History repeated

PUBLISHED: 17:11 11 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013

Paul Adams

Paul Adams

From 18th century pirates to Regency dandies, Nicky Adams finds the members of a Colchester re-enactment group ready to celebrate the past


YOU ARE hard pressed to find a pair of early 18th century pirates boots in any modern shoe shop,' explains Paul Adams, one of the founder members of the Colchester Historical Enactment Society (CHES).

A film and television extra by profession, Paul knows a thing or two about authentic costume. 'Well,' he says, 'costume is not exactly the word for what we use in CHES. We make the clothes that people would have worn all day every day in their era. The costumes generally used for film and television productions are not very practical at all and really are just for show.'

CHES, however, has a dedicated sewing circle that turns out all manner of clothing to suit the various periods of history that the society enacts.

'We try not to get too obsessive about the detail,' says Paul. 'There are some people who spend a lot of time counting stitches and complaining if there are too many or too few per inch in a pair of pirate's trousers, but we think that authenticity can be taken too far and the general spirit is what's most important.'

While the CHES seamstresses are quite equal to knocking up Saxon footwear, the more substantial pirate boots and fancy shoes from the Regency period do have to be bought in from specialist suppliers, along with the weaponry which has to be made to current safety standards.

'I became involved in historical enactment because I was fascinated by the sword-fighting,' says Paul. 'Other people are attracted by the historical element and many like the clothes. Every member of the society has something new to bring and it's the sort of hobby where you get out what you put in.'

There is certainly plenty of scope to become immersed in history as a member of CHES. The society was originally founded to recreate Vikings, but they soon progressed into the Saxon era, taking on the cultural identity of a group that sets up camp and demonstrates everyday Saxon life at living history events and fairs. CHES also goes to battle every year to take part in the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. 'We do early Saxons, the ones that were around just after the Migration Period when the Romans moved out and the Anglo-Saxons moved in,' explains Paul, 'but we also do Conquest Saxons - those who were here around the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.'

The society then takes what Paul describes as 'a fairly substantial leap' through time into the early 18th century. That means pirates and CHES recreates the tea smugglers that lurked in the coastal by-ways and inlets of Essex, bringing in tea without paying the newly-introduced duty.

'We were one of the few groups doing 18th century maritime before the film Pirates of the Caribbean came out,' says Paul. 'Since then, of course, dozens of groups have appeared. Some we call the 'Hollywood groups' and they often exist purely for the fun of dressing up as pirates, although some of those are quite authentic. At CHES we do put a lot of research into getting the authenticity right and we take part in massed events through the UK Pirate Brotherhood, which is a networking institution for pirate re-enactment groups.'

Dorset was a well-known pirates' haunt and this month CHES is going to Lulworth Cove to take part in a huge pirate enactment event, where there will be a pirate encampment, complete with people playing customs officers and a big skirmish for the public to watch.

'Our fighting is not choreographed,' insists Paul. 'We hold training sessions every week where we learn a style of fighting that is safe but allows us to fight competitively. That way, we keep the injuries down to a minimum.'

The society will also be at Scarborough Castle later in the year to take part in a pirate enactment for English Heritage. At smaller events and fairs, CHES usually recreates a careening camp - one set up by pirates so they could take their boats out of the water and scrape off the barnacles. As pirates were obviously criminals, they weren't welcome at the usual docks.

A relatively new era for CHES is the Regency Period. 'This is particularly popular with the female members of the group, who like the chance to dress in fine clothes and not stand in a muddy field,' says Paul. Last year CHES took themselves and their authentic Regency clothing to the Bath Ball and this September they'll be at the Jane Austen Festival, also in Bath.

CHES is certainly a social group, with the members getting together weekly at least to work on clothing and enjoy their interest in history together. 'We meet every week at The Odd-One-Out pub in Colchester and have outings too,' says Paul. 'It's not one of these societies where you meet up at events and then don't see each other for another year. We enjoy exploring our interest in history together.'

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