In archives, as in everything else, some jobs take longer than others. The archivists at the History Centre can generally list small or medium sized deposits of documents within a few weeks or months of receiving them, but larger collections may take years, or even decades, to catalogue fully. A catalogue I recently completed was a case in point.
Forty years ago, archivists from the Record Office (then based in Trowbridge) collected a large number of clients’ papers from the offices of the Calne solicitors, Spackman, Dale and Hood. Once safely in the record office, they were placed in acid-free boxes (forty-eight in all) and allocated the collection number 1409. The boxes remained on the strongroom shelves, safe and secure but not listed. Eventually, in 2003, it was decided that I would devote my time (when not on public duty or attending to more urgent priorities) to sorting and listing the Spackman, Dale and Hood collection. My listing gradually proceeded, box by box, over several years. By 2007, when our office relocated from Trowbridge to Chippenham, about three-quarters of the work was done. Increasing public duties and other urgent matters in our new building meant that work on collection 1409 was again shelved for several years. Finally, two years ago, I completed listing the last couple of boxes, and then handed the collection over to my strongroom colleagues, who numbered and packaged each item. This took the greater part of another year. I then word-processed the lengthy catalogue and added it to our online catalogue.
So, what have we ended up with, after all that effort? A slimmed-down collection, reduced from 48 to 35 boxes, after weeding out the rubbish, rough copies, drafts and duplicate documents. But still a large collection – one thousand separate items, listed in detail in a 125 page catalogue (available in hard copy at the History Centre and on our online catalogue). As one might expect, a large proportion of the collection concerns Calne people and properties, and those of the neighbouring area. The two largest categories are sale particulars (the greater part dealing with Calne properties between the 1880s and the 1970s) and title deeds and associated conveyancing papers. Title deeds are useful to both family and local historians. To take one example, a bundle of deeds (1409/16/54) relating to a house in Calne Church Street, “commanding one of the best positions in the town”, prove that at various times between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the building was occupied by a shoemaker, a baker, a seedsman, and C. & T. Harris, Ltd., as well as being used as the library of the Calne Literary Institution and, later, as an Oddfellows lodge. There is also a series of 44 eighteenth century leases of properties in Castle Combe; the tenant of an enclosed three-acre field at Thorn Grove was given “liberty to set up cribs for sheep on Castle Combe fair day”, in 1779 (1409/16/259/33).
Other contents of the collection are more unusual. For instance, there is some correspondence (1409/10/5) concerning applications for midwives’ certificates by Mrs Sarah Gaby of Sandy Lane and Mrs Elizabeth Ponting of Cherhill, 1904-1905.
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.