A new project recently appeared in the archive conservation lab: a brittle and damaged looking document that turned out to be an interesting new accession.
Letter Sent to Francis Yerbury, 14th May 1747 (1387/1697)
The document is a letter sent to local Clothier Francis Yerbury in 1747. It is thought that he may have run a cloth mill in Trowbridge although the letter is about a mill in Bradford-On-Avon. Hanne Dahl, Exhibitions and Collections Officer at Trowbridge Museum has transcribed the letter and below gives an overview of the its content:
The letter seems to consist of two messages. One is regarding a cloth order which John Howell has received and is ensuring Francis Yerbury he will pay for. The other is a new cloth order for the Empress of Russia of Clergy cloth in scarlets and greens. 5 cloth samples of Yerbury’s are attached to the letter as a colour reference. The Empress mentioned was probably Elizabeth of Russia who lived 1741-1762. According to popular history clothing was the chosen means in Elizabeth’s Court by which to display wealth and social standing and according to historian Mikhail Shcherbatov (1733-1790) her court was “arrayed in cloth of gold, her nobles satisfied with only the most luxurious garments, the most expensive foods, the rarest drinks, that largest number of servants and they applied this standard of lavishness to their dress as well.’ Hanne Dahl, Exhibitions and Collection Officer, Trowbridge Museum April 2019
The new accession was passed on to the archives here at WSHC by Hanne after being in the care of the Ponting family; the late Ken Ponting being former Managing Director of Samuel Salter Ltd. weaving mill in Trowbridge.
As is often the case with the documents I work on, there is much of historical interest and I could spend many hours researching them. However, as a conservator, once I have enough detail to inform my conservation decisions, I must tear myself away from the fascinating historical insight and prioritise stabilising and preserving the letter so that future researchers can access it safely.
It was originally folded to be posted and has the postal address visible on one of the folded sections. The letter is written in brown ink and has textile samples and a small part of a wax seal attached.
Several factors made this a conservation challenge; not only was the paper extremely thin and fragile but the additional attached textiles samples and seal remains also had to be considered at all times as they could easily become detached and lost.
The document needed to be packaged so that it could be safely stored in the archive but also handled without the risk of further damage. As the paper was so thin, it could easily tear again with further handling, even after conservation.
I decided that once repaired, the document would be safest inside a mount- this would allow for compensation of the thickness of the attached textile samples and seal remnants as the depth of the window mount would prevent them getting squashed or dislodged in storage. It would also enable easy viewing as and when required without direct handling of the letter. Text found on the back of the letter was all in one area so the mount could be adapted to have a viewing window on the reverse. This would also mean the document didn’t need to be taken out of the mount or handled to see this.
Areas of damage on the letter
The letter arrived with us inside a frame, attached to a backing board with tape partially holding it around some edges. The paper was so thin and weak that tears had started to appear along many of the original fold lines whilst large areas were breaking around the edges. It was important to remove the letter from the backing for several reasons; the backing board itself, made from poor quality board was likely to be causing damage to the paper. Unless they are archival quality, backing boards and framing materials are often made of very poor quality materials with high levels of acidity. As these materials break down they can transfer acidity to materials they are attached to, increasing their deterioration. I also needed to access the document to effectively repair the tears and remove the adhesive tape.
I was able to successfully remove the letter from the mount using a spatula to ease the tape away from the board surface.
When the board was removed it was possible to clearly see acid transfer which appeared to be coming from the document and transferring onto the backing board, suggesting the paper itself is acidic. This is likely to be due to the ingredients used when the paper was originally made, for example additives such as sizing and fillers or the materials the paper is made from such as wood pulp. The ingredients vary between paper mills and throughout the history of papermaking, for example Lignin from wood pulp is extremely acidic and is generally found in modern papers such as newsprint. This is what makes newsprint go yellow and brittle so quickly.
After removing the document from the backing a new area of writing was discovered where the letter had in fact continued overleaf. The archivist was then able to add this to the existing transcription.
Once the letter was separated from the backing board I could then remove the adhesive tape. This task of removing tape is always daunting for a conservator as different adhesives react completely differently to different types of removal. Sometimes it can take a long time to find a method that softens or releases the adhesive so that the tape can be removed.
On this occasion I found that applying moisture directly onto the tape was enough to release the adhesive. However, a thick piece of brown adhesive tape down the left side of the letter was so stubborn that after removing a small amount I decided it would be better to leave that particular piece of tape on rather than risking damage to the already fragile paper surface.
Once the tape had been removed I surface cleaned the document being careful to avoid any weak areas. I was then able to move on to repairing and stabilising.
Tears on paper documents are generally repaired by adhering small pieces of Japanese tissue to the reverse.
The tissue I used for the letter is only 5 gsm, so it is extremely thin and light- but strong enough to stabilise the tears and weak areas without distracting from the letter itself.
Two areas of the document had large gaps that although supported on the back with the Japanese tissue repairs, needed to be infilled with a paper of a similar thickness to the letter itself, to prepare the document for mounting. In the conservation of archival documents (as opposed to artworks) it is particularly important that repairs such as this are visible additions, clearly seen as modern repairs and not blended to make them invisible. This ensures that future historians and researchers are aware of the difference between the original document and any conservation work that has been done.
Creating an Inlay
In paper conservation an inlay is a piece of paper that is attached around the outside of the document to protect it and prevent further damage to fragile edges. This is achieved by tracing around the edge of the document using a needle and then removing the inner piece of inlay paper to create a paper frame. The inlay paper is attached to the document by thin strips of Japanese tissue adhered along the gap between the two. The inlay protects the original document whilst still retaining full visual access to it. It also means that the document can be attached inside the mount by putting hinges on the inlay paper rather than directly on the document itself and that the letter can be fully displayed in the aperture of the window mount without falling out through the middle.
Charles Wyndham Barnes was born in Westbury, Wiltshire, England in 1884. His father was Frank Barnes and at the 1911 census was 53. Charles’ mother was Helena Barnes, aged 52. The census records that Charles working as a law clerk to a barrister. He had two siblings, one named Nellie Barnes, 22, and another called Constance, aged 10.
His Father was an engine fitter at a railway station and his sister’s occupation was as a shop assistant.
Charles was a dutiful son, and sent over 160 letters home from the front to his mother between 1915 and 1918 which are held here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre (Ref: 4104/1). From his letters Charles appears confident and considerate – he wrote at least once a week.
Topics he talked of were his health (he was alright), gardening, fresh fruit such as apples, and partridges. His favourite topic was the weather – snow, floods and the heat of summer. He also mentioned that he would be away from the trenches for some time in May 1917.
Information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission shows that Charles was married to Violet Blanche – known as “Blanche” who he mentioned in his many letters home.
Blanche Eyers was 24 when she married Charles on 24 December, 1914. The 1911 census shows Blanche living at home and working as a school teacher. She was born in Yarnbrook in 1891.
In the army, Charles joined the Wiltshire Regiment and served with the second battalion. Additionally, he had the rank of a Lance Corporal and his service number was 11257.
A week into the Battle of the Somme – called the Great Offensive by the public and the “big push” by the soldiers – Charles wrote a postcard giving an upbeat assessment of the battle.
The study of palaeography is something which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of an archivist’s training, but it is not something which is the exclusive preserve of the professional. Anyone can learn to read old handwriting – all it takes is patience, determination, and lots of practice!
Handwriting styles Over the centuries there have been several major styles of handwriting and handwriting from the medieval period to the 18th century will (generally speaking) fall into one of those styles, going from Anglicana (medieval period) to bastard Secretary (15th century) to Secretary (16th-17th cent) and italic (overlapping with Secretary) to mixed hands (late 17th cent – 19th cent). From 19th century onwards we’ve seen the rise of personal handwriting which doesn’t conform to a set, taught style, and ironically 20th and 21st century writing can be more difficult to read than Tudor, depending on the writer! In addition there are specialist hands used only in certain central law courts. A comprehensive survey of both handwriting styles and the tools used for writing from medieval times to the 18th century can be found at: http://scriptorium.english.cam.ac.uk/handwriting/history/
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.
The Lacock Unlocked project is well under way now and the cataloguing and indexing side of it now has over 30 volunteers. These volunteers are either listing and indexing bundles of documents, or putting information onto our database. It means that instead of unlocking and exploring one thing per day, we are unlocking and exploring six, so to speak!
I love it when the listing volunteers show me something that I had no idea existed, or parts of a story that I didn’t know were there. We keep discovering new words for things and ways of saying them, finding information about places and families through bills, deeds and other items in the archive. I particularly enjoy finding information about people who crop up in the archive, and the example here is a letter from John Ivory Talbot to his cousin Henry Davenport in 1725, which gives anyone interested a wonderful insight into John’s family life, his way of writing, what annoys him (apparently, Henry Davenport’s not writing to him is on his mind!). Just a simple letter like this provides great information about a personality.
We are attempting to piece together many clues and it is fascinating when these jigsaws are completed but also when someone finds a new piece that leads us or them down a different route.
As an MA student from Bath Spa University, on placement here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, my first task has been to search the archive for First World War documents and photographs.
The opportunity to spend hours in the midst of archive documents is, for a history graduate like me, a complete joy. I’ve been impressed at the speed with which the production team retrieve items from the store rooms, and the helpfulness and expertise of the staff. The Centre is a wonderful facility.
Amongst many other papers, I came across a box of hundreds of letters, sent to a Miss Frances Baker, in her capacity as Honorary Secretary of the Salisbury branch of Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, and dated from 1914 to 1919. The Guild was part of a national charity of ladies who raised money and used this to make and supply garments for the needy of their area. During the First World War, their focus shifted to service personnel of the British Army, Navy and Air Force, and in all theatres of war. Wiltshire people served in many different places, as far flung as the North Sea, France, Salonika, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and Palestine. Later in the war, the Guild also took responsibility for sending parcels to Salisbury men who were prisoners of war in Germany.