Thursday 30 July 2020

New Tricks with Old Docs?

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

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

Archivist Caroline with a group of student visitors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Stanley's recipe book (DDX 361)

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

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

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


Monday 13 July 2020

Swapping Conservation Tools for a Mouse: My Conservation Lockdown Story

                In the archive conservation studio

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

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

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


                                              “Computer says no”

The Announcement

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

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


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

Rachel giving a talk in our studio    

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

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

But what was I going to do?

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

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

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

Desktop working

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

Initial steps

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

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

Cheshire Image Bank

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

Who doesn’t love working with old photographs?

                                                             "What’s Zoom?”

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

Little Moreton Hall c.1890

It was a great place to start.

Zooniverse - Parkside Asylum Project

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

                                                                “What’s Zooniverse?”

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


                                                            Working from home!

Online learning

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

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

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

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

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

Time for reflection

The Quarry Park in Shrewsbury

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

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

A few of my regular companions

13 weeks into Lock-down

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

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Cooking the books!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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