Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Explore Your Archive: Archive Extremes!

Explore Your Archive is an annual celebration of archives and the collections held in them. This year’s event runs from 20th to 28th November, with themes for each day including ‘small’ and ‘big’. Inspired by this, here are some contenders for not just the smallest and biggest items held at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, but also the oldest, heaviest, longest, brightest and oddest!


Some of our smallest items are diaries from the Swindells of Bollington collection. These three on the right, belonging to mill owner Frederick Swindells, have pages measuring less than 9cm x 6cm and are full of tiny writing giving an account of each day. In collection D8714 we have some miniature notebooks by Chester artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott, dating from 1855, that are full of practice sketches.  And in the Baker-Wilbraham family collection, there is a wooden box measuring 9cm x 7cm x 4cm, full of small deeds dating from the 13th to 18th centuries, some complete with seals.


Our oldest royal charter is almost 850 years old, dating from around 1175. It is a City of Chester Charter (ref: ZCH 1) relating to matters outside the city, in which King Henry II “re-affirmed trading rights enjoyed by the burgesses of Chester in Dublin since the time of Henry I”, and still has its seal. 

Amongst several centuries worth of deeds in our oldest family and estate collections, are even older documents from the early 1100s. They usually don't include a date - this can be narrowed down based on what we know about the transaction and the people involved.

Our Local Studies department holds many collections of photographs, including some taken by pioneering Cheshire photographers Thomas Davies and W.H. Hanmer, dating from the 1850s. This early photograph from a Hanmer album is of children at a school in Wincham run by Charles Hanmer, presumed to be the photographer’s father. And on the right is a self-portrait of Thomas Davies – a very early selfie! They are not the oldest items in our collections, but they are our oldest photographs.


Many of our maps are on the large side. To give an idea of the scale, this one measures around 9 feet or 2.7m on its shortest side and was photographed on the floor next to our staff member Heather - she is just under 5 feet 2 inches tall, or 1.56m. We tried taking the photo standing up, but our ceiling was too low! 

One of the longest maps we hold is a 1721 map of the River Weaver from Frodsham Bridge to Winsford Bridge, which measures 75cm x 3.35m. The image below left has been stitched together digitally from the 10 individual images we had to take to capture the whole map. This 1564 pedigree (below right) is even longer than the River Weaver map, and measures around 55cm x 4.2m. It shows three generations issuing from the marriage of Sir Randle Brereton of Malpas, who died in 1530, to Eleanor Dutton of Hatton. 


Our archives are stored carefully in seven large strong rooms at Cheshire Record Office in Chester, and also offsite at a salt mine storage facility in Winsford. Until we open a box, folder or roll, we don’t know what the item inside will look like, and we’re often taken aback at how vibrant some very old documents still look. The pedigree above is a good example of how well the colours have lasted, but this one, of the Eyton family of Denbighshire dates from 1674 and the colours, including the touches of gold paint, look as bright as a much newer document. It is also over 5m long!


We thought a contender for the heaviest item would be a City of Chester Assembly Minute book, ref: ZAB 1. It is frequently requested in our search room, and is very large and heavy to handle. But its 11kg weight and 43x32x14 cm dimensions pale in comparison to this wages and holiday pay book from Brunner Mond & Co Ltd’s Lostock works, from 1913 (DIC 9026/1). Measuring 58x50x12cm, it weighs in at a whopping 25kg. 

Just a couple of kilos lighter is our Thomas Hughes collection of copper engraving plates, dating from c.1810 to c.1860. The 44 plates in the collection weigh a total of 23kg - this one features an engraving of the Dee Bridge railway disaster.


We certainly have some unusual items in our collections – from some coffin plates removed from a vault in Malpas church (DCH/WW/24), to a lady’s single riding glove containing a calling card from 1680 (D5154/30), and a single brick that arrived with our collection from Foden (DFO) commercial vehicle manufacturers. 

But arguably the most unusual, or oddest, are locks of people’s hair. There are several – including one within a collection of late 17th century correspondence of the Arderne family of Alvanley (DAR/A/89) - but the one pictured below is from the collection of Colonel Hugh Robert Hibbert of Macclesfield, who served in the Crimean war. It is contained in a small envelope inscribed ‘Hugh’s hair, April 4th, 1854. Cut off at Manchester the evening before he left’ for the Crimea. 
So these are some of our Archive Extremes – the smallest, oldest, biggest, brightest, heaviest and oddest in our collections. Can you think of any others we should add? 

We’re featuring the themes of Explore Your Archive on our social media – check out @CheshireRO on Twitter and cheshire_archives on Instagram to see more. All these items are available to view at Cheshire Record Office – information about visiting can be found here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Cheshire's Forgotten Playwright

29th March, 1729. Men and women tumble out of the Little Theatre at Haymarket, London. There is a strange atmosphere in the air: delight, confusion, anger. The audience don’t know what to make of it – have they just witnessed a comedy, tragedy, satire, opera, or baffling mix of them all? Almost 300 years later and Hurlothrumbo still refuses to be pigeon-holed.

However hard to describe, audiences loved it, and the play was performed 29 times that season – a very considerable run for the time. So popular was it that a Hurlothrumbo society was formed and references to it were made in many other plays of the period such as Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’. The saying “Mere Hurlothrumbo” became an acceptable term for anything remotely inconsistent in the 18th century.

Hurlo was penned by Cheshire’s Samuel Johnson in the 1720s, notorious for performing in his own production – dancing, playing the fiddle and walking on stilts. His witticisms were so desired that he made a living going from one wealthy family to another and being hired to entertain guests at their parties. 

The story goes as follows:

Three noblemen and the King’s general, Hurlothrumbo, plot to overthrow the kingdom by shooting guns from their rooftops to incite a riot. They succeed and the King is captured but swaps clothes with his brother-in-law Theorbeo in prison and escapes back to his troops. The rebels are defeated by the King’s forces and an assortment of supernatural beings. All the rebels are generously pardoned but Hurlothrumbo is condemned to wear Harlequin’s clothes as a reminder of his foolishness. Meanwhile romantic intrigues abound between Lord Flame (played by Johnson), the rebels, Princess Cademore and other ladies at court.

Hurlo opened doors for Johnson and made him some powerful friends. Only a few weeks after opening night was it published with the financial backing of 112 people, many of whom were distinguished Cheshire names. We are lucky enough to have a copy of Hurlo in the historic county, at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies. Although liberally stamped at some point with ‘Chester Public Library’ in blue ink and suffering a little foxing (brown spots), it is still in remarkable condition. Beautiful wood block illustrations of flowers, cherubs and birds appear at the beginning and end of each Act. A pastoral scene adorns the dedication to Johnson’s patron, the Lady Delves of Doddington Hall near Nantwich.

Very little is known about Johnson’s early life but the Biographia Dramatica of 1767 provides this contemporary clue: “Mr Johnson is a native of Cheshire, and was bred to and followed the profession of a dancing master". After his career on the stage and as a ‘jester for hire’ dwindled, he retired to Gawsworth and died there in 1773 at age 82. 

Cheshire Archives hold the original parish record of his funeral. He was buried in woods near Gawsworth New Hall where he resided for the last 30 years of his life. It was the local villagers that nicknamed him ‘Old Maggoty’ due his unusually advanced age, and it is unfortunate that this name is now most associated with the eccentric but talented playwright whose Lord Flame burned brightly but all too briefly.”

Hurlothrumbo may have been a one hit wonder but, as the Manchester poet John Byrom wrote in the epilogue, “So true a Stage, so fair a Play for Laughter, / There never was before nor ever will come after”.

Friday, 22 October 2021

Archive Horrors!

It’s nearly Halloween, and here at Cheshire Record Office we have lots of archives and local studies material about witches and ghosts. But spooks and ghouls are not the only things to beware of – there is plenty in the day job of looking after archives that can give us nightmares. Read on to see seven scary scenarios! 


The search room at Cheshire Record Office is strictly Pencil Only, to avoid accidental damage to our archives and local studies material. Even neat pen marks will bleed through paper over time - this can be seen on a heavily marked notebook from the 1630s, where red pen was used to make notes. Ink is difficult to remove - sometimes impossible - so pens must stay locked away! 

Sticky tape 

Sticky tape doesn’t age well – it can discolour and degrade paper. Our Conservators removed a huge amount of tape from these newly deposited documents before storing them. It will help prevent future damage so the documents can be preserved for longer. 

Dust and Dirt 

Some of our collections have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions before reaching us. You certainly need a pair of gloves sometimes – to protect your hands, as well as the documents! This Sheriffs' File from the 18th century is covered in sooty surface dirt and is in very poor condition. Removing the dust and dirt is an important first step in conservation: it not only makes the documents difficult to read but can also be abrasive and acidic, and cause damage to the paper. Worse still, it can be a source of food for insects and encourage mould growth. Yikes! The documents below were similar, but have had a visit to our conservation studio where they've been cleaned and repaired. 


All our documents are carefully packaged before being stored, and environmental conditions in our strong rooms are monitored regularly. But before arriving at Cheshire Record Office, these documents were damaged when a heavy downpour caused a drain to fail, resulting in a basement flood. Parchment and water do not mix. You can see below that extensive flood damage has caused the parchment - which is made from animal skin and mostly formed of gelatine - to turn glue-like when wet, and as it has dried the pages have stuck together. They were unfortunately beyond repair. 

Destruction of documents 

Many people have a fear of mice and rats, but our furry friends (or enemies!) are definitely frightening for archivists and conservators. Centuries-old paper must make a tasty snack or nest-lining, and rodents can have a devastating effect on archives if they get hold of them. 

The damage to this 1882 Rate Book was caused by water after a flood in a basement, the perfect environment for mould to grow. But if mould damage wasn’t bad enough, some little critters, thought to have been mice, have gorged on the paper and it is now sadly beyond repair. (NB – the damage occurred before the document arrived at Cheshire Archives!) If not treated promptly, mould spores can spread and wreak havoc on old documents. And other little pests like bookworms, silverfish and booklice can cause plenty of damage too.  It may look cute, but the '
bookworm' (actually the larvae of the Varied Carpet Beetle, known as the Woolly Bear) is responsible for the patterns on the pages here.

Missing documents

Storing archives carefully isn’t just to protect them from animals and environmental damage. Imagine what would happen if you took out a document but didn’t put it back properly? If we take an item out of storage (and remember our documents are stored on around 11 kilometres of shelving!) we use a strict tracking system to look after it. Triple carbon slips are filled in with the document reference number, its location, and when and by whom it has been moved. 

The pink layer must stay with the document, whether it is going to our search room to be viewed by a member of the public; used by a staff member for research or copying; or being treated in our conservation studio. The yellow layer remains in the storage box, and the white copy can be taken away by the person using it. When the item is returned, the pink and yellow slips must match, and are put back together and recorded. Accuracy is paramount, and only very occasionally do we get the shock of finding a yellow slip in a box instead of a document. 

Rest assured that at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, we take extremely good care of the documents entrusted to us. Our strict tracking system means missing documents are very rare. 

Techniques from the past 

Our Archivists and Conservators do an excellent job of preserving and conserving the documents in our care. But archives trends and techniques have changed over time, and what is seen as best practice now can be quite different from what used to happen. Two sets of documents sadly spring to mind to illustrate this. 

The first is a pamphlet from the English Civil War, dated 1642, but it’s covered in 20th century ink stamps from the library where it used to be kept. It is obviously important to catalogue and label archives material but nowadays a soft pencil is used instead. 

This is an original letter from King Charles I to the Mayor of Chester, also written in 1642 (ref: DCC 47/41). The letters and other records in this collection have all been glued onto mounts – aargh! This happened in the 1950s and it certainly wouldn’t be stored in this way today. 

And whilst we’re sure whoever laminated these asylum records intended to preserve them, these days the documents would be stored differently. They’d be kept acid-free folders and, if additional protection was needed, they’d only ever be sleeved in non-plastic removable pockets. They’d never be sealed in. You can see from this image that laminated documents are difficult to photograph too! 

These are our seven scariest scenarios when working with archives. If you’d like to read about the witches, ghosts and Halloween customs of Cheshire – even a story of mummification – click here to read our 2019 blog: Happy Halloween!

Friday, 15 October 2021

Story Swap: Discovering and Remembering Stories of Migration and Refuge

On the 4th October, CHAWREC (Cheshire, Halton & Warrington Race & Equality Centre), Cheshire Archives & Local Studies, and staff from the University of Chester organised ‘Story Swap: Discovering and Remembering Stories of Migration and Refuge.’

People who have experience of crossing borders came together with historians of migration to share their stories, their food, and their research into the lives of people who have made Cheshire their home.

To complement this event, we are working to develop a photo display at the Unity Centre. We need your help to make this happen.

We want to make sure that the display is developed from photos and personal items which reflect individuals’ experiences of migration.

This display is inspired by the ‘Journeys to Cheshire’ oral histories collection, which was recorded some 10 years ago and features interviews with migrants to Cheshire. If you have images, documents, or items related to any of the following themes, we would love to see them, scan them, and potentially include them in the display:

  • The emotions of travelling to Cheshire
  • The feeling of first arriving in a new country
  • Food that reminds you of home or makes you feel at home
  • Clothing and how it can help you feel connected to, or divided from, a community.
  • Weather and surroundings
  • The feeling of belonging both to Cheshire and another place.

If you have digital photos: 

Please email them to, along with a message about what or who is in the picture, when it was taken, and why it is important to you. You will receive a digital copy of a permission form, which will allow us to use your images as part of the display.

If you have physical photos: 

Please drop them off at the Unity Centre reception. There is a permission form which you will be asked to sign, and on which you can write the details of the picture(s)- for example, when and where it was taken, what is in it, and who is pictured.

If you don’t have any pictures but you would still like to help:

Please feel free to write something about one or more of these topics, or you can even share a document or object with us. Get in touch to arrange how.

If you know someone who may be interested in sharing a picture or photo with us:

Please feel free to either send them the link to this blog post, Daniel’s email address, or the flyer included on this page.

If you would more information about the project, the photo display, or how your data will be handled, please get in touch- we’d love to hear from you!

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Chester's Delightful River Dee!

Have you tried our Talking Tour of Chester? It’s a self-guided walking tour of interesting parts of the city, made from oral histories recorded around 40 years ago. It features local people’s memories of events like the famous Chester Regatta, and the opening of the landmark Queen’s Park suspension bridge - but Cheshire Archives and Local Studies holds a huge amount of material on all aspects of the River Dee, going back centuries.

Lost trades

People have made their living on the river, not only from boat hire that still runs today, but in lost trades such as traditional salmon fishing. These photographs from c.1900 and 1969 show the nets that used to be seen along the banks, and fishermen hauling in their catch.

There also used to be mills along the banks of the Dee, with some only demolished within living memory. This image from 1905 shows ‘The Dee Bridge, Castle and Mills’ and is taken from a photo album by Frank Simpson. He was an authority on the history of Chester and an amateur photographer whose work is held at Cheshire Record Office (not just his photography but also sketches, manuscripts and diaries of local events).


Tragedy on the Dee

Going back even further, we know that people used to use the river for washing. This coroner’s inquest report from 1679 describes the sad death of Mary Alson, a spinster who was swept away and drowned whilst washing clothes in the Dee.

This is just one of countless tragedies from along the river, and the coroners’ reports we hold range from the recent past back to the Middle Ages.

A well-known tragedy was the Dee Bridge Disaster, an 1847 railway accident. Train carriages fell into the river through a new cast iron bridge, killing five people and injuring nine. Cheshire Record Office holds a collection of newspaper cuttings about the inquest, where renowned Victorian engineer Robert Stephenson, who designed the bridge, was accused of negligence.

Chester Regatta

On a happier note, the river has long been used for sport and entertainment, and Chester Regatta combines both. Established in 1733, it still takes place today, making it the oldest rowing regatta of its type in the world. We hold many images of the Regatta - some of which are featured on the searchable Cheshire Image Bank- and this print shows the Regatta in 1854. 

We also hold the archives of the Royal Chester Rowing Club, founded in 1838. A jewel in this collection is a scrapbook begun in 1933 (ZCR 419/3), full of club memorabilia like race programmes, results, press cuttings and photographs. This one is of rowers on the Dee during the Chester Regatta of 1938.


The Port of Chester

We may not give it much thought today, but Chester used to be a significant British port. We have some shipping and boat records covering several centuries, such as QDN 1/5, a register of vessels entering and leaving the port of Chester, 1740 – 1769. It shows information such as the vessel and masters’ names, the destinations, and nature of goods being transported. We can see from these pages that 15 tons of cheese were bound for Parkgate on The Friendship on 21st February 1743 (below left), and that The Duke William arrived from Lisbon with a cargo of wine on 4th May 1754 (below right).

River Management

For anyone interested in the river itself, we hold archives related to the management of the Dee, like those of The River Dee Committee. The Committee was established in 1837 and its main interest was in Acts of Parliament affecting the river and water supply. The collection includes letters, petitions, reports, a minute book, plans on the improvement of the river and volumes of soundings (measurements of the depth of water, which can be used to make maps of riverbeds and nautical charts). 


No visit to Chester is complete without seeing the bridges over the River Dee, and hundreds of items about them are held at Cheshire Record Office: books, pamphlets, photographs, plans, prints and much more. These two images show the Queen’s Park Suspension Bridge that opened in 1923, and the old Queen’s Park Bridge, which it replaced.     


The big freeze!

Finally, did you know that the Dee has frozen over on occasion? This photograph of The Groves in Chester shows people ice skating and playing when the river froze during the winter of 1916-17. It happened again in 1963.

This is just a small snapshot of the wide range of material that Cheshire Archives and Local Studies holds about the River Dee. Why not try the Walking Tour, and if you’re inspired to come and see some original records, arrange your visit here!

The items listed above are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. Living Memory: A Talking Tour of Chester is available via the Echoes app – further details can be found here.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

A Taste of History!

If you couldn't make our live cook-along event on zoom with theatre chef Leo Burtin that we ran on Heritage Open Day Saturday in September here is a taste of what we got up to ... 

Leo presented a fascinating mix of the history and significance of recipe writing and some interesting ingredients while cooking up a syrup and a stew. He was inspired by autumn and recipe and remedy books kept by Cheshire women over the centuries that are now treasured by the Archives.

Before the event people taking part received a box in the post with some of the harder to find ingredients. Opening the box was exciting and the smell of spices was amazing. I couldn't cook along on the day so had a go with the mushroom ‘ragoo' recipe in advance. It’s a dish that should definitely be eaten on a cold autumn night by the fire with some crusty bread on the side. I used a real mix of mushrooms to add even more flavour and a bit of fennel. The result got the thumbs up from my family. 

Thanks to Leo for developing  a great event, and sharing his recipe, you can find out more about his other Eat the Archives projects here

The event was made possible with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of our Cheshire archives: a story shared project - buy a lottery ticket if you can! (No such thing as a free lunch!)

To ragoo mushrooms (an autumnal stew)


3 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted butter

1 large onion

2 large carrots (and/or other seasonal root vegetable)

600g mixed mushrooms

1/4 teaspoon Cayenne pep­per

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 1/2 tablespoons plain flour

500 ml vegetable stock

1 dried bay leaf

1 teaspoon yeast extract


1. Dice the onion, peel and slice the carrots and roughly chop the mushrooms. Warm up the stock.

2. Gently heat the vegetable oil or butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and add the onion and a tsp of salt. Let the onion caramelise on low-medium heat for 5-10 minutes.

3. Add the carrots and mushrooms and mix well. Take care that the mushrooms do not stick to the bottom of the pan. You may need to add a little oil, wine or a little of the stock to prevent them from catching.

4. Let the mushroom soften for 5-10 minutes then add the spices, herbs and the flour. Stir to coat.

5. Pour the stock while stirring then melt in the yeast extract.

6. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until the root vegetables have softened. Stir occasionally.

7. Add salt or cayenne pepper to taste. Let the stew rest and cool for five minutes before serving.

8. Serve with your choice of warm bread; pearl barley; buckwheat or rice.