Monday 2 August 2021

A student's virtual experience at Cheshire Archives!

We always enjoy playing host to work experience students during the summer holidays, and last year we were disappointed not to be able to offer any placements as a result of the pandemic. This year,  equipped with a lot more experience of remote working, we were able to offer our first ever online work experience placements!  Read on to hear what student Noah thought of his placement...

As someone who loves history, my work experience with the Cheshire Archives has been a great experience. I have had a chance to contribute to the archives which has been quite rewarding and it has also left me with a few questions and ideas that I can now go away and consider.

My week started with indexing Parkside Asylum cases and noting down any interesting cases that I came across. The main challenge here was deciphering the handwriting. For each new page there was different handwriting and so each case took some time to figure out what the letters were in the different scripts. On top of this, some of the spelling was questionable at times. However, after some time I did get used to this new style of writing and became much more efficient at understanding what was being said. Many of the cases were sad to read because it was clear that the majority of the people had mental health problems and were by no means “lunatics”. Some had depression, or as they termed it “melancholia”, others had delusions about religion amongst other things.

One of the cases that stood out to me was that of 19-year-old Thomas James Lloyd. His “attack” as they called it had been going on for “several years” which would make him younger than me when he began to experience problems. I think that the text speaks for itself:

"Had in his hand a small horn which he said was sanctified. Continually blowing it (sounding the Bugle as he termed it) and he was struggling to win all nations for Queen Victoria's sake. Had a plan for poisoning the Devil. That he had sanctified the school his bed and bedclothes. That the Lord had told him by trances and wisdom what to do. Moses Samuel Brickhill, one of the Labor Masters who informed me that he would suddenly leave his work move a few paces, tear the grass and lift it high: implacing a blessing upon it. That he put a chamber utensil on his head and poured its contents down his back."

Photograph of Thomas James Lloyd

Extract of Thomas James Lloyd's case notes, reference NHM 8/2/6/124a-e.
View the full case notes here.

As with many of the cases that I saw, though with this one in particular, I wondered what caused this to happened and what their life was like after being in the asylum. Whilst they are given names, I could not necessarily get an understanding of what they were like as a person. This is perhaps therefore a limitation of records such as these. As with a lot of history, maybe these questions that I have about
who that person was may go unanswered.

Chester: River Dee, Queens Park Bridge. Ken Evans. Copyright 2020 Chester Chronicle. 

The second project that I did was sorting out photographs taken by Ken Evans, a photographer for the Chester Chronicle. The photographs covered a long time period, from the late 1940s to the 1990s. My first job was to date as best we could the photograph. I went about this by looking at the clothes, the age of people if they were known and looking at the whole image with a holistic approach to get an idea which decade it was from. This was made easier if on the back of the photograph (this was accessible by the photograph’s accession number) there was further information. The accession number also helped with my next job which was to title the image. For this I had to find out where it was and who was in the photograph if anyone. Sometimes this was virtually impossible because the background was some unidentifiable building or trees. However, this was a very fun part of this project. If there were some unique buildings, say a church, I could Google “churches in x” and various images would come up and I would be able to cross-reference the photograph with other photographs. Moreover, I could go onto Google Maps and find out what orientation the photograph was in which led me to walk about Chester on Google street view.

Chester: River Dee, 1953. Ken Evans. Copyright 2020 Chester Chronicle.

The next job was to write a brief description of the photograph. This could be one line or several, depending on how much was going on in the photograph. However, a rough guide to this was to describe people, places and events. After this I needed to find out some further information on what was going on in the photograph. This needed to be generally related to Cheshire and fortunately if it was a famous person, for example Prince Charles, I could look up other photographs of them in the Cheshire Image Bank and look at what other people wrote about them. My final two tasks were to note if the photograph could be put in a popular collection (I had a few royal visitors) and to write down any keywords that related to the photograph. This would make it easier for people to find a picture on a particular topic, say the Groves.

Chester: The Cross and Eastgate Street. Ken Evans 1951. Copyright 2020 Chester Chronicle. 

With that, that was my final task. Some parts of the work experience were easier than others, though I had to always be conscientious knowing that whatever I wrote had to be accurate in order to be able to be useful.

Some questions that this experience has left me are:

  • What are the limitations and positive attributes of different types of documents?
  • How have the terms used to describe mental health problems changed over time?
  • How can we work with the fact that we do not have access to all information?

I would like to finish by thanking all those working at the Cheshire Archives who put this together despite the coronavirus!

Thank you Noah for all of your hard work during your placement!

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