A League of Their Own

on Tuesday, 01 December 2015. Posted in Archives

I was very lucky to be able to attend the British Records Association’s annual conference held at Swedenborg House on 26th November this year. The theme was sports in archives, the title “In a League of Their Own” and there was a variety of topics covered by the speakers throughout the day.

We started the morning with a very interesting talk from Eleanor Hoare, the archivist at Eton College, who gave us the history of sports at Eton from the first mention of recreational activities in the 15th century (only 10 years after the foundation of the school) to the present day. It was fascinating to find out the trends in sport at a high profile public school, what has remained popular throughout the centuries and what an importance sport still has at Eton. It is always lovely to hear about schools’ own little traditions in the physical activity world, Eton’s cases being the two very different forms of football (including “Wall Football” where a goal has not been scored since 1909!). It was also interesting to discover how little time boys were given for recreational activities, until the 18th century. Following Eleanor’s talk, we moved to Magdalen College Oxford and the boat club, hearing a history of the club from the senior treasurer, Mark Blandford-Baker, and also learning about how useful it has been for him having the extensive archives of the club held at the Magdalen College archives. He raised the point that in these times it is often more difficult to capture the sort of information that we did before the days of computers and internet access. The old records (paper records and books) of the boat club will increasingly be replaced by digital newsletters and records, which are not necessarily treated with the same respect as the old minute books and race reports.

There was then a talk from Karen Davies, archivist at the Bedford Physical Education and Levick Boyd archives at the University of Bedfordshire. It focused on the Bedford Physical Training College, which started in the early 20th century teaching women how to be physical education instructors using a Swedish method which was very prescriptive and strict. As with the previous talks, the history of the college was told through the various archives including photographs and written material. It was lovely to be able to get a glimpse of women learning this type of work which until relatively recently was very much a female profession. It was especially interesting for me as I am cataloguing the archives of the Godolphin School in Salisbury at the moment, and many of the photographs showed women training to be teachers from a similar time to the Godolphin’s mass of photographs of sports, showing the high regard they had for their games mistresses. I wonder of any of them ended up at Godolphin!

The final session of the morning took a different approach: we were able to hear from the archivist at the University of Stirling, Karl Magee, who was discussing Scotland’s contribution to the Commonwealth Games using the archives of Commonwealth Games Scotland which was deposited at the University. Funding had been provided to create a pop-up exhibition and they then did a touring exhibition around places in Scotland, which is ongoing. The project is called “Hosts and Champions” and created links with past participants in the games. Those people sometimes gave items of their own to the collection, which really enhanced it. It was great to see how much of a proud local stance each exhibition is taking, and also how much of a gap in the collection is being filled by the more personal items donated by the participants.

In the afternoon, we heard from Dr Alexander Jackson of the National Football Museum, first based in Preston and now in Manchester, which has lots of different collections from more formal societies to the personal collections of fans and players. As well as the memorabilia, there are documents showing correspondence, accounts, interaction between players and referees, diaries and photographs, giving a great indication of the history of football and its impact on the country.

Following that, we heard from Robert Clegg of the Rugby Football League archive at Heritage Quay in Huddersfield. This is a brand new facility holding the archives of the RFL, built from a grant from the HLF to allow safer storage for the archive, a permanent exhibition space, interactive touch tables to access and play audio and video files, and also allowing for an active engagement and learning programme. The support received from the local community and fans has been outstanding: they have had a lot of interest and help in identifying photographs, as well as people coming to events, including learning events, at Heritage Quay. This is a great example of a dedicated sport archive facility which has achieved recognition, funding and support from so many people.

We then had a talk from Nat Alcock who discussed the Halford Bowls Club. He focused on the very early documents of the club, comparing it to records from other clubs around the country. Records like subscription and account books listed names of members, how much they paid and where they came from. It certainly got me thinking about the various bowls clubs we have in Wiltshire whose archives have survived for decades at least.

The final part of the day started with a very interesting talk by Kenth Sjöblom, from the International Council of Archives’ Section on Sports and the National Archives of Finland. He talked about the things the Section has achieved over the years, as well as what it hoped to achieve in the future: this included lots of seminars in various countries, and trying to get more countries represented in the Section through building more networks and reaching out to more areas. Their work sounds fascinating and I am really looking forward to seeing what they can achieve over the next few years.

The final lecture was given by Fiona Skillen, chair of the British Society of Sports History, who talked about her PhD topic of women in sport. This is a subject still relatively new and un-researched, and Fiona met lots of challenges in her research on it, largely due to the fact that women’s sport has never had as much interest surrounding it as men’s; from Victorian times women were supposed to be “genteel” and only play games like croquet and golf. Only recently has women’s match sport like football gathered more interest, and this should lead to more women’s societies creating and retaining their records, and those records being catalogued and accessible. The records are generally out there – women did form sports clubs and societies – but hopefully they will now be used and understood much more. As Fiona concluded in her talk, we cannot understand the male picture without understanding the female. Therefore our knowledge and understanding of male sports will be enhanced by a greater knowledge of female.

So what have I been encouraged to do as a result of the conference? It was made clear during the day that archives of sports clubs and societies can be excellent sources for family history: you can find out very specific information about your ancestor in things like player record books which might even give a height and weight of that person. You can trace them moving through their lives through sports: in the archives of Eton there are many boys who have gone on to be rowers at Oxford, for example, and possibly can even be traced doing sports after their university days. So record offices, other archives and researchers all need to be aware that family historians can gain a lot of information on their ancestors. Of course, also people interested in the history of a particular sport can find a wealth of information in various documents scattered around the country. As an archivist, I also need to be aware that people want to find information so the material needs describing and interpreting as well as I can. The records would not necessarily be in a society’s collection: some might be in school collections, or business collections if they had workplace clubs, or part of the archives of individuals.

Sporting archives are incredibly diverse and thus are interesting to diverse audiences. Having local communities participate by identifying people in photographs is not a new phenomenon but it clearly worked for the Rugby Football League Archive and maybe more archives and local groups need to do that.

If you hold documents or photographs belonging to a local sporting society, please do consider bringing them into the archives for safekeeping.

Ally McConnell, Archivist


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