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Friday, 26 March 2021

The Census Detective - What clues are you leaving behind?

It all started with the will of Mary Crewe, spinster, late of Watergate Street in Chester. What struck me was the fact that she had left quite substantial sums of money to her family and to charity but made her mark with an 'X' in her will. How did she have almost £20,000 in today's money but could not write her name?

The will of Mary Crewe, 1875

Intrigued, I decided to find out more about Mary's story. What followed was a detective trail involving several sources, highlighting the strengths – and weaknesses - of census returns as evidence.

A look on Cheshire BMD shows Mary’s death registered in 1875 and reveals her age as 82, which gives us a birth year of about 1793.

Entry showing the death of Mary Crewe in 1875 on Cheshire BMD

This approximate year of birth was my next step for a ‘quick look’ at the census returns for where she lived and who with. Not so quick! A search on Ancestry in the 1871 census for ‘Mary Crewe’(exact) born five years either side of 1793 in Chester gave no results.

However, widening the search for similar names and for places in ‘Cheshire’ instead of Chester provided a promising result. 

Mary ‘Creeve’, a 76 year-old cook born in Tilston, is living with her employer, Miss Maria Wynne, a ‘Lady’ and a 19 year-old housemaid, Phebe Williams.


The census return for 1871 showing Mary Crewe living with Miss Maria Wynne and Phebe Williams in Chester

A look back at Mary’s will reveals something interesting. Mary names Miss Wynne, spinster, as her executrix (a female executor). So Mary had appointed her employer to carry out her last wishes.

Extract from Mary's will showing Miss Wynne as her executrix

The same search using Find My Past correctly identifies Mary’s surname as ‘Crewe’ in the 1871 census. It also gives an entry in 1851 for her as a servant aged 55 in the household of Hugh Calveley and his niece, Miss Wynne, in Northgate Street, Chester. Both Hugh and Maria are described as ‘independent’.

I couldn’t find an entry in Find My Past for 1861 looking for Mary Crewe. However, she’s there in the entry for Miss Wynne and Hugh Calveley, now in Watergate Street. This entry for Mary Crewe aged 63 (born around 1798 at ‘Sellstone’) is picked up clearly by Ancestry, but with an obvious mistake in the index for her place of birth!

With the 1841 census, it’s only when I searched for Mary and Miss Wynne in vain that I found them in the household of Hugh Calveley. The 1841 census rounds ages up to the nearest five years, so Mary’s age here is given as 35 - now we've got a birth year around 1816!

1841 census return showing Mary Crewe living with  Hugh Calveley and Miss Wynne

Lessons learnt

·       Even when the name of a person or place seems clear, be aware that the census returns were transcribed by people with no local knowledge and there are mistakes

·       There are clearly differences in transcription between  Ancestry and Find My Past. If you can’t find an entry on one, try the other!

·       If the person you’re looking for doesn’t appear, try and find other members of the same household

·       Using ages can be tricky. Mary's birth year ranges from 1795 to 1816 according to the census. It could be deliberate or careless reporting, and perhaps the correct age of a domestic servant wasn't a matter for great accuracy?

Going back to Mary’s will and my original question for a moment …

Mary left £25 to each of her four great nephews and two donations of £19 19 shillings to charity. As a domestic servant, how was she so well provided for?

The answer lies in the will of Hugh Calveley, who leaves Mary the sum of £100 in 1868, with the condition that she is still in his service at the time of his death.

Extract from the will of Hugh Calveley, 1868

Miss Wynne’s will, made in 1868, leaves an annual allowance to Mary of £26 and a codicil, amending her will after Mary’s death, leaves £19 19 shillings to Phebe Williams, the housemaid). Curious that same amount appears in both wills, just under the £20 limit that you had to pay legacy dues to the taxman!

What does this indicate about long term employees and their employers?

Clearly both Hugh and Miss Wynne valued their staff, Mary Crewe in particular. There’s an entry in the Cheshire Observer on 11th December 1875 for Mary’s death, which describes her as ‘…for 60 years the faithful and attached servant of Miss Wynne’s family’.

Cheshire Observer, 11 December 1875

Another thing that struck me looking at this story – it is far from the full story! We see Mary’s life and circumstances as a glimpse every ten years and have to piece together what we can from the fragments the census returns give us (and not always willingly!).

Looking for Mary, we find Maria and her bachelor uncle, Hugh. How did they become a household for so long? What else can we discover about them?

Our Overleigh Cemetery database shows an entry for Mary and the UK Find a Grave database on Ancestry takes us to an image of Mary’s grave there. She’s buried with her brother, George and somebody called Hannah... but that is another story!

Think about the information we have provided on the census returns throughout our lives, what would a researcher far in the future make of our stories?


 


Monday, 8 March 2021

Women of Cheshire

You will go back a long way to find your first significant woman in Cheshire history and Aethelflaed, Saxon Lady of Mercia, rebuilding Chester in 907, but to make it onto our list you need to find their stories in our archives...


Cooking the books

Elizabeth Raffald honed her skills in domestic service for 15 years. Her final job was housekeeper at Arley Hall in Cheshire before she married and went on to be a formidable businesswoman with a keen eye for an opportunity in 18th century Manchester. 

Portrait of Elizabeth Raffald

She ran a cookery school, domestic staff agency, delivered high end dining to Manchester’s new money homes, used the information she collected to publish Manchester’s first trade directory listing businesses, services and potential clients. And in 1769 published the first cookbook in English of original recipes – 800 of them – we made and loved eating her Herb Pie.

Elizabeth Raffald Society

For the record

Women appear equally in official records but these are bare glimpses and hints at lives lived. Take Parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials since the 1500s. In Taxal in 1707 there is a record of Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill marrying, and in 1750 in Middlewich Maria Sproston marries Sarah Richardson 'commonly called Peter' – of course we will never know the whole stories, but this doesn’t make them any less fascinating.

We have managed to put some flesh on the bones of the life of a woman whose headstone has become famous in Overleigh Cemetery in Chester. Mary Jonas ‘the mother of 33 children by one husband’ - this note appears with her final contribution to the parish registers when she died aged 85.

Parish record noting Mary Jonas is 'The mother of 33 children by one husband'

Dear Diary

Women’s voices are hard to hear in official record-keeping but diaries are where lots of women have found their voice in recording their lives, experiences and feelings. Frances E. Crompton goes on to become an author and her diary is written in a way that you can imagine she was looking forward to telling her friends and family tales of a honeymoon gone wrong. There is lots to relate to … reality not living up to expectations … and that impractical and uncomfortable new frock that you love anyway.

Aged 22 in 1686 Sarah Savage began keeping her ‘spiritual diary’ and she kept writing until her death aged 87. And we have the first tiny volume of fewer than 100 pages, with such small writing and so many words. Yes, there is lots about sermons, her faith and life events, but there is so much more. In 1716, the person closest to her, Jane Hunt dies unexpectedly, and Sarah keeps her alive in conversations with her through her diary-keeping. Evidence of enduring best friendship.

Diaries in our collections have one thing in common. We know all about the authors because we can ask questions when people offer them to us. But this one came to us via a secondhand shop, the only clue to the writer's identity is an entry on her birthday. We can tell that she had Warrington connections and was nursing during the Second World War in Morecambe. The diary is intimate, full of detail, she is a complicated woman living through extraordinary times – one day we will perhaps discover who she was and what happened to her. We had to use our imagination and images from magazines to picture her. Or perhaps she would prefer to remain a mystery?

Women in politics and activism

We can't put together a blog celebrating the women of Cheshire without mentioning some of the inspiring women leaders and activists who have shaped our county. 

In 1894 a 24-year-old tailor named Ada Nield was sensationally dismissed from the Crewe clothing factory Compton Brothers clothing factory. Her offence? Inciting female co-workers to unite and demand a “living wage” instead of their current “lingering, dying wage”. For weeks Ada’s anonymous letters, signed “A Crewe Factory Girl”, had been printed in the Crewe Chronicle, garnering support from men’s unions as well as the local MP. As a result of these letters she had to leave Comptons, but working arrangements were improved.
Example of the letters that Ada wrote

Her letters attracted the attention of the Independent Labour Party, who offered her employment when her identity as the Crewe Factory Girl was eventually discovered. Ada became active in the ILP and by the end of 1894 she has been elected as a Nantwich Poor Law Guardian (one of the very first working-class female Guardians). In the years leading up to the First World War, Ada (now married as known as Ada Nield Chew) became an active supporter of the movement for women's suffrage.

Councillor Alift Harewood MBE was born in Anna Catherina, a sugar planting village in Guyana, in 1934. She trained as a nurse and midwife before coming to the UK and settling in Macclesfield. 

Alift worked as a nurse for 59 years, and during that time became very politically and socially active within the Macclesfield community. In 2012 she became the town's first Black mayor, and was re-elected again in 2016. She remains active in local politics and is a passionate advocate for gender equality. 

Alift shared her incredible life story with us in 2011 as part of CHAWREC's Journeys to Cheshire oral history project. 

Home front

We are all aware of the impact of turbulent world events on women’s lives. The First World War was the first global conflict to have a ‘home front’ and arguably accelerated change in women’s roles in society generally and some women’s lives were changed forever. In the ICI collection you will find inspirational photos of women working in Brunner Mond’s chemical works at Northwich that captivate with their camaraderie. Kept with them is a newspaper clipping – Florence Gleave died aged 20 and was a ‘canary girl’ – women turned yellow as working with TNT caused toxic jaundice.

Women at the Winnington Works, c. 1914

See them in West Cheshire Museums' Working Women online exhibition

You will find women in our ‘First World War Servicemen’s Index’ … a project that we named without realising that women in nursing units were still serving abroad in 1919, and of course that women over 30 had just got the right to vote. Search ‘nursing’ in Unit Keyword to find five women.


What has she got to do with Cheshire?

So Eleanor Ormerod wasn't born or, as far as we know, ever spent time in Cheshire – but, bear with us, if her father had not produced his ‘History of Cheshire’ she may not have had the skills or means to follow her own path as an insect expert in Victorian England. Her impact on farming was global as she reported on 'injurious insects'. Not that her father was impressed, his papers only record his sons' achievements. He surely would have been if he knew she keeps remarkable company with Darwin in having a ‘self-replicating manufacturing machine’ or free 3D printer model named after her! (And there is a Cheshire connection, her assistant was Robert Newstead, first curator of the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.)

Watch an interview with George Ormerod's biographer discussing Eleanor here

You can find all these women in our archives - and millions more - who would you add to the list?


Friday, 26 February 2021

A Pub in Parkgate

Would you like to learn more about a local business or building from the comfort of your own home? This blog will take you through some of our online resources using the example of The Boat House, a pub in Parkgate at the end of The Parade.

Our first port of call is the Cheshire Tithe Maps website, available through the Cheshire Archives and Local Studies website. Cheshire Tithe Maps Online allows you to view and search almost 500 tithe maps and compare these alongside other historic mapping. Together with the information recorded in tithe apportionments, they are a unique record of land ownership, occupancy and use in Cheshire 150 years ago. The video clip below talks you through how to use the website for your research. 


The tithe maps website will also allow you to search by person or by plot, if you wanted to see what else was owned by the Mostyn family for example.

To delve deeper into this website please see our previous blog You are here! But who was before? Discover history on your doorstep using Cheshire Tithe Maps Online.

Now let’s see what we can find using the digitised trade directories available to view and search online via our website. Trade directories were the Yellow Pages of their day, produced from the 17th century onwards to meet an increased demand for information on commerce and industry. This video shows you where to find them and how we can use them in our research.


If you are interested in carrying out research into the history of the Johnson family using census records, then you can use your Cheshire library card to access the Ancestry website from your own device at home. Full free access is available at your local library, and at the record office itself. For more information on using Ancestry Library Edition, why not check out our beginner’s guide on our YouTube channel?

Next, using the Neston Borough Building Control Plans Database which is also available on our website, we can search for any information relevant to the Boat House, or the Pengwern Arms, between the years 1868 and 1950.


Lastly, let's visit the Cheshire Image Bank to see if any images of the Boat House have been digitised and available to view online.

The image bank is available through our website. We continually digitise and add new images to this online collection, bringing together pictures of Cheshire’s people, places and events, and we currently have nearly 31,000 images available online.

A search for “Parkgate” in the top right search box brings up 138 results, including several which will be of interest in our research, or you can follow the steps demonstrated in the below video clip.


If you were interested in obtaining a digital copy of an image, please click on “How to Obtain Prints” on the left-hand menu.


You may also like to visit our Flickr page, where we have further material digitised and grouped into albums.

We have now learned more about the history of The Boat House without even leaving our sofa! We have been able to find images of the pub, the names of its publicans and know that it stood on land owned by the Mostyn family. We know alterations were made over the years, that its name changed, and we have found its location on 19th century tithe and ordnance survey maps. Why not explore our online resources yourself, travel back in time and see what you can find out about your local area?! Keep curious!

Friday, 27 November 2020

You are here! But who was before? Discover history on your doorstep using Cheshire Tithe Maps Online

This blog explains how to get started using our Cheshire Tithe Maps Online website to explore the history of your house, a plot of land or another place of interest.

As you will soon see, delving into the history of a site can sometimes raise more questions than answers, but is still an absorbing activity!

What is Cheshire Tithe Maps Online?


Over 400 individual tithe maps from the 1830s and 1840s have been electronically stitched together to form a continuous and (more or less) seamless map of the whole of the ancient county of Cheshire, as well as a few townships in the Warrington area. 

On entering the website you can see the historic tithe maps on the left-hand side of the screen, and a modern map on the right. You can click anywhere on either map to move the coverage area around, or use the + and – buttons on the right to zoom in and out. Even more usefully, the site also opens with a search box, where you can tap in a postcode or street to zoom straight to a location on the map. 


How can I use the website to find the history of a building or plot of land?


We'll show you how we use the Cheshire Tithe Maps Online website to learn more about the history of a building. 

In this case we are interested in the site of the Neuromuscular Centre (NMC) on Woodford Lane West, Winsford. We have a postcode for this site, CW7 4EH, which we can insert into the location box:




Clicking and dragging on the circle between the 19th century tithe map and the modern day map allows you to directly compare the two maps, revealing what was on the site of the NMC in 1846... Nothing! 



This is disappointing, but the plot does have a number on it... What does this mean? 

The tithe maps show numbered plots, which correspond to an accompanying book (called an "apportionment" - literally how the land was portioned out), which identified the owners, occupiers, and area, and what the land was used for. This last category might just say "House and buildings", or it could be a field name, for example. 

This particular plot is number 438, and by clicking on it we can view the names of the owners, occupiers and the description given in the apportionment:



We now know that the owner was Richard Dutton, the occupier Martha Hodgkinson and the land use … mowing! Nowadays the land surrounding the site is still known as The Meadow.

We can enter these names into the 'Search Tithe Maps By Person' field to see if they own or occupy any other land. 

In Martha’s case she is shown as occupying a few more plots for mowing/pasture, and we can see the full extent of Richard Dutton’s ownership in the area. 



Where next?


If want to find out more about an owner or occupier, the census returns, available for every ten years from 1841 to 1911, are an extremely useful source. They can be searched online through Ancestry and Find My Past.

The small window in the bottom left hand corner of the tithe map website gives the year that particular map was drawn, so the map for Over (one of the historic townships that has become Winsford) was drawn in 1846. A search on the 1841 and 1851 census would be our next step. 

Unless we are very lucky with some very unusual names, we will probably have to make some educated guesses using birth year, occupations and geography to narrow the results down to the likeliest suspects.

The most likely local Richard Dutton appears to reside in Stanthorne Hall and is listed as being a farmer of 172 acres:



The most likely Martha Hodgkinson is more tricky. There is one living at Thurlwood, Odd Rode married to Matthew who is an Agricultural Labourer, but is this a bit too far away? She was born in 1810 and is the only Martha of the right age. 

We probably have to rule out whether another Martha Hodgkinson married or died between 1846 and 1851 using indexes of marriage and death registration online. We probably also need to know more about how far the rural workforce travelled to tend to meadow or pasture. 

If we are interested in verifying these people and knowing more about them we can go down more of a family history route. A search for named individuals or properties on the Cheshire Archives and Local Studies online catalogue may also be useful. Our collections cover a lot of estate, solicitors and institutional records, though unfortunately owners are more likely to appear than occupiers, obviously!

If you are more interested in property or land history you can go back to the maps again. On the Cheshire Tithe Maps Online website click 'Change Maps' and you'll be presented with a list of nine other options you can look at. 



As well as the default options of the Tithe Map and latest Ordnance Survey maps, you can also see the first, second and third Ordnance Survey six-inch plans (published in the 1870s, 1890s and 1910s respectively), as well as aerial photographs taken in 1971-73, 1999-2003 and 2010. 

You can choose which to have as the left map or the right map, and change your selection at any time. Using these snapshots in time you can work out approximately when a plot was first built on, or when a building was demolished. 

The National Library of Scotland have an even more extensive range of Ordnance Survey maps from the 19th and 20th centuries. These can be especially helpful in filling the gaps in the Cheshire Tithe Maps site after 1900.


Interested in historic maps and mapping we have a Walk Through History video

You never know where a quick search might take you - check out the NMC History Project here

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Fauna and flora of Cheshire

In 1900, Thomas Coward described the county of Cheshire in his book Birds of Cheshire (Ref: 011889) as consisting of three distinct areas; The Central Plain, The Hill Country of the East, and the Wirral Peninsula and Marshes of the Dee, all varying greatly in character, and providing maritime habitats for wildlife as well as a farmed landscape. The county has changed much in the century since Coward wrote his work. This blog uses items from our collections to explore the fauna and flora of Cheshire, both past and present.

Like many other areas of the United Kingdom, local names for wildlife developed in Cheshire, including an “urchin” (hedgehog), a “mouldywarp” (mole), “spadgers” (house sparrows) and a “gil-hooter” (owl). What animals do you think the below are local words for?! Answers can be found at the bottom of the blog post! Many more local names for wildlife can be found in Vertebrate fauna of Cheshire and Reptiles and amphibians, both by T. Coward (Ref: 011896).

1. Snig

2. Rabbidge

3. Tummuz

4. Windhover

5. Dabchick


Cheshire is linked with several renowned naturalists. Charles Tunnicliffe (1901-1979) was an artist of natural history, born in Macclesfield. He illustrated Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (see Ref: 112994), as well as Ladybird books and Brooke Bond tea cards, specialising in British birds and wildlife. A collection of his work can be found at Macclesfield Library. He also illustrated books by his friend “Nomad the Naturalist”, the alias of another local naturalist, Norman Ellison.

Ellison was born in Liverpool in 1893, and worked as a radio presenter and author, making programmes about nature and the countryside. His uncle, George Ellison, was also a local naturalist. “Nomad” wrote A Naturalist’s Notebook column for Cheshire Life magazine between the 1940s and 1970s.

 
In The Wirral Peninsula (Ref: 010568), originally published in 1955, Ellison embarks upon walks in the area, from Parkgate to Neston, describing the marshy grassland on the other side of the sea wall, looking out towards Wales. He describes the marsh as treacherous, with deep gullies and clinging mud. He also records wildlife he sees on a walk around the gardens at Ness; willow warblers, a great spotted woodpecker, martins and swallows, and a badger sett.


Ness Gardens was established by the Liverpool Cotton Broker and keen naturalist Arthur Kilpin Bulley in 1898. Bulley was interested in the “acclimatisation” of plants from abroad and opened his gardens to the public. A. K. Bulley died in 1942, and in 1948 his daughter presented the whole estate to the University of Liverpool, to be kept as a botanic garden, with the condition that public openings of the grounds continued.

Our next local naturalist to introduce to you is George Bramwell Evens (1884-1943), also known as “Romany”, who lived for a time in Wilmslow. He was a radio broadcaster and naturalist, writing on nature and the countryside, producing many Out with Romany programmes. His first book A Romany in the Fields was published in 1929 (see Ref: 401720, held at Willmslow Library along with several other items of his work).


And finally, we also hold the records of Arnold Whitworth Boyd (1885-1959) at Cheshire Record Office (Ref: D 5154), an ornithologist and naturalist born in Altrincham. Like Ellison, A. W. Boyd also wrote wildlife columns, including for the Manchester Guardian. A reprint of Boyd’s weekly nature notes from this newspaper can be found in The Country Diary of a Cheshire Man (Ref: 200208), published in 1946.

If you feel inspired by our Cheshire naturalists and some of the wildlife mentioned here, Cheshire is a fantastic county to explore, with many popular walking trails, including the Sandstone Trail and the North Cheshire Way.

The Sandstone Trail


The Sandstone Trail explores 55km (34 miles) of Cheshire’s central sandstone ridge from Frodsham to Whitchurch. The highest point is Rawhead, near Bickerton in central Cheshire, rising 227m (746 feet) above sea level. It is one of the earliest middle-distance ways in Britain and was conceived by the Cheshire County Council in the 1970s, officially opening in 1974. Along the way you may see peregrines, which have returned to nesting in Cheshire. Look out for mature deciduous woodland across the Peckforton and Bulkeley Hills. The marshland around Frodsham provides habitats for wildfowl such as teals, shelducks, redshanks and dunlins. The woodland paths of the trail are lined with wildflowers such as celandines, wood anemones and bluebells in spring and early summer. Delamere Forest is an ideal place for fungal forays during the autumn. The steep, wooded Peckforton Hills are home to a range of mammals and birds, with buzzards, ravens and sparrowhawks 
nesting in the woods, and an increasing number of polecats.


See
Walking Cheshire’s Sandstone Trail by Tony Bowerman (Ref: 222267) to learn more about this route and the wildlife which can be found along it.

The North Cheshire Way

The North Cheshire Way is Cheshire’s longest long-distance footpath, running for 114km (71 miles) from Hooton Station to Disley Station, crossing the county from west to east. On the way you might see “herb Peters” (cowslips) or “paigles” (primroses).



For further information, see The North Cheshire Way, a slice of Cheshire (Ref: 219999), published by the Mid-Cheshire Footpath Society.

Whilst walking, keep an eye out for the following fauna and flora common to Cheshire: 

  • Butterflies, such as the holly blue, red admiral and orange tips.
  • Mammals, including common pipistrelle bats, hedgehogs and red foxes.
  • Trees, including English oaks and holly.
  • Wildflowers, such as bluebells in spring, wild garlic, and the common poppy.
  • Reptiles and amphibians. Look out for adders, common toads and common frogs. Locally tadpoles of the common frog have been known as “bull-heads”.
  • Birds such as robins and tiny wrens. We love this quote from Coward in Birds of Cheshire (Ref: 011889): “Mr. F. S. Graves saw a [wren’s] nest at Capesthorne in the spring of 1899, built in the head of a Brussels-sprout”! Coward also reports on a swallow, one of our migratory birds, seen flying in Delamere, completely white in colour.


ANSWERS: 1. Eel, 2. Rabbit, 3. Toad, 4. Kestrel, 5. Moorhen

View more images of Cheshire’s landscape online at www.cheshireimagebank.org.uk

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.

Conservators


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.