Friday 23 November 2018

A Year in the Life of a Borthwick Trainee

In July 2017, I became the latest in a long line of Borthwick Institute Trainees when I accepted the position over the phone while wedged between the skips out the back of York Waterstones (it was the quietest place I could find on Coney Street!). Despite this inauspicious start, I quickly fell in love with my new job. The Borthwick staff kept me busy with a wide variety of tasks and projects. All ofthem were quite happy to share their knowledge about their own personal area of expertise, and the Archive Assistants in particular happily endured my endless barrage of questions. A year on, I have finished my traineeship, and would like to share with you six items from the Borthwick archives that I think sum up my role over the last year.

Number one: Will of Jane Staple
A close up of text on a white background

Description automatically generated
Naturally, a key part of being a trainee is receiving training. Palaeography, the art of reading old handwriting, was one of the hardest and yet most rewarding things I learned at the Borthwick. In my first lesson, I was asked to read the will of Jane Staple. I sent a photo of it to a friend with the caption “It’s completely illegible!” She replied that actually this was quite a nice document and they’d get harder. Not exactly encouraging! But a year on, this document is no longer illegible; and she was right: they do get much, much harder!

A picture containing indoor, building

Description automatically generatedNumber two: Will of Lancelot Thorpe

The Borthwick have somewhere between 750,000 and 1,000,000 wills (depending on who you ask). One of my jobs was to make copies of wills for researchers. This was a simple, yet time-consuming task, not helped by the fact that I would regularly get distracted by the contents of the wills themselves. The will of Lancelot Thorpe particularly caught my attention. The will itself was clearly written by a scribe, and is fairly standard in form and content. However on the back is a letter to Lancelot’s wife written in his own hand, explaining that he has total faith in her to act as his executrix. Lancelot died aboard ship not long after.  

A close up of a newspaper

Description automatically generated
Number three: Parish Magazine from Micklefield
When I was asked to repackage and list a collection of parish magazines, I don’t think anyone realised that there were nearly 6000 of them! Again, I became hopelessly distracted by the contents of the magazines, in particular the serialized stories. This tale was a personal favourite: the story of a young lady who must choose between caring for her mother (‘inept at housework of all kinds’) or pursuing a career as a potter when a young man from London offers her a job. Unfortunately, the next few editions of the magazine have not survived, and come the next surviving issue he is in court accused of a serious crime, and she leaves him after a dramatic scene at a bus stop. The December edition of this story is also missing, but I like to imagine they lived happily ever after.

A close up of text on a white background

Description automatically generatedNumber four: A Letter from Lawrence Rowntree to his sister Jean
After the parish magazines I moved on (via a couple of other projects) to listing the letters of Lawrence Rowntree.  Laurie wrote nearly 600 letters to his mother over the course of his life, starting when he was just six years old and ending with his death on the Western Front in 1917 aged just 22.  On the whole these letters were a joy to read, as Laurie’s letters are full of humour. On one occasion, he went to have his hair cut. The barber did not know his last name, and spent the entire hair cut telling Laurie how awful the Rowntree family were. Laurie wrote to his mother that he now had an entirely new view of his grandfather!  In one early letter, Laurie rejoices at the birth of his youngest sister, and asks that she be called Cello. Instead, she was named Jean. Over the next few years, Laurie often comments on how awkward it is writing to Jean, because she is just so little. By January 1917, when this letter was written, the two were clearly very close, and Laurie jokes about his Christmas celebrations and present. 

A picture containing text

Description automatically generated
Number five: Rowntree Black Magic Advert
To end my traineeship, I was given the opportunity to devise my own project. Having been a teacher in a previous life, I decided to use the archives at the Borthwick to create a series of teaching resource packs.  My favourite was about the use of persuasive language (to tie in with the KS3 English syllabus) as shown through Rowntree adverts. I especially love the early Black Magic adverts, because they provide little snippets of a story and leave you to fill in the blanks. Much as with the parish magazines, my imagination ran wild!

Number six: Archie

A picture containing fence, building, blue, sitting

Description automatically generated
Archie is a toy squirrel and the Borthwick’s unofficial mascot. Having been asked to help out with the Borthwick social media accounts I thought we could have a bit of fun with him. Often we would have themes or campaigns for our social media streams, such as Archives 30 (in which the Archives and Records Association set a different theme each day) or our collaboration with the English department at the University of York to try and provide dissertation ideas for undergraduate students.  Having come up with ideas for photos I wanted to take for these campaigns, I would take Archie with me and photograph him with any interesting or unusual things I found while in the Strongroom. As such, Archie ended up being photographed with some very unusual items!

A picture containing table, indoor

Description automatically generated

As I mentioned at the beginning, this traineeship program has been running for a long time now, and hopefully will run for many more years. While I have now left the Borthwick and returned to university to complete a Masters degree in archival and information studies, the traineeship programme goes on.  So I’d like to end with some quick advice for my successors.  

Firstly, always lift the archive boxes with two hands (trust me on this one).  

Secondly, if you ever have a spare ten minutes, there is endless fun to be found in wandering into the Strongroom, picking a box at random, and seeing what you can find.  It’s the closest you will ever come to finding buried treasure.

And thirdly, the staff at the Borthwick are fabulous. Not only are they incredibly knowledgeable about their collections and generally all things archives, but they are very happy to share this knowledge with you.  Ask as many questions as you want (you won’t annoy them) and learn as much as you can. Don’t waste this fabulous opportunity, because you are incredibly lucky to have it. Good luck! 

A squirrel sitting on top of a teddy bear

Description automatically generated

Rosie Denton
Archives Trainee 2017-2018

No comments:

Post a Comment

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