Wednesday 27 May 2020

A Conservator's Blog

Being a bit of a technophobe not having a PC or broadband was never really a problem; mobile phone reception was problematic and occasionally warranted running up the lane to the second oak tree on the right and waving my phone wildly about. But when lockdown was announced I did wonder if I’d made the right decision in being so unconnected with the outside world. How was I going to get any work done? All the other Record Office staff were able to work from home online.  Luckily I had a few days to think about it as I was on leave that week.

Being a conservator I decided that I’d conserve (if my manager agreed to it and luckily she did!), but what? I was limited to what materials and equipment I could take home, so it needed to be fairly simple. Also, what could I work on? Taking unique and valuable documents out of the safety of the Record Office would not be right. Second edition Ordnance Survey maps (25 inch) were the answer.  They are not unique and have no real financial value but they are often consulted in the searchroom and a very useful resource. The first and third editions have already been conserved as these were the most often looked at, but there were still a considerable number of second edition maps that were dirty, tatty, torn and creased with odd areas missing and in need of conservation. This I could do at home, although the encapsulation of the maps (custom made protective sleeves made of clear, inert polyester film) would have to wait till lockdown ended.

Close-up of a 2nd edition Ordnance Survey map.

Setting up a makeshift conservation studio was the next challenge. I’d decided upon the back sitting room which had plenty of light and space.  I’d moved house the previous summer and this room was still very much a work in progress. Bifolding doors had been put in, but there was still plenty of bare plaster and I’d been using the room as storage for boxes and furniture.  The remaining days of my leave were spent decorating, cleaning and tidying. The dining room table was utilised as my work table (for cleaning) and an old desk was used to do the repairs on.  I repainted on old cupboard which was to be used for storing materials and equipment. The O.S. maps are large objects (measuring approximately 1.05m x 0.72m) and I needed space to store the maps when I wasn’t working on them.  A redundant door (I’d just had a doorway bricked up) was employed as a makeshift table which was propped up by three dining room chairs – conservators are nothing if not resourceful!

My home conservation studio was soon up and running and working pretty well.

Faddiley annex of Cheshire Record Office.

As a conservator one of my duties at the Record Office was once a week to monitor and record the environmental conditions in each of the seven strongrooms, this still needed to be done. As I have a car I drive to the office once a week to check on the strongrooms, catch up on emails and check on the post. While I’m there I pick up a batch of O.S. maps to take home and bring back the ones I’ve conserved. I also cook up fresh paste once a fortnight as it soon starts going mouldy and needs to be kept in the fridge.

I love looking at maps, even O.S. maps from 1898. While I’m cleaning the maps my mind starts wandering and I wonder how the areas have changed over the past 120 years. I really wish I had the internet to look at our tithe map website, which not only shows all the tithe maps we hold, but all three editions of the 25 inch O.S. maps, aerial photographs and a current map. It’s a fantastic resource, you are able to zoom in and out of the maps and compare two different maps of the same areas. It also gives you such details as field names, owners/occupiers and land use. On thinking, it’s probably a good thing I don’t have the internet as I’d spend way too much time looking at the website each time I worked on a new map.  

Some of the names of buildings and places spark my interest, such as ‘Black Jane’s farm’ near Daresbury, who was Black Jane? And who ever lived at ‘Hades Nook’ (near Whitley)? I love the descriptive names such as ‘Thatched House Farm’, does the farm still exist and is it still thatched?  And the slightly surreal ‘Waterless Bridge’ (near Tabley) which goes over ‘Waterless Brook’, does it have any water in it? The tithe map website might just have the answer. 

Cleaning maps is a relatively simple technique and involves using a pure vinyl eraser which you rub over the surface of the map. Care, skill and experience is required in order not to leave any dirty streaks or create or worsen tears. Any pencil annotations have to be carefully cleaned around, a slip of the eraser and the pencil marks would soon be lost. Removal of surface dirt is necessary as dirt is not only visually distracting, but can be harmful to the map; it can be abrasive, acidic; act as food for insects and for mould to grow on.

Once cleaned the maps are repaired. Tears are repaired with a strong acid free lens on the back or, in professional speak, verso and a finer, transparent Japanese Kozo tissue (made from the fibres of the mulberry tree) on the front or recto. The tissue is cut out with a mattress needle and pasted down with a pure wheat starch paste; the tissue is smoothed down with a Teflon bone folder and pieces of paper maker’s felts and boards are place over the repair with a weight placed on top until the repair is dry.  Missing areas are filled in with a heavy weight, long fibred Japanese paper called Bunkoshi which has a similar colour, weight and texture as the original map paper. The repair paper is shaped to the missing area with a rotring pen filled with water. Once dry the repairs are trimmed to the size of the map.

Tools of the trade.

What am I enjoying working at home? Watching the garden birds, I can see the bird feeder from my work room and love watching the male pheasant strutting through the garden. My greenhouse – for a break I’ll take my mug of tea out there to see what has germinated and which bulbs are coming through; the plants are getting very well looked after at the moment. Getting to know my lovely neighbour, sometimes my morning break consists of talking to her over the garden fence mug in hand (and at a safe social distance).

Fezzy the tame pheasant on top of the hedge.

What am I missing? The staff, especially fellow conservator Angela, who, after over 10 years of working together is a good friend as well as colleague; not having the internet makes you feel more isolated from everyone. Cake, the staff tearoom is always well endowed with cake and biscuits kindly supplied by staff and searchers.

Excitement – it was silage week last week, the quiet lane was turned into a scene from wacky races with many tractors and trailers going up and down, and the fields change by the minute. Unfortunately it’s muck spreading week this week.

Thanks – to Radio 4 for keeping me entertained and sane.

Working from home has been an enjoyable challenge and brings back memories of doing work experience here 27 years ago, when cleaning O.S. maps was my first task. So far I have cleaned and repaired 54 O.S. maps.  I have cleaned an area of 82.04 metres squared, which is the equivalent of a fifteenth of an Olympic sized swimming pool.  I am less than halfway through the maps still to be repaired, so I should be able to be kept busy if lockdown continues.

Friday 22 May 2020

Every Picture Tells A Story

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.

When Cheshire Record Office is open, our Local Studies department works with volunteers to sort, catalogue and improve storage of the Local Studies Visual Collection, and make it available to the public at our search room and online. Since we have been closed, a team of Archives Assistants and a Conservator have continued this work by using an online data editing system at home to add photographs and information to the Cheshire Image Bank.

The Image Bank is a collection of over 30,000 digital images created from original material - photographs, postcards, print slides and negatives – and can be viewed and searched online at It also offers over twenty Popular Collections to browse, including the First and Second World Wars, Royal Visitors, Fashion and The Salt Industry. Image Bank content covers anywhere that lies or once lay within the Cheshire county boundary.

This lockdown project has involved writing a brief description of each of the photos assigned to us on the data editor; doing online research to provide further information about each image; adding key words to ensure they will appear in an online search; and providing standardised details of the location, title and date of the images. We have also added extra information to a small number of photos that already appeared on the Image Bank. The Local Studies staff have been adding more key word options to make it easier for people to search the site, and also had the task of moderating our work to ensure accuracy and consistency.

So far, 500 extra images have been added to the Image Bank as a result of this work. A wide range of themes has been covered: industrial, with hundreds of images from George L. Scott & Co and Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Works, both based in Ellesmere Port; and military, such as a Cheshire Royal Engineers photo album from the 1890s. There is an early album of buildings, people and landscapes by amateur photographer George Davies, who lived in Alderley and took numerous photographs of the surrounding area, and some photographs are of the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton estate; there is a large collection of images from the village of Disley; and some from Macclesfield cover the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s 1887 Golden Jubilee. There are others showing places of interest across Cheshire.

Some of the photographs that have captured our attention include a busy street scene at Chester Cross (c13284) where the buildings are still recognisable but the horse-drawn trams are long gone.

Another is a murder stone from the 1820s (c13248). These were historic markers erected at the site of famous murders to commemorate the victim or warn of the consequences of committing such acts. And this photograph of Disley Golf Club (c08283) was already on the Image Bank but has had further information added - it was taken at the official opening of the club in 1889 and there were 47 pro golfers present when it was taken. 

On the industrial side, c13186 shows a group of steelworkers moving a stack of flat iron sheeting with an overhead crane system at an ironworks in the 1920s, and c13164 is of a woman using machinery at an engineering company in the 1950s. Additional information provided on the Image Bank tells us she was using a ‘stator notching machine’, and that George L. Scott Ltd. was an electrical steel stampers company with offices and warehouses in Ellesmere Port. The business later became a general engineering company.

Work on the next two images is almost complete, and they are due to be put online shortly. The first shows the Cheshire Yeomanry in the 1890s, assembling for annual exercises at the Roodee Racecourse in Chester (c13348), and the second is a street parade from around 1895 showing massed uniformed ranks of the Second Cheshire Royal Engineers, who were also known as the Crewe Railway Volunteers (c13213).

In the very early days of photography, equipment was cumbersome and photographers were usually limited to studio settings, but with the invention of film in the 1880s it became easier and we started to see the rise of amateur photographers like George Davies of Alderley. We have many of his photographs taken from the 1870s to 1890s, including buildings like churches, mills, country houses and pubs; landscapes around the eastern border of Cheshire; and agricultural scenes from ploughing to harvest work. A small selection is shown below.


This project has posed a few challenges along the way. As well as an unexpected technical issue early on, it has sometimes been difficult to identify the images - so some will have to remain hidden from view until we can do some more research with the originals at the Record Office. There are both opportunities and challenges with the Visual Collection more widely: the collection is constantly being added to with new donations, and there is a large number of uncatalogued photographs in storage yet to be looked at. Potentially, there are thousands more images that could be added to the Image Bank in the future, but it is also a time-consuming and costly undertaking.

Nonetheless, this lockdown work has enabled us to add more images to our Popular Collections section on the Cheshire Image Bank, particularly those on the First World War, Fashion, Eaton Hall and Little Moreton Hall. Some of the newly digitised images will be showcased in the All New Images section, as well as on social media.

The next steps of the project will be to identify entries already on the Image Bank that may require further information (then researching and adding it) and we also have data from more volunteers’ spreadsheets to match to the relevant images online. There is plenty to keep us busy!

Friday 15 May 2020

The Enduring Morris Dance

This blog post was written by our volunteer Megan, who recently catalogued and repackaged our Lesley Edwards collection.

The collection is made up of research papers, photographs and articles relating to Morris dancing in Cheshire, and covers several Cheshire towns and parishes in great detail. You can see the full catalogue for these records here.

Read on to find out more about this intriguing folk dance that has been an English tradition for more than six hundred years!

Cheshire Image Bank (c01114): Godley Hill Royal Morris Men,
prior to the start of the Knutsford May Day procession in 1906.

The Morris dance is distinguished by a specific set of characteristics, including rhythmic stepping, folk music, regionally specific costumes, bell pads and the use of sticks and swords. These elements have cemented the Morris dance as a unique, vibrant spectacle and an entertaining recreation.

Cheshire Image Bank (c08403): Fidlers Fancy Morris Group,
Wilmslow Carnival 1970s.

What is truly significant about the tradition of Morris dance, especially with regard to local history, is the settings in which it was found and what it can reveal about the communities that shaped it. 

For example, Morris dancing is often considered to have four distinct geographical variations, identified as Cotswold, Border, Sword Dancing (Yorkshire) and North West; each form shaped by culturally significant regional differences. 

As the centuries moved on and Morris dancing moved from the court out into the parishes to become a staple aspect of community celebration, the Morris adopted a regional identity, and in the North West this was influenced by the mill population.

The North West Morris dance, found in Cheshire and Lancashire, was popular at May and rose festivals, wakes week fairs and notably the rush bearing ceremonies of the 17th century. During this time rushes were brought to local churches and strewn on the floor in an effort to make kneeling more comfortable.  These ceremonies became processional, with the rush bearing carts flanked by Morris dancers. 

Cheshire Image Bank (c11524): Postcard showing
the Morris dancers at the Helsby Rose Queen fete in 1911.

The locality not only determined the ceremonies in which the Morris dancing was performed but also the music, form of the dance and the dress (which was often dependent on what was available). The North West Morris, for example, is described as being performed in a military drill like style. 

Societal shifts are evident in the rise and fall of the Morris dance. Its decline took place throughout the years of the industrial revolution, with the migration of communities away from the rural villages and agricultural lifestyles that had been the lifeblood of the dance.

Cheshire Image Bank (p4772): Chester Morris Women,
Bridge Street 1989.

Throughout the 20th century the Morris dance has undergone various resurgences, demonstrating the durability of the traditional folk dance and underpinning the enduring collective memory that allows it to thrive. 

Much of the research that has supported these revivals has come from the first hand accounts and memories of past Morris Dancers. The Lesley Edwards collection at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies provides a wealth of information on the Cheshire Morris dance, from steps, to costume and music. It is through the collation of research like this that the finer details of the regional forms of Morris dance are remembered and sustained.                                                                                                                                                    
Finally a quote from Alderley and Wilmslow Advertiser gives a glimpse into the simple purpose of the enduring Morris dance by emphasising the joy it bought to Mayday summer celebrations:

‘‘Their peculiar mode of dancing is certainly very pretty. Their dresses are handsome in the extreme.’

Thursday 7 May 2020

Foote's notes from history

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.

As shown in our previous blog, one of the things we have been doing is updating our online catalogue, starting with our "D" paper lists. One of the interesting collections in the D listings is the Foote Gower Papers (D 4784).

This collection contains letters received by the Cheshire antiquarian Foote Gower (c.1726-1780) from his peers. The listings for these letters offer a fascinating insight into the development of his most famous work and its ultimate abandonment.

Gower made extensive collections of documents for a proposed history of Cheshire that “would be infinitely superior to any history yet existing of any county". He outlined this project in "A Sketch of Materials for a New History of Cheshire" which was published anonymously in 1771 (D 4784/1). 

The Sketch was re-issued in 1772 together with an Address to the Public (D 4784/3,4), resulting from the enthusiasm generated by the Sketch. It contained a more detailed plan of the proposed work and asked for subscribers to donate ten guineas towards the anticipated cost of 4,000 guineas.

Gower started work in 1775, and initially received much encouragement, as can been seen in a letter from fellow antiquary George Allan of Darlington asking to be added to the list of subscribers (D 4784/29).

Ultimately however, the required number of subscriptions were not forthcoming, and interest in the project dwindled.

By 1776 the project was all but abandoned. Indeed, the engraver James Calveley, who had been commissioned in 1773 to produce illustrations for the History, wrote in a letter to Gower dated 27 March 1776 (D 4784/28), that he was too busy to work much for him. He further remarked that “the people of this country have almost given up thoughts of your history, as so little has been said of it as late”.

It seems that the project suffered other setbacks too. A letter from Edward Harwood of Chester, dated 18th May 1776, commiserates over a fire at Gower’s house and the loss of papers of his History (D 4784/31).
Upon his death in 1780, Gower’s work passed to Dr. J. Wilkinson and then William Latham, who, in 1800, republished the Sketch with additions (D 4784/2). Unfortunately, Latham was unable to finish the project due to ill health. The manuscripts were passed back to Wilkinson and later disposed of by auction, some going to the British Museum and others to the Bodleian Library.

In the end only one volume of text for the History, dealing with Cheshire history from prehistoric to Norman times, was produced.

However, Foote Gower's greatest legacy was arguably in documenting the sources of valuable extant manuscripts for Cheshire local history. His work was a key influence on the later work of George Ormerod, whose History of the County Palatine and City of Chester was first published in 1819 and remains a standard history of the county.

A final interesting tidbit from D 4784 comes from Richard Gough, the prominent antiquarian, who served as director of the Society of Antiquaries of London from 1771 to 1791. 

In a letter to Gower dated 16th December 1770, he spoke highly of Cheshire’s Archive, and was of the opinion that London’s record offices at that time compared "unfavourably with Cheshire" which “had a Castle and Archives of its own”.

Our collections have expanded greatly since then, and as they continue to do so, we’ll continue to undertake projects like the D listings which update and improve the catalogue for our users. I’m sure Messrs Gower and Gough would have approved!

Wednesday 6 May 2020

D-lightful lists!

Whilst the Record Office has been closed to the public, staff have still been busy working on projects and finding new ways for people to discover our collections online.  One project has been to improve the online listing of our D collections.

As our regular visitors know, we have paper listings available in the search room which break down our collections into individual items that can be requested by archive users.
However, many collections in these lists aren’t yet fully described on the online catalogue.  

The "D" paper list is one such example. It contains collections ranging from family papers and private correspondence to plans and crime and punishment logs. A quick search of “D” on the catalogue brings up over 21,000 entries!

We have been transcribing the detailed paper lists onto spreadsheets ready to be transferred onto the online catalogue:

Our regular users will be familiar with the catalogue. It has a hierarchical “tree” structure, with each descending level describing smaller and smaller parts of the collection in increasing detail.

It starts with a description giving the researcher an overview of the entire collection, known as “Fonds”:

The next level down, Section (Sub-fonds) divides the fonds into groupings of related records:

The fonds are then subdivided into multiple Series, for example deeds, maps, or in some cases "miscellaneous"!

Finally, the narrowest level is “Item”. This contains information such as the title, date and extent of the item as well as a concise description of what is contained within it.

Putting the D list collections onto the online catalogue in this way serves several important purposes: 

  • It makes detailed information about the collections more widely accessible to members of the public than before. 
  • It allows archive users to find individual items in a collection using the keyword search and assists them in planning their visit and requesting the exact items they wish to look at. 
  • Finally, it enables researchers to zoom in on the parts of a collection they are interested in without losing track of their relationship to the whole.

Whilst transcribing the paper lists we have come across many interesting collections and items. Over a series of blog posts we will be sharing with you some of these archives.

Monday 4 May 2020

Family History Detective Help Desk - the 1939 Register

If you have tracked down one of your ancestors born before 1920 in the UK you will probably be able to find them on the 1939 register.

The 1939 register was created just after the outbreak of the Second World War. It was very important in organising the war effort at home. It was kept up to date for over ten years to issue identity cards and organise food rations, and was used to set up registration for the new NHS in 1948.

This is what an entry from the 1939 register looks like.

What is the address of this household?

What is the surname of the family in this household? How many people were living there?
Can you see who the head of the household is? What was this person’s job?
Does anything about this record surprise you? 

To look at the 1939 Register yourself you can use the Ancestry website.
There are a number of boxes that you can fill out to find your ancestors on the 1939 register, the most important being their name, date or year of birth, and the street or town where they lived. 

If you don’t find them at first, try again using a different spelling of their name or widening your search to cover the entire county. This is where it helps to have an unusual name!