R is for Recipes

You want to know a cure for boils? Or how to roast a capon? Or how to make wartime rations go further? We have a recipe for you!

In the archive we have a number of handwritten recipe books, both culinary and medical (often the two were mixed rather randomly in the same book), dating back to the 17th century, together with a few printed leaflets giving advice on frugal cooking and the like. Here, for your delectation and delight, are a couple of examples from the late 18th century. First a recipe for gingerbread (cake rather than cookies).


One quart of the best Flower, half a pound of treacle with half a pound of Butter melted in it, half a pound of sugar, three quarters of an oz. of Grated Ginger. Mix these all well together. Bake them.

And secondly a medical recipe. I can only think that adding extra shades of yellow was in some way supposed to be beneficial.

Cure for Jaundice

Two pennyworth of Turmerick, the same of Saffron, the same of Cloves, the same of Treacle – to be boil’d in two quarts of spring water till reduced to one, a Teacupful to be taken in a morning fasting.


Q is for Quarter Sessions

My first archive job was as a cataloguer on a project to make the 19th century Quarter Sessions records for the county accessible. Two of us shared the task and we both realised quite quickly that it was the best job we would ever have. What we found in the records was by turns fascinating, moving, mind-boggling, and just plain funny. Every day we learned something new or uncovered something surprising. By the time we finished we had learned an extraordinary amount about both Victorian crime and life in general.

The Quarter Sessions were court sittings held, as the name implies, once a quarter. They were the middle tier court between the Assizes, which tried the most severe crimes, and the Petty Sessions, which tried petty crime such as drunkenness, poaching and petty theft. Everything else went to the Quarter Sessions, with offences ranging from theft to assault, embezzlement, passing counterfeit coin, burglary and riot. For each case sent to the Quarter Sessions the local magistrates collected “depositions” (witness statements) from everyone involved, and an “examination” of the accused. These depositions and examinations were what made the Quarter Sessions records so special. They were extraordinarily detailed, with lots of incidental description relating to life and society in 19th century England. Much of the time they were written in such a way that it was almost possible to hear the voice of the accused or the “deponent” (witness). In addition to the depositions there were indictments (the formal charge in a case), lists of prisoners, returns of convictions, and various other incidental records. The Quarter Sessions in the early and mid-19th century also dealt with other matters, ranging from the diversion of roads to appeals in bastardy cases.

The variety of cases was extraordinary. There was the man charged with stealing a jar of rum which he claimed “fell” off the back of a cart; there was a sailor’s stolen parrot; there was a dog named Old Sailor which was killed, butchered and sold as goat meat; there was a theft of meat and beer from a pub by men on a “night out” from the workhouse; and there was a riot involving a young man in the stocks, a gun, a barrel of beer, a brass band, and two frightened policemen. Some of the criminals themselves were unforgettable, such as the two men stole legs of mutton from a butcher’s shop, hoping to be transported to Australia (they were). There were also the career criminals who turned up in court repeatedly. Our favourite was a man with a wooden arm – think Captain Hook – who first appeared in his early twenties charged with stealing a one-eyed sheep, and was still stealing in his mid 60s when he resisted arrest so violently that it took a policeman an hour to subdue him; he only succeeded in doing so after first unscrewing the man’s hook and then, with help, removing his arm. In another case a man with two wooden legs was caught following a burglary due to his distinctive “footprints”. There is more than enough material to fill a book – maybe one day I will write one.

These GenGuide notes give more detail about the Quarter Sessions and their records, with links at the bottom to information about a number of other types of criminal records.



P is for Parchment

Many archives will have collections of documents written on parchment, particularly deeds and other legal records. When it comes to long-term preservation, parchment beats paper by a mile. Parchment is animal skin which has been specially prepared for writing. Historically parchment was made from sheep (and sometimes goat) skin, and vellum from calf skin. “Parchment” has come to be used as a catch-all word for animal skin as a medium for documents – possibly because only those rare people with specialist conservation training can tell the difference! Vellum, on the other hand, is still used only to refer to calf skin. Until this year all official Acts of Parliament for the United Kingdom were written on vellum, a tradition which has just been discontinued.

Parchment is extraordinarily resilient. Documents can remain in near perfect condition for hundreds of years, and when the ink is of good quality can almost look as though they were written yesterday. Parchment doesn’t tear easily, doesn’t degrade if kept in reasonable conditions, and doesn’t easily burn. The thing most likely to cause catastrophic damage to parchment is water. Get parchment wet and it remembers that it is organic matter and begins to decompose, letting off an overpowering odour of dead sheep. Rumour has it that, due to the appalling smell, a former conservator at our archive lost two stone in weight during the time it took him to deal with a collection of parchment rolls which had suffered extensive flood damage. On the other hand, parchment likes a degree of humidity, and dry air can lead to it becoming brittle. Another weak spot is that insects and rodents can find parchment tasty.

Parchment has a memory. Once left rolled or folded for some time, that is how it will want to stay. Weights are often essential to keep parchment documents open and flat when they are being used; the documents will do their best to ping back into their accustomed shape. Whereas folded paper can be flattened by putting it under a heavy weight for a while, parchment will need specialist treatment. Here a trainee conservator explains how she went about the time-consuming process of flattening folded parchment deeds. Even though it is no longer being used by Parliament, there are still many uses of parchment which continues to be made by hand by a tiny number of specialist firms like William Cowley. This BBC video shows how they made the marriage certificate for Prince William and Kate Middleton.

O is for Online

Much as I like to emphasise that archives contain huge amounts that are not online, there are an ever growing number of wonderful resources out there in internet land. Obviously for genealogists there are the specialist subscription sites whose business includes digitising as many name-rich documents as possible. Archives rarely have the resources to carry out such large scale digitisation themselves, as it is time-consuming and therefore expensive, but they are sometimes able to secure grants of funds for specific projects to make part of their collections available online. This Hidden Lives project from the archives of the Children’s Society of the Church of England makes available a great deal of material relating to children during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including photographs, case files and the histories of the various children’s homes run by the society. Online archives are not limited just to documents: here the Essex Record Office explain their Heritage Lottery Funded project to make their sound and video archives available online.

Most archives now prioritise getting their catalogues online. Where they have detailed catalogue descriptions this can be extremely useful. For example, a search through the North Yorkshire County Record Office catalogue last week produced a nice addition to my family history, with entries revealing four offences committed by my great-great-grandfather in the space of two years in the 1870s: two for being drunk in charge of a horse and cart, and two for driving furiously on the highway, in one case also endangering someone’s life. We can only be grateful he wasn’t around in the age of the motor car! While the original documents may well give more information, the catalogue alone has given me a good amount to be going on with.

These days most archives will also have a social media presence, using Facebook and Twitter accounts to engage with people online. Some may use Flickr or Instagram, or post YouTube videos, and many write blogs – we have two chronicling the experience of the county during the First World War, one looking at military experiences and the other at life on the Home Front.

One aspect of the internet that people tend to forget is that the world wide web itself needs to be archived. So much is now published only online, and websites are constantly appearing, disappearing and evolving. In the UK the National Archives are responsible for a UK Government Web Archive, preserving information posted online by government departments. The British Library now routinely crawls UK websites to collect online publications for preservation, and runs the UK Web Archive which curates special collections of websites on particular themes. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has now preserved over 462 billion web pages, and allows you to view sites as they were at a given date. Anyone who writes a blog, saves all their photographs digitally, or wants to keep their emails for posterity, should give some thought how they intend to preserve their digital memories. The US Library of Congress gives useful advice on personal archiving here.

N is for Newspapers

Photographs, diaries, maps, and now another wonderful resource you can find in archives … newspapers!  When using newspapers at an archive you are likely to find that many will only be available on microfilm. Newsprint is probably the most fragile format we have. Printed on cheap, thin paper that was only ever meant to be ephemeral, it soon becomes brittle and crumbly. Peering at microfilm may be hard on the eyes, but it keeps newspapers accessible and prevents damage to the originals. If newspapers have not been microfilmed they are usually bound into large hardcover volumes which are heavy and unwieldy (but much easier on the eyes!)

In the UK the earliest local newspapers are likely to date from the early to mid 19th century, though there are some which began in the 18th century. This means that for most areas there is a weekly snapshot of local life available for the last 150 to 200 years. Newspaper reports can often be used to build on information found in other documents;  for example, a Victorian gaol record can lead to a description of the court proceedings in a local newspaper. Sometimes it can be interesting to see what was not reported – explosions in First World War munitions factories, or major bombing raids during the Second World War, are notably absent. On the other hand, in 1914 local papers were publishing letters from servicemen which were quite brutal in their honesty about the horrors of life at the Front, which  would certainly have brought down the wrath of the censor at a later date.

Local newspapers vary quite widely in quality. Some spent acres of newsprint discussing the price of grain or sheep – interesting to farmers or agricultural historians, but otherwise very tedious. Sometimes they focused on very trivial local trivia, and there are only so many near identical reports of meetings of minor local societies that one can read before they all become a tedious blur. On the other hand much of what at the time would seemed trivial is fascinating a hundred or more years later – school news, cinema programmes, and even advertisements, are all intriguingly different to their modern day equivalents.

The British Library has partnered with Find My Past to digitise over 40 million pages of its newspaper collection. As they are digitised they are added to the online British Newspaper Archive. This is a subscription service but, in the UK at least, is often available through local libraries. Unlike hard copy or microfilmed newspapers the website has a text search facility. Automatic text conversion doesn’t work perfectly so this can be a bit unpredictable, but any search facility is a good deal better than none.

M is for Maps

Much as I love photographs and journals, if I had to choose  my absolute favourite type of document I am almost sure it would be maps.

Maps take you back to a place as it was, and allow you to see directly how the landscape has changed over time. Some are beautifully illustrated and some are simply utilitarian. Fortunately lots of maps are out of copyright so I can share some here (copyright on British Ordnance Survey maps expires fifty years after publication).

One of the oldest and most famous of maps is the Mappa Mundi (map of the world) held by Hereford Cathedral which dates from the 13th century. It is hard to see on a reproduction of this size, but Jerusalem is the centre of the world and round the fringes it becomes decidedly fantastical, with one-legged monopods and one-eyed cyclops among other peculiar beings. There are some wonderful little details, such as a man skiing in Norway, but it certainly isn’t the sort of map that would show you how to get from A to B. All the land had to be rather squished together to make it fit! You can explore the Mappa Mundi in detail through Hereford Cathedral library’s website here.

Mappa Mundi Wikimedia

Image: Wikimedia Commons

By the 16th century maps were beginning to be more representative of the place they showed. Here is an extract from a map of Oxford drawn by Ralph Agas in 1578, with wonderful 3D buildings:


Image: Wikimedia Commons

As an example of the changes that can be traced by looking at maps, this Ordnance Survey map shows Dallow Farm in Luton as it was in 1880:

Dallow Farm 1880

By 1924 the same area looked like this as the town of Luton expanded and developed westwards. No more rural farm, just streets of early 20th century housing:

Dallow Farm 1925

While this is a rather dramatic example, comparing any early Ordnance Survey map with a more recent one will show up changes in both the buildings and the landscape. One of my favourite internet map tools (along with Google Streetview) is the collection of old Ordnance Survey maps put online by the National Library of Scotland, who very considerately have included English maps as well as Scottish. All their online map series can be found here, but the section which can keep me endlessly entertained is the 6 inch Ordnance Survey maps. The site gives three options: zoomable individual maps and – the most fun – the choice to either overlay a modern map on the old map and switch between the two, or to see the modern and old  maps side by side on screen. Magic!

L is for Latin

Although most of the archives I work with are in English there are also a sprinkling of Latin documents. These generally fall into two groups: medieval deeds, and manor court rolls which were usually written in Latin until the middle of the 18th century.

I am old enough to have been at school when Latin was still widely taught in grammar schools and high schools and took Latin ‘O’ Level (the public exam taken by British students at age 16, since replaced by GCSE exams). At that time I had no idea that I would ever use Latin again. Later on I studied history at university, and as I specialised in the medieval period I took a short course in medieval Latin, dusting off my almost forgotten school Latin. I then went on to postgraduate work on medieval history, during which I learned to read documents written in abbreviated Latin script. Even then I had no idea that I would end up using the arcane skill of medieval palaeography as part of my job.

Latin documents may look alarmingly difficult, but in fact most of them follow a common formula. In their simplest form deeds will start out by telling you who is giving or selling land and to whom, then go on to describe the property and set out the terms of the transfer, before ending with a list of witnesses to the transaction. Once you know the basic formula and common phrases, making sense of a deed becomes much easier. Similarly with manorial documents: the contents of a court roll will follow similar patterns, and individual entries, for example when a new tenant is admitted to “copyhold” land (property held from a manor), will also follow a common formula. The most frustrating aspect of trying to read Latin documents is that they make extensive use of abbreviations; some of these can be learned, but others vary according to the individual scribe – often they simply left out what to the modern reader appear to be random groups of letters.

The starting point for most local historians or genealogists who decide to tackle Latin documents is often Latin for Local History by Eileen Gooder, which has been in print for over fifty years. There are also some good online tutorials like this one on Latin palaeography from the National Archives and this medieval palaeography tutorial at the Anglo-Saxon Online Hub. Tackling Latin documents may be a challenge, but it is by no means impossible, even for someone who has no prior knowledge of Latin.