I was interested to read a recent news story which described scientific work to extract DNA from parchment using a non-destructive technique, giving us remarkable and unexpected source of information about the animal the page was created from. It has also proved possible to extract DNA of people who have touched or kissed the manuscripts over the years (devotional prayer books for example).
Thinking about the physical fabric of the archives led me to consider our more common archive material; paper. We see paper as a prosaic item nowadays and take it for granted, but it used to be much more valuable and remained expensive until the advent of the steam-driven paper mill.
There is limited documented evidence about paper making before the 18th century and the knowledge and skills would primarily have been shared directly between family members and master and apprentice. We have records of apprenticeships in our parish collections including Edward Hayword from Bradford-on-Avon who was apprenticed to a Gabriel Sweet, Weston, Somerset in July 1745 and a Thomas Whale from Chippenham, apprenticed to a Charles Ward, papermaker at Doncombe, North Wraxall in November 1804.
The process of making paper was a complex one involving many stages and can be read about in more detail in various publications including The British Paper Industry 1495-1860 by D.C Coleman available in our local studies library (shelfmark 338.476). The cellulose fibres in plant tissues were macerated and mixed with water until the fibres separated and were lifted from the water using a sieve-like screen, leaving a sheet of matted fibres on the screen’s surface. This then required pressing, drying, sizing, and finishing before it could be used as paper.
We have several wills in our collection left by papermakers. These can give some indication of the kind of wealth and social standing of the profession.
In the 1792 will of John Lewis, paper maker of Yatton Keynell he bequeathed all his household goods and furniture to his wife, Mary Lewis. He also left an annuity of £8 to be paid to his sister, Elizabeth Parker, to be paid in equal quarterly instalments every year until her death. John Lewis makes it explicit that this money ‘is not liable to the debts or engagements of my said sisters husband or any other husband he may hereafter have and that her receipt alone…’ He also bequeathed to Thomas Vincent, a grocer of Calne (named as executor alongside his wife), all his real estate at Longdean and Yatton Keynell. It is pleasing given his profession that he sees fit to mention the paper that the will is written on:
“… to this my last will and testament contained in two sheets of paper set my hand and seal as follows (that is to say) my hand to the first sheet thereof and my hand and seal to the last sheet and my seal at the top where both sheets join”.
Another will belonging to Thomas Bacon, papermaker of Downton, dating to 1679 includes an inventory of his goods. These include materials and goods from the mill house including scales and weights, paper moulds and their respective values.
Some of the country’s towns and cities are renowned for their waters; Bath Spa, Cheltenham Spa and Leamington Spa to name but a few, but you may be surprised to know that Wiltshire had its own fair share of mineral springs and wells. Thirty one places in the county had water which contained minerals thought to contain curative properties: Biddestone, Box, Braydon, Broughton Gifford, Chippenham, Christian Malford, Clyffe Pypard, Cricklade, Crudwell, Dauntsey, Draycot Cerne, Heywood, Highworth, Holt, Kington St. Michael, East Knoyle (Upton), Limpley Stoke, Luckington, Lydiard Tregoze, Melksham, Poulshot, Purton Stoke, Rodbourne Cheyney, Rowde, Seend, Sheldon, Somerford (probably Great Somerford), Swindon, Trowbridge, West Ashton and Wootton Basset – wow, what a list! The vast majority of these sites are found at the junction of two or more geological formations.
The craze for spas first appeared in the late 17th to mid 18th century, with a revival towards the end of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century. In Wiltshire only four sites could be considered fashionable enough to be called spas; Holt, Box, Melksham and Purton. I shall be taking a look at Melksham Spa which became established around 1813. The water was discovered to have medicinal properties after a bore had been sunk in c. 1770 by individuals looking to find coal. Its properties were examined by Dr Gibbes of Bath and were described as ‘chalybeate’. Melksham Spa had hot and cold private baths specially created for those who wished to take the water. Advertisements claimed the waters could cure many ailments with the top cures being for skin diseases, running sores, and scrofulous ailments. In 1815 another bore was dug to search for an additional saline source, a valued medicinal property of spa water. The contents were also found to contain lime and magnesia.
Finding the cause of deterioration in a pair of Imari vases. A serial conservation mystery, episode 1
In the conservation lab we have two very large and impressive-looking vases. The vases from Wilton House, Salisbury have come to the conservation lab to be repaired as they are both structurally unstable. The conservation team turned detective in order to discover what was causing the instability. In the first episode of our conservation blog, you’ll find out how the conservators uncovered the symptoms and solved the case.
The vases are late 17th Century examples of the popular Japanese style ‘Imari’ identified from the distinctive decoration of cobalt blue under-glaze and gold and red over-glaze.This style of Japanese porcelain was produced as export for the Western market, indicated by the style sharing its name with the Japanese port from which it was transported: Imari, Saga.
The vases have large cracks running from the base, nearly ¾ of the way up the sides. The cracks weaken the structure and cause the significant instability. Along the edges of the cracks and round the base of the vases are missing areas of decoration and glazing. As the vases are no longer in one piece, they are not safe to display in this condition. While the cracks remain, these vases continue to be at risk of breaking apart.
Although the symptoms of deterioration could be clearly identified, their cause remained a complete mystery. The conservation team could treat the symptoms. We could fill the large cracks and repair the glazing but without discovering the cause of the damage and finding a suspect, we would be taking a big risk. Further deterioration could occur in the future and the vases become irrevocably damaged.