Friday, 10 March 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: Pianos at the Retreat

This is the third in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive and our digitisation project as it nears completion. The Retreat is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the archive, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page.

This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image efficiently and effectively. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered.

Here Jenny Mitcham, our digital archivist writes about the pianos at the Retreat.

My input into the Retreat digitisation project has not been very hands on. I haven’t been conserving the archive, digitising the documents or updating the catalogue. For the most part, I haven’t had cause to interact with the archive at all. My focus has been on facilitating the smooth running of the project, keeping an eye on the budget, arranging meetings and writing progress reports.

I’ve always been pleased when some of the more ‘challenging’ items (from a digitisation or conservation perspective) get brought into our project meetings so we can make decisions about how to proceed. This is normally the closest I get to actually seeing the material that we are working with! This does make it harder for me to pick out an item to blog about when I haven’t actually seen many items.

However, there was one occasion last year when had to go down to the strongroom to collect an audio tape from one of the boxes that was going to be sent out to a contractor for digitisation as part of this project. Whilst looking in the box to try to find accompanying information for the audio a file entitled ‘Pianos’ (RET/1/5/5/7/22) caught my eye.

As a keen piano player myself I was immediately interested in what this file might contain.
It covers the period 1924 to 1945 and includes letters about repair or purchase of pianos, lists of pianos at the Retreat (they had more than you might expect) as well as a fairly ambitious piano-tuning schedule. You can browse this whole file online through the Wellcome Library catalogue so do have a look.

Looking through this file was an interesting little glimpse into one of the lighter elements of life at the Retreat. At first I was surprised by just how many pianos they had. In 1924 they list 8 pianos but at the latest mention (in 1945) they appear to have 16. No wonder they needed to maintain detailed lists and tuning schedules.

Much of the file relates to piano tuning. Lists stating that “Twelve of the following piano’s to be tuned each quarter” show which of the many pianos were tuned on which date. This rigorous schedule was pretty much adhered to. My (fairly well used) piano is only tuned once a year so I was struck by how regularly they tuned them. They clearly were an important part of life at the Retreat for both patients and staff and consequently needed to be looked after well.

Of course, some pianos did reach the end of their useful life in this period. The earliest item of correspondence in the file, a letter from John Gray and Sons, ‘pianoforte, gramaphone and organ specialists’ on Coney Street, York in 1924 stated that “Our representative called to tune the piano in the attendents sittingroom of the Retreat yesterday and found it in a very bad condition. He patched it up as best as he was able but he reports it is really waste of money to have anything more done to it and it would be more satisfactory if it was replaced by a new one.”

The Retreat reply with “We will consider the question of the renewal of the piano in the Attendants’ sitting room, but I hardly think we shall be prepared to buy a new one at the moment”

In 1935 a report on Retreat pianos noted that “The pianos in the Attendants’ Quarters and the “Secretaries’ Dining Room” are very poor indeed.” I wonder if this was still the same piano as had been discussed in 1924?

Much of the correspondence within the file concerns the purchase and relocation of an Allison grand piano from Darlington to the recreation room of the Retreat in the 1930’s for the sum of £50. This took some time to arrange (over 2 years) but was clearly seen as something that was worth holding out for. Writing to the Retreat in March 1933, a letter from Darlington states:

“I have played on the Allison Piano belonging to Mrs Dresser this afternoon and think it is a good one. The tone is full, the touch sympathetic, and except for being rather out of tune because it has not been played on lately, the piano is in excellent condition.

“It might be possible to get a piano for less than £80 in a sale room, but it would be difficult to find one quite so good as this with certainty.”

So who used all of these pianos at the Retreat? We can find out a bit about this through other elements of the archive. A quick search of the online catalogue locates several photographs of staff playing the piano at the Retreat. The earliest being this faded and carefully posed photograph of the sitting room of the nurses home in the early 20th century


Another image of nurses in the sitting room of the second nurses home (RET/1/8/5/6/3) dates to the period covered by the pianos file and a later set of images (RET/1/8/5/8) taken in this same room, this time from the 1950’s, are less formal and shows a group of nurses singing round the piano. You can even zoom into the image to see what music they are playing!



We also know that pianos at the Retreat were played by patients. Looking at the list of rooms in which the pianos were stationed, some were clearly placed in areas where patients could access them. It is known that some patients also had their own private pianos that they brought with them to the Retreat. For example our catalogue entry for an oil painting by George Isaac Sidebottom (who was a patient at the Retreat from the 1890’s) mentions the fact that he acquired a piano for his room (RET/2/1/7/5).

And coming full circle, the audiotape that first led to me encounter this file about pianos at the Retreat itself provides further evidence of how they were used. It is a recording of a staff revue ‘Sunny Side Up’  held at the Retreat on the 6th August 1960 to raise money for The Retreat Appeal (RET/1/5/5/7/27). Accompanying the singing is (I believe) a piano. Perhaps this is the Allison grand piano that came from Darlington in 1935? You can listen to the audio in full through the Borthwick Catalogue.


But apparently it wasn’t always this way. In the early nineteenth century the Quaker attitude towards amusements was different. Activities such as playing cards, music and dancing, theatre going and even the reading of novels were frowned upon. As the century progressed attitudes relaxed and the Retreat archive reflects this. Harold Capper Hunt a Steward of the Retreat wrote in his book ‘A Retired Habitation’ in 1932 that “When Dr. Kitching handed over the reins to Dr. Baker he expressed the hope that his successor might be able to to add to the number of pianos in the Institution. It was a sign of the times. The ancient Quaker prejudice against music was beginning to give way …” Dr. Baker was Medical Superintendent from 1874 to 1892 so this is several years before the file we are looking at, but it is interesting to see the early signs of this move towards a more relaxed attitude towards music.

We can no doubt find out lots more about pianos at the Retreat by going into other areas of the archive in more depth - for example other administrative or correspondence files, or the section of the archive that specifically relates to entertainments (RET/1/5/5/7). The archive is now available online so do explore it and see what else you can discover.

Today at the Retreat pianos are still present. Of course there are not as many as there were in the 1930’s and 40’s - perhaps inevitable as more modern forms of entertainment have taken over. However I am told there are still 5 pianos at the Retreat (and another in their unit at Strensall). They continue to be tuned - but on the slightly less ambitious schedule of approximately once a year! Today at The Retreat there is music therapy, music groups and a choir. Last year they also arranged their own pianathon - non-stop piano playing throughout the day! I was really pleased to hear that music is still such an important part of life at the Retreat.

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Halfway there... Conservation cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive

As the program of work to clean the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive reaches its milestone of 50% completion - that is a staggering 3167 plans cleaned - we thought that it would be worth looking back over the past five years, to consider the significant achievements and beneficial impact of the volunteer program.

St. Mary Bishophill Senior (1872), ATKB/6/85

The original project was funded by the Shepherds Trust in 2011. Its aim was to grant a conservator the opportunity to treat the fragmented tracing papers that make up the most vulnerable plans in the archive and to establish a volunteer group in 2012 to surface clean the remaining 6334 plans not undergoing conservation in the Studio. The interventive conservation work paused in 2015, but we have been lucky enough to retain the volunteer program and from April 2017 it will be entering its fifth year.

One of our volunteers cleaning a plan
As professionals in conservation and archives know, it can often take years of small incremental steps to achieve vast programs of work. When considering the cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive with its 6334 architectural plans, this is especially true. It was, and still remains, a monumental task for any conservation department to face. It was therefore decided to set up a volunteer project that would not only benefit the archive but would also have a greater community benefit to achieve this task.

From 2012 the recruitment process began and the project has since welcomed volunteers from a diverse background, each with a different motivation for volunteering on the project. Some have chosen to volunteer for the social element of the group dynamic, or they want to give back to the archive and/or the community; others are keen to interact with the archive material in a unique way or wish to develop new skill and experience in the field of conservation.

The sessions are rarely dull, as each new plan can throw up new interesting avenues for investigation and conservation challenges. The buildings the plans pertain to and equally the method of conservation needed to care for the physical material often provide easy focal points for discussion. As many of our volunteers are interested in pursuing or have had careers or long term interest in archives, art history, architectural history, archaeology, conservation and heritage, it has lead to some interesting debates.

A partially cleaned plan of Wistow Church, ATKB/6/85
The architectural plans date from the 19th century through to the 1950s and consist of a number of different papers with media comprising of pencil, pen, watercolour and photographic chemicals. The condition of the archive is varied and many plans have previously been subjected to fluctuating environmental conditions, alongside poor handling and storage leading to different levels of damage and vulnerability. Over 98% of the plans appear to be covered in layers of dirt and atmospheric pollution from their time in storage. These pollutants can increase the speed of deterioration of the paper and in places obscure interpretation of the plans. Removing these deposits through conservation cleaning is a key requirement for the long-term preservation of the archive. Each plan is assessed before cleaning and in many cases, selective cleaning is applied due to fragile media such as pencil marks or degraded substrates.   

Details of woodcarvings from Sherburn church, ATKB/6/98
The volunteers time at the Borthwick comprises of building skills, knowledge and experience to deal with these challenges. Training is undertaken on the handling of architectural plans, technical skill in conservation cleaning and the condition checking of the paper and media. The volunteers also spend time focusing and discussing the ethics behind conservation cleaning, when we might clean and when we might abstain and how we, as conservation professionals, work to know the difference.

The Borthwick has been fortunate to have a wonderfully engaged, inquisitive and dedicated group of volunteers during the project. Over that time we have seen over 20 volunteers come and go and we now have a core team of 10 volunteers attending regular weekly sessions for up to two hours a week. They have made a very real and positive long-term impact on the archive and I have felt privileged to be able to work with such a devoted group of people and look forward to seeing the 50% completion develop into 100.

-- Tracy Wilcockson, Conservation Volunteering Co-ordinator

For further information please visit the Atkinson Brierley archive Project pages.

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A before cleaning

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A after cleaning

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

This is the second in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive and our digitisation project as it nears completion. The Retreat is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the archive, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page.

This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image efficiently and effectively. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered.

Here David Pilcher, one of our digitisation assistants introduces The Kirks.


It would be true to say that the Retreat archive contains a lot more than mental health records, correspondence and monthly accounts. Folders can be found that include artwork and poetry, landscaping and planting details in the gardens, various sporting activities, in fact a whole plethora of subjects.

One of the cornerstones of the Retreat's care of the mentally ill was to provide educating and stimulating entertainments which were enjoyed in a shared environment by patients and staff alike and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, most calendar months had a programme of entertainment events ranging from lectures, puppet theatre, magic lantern shows, musical evenings and variety acts. Over time the information and correspondence collected for reference by the Retreat on these mainly travelling acts grew to a considerable amount and in itself has become a valuable potential resource for anyone looking at the history of variety and light entertainment.

Due to considerations of space here it would be impossible to write about all the many acts that aspired to make a living by travelling the length and breadth of the country with their often amusing and eccentric shows so I have chosen one such act to try and put across a flavour of what was on offer during the first half of the twentieth century.

I present, for your delectation and enjoyment ………… The Kirks!  

The Kirks cropped version.jpg
Publicity photo of The Kirks circa. 1924-28 (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

The Kirks were a double act comprised of Mr. M Wingate Kirk and his wife, who was referred to by her stage name of Madame. Both of them hailed from Scotland. Mr. Kirk performed the majority of the show combining such skills as magic and conjuring, illusions and even some ventriloquism using a kilt clad dummy called, at various times, either “Brown” or “Scottie”.   He had devised several sketches for himself and the dummy, one curiously entitled “A Cigarette and a Kiss”, possibly not the best of combinations by anyone’s standards!       

Madame usually made her appearance after the interval when the couple attempted a routine called “ Transference of Thought” sometimes named “Two Minds with but a Single Thought”. She was seated and blindfolded while her husband moved around the stage with items given to him by members of the audience which then Madame immediately and correctly described without any word spoken by her partner! Coins were named and even dated, rings were identified by size and colour and she would continue to amaze despite some of the articles being wrapped before presentation. It was, as the publicity material announced, A Baffling Exhibition of Instantaneous Telepathy!

The Kirks did their show at the Retreat on Friday, 24th November 1922, and for a show lasting 90 minutes were paid four guineas.  (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/4)  

It also has to be noted that earlier in that year the same show was performed for HRH Prince Henry and the repertoire included The Cake in the Hat and My Stick.

The Retreat records reveal that the duo were booked several times during the years that followed and were obviously very reliable in providing quality entertainment for all.

In 1928 M. Wingate Kirk notified the Retreat that he would be in the area around October and would the Retreat like his services once more? The reply from the Retreat is strangely obscure in part

“if you can assure us that your programme will be somewhat changed from what you gave us two years ago we are willing to book you”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

Kirk wrote back with that assurance and suggested he include The Living Marionettes (new for the 1928-29 season!) and also “all the latest novelties which are suitably adapted to Hospital Entertainments”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

The Kirks performed once more at the Retreat on Tuesday, 2nd October 1928 and as well as the aforementioned Living Marionettes the act included The Library Problem (?) and The Organ Pipes. The show was traditionally closed with a stirring rendition of God save the King.

The last recorded mention I have been able to trace of the Kirks is towards the end of 1946 when M. Wingate Kirk sent the Retreat his latest programme with an accompanying letter asking about possible dates. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)

The ventriloquist`s dummy now went under the name of Sandy and the tricks and sketches included The Plume Illusion and the bizarrely titled A Seaside Experience (Pulling a Lady through a Keyhole). Sadly there was no mention of his wife or Madame in either the publicity or the related correspondence so one does wonder if she had passed away by then and Mr. Kirk was bravely soldiering on with the act. Interestingly the headed notepaper used at that time just names M. Wingate Kirk. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)

To conclude this particular thread The Retreat in their reply thanked Mr. Kirk for his offer of entertainment but unfortunately was unable to secure him a fixture at the present time.
Obviously, as the years rolled on variety acts in general were on the demise mainly due to the rising popularity of the cinema and then later, television. The Retreat had already acquired a cine projector and were hiring major titles for the entertainment of their residents so to coin a phrase …“variety was (unfortunately) dead”.  

In some ways the Kirks were unique in the style of entertainment that they provided. The material was accessible to children and also suited to an adult audience while the content was deemed to be “safe” for the residents of mental hospitals, of which they included many in their nationwide tours.

Never vulgar or crude in their delivery but possibly with a jocular element of cheek they amused and amazed audiences over almost three decades and certainly had a shared passion in their wonderful gift to entertain.   

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archives: A Window on the 19th Century Pharmacist

This is the first in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat digitisation project as it nears completion. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the Retreat archive, updating the catalogue, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page. This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image in the most time efficient and effective way we could. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered. First Jane Rowling, one of our digitisation assistants introduces the Papers Relating to Alfred Jones from 1880 (RET 6/19/1/85A). 

 As a Victorian, where could you turn to find information on curing a nosebleed, making medicines for dogs, entertaining your children, restoring your hair, polishing soldiers’ buttons, concocting salad dressings, soothing a black eye, extracting teeth, and building a cheap aquarium? Your first port of call would probably have been your local pharmacist. One volume in the Archives of The Retreat offers a fascinating insight into the world of the Victorian pharmacist, and his customers. This volume, Medical and Domestic Formulae by a Pharmaceutical Chemist, is a notebook handwritten by a Retreat patient, Alfred Jones, and dedicated to the Medical Superintendent Dr Baker.


 Mr Jones clearly felt an affinity with Dr Baker, inscribing the first page of of his book with the words “Experientia Docet” - meaning ‘experience teaches’ - and:

‘Poets are born - not made And so are true Physicians.’ 

 These lines express a sense of a shared calling and a certain kind of equality between patient and doctor. The book also serves to show the pride a Pharmaceutical Chemist might take in his work and status in the late nineteenth century.

 Until 1842, chemists and druggists did not have to have a formal qualification. Anyone with sufficient funds could set up a shop and sell potentially lethal concoctions of drugs. Accidents with mis sold or wrongly made-up medicines gave the profession a bad name, leading to the formation of a group of pharmacists who wanted to protect their trade. Jacob Bell, the son of a Quaker pharmacist, quickly emerged as the spokesman for this group. Their greatest successes were the granting of the Royal Charter of Incorporation to the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in 1843, and the 1868 Pharmacy Act, which meant that anyone making up medicines had to have taken the Society’s examination, and had to be registered with the Society. For pharmacists like Alfred Jones, registration with the Society was a mark of status as a trusted individual within a local community, and as a privileged member of a wider medical community which would also include the Medical Superintendent of a Mental Hospital like The Retreat. Thus he writes that his book contains:

 ‘Tried and Reliable Remedies & Family Recipes Etc. in Chemistry Pharmacy & Domestic Medicine & Veterinary Practise by a Registered Chemist by Examinations (classical & technical) of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’ 

 Alfred Jones’ notebook gives us an overview of the kinds of products people required from a pharmacist in the later nineteenth century, and how dangerous some of them might have been! A ‘Carmmative for Infants’ included a large dose of laudanum, while a ‘Mixture for Excited Brain’ (recommended for children as well as adults) contained bromide and chloral hydrate, a sedative. Just as unappealing is an ‘Indigestion Mixture’ containing dilute nitro hydrochloric acid - a substance which can be highly corrosive if not sufficiently diluted.

Another page recommends “Chloroform just short of anasthesia [sic] is best treatment of Hydrophobia” in cases of diseases such as rabies. This would be another risky procedure, but probably safer than the alternative, which was to perform a tracheotomy. The Victorian pharmacist walked a fine line indeed!

Some of the less harmful recipes in the book give us an insight into the realities of life beyond the pharmacist’s shop, for example:

 ‘The Herb called Solomon’s Seal is a reputed cure for Black Eye Geber saith: “It removeth any black or blew spots which occurreth to any woman on falling on her hastie husband’s fists.”

 In the nineteenth century, the local pharmacist would also provide cures and tonics for animals, reflecting a world in which working animals were a much greater part of the general public’s everyday lives than they are today. Alfred Jones offers recipes for a ‘Cleansing Drink for Newly Calved Cow,’ consisting of juniper berries, sulphur, aniseed, ginger, cumin seeds, Glaubers salt (sodium sulphate - used as a laxative in crystal form), and Epsom salts. He notes that, ‘some add 1/2 pt Linseed Oil. A different page gives ‘Alterative and Restorative Powder for Horses’ and ‘Cough Balls for Horses,’ reminding us of the ubiquity of the horse for transport at this time.

The recipes also show a lighter side of life, however. For example, this idea for a children’s entertainment:

‘Magic Designs on a White Sheet Stretch a sheet & draw a design such as the Prince Wales’s Feathers &c with a piece of Chalk & dust thereon lightly a penny packet of Aniline dye Red, Blue, or Any Colour. This is invisible at a distance but on spraying Methylated Spirit onto the sheet with a spray apparatus - it is instantly developed to the amusement of the youngsters.’

The pharmacist also held a wealth of knowledge about food and drink, for which ingredients could be supplied. Alfred Jones offered recipes for ‘Sea Side Sauce’, ‘American Cock Tail Bitters’, Doncaster Butter Scotch, Ginger Wine, ‘Currie Powder’ and Salad Dressing, as well as various jams and marmalades. In this book, some of these recipes sit rather incongruously beside much less appetising concoctions, for example ‘Currie Powder’ (nutmeg, turmeric, “cummin seed,” cayenne, coriander, black pepper, ginger and mustard) is followed by ‘Cement for Glass, China &c’ and ‘Insoluble Liquid Glue.”

This volume, handwritten by a Retreat patient, is just one of the thousands of documents in the hospital’s archive which can tell us about life outside the walls of the Retreat, as well as within. While there are some unusual additions (a poem entitled ‘Lines addressed to a Kitten’ tucked into a page describing furniture polish and cold cream, for example), this book is a fascinating insight into the world of the Victorian pharmacist, and just one of the documents in the Retreat’s archives which brings a lost world to life.

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Nature of the Job II: Structuring the archive of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

In my last blog about my project cataloguing the archive of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, I wrote about how I got started with the survey of this archive. In this instalment, I'll be writing about my experiences in developing a structure for the archive, why it's important and how it'll translate to our online catalogue, Borthcat

Trying my hand at some slip listing for the Skipwith Common files.
From the very beginning of the project, I was aware of how vital it was for the structure of the archive to be right. The organisation was (and still is) a complex one and I want the structure of the archive to convey a sense of the wider scheme of the Trust's business, allowing users to contextualise, through their interrelationship, the individual records they look for. Of course this applies to all archives, but particularly so in this project for a number of reasons. Firstly, the archive is still very a much a living repository of information - it is actively consulted by YWT staff as part of ongoing legal and campaign work and there are regular accruals of new material. This means that the records themselves are not necessarily going to be in our physical custody and in turn means that the intellectual control we have over these records needs to be robust. Secondly, aside from the additional deposits of archival material already received, the Trust continues to dynamically develop and so the structure needs to make allowances for future growth. Thirdly, (and perhaps a little intimidatingly for me!) at the time of writing, no other Wildlife Trust in the UK has deposited archival material in such quantities in a public repository so it is hoped that this project will provide a model for any future Trusts in arranging their archives.

The beginnings of a structure!
So while the latter makes Yorkshire Wildlife Trust unique in both the scope of its archival material and its public availability, it also means that there aren't any parallel organisations for me to reference in structuring this archive. So I was relying on a number of sources in developing the scheme - first and foremost my own research into the records themselves, then the excellent published history in Tim Sands' book 'Wildlife in Trust: A hundred years of nature conservation' and then on the living memory of the organisation in the shape of members and trustees, some of whom form part of the board monitoring and supporting this project.

Using survey notes to identify links between files.
Here, minutes copied and sent to Executive Committee
As an organisation, YWT has changed over its 70 year life, shifting from an amateur conservation body in 1946 to a professional campaigning organisation. Alongside this have come numerous administrative changes, all impacting on how records were accumulated by the organisation. Luckily, these changes have been well documented (for the most part) and so I was able to get a good understanding of the provenance of the archive. These records of change were a useful point of reference for me in developing my structure, as were the numerous references to now obsolete filing systems - often filed by the initials of the person generating the correspondence, with date and document references, and then by an increasingly complex system of alphanumeric codes. I used these to give me an understanding of how committees, departments and individuals interacted with one another, as well as documenting the links between the centralised functions of the Trust and the vital operational work carried out all over Yorkshire by volunteer committees.

I started working on the structure of the archive at the same time as surveying the records. I've worked iteratively, and initially worked on the overarching structure of the archive. I'm now on the fourth (and hopefully final!) version which incorporates 7 subfonds covering the foundation of the Trust, its governance, administration, liaison work, conservation records and campaigns. The seventh subfonds, and the one I'll focus on here, is the one covering the sites associated with the Trust. The majority of the material in the archive relates to the sites that the Trust has owned, managed and advised on and each site has anywhere between 1 and 70 files including environmental records, management records and research into each site.
I decided to move away from slip listing and started to use a piece of
mind mapping software. Above: working copy of Skipwith Common version 3!

I started the process using the files of Skipwith Common, which is no longer a Trust reserve, but which was one of the first sites whose records I surveyed. My first, uncertain, attempt at a structure split the files into three subsubsubfonds (!) but I felt that this structure was too generic to really reflect with accuracy the unique and complex nature of the ecology and management of each site. This became increasingly apparent as I tried to apply this structure to more sites. I decided to go back to the drawing board and began to work on a different structure, which even as I started it, felt much better in tune with the nature of the records. A good lesson in going with your gut feeling, even as a new professional!

This overall structure will well reflect the types of records that are present in the archive as well as the symbiotic relationship between the ecology of each site and its stewardship. Further, although loosely based on the same framework, the records of each site will have their own individual structures according to the records that are deposited. 

Sneak peek at how the records for Askham Bog will look on our online catalogue

But how will it look online? This structure looks lovely and clear on paper (at least to me!) but will appear very differently through our online catalogue. Above you can see a sneak peek of the entry for Askham Bog as it currently stands, although before it's published there will be more information added and probably a different iteration of AtoM too! I'll be adding the descriptions of each file very soon and I'll be blogging about that process in the next instalment of this series. For now, I'll continue to add files to my skeletal framework and to refine the structure, adding new levels as more information comes to light. It's really exciting to see it finally taking shape and emerging from my sea of drafts!

Lydia Dean
Project Archivist

You can follow updates on this project via Twitter, Facebook and this blog. Please do get in touch with any questions or comments and I'll be happy to help! 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Remembering Private Thomas John Morgan

Well I far from home but you are not out of my mind.  I hope to be home by Christmas, if not before then.

These words were written by 18 year old Private Thomas John Morgan to his 7 year old brother Llewellyn in May 1916.  Two months later, Thomas would be dead, one of 4,000 Welsh soldiers killed in Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme.  The handful of letters he wrote home to his family in Llanfairfechan in North Wales survive as part of the Alfred Peacock Archive here at the Borthwick Institute, along with many other letters, postcards, diaries and photographs that tell of the terrible human cost of the First World War.

Thomas was born in early 1898, the eldest son of a Merionethshire quarry man and his wife.  By 1911 the family had settled in the small Welsh town of Llanfairfechan, just along the coast from Bangor.  Thomas was one of four surviving children, he had two younger sisters, Gladys and Margaret Ann, and his youngest brother Hugh Llewellyn, known as Llewellyn.  

We know from Thomas’ surviving army service record that he worked as a baker before he enlisted.  We also know that he lied about his age in order to join up.  In this he was far from unique. It has been estimated that some quarter of a million British soldiers in the First World War were underage.  Before the Military Service Act of 1916, recruits were supposed to be aged between 18 and 38, but they could not be sent abroad until they were 19.  Thomas enlisted in November 1915 at the age of 17, giving his age as 19 years and 14 days so he would be immediately eligible to be posted overseas.  He also barely met the height threshold of 5 feet 3 inches, coming in at only half an inch taller.

The ruse worked and Thomas was accepted into the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and posted to France in March 1916, at the age of 18.  His letters home from France provide glimpses of his personality.  Despite his claims that he is ‘not a letter writer at all’ he promises to write and send field postcards at ‘every opertunity [sic] I get’ and requests paper and envelopes from home and letters as often as they can send them.  ‘You should see the smile on the lads’ faces when they get a parcel,’ he writes in May 1916, ‘It is the only thing to look forward to here.’

Looking forward to leave and parcels from home in this letter from May 1916.

The occasional odd phrasing and misspellings in the letters are a reminder that English was unlikely to have been Thomas’ first language, but that Welsh speaking soldiers were expected to use it regardless so that their letters could be more easily censored.

His letters are full of local concerns.  He mentions local men he has seen at the Front, telling his mother he has seen ‘Lloyd’s brother’ in the camp at Boulogne, and has spoken with ‘Tom Parry’ and asks to be remembered to everyone at Llanfairfechan ‘who I know.’  In May 1916 he writes to thank his mother for sending her ‘bara brith’ (a Welsh tea loaf) which was ‘very good indeed’ and asks if his father knows anyone Manod Road as he had met a soldier from there by the name of Alun Jones.  He also worries about his mother receiving enough of his army pay, ‘I know you cannot spare the money and I think I can do without it here.’

Born and raised in a still largely rural area of Wales, he is critical of the more wasteful practices he sees.  In June he complains of skirmishing exercises taking place ‘in the middle of corn and potato fields which are to be seen for miles.  Now it is all spoiled, it is a great shame I think.  If the war happened to be there I wouldn’t say nothing but only for training it's a great shame we all think.’  

The most touching letter of all is the one to his little brother Llewellyn, enclosed with a letter to his mother in May.  ‘I received your kind little letter quite safe,’ Thomas writes. ‘Thanks very much for the song you sent me I am very glad of it.  I am sending you a handichief [sic] and one for Gladys & one for Margaret Ann. You can pick for yourself which you like best,’ adding ‘I must say that you are getting on well at school to be able to write letters like you are.’

He ends one of his final letters home with the hope that he might soon get leave, finishing ‘Well good bye now and God bless you all & please don’t worry.’  

The Battle of Mametz Wood began on the 7th July and Thomas was reported missing on the 11th, later confirmed as killed in action.  By some administrative error, his mother Margaret received notice only that he had been ‘discharged to duty’ and wrote to his regiment on the 21st July seeking further information, ‘Could you please let me know where he is, as I am so anxious to hear from him & trust you make enquiries for me, as it is a long time since I had a field post card, trusting it will not be troubling you too much.’

The letter informing Thomas' mother that he has been killed in action.

The terrible news was sent on the 28th and Margaret spent the next four years desperately searching for further news of the circumstances of her son’s death and his burial place, to no avail.  An army chaplain, replying to one of her letters in September 1916, wrote that ‘the probability is that he was buried where he fell with many of his comrades from the Battalion.  We did not have the opportunity of burying the brave fellows who fell in Mametz Wood, as immediately after the battle we moved elsewhere.’

Thomas’ resting place was never found and today he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France and at home in Llanfairfechan on the war memorial on Aber Road.  His letters, and those of his mother, are a testament to just one of the many individual and family tragedies that make up the First World War.  

On Armistice Day we remember them.