The main background task of an archivist, when not assisting researchers in person or by email, involves the sorting and cataloguing of archives in order that they are made accessible and available. In a well established service such as Wiltshire and Swindon’s, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, much of this consists of additions to existing collections, usually of more recent material, reflecting our commitment to the continuing process of preserving the past for the future. In this way our service is very much an organic one.
However, new sources do present themselves, and bring with them the excitement of serendipity. One such case is the archives of a Marlborough solicitors’ firm, that we collected in 1983 and which I have been working on over the last couple of years. Far from reflecting tardiness or inactivity on our part, it should be understood that archives have been collected in vast quantities often without much warning, to the extent that they occupy eight miles of shelving, and a cataloguing backlog is unavoidable. Furthermore this collection presented particular challenges in terms of its size and level of disorder that led to it slipping down the priority list.
When colleagues came to collect the material they were directed to a house stuffed full of papers and books, to the extent that just entering the building presented something of a challenge. However, they were gathered up, the volumes shelved and the documents decanted into 350 boxes our old Record Office in Trowbridge: the first aim of our service, preservation, having been achieved.
My first task was to produce a rough list of the contents of each box and then sort them accordingly. The volumes all were the firms’ own records and consist of ledgers, registers of deeds and letter books. The boxes contain the archives of former clients, ranging from landed families like the Pophams of Littlecote, covering its extensive estates and several manors, to an individual whose only business was the administration of their personal estate at the ends of his or her life. Each in its way fascinating and informative, providing insight into the lives of our predecessors. Having identified the records of the major clients in about 120 boxes, I faced the remaining boxes with some trepidation. However, while it sat unassumingly on our shelves the technological revolution had brought new tools, in the shape of computers and software, which enabled this mass of material to be sorted far more easily and efficiently than the traditional methods of pencil and paper, and to become available far more speedily than ever before.
One week in January I took in an accession from Colerne Church. The day after it arrived I was sorting through some of the documents in the final box. One bundle I had tentatively named “Correspondence, specifications and plans relating to the Lady Chapel and the building of the organ loft”. The very last document in the file was a yellow piece of paper entitled “Yeovil, Holy Trinity – The Organ”.
It was a report from a visit to Holy Trinity Church in Yeovil, Somerset, and the visit was undertaken in 1994, whilst discussions were in place to make the church redundant. The organ was therefore being assessed for its value “as a diocesan asset”.
I excitedly mentioned it to my colleague Steve Hobbs, who was sitting opposite me: we are both originally from Yeovil and I thought the randomness of the document would appeal to him as well as me. At first I thought this document had ended up in the wrong place, and I was all for sending it down to Somerset Record Office when it occurred to me that the organ taken from Yeovil might have been the one that ended up in Colerne. I checked back in some of the documents and there was indeed a reference to the dismantling of the organ in Yeovil.
The coincidence of finding these documents is even more astonishing when I tell you that Holy Trinity was my old parish church. I used to attend the church every Sunday with my mother. When it was closed and became accommodation, a new church was built elsewhere in the town, and Mum is still involved with the benefice. The rector, John Bennett, who is mentioned on the yellow document, was a good friend of the family and has long since moved away. My father was a church organist and played for another benefice just outside Yeovil, but occasionally played the organ at Holy Trinity for their services. When the church was closed, there was a final service and I (aged about 8) was in the choir, and I still have vivid memories of singing in the choir on that day. Dad wrote a special anthem for the service, which was played by him on that organ on that day.
Here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre we often get requests for work experience by people interested in a career in heritage, so it seems timely, with the end of the school year approaching, to run through some key facts and provide some useful links. This guidance is primarily aimed at those living in England - other parts of the UK may need to use a search engine to find links more appropriate to them.
The first thing to note is that ‘heritage’ is a very broad term and you will need to decide which aspect of it you are most interested in, as there is specialist vocational training for different careers and you can save yourself a lot of time and money by investing in the right training sooner rather than later. (For example if you want to become a qualified archivist it is essential to have a degree plus a post-graduate qualification in an accredited topic such as Archives Management – you cannot simply have a history degree, or an MA in another topic, even if it’s heritage-based.)
Among the papers of the Jeffrey family deposited in the Wiltshire & Swindon Archives, (Ref:1369/16) are a remarkable collection of letters to and from John Russell, a man probably best described as an 18th century equivalent to Samuel Pepys.
Working in the first half of that century, Russell became Clerk to the Navy at Deptford from 1730, having already spent much time at sea and went on to become Consul General in Lisbon in 1749.
The letters offer a wonderful insight into naval life during this period and often refer to ‘celebrities’ of the time. Beau Brummel, for instance, gets a mention in one letter. Archivists at the History Centre believe this collection has a national importance.
Unfortunately, the ravages of time, mould and mice have taken their toll leaving the letters extremely weak and fragile and requiring conservation.
The Archive Conservation staff have an on-going programme of repair and another folder of 50 letters (they number hundreds in total), is nearing completion. Because of their precarious condition full, traditional repair has been carried out involving backing, endorsements and infilling. This will prevent further damage and at last make them accessible to researchers.
When I am asked to write a blog I try to find an interesting or curious subject to write about and as I was thinking about this I started to reflect on the variety of activities that happen within the Archives & Local Studies Service. So I thought I would share this with our blog readers.
Though strictly at the end of last week, my week began on Saturday with an event held by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) at the History Centre to promote the Full English project, which has seen the digitisation of 19 archive collections or 80,000 pages of manuscript, involving volunteers around the world, and including the Alfred Williams collection of folk songs held at the History Centre. The Full English was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with a £585,400 grant, but as the EFDSS Library Director, Malcolm Taylor OBE, told the audience, the original project was conceived in a pub! It makes the digitised archives available to the whole world and has even inspired the formation of a folk-super group of the same name who won at the BBC 2 Folk Awards.
As an archivist I’m often so bogged down in the nitty-gritty of day to day work that I forget just how important archives are for society as a whole. A recent news item has brought home to me the importance of archives and the vital role that an archivist can play. I am sharing this, not to boost my own ego, or those of my colleagues, but just to make others think about how archives can be taken for granted in our society, and recognize their immense value for all of us.
The news item which made me wax philosophical was the announcement of the opening of an inquest into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. This has only been made possible because of the work of three archivists who were employed in 2009 to catalogue and make available over 450,000 documents relating to that tragic incident. As we now know, their work, alongside that of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, uncovered terrible truths which have been covered up for decades. The panel report is available using the link at the bottom of this article.