Thursday, 18 January 2018

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…

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.