Thursday, 30 July 2020

New Tricks with Old Docs?

Over a series of blog posts we will be sharing with you what we have been doing whilst working from home, and giving you an insight into some of the interesting collections and items we have come across whilst the Record Office has been closed.

My normal role as an archivist involves collecting and processing collections and helping people to use them. This spreads from our public searchroom into rather more formal sessions, working with the academic world (undergraduates and postgraduates from the University History, English and Education faculties); interest groups for family and local history and school groups looking at the history of their local area.

Archivist Caroline with a group of student visitors.

‘Horrible Handwriting’ (or ‘Palaeography’) is one of our most popular sessions. The youngest group I’ve tried this with was a class of 8 year olds, who used a Tudor alphabet to write their signature like King Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I. Back at school and armed with their new alphabet, they were, to their teacher’s delight (and mine!), writing to each other in their very own class ‘code’ – 16th century Secretary Hand!

Faced with the prospect of ‘lockdown’, a number of us started to look at online courses and one that caught my eye (and fellow archivist, Kate) was one on Scottish Palaeography 1550-1750. A lot of the content was familiar, but, like anything you think you know, there are always bits here and there that are either new or explain something you ‘half know’ (like the use of : as an indicator of an abbreviation or = as a hyphen).

The structure of the course was interesting – text lessons, video tutorials (with the delightful Lionel!), quizzes, transcript exercises and (a lot of) Scottish history to give the context to the church court records you are aiming to read at the end. Our preliminary palaeography sessions at the Record Office have usually consisted of a rather swift canter through the main points and then ‘dive-in’ with the documents. This course certainly gave us food for thought to consider a rather gentler approach! It also introduced a useful tool by using the same document to demonstrate a number of different points (unfamiliar spelling, letter forms, abbreviations and contractions) so your audience can pick up new lessons using a familiar document.

Kate and I pooled our thoughts to create a new, full length, set of palaeography sessions and I set about putting together a set of ‘Horrible Handwriting for Beginners’ tutorials to access via our website. First, I used the 1580s Nantwich parish register with its account of the ‘Great Fire’ and entries of 17th century baptisms and marriages to look at different letter forms, abbreviation marks and other hints and tips to look out for. Next, the first Chester Assembly Book (16th century) provides an interesting look backwards to ‘the time of Edward the thridde’ to look at the layout of Chester streets.

The Great Fire (P 120/4525/2/1)

Finally, I used one of our favourites – Lady Stanley’s ‘recipe and receipt book’ which starts around 1650 (and includes ‘a good drink for the Pestilence!)

Lady Stanley's recipe book (DDX 361)

Archivist Becky then put my rather dry notes onto a very attractive digital story platform and our new ‘Horrible Handwriting’ course was born! The tutorials take you through around seven different hands covering the 15th to 17th centuries and a lot of the basics of the full length course (and even a little bit of Latin...) There are seven documents with guidance notes throughout and the last three you can try on your own. There are no tests and a full transcript at the end of each document, so you can take your time.

Take a look and see what you think. It’s a whole new skill just waiting for you!

You can access the Horrible Handwriting tutorials here or with our other activities via our homepage.


Monday, 13 July 2020

Swapping Conservation Tools for a Mouse: My Conservation Lockdown Story

                In the archive conservation studio

I started writing this blog back in May, before my ancient but trusted laptop decided it didn’t like working from home, preferring to support me with online shopping, researching upcoming hill walks and most importantly safeguarding my precious digital photographs.

It just couldn’t cope with the world of digital Archives; handling metadata, Zooming (albeit with sound only!), Trello and Zooniverse. After a fortnight of trying to revive it, it gave up and took my work with it!

Six weeks later and armed with an updated and fully functioning PC, I’ve resumed my blog and have been reflecting on what has been an extraordinary few months for all of us.


                                              “Computer says no”

The Announcement

I felt a bit like my old laptop on the evening of 23rd March after the Prime Minister advised us to all “Stay at Home”. We had set up a work What’s App group in preparation and received a message instructing us not to come into work again until further notice. We needed to work from home.

“Can I pop in and get some work?” I asked desperately. I needed the security of at least having my conservation tools close by, we had no idea how long this would last. The reply was understandably, a resounding “No”. This was not going to be an easy adjustment for me.


We are a bit of an anomaly in the Archives, us Conservators (myself and my colleague and friend Rachel). When there is a power outage and everyone else is running around desperately trying to get back onto their PC’s, we remain calm and carry on. Our work is predominantly hands on and there are always documents in the archive to care for.          

Rachel giving a talk in our studio    

Rachel had decided to set up her own makeshift studio in her new, but mostly undecorated house and would have access to the building to collect work and to monitor the environment in our strong rooms.

(You can read Rachel's fab blog here!)

But what was I going to do?

I had spent the odd day working from home, usually the result of a train strike. Living in Shrewsbury, and the archive being in Chester this means I can’t get into work. It’s a good opportunity to catch up with paperwork and plan events and training sessions. But this was going to be for much longer than a single day.

I was definitely at a disadvantage; I don’t drive, I live in a small flat, own a 13 year old laptop, my only broadband access is via an old limited data mobile device and my PC skills are definitely out of date.

But I didn’t have much choice. I would have to get with the programme and go digital!

Desktop working

Our What’s App group proved to be a godsend, especially at the start, as we were all having difficulties accessing our work accounts from home. As events had moved so fast, our IT help desk were overwhelmed with requests so it took time for all of our issues to be resolved, but eventually they were. And we all settled into what is now known as ‘the new norm’.

Initial steps

My introduction to home working came in the guise of ‘Trello’ our virtual staff information board. This would become the hub of our work activity, a place for us to keep track of and to reply to public enquiries, record project activity and generally act as a digital platform to exchange ideas and give feedback.

Now, I just had to jump in and assign myself a job.

Cheshire Image Bank

Katie, our Local Studies Adviser was looking for staff to help with their Image Bank Metadata Project; which involved adding and editing information collated by our volunteers onto the Cheshire Image Bank.

Who doesn’t love working with old photographs?

                                                             "What’s Zoom?”

To get us started, Katie ran a training session via Zoom. I had never even heard of Zoom, but it was easy and fun to use. I was put to work on a series of images of the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Works in Ellesmere Port from the early 1900s and later on some beautiful images of Congleton from c1890 through to the 1960s.

Little Moreton Hall c.1890

It was a great place to start.

Zooniverse - Parkside Asylum Project

Staff were also needed to test run an exciting new project using digitised copies of casebooks from the old County Lunatic Asylum in Macclesfield, also known as Parkside Asylum. Using the ‘people-powered research platform’ Zooniverse, volunteers will be able to work remotely from anywhere in the world to help make this vast resource of information more accessible for researchers.

                                                                “What’s Zooniverse?”

I found these records absolutely fascinating to work with and as a digital project newbie felt that I was able to contribute some really useful feedback. 


                                                            Working from home!

Online learning

Alongside getting involved in various digital projects, I participated in some online courses and webinars, which we were all encouraged to do. Once again, this was new to me and I was amazed by just how much was available and free to access.

I really enjoyed the Institute of Conservation (ICON) series of webinars: Together at home. These really made me feel connected to the conservation community, not just in the UK but internationally. Rita Udino’s talk from Barcelona on the ‘Conservation of oiled or impregnated tracing paper’ introduced me to a new treatment technique that I will definitely experiment with when I get back to the studio.

Herre de Vries webinar from Amsterdam on ‘The identification of ‘Shark Skin’ on bookbindings as Leather or Parchment’ will have me searching through our volumes to see if I can find any ‘Shagreen’ bindings in our collection.

I also participated in a couple of longer courses on Future Learn. The first was ‘The History of the Book’, a 4 week course run by Trinity College Dublin took me all the way from the origins of printing in the 1540s through to how the storming of the Bastille in 1789 was chronicled. 

 In light of anti-racist protests taking place here and across the world I decided to take Purdue University’s ‘Understanding Diversity and Inclusion’ course. I have just completed Week 2 of 3 and so far have found it very informative and thought provoking. There is a very strong element of reflection and participation in this course and I must say that sharing thoughts and feelings with an international group of students from such diverse backgrounds has been the most rewarding and powerful aspect of it.

Time for reflection

The Quarry Park in Shrewsbury

I think many of us have had more time to reflect during this lockdown and have perhaps reordered our priorities. If someone had asked me 3 months ago what I would miss doing most during this period, hill walking would have been at the very top of my list, closely followed by my regular Sunday visits to ‘Ginger & Co Coffee’ for tea and toast!

To be honest, I’ve not really missed either. I have been constantly amazed by just how much there has been to discover and enjoy on my own doorstep. My fear of falling apart, physically and mentally without hillwalking has proved unfounded. My love of walking and nature has been sustained by my daily perambulation along the River Severn and my fitness by a series of workouts for the over 50s and an old set of dumbbells!

A few of my regular companions

13 weeks into Lock-down

We have all come a long way since the start of the lock down back in March and have had to be flexible and adapt to new ways of working. I really don’t think any of us envisaged it going on for quite so long. Some hundred and odd days later and I have a fancy new PC, fibre broadband and quite a lot of new skills and knowledge in my toolkit.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Cooking the books!

Like many archives around the country, the team at Cheshire Archives have been working remotely from home during lockdown with no access to the original records. The role of archive staff has changed massively over the years and luckily there is plenty of digital engagement work and cataloguing improvements that we can do to occupy us from afar. However, the archives themselves are still at the heart of what we do.

No one could have envisaged this rather surreal and strange period of isolation, and even after the first week I found myself missing looking at and handling original archives. It’s the feel of archives and, dare I say it, the smell of them!

Amongst the archives you can’t help but have particular favourites, and I am certainly missing some of my ‘old friends’. Obviously all of the archives we have our special but there are some that you form a special attachment to or bond with; the quirky archives that are just plain weird and those that you are proud and excited to show off to the groups that come into the archives.

A number of years ago we hosted a ‘Cooking the Books - A culinary adventure through history’ event where we did a show and tell session focusing on some of the food related records in our collection. We looked at everything from recipes for quaking puddings and drunken loaves to remedies for the treatment of fiery noses and the plague! Many of the staff decided to try and recreate some of the recipes in the books. This proved to be interesting for some of the dishes where measurements and quantities aren’t always given. It was definitely a case of trial and experience. I do remember the very nice herb pie for lent though! You can find the recipe for this here.

We were quite taken by surprise with how popular the event was and it resulted in lots of publicity and even a radio interview that resulted in a whole show with folk ringing in about their remedies for ailments…

One such archive is Lady Stanley’s medical remedy and recipe book or DDX 361 if you want its official archive reference. It’s a small A5 size book bound in vellum and it definitely fits into the category of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. On the outside it’s a rather battered, worn and unpromising volume but when you open it you are taken on a wonderful journey through 17th Century plants, herbs and medicine.

Lady Elizabeth Stanley began the book around 1620. The volume begins in a very neat secretary hand, and as the book goes on we get different handwriting. Subsequent members of the family, maybe? I like to think that it was a treasured book that was passed down through generations... It was important enough for Lady Stanley herself to inscribe ‘the ever honoured and right worshipfull Mrs Elizabeth Stanley of Alderley oweth this booke. July 16th 1653.’

The book begins with medical remedies, and towards the end of the book you are in the more familiar territory of ‘eel pye’, cooking partridge, veal and mutton and pickling red cabbage:

It wasn't until the end of the 17th century that a more clinical and scientific approach to the treatment of ailments and sicknesses began. Prior to this it would have been local folk with a knowledge of the virtues of plants and medicinal properties. The gardens would have been not only the larder for the family but also their medicine cupboard. 

Probably the first thing that strikes you as you look through the remedies in Lady Stanley's book isthat they cover everyday ailments for which we would nowadays pop to the pharmacy: remedies for colds using masses of honey, cures for gout and tooth ache, for freckles, a remedy for stinking breath and "an excellent water for the face to cleare the skinn and to keep it from wrinckles".

Other remedies were attempts to tackle some of the more serious, killer diseases about at that time- "a good drink for the pestilence" "to destroy all poison and plague" and "Mrs Katherine Booth’s recept to out pitts in the face after ye smallpox". 

It's hard to think from our modern vantage point with so much medical science and knowledge behind us that people were fighting these diseases with the help of what they could grow in their gardens. 

Some of the ingredients, such as ‘the six spoonfulls of dragons water’ and ‘treacle of jeane’ used in the pestilence remedy, sound rather alien to us nowadays but would have been popular and accepted ingredients at the time. (What is treacle of jeane you ask? A bit of further research tells me it was a genoa treacle or syrup recipe, a popular family medicine of the times which was often used to remove infections from the body. I’m still working on dragon’s water!)

Like us, when they discovered rememdies that worked for them and proved to be beneficial they shared them amongst their local community e.g. ‘Mrs Fallow’s syrup for the cold’, ‘Mr Crewe’s receipt for wormes’ and the ‘Countess of Derbye’s dyett drinke’.  At the end of many of the remedies you will find the words ‘probatum est’ which means that it had been proven to work. Although looking at some of the ingredients you wonder how and what side effects they would have had!

Finally the book conveys perfectly the superstition of the times and some of the more fantastical remedies are ‘how to bring forth haires upon a bald man’s head’, ‘to know whither a woman be with child of a male or female’ and perhaps most worryingly ‘to know whither one shall live or dye’.

You can’t get much better than a book that tells you what folk were eating in the past, which plants and herbs were readily available, the state of medicine and health in the 17th century and lots and lots of wonderful social history!

Friday, 26 June 2020

Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations in Macclesfield

Earlier this year at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies we examined some images of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations in Macclesfield, in 1887. These images are now available on the Cheshire Image Bank and can be viewed here. Amy, one of our work placement students, enthusiastically researched the images and put together this blog post to tell us more...

Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee was celebrated on June 20th and 21st, 1887. For the Queen herself, the celebrations included a royal banquet and, escorted by the Indian Cavalry, a celebratory procession in London, before returning to Buckingham Palace for a final appearance on the balcony, receiving huge cheers from the crowds below.

In Macclesfield, Sunday School children gathered on Park Green and sang the National Anthem in celebration. Photographs from the day show crowds of people assembled in a procession, arriving at Park Green. The photographs show mill buildings such as Frost Mill, which was destroyed in a fire in 2011, and the Methodist Free Church, also known as Chapel Mill, which became the head office of Gradus Ltd.

Banners were held by those taking part in the procession, including one which can be seen depicting Queen Victoria. Crowds also gathered in windows and on rooftops to watch; clearly health and safety laws were less stringent in those days!

Mill Street, Chestergate and Market Place were decorated with flags and bunting. Local businesses such as P & Wood Printers can be seen on Mill Street. The public house known as the Wheatsheaf can be seen in Market Place, as well as Macclesfield Town Hall. Instead of cars, horse-drawn carts can be seen in these photographs. Queen Victoria herself rode in her gilded state landau drawn by six cream-coloured horses during her jubilee celebrations, as part of the procession through London.

The people of Macclesfield showed strong loyalty and adoration to their Queen. An example of this can be seen in a silk counterpane presented to Queen Victoria by the women of Macclesfield as a gift to celebrate her Golden Jubilee. The counterpane reads "Victoria by the Grace of God Queen" surrounding the letters VIR. This is surrounded by four Cheshire crests and a border of leaves and butterflies. A note at the bottom of the counterpane reads "Presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria in her Jubilee Year MDCCCLXXXVII by the women of Macclesfield in the County of Chester". This counterpane was presented to Queen Victoria at Osbourne House, on the Isle of Wight, on August 19th, 1887. The counterpane was made of silk to represent Macclesfield, which at the time had the largest silk industry in the United Kingdom. An illuminated address accompanying the counterpane reads:
Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen. To the Queen's most excellent Majesty, may it please your Majesty. The Women of Macclesfield desire to approach your Majesty with feelings of most Dutiful and Loyal Affection, and to offer you their Sincere Congratulations that a kind Providence has preserved your Majesty for so many years to reign over a prosperous people. The happy event of your Majesty's jubilee - the occasion of a World's Rejoicing - affords them the opportunity of presenting for your most gracious acceptance, the accompanying embroidered silk counterpane, which is entirely of Macclesfield Manufacture, and which represents the Industry of Macclesfield, The Largest Silk Manufacturing District in the United Kingdom. That God may continue to guide and bless your Majesty for many years to come, is the Sincere and Earnest prayer of your Majesty's faithful and devoted subjects. Signed on behalf of the Women of Macclesfield. 

On June 22nd, 1887, Macclesfield residents gathered in West Park to plant an oak sapling to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Men, women and children can be seen gathered on, in front of, and even under a platform in the park to be part of a photograph of the event. West Park was originally known as Macclesfield Public Park, and was opened in 1854 to give working people access to the countryside after the closure of the commons in 1804. Within three weeks of Councillor John May's proposal that a public park be opened in Macclesfield, £300 had been collected in small amounts from 17,000 working people in the town, which became known as "The Pennies of the Poor". This was one of the most successful fundraisers in the town at that time, showing the strong public desire to have access to a space for leisure and to be around nature.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Chester's Iconic Leadworks

With the Record Office currently closed to the public, the staff have been finding ways of bring our collections to you. 

One of these ways is Flickr. This website allows us to create albums of photographs and images of  documents for you to view and enjoy. One of our recent additions is an album relating to the old Chester leadworks. You can see the album here.

Chester Leadworks from City Road. ZCR 245/7191/1. 

The site of the Chester leadworks in Boughton is currently being redeveloped, but the Shot Tower, a familiar sight on Chester's skyline, is still at the centre of the site. 

Shot towers were first designed in 1782 for the production of lead pellets. Molten lead was poured through a copper sieve at the top of the tower, and then fell through the tower before being cooled in a basin of water at the bottom. 

The Chester Shot Tower is believed to be the oldest of three still in existence in the UK, and was classed as a Grade II listed building by Historic England in 1981.

Plan of the Chester Leadworks, 1908. ZCR 245/7191/17.


The original leadworks site was developed by Samuel Walker in 1799 and was named Walkers, Parker & Co. One of the first uses of the Shot Tower was to make lead shots for muskets in the Napoleonic Wars.

Over the years the site grew and expanded its operations. Many products were produced on the site, from lead sheets, pipes and paint to Radium handling benches for local hospitals.

Sales leaflet c.1930s. ZCR 245/7191/1.

During World War II the Leadworks supplied the War Office with chemical lead piping and fittings, and it also received orders from the Royal Ordnance factory at Hooton, Wirral.

Correspondence with the War Office, 1939. ZCR 245/13.

The leadworks were renamed Associated Lead Manufacturers in the 1950s and then later became known as Calder Lead. 

Production at the Boughton site slowly reduced over the latter part of the 20th century, and finally closed in 2001 with Calder Lead moving across Chester.

Plan of Associated Lead Manufacturers Ltd., 1950. ZCR 245/7191/18.

We have a number of documents within our collection which chart the development and expansion of the site over the years. 

Collection ZCR 245 (Associated Lead Manufacturers Ltd, Chester) not only gives us an insight into the running and structure of the company but also details of the manufacturing process. The leadworks was a significant employer in the city, and the collection contains staff records from the 1850s onwards. 

Visit our catalogue to discover more about the Associated Lead Manufacturers Ltd. collection. We also hold a number of books and pamphlets documenting the history of the company in our local studies section. 

Thursday, 18 June 2020

"A rose by any other name…" can be a Peppercorn Rent!

Over a series of blog posts we will be sharing with you what we have been doing whilst working from home, and giving you an insight into some of the interesting collections and items we have come across whilst the Record Office has been closed.

Look up ‘
peppercorn rent’ online and you will see it defined as a very low or nominal amount of money to be paid as rent, often used when renting to a family member or friend. This type of charge is not related to the value of the piece of land or building being rented, but is enough of an exchange for the purposes of a legal contract and maintains a formal landlord/tenant relationship.


One of the projects we have been working on over the past few weeks is improving and updating our online listings and while updating descriptions for of some of our earliest deeds I came across this in the DDX collection, where a rose was the charge for services:


Having asked colleagues if it was unusual for a flower to be used as payment (answer: No), I had a look for some other examples in our collections. It was not uncommon for a nominal rent payment to be requested in the form of a peppercorn, a red rose or a pair of white gloves. Here in DDS 17/13 from 1497, the initial rent is payable by a red rose at Midsummer (21st June) and a peppercorn at Martinmas (11th November):


In this document from the late C12th early C13th payment of two white gloves or one penny is requested:



And in this deed from 1291, the land owner has asked for a pair of white gloves, a rose and a barbed arrow:



If you want to see how common these forms of peppercorn rent were, particularly in Medieval times, you can find more examples by searching our online catalogue. Go to Advanced Search and type peppercorn, red rose, white gloves or barbed arrow into the Any Text box.



If you would like to read some other amusing examples of peppercorn rents and the feudal system of land ownership, take a look at this JSTOR Daily article. Maybe that’s why sprouts became a popular Christmas vegetable..?