A Movie Meme

Pauline of Family History Across the Seas has posted a Merry Month of May Movie Meme which looked fun and I wanted to participate in. As I set this site up specifically for history (and archive) related blogging I am taking the movies over to my other “anything goes” blog, My Crazy Paving. Do visit me there to read my answers to the movie meme.


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.



H is for Heritage

Archives are part of the heritage sector in the UK. Or are they? Archives benefit from grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, although as the HLF gives out about £375 million a year and has provided only £281 million to archives (and libraries) over a 17 year period, I think it it is fair to say that archives come rather low down in the heritage pecking order. Archives are often thought to be very similar to museums, but they are in fact very different. Museums preserve items from the past, or from other cultures, and make it possible for people to view them in ways that enhance their understanding of the items’ context. Archives preserve documents so that people can access their contents for themselves. While the users of archives are often looking for historical knowledge – whether this is general historical research, family history, or house history – this is by no means always the case.

Local authority and government archives also have a function as a place of record. Many of the documents they hold still have legal force. It is not unusual for local authority corporate structures to include archives under their legal department rather than as part of leisure and culture. There are many uses for documents which go far beyond the preservation of heritage. Enclosure records may be used to prove the existence of a right of way; the police may want access to archived coroner’s records when an old case is reopened; or someone may need to prove they were resident in a particular place at a specific time.  It is not only public sector archives which have uses which go further than just preserving the history they contain; for example, business archives will often have records which can still be of use commercially.

In a time when public finances are particularly tight (and getting ever tighter) culture and heritage are being squeezed with ever shrinking budgets, and this is certainly true for archives. Most – if not all! – local archives are trying to function with less staff than they had a few years ago, and there have even been attempts to close some smaller services completely. We have to hope that archives are able to raise their profile and increase understanding of just how important it is that they survive and continue to provide access to records for everyone. They are a  vital part of our heritage, yes, but are also so much more than that.

F is for Fire and Flood

Fire and flood are two of the possible catastrophes that face archives. Even in an archive that meets all the modern requirements for storage there is the possibility that something could go horribly wrong, and realistically, most archives will not be in state-of-the-art facilities. In 1994 faulty wiring in a light fitting led to a catastrophic fire in Norwich Central Library, which housed not only the library but also the Norfolk Record Office.


Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

This article describes what happened on the night, and includes a photograph of firemen carrying documents from the building. The archives were stored in the basement where they largely escaped the fire, but not the water that was used to extinguish it. For most items water damage is recoverable. The trick is to stabilise the documents as soon as possible by freeze drying them, then to thaw them out and dry them under controlled conditions. Specialist firms provide freeze drying and storage facilities for archives that have suffered disasters, and larger archives are likely to have a contract for emergency support if needed. For the Norfolk Record Office the story had a happy ending, with a new purpose-built Norwich Archive Centre opening in 2004.

Fire and flood are not the only disasters that can strike archives. The most lethal threat to documents is war. Wars and revolutions are often accompanied by the deliberate destruction of archives. During the French Revolution many of the records of the old regime were destroyed by the mob, in 1943 the archives of the medieval Kingdom of Naples were lost when the Germans set fire to the country villa where they had been taken for safety, and in the 1970s the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia embarked on a programme of systematic destruction. These are just a few of many examples. Archives can also suffer collateral damage during wartime. In 1940 half the military service records for British soldiers who served in the First World War were destroyed in a bombing raid which hit the War Office repository in London, a misfortune which has frustrated many genealogists.

This 71 page UNESCO report lists all the libraries and archives known to have been destroyed in the 20th century. Causes of destruction range from an earthquake which destroyed the Imperial University Library in Tokyo in 1923 to the floods which filled the basement of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence in 1966. Irreplaceable archives continue to disappear in the 21st century. I have no doubt that the civil war in Syria and the actions of ISIS will have added to the destruction. Also, accidents happen. In 2009 work on a new subway line caused a building collapse which reduced the six story Historical Archive of the City of Cologne in Germany to this:


© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

All archives should have a salvage plan so that if they are unlucky enough to experience a catastrophic event as much can be saved as possible. Many of us also have our own family archives. What would happen to them in the event of fire or flood? Food for thought!

E is for Exciting

I find archives incredibly exciting! Hardly a day in an archive goes by without making some sort of unexpected discovery. Sometimes a brief, bland catalogue description turns out to relate to a document which is way more fascinating than the description would lead anyone to expect. Other times strange coincidences happen. For example, we catalogued the court records relating to a man who was transported to Australia for stealing a leg of mutton from a butcher’s shop in the 1840s. A couple of weeks later we had an email enquiry from an Australian descendant of the same man asking if we had any information about her ancestor. Well, yes, as it happened we had!

Another coincidence happened when a member of the public was searching for documents relating to a particular, slightly unusual occupation. We found a couple of 15th century deeds mentioning this occupation and ordered them down. They turned out to be the two parts of the same document. Let me explain …


Image: Wikimedia Commons

It used to be that when a property was sold (or other agreement made) a deed was drawn up with the same text written at both ends of a single piece of parchment. The parchment was then cut in two using a wavy or jagged “indented” line, as in the example above. Each party could then prove that their half of the deed was genuine by matching up the uneven edge with the other half of the indenture. Completely unknown to us, five hundred years after it was made we had acquired the two parts of this single indenture, each of them coming to us in completely separate archive collections. Seeing those two documents come back together after so long? Mind boggling! Then, totally failing to follow my own regular advice to Always Write Down References, I sent them back upstairs without remembering to record the reference numbers. I think I could find them again, but haven’t made it easy for myself!


Cider Apples

Confession: I am a cider drinker. (Also wine and whatever my tipple of the moment might be – currently brandy with lime juice and ginger beer.) As someone who enjoys a pint of the fruity liquid gold, or a bottle of the fizzy flavoured stuff (Rekorderlig strawberry and lime, I’m looking at you) I was delighted to see that the National Trust has been gifted the National Cider Apple Collection. This includes almost 300 varieties of apple, which are being propagated and transplanted to orchards at National Trust properties in Somerset, Devon, and Herefordshire.

I first got a glimpse of the extraordinary number of apple varieties grown in this country when manning a stall at the Luton Hoo Pumpkin and Apple Festival a few years ago. We shared a shed with an apple association and it’s collection of dozens of different apples. These were spread out on a table to provide an apple identification service. We had the best smelling stall in the place. The 300 varieties just acquired by the National Trust is small beer (yes, wrong analogy!) in comparison to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent which boasts 2,200 varieties of apple. Here in Bedfordshire the centre of apple growing was Laxton’s nursery at Bedford, which was responsible for many of the 29 native Bedfordshire varieties. The oldest of these, dating back over 200 years, is the Bedfordshire foundling, described as a “large flat-round yellow apple sometimes with a dull orange flush” with “coarse, firm acidic flesh.”

Although the Romans cultivated apple orchards in Britain, cider arrived in this country with the Normans. Even today it is impossible to avoid apples on any visit to Normandy – apple jam for breakfast, tarte aux pommes, Calvados (apple liqueur) and, of course, cider. In the Middle Ages Kent was a centre of cider production, but by the end of the 18th centre the counties now better known for cider – Somerset, Devon, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire – became the base for the industry following a campaign to improve methods of cider making. Quality at this time was extremely variable. Writing in 1796 the author of The Rural Economy of Gloucestershire complained “”A palate accustomed to sweet cider would judge the rough cider of the farm houses to be a mixture of vinegar and water, with a portion of dissolved alum to give it a roughness.”  A potted history of apples and cider in the UK can be found here. Although the number of cider orchards in England is very much less than in their Victorian heyday they are on the rise, with 8000 acres of orchards planted in the last decade as the popularity of cider has grown.

If your appetite is whetted for the smell of apple blossom this list from the Daily Telegraph suggests ten orchards around the country to visit. I will be in Cumbria in May and hope to fit in a visit to Brantwood, and Hughenden is on my list of National Trust houses to explore. I will definitely be taking a stroll around the apple trees.

Aside: I notice that among the species found in orchards is the rare corky fruited water dropwort. This may be the most quirky plant name ever. It also caused havoc for the anti-terrorist squad preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games in London by inconsiderately growing where they wanted to plant surface to air missiles.

Honest Old Thomas Cotes

On New Year’s Day we decided to walk off some of the festive overeating and over drinking with a country walk at the Buckinghamshire village of Wing. The village is blessed with an extraordinary Saxon church, possibly dating from as early as the late 7th century and with a 9th century (the earliest in the country). The church was open, so we took advantage and went inside. I have been many times before, but this was the first time I noticed a memorial plaque on the south wall. The inscription reads:


Honest old Thomas Cotes, that somtime was porter at Ascott Hall, hath now (alas) left his key, lodg, fyre, friends and all to have a roome in heaven. This is that good mans grave reader, prepare for thine, for none can tell but that you two may meete to night, farewell.

He dyed the 20th of November 1648

Set up at the apoyntment and charges of his friend Geo. Houghton

Above the inscription is an image of Thomas Cotes, holding out his arms (presumably to heaven), with his hat and key beside him.


Wing also boasts a National Trust property, Ascott House. I assumed that this was where Thomas Cotes was porter, but a bit of research showed it was not quite so simple. The present Ascott House is based on an early 17th century farmhouse, very much altered and extended by the Rothschild family in the 19th century. When Baron Meyer de Rothschild bought the farmhouse in 1873 it was known as Ascott Hall, and Ascott Hall is where Thomas Cotes was said to be porter. However, it seems most unlikely that a mere farmhouse would have had a porter’s lodge, especially as there was a great house close by. This was the original Ascott House, which stood on a site to the south-west, nearer to the village.

The old Ascott House was built on the site of a medieval priory by the Dormer family in the 16th century. In 1554 it provided lodgings for Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth on her way to London as her sister’s prisoner. Jane, a daughter of Sir William Dormer of Ascott, was a favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary who later married into the Spanish nobility, so the Dormers must have been seen as safe custodians for the princess. In the early 17th century the Dormers were a family on the rise. Sir Robert Dormer was created Lord Dormer of Wing in 1615 and his grandson, another Robert, was created Viscount Ascott and Earl of Caernarvon in 1628. The earl fought on the Royalist side during the Civil War and was killed at the first battle of Newbury in 1643. The Victoria County History says that his son, the 2nd Earl of Caernarvon, “kept great hospitality at Ascott House, and his fine bowling green, which can still be traced, was much appreciated”. In 1645 King Charles I stayed at Ascott while his army sheltered nearby. We can imagine “honest old Thomas” the porter granting admittance to his beleaguered King. Unfortunately, in the early 18th century Ascott House fell into disuse and decay; today only earthworks remain to mark the site.

Thoughts on the imagery of the monument to Thomas Cotes and the role of a porter in the 17th century can be found in this blog post, “I pray you remember the porter” by Early Modern Whale. I can’t add any more information about Thomas, but his benefactor George Houghton was sufficiently affluent that his will had to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury when he died in 1655.