Tuesday, 9 June 2020

‘Where there’s a will’: Charles Dickens and York’s Church Court Records

By John-Francis Goodacre, Archives Trainee

On the 12th of October 1850, an exposé reprinted in the York Herald sparked a small controversy in the city. Criticising the way that York’s ecclesiastical records were kept, the article generated a flurry of accusations and denials in the city’s newspaper over the subsequent weeks. However, no attempts were made to draw the author into this dispute, perhaps as the piece had appeared without direct attribution. We now know that the article, which was the second in a series of four under the title ‘The Doom of English Wills’, was written by the 38-year-old Charles Dickens and had first appeared in his weekly journal Household Words. But what made Dickens, one of Victorian England’s best-loved authors, so interested in the storage of historical records - the same records that are now housed at the Borthwick?

As the Borthwick’s current Graduate Trainee, a large part of my time has been spent providing access to the centuries of wills and probate records in the York Diocesan Archive. I was fascinated to learn that Dickens wrote about the very pieces of paper and parchment that I have been handling day to day. The tightly rolled documents, often covered with a layer of smoky residue that obstinately coats the fingers, sometimes feel like they belong to a Dickensian world of candlelit intrigue.

Rolled probate bundles from the York Diocesan Archive

Katharine Longley has already written a fantastic account of all four ‘Doom of English Wills’ articles and their place in record-keeping history in the Journal of the Society of Archivists. However, this left me curious about how they fitted into Dickens’ career as a writer. I am fascinated by the way Dickens brought his skills as a novelist to the investigation of York’s historical records, while exploring issues that would play a central role in his novels of the early 1850s.

The Doom of English Wills

The article that appeared in the Herald (subtitled 'Cathedral Number Two’) was the second in a series of journalistic investigations into the keeping of England’s historic records. A young lawyer and antiquary named William Downing Bruce had made expeditions to four of England’s great ecclesiastical registries (the church archives of the time), and Dickens, together with his assistant editor William Henry Wills, turned Bruce’s experiences into articles for his newly-established magazine Household Words.

Charles Dickens in 1850 (Wikimedia Commons)

Dickens gives Bruce the pseudonym ‘Mr William Wallace’, and narrates his experience in York. Wallace goes in search of the registry, where he wishes to look at some documents for the purposes of historical research. When he finally finds the registry, a shed sticking to the outside of the Minster ‘like a dirty little pimple’, his research is thwarted by its obstructive management. The Deputy Registrar questions Wallace’s motives, refuses to let him see any wills from after the year 1500, and repeatedly claims that the records he wants to see have been lost or stolen. After a week of apparently fruitless struggle, Wallace is forced to ‘beat a dignified retreat’.

Corruption and reform

Until 1858, the Church of England had jurisdiction over matters of probate in England and Wales. This meant that a small number of civil law courts had the (often lucrative) job of approving wills and giving grants of administration if a testator had died intestate - that is, without leaving a will.

Dickens was already familiar with the technicalities of these legal processes. After leaving school, he had worked for a year as a junior clerk in a law office, and spent a subsequent four years as a freelance legal reporter at Doctors’ Commons, the London Inn of Court for civil lawyers which played host to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Doctors’ Commons and its record office even appeared in one of Dickens’s first forays into legal satire, an episode of his Sketches by Boz which appeared in the Morning Chronicle in October 1836.

The registries that housed the wills and other records created by the courts had an important function. The documents could be vital evidence in settling inheritance disputes, not to mention being rich historical sources. Public access was thus a serious matter. Yet despite parliamentary debates and inquiries throughout the 1830s and 40s, and the passing of the Public Record Office Act in 1838, the conditions of storage and ease of access to such documents was haphazard. Additionally, it was suspected that some registries were charging extortionate fees for their own gain.

In his novels of the 1850s, Dickens turned his attention to antiquated institutions that in his view were keeping England stuck in a morass of corruption and bureaucracy. David Copperfield, which was reaching the end of its monthly serialisation when ‘The Doom of English Wills’ appeared, gave him an initial chance to satirise the apparent corruption of the registries. David, who is apprenticed to a proctor (the civil law version of a solicitor), gets to observe the registry where the wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are stored. He remarks that the office is 'rather a queerly managed institution', where registrars with 'magnificent sinecures' store the public’s wills haphazardly, ‘having no object but to get rid of them cheaply'. 

Wallace’s misadventures in York take us deeper into these charges of corruption. With characteristic irony, Dickens claims that the registry generates ‘about ten thousand a year for the Registrar who does nothing, and the like amount for his Deputy who helps him.’ Dickens also intersperses the narrative with anecdotal accounts of York’s records being sold as waste paper or being used as a private source of income by the registry’s clerks. 

While ‘The Doom of English Wills’ portrays the immediate consequences of inadequate storage for records, Dickens would depict the wider repercussions in his next novel. Bleak House, published serially between 1852 and 1853, presents a dysfunctional society whose problems can be traced back to legal corruption and poor record-keeping. The novel’s central characters are all ensnared in the web of a legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that has been going on for years and has become ‘so complicated that no man alive knows what it means’. The impasse stems from the multiple conflicting wills left by a testator. 

Dickens leads us to believe that the crucial will, which will allow the case to be resolved, is in a rag and bottle shop in the shadow of Lincoln’s Inn, filled with 'heaps of old crackled parchment scroll, and discoloured and dog’s-eared law-papers'. The shop is presided over by a grotesque and illiterate alcoholic named Krook who obsessively hoards documents that he has no means of understanding. To drive the point home, Krook is known by his neighbours as the 'Lord Chancellor' and shop as 'Court of Chancery'. This is Dickens’s nightmarish vision of a dysfunctional record office taken to its extreme - a place of filth and disorder where nothing can be found and documents lose their meaning.

Smoke and fire

When he first steps into the registry, Wallace finds himself in a ‘confined den’ with a ‘pestilent little chimney in it, filling it with smoke like a Lapland hut'. This first impression, its outlandish imagery contrasting starkly with the descriptions of York’s opulent mansions, primes us for the article’s other serious criticism of the registry - that the documents were at risk of smoke and fire. Despite the specific complaints made by an 1832 Ecclesiastical Commission, Wallace finds that the registry has done nothing to fire-proof itself. Reflecting on the prospect of spending a week there, he remarks that he ‘did not enjoy the notion of being smoke-dried; and of returning to the Middle Temple a sort of animated ham.'

Dickens was well aware of the danger that fire posed to historical records. He had been working as a journalist in London in 1834 when Parliament was consumed by fire, destroying centuries of procedural records for the House of Commons. It is quite possible he saw the blaze with his own eyes. Major fires at York Minster in 1829 and 1840, in which York’s records were rescued by local bystanders, are unlikely to have escaped his notice.

The Palace of Westminster on Fire, 1834, unknown artist (Art in Parliament)

Speaking about the burning of Parliament in an address to the Administrative Reform Society in 1855, Dickens dwelt on the irony that the fire was itself a product of poor record-keeping practice. The blaze had started when two cartloads of tally sticks - small notched pieces of wood used as tax receipts since the twelfth century - were used as fuel in a heating furnace designed to burn coal. Dickens mocked both what he saw as the ‘obstinate adherence to an obsolete custom’ well into the nineteenth century, and the perverse decision to incinerate them rather than distribute them to locals in need of fuel.

Yet for Dickens, the cause of Parliament’s incineration had a metaphorical significance that surpassed mere fire safety. The moral he drew was that ‘all obstinate adherence to rubbish which the time has long outlived [...] will some day set fire to something or other’. In other words, the failure to reform England’s stagnant institutions and outdated systems would lead to disaster. 

This image of a corrupt system consuming itself in flames is one that Dickens used to great effect in Bleak House. Krook, the ‘Lord Chancellor’ of the rag and bottle shop who parodically embodies the ills of Chancery, apparently dies of spontaneous combustion ‘engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself’. Smoke too, together with the thick London fog, is one of the abiding images of the novel, evoking the confusion and opacity that shrouds the lives of its characters. 

Krook’s smouldering remains, illustrated by Hablot Knight (Flickr Commons)

Humour and humanity

Finally, it is worth acknowledging quite how funny ‘The Doom of English Wills’ is. Dickens takes what could be a dry subject - the appropriate storage of historical documents - and makes it engaging, satirising corruption and using narrative intrigue and memorable characters to humanise the issue.

There is of course a real person behind the mask of ‘Mr William Wallace’, but Dickens takes advantage of the pseudonym to craft a likeable novelistic protagonist in the vein of David Copperfield. Rather than depicting Wallace as a hard-headed investigative journalist out to expose corruption, Dickens endows him with a naive optimism about the state of York’s ecclesiastical records. After listing the historical distinctions that make York the second city of England, Wallace exclaims 'this is surely the place for an unimpeachable Registry!'. 

We know from the start that Wallace isn’t going to find the flawless institution he is dreaming of, so his search among all of York’s grand buildings takes on a comic futility, and all of his efforts lead up to one big punchline. Unable to find his way to the registry, Wallace reflects that 'there must surely be a flaw in the old adage, and that where there was a will (and a great many wills) there was no way at all'. Having finally located the registry and started the arduous task of finding the information he needs, Wallace takes on the quixotic role of a ‘kind of knight-errant in the matter of rescuing ancient documents from their tombs of filth’.

The other ‘characters’ in the article seem to have stepped out from the pages of a novel: from the ‘farmer-looking man’ with the comedy Yorkshire accent who finally points Wallace to the registry, to the officious Deputy Registrar who laughs incredulously at the idea that Wallace might actually want to see the documents himself. (Dickens describes this reaction in a way that recalls the disbelief of Mr Bumble when Oliver Twist asks for more gruel.)

While Dickens is writing reportage here, describing people and events that have a basis in reality, his persuasive techniques are quite comparable to the ones he uses in his fiction. He could have advocated for reform using argumentative and factual prose (as William Downing Bruce would go on to do). Instead he uses characterisation and narrative to highlight the injustices of the situation. In the words of social historian David Vincent, 'Dickens’s fundamental claim [is] that contemporary abuses are best understood and communicated by means of an intense imaginative engagement with individual lives'. 

Dickens’s articles, along with the sustained campaigning of Bruce and certain sympathetic politicians, did help bring about reform. Efforts were made to improve the storage conditions in York’s registry, and in 1858 the entire probate system was reformed, transferring jurisdiction from the church courts to a new centralised Court of Probate with specific registries for the new records. 170 years on since the publication of ‘The Doom of English Wills’ (and 150 years to the day since Dickens’ death), the records are now kept safely in the Borthwick strongroom - but the persistent layer of smoky residue on some of the wills reminds us of this chapter in their long history.


Dickens, Charles, Bleak House (London: Penguin, 2003).

Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield (London: Penguin, 1996).

Dickens, Charles, Sketches by Boz (London: Penguin, 2006).

Dickens, Charles, Speeches Literary and Social (London: Chatto and Windus, 1880).

Dickens, Charles, and William Henry Wills, ‘The Doom of English Wills: Cathedral Number Two’, Household Words, vol 2, pp. 25-28.

Longley, Katharine M, ‘Charles Dickens and the “Doom” of English Wills’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 14.1 (1993), 25-38.

Vincent, David, ‘Social Reform’, in John Jordan, Robert L. Patten, and Catherine Waters, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 420–435.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Isaac Havelock: a book-lover in seventeenth-century York

By John-Francis Goodacre, Archives Trainee

Imagine stepping into a house. Nobody is at home, but a row of books lines the bookshelf. How much can you tell about the person who lives there?

This is the situation we can find ourselves in when reading probate inventories, the lists of movable goods that were drawn up after a person’s death in order to assess their wealth and calculate church court fees. These lists can offer an incredibly rich insight into the everyday lives of people long dead, through a snapshot of what they owned at the time of their death. Though many inventories only record clothing, household furniture and livestock, some occasionally contain detailed evidence of book ownership. One such inventory in the Borthwick’s Yorkshire Probate Records tells the story of an avid reader in seventeenth-century York.

Isaac Havelock died some time before September 1640. His estate passed through the Prerogative Court of York, and four men were instructed to make an inventory of his goods, which they did on the 31st of August. This inventory - a long piece of parchment written on both sides - records an impressive array of furniture in York, as well as a large selection of goods in Berwick upon Tweed, including fine clothes, five gold rings, a silver watch and chain, and a horse. What makes the document stand out, however, is the category of items that is given its own space in the end, making up a good third of the entire inventory and over a quarter of its value. The “Schedule of his books” records at least 132 books, of which 43 are individually named.

The beginning of Isaac Havelock’s inventory.

There is little else we know about him. The other documents that one would expect to find in a probate bundle - a will, a grant of administration, a bond - haven’t survived, so it is not clear what his occupation was or to whom he left his possessions. There seem to have been Havelocks living in the villages of Skelton-in-Cleveland, Marske and Guisborough in the North Riding of Yorkshire, and the parish register of Skelton records the baptism of an Isaac Havelock, son of John, on September 28th 1587. Isaac Havelock also appears as a witness in a number of deeds from the area around York between the 1610s and the 1630s, including one where he is described as a servant to Richard Bell Esq., a counsellor-at-law of York. Of all the archival sources, it is thus the list of books which gives us the most detailed insight into his life.

It is not entirely surprising that the inventory begins with “One large bible in folio”. The bible would have been a vital part of any 17th-century book collection, and the mention of its large size and format, as well as its relatively high value of 16 shillings, emphasises the primary importance of the scripture in Havelock’s collection. Moreover, the attention to its physicality reminds us that books were also objects to be valued for their aesthetic qualities. Next comes the most expensive book in the inventory, John Foxe’s influential Protestant martyrology called Acts and Monuments (here referred to by its popular title, The Book of Martyrs). This massive folio, full of distinctive woodcut illustrations, was given the value of £1 6s 8d - more than the price of the sword with a silver hilt that was among Havelock’s possessions at Berwick upon Tweed.

The ordering of the books in the inventory tells us a lot about the importance that was assigned to them. From these and other large-format works of theology and history, the inventory moves on through a mix of quartos and octavos, and finishes with an undifferentiated group of “83 little books besides” as well as a bag of songbooks. Whether or not this seemingly hierarchical arrangement was how Isaac Havelock organised the books in his house, we cannot know for sure. While inventories tended to reflect the layout of goods in a house, the historian Donald Spaeth has recently explored the ways that their order and arrangement could be dependent on the methods of individual appraisers or local conventions.

Woodcut illustration of the burning of John Rogers, the first victim of the Marian persecutions in England. From the first English edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs are a fitting beginning to a list that paints a picture of someone well-read in a variety of Protestant writings. Havelock owned a range of works by important figures in the Reformation from across Europe. These included the works of William Tyndale, whose English translation of the Bible played an important role in the English Reformation; an edition of the New Testament by the French reformer Theodore Beza; the Commonplaces of the Italian-born Peter Martyr Vermigli, a standard textbook of Reformed theology; and the Meditations of the German Lutheran Johann Gerhard. He also owned a copy of De civitate Dei by Saint Augustine, whose works had become popular among Protestant reformers.

In addition to these pan-European religious bestsellers, Havelock had had an interest in vernacular works of popular devotion. Among these were Lewis Bayly’s hugely popular religious self-help book The Practice of Piety, John Norden’s A Poore Mans Rest, and treatises and sermons by the Puritan preachers William Cowper, Richard Stock and John Dod. He also possessed a copy of George Herbert’s collection of religious poetry, The Temple. However, the inventory isn’t uniformly Protestant. Havelock owned The Passions of The Mind, a treatise on the passions written by Thomas Wright. Wright, born in York to a Catholic family, was a Jesuit who had spent much of the 1590s imprisoned in York due to his recusant activity.

In the fore chamber of his house in York, the same room that contained his desk and writing materials, Havelock had a “large mapp”. As this is listed in the same entry as “a woodden frame with pictures”, it is tempting to imagine the map hanging on the wall above him as he sat writing, perhaps providing a window onto distant lands. From his books, it does seem that Havelock had a particular interest in travel and the world - and in particular the Middle East. His library contained Heinrich Bünting’s popular Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae, a book describing the geography and landscapes in which biblical events and journeys took place. He owned an account of the travels of George Sandys, son of Archbishop of York Edwin Sandys, which included a map of the Middle East along with lavish illustrations of Constantinople’s skyline, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. More sensational was an account of the travels of the Scotsman William Lithgow, whose journey by foot through Europe to the Middle East and North Africa purportedly involved daring escapes, shipwrecks and encounters with pirates.

A map of the holy land from the 1585 German edition of Heinrich Bünting’s Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae. (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

These travel narratives are complemented by other larger-scale works of world history and geography by John Swan, Peter Heylyn and Walter Raleigh. Together, their variety demonstrates that the early modern interest in the world wasn’t solely restricted to the category of knowledge we now call geography. These books ranged from biblical history to current affairs, carefully sourced scholarship to highly personal accounts, and indeed from fact to fiction - the authoritatively-titled History of Trebizond in Havelock’s library was actually a collection of romances.

The rest of the inventory suggests that Havelock’s reading covered a wide range of subjects.
Law is well represented; he owned books of statutes and decrees, a manual on the role of justice of the peace, and the earliest treatise on women’s rights in English known as The Womans Lawyer. He owned a large chronicle of British history from the Roman conquest, as well as two histories of the reign of Elizabeth I. An interest in Latin authors is suggested by a translation of the Roman historian Justin, a copy of what is likely to be Lucan’s epic poem on the Roman civil war, and a parallel translation of the Distichs of Cato - a popular schoolbook for teaching Latin. We may also wonder about Havelock’s connection to music, as he owned a bible “with singing psalmes”, an Introduction to Practicall Musicke by the composer of madrigals Thomas Morley, and a bag of songbooks valued at a pound - although there is no mention of any instruments in his possession.

Where would Havelock have got these books from? At the time of his death, no books had been printed in York for more than a hundred years, and it would be another two before King Charles brought the royal printer to York at the onset of civil war. Rather, Havelock’s library was made up of books printed in the centres of the early seventeenth-century print trade in Britain. Most came from London, a number from the two university cities Oxford and Cambridge, and at least one of his books was printed in Edinburgh.

However, he wouldn’t have needed to travel far to get his hands on them. York was part of an impressive distribution network for books that stretched across the country and beyond, and the Minster Yard was home to a number of booksellers, bookbinders and stationers. The inventory of John Foster, the owner of one of these shops who died in 1616, attests to the scale of the trade. His stock included three and a half thousand copies of over a thousand titles, with books printed as far away as Venice, Zurich and Lyon. In fact, a number of books in Havelock’s inventory match titles that were on sale in Foster’s shop, suggesting he may have been a regular customer.

Can this list of books tell us who Isaac Havelock was? The inventory gives us an impression of a wealthy protestant reader, who was buying books well into the last decade of his life: a man who was interested in the wider world, history, and law. His library, writing equipment and the “3 dozen of parchment skinns” listed alongside his books suggest that literacy was an important part of his profession. He may have been involved in music-making, either in connection with the Minster or one of York’s many other churches.

However, there are also significant gaps in the information provided - what were the 83 “little books besides” that the appraisers didn’t list by name? Nor does the inventory tell us anything about the social lives of the books. Reading was frequently a social activity as books were read aloud or passed among friends, but we cannot know about the other women or men who interacted with Havelock’s library. Finally, we all know that the books on our bookshelves can mean different things to us. Some we buy for pleasure, others profit. Some we read once, others we return to time and time again. Some books change our way of looking at the world, others reinforce what we already believe. The book historian David Pearson entreats us to bear this in mind when researching books and their readers: “We should think of these libraries not so much as mirrors of the particular interests of their owners, but more as platforms or springboards from which their own ideas and perceptions of the world developed” (2010: 159). Nonetheless, Isaac Havelock’s inventory offers a remarkable insight into seventeenth-century York’s literary world.


Barnard, John, and Maureen Bell, ‘The English Provinces’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie, with Maureen Bell, vol. 4, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 665–686.

Pearson, David, ‘Patterns of Book Ownership in Late Seventeenth-Century England’, The Library, 11.2 (2010), 139-167.

Spaeth, Donald, ‘“Orderly Made”: re-appraising household inventories in seventeenth-century England’, Social History, 41.4 (2016), 417-435.

Tillott, P. M., ed., A History of the County of York: the City of York (London: Victoria County History, 1961).

Winters, Jennifer, ‘The English provincial book trade: bookseller stock-lists, c.1520-1640’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of St Andrews, 2012).

Friday, 21 February 2020

'A Very Dangerous and Anxious Sitation': European Refugees and the Retreat Hospital, 1938-1945

By Dr. Nicholas Melia, Archives Assistant, Borthwick Institute for Archives

In spring 1939, John W. Harvey, professor of philosophy at Leeds University and a prominent Quaker, wrote to Dr. Arthur Pool, Medical Superintendent at the Retreat Hospital, requesting help in finding work and hospitality for a ‘very distinguished’ émigré psychoanalyst who had fled Vienna in the aftermath of the Anschluss. The letter, preserved in a file of correspondence and papers in the Retreat Archive at the Borthwick institute relating to applications for posts by European refugees before and during the war (RET/5/6/16), explains that not only had Dr. Maxim Steiner ‘heard of the Retreat’, but came ‘with very strong recommendations from Prof. Freud’, to whom Steiner acted as physician and dermatologist in Vienna.

Letter from John W. Harvey, University of Leeds to Dr. Arthur Pool concerning Dr. Maxim Steiner, April 1939.
Letter from John W. Harvey, University of Leeds to Dr. Arthur Pool concerning Dr. Maxim Steiner, April 1939.
Twelve months earlier, Freud had written to Ernest Jones, president of both the International Psychoanalytical Association and the British Psycho-Analytical Society, begging him to aid Steiner’s passage to England: ‘I cannot claim that he is important as an analyst’, wrote Freud, ‘but […] he is a special friend of mine’.(1) Jones appears to have shown the letter to Harvey some time later, and, despite the personal, rather than professional tenor of Freud’s recommendation, Pool nonetheless met the 62 year old Steiner over tea in York. In his response to Harvey, he described Steiner as ‘very alert intellectually and younger than his years’, despite suffering with a self-confessed depression resulting from the ‘terrible things’ afflicting Europe.

While Steiner was not ultimately able to secure work at the Retreat, he was in no sense the only physician to seek refuge from Nazi persecution in the UK or, indeed, at the Retreat. A Quaker poverty relief unit had been active in Vienna for some years, and Freud himself had dined at the Friends Society there, likely through acquaintance with British Quaker psychoanalyst John Rickman. Rickman had moved to Vienna in 1920 and, with his wife Lydia, spent much time working with the unit to alleviate poverty. In fact, the Friends War Victims’ Relief Committee (later the Friends Relief Service) had acted to organize aid and hospitality for Europeans affected by poverty, war and political instability since the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, and was ultimately awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1947 for its wartime work.

Photograph of Arnold S. Rowntree with Dr Arthur Pool, Retreat Physician Superintendent, 1946.
Photograph of Arnold S. Rowntree with Dr Arthur Pool, Retreat Physician Superintendent, 1946.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Quaker responses to the rise of fascism in Europe were coordinated early. The German Emergency Committee (later Friends Committee for Refugees), which played a vital role in the 1938 Kindertransport, was established in 1933, and within months of the Anschluss and annexation of Sudetenland, the Retreat became the recipient of the first of many applications for work and hospitality, mostly via the mediation of Quaker agencies and networks. The Retreat Management Committee ‘felt it was right to offer what hospitality it could to refugees from central Europe’ and had, in fact, signaled that it was ‘anxious to help in any way’ possible a matter of days after Kristallnacht. A few weeks later, the Committee responded to a request from the Vienna Society asking for help in ‘getting non-Aryans to England’, and by January 1939, had ‘committed [itself] to trying to get two doctors into the country – a Dr. Koch from Vienna and a Dr. Kiewe from Germany’. It was also working to provide hospitality for a third - Dr. Fritz Kraupl - already in London, and had already hosted Dr. Gretl Hitschmann earlier in 1938, who wished to gain ‘insight into the work of an English Mental Hospital’, and had, Management Committee minutes reveal, been ‘forced to leave Austria because she is a Jewess’. Shortly thereafter, the Committee would also agree to provide work running the Male Nurses Hostel for Manfred and Ilse Tallert, who had landed in Whitby while fleeing Europe for Shanghai.

Little correspondence survives regarding the successful arrival in April 1939 of Dr. Siegfried Kiewe, but Management Committee minutes tell us that he had been forced to leave Berlin ‘on account of his being a Jew’. The Committee offered hospitality ‘for an indefinite period’, and psychiatrist and family were lodged with Retreat secretary Mr. Burgess at Garrow Bank. Kiewe initially undertook laboratory, dispensary and massage work at the hospital, but in 1941, the Committee and Board of Control approved his undertaking of locum duties, and he continued thereafter as a salaried Assistant Physician until retirement in January 1959. Upon receipt of the Alfred and Margaret Torrie award, given to staff making an outstanding contribution to the wellbeing of patients, Kiewe payed tribute to the ‘kindness, understanding and tolerance’ he had received from the moment of his arrival in York. He died in 1986 at the age of 105.(2)

Dr. Fritz Kraupl, a medical dietician from Sudetenland exiled in London with experience of treating nervous disorders, was initially invited to the Retreat as a guest of the Committee with the intention of undertaking a kitchen traineeship. However, the committee felt that it would be inappropriate to place a male physician into a kitchen in which the ‘staff are wholly female’, and having taken up residence on 31st July 1939, Kraupl was found work in the Retreat laboratory, before obtaining a Clinical Assistant post at the Crichton Royal, Dumfries, in May 1940.

Securing safe passage for Dr. Rudolph Koch, however, proved more difficult. The Vienna Society of Friends approached Pool in November 1938 seeking hospitality and work for a physician ‘just been released from the concentration camp’. In correspondence, Koch declared himself ‘compleatly [sic] healthy and willing to work’, but stressed the need to escape from Vienna with the ‘utmost urgency’. Given the prohibitive implementation of the UK’s immigration legislation under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act and Aliens Order 1920, which severely limited the possibility of refugees gaining employment, Pool was unwilling to try to engage Koch as a physician. Instead, he submitted a formal request to the Home Office for permission to employ a ‘foreigner who has left or wishes to leave Germany or Austria on political, racial or religious grounds’ as a laboratory technician. The combination of an intensifying climate of Home Office suspicion and the delay in processing applications due to a huge increase in numbers of applicants, however, took its toll on the Koch family. This is most clearly felt in the series of increasingly desperate letters from Koch’s mother preserved in the correspondence file, who wrote directly to Pool to express ‘the greatest worry about my son’.

Despite Pool’s desire to help and, if necessary, take Koch in ‘on no official basis’, the Germany Emergency Committee received correspondence from the Home Office on February 15th 1939, rejecting the application and stating that ‘we are unable to agree to foreigners, especially foreign doctors, coming to the United Kingdom to settle in employment as laboratory assistants’. Two weeks later, Pool reported to the Retreat Committee that ‘arrangements for admitting Dr. Koch […] had fallen through’.

Letter from M.G. Russell, Home Office (Aliens Dept.) to Miss Nike, Society of Friends' Germany Emergency Committee, concerning Dr. Rudolph Koch, February 1939.
Letter from M.G. Russell, Home Office (Aliens Dept.) to Miss Nike, Society of Friends' Germany Emergency Committee, concerning Dr. Rudolph Koch, February 1939. 
The sincere efforts and commitment of the Committee notwithstanding, many aspects of the correspondence file make for uncomfortable reading. The Retreat had agreed in 1938 to take ‘our quota of refugee girls permitted by the home office to train as nurses’, and the Annual Report of 1941 tells us that by the end of that year, ten refugees were to be counted among a total nursing staff of 72. However, women who had gained success in their field and sought to utilise professional medical expertise received a significantly shorter shrift than did their male counterparts. Psychologist Rose Rand, the only registered female member of the Vienna Circle, which included Rudolf Carnap and Kurt Gödel amongst its numbers, and Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper amongst its advocates, was described by her peers as ‘a specially gifted philosopher with high promise’.(3) She had worked and studied psychology at the University of Vienna Psychiatric Clinic, where her work with women suffering with mental and nervous disorders led the director of the clinic to describe her as ‘uncommonly gifted for the right treatment of insane patients’. Upon fleeing Vienna, Rand had obtained a post in an ‘epileptic colony’, but had become ill with exhaustion and was, in January 1940, ‘living in London alone on £1 per week’.

Pool was dismissive of Rand’s appeal. In a letter to the Nursing and Midwifery Department of the Central Office for Refugees dated 22nd January 1940, he described Rand pejoratively as a ‘blue-stocking type’: ‘I feel […] suspicious of the very intellectual type who finds it difficult to engage in ordinary domestic pursuits. I prefer the type who can get down to washing dishes and if necessary scrubbing a floor’. ‘If you feel that you would like me to see her’ Pool concluded, ‘well and good, but from your description, I am not at all impressed’. Rand was forced to look elsewhere for hospitality.

Letter from Dr. Arthur Pool to Miss Pye, Nursing and Midwifery Department of the Central Office for Refugees, concerning Rose Rand, January 1940.
Letter from Dr. Arthur Pool to Miss Pye, Nursing and Midwifery Department of the Central Office for Refugees, concerning Rose Rand, January 1940.
The Committee continued to receive and assess applications throughout the war. In the two years following October 1938, it had considered applications from 62 European refugees, and by mid-1939, with applicants at once increasingly desperate and numerous, requests for work were being routinely refused. Probationary Nurse Ilse Gunszt, for example, a ‘non-Aryan Christian [opposed] to the new German ideas’, was required to leave Gt. Yarmouth Hospital when it was requisitioned by the military in 1940, and all ‘aliens had to move 20 miles inland’. She was the first of many to receive a standardized, albeit apologetic, response from Pool: ’[u]ntil the Government make more definite plans, it is unwise to take on our nursing staff [any more] applicants’.

The following year, a Special Meeting of the German Emergency Committee heard with some perturbation accounts of ‘the amount of mental breakdown among refugees’. In a report in the correspondence file, we read that ‘it is quite clear that there is a growing need for special care for refugees who have not been able to overcome the strains and stresses through which they have lived in recent years’. The report raises concern over the increased risk of attempted suicides, and the need for provision of institutional treatment for European refugees. It is an image much in evidence in the latter half of the correspondence file, which increasingly couples applications for work with appeals for treatment.

While the file largely leaves the fate of its supplicants unresolved, many had either already managed to escape from mainland Europe, or would find safe haven elsewhere in the UK. This was not the case for all, however, and this is no more apparent than in an unanswered letter from December 1938, in which we hear from the brother of Johannes Braun, a ‘very successful actor’. Johannes, ‘tall and broad, good looking’ was prohibited from working in Germany, had retrained as a masseur and, we are assured, ‘could become after some instruction a male nurse’. Dr. Konrad Braun described his brother’s situation as ‘very dangerous and anxious’: a third brother, also a doctor, had already been ‘arrested without any reason but that he is of Jewish extraction’. While ‘Johannes is still free’, Konrad warns us, ‘there is actual danger for his life and existence’.

The Braun family archive, held at the Bodleian Library, reveals that Johannes was arrested by the Gestapo in spring 1942 and taken to the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, where he contracted tuberculosis. Within four months, he was dead.


(1) Letter from Sigmund Freud to Ernest Jones, 23 April 1938. Paskauskas, R. Andrew (ed.). The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908-1939. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 761-762.

(2) AJR (Association of Jewish Refugees) Information, Volume XLI No. 12; December 1986, p. 7.

(3) Rentetzi, Mari, ‘”I Want to Look Like a Lady, Not Lie a Factory Worker” Rose Rand, a Woman Philosopher of the Vienna Circle’. In Suárez, Mauricio; Dorato, Mauro; and Rédei; Miklós (eds.), EPSA Epistemology and Methodology of Science: Launch of the European Philosophy of Science Association, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London and New York: Springer, 2010, p.240


Paskauskas, R. Andrew (ed.). The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908-1939. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

Rentetzi, Mari, ‘”I Want to Look Like a Lady, Not Lie a Factory Worker” Rose Rand, a Woman Philosopher of the Vienna Circle’. In Suárez, Mauricio; Dorato, Mauro; and Rédei; Miklós (eds.), EPSA Epistemology and Methodology of Science: Launch of the European Philosophy of Science Association, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London and New York: Springer, 2010.

Steiner, Riccardo, ‘It is a New Kind of Diaspora’: Explorations in the Sociopolitical and Cultural Contexts of Psychoanalysis, London and New York: Karnac Books, 2000.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Feminizing His-story: Addressing Gender-Bias in Wikipedia

By Dr. Namrata R. Ganneri

On 4th February 2020, a dedicated Wikipedia Editathon on Yorkshire's women scientists and innovators will be run at the University of York. The upcoming United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, aimed at raising issues of equity and access and held annually on 11th February, nicely bookends this event. It is believed that along with combating gender-based prejudices, drawing attention to a diverse set of role models and career trajectories of scientists fosters in young people a broader appreciation of the pathways to science. With women's uptake of careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) at a dismal 22% in the UK, the task of visibilizing and celebrating the achievements of women is more urgent than ever.
From the Rowntree Cocoa advertising campaign
As one turn to digital spaces, one finds that women are under-represented even on Wikipedia, one of the frontline, go-to sources of information for people looking for biographical information. Although a live, open-content encyclopaedia, Wikipedia is also man-made (only 12-17% of Wikipedia editors identify as female). The preponderance of men in the online community  of wiki editors  has led to systematic gender-bias in the project. Further, discrepancies  in terms of metadata and hyperlinks  on entries relating to women have broader consequences for Information-seeking activities.

This Editathon thus aims to expand digital editing skills across a broad range of genders (and non-binary identities) and seeks to highlight and bridge the content gap on Wikipedia. A University-wide call for entries to be added and edited highlighted the names of many exceptional contemporary scientists and academics from within the University, including the much-decorated Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research, Professor Deborah Smith and the outstanding physicist, Professor Sarah Thompson among others. Microbiologist Hilary Lapin Scott, who is based at Swansea University and who passionately draws attention to the leaky pipeline in science was also nominated.

In response to this call, the Borthwick Institute for Archives identified a number of archives that tell the stories of innovative women and women-affiliated organizations in Yorkshire.. I was particularly fascinated by the landscape gardener Fanny Rollo Wilkinson (1855-1951), the daughter of a leading doctor from Manchester. Her wealth and social connections meant that Wilkinson had what can be called high ‘science capital’. Wilkinson chose to enrol in an eighteen-month course at the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture which had till then trained men from the artisan class. While women had been involved in domestic gardening, Wilkinson was one of Britain’s first professional landscape gardeners who conducted her practice from Bloomsbury. She was the  landscape gardener to both Octavia Hill’s Kyrle Society and the Metropolitan Public Gardens, Boulevard, and Playground Association (MPGA), laying out over 75 public gardens for the MPGA that spanned London from Wandsworth to Plaistow and from Camberwell to Haverstock Hill. She resigned from this position in 1904 to concentrate on her role as first woman principal of Swanley Horticultural College. This college, originally founded in 1880 to train men in the practice of scientific horticulture, had slowly been transformed into a women-only establishment. Fanny Wilkinson remained as principal until 1916 and continued to patronise many such institutions till the end of her life.

The Borthwick holds letters exchanged between Wilkinson and her mother as well as other associates and relatives, which offer insights into the personal and professional life of this extraordinary woman professional. More information about the Fanny Rollo Wilkinson letters can be found here.

Catherine Muriel 'Kit' Rob
Another fascinating story from the archives is that of the experienced, amateur field botanist Catherine Muriel 'Kit' Rob (1906-1975) based in North Yorkshire. Educated privately by governesses whilst her brothers received university education, Rob collected North Yorkshire records for the Atlas of the British Flora. She was responsible for the publication of Yorkshire Plant Records from 1957 to 1965. Rob worked with many institutions and the Borthwick Archive holds a wide selection of her records. Reading about Catherine Rob, I was most struck by allusions to  her sensitivity and concern for budding female botanists who approached her seeking mentorship and guidance. This made me think a lot about the broader nature of scientific enterprise and conditions around women’s participation in science.

The feminist historian of science Londa Schiebinger, argues that recovering lost voices is an important conceptual approach to mapping the field of gender and science. She points out that this approach coheres neatly with the academic field of women’s history. In any case, it was only in the 1970s that a sizeable number of women began formally entering the sciences (in the western world). Some published biographies. The consumption of these biographies led to questions about  why women’s work has been relegated to the periphery of science, which cascades into other inequalities like lower pay and less prestigious appointments and leads to disillusionment and attrition. Finally, these gender-based patterns of exclusion may have actually even distorted the overall norms and methods of scientific practice.

These observations, in fact, complete the full circle of women’s online presence on Wikipedia along with their marginal presence among the small, online community of (English) Wikipedia editors who are largely male English speakers hailing from the Northern Hemisphere. This Editathon is a small step towards building capacity for an inclusive, global, online community and democratizing access to information. As some volunteer editors have chosen to surface information from archival collections, one can only  hope that the changing constructions of information and history in a digital age will also be highlighted.

For more information on how you can participate as an editor in the Wikipedia community, see the Wikipedia editing guide.

Dr. Namrata R. Ganneri is a Commonwealth-Rutherford Fellow based at the Centre for Global Health Histories, Department of History, University of York and is working on a monograph on India’s smallpox eradication programme.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Using the York Cause Papers for Family History

As a family historian I’m always on the look-out for record collections that add some colour to the past lives I’m researching. Sources such as parish registers, general registration and census records are indispensable sources, but on their own they can only give a small number of clues to the life a person led. Sometimes that may be all you’re looking for, but I generally find that once you have an outline view, you become hungry to find more about the person. How did they live? What was their personality like? What did they do in their life? What were their beliefs? Who were their friends? How did they interact with others? What did they own? The list goes on…

Diocese of Church of England between the Reformation and the mid-19th century
Dioceses of the Church of England between the
Reformation and the mid-19th century
I recently had my eyes opened to the documents from the church courts of the Archbishop of York. Known as the York Cause Papers, these documents hold information on people mainly living in the Diocese of York, and the Northern Province and run from 1300 to 1858. The papers are well known and well used by academics researching church, legal and medieval history, but less so by family historians researching the lives of specific individuals or families. Certainly, I’d always felt a little intimidated at the prospect of delving into them and feared that I could spend a lot of time finding very little!

I was looking for a project subject for my studies at the University of Strathclyde, and Alexandra Medcalf from the Borthwick Institute showed me the papers for the cause of Hannah Willmott from Ellerburn. Hannah died in 1820 without leaving a will and had no immediate next of kin. Administrators carried out the initial distribution of her estate, but the scale of wealth she had inherited meant that lots of people started to come out of the woodwork, disputing the actions of her administrators and staking a claim to a share of the estate. The detail of Hannah’s cause deserves a blog post of its own, but what really challenged my preconceptions about Cause Papers were the records I found in this case: 5 detailed family trees, more than 60 “certified” copies of parish register entries and 30 witness testimonies giving vivid descriptions of individuals and events.

Images of part of a genealogical chart and copies of parish register entries, from the Hannah Willmott testamentary case
Examples of copies of parish register entries and an excerpt from a genealogical chart, TEST.CP.1820/3

With more than 15,000 causes and appeals in the overall collection, I suspected that there could be great potential locked into the records, so I had to find out more. The courts heard causes relating to probate, marriage, immorality, defamation and tithes, and I felt that the probate records could hold details of particular interest to a family historian. And so my project was launched!

I spent time building a high-level view of the entire Cause Paper catalogue, then looked in detail at a selection of testamentary (probate & administration) causes dated between 1733-1858. Here are some of the things I found in the causes I looked at:

A relatively large number of people can be found in the collection. Across the 100 causes I looked at in the catalogue, I found 720 named individuals. Causes most often involved only 2 participants, but some (admittedly exceptional) causes had more than 30 people involved. The average number of participants was 7 people per cause. Looking more broadly, and with 15,000 causes in the full collection, it means that there is the potential to find details for more than 30,000+ individuals (possibly up to 100,000). Although this is not a large number when compared to collections such as parish registers or census records, when considering the relatively humble background of those listed, and the periods covered, this is a significant collection.

The individuals came from a wide range of backgrounds. The occupations of people involved in causes were not just limited to legal or church officials. They also included producers (e.g. agricultural workers), manufacturers (e.g. clothing, food, construction), sellers and dealers, professionals and transport workers. This is great news for family historians, as biographical information about individuals from such a broad range of backgrounds is extremely scarce prior to the 1841 Census.

Table showing occuations for participants in testamentary causes
Occupations found for 50% of the 720 people named in testamentary catalogue sample
Most of the individuals came from Yorkshire. This was not really surprising, but given the complexity of church court jurisdictions (there were 372 active in England & Wales in 1832), it’s useful to know that I found 84% of participants came from Yorkshire (all Ridings). 13% came from elsewhere in the Northern Province (mostly Lancashire, Durham and Nottinghamshire), and 3% came from the Southern Province.

Heat map showing locations of testamentary cause participants
Heat map showing locations of testamentary cause participants

The depositions (witness testimonies) and case exhibits are generally the most useful documents. I looked at 20 causes in great detail and found more than 400 documents, across 1000 images. These documents contain a wide variety of facts and clues, some of which may not be available elsewhere, and this is where I found I could glean most information about a person’s character. Other records such as parish records, family trees, guardianship, debtor/creditor accounts, etc. may open up new lines of enquiry helping break through a brick wall.

Examples of documents in causes: an account of funeral costs from 1779 (TEST.CP.1779/2 p. 2)
and a sample of questions put to witnesses 1820 (TEST.CP.1820/3 p. 106)

The catalogue has a wide range of search terms. Many family historians will be searching for a person by name. Whilst the search allows for a search by name or variant, I’d love to see an enhancement to allow for a phonetic search. During the period of the records, names would have been spoken much more often than written, and given the rich variety of dialects across Yorkshire, a phonetic search would help to track individuals down. The search is not just limited by name. The cataloguing team have indexed a wide variety of terms, all of which can be searched in the advanced search. Places, occupations, dates, roles, sex, status are all indexed (where they appear on the source record), and while I did find a small number of inconsistencies, errors and omissions, this doesn’t in any way diminish the fantastic job the team did in compiling the catalogue.

The quality of online images is excellent. People familiar with attempting to read parish registers from digital versions of grainy, feint microfilm images, will be delighted with the quality of the images in the cause paper collection. I only found a couple of less than perfect images in the 1000 I looked at.

The records are (relatively) easy to read and understand. Armed with a basic understanding of court procedures, and a good reference book, the records were surprisingly easy to follow. The handwriting was generally clear, most records types were easy to identify, and the standard records were consistent in their structure. After 1733, English was the mandatory language, and I also found it used in many pre-1733 records. Those pre-1733 records written in Latin were harder to decode, but they were generally formulaic so once the record type had been identified, I found it possible to pull out keywords.

Having found all of these benefits, I also need to sound a word of caution which will be of no surprise to family history researcher. Always keep in mind the context of the records, don’t just take them at face value. These records were created in adversarial court cases, so there is a risk of bias and this needs to be taken into account before accepting what is written. This is made difficult on some occasions, where a cause did not have a full set of papers, making it harder to reconstruct the case and determine a record’s context. However, understanding the verdict and cross-referencing facts to other sources (e.g. newspaper accounts of proceedings) will help in this area. 

So is it worth the effort? Absolutely it is! The project team which created the online catalogue have created a fabulous, easy to access, free to use resource. Anyone researching a Yorkshire tyke living between 1300 and 1858 should have this on their list to check and may well tap into a rich seam of information that will bring real colour to their research.

The catalogue of York Cause Papers can be found at here, with images (where they are not linked directly through the catalogue) here

To get a deeper understanding of the records, the following are invaluable sources of information:
  • The Cause Papers Research Guide.
  • Tarver, Anne. (1995) Church Court Records: An introduction for family and local historians. Chichester, England: Phillimore.
  • Withers, Colin Blanshard. (2006) Yorkshire probate. 1st edition. Bainton, England: Yorkshire Wolds Publication.

This blog was written by Paul Wainwright, a volunteer at the Borthwick Institute working on the Retreat Letters Project . Paul is a student on the University of Strathclyde's MSc in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies and a student member of the Register of Qualified Genealogists