V is for Villages

I have already talked about the genealogy resources that can be found at an archive. In this post I am going to turn to local history resources and look at the items that might typically be available for researching the history of a village (or a town or city, or other location not beginning with V!). These include:

  • Ordnance Survey maps
  • Valuation maps and related records
  • Enclosure maps and awards – these are an extraordinary resource showing how a parish was reorganised when the common fields were divided into individual allotments, often in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. New roads and footpaths were often introduced at the same time.
  • Tithe maps and awards – where these exist for a village they show the layout as it was in the 1830s, along with the identity of the landowners and occupiers.
  • Parish records, which may include information about Church buildings, rectories and vicarages, lands owned by the Church, local charities, and early education, as well as decisions taken by parish officials.
  • Parish council records – these relate to the civil parish rather than the ecclesiastical parish which is run by a parochial church council (PCC). Parish councils deal with the nitty gritty of village life: their role includes maintaining local facilities such as playgrounds and parks, organising local events, and commenting on planning applications.Parish council minutes will often include information about a wide variety of matters of local interest.
  • School log books are not only a source for the history of a school, they can also provide information about local events and other matters relating to the village (or town) as a whole.
  • Local newspapers often included regular village news columns.
  • Trade directories list local businesses, ranging from shops and public houses to farms and craftsmen.
  • Estate maps and records can be rich sources where part of a parish was owned by a major landowner.
  • Sale particulars describe both individual properties and substantial estates, often in considerable detail.

Many of the records which are useful for researching genealogy also provide useful information for local historians.For example,  censuses show the main sources of employment, and court records show the extent and type of crime in a village (and the main culprits! Every village is different, so while there are many common sources, each will also have its own unique records.


U is for Unusual

I have already talked about some of the odder items found in our archive, so in this post I am just going to share some Unusual Archives news stories:

  • In 2011 a reader at the UK National Archives got more than he bargained for when the file he ordered contained packets of heroin along with a document sent from the British Consulate in Cairo in 1928.
  • The National Archives of Australia are baffled as to why their collections include a letter flown out of Paris by balloon while the city was besieged by the Prussians in 1870.
  • A miniature and rather chewed archive of miscellaneous small slips of paper was found in birds’ nests in the roof of a Russian cathedral near Moscow.

And two unusual documents which were not found in archives, but are likely to end up in them:

T is for Treasure Hunt

While genealogists and local historians generally know about archives and happy to make use of them, there is a wider public out there who are missing out on all our lovely documents. One of the interesting challenges for archivists is to find ways of engaging people who may not know we exist, have no idea what we have to offer, or who assume that archives are exclusive and only for “proper” researchers. As we have to do this on little or no budget, we have to be quite creative. Last year, for example, we organised a “treasure hunt”, where people used documents relating to some prominent town centre buildings to solve clues and find the location of hidden treasure on a map. Another current project is a series of workshops at which participants are using archives as inspiration for textile artworks which will be displayed in a touring exhibition.

A quick look around the internet shows the variety of outreach events put on by archives and local history centres. If time and distance were no object you could:

If you have an archive nearby take a look at their website – it is likely they will have some interesting events arranged.


S is for Staples

Staples and another S, sellotape (meaning generic sticky tape rather than the branded version), are very high up my list of archival irritations. When we receive collections documents have often been stapled together, or torn sections have been patched up with sellotape. Once committee minutes began to be typed rather than handwritten, they were often stuck into minute books with either glue or sellotape, or worst of all, by an unholy trinity of glue, sellotape and staples, just to make absolutely sure they would never fall out. The poor book, meanwhile, is left bulging and cracking at the spine by the extra papers which have been added. Unfortunately old sticky tape often loses its stick and pulls off the page easily, leaving a nasty yellowed mark behind. Sometimes it only becomes loose along part of its length, while the remainder is still stuck firmly to the document. Staples tend to rust, and some old ones will be almost completely crumbled away. Rusty staples are often joined by rusty paper clips.

As you can imagine, all this rusty, sticky mess needs to be sorted out before the documents are put into archival folders and boxed. Staples have to be removed – I have an uneasy relationship with my staple remover as it has a habit of trapping bits of finger along with the staple – and sellotape will be removed where this can be done without damaging the document. Often we will ask the conservator to look at individuals items to make the decision as to whether it is better for their “health” to make the effort to remove sticky tape or glue, or just to leave things as they are. To hold related items together after staples have been removed they can either be put into folded archival paper, or brass paper clips can be used.

Unfortunately photograph albums can be another bugbear. Older albums are rarely of archival quality and photographs will need to be removed if possible. Some “self-stick” album pages unstick over time causing photos to fall out. Hopefully modern scrapbooking techniques, using archival quality paper and card and suitable inks and glues, should make things easier for the archivists of the future.




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.