Thursday, 18 January 2018

Eyewitnesses to History in the Retreat Archive

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive as we publicise the availability of the digitised archive. As we have worked on this digitisation project there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this blog post, one of our digitisation assistants, Jane Rowling highlights some of the interesting items she has encountered.


One of the pleasures of digitising an archive like that of The Retreat, is the number of throwaway comments and random snippets which refer to bigger events in the history of Britain and the world. The correspondence files are particularly rich in this regard, and offer a fascinating insight into life during history’s “Big Events”, through the eyes of people who were there at the time. This blog will pick out a few of my favourite examples, although there are many more among the thousands of digitised documents from this archive which can be found online by browsing our catalogue.

The Tooley Street Fire

Writing in 1885, Mr Charles Cave Wilmott, a patient at The Retreat, recalled one of his experiences as a London resident earlier in his life:

“I got into a Bus and at the Elephant & Castle and we all saw a conflagration at London Bridge. We had a diffy to Cross the bridge. The fire It was opposite the other side of the Thames, and I to saw them squirting water over the Tower Walls, the scene was awfull [sic]. Braidwood the Head of the fire begrade [sic] a most brave man. I forget whether any of the firemen were killed several bu people were buried in the debris. The fire Brigade with Braidwood marched behind the funeral cortege down Shoreditch to Kensall Green Semetry [sic], The playing the dead march in Saul. It was a grand sight.”

This memory has many parallels with the Tooley Street Fire of 1861, which was often referred to as the greatest fire since the Great Fire of London. This took place in the warehouses which lined the Thames close to London Bridge and took two weeks to extinguish. As with other disasters in the Victorian city, the Tooley Street Fire drew crowds of over 30,000 people, standing on the bridge and the opposite side of the river, bringing traffic to a standstill, and accounting for the difficulty which Mr Wilmott’s bus experienced in crossing. James Braidwood, the Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, was in fact killed during the effort to extinguish this conflagration, buried under a wall which collapsed on him as he was attempting to assist one of his firemen. A funeral cortege like the one Mr Wilmott remembered , a mile and a half long, carried Braidwood to his final resting place. This event was a major spur for the creation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1866.

The First World War

Day to day history is also captured in vivid detail in the Retreat Archive. The First World War had a greater impact on everyday life in Britain than any previous war. For the first time, war was on the doorstep, and it’s effects can be seen everywhere in correspondence dating from 1914 to 1918. This led to the issuing of new rules and regulations which would govern people’s lives, and a level of fear began to affect even the most mundane of interactions with strangers. 

Take, for example, the case of Harold Schluter, a patient at The Retreat in 1914. While shopping in York, he entered a branch of WHSmith to order a book on flight, and was promptly reported to the police by the shop assistant on suspicion of being a German spy. 

A letter from WHSmith justifying the action of the assistant stated that "as the name was distinctly German, the paper in question was 'Flight' and apparently the address of the customer unknown, he considered on the account of the warning issued within the last few days, that he had a public duty to perform"

As was drily noted in the Retreat’s response to the shop’s apology: “I hardly think a German Spy would be likely to order in advance a paper on flying and give his name openly to anyone.”


The First World War was a difficult issue for members of the Society of Friends, like Dr Bedford Pierce, the Superintendent of the Retreat. Correspondence from 1914-1918 is littered with references to the War, to conscription, and to the problems arising from being a committed pacifist, but also feeling a deep sense of loyalty towards Britain. 

In a letter to a friend, dated 27th February 1918, Dr Pierce wrote: "I am interested in hearing about your son going out. I fear it will be an anxious time for you. One cannot but feel that this year the promise of spring is hateful. It would be much more encouraging if there was a little prospect of an end to it, but if the settlement is by fighting it will be a long time before the conclusion is reached.” This links to the feelings of many members of the Society of Friends, who felt that Germany and her allies represented an evil which must be resisted, but that fighting was not the answer. 

Dr Pierce was often asked to allow patients to present themselves for medical inspection by the army doctors in order to see whether they could be judged fit to join up and fight. In some cases, this was allowed for the patient’s own peace of mind, despite the fact that they would almost certainly be judged unfit due to their mental or physical conditions; some patients suffered great distress at the thought that they had not volunteered to serve their country. As a result of this suffering, which could exacerbate existing mental illnesses like depression, or delusions of having committed a great sin by damaging self-esteem, Dr Pierce often arranged for patients to see army medical officers to be examined, producing a flurry of correspondence with family and friends.

Another document in this archive shows the calm before the storm of the First World War from a different perspective. 


This postcard, dated just two weeks before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which is often described as the final spark to the tinderbox of conditions which existed before the First World War, was sent from Frankfurt. There is no sign in the sunny photograph of any dark clouds on the horizon. The postcard’s sender writes: 


“Thankyou very much for your kind note. I am staying for the present at Pension Metropole Frankfurt. The weather is lovely.”

Technology in the Home

The Retreat Archive also offers a view of a world of rapid technological advance, with recognisable innovations that we still use in some form today, as well as some which never quite caught on.


The competition between gas and electric lighting in the home is captured in this advertisement of 1906/7, which declares that gas was “now as convenient as Electric Light”. In the twenty-first century, with almost ubiquitous electric lighting, it seems odd to remember that this was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that the struggle between electricity and gas companies was fiercely competitive.


Another invention which we can recognise today is the dishwasher, but this one, advertised in 1921 seems very large and complex by today’s standards. The advert confidently declares that the “Channel Race” Patent Crockery Washer is “A machine you will eventually buy.” 

The early twentieth century produced a wealth of labour-saving devices for domestic use, as the era of the domestic servant came to a close. After the First World War, women who had taken on work which had previously been the preserve of men often wanted to continue working rather than return to domestic service. Although many women lost their wartime jobs in favour of men returning from the fighting, the world of work, and attitudes to female labour both inside and outside the home had changed forever. 

These are just a few of the topics, relating to wider themes in history, which can be accessed through the archives of 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 and can also be found by following the links from the Retreat catalogue.

Misadventures in Parish Magazines

Micklefield, 1996
In the 1980s, York Minster Library sent a letter round to all the parishes in the modern Archdeaconry of York requesting past and future issues of their local parish magazine. Over eighty-five parishes complied, and the resulting collection of nearly 6,000 magazines span exactly 150 years. York Minster Library no longer has room for such a collection, and so it was transferred to the Borthwick a few months ago. Since then, it has been my job to sift through this collection; sorting them by parish, weeding out any duplicates, packaging them into archival boxes, and creating a list of exactly what is there. Along the way, I have occasionally become distracted by the contents of the magazines, and it’s these interesting and entertaining nuggets that I want to share.

Parish magazines, by their very nature, cover the more quotidian aspects of village life. Details of village fetes appeared often.  In one particular appeal for shoes, the author has specifically requested that ‘pairs of shoes be tied together and clearly labelled with their size’ after the ominous sounding ‘events of last year.’ However, the editors also liked to pay homage to national events. One from June 1953 contains a ‘Guide to the Symbolism of the Coronation’ to ensure parishioners understood what they were watching. A few years later, one magazine included an insert listing the major policy points of various political parties, and imploring readers to use their votes wisely in the upcoming national elections.

While modern parish magazines often exist purely to inform locals of upcoming events, earlier parish magazines aimed to educate as well. The Archbishop of York released a monthly insert for the parish magazines in his Archdeaconry expanding on a recent sermon or making a comment on news articles. A large number of these have survived.  Similarly, writing a regular article for the parish newsletter appears to have been part of a vicar’s job description.  Many parish priests used these articles to discuss fairly light-hearted issues, such as the changing of the seasons or the presence of birds outside the vicarage. But occasionally vicars would use this article to discuss bigger issues. In one particularly memorable magazine from 1960, the vicar writes at length about the ‘problem of
Malton, 1942
pornography.’ It’s unclear how well this went down with his parishioners, but the following month he returned to writing about the local wildlife. There was some excitement in our office when I came across a series of articles written by J.S. Purvis. Many of you will know that he served as the first Director of the Borthwick. Less well known is that he was the vicar of Malton during the 1940s. As such, he was writing entries for the local newsletter, and in the wonderful circular way of the world these articles now rest in the archive he founded.

Dalby and Whenby, 1901
Missionaries were also encouraged to write regular articles for the publications of parishes that sponsored them. Many of these are encouraging and uplifting tales about recent conversions written to thank parishioners for their support and to encourage them to continue to give. There is, however, one notable exception. One lady had just returned from a three-year stint on a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean, where her husband had been serving as a missionary. She wrote a series of articles, in which she is highly disparaging of the islanders, referring to them repeatedly as ‘savages’. She bemoans the lack of bread (no wheat was grown on the island) and records how difficult she found it to keep her family fed without it. She gave birth to a son while still on the island, but her recounting of this event focuses mainly on how the locals didn’t know how to give birth properly! At the end of her series, the editors of the magazine included an advert from a national organization seeking missionaries to serve in Asia. It seems unlikely that anyone from the particular parish volunteered.

In the first half of the 20th century, many parish magazines included a page of ‘Household Tips and
Dalby and Whenby, 1093
Advice’ written by a local woman. These included tips on housekeeping and raising children, as well as recipes and book recommendations. One that bemused me greatly was the suggestion that mothers read Anne Frank’s diary in order to gain a better understanding of their own teenage daughter. Tips were also welcomed from women throughout the parish. One particularly interesting tip recommends that you use ‘a pair of gay striped bath towels’ as curtains in the bathroom, as they will bring colour to the room while also absorbing the moisture in the air. These pages started to disappear in the 1960s, but Weighton kept their ‘Housekeeping Tips’ going longer than most. The woman responsible for this page continued to provide tips for inside the house, but in 1960 she was joined by a local man who provided tips on DIY and gardening. While I’ve yet to use any of his gardening advice, I can safely say that his guidance on how to bleed a radiator continues to be extremely useful.

The magazines at this time also aimed to appeal to children through stories and puzzles. One particular parish released a multifaceted puzzle for children each month, with answers to be posted through the puzzle-setter’s letterbox. However, she wrote in one edition, so few children remembered to put their names on their answers, that she rarely knew who had won! The stories aimed at children varied quite widely. Some told bible stories or stories from the lives of saints. Others covered tales from history. One parish had the noble intention of attempting to portray the entire history of
Weighton, 1960
Christianity as a serialised comic strip. Unfortunately when the magazine ceased publication two years later, the comic writers were still covering the Roman period. Some magazines, however, followed a more traditional route, and children were greeted with a highly moralistic tale.  One featured a ‘young cripple’ who received a vision from God telling her that she would dance with him in Heaven. Another tells the story of a young Chinese boy who traveled far and wide to find a brown bunny for the young daughter of a British missionary, and attempted to convince children to become missionaries when they grew up.

There were also serialised stories for adults found within the parish magazines. Dating right back to
Norton, 1927
1863 and continuing until the late 1950s, each story was released chapter by chapter over the course of the year. Again, these were written by locals, and usually by local women. In the early days, they followed one of two patterns. Both feature a young country girl who is kind and good, and who cares for a child or disabled relative. In the first type of story, she falls in love with a brooding man with a dark secret, despite his best attempts to push her away. His family have lived in the family for generations, and there have always been rumours about their strangeness. Through the heroine’s perseverance (and usually a dramatic accident/storm) the hero eventually turns to Jesus and becomes a good person. The couple get married and live happily ever after, the dark past completely forgotten. In the second variation the young country girl already has a beau, but her/his father/uncle/grandfather/ a random old man in village refuses to allow them to marry. Through good works, perseverance (and occasionally some trickery), the young girl again convinces the old man to convert to Christianity, and the couple are allowed to wed. One of these that especially stood out to me is entitled ‘The Case of Jabez Quirk.’ For reasons that are never explained, Jabez has buried his family’s fortune under the bell tower of the local church. Jabez’s nephew and his girlfriend (who, yes, is kind and good, and cares for her wheelchair-bound aunt) work out where the gold is hidden. With the help of the local vicar, they dig
St. Paul's, York, 1955
up the treasure, and use it to blackmail Jabez into allowing them to marry. Jabez is so unimpressed by this that he dies of anger, and everyone else lives happily ever after. When written like this, it appears an odd plotline, but in the parish magazine it is engaging and entertaining, and I found myself avidly routing for the nephew and his girlfriend to find the treasure.

The dramatic bus stop scene
Micklefield, 1937
After the First World War, the serialized stories became more varied. One features a rising opera starlet, who drives her car too fast through a village, crashes, and spends the next six weeks in hospital. Initially she is difficult, making excessive demands on the nurses and constantly asking to be moved to a better hospital in London. Through the hard work of the doctor, she learns to be less selfish and so teaches the local children to sing. And of course, she marries the doctor and gives up her opera career. My personal favourite is the story of a young lady, named Jean but called Louie, who must choose between carrying for her mother ( ‘inept at housework of all kinds’) or pursuing a career as a potter. A young man from London takes up lodging in her house and offers her a job at his father’s factory. Unfortunately the next few editions of that particular magazine have not survived, and the next thing we know he is in court accused of a serious crime, while she meets him at a bus stop to explain that they can never be together.  The December edition of this story is also missing, but I like to think it had a happy ending!

Within a week of these magazines arriving at the Borthwick, a researcher came to consult them. Hopefully this is a sign of the collection’s future popularity, as they are a fascinating resource of social history for the modern Archdeaconry of York. They cover all the major events of the 20th century, while also providing a glimpse of the everyday life of parishioners, with a few comic scenes along the way. I only hope others find them as intriguing as I did. In the meantime, I shall continue to peruse the serialised stories during my breaks…

Thursday, 7 December 2017

A Yule... Clog?

"Wassail drink were allus best, when o'er a yule-clog boiled"

Illustration of people collecting a Yule log from Chambers Book of Days (1864), p.734. 
I think I can safely assume that any Brit, at least, reading this blog will be familiar with the concept of a Yule log at Christmas. These days, it probably takes the form of a delicious swiss roll coated in milk chocolate. However historically, in Yorkshire and further north into Scotland, the Yule log was more usually termed a Yule clog. Nothing to do with footwear - a clog was originally any substantial or roughly shaped piece of wood. This definition pre-dates the shoes by hundreds of years and in fact it’s probable that our modern day clogs take their name from the historic term for a piece of wood.

Father Christmas with a Yule log,
Illustrated London News, 23 Dec 1848
The Yule clog was burnt on the fire at Christmas and was the subject of lots of traditions and superstitions. In the East Riding, it would be brought into the house on Christmas Eve and set on the hearthrug in front of the fire. In some areas the clog was sprinkled with corn and cider, or a girl would sit on top as it was dragged inside. Each person in the house would then sit silently upon it and wish three wishes (which were sure to come true if only they were kept secret). In Swaledale, it was deemed unlucky to have to light it again after it had been begun and it shouldn’t be allowed to go out until the whole clog had burned away. However, a fragment of it must be rescued and kept as kindling to light the next year’s clog. In Ripon, the chandlers sent large mold-candles and the coopers yule clogs, which had to be large enough that it didn’t all burn away in one night. On some farms, the servants were entitled to ale with their meals as long as the Yule clog lasted.

Unsurprisingly, candles were closely associated with the yule clog. Mrs Day, a native of Swaledale, related in 1914 that

‘just before supper on Christmas Eve (where furmety is eaten), while the Yule log is burning, all other lights are put out, and the candles lit from the Yule log by the youngest person present. While they are lit, all are silent and wish. It is common practice that the wish be kept a secret. Once the candles are on the table, silence may be broken. They must be allowed to burn themselves out, and no other lights may be lit that night’.

The similarity in spelling between the Yule log and the Yule clog is interesting. You could easily be forgiven for assuming that they are closely related terms. Possibly they are, but the etymology (that is, the roots of the words, back into Old English or Norse) for both words are so obscure that it’s impossible to say with any certainty.

Yule clog: the heavy piece of wood burnt on the fire at Christmas, in Scotland in particular.

Alexandra Medcalf
Project Archivist, Yorkshire Historic Dictionary (@YorksDictionary)

  • Brand, John, Observations on popular Antiquities, Vol. 1, 1813.
  • Crowther, Jan, ‘Christmas Facts and Fancies (with particular reference to East Yorkshire),, accessed 6th December 2017.
  • Partridge, J. B., ‘ Folklore from Yorkshire (North Riding)’, Folklore, Vol. 25, no. 3, 1914, pp. 375-377.
  • Rose, H. J., ‘Folklore Scraps’, Folklore, Vol. 34, no. 2, 1923, pp. 154-158.
  • Turner, J Horsfall, Yorkshire Anthology: Ballads and Songs - Ancient and Modern, 1901.