Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Professional Perspectives: Ethics in Conservation and Archives

In August 2015 three members of Borthwick staff travelled across land and sea to present papers at the annual Archives and Records Association conference in Dublin. The theme of the conference was 'Challenges, Obligations, or Imperatives? The moral and legal role of the Record Keeper today'. The three sessions that our staff presented demonstrate a range of ethical concerns that exist within the worlds of archives and conservation, but also offer a glimpse into the inner workings of these two relatively little-known professions.

Screen shot from Tracy’s presentation ‘Why do you do what you do to me? 
Conservation Prioritisation and Collaboration in the Digitisation of the Retreat Archive’.
For more information on the project visit:
Tracy Wilcockson was the opening speaker for the conservation strand on the second day of the conference with her presentation ‘Why do you do what you do to me? Conservation Prioritisation and Collaboration in the Digitisation of the Retreat Archive’. Tracy’s talk addressed her role in preparing material for the digitisation of the Retreat archive, which is a part of the wider ‘The Asylum and Beyond’ project funded by the Wellcome Trust. The depth and breadth of Tracy’s knowledge of conservation theory and practice enabled her to discuss the nature of digitisation as ethically problematic, while still clearly explaining the practical implications and processes that have affected the digitisation of the Retreat Archive. I was particularly struck by the application of digitisation to the ‘balance triangle’ that she described from Chris Caple’s book ‘Conservation Skills’, which demonstrates how every conservation process can be expressed by a balance between preservation, investigation and revelation. The talk also highlighted several examples of collaborative responses to digitisation problems between the Conservation and Digitisation teams, such as the use of light boxes for the image capture of receipts, so that they do not need to undergo the time-consuming process of removal from the documents that they are attached to.

Tracy’s talk was very well received, and generated a number of enthusiastic and complimentary tweets from listeners. The presentation has also resulted in some excellent contacts with a number of other organisations running digitisation projects, and the potential for further collaboration. Colleagues are interested in further information regarding how the Borthwick project has been managed, equipment and techniques that have been used, problems that have arisen and how they have been overcome. It will be exciting to see where this goes next.

My presentation ‘The Archbishops’ Registers of York: A case study of ethical dilemmas in conservation and digitisation’ was directly after Tracy’s, and also used a digitisation project as a case study, this time to study the role of the conservator as an arbitrator of ethical problem-solving and decision-making. One of the points I addressed was the tension that can exist between the available research into materials (which may recommend against certain treatments) and the need to access or digitise an archive (which may need treatment to enable access).

As an example I talked about the ethics of removing creases from parchment using solvents. Although I only had time to briefly outline the technique I finally used in the project, I had set up a demonstration volume for the delegates in the adjoining room, along with a selection of magnets and magnetic material to try. In the coffee-break after the first session I chatted with a stream of
Working with magnets on the ‘York’s Archbishops’ Registers Revealed’ project. 
For more information visit:
colleagues, discussing the materials and the technique, as well as other applications. The magnets generated a flurry of discussion comparing the many different ways that they are currently being used in conservation workshops around the country: in exhibitions and displays; for restraint of parchment during treatment; wrapped in blotters for restraint and drying of local repairs; for construction of boxes and book rests; and one enterprising department are using them as very effective darts… I was pleased that a presentation that had aimed to highlight the importance of communication and collaboration had generated so much productive discussion.

After lunch the conservation, digital preservation and archive strands merged into a hot-pot of workshops, panels and break-out sessions. Gary Brannan, our Access Archivist, was running a workshop entitled ‘From Filth to the Future: Reviewing the ARA training offer’. The session was based heavily upon the ARA Northern Region’s 2013 Filth conference, and was designed to get delegates thinking about the role that ARA could - and perhaps, maybe even should - have in supporting members dealing with difficult, disturbing and legally dubious collections.

Flying home after a productive and inspiring day.
The exercises were based on real experiences sent in by ARA members and featured issues including I still sometimes find myself picturing the photograph from a Coroner’s notebook showing the image of a man who had been murdered by having his head nailed to a tree and Male reader requesting (repeatedly) access to 1950s photographs of schoolgirls in gym clothes. Delegates were asked to sort the issues provided into those which they felt they needed emotional support to deal with, and those which may be helped by practical advice and training. Some of the results were surprising - for instance, much unease at processing and making available content that may upset third parties, and a desire for training in dealing with requests from customers for embarrassing (but not legally exempt) data. However, the greatest need came in the desire for both training and support in dealing with content and imagery related to death and inquests.

Gary’s session received considerable interest and encouragement from delegates, and provided a supportive outlet for frank discussions in a profession whose members often work in small teams or in isolation. The subject matter and style of delivery really embodied the theme and aims of the conference as a whole: addressing relevant issues amongst our peers, sharing experiences and exploring practical solutions. Talking to Tracy and Gary on our journey home I was struck by how much we had taken away from the conference – new ideas and perspectives, new contacts – and for myself a renewed motivation for the job that I do and respect for the colleagues that I work alongside, both within the Borthwick and without. The overlapping worlds of archives and conservation might not be very well known – but they are passionately appreciated by those that know them well.

Catherine Dand, Conservator.

Friday, 2 October 2015

A Tale of Two Sisters

In March 1915 an application was made for two little girls to be admitted to St Stephen’s Orphanage in York.  Contrary to its name, those admitted to St Stephen’s were not necessarily orphans in the accepted sense of the word, the rules of admission required only that girls had lost at least one parent, that they could supply a baptism certificate, and that someone was willing to pay a weekly sum for their care. 

The rules for admission to St Stephen's, as printed in the application form of Winifred Brooks.

In this case their father Albert Brooks made the application, undertaking to pay 4 shillings and sixpence a week for each of his daughters.  The application forms are otherwise perfunctory; both girls were examined and found to be in good health, six year old Winifred had previously suffered from measles, four year old Hilda had not. 

Winifred Brooks' application.

In many cases an application form, and perhaps a baptism certificate, are all that survives for the residents of St Stephen’s.  However, for Winifred and Hilda a particularly tragic set of circumstances has left what amounts to a small family archive among the orphanage papers that tell of the impact that war and disease could have on an ordinary York family in the early years of the twentieth century.

The children’s applications were accompanied by two letters of support which provide a succinct account of the difficult situation faced by the Brooks family in March 1915.

‘The case of the Brooks is a sad one,’ the vicar of St Lawrence in York, Reverend Hutchings, wrote to the orphanage, ‘the wife quite young died of consumption and left the 2 children.’   Another supporter attests to the children’s good character, ‘I knew their mother and visited her for 2 years before her death and constantly saw the children, who are nice & well behaved, and are very bright.’  Both give a positive account of Albert and his wife, one writing of the ‘great regard’ they held for Mrs Brooks, and the other calling Albert ‘a decent fellow’, although he didn’t know ‘where he works or what his work is.’

A letter sent in support of the application by an 'R. Birch' of St Saviourgate, York.

Fortunately the St Stephen’s papers answer this question, including as they do Albert’s marriage certificate which describes him as a ‘confectioner’ as well as a later letter signed by D. S. Crichton, head of the Social Department at the Cocoa Works, the chocolate factory set up by the Rowntree family on Haxby Road in York.  It was perhaps there that Albert met his future wife Jane, or ‘Jennie’ Wytcherley, who was employed in the factory’s Cream Department.  The notice of their marriage appears in the firm’s Cocoa Works Magazine, dated 27th March 1907. 24 year old Albert Brooks of the packing and stores department was presented with a ‘beautiful over-mantel’ to mark the occasion, while 22 year old Jennie received the firm’s wedding gift, their fellow workers wishing the couple ‘much happiness and long life.’ 

They were married three days later at St Lawrence Church.  In March 1908 their daughter Winifred was born, followed by Hilda two years later in November 1910.  The 1911 census finds the small family living at 5 Apollo Street; 28 year old Albert, a ‘confectionery packer,’ 26 year old housewife Jane, 3 year old Winifred and the infant Hilda. 

Sadly this happy family life was not to last.  By 1912 Jennie was already suffering from the tuberculosis that was to kill her.  The York Tuberculosis Dispensary, later York Chest Clinic, opened its doors in 12th December 1912 and its records show that Mrs Jane Brooks of 5 Apollo Street applied for treatment for the disease just four days later.  She was treated by ‘open air ward’, possibly at Yearsley Fever Hospital which had opened in January of that year, but sadly died in February 1915 at only 30 years of age. 

On the 22nd February Albert paid for the interment of his wife at York Cemetery in a burial plot that would later be shared by her parents.  The burial certificate recording the grave number and cost is included among the orphanage papers.

The certificate issued by York Public Cemetery for the burial plot of Jane Brooks.

Exactly one month later, on the 22nd March 1915, Albert placed Winifred and Hilda in St Stephen’s Orphanage.  It’s possible he enlisted in the army immediately afterward, certainly by November he was a Private in the 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards stationed in France.   

We do not know if Albert wrote to his daughters at the orphanage or visited them during the following year, the minute book of the orphanage committee covering the years 1911-1918 has unfortunately not survived.  However we do know that Albert’s army career, like that of so many others, ended at the Somme. 

The orphanage records include an official notice from the War Office stating that Private A. Brooks of the Grenadier Guards was posted as wounded and missing after the engagement ‘at Overseas’ on the 25th September 1916.  

The notice stating that Albert Brooks had been reported 'wounded and missing' in action in September 1916.

Further enquiries were evidently made, at least in part by D. S. Crichton at the Cocoa Works, and the resulting letters, kept by the orphanage, allow us to piece together what may have happened.   “I was told by [Private] Brake,  4th Company, 4th Grenadier Gds. that he saw [Private] Brooks wounded at Les Boeufs on September 25th on the way over,’ wrote Private Adams of the 4th Battalion in April 1917, a reference to the principal offensive in the capture of the French village of Les Boeufs that took place on that day, resulting in heavy casualties.

The reply to D. S. Crichton at the Cocoa Works reporting the account given by Private Adams.

It seems likely that Albert was shot during his battalion’s initial advance.  In a letter dated March 1917 a Private H. Weekes described how the Grenadier Guards made a charge on the 25th and ‘when we had got half way over, I saw Albert Brooks making his way back to the dressing station with a bullet wound in the arm.’  Whether he made it to dressing station or not, Private Weekes couldn’t say, ‘the Germans were shelling very heavily at that time.’  Poignantly, he added, ‘I am very sorry indeed to hear that he is missing as we were the best of pals right from our early soldiering up to the afore said date.’ 

 Page 1 of Private Weekes' letter. 
Page 2 of Private Weekes' letter.

‘I fear that this must be one the many cases,’ read a subsequent response from The Red Cross enquiry department to D. S. Crichton, ‘where a second and fatal casualty has occurred on the way to a dressing station.’  As this letter was still being written a final typewritten note came in from a Corporal Shenton that appeared to confirm his theory.  It said simply, ‘At Ginchy he was killed by a shell in the communication trench.  I was told this by a stretcher bearer who was a man who had just joined us from a Labout Batt[allio]n.’  

The report passed on to D. S. Crichton by the British Red Cross in 1917.

Albert’s body was never found and his name is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial in France, one of the 72,000 soldiers who were lost, presumed dead, at the Somme before March 1918.  More than 90 per cent of that number died, like Albert, between July and November 1916.  At home in York he is commemorated in the King’s Book of York Heroes, one of the 1,443 men (and two women) from the city who were killed in the First World War.

Private Albert Brooks in The King's Book of York Heroes.
Copyright Chapter of York: Reproduced by kind permission.
What then became of Winifred and Hilda?  The lost minute book means we do not know when or what they were told about their father’s fate, although they, like so many families, received an official memorial from Buckingham Palace. 

The next reference to the girls comes two years later, in 1918, and brings us full circle back to the Cocoa Works where the story of their family began.   A bundle of correspondence sets out arrangements for the trustees of Rowntree’s Death Benefit Scheme to pay Albert’s pension fund over to St Stephen’s for the maintenance of the two girls.  A further £50 was also given on the condition that the trustees of the scheme were permitted ‘at any time to see the children’ and to receive yearly reports of their progress; reports which we know, from a later entry, were duly forwarded ‘from time to time.’

In 1920 Mr Crichton wrote again on behalf of Rowntree to offer  payment for the continued education of Winifred, an offer that was gratefully received, and in 1925 another lump sum was paid by Rowntree ‘for the Brooks children’ out of the Rowntree War Memorial Fund. 

Sadly, Hilda disappears from the orphanage records after this date, but ‘Winnie Brooks’ appears again in June 1926 when she was taken on as a staff ‘probationer’ at St Stephen’s. However her ambition was not to remain at St Stephen’s and in the same entry it is added that ‘Miss Marshall also said that Winnie Brooks much wished to become a missionary and she hoped that Messrs Rowntree would give assistance for her training.’ Perhaps they did, for in March 1927 the committee minutes note that she had left to begin her training at St Brigid’s and staff were pleased to hear ‘excellent accounts’ of her progress over the following year.

The story of the Brooks family, as told by the orphanage records, appears to end there. Spanning twenty years in all, it is just one example of the many thousands of personal stories that can be found in the Borthwick’s collections, and one of millions in archives across Europe that tell of the human cost of the First World War. If you would like to explore the records of St Stephen’s for yourself, the collection is fully open to the public (although records that are less than 100 years old are subject to data protection).  Alternatively, perhaps you know what happened to Winifred and Hilda Brooks after they left St Stephen’s? If so, we would love to hear from you. Our contact details can be found on our website at

Many thanks to Mr and Mrs Poole for their help in searching the York Public Cemetery records.