Wednesday 9 July 2014


When one thinks of dialects and accents in the North-West of England, Cheshire isn’t necessarily the first place that springs to mind.  We’re surrounded by the strong voices of North-East Wales, of Lancashire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, the Wirral and Liverpool.  Throw in socio-economic factors (the relative ‘wealth’ of the county in comparison with some of its neighbours) and the transitory nature of large sections of the population today, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that Cheshire sometimes feels a little devoid of a language specifically of its own in the 21st Century.

I first encountered discussion of Cheshire dialects in A W Boyd’s wonderful study of Great Budworth, A Country Parish, originally published by Collins as part of their New Naturalist series in 1951 (Local Studies Ref 010407).  Boyd illustrates one of the problems with describing a specifically Cheshire dialect – its extreme geographical variability.  He points out for instance that “there is a change of certain vowel sounds between Stretton and Whitley, not three miles apart…”.  However he does explain the similarities as well.  In another example he writes that “One of the most characteristic pronunciations is that of the ‘ay’ sound as in ‘paid’, which becomes ‘ee’; thus paid, tail, bacon become peed, teel, beecon.”  Boyd concludes his chapter on dialect with a lengthy paragraph including several dialect words which were still in use in the area around Great Budworth when he was writing the book.  A section of that is included here:
"Owd Bob wor getting’ on and mun ha’ been welly eighty year owd, but he wor always agate on th’ farm.  The weather wor gleamy, close and puthery, and after mizzlin’ a but it had turned into a reet drabbly day and Bob wor weary, for th’ mare had turned gafty and had wauted th’ cart o’er and broken th’ ridg’uth*"

The 19th century was certainly the high point in terms of publishing collections of county dialect.  Roger Wilbraham originally produced “An attempt at a Glossary of Some Words Used in Cheshire” in Archaeologia Vol XIX in 1817 and this was then produced in book form nine years later (Ref 011901).  This is a slim but useful volume, and forms the basis of several of the latter collections.  There are several entertaining asides included.  I particularly enjoyed this:

Jack Nicker, s. a goldfinch: why so called I cannot conjecture.  It is particular, however, to observe the appropriation of Christian names to many kinds of birds.  Thus all little birds are by children called Dicky birds.  We have Jack Snipe, Jack Daw, Tom Tit, Robin Redbreast, Poll Parrit, a Gill-hooter; a Magpie is always called Madge, a Starling Jacob, a Sparrow Philip, and a Raven Ralph.

Several authors attempt to build on Wilbraham’s work.  Lieut.-Col Egerton Leigh, M.P. had his work “A Glossary of Words Used in the Dialect of Cheshire” published the year after his own death in 1876 (Ref 011902).  This is a far more substantial work than Wilbraham’s, and one in which the Conservative politician clearly isn’t afraid to make the odd appearance at times:

"Tic, s. – The Cheshire word for the foot and mouth disease in cattle, from which this county, as well as others, has suffered so grievously since the introduction of foreign cattle; from the wilful carelessness of the men then in power, in not enforcing proper preventative measures."

The most substantial work of the lot is “A Glossary of Words used in the County of Chester” (the breadth of imagination used in imagining titles for these works was, it could be argued, somewhat limited) by Robert Holland published in 1885 (Ref 011903).  This is a hefty tome - well over five hundred pages - and also features an entertaining dialect story (“Betty Bresskittle’s Pattens, or Sanshum Fair, A Cheshire-Mon’s Crack” by J.C. Clough) including sections such as this:

“Nah, Betty Bresskittle, his weife, were awful bad wi’ th’ rhoomatic I’ th’ smaw o’ her back, an hoo sot theer i’ the’ cheer, chunneringk an as fow i’ her temper as yoh ne’er heeard tell on i’ ony Christen wimmen folks, aw’st be bahnd!”

The William Andrews  edited “Bygone Cheshire” from 1895 (Ref 011153) is an excellent collection of chapters of different subjects concerning the county.  One of these, by J. Potter Briscoe is a fascinating collection of Cheshire Proverbial Phrases including: To females who “are ashamed to speak their own country dialect” after intercourse with Londoners, probably as “domestics” this common saying is applied by Cheshire folk :- “She hath been at London to call a strea a straw, and a waw a wall.”

We have also catalogued several newspaper and magazine pieces (like this photograph of a small piece in Cheshire Life from August 1961) along with many other journal articles, and further books.  If this little introduction has whetted your appetite at all then our online catalogue opens up these and many more avenues of investigation.  Good luck!

*Owd: old, wor: was, mun: must, welly: nearly (well nigh), agate: on the go, gleamy: hot and showery, close: sultry, puthery:hot and close, mizzlin’: fine rain, reet: right, drabbly: steady rain, gafty: jibbin and intractable, wauted: overturned, ridg’uth: chain over saddle supporting the shafts

Friday 14 February 2014

A Rumney Romance

In September 2013, we received a donation of papers found in a chest of drawers bought at an auction. Among them were eight letters. They were sent between June 1886 and May 1887 from Miss Jessie Rowland aged 16 of Grimsditch Hall, Lower Whitley to her 27 year-old cousin, Charlie Rumney. They begin in a friendly way, thanking him for his letter after the death of Jessie’s father, Samuel. But by April 1887, ‘Dear Charlie’ is ‘My dear Charlie’ and by May of 1887, ‘My Dearest Charlie’. 
Clearly, Jessie’s affections were reciprocated as in the last of the letters (17 May 1887) she ‘cannot understand you loving such a little insignificant thing like myself … but I can understand anyone loving such a darling as you’ and signing it with ‘Hundreds of kisses’. Though she thinks his letters could be longer!

A glance at the census return for 1891 reveals that all ended well and Jessie and Charlie are married and living with her mother at Grimsditch with a one year old daughter, Nora and eight month old Samuel. They had married at Lower Whitley church on 26 July 1888. Jessie and Charles continued to live at Grimsditch Hall until their deaths and the Hall remained in the family until the death of their third child, Kathleen Joyce Rumney who died there in 2004.

Our reference for the collection is D 8474.

Explore Your Archive - our box and its travels!

We first made our box available at our regular Saturday opening on 16th November. A sample of the contents were also made available online. There is often excitement as researchers handle and investigate original historic documents – but this was a different kind of enthusiasm as visitors could pick what caught there eye, quickly switch between documents, pass documents to other visitors and not have to know what to request.

We had discovered early on a wonderful coincidence. The Haygarth Lecture, an annual Public Health event at the University of Chester, was taking place on the Monday evening of campaign week. How could we not make a special appearance, this time with an original patient register on display to welcome the 100 or so delegates? Ben Page CEO of Ipsos MORI spoke of the power of public opinion and data in influencing health behaviour change. Caryn Cox, Director of Public Health for Cheshire West and Chester Council introduced him, remarking on her experience of archives, that you cannot move forward without understanding the past.

Tuesday found us in Ellesmere Port Civic Centre at a ‘Self Care Day’ organised by West Cheshire Clinical Commissioning Group with Chester Voluntary Action who told us about their upcoming centenary. We arranged a meeting about using the collection we hold to celebrate their long history of community support. We met the Snow Angels and rifling through the medicine chest gave them the idea of using replica documents to help their volunteers engage vulnerable older people with modern health messages. The same day a box was delivered to the Countess of Chester Hospital where it was left to its own devices for a week, moving between the staff canteen and the main foyer.

An archivist was on duty in Warrington Library on the Thursday, and box came too. With the help of the local studies staff, the archivist the week before had set up an exhibition of material we had selected from Warrington’s collections – including public health notices and records of payments in rum to William Boon to transport typhus fever patients and whitewash infectious dwellings!

Friday and back to the Countess for a lunchtime session at the Oasis Café. Archives with food and drink! Not to mention a kind and interested audience from contractors to canteen staff, clinicians and their patients to a Chief Executive!

Sheena Cumiskey, Chief Executive, Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Friday evening, and one last drop off at Halton Lea Library – from where the box would journey to Widnes and back over the following week.

Its travels did not end with the November campaign. Still in demand it has recently been visiting the Riverside Museum. It is hard to tell how many people have taken a look inside, but we have had to fit one set of replacement doors, which has to be a good sign!

Our thanks to staff at Warrington Livewire and Halton libraries, the Countess of Chester Hospital, Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Chester. 

And for our talented, resourceful and creative staff, we are the Archives and Local Studies service, so the only appropriate thanks was cake.

Sunday 26 January 2014

Explore Your Archive - a box takes shape

Work had begun to identify and digitise the records that would tell our story. We wanted to produce authentic copies to get as close as you can to exploring archives without the need for supervision. It had become obvious that our box should be a medicine chest, so we set out to find a portable (and cheap) storage solution.

After, fitted with custom-made cabinet doors to add to the excitement! 

The five drawers gave us the structure to develop key themes around John Haygarth’s work, Chester Infirmary, vaccination and fever, with a drawer left over to add leaflets and badges. We also needed a variety of formats and items so that there would be something for everyone, wherever the box might be. As the plans, photographs, pamphlets, patient register pages, hospital management minutes came together the joy of unpacking a ‘Jackdaw’ file came back to me – it might have been 40 years ago but I could remember the hands-on documents experience of primary school history. A potential 'just me then'. What would our audiences make of it?

Friday 10 January 2014

Explore Your Archive - an idea takes shape

Our plans for joining the new national Explore Your Archive campaign took shape in an archivists’ meeting. We could certainly aim to create a story box, recruit archive ambassadors and join in the national campaign week in November, but at the same time staff and outreach resources had been committed to our key summer events ‘Helping Cheshire Remember the First World War’. With this in mind our story box would need to be self-contained, self-explanatory and closely targeted to a new audience.

We quickly found our local hero, Dr John Haygarth, who not only innovated isolation wards for fever patients at the Chester Infirmary in 1784 but carried out statistical analysis of the health of Chester’s population. His work had been of regional and national significance. We knew that the infirmary’s patient registers had been used within the past year in talks to introduce the new Clinical Outcomes unit at the Christie hospital in Manchester (Haygarth and his colleagues had been collecting state of the art patient outcome data in the 18th century!). One of our parent council’s new Public Health director had visited our searchroom to consult Medical Officers of Health reports from when public health had last been the responsibility of local government. So we had prospective ambassadors to champion our archives. A chance encounter at a staff meeting gave us a contact with Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust who could perhaps help us with the kind of venues we were after. But they needed to know more about the format of the box …