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”.