Tag Archives: Archives

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016, ‘His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae’, is set in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, and tells the story, through contemporary ‘documents’ (archives), of the young Roddy Macrae, who in 1869 is arrested for a brutal triple murder.

I chose to review this book as, being an archivist working with historical documents every day, I was intrigued by the telling of a story through the use of archives (even if fictional!).

Through a variety of ‘archival’ documents (that we see in full) relating to the case we are invited to scrutinise and interpret the source material of the crime, piecing together the motivations of the protagonist and the actions of others that lead to a terrible chain of events.

The documents used in the telling of the story include: witness statements taken by police, a map, a lengthy account of events by the accused Roderick Macrae, medical reports on the victims by a doctor and a surgeon, a publication “Travels in the Border-lands of Lunacy”, and newspaper coverage of the eventual trial.

Aside from the preface where the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, provides us with some context, we are left with the documents themselves to spread the tale before us, with the conflicting views of the accused along with Roddy’s own articulate account (written like a memoir) detailing his life of hardships and injustices at the hands of those abusing their positions of power that ultimately lead him to commit these crimes. We know from the start that he did it!

Continue reading

Advertisements

Catalogues and curiosity

Paris quadrifolia. Illustration from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885, Gera, Germany

There are many ways to explore Archives. Sometimes you set out with a destination in mind and a carefully planned research route. Sometimes that works well and the desired information is found; sometimes you meet with difficulties – missing records, indecipherable scripts, records too fragile or damaged to consult – so the route and destination have to change.

Then there are the ‘lucky dip’ explorations where you’re not quite sure what to expect! Here follow a few examples –

Using the Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham online catalogue, I tried some random words in the search box, just to see what appeared. In alphabetical order:

Campanile: 1 reference, to a will of Anna Brown of Campanile Cottage, Canonbury Road, London, 1872. [MS 857/11]

Duckling: 2 references to ‘Ugly Duckling’ in the John English Archive, a playscript and a theatre programme, 1958 [MS 2790/1/17/1 and MS 2790/2/2/14/1]

1 reference to ‘Duckling brand bedding brochure, 1948’ in Hoskins and Sewell records. [MS 1088/4/4/2]

Emerald: 2 references, both to jewellery of Mary Anne Boulton (Matthew Robinson Boulton’s wife), 1819 and 1826. The 1826 one was to ‘a gold serpent ring with emerald eyes’ [MS 3782/15/25/56]

Parrot: all references but one were to this as a surname. The one as a pet, owned by Fred Jordan of Shropshire, was in the Charles Parker Archive. [MS 4000/5/3/5/5/11]

Shell: 46 references, from spectacle frames to shell boilers in Boulton & Watt, chocolate shell eggs to ammunition shells, tortoise- shell and pearl shell – for buttons, boxes etc., and an advert for Babcock Power Ltd., Shell boiler division.

Whisky: 11 references appeared – all from the Charles Parker Archive [MS 4000]. Interesting to note the connection between whisky and folk song!

Continue reading

Seals

The Conservation themed highlight for today is…seals!

Seals from the Elford Hall Collection. [MS 3878]

Seals were historically most often impressed in sealing wax (often simply described as “wax”). In the Middle Ages, this generally comprised a compound of about two-thirds beeswax to one-third of some type of resin, but in the post-medieval period the resin (and other ingredients) came to dominate. Typical damage you see to seals is bits that have broken off and are lost forever.

In the past, on some of our seals, beeswax has clearly been used to attach two broken pieces back together again. These days, practices have changed (not least because of the obvious risk of applying hot wax to wax seals!). Each piece of a broken seal would now be carefully packaged separately so as to protect it from further damage.

Letters Patent of Queen Elizabeth to John Bowes, knt., granting to him all rights pertaining to the office of Sheriff of co. Staff., to which he has been appointed. Great Seal. 25 November 1588. [Elford Hall 143]

Parchment

To continue the theme of Conservation for this year’s Explore Your Archive week, today’s blog is all about parchment and features some of our parchment documents.

The Guild Book of Knowle. An illuminated parchment manuscript dating from 1451 – 1541. [MS 3000]

Parchment is made from specially prepared, untanned skins of animals which are mostly sheep,  calves and goats. Vellum is a higher quality skin made from a young calf. Without scientific analysis, however, it is very difficult to determine what animal the membrane is from and how old it is.

To make parchment, the original animal pelt needs to be dehaired. The pelts are soaked in water for about a day to remove all blood and grime. It is then taken out and put into a dehairing bath to remove the hair. This usually lasts about 8 days but in winter this can last up to 2 weeks. The dehairing liquor was originally made of rotted, or fermented, vegetable matter but by the Middle Ages, this included lime. The pelt would be stirred with a wooden rod in a stone vat about 2 – 3 times a day.

Once it is removed from the dehairing solution, the skin is then soaked in clean water so the skin can be ‘worked’. The skin is then stretched on a frame, which would be as simple as a wooden frame with nails stretching the skin. This would be left open to the air so they could be scraped with a knife to remove the last bits of hair and get the skin to the right thickness. As the animal skin is made from collagen, this would form a natural glue whilst it was drying so the skin would keep its stretched form once removed from its frame.

To make the parchment more aesthetically pleasing or more suitable for the scribes, special treatments were used. One treatment included rubbing pumice powder into the flesh side of parchment while it was still wet on the frame was used to make it smooth and to modify the surface to enable inks to penetrate more deeply. Powders and pasted of calcium compounds were also used to help remove grease so the ink would not run. To make the parchment smooth and white, this pastes (starch grain) of lime, flour, egg whites and milk were rubbed into the skins. This is why parchment will have a rough and a smooth side.

Our oldest document in Archives Collections. [[DV 14d Outsize] 435324]

Unsurprisingly, the oldest document we hold in our archives is recorded on parchment. This is [DV 14d Outsize] 435324 – Agreement between Simon, Bishop of Worcester, and Waleran [de Beaumont], Earl of Worcester, settling various differences which had arisen between them. We believe the document dates from between 1139 and 1143, based on the names that appear in it, despite the date 1160 being recorded on the actual document!

Coroner’s Court Roll

You may have seen yesterday’s post getting Explore Your Archives Week off to a great start with an account of an event we held in Archives & Collections on Saturday. One of the items out on display was one of our newest acquisitions – the Coroner’s Court Roll, which was actually conserved by Birmingham Archives staff in the 1970s.

Conservator, Lucy, showing off the Coroner’s Court Roll

Although it looks like parchment at first glance, the court roll is actually made of paper. The wooden case it is housed in is not ideal, as wood emits volatile organic compounds which can damage the document. However the casing forms part of the item and so it will be kept in it and stored in suitable environmental conditions to preserve it long-term.

The role of coroner has existed from around the 12th century. The position of Birmingham Coroner is a relatively new one, having been in existence from around 1838, when the newly created Birmingham Corporation sought to establish their own Quarter Sessions and as a result of this, the position of Coroner. Note that prior to around 1838, inquests for deaths in Birmingham would have been held in Warwickshire, as Birmingham reported to the Warwickshire Quarter Sessions. The role of the Coroner’s Court is:

  1. to investigate sudden or suspicious deaths which are reported to him/her,
  2. to deal with applications to transport a body to another country for burial or cremation
  3. to investigate cases of Treasure Trove (the discovery of buried coin or other valuables)

Archives & Collections are lucky in having an almost complete holding of the inquests held in Birmingham over the whole period there has been a Birmingham Coroner. The Coroner’s Office has recently deposited the original “roll of the inquests” covering 1838 – 1875, a microfilm copy of which is available to view in the Heritage Research Area. The roll records very little detail on the cases, giving names, address, cause of death and verdict. There are no further details relating to the death and on the whole, the entries do not tell you any more than you would find on a death certificate.

As I’m sure you will appreciate, this is not an item that will be served in the Wolfson Centre – for conservation reasons!

Something a little macabre?

‘Records of the old families and meeting houses belonging to Birmingham Meeting’, compiled by Charles D. Sturge with drawings by William Moseley Baker
Finding no. SF/1038 (alt ref: BN 5K9)

When one of our archivists came across a curious description of a visit by Charles Dickenson Sturge to Monmouth Street (Bull Lane) graveyard, this just screamed Halloween at us! (You can find out more about the cemetery in our blog post The Old Meeting House)

In 1851 Charles Sturge observed…

I also saw a composition one Mary or Eliz, Whitehead the only one of this material legible [.] In the lowest of the three tiers of remains in the part of the graveyard only used before 1750 the skull of a young lady was found with the hair curled all round in a way that it was thought to have been curled after or just before death which in any case must have been sudden as it would have been cut off Tho’ from the position of the grave it must have been buried a century + a quarter the hair, except a little brittleness was just as if fresh cut.

A lock of hair was taken from the graveyard and attached to the page describing the visit to the cemetery.

Lock of hair found in the Burial Ground

 

Whatever activities await you this All Hallows’ Eve, do be careful in those graveyards in case the owner might come back to claim their hair….

If you dare, click here for some more scary graveyard characters you might encounter (but be warned, you do so at your own risk!).

Explore Your Archives 2017: Behind the Scenes in Conservation

This year’s Explore Your Archives week runs from Saturday 18th November to Sunday 26th November. The mini-campaign is to highlight the vital and highly-specialised preservation and conservation work of archive conservators.

Behind the scenes at Archives & Collections

Unlike the past two years when we have opened up our archive collections through pop-up exhibitions, this year we are offering the chance to look behind the scenes…

Ever wanted to know what the Conservator gets up to in the archives? Ever wondered what is in the gold part of the Library of Birmingham building? You can find out by coming along to this workshop about how we look after Birmingham’s most treasured documents, with a behind the scenes tour of the stores and Conservation Studio.

Spaces are limited to 12 people – so book early by e-mail at archives.heritage@birmingham.gov.uk to avoid disappointment!

 

There are two workshops:

Saturday 18th November 1pm – 3pm

Friday 24th November, 2pm – 4pm.

 

Venue:

Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Level 4, Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square B1 2ND

 

For details of how to get to the library, please see the Library of Birmingham website for details.

For more about the Explore Your Archive campaign, please visit http://www.exploreyourarchive.org/.