

Wishing You Every Easter Blessing

Sources: Southend Standard, Dec 17, 1880, “A Body Washed Ashore at Southend – The Inquest”; various period travel articles about Southend.

Readers: Syd Moore, Stuart Bowditch

London came to Southend in the mid-to-late 19th century – it came, and in some cases, it remained. James Mantle is one of those: an Eastender whose world had collapsed when the church he worked for burned. He visited the Estuary, and left himself in it rather than catch the train back to Fenchurch Street. As travel writers of the time expressed, the waters of the Estuary are “quite as salt as the sea” – where does the sea end and the river begin? Perhaps at James Mantle’s body, washed up in the Creek, “fully clothed except his hat”.


Part 4: A Half-Marine Place

Frankenstein of the Thames

Sources: The Open Air, by Richard Jefferies, 1885.

Reader: Stuart Bowditch

Now, no one is really free / unless he can crush his neighbour’s interest underfoot.” Extracted from Richard Jefferies’ journals of the dimming of nature in an industrial England, this lament sets us up for the final dread: the invention of the shipwreck that comes with the invention of the ship. The industrial Thames, full of barges and full of barging, is calamitous for both wild red deer and fishermen alike. But, less literally, what does liberty mean today? And what is crushed within its ken?

Lower Hope Reach

Sources: The Newsman, July 18, 1885, “Collision off Canvey Island”; The Chronicle, July 31, 1885, “The Fatal Collision off the Essex Coast”; The Chronicle, Aug. 7, 1885, “The Fatal Collision in Hole Haven”; The Halfpenny Newsman, Oct. 2, 1880, “Forestry at Canvey Island”; Aberdeen Journal, Sept. 17, 1885, “The Canvey Island Scheme”.

Readers: Adrian Green, Syd Moore, Ray Morgan, Jo Overfield

The brigantine Bertha, anchored in the Estuary waterway known as the Lower Hope Reach, is slashed and sunk by the steamship Penedo with the loss of five lives; the unsatisfying verdict in the inquest read that those killed were, simply, “Found dead in the river Thames.” The Thames at that time was filled with ships – so many that a miscalculation of a few inches meant, in this case, the death of five crewmen. Too busy, and filled with too much speed for this tricky territory near the desolate Canvey and Two-Tree islands – islands that seemed to rise out of the river to catch ships unaware in this “low, guilty highway”.

A Half-Marine Place

Source: The Naturalist on the Thames, CJ Cornish, pub. 1902.

Reader: Justin Hopper

Reclaiming land from the waves: an ancient thought for a place like the Thames Delta. The Estuary and its attendant lands will never be truly “joined permanently to the mainland” – it is a place that withdraws from attempts to pin it down; a place that lives through “neither/nor” convictions as much as “either/or” flexibilities. It is, indeed, half-marine. And the other half?

Full Credits and Thanks:

Written, directed and produced by Justin Hopper

Sound design and original music by Scanner

Intro and Outro music composed and performed by Lost Harbours

Readers: Stuart Bowditch, Adrian Green, Lucy Greeves, Justin Hopper, Syd Moore, Ray Morgan, Jo Overfield

Recorded at No Recording Studio, Rayleigh, Essex, by John Hannon

Images by Simon Fowler

Thanks to Metal, Colette Bailey, Sean McLoughlin, Emma Mollica, Camilla Fox, Stephanie Stevenson, Simon Poulter, Michaela Freeman, Rachel Lichtenstein, Ian Hurd, Lucy Greeves