Friday, 20 December 2013

Poor Law Stories: George Crosby's family and a Christmas Removal

1848 did not provide a good or happy Christmas for the Crosby family. On December 21st, the overseers of the poor for the parish of St Mary Castlegate in York applied to the Justices of the Peace for the city of York for the right to remove them.

PR Y/MC.100/1 Notice of Intent to Remove George Crosby and Family
PR Y/MC.100/32/1 Notice of Intent to Remove George Crosby and family
George Crosby was married to Mary and they had had at least four children. By December 1848, only two still lived: John who had just turned seven years' old, and Mary who was barely eighteen months' old. They had been living in the parish of St Mary Castlegate, off and on, since 1840 when their eldest son James was baptised there. Now they had fallen upon hard times there, and had turned to the parish for support to help them.

Although the Crosby family lived a long time before the advent of the modern welfare state, there was a safety net (of sorts) to catch people who could not support themselves whether through illness, injury or unemployment. The Poor Law had operated since Queen Elizabeth I's day and was administered through parishes. The better-off residents of a parish contributed to a fund through their rates, which was then paid out to paupers. By the nineteenth century this system was seen as bloated, expensive and counter-productive and notions of the undeserving poor surviving on handouts from their hard-working neighbours fed into the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This Act established poor law unions and the dreaded Union Workhouses which loom so large in our collective memory. There had been workhouses before, but they had tended to be small and local. The Union Workhouses were built on a massive scale and unpleasantness, an important part of the 'less eligibility' mindset (the idea that the workhouse should be a deterrent to discourage all by the most desperate from seeking assistance), was a fundamental driver of their construction.

York's Poor Law Union was incorporated in 1837 but for many years was ineffectual. The pre-existing workhouse on Marygate (next to the Minster Inn) was very small, overcrowded and subject to outbreaks of disease. It had been set up in 1769 as a joint initiative by a number of the city centre parishes and could only accommodate 90 paupers. In 1845, an official inspection of the workhouse found that the privies were "without exception in an offensive state". There was an open cesspool in the girls' yard. Many of the inmates were diseased and the children were placed "in the infectious wards with adults labouring under syphilis and gonorrhea".        

The spaces in the Marygate workhouse were taken up with the deserving poor: the elderly, the infirm, and children. This meant that other paupers, despite the provisions of the 1834 Act and its aim to stop out-door relief to the able-bodied poor, were still supported by the city parishes with the old-style payments. So at least for the moment, the Crosby family knew they would not end up at the gates of workhouse, to be separated.

They did, however, have to move. The city of York, as a legacy of its rich and ecclesiastical medieval history, had a lot of parishes. Although there had been some rationalisation in the sixteenth century, there were still more than 20 parishes operating in the middle of the nineteenth century. Each of these parishes had poor law overseers who paid out poor relief. Their job also required them to make sure relief was only paid when absolutely necessary. This led to a system whereby pauper families could be removed and sent back and forwards across the city as each parish attempted to avoid paying relief (and thereby, establishing a precedent).

PR.Y/MC.100/32/1-3 Removal Order
PR Y/MC.100/32/2 Removal Order 
Luckily for the St Mary Castlegate overseers, a precedent had already been set. On 9th September 1844, the Crosbies had applied for poor relief. Then, George and Mary had had three children: James, John and Emma, and they had been living in the parish of All Saints North Street, whence they had been removed to the parish of St Mary Bishophill Senior. So it was a simple matter to apply for the family to once again be removed to St Mary Bishophill Senior.

The family's settlement was in St Mary Bishophill Senior because that was where George Crosby was born. All of his legitimate children, and his wife, shared in his settlement. There were a number of ways that George could have gained a different settlement from that of his birth, and the fact that he retained his birth settlement tells us something about him. He had never completed an apprenticeship, for example, or served as a domestic servant for over a year. He had never rented a property of a rateable value of £10.00 or more, or run a business. Looking at the areas we know George Crosby lived in, it seems likely that he was a labourer. Castlegate and North Street in the mid-nineteenth century were notorious slums, the haunts of prostitutes and thieves. Hagworms Nest, a court off one of the Water Lanes in St Mary Castlegate, had been a source of epidemic cholera from the seventeenth century through to the famous outbreak of 1832 whilst North Street recurs again and again in the police records of the period. Labouring was a precarious way to earn a living, and so it isn't surprising that the family fell upon hard times regularly - nor, sadly, that they lost so many children.

Evidence of Settlement for George Crosby
PR Y/MC.100/32/3
Evidence of Settlement for George Crosby (reverse)
PR Y/MC.100/32/3
There is currently an ongoing project at the Borthwick Institute to index all of the surviving poor law papers for the city centre parishes. Perhaps George and Mary Crosby will turn up again in another parish and we can continue to follow their struggle.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Borthwick at 60! Our anniversary exhibition

In May 2013 we put up a small ‘taster’ exhibition, marking the 60th anniversary of the Borthwick. Now we have just opened a larger exhibition which reflects on the story of the founding of the Borthwick, explores its early days, and looks at aspects of our development, past and present. The exhibition is in the Storey Exhibition Gallery, top floor, Borthwick Institute. It runs from 1 November 2013 to 31 January 2014.

Norah Gurney in old Borthwick strongrooms, 1957
Norah Gurney, 1957
The exhibition poster includes this splendid picture, taken in 1957, of Mrs Norah Gurney. She had arrived the previous year, as assistant archivist - the first such appointment. She is pictured in one of the original Borthwick strongrooms at St Anthony’s Hall, taking a probate act book down from the shelf.  The detail in the photograph is superb. It really evokes, for those of us who remember St Anthony’s Hall, the atmosphere of the strongrooms – dark and cramped, with mezzanine floors above, all racked out with rather oppressive dark green metal shelving (state of the art in the 1950s). Things hadn’t changed much between 1957 and when we left in 2004!
Norah Gurney later became the second Director of the Institute, taking over after the retirement of Canon Purvis in 1963. Tragically she died of cancer aged only 52, in 1974. There have been in total four Borthwick Directors (although the title is now Keeper of Archives). It is notable how much continuity we have had between 1953 and today – all our ‘bosses’ served first under their predecessors – this is true of our conservators too.

The exhibition reflects on development and change. Although the past couple of decades – and particularly after our move in 2005 – have seen great changes, there is an obvious continuity in our remit and in what we still think is important. 
Searchroom Office 1953
Searchroom Office 1953
This photo, of the searchroom office, ready for business in 1953, shows, for example, how some things have physically altered. But other things continue: the importance of teaching and research can be traced back to our original purpose, and so can our role in what we now call ‘outreach’.

Canon Purvis with summer school students
Canon Purvis with summer school students
 Here is Canon Purvis with students at an early ‘summer school for archives’. Teaching with documents is still central to our work, but handling techniques have certainly changed for the better! 
The exhibition traces how distinguished academics quickly arrived in the early days (the first visitors’ book is on display), and yet the first name recorded in the visitors book – and very regularly thereafter - is that of “Mrs T” (as we called her), a professional genealogist and a good friend to the Borthwick, regarded with much affection by staff. The exhibition has some photos of her 80th birthday party at the Borthwick.
We have had quite a low key 60th birthday (though we had cake to celebrate the anniversary of our opening day!) and this is partly because we had big celebrations when we were 50, ten years ago, but also because this year there has been a bigger celebration to mark the 50th birthday of the University, and of course the Borthwick is part of that.

We have been here on campus for eight years now, and only a few of the staff now remember St Anthony’s Hall.

Moving from St Anthony's Hall 2004
Moving from St Anthony's Hall, 2004
Here we are moving from St Anthony’s in 2004 – archives are being taken off the green metal shelves (how different from the new electronic mobile shelving!). It was a well-planned six month operation.
Borthwick Building half-built
Current Borthwick building half-built
 And here is the new Borthwick half built.

You can see here the massive concrete shell of the strongroom block, on the right. We had 10 strongrooms in the old building, but these came in all shapes (usually small) and all sizes (usually inconvenient). The other day, three of us who remembered St Anthony’s Hall found ourselves perplexed in trying to remember where they all were – they were scattered all over the St Anthony’s Hall complex  (as were the offices). We found there was even one strongroom (one of the less frequented ones) that we had quite forgotten!

Two of us have memories of the Borthwick going back to 1980, and so in effect remember nearly half of its lifespan. On the one hand it has been a bit nostalgic to remember the past, but on the other it serves to show how important it is to try and record, and carefully consider, our history. The Borthwick really does have origins unique among archive offices.
I hope as many as possible will come and see the exhibition. Find out why we are called “Borthwick” (it has to do with William Borthwick of Bridlington, but in fact he wasn’t personally involved at all!), why we changed our name in 2005 (have people noticed?) and why our logo is a pig (clue – it is the connection with St Anthony’s Hall). There are individual exhibition cases about the Borthwick’s founding, about Canon Purvis our first Director, about St Anthony’s Hall and why we had to move from there, about the Borthwick in the early days, about conservation past and present, and about our activities over the years.
And if you are interested in learning more about the Borthwick’s origins in relation to the founding of the University of York, come along to the 50th Anniversary Public Lecture at 6pm, Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building, on 18 November. The lecture is: “In York the opportunity waits, and all historybeckons”: the story behind the founding of the University, 1946-1963.

 Katherine Webb


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Present and Future Consent: proving marriage in fourteenth-century Yorkshire

If, like me, you’ve been enjoying BBC4’s Medieval Lives, you will have been fascinated by the recent episode on Marriage. The idea that a marriage in the Middle Ages could be contracted and considered valid on the strength of a few words of consent, often spoken in private and/or under pressure from one’s family or friends, is one that’s alien and disconcerting to modern western sensibilities. Much of the evidence for these practices comes, as Helen Castor showed, from the records of the church courts which, amongst many other things, dealt with proving and enforcing marriage contracts, annulling invalid marriages and punishing adultery. Here at the Borthwick we hold the papers relating to around 15,000 cases pleaded before the diocesan courts of York between 1300 and 1858, the largest such archive in the country. Just over 1500 of those are matrimonial and of those around 200 come from the period 1300-1500 – there are well over 600 medieval causes in total. All of these papers have recently been digitised and indexed in a project run by the Universities of York and Sheffield and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Anyone can now search the database of about a million instances of personal names, over 5000 places mainly in Yorkshire but spread as far afield as Sweden, America and Russia, and an almost endless variety of subjects. The Church Courts from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century had jurisdiction over a wide variety of business including matrimony, defamation, tithe, probate, breach of faith and church rights.
Rather than being a day-to-day record of court proceedings, the Cause Papers are full, formal documents submitted to or issued by the courts. They were used by litigants to introduce their arguments and by the court to transmit its findings. They are a wonderful source and capture rich detail about human existence and interactions. I came to the Borthwick to work as an archivist two years ago. Up till then I had specialised in the records of English medieval royal government. Since arriving I have taken a crash course in ecclesiastical records, and the Cause Papers have regularly grabbed my imagination. I was fortunate to help behind the scenes on filming and sit in on the discussion between Helen Castor and Dr Bronach Kane. Inspired by the show (and, I should add, by recent discussions with Sara Powell, a York MA student who has just completed a dissertation on matrimonial causes in medieval York), I’ve done a bit of digging. The case I’m going to focus on is not untypical of the kind of disputes the church courts tackled. Indeed, those which attempted to enforce contracts and make one partner to stick to their vows with the other, make up the greatest number of marriage dispute cases. 

CP.E.181.1 & 181.2

In the late winter of 1389/90 Emmota, a servant of Henry Rayner of Beal in the West Riding brought a suit before the Curia Ebor', York's central church court. She complained that though she and Robert son of John Williamson of nearby Kellington had contracted to marry, he had not yet solemnized their vows and would not now marry her. What was worse, in a parallel suit brought by Emmota she complained that Thomas, Robert's brother, also of Kellington, had publicly defamed her good character by alleging he had slept with her (or, as the record more prosaically states, 'knew her carnally') in an attempt, she claimed, to prevent the marriage taking place.

Those are the bare bones of the story, which are laid out in a variety of documents now available to view for free through the York Digital Library Cause Papers portal, although, be warned, you will need to know some Latin to make sense of them. In essence, Emmota's case hinged on proving the words she claimed she and Robert had spoken openly before witnesses in the private house in which she worked at Christmas a year previously (which, by my calculaton, would be December 1388) had actually been spoken, and that she had not slept with Thomas. In the formal articles her attorney William de Killerwyk presented to the court, Emmota argued that Robert had publicy and willingly confessed that he and she had both lawfully contracted marriage

 'p(er) v(er)ba mutuu(m) co(n)sensum exp(ri)me(n)cia de p(re)senti ac spo(n)salia p(er) v(er)ba de fut(ur)o carnali copula postmod(um) int(er) eosd(e)m subsecut(a) ... /
by expressing words of mutual consent in the present and their spousal by words of future [intent], carnal intercourse between them having followed afterwards...'

 In the formal articles her attorney William de Killerwyk presented to the court, Emmota argued that Robert had publicly and willingly confessed that he and she had both lawfully contracted marriage ‘p(er) v(er)ba mutuu(m) co(n)sensum exp(ri)me(n)cia de p(re)senti ac spo(n)salia p(er) v(er)ba de fut(ur)o carnali copula postmod(um) int(er) eosd(e)m subsecut(a) … / by expressing words of mutual consent in the present and their spousal by words of future [intent], carnal intercourse between them having followed afterwards …’ If she could prove this, she wanted the court to declare the marriage valid and to compel Robert to recognise her as his lawful wife and solemnize their marriage. 

Section of CP.E.181.1 p.7
Section of CP.E.181.1 p.7

The court documents, written in heavily abbreviated, legalistic Latin, unfortunately give us no idea of what words they actually said to each other. I think we can imagine them taking each other’s hand and Robert saying something like ‘Emmota, here I take you as my wife, for better or worse, to have and to hold until the end of my life; and of this I give you my faith’.[1] Legally though, it is the emphasis on ‘present’ and ‘future’ consent that mattered. By claiming both, Emmota hoped to prove her marriage was doubly valid and indissoluble. The theory that words of present consent created a perfect, complete marriage and a permanent bond had held sway in Canon Law since the mid-twelfth century.[2] But it often cut little ice with ordinary people! Many tended to see these words as merely making a contract not the marriage. The theory meant that Emmota and Robert were married; the only things remaining for them to do at that point were to solemnize their union in church and to consummate it afterwards. It is clear that Robert wanted, initially, to have no more to do with the marriage, and he challenged the truth of Emmota’s case in court. But, as will become apparent, he had indulged in sexual intercourse with her at some point after saying these words, which, by his words of future consent, theoretically made the marriage valid, complete and unbreakable.

That is unless Emmota could not disprove the allegations that had apparently been made around this time by Thomas son of John Williamson, brother of her supposed husband. In her articles submitted in this second case Emmota claimed she was a woman of ‘good fame and honest conversation’ who had never previously been accused of adultery or incest. Thomas, she said, had declaimed before a multitude of local people that he knew her carnally in order to impede the marriage contracted with his brother. For this, she wished Thomas to be excommunicated. We can suspect, I think, since there is no real hint in the records of a fraternal row over Emmota, that the brothers colluded in concocting the story of Thomas’s fornication with her. Local men John May, John Warde and Alan son of Robert appeared before the court to testify for Thomas, and they appear to suggest that Emmota had refused to say to which of the two brothers she had promised herself for fear of them. Their evidence, presented in March 1390, of a sexual relationship with Thomas, though, appears to have been trumped after much toing and froing by a surprise confession from Robert.

On the back of the document bearing their witness statements is a memorandum that on 3 November 1390 Robert and Emmota came before the court. Having sworn on the Gospels, Robert admitted he had made the contract of marriage a week before Christmas last one year hence. He had then first slept with Emmota (‘p(ri)mo carnalit(er) cognovit’) on the feast of St Stephen (26 December) following. Both parties confessed to the truth and the judge moved to deliver his verdict, that,

‘Because we have heard both by the confession of the said parties made in the judgement before us and by other sufficient and lawful evidences in this business, the abovesaid Emmota, plaintiff, has sufficiently proved her action brought before us in this case, therefore in this writing we have adjudged as our sentence and definitively the same Robert, defendant, to be the lawful husband of the same Emmota and the same Emmota to be the lawful wife of the same Robert.’

In short, Emmota had won. Robert had confessed and the truth of her side of the story had been lawfully upheld. Sadly, the sentence handed out by the court does not survive. Robert may well have joined his wife in solemnizing their marriage and may have had to do penance. I’ll leave you to speculate.

Emmota was a woman of humble origins who fought tooth and claw against men of, perhaps, greater means to persuade a church court to recognise her version of events. It appears from the Poll Tax records of 1379 that she worked for a tailor. She herself is not listed as a taxpayer (although there are a couple of Emmas in the Beal list which might be her), while her ‘husband’ Robert may be the same man as the ‘Robert Williamson’ noted as being taxed at fourpence, the lowest rate, in Kellington.[3] We are dealing here then not with the wealthy in society or with the urban or rural gentry but with ordinary people. We have a brief window into their everyday concerns and lives.  Emmota and Robert had promised themselves to each other away from many prying eyes. For over a year she had been forced to wait. She must have been getting worried about not being able to publish banns of marriage and to have her union blessed by a priest, both of which were considered sins. Ultimately, she took her man to court and won the day. Their case is one among many at the Borthwick which give us intimate detail about the lives of our ancestors from all ranks of society. I hope this will have persuaded you that the Cause Papers have a great deal of interest. Do please take a look on the database and see what you can find.


This post was written by Dr Paul Dryburgh, one of our archivists who specialises in our medieval records.  

[1] Emmota probably returned the words. These were the words a witness reported that John Beck, a saddler, and Margery daughter of Simon Taylor had exchanged, in a cause paper from 1372: C.P. E.121:
[2] For what follows and for an excellent overview of the Cause Paper evidence in English matrimonial cases, see R.H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 26-36.
[3] Henry Rayner of Beal and his wife, Agnes, were taxed at sixpence in 1379: Carolyn C. Fenwick, The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381: Part 3, Wiltshire-Yorkshire (Records of Social and Economic History, New Series 37, 2005), pp. 361-2. For leading me to these references, and for help in nailing down the place names in this cause, I am very grateful to Dr Jonathan Mackman.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Vegetarianism in World War One

Before finding these documents, I had never considered the difficulties of rationing for vegetarians. Of course, we are all familiar with the fact of rationing in this country during the Second World War, but careful management of the country's food supply was also necessary during World War One.

After the country was effectively blockaded by German U-boats, formal rationing was introduced in February 1918. But long before that, there was de facto rationing to ensure food supplies remained stable and to prevent food hoarding. In the archive of the Retreat psychiatric hospital in York, there survives a file of correspondence (RET 4/3/4/1) which illustrate the difficulties in obtaining food for such a large institution (around 300 people). Large amounts of locally-grown fruit was requisitioned for the war effort and although the Retreat grew its own vegetables it was not possible to supply all of its own needs on the land it held. They also experienced difficulties in preserving what food was successfully grown. In 1916 practically the whole year's crop of peas was lost because no-one knew how to can them successfully.

In this file, I found a circular from the Vegetarian Society, dated 24th October 1918 which sheds light on the arrangements made for vegetarians under rationing. It was made possible for vegetarians to surrender their meat and lard rations to enable them to receive extra butter and margarine. There were also arrangements in place for them to be able to receive 'nut butter' later in the year.
Circular from Vegetarian Society 1918
RET 4/3/4/1 Circular from Vegetarian Society 1918, front
Circular from Vegetarian Society, reverse
RET 4/3/4/1 Circular from Vegetarian Society, reverse
It might  seem strange to think of these special arrangements being made for vegetarians in 1918. We tend to think of vegetarianism in this country as a product of 'hippy culture' in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact vegetarianism has a long established history in Britain, dating back to the early nineteenth century. It has been associated with health for about as long, although in the early years that might be spiritual health as well as physical well-being.  A second document from the Retreat archive helps illustrate this dichotomy.
Front cover, Science in Diet by Mr K Monteath, second ed. 1922

'Science in Diet' (2nd edition) was published by the Yorkshire Herald Company in 1922. Its author, Mr Kenneth McLaurin Monteath who lived at 107 Heslington Road in York (very near to the University of York's campus today). In his bookley, Monteath expounds a theory of vegetarianism which would have sounded very familiar to the early founders of the Vegetarian Society. He condemns meat-eating because of the "unnecessary character of the cruelties inflicted upon animals and of the trades in the lives and flesh of animals" and condemns the meat eater too: "Eventual retribution of a severe character pursues the meat consumer", just as "eventual retribution pursues each individual according to his or her liabilities".

The references to religious damnation come the Resurrection sit uneasily in a booklet with "Science" in the title, but to Monteath (and other religious vegetarians) one did not exclude the other. The religious argument was only one part of his argument. He also expounds on the resources needed to produce meat versus vegetable foods; the healthiness of a vegetarian diet, being lower in fat; and the diets of our early ancestors. All of these subjects will look familiar to us today. He even includes a dietary table of the dietary value of various foods. Rowntree's and Co would have been very happy to see the emphatic placing of cocoa as a healthy, proteinous, food.

Food table from Science in Diet by Mr K Moneath, 1922

The question remains, why were these documents held by the Retreat? It is possible that they were received as circulars and piqued someone's interest. As an institution established and maintained under Quaker principles, aspects of Mr Moneath's arguments might have appeal to the managing staff. Otherwise, perhaps a member of staff, or a patient, was a vegetarian. Either way, they are fascinating survivors of vegetarian history.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Who's that Girl? Who were the Aero Girls?

Earlier this year I introduced you to Rowntree’s Aero Girls paintings, which were commissioned for use in Aero chocolate advertising in print and television from 1951 to 1957. Since then we’ve managed to track down the only living painter who worked on the 1950s campaign, Frederick Deane RP, as well as three new Aero Girl paintings fresh out of the Nestlé archives. I'll be telling you more about these discoveries in my next blog post.

We’d love to find out even more about this enigmatic collection of figurative paintings and invite you to share your stories at our upcoming free exhibition Who were the Aero Girls? on show at York Mansion House from 12 October to 20 October 2013.

For those of you a little further afield, below is an interactive image map of our entire collection of twenty Aero Girls paintings. Hover your mouse over the images and click on the dots to find out more information about the artworks, and for links to York Digital Library of images.

Do you recognise any of these women? Were the Aero Girls life models, fictitious characters, wives, girlfriends, your grandmother, your sister, your best friend? Where are they now? We want to hear from you!

Credit: Images above are shown with kind permission of Nestlé UK

Anna. Alice. Wendy. The Country Girl. The Art Student. Who were these women? And what was their story? Where are they now? What happened to the paintings that are missing from the Rowntree’s collection? If you were an Aero Girl or if you know of one, the Borthwick Institute would love to hear from you. Please contact us at, call +44 (0)1904 321166 or come along to chat to us at the exhibition in York city centre.
Who were the Aero Girls? Discovering Hidden Art in the Archives is part of Chocolate Week 2013. On display for the first time since leaving Rowntree’s factory, will be a carefully curated selection of our Aero Girls collection. A unique opportunity to glimpse into some of our lesser known archive holdings, the exhibition also documents the Borthwick Institute’s journey so far to unwrap the mysteries and unearth new information about these little-known artworks. Visitors are encouraged share their stories, to ask new questions and continue the research, at the Borthwick Institute and beyond.

Aero chocolate is still made in York to this day by Nestlé, who took over Rowntree’s in the late 1980s and are official sponsors of our upcoming exhibition. Nestlé archivist Alex Hutchinson said, "We're delighted that some of our old treasures are being shared with a wider audience. The Borthwick Institute do a great job of looking after parts of our archive and we’re really proud to work with them. Although we have a large collection of original artworks, some have gone missing over the years. We'd love to know where the rest of the Aero artworks are now, and what happened to the painting's sitters, what were their stories?"

Who were the Aero Girls? Discovering Hidden Art in the Archives takes place at York Mansion House, St Helen’s Square, York from Saturday 12 to Sunday 20 October, from 11am – 4pm daily (closed Tuesday 15 October). Admission is free.

This blog post was written by Kerstin Doble, National Archives Trainee.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Answering Critics with Laughter, Shakespeare and Toilet Paper: The Comedy of Alan Ayckbourn

In a preface to his 'Norman Conquests' Alan Ayckbourn writes that
"Few women care to be laughed at and men not at all, except for large sums of money".

This seems somewhat appropriate from one of the most successful and prolific playwrights ever to emerge from these shores. Ayckbourn's work has been engaging audiences with biting wit, flourishes of comic genius and well-tuned subtleties of pathos for over half a century and now the Borthwick Institute for Archives in York has been given the opportunity to delve into drafts, letters and scripts of a writer largely considered a national treasure.

Photograph copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust/Stephen Joseph Theatre

Throughout an extensive career, it is perhaps Ayckbourn’s masterful use of comedy to illustrate what can sometimes be the ugly truth that has and will continue to immortalize him. For a playwright who walks the thin line between comedy and tragedy, often moving his audience to tears of laughter and sorrow in one sitting, the boundary between the two genres is often blurred. As one admirer put it, Ayckbourn’s writing is “a superbly funny and devastating commentary on corruption”.  This week, I have been looking though the many letters sent to Alan Ayckbourn by audience members who have come away from his theatre with an all-consuming discomfort that comes with the knowledge that everything you thought you knew has been challenged. Or, after an Ayckbourn play, ripped from your cradling arms with all the brutality of a powerful genius. And yet, in amongst countless letters of complaint and reproach, Ayckbourn fervently defends his artistic choices. 

“The balancing act is to say things that need saying without emptying the stalls. Tricky….My real fascination is in seeing just how much one can say through comedy. And sorry, yes, I also enjoy making people laugh….In this country, if we see pain coming, we close our eyes. Comedy is the Optrex of the mass
(Taken from a letter in reply to a complaint from a member of the audience of ‘A Small Family Business’. Dated August 1987)
It is in this vein that Ayckbourn answers his critics; with a careful balance of truthful response, seasoned with a (sometimes painful) pinch of wit. Although the majority of letters from his audience in this archive are overwhelmingly positive, Ayckbourn answers them all with the patience and grace of someone who truly understands and cultivates the relationship between playwright and spectator. With complaints ranging from the volume of the music, the acoustics of the theatre and the occasional expletive, Ayckbourn’s work never fails to come under scrutiny. One attentive member of the audience even wrote to Ayckbourn to inform him that the set designer had put the toilet roll on the wrong way around in the bathroom set.
But, it is precisely this wish to interact with and the boundless enthusiasm for Alan Ayckbourn’s work that has meant his enduring popularity. The audience feels it can write to this playwright of such repute and tell him their grievances because more often than not, they will receive a reply; albeit humorous, instructive and sometimes firm. Ayckbourn is a playwright willing to answer to his critics, but always ready to defend his craft. On receipt of a letter from a theatregoer complaining that they could only bear to stay for the first half of his play ‘A Small Family Business’, Ayckbourn replied by imagining the reaction of audience being subjected to one half of a Shakespeare play: “Just saw the second half of your play Hamlet. Really, Mr S, all those bodies…"
This post was written by Maddy Pelling, Ayckbourn Intern.
Read more about Maddy's work in her post Archiving Ayckbourn.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Unwrapping the Terry's Chocolate Apple

Advertising Image of Chocolate Apple and Orange, 1936
Terry's Product Brochure,1936, p.51
Did you know that before Terry’s Chocolate Orange, there was the Chocolate Apple? Neither did we until we delved into the Borthwick’s Terry’s archives and flicked through an old product brochure from the 1920’s.

The Terry’s ‘Dessert Chocolate Apple’ was made from 1926 before being outshone by the Chocolate Orange, which eventually led to the halt in production of the apple in 1954. Found amongst Terry’s other beautifully illustrated luxury chocolate boxes, the brochure demonstrates how the Chocolate Apple (and the Chocolate Orange) were once seen as special chocolates, perhaps only eaten on special occasions or in the homes of the ‘better off’. The name even suggests that it had a place at the dinner table as a dessert – a world away from how we eat chocolate today; in front of the TV, on the sofa, in bed, or on the way home from school.
Image of two decorated chocolate boxes 1934
Terry's Product Brochure, 1934, p.7
Image of a large box of Terry's chocolates with orange details 1929
Terry's Product Brochure, 1929, p.7

In our investigation of the chocolate apple we have seen how something as simple as chocolate can illuminate many different areas of our social history, from dining habits, to attitudes to certain foods. In fact, our research has led to some unexpected forays into the wider history of York - what’s the connection between an apple from the University of York campus and the Chocolate Apple? And what’s the connection between York’s Mansion House and Terry’s?

An apply tree on the University of York's Heslington campus
What is the connection between this tree and the Chocolate Apple?
However, one burning question remains – what on earth did the Chocolate Apple taste like?! To find out, we have organised a special one day event designed to answer this very question! As part of our Opening Up Archives programme of events we invite you to have a peek at the very recipe used to make the apple, as well taste some chocolate inspired by it, courtesy of the York Cocoa House. For a small fee you even have the option of making your very own flavoured chocolate bar!

We hope you can join us to taste the past and discover the power of archives by exploring some of the lesser known areas of York’s history.

Unwrapping the Chocolate City - Re-imagining the Chocolate Apple is a joint project between the Borthwick Institute for Archives, York Cocoa House and Mansion House and takes place on September 29th 2013 at Mansion House from 10:30am.
Book your place on the York Cocoa House website here.
This blog post was written by Francesca Taylor, National Archives Trainee.
You can read more about the National Archives Trainees' work at the Borthwick here and here.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

'Everyone must make sacrifices, even golfers' - Heslington Hall during WW2

One of the most significant periods in Heslington Hall’s history is its occupation by RAF Bomber Command No.4 group  from 1940 until 1947. Whilst attempting to reimagine life in the Hall and the village during these tense years of British history, Donald Ward’s Heslington Memories have become our discoveries. And whilst recounting life in the village in these notoriously dark times for the British, writing always with a comfortingly upbeat undertone he sheds some light on Heslington’s ‘War Years’. The anecdotes we have had the fortune of reading show the way servicemen and women, villagers, in Heslington and no doubt villages and towns up and down the country refused to let the tragedies of war weigh too heavily on their outlook, and life went on.
Heslington Hall was thankfully never hit by any bombs during the war, the nearest place that was hit was a house called Spring Villa; we hear that although thankfully there were no fatalities the watchdog had to be put down, and ward remarks ‘I bet it was a Christmas they never forgot, as all the windows were broken and the house was covered in soot’.
from University of York's 50th Anniversary site
Heslington vilage, undated,
from the university's 50th Anniversary site
Ward was too young at the time to join the RAF himself, but he was still active in village work .He recalls one particular night on fire duty from which we can envisage the tensions and anxiety that would befall a village, especially one with a Bomber Command headquarters through the long nights. The pair were patrolling in front of the Hall when his partner ‘a nervous man’ jumped into him and let out a terrific scream, shouting ‘It got me!!’ .Far from capture by Nazi invaders he had, in Dad’s Army fashion, walked into the head of a horse.
Ward came across other troubles while undertaking another job of transferring the cattle. A problem similarly and frequently encountered by his father who would often receive angry messages from RAF bases requesting him ‘to remove his cows from the runway’, since planes were able neither to take off nor land. After Donald had successfully and without trouble guided his cattle to the golf course, they immediately and frantically broke into a gallop right across the fairways. This was much to the outrage of ‘all associated with golf’ but in these difficult times for everyone they were quite rightly told that ‘There’s a war on and everyone must make sacrifices, even golfers’.
Before the RAF took over during the war the house had been occupied by the 4th Lord and Lady Deramore and Ward describes one particularly amusing scene during a shooting trip. The shoot, at Langwith woods, had stopped for lunch and the Lord Deramore, having taken a walk, noticed that the lavatory of one of only three residents of Langwith, an old lady, had fallen down. She answered his concerned enquiries with a description of a somewhat less effective set up involving a plank of wood between two trees. Deramore was understandably upset by this and on his return home sent his joiner to build her a new lavatory. Upon his return to Langwith he asked how she was finding her new lavatory to which she replied that it was too good to use, so she was keeping her hens in it!

This post was written by Hugo Laffey, one of our student interns.
For more on the work of our student interns see Heslington Hall - Country Life and Archiving Ayckbourn