Delving into the Godolphin School Archive

on Saturday, 30 July 2016. Posted in Archives, Schools

I recently finished cataloguing the archive of the Godolphin School, a girls’ only boarding and day school in Salisbury. I took the project on with glee, because I have been very interested in school archives for years and it was wonderful to get the chance to work on the archive. The archive came to the History Centre at two different times. The first accession of material was listed many years ago, but the much more recent second accession had not, although much of it had been indexed. It was my job to take the first accession, 2954, and the second accession, 4265, and amalgamate them into one new collection, 4312.


Image of 4312/10/D/7BW No.1

My first job was to do my own rough box lists of all the material from the different accessions so that I properly understood the material that we had from the school. This also allowed me to check that the 2954 listing was correct and there were no mistakes. Sometimes I think it’s lovely to have a blank canvas with archive collections and it’s great to have no work done on an archive before, so that you come to it with a fresh mind, but for Godolphin it was certainly useful for me to use the previous listings, although I tried to do my own description of the documents before referring to the lists.

Once I had got an idea of what we held, it was time to try and virtually amalgamate the two accessions. I drew up my proposed structure and put each document or bundle of documents from the two accessions into an Excel spreadsheet, which over time probably found itself multicoloured in every shade Excel allowed me to use. Once I had finished, thankfully every number and description was either a satisfying shade of green, to show they’d been put on the system and numbered, or an equally satisfying red to show they were being returned to the school. These returns were all duplicate items. It was then time to put the structure onto our database and begin the more detailed descriptions, which was a lot of fun as I began to know and understand the school history, location, structure and quirks. I loved the school before I even began the project, but I love it more afterwards.

Records for the school date back to 1709, in a letter from Sidney Godolphin, who died in 1712. The school itself was founded by the will of Elizabeth Godolphin, who had married Sidney’s brother Charles. Between them the couple founded many charities, including the school “for the better education and maintenance of eight young gentlewomen to be brought up at Sarum or some other town in the County of Wilts under the care and direction of some wise and prudent Governess or Schoolmistress”. Elizabeth made her will in 1726, but the school did not open until 1784 in the Cathedral Close. Now, the school’s site is in Milford Hill and teaches well over 400 children. The copy made of Elizabeth’s will is the second oldest document in the archive – although the copy itself is much more modern than the will. The most recent documents are from 2014, so the archive really does span the whole history of the school. The most common ones are from the turn of the 20th century: the school itself still holds most of the more modern records.

Image of 4312/10/D/7BW No.2

The most extensive part of the collection (in terms of number of records) is the five boxes we have of photographs, and it was these that I started cataloguing first. The hope was that having the visual impression of the school would help when I was cataloguing other material, and I think it worked. The part I loved most was looking at the turn of the century photographs, which include whole school photographs, staff, house and form photographs, and lovely images of sports. The earliest photograph in the Godolphin collection is one of Miss Polhill, who was headmistress from 1854-1857.

Image of 4312/10/G/12BW

There is also a photograph of Miss Andrews, who was headmistress from 1875-1890, with her staff.

Image of 4312/10/G/2BW No.2

My favourite photograph is this one of the “first” staff, that is the staff employed in 1890 when Mary Alice Douglas arrived at the school as headmistress. They are all holding a symbol of one of their functions within the staff.

Image of 4312/10/G/2BW No.1

Miss Douglas is credited with turning the school from having a small number of pupils in 1890 to a much larger number when she left 29 years later, through making significant changes to the size and ethos of the school. The school considers Miss Douglas its second founder, and it is not hard to see why, when you look at both the massive amount of work she did to improve the school and also the subsequent huge amount of respect she had from colleagues, governors and pupils. I will probably write another blog in due course just on Miss Douglas, her life and work.

The photographs in the archive are all brilliant, and show a happy and diverse school life from the 19th century to almost the present day. Annoyingly, some were not labelled so descriptions for some of them are fairly vague; however, I think the archive is very lucky to have so many of the photographs labelled so we know rough dates, and names of pupils and staff in the pictures.

I have a volunteer currently working her way through the headmistress’s diaries which date from Miss Douglas’ appointment in 1895. These diaries are fascinating: very detailed descriptions of what went on in the school. They are very similar to the log books we can find with most state schools, and can be used for the same types of historical research: not only to find out about family history, but about social history, events that were going on locally and nationally at the time, and student population trends.

Image of 4312/13/B/3 No.1

My volunteer is indexing the diaries – so noting down any names that appear, which will be useful for researchers of particular people, and also noting down interesting events. This is a project that is keeping her very entertained! School diaries are always very interesting – if nothing else, to see the sort of subjects that were being taught and the school attitudes. This picture shows an example of the information at the beginning of a term, with a list of pupils in each form.

Image of 4312/13/B/3 No.2

Other items of interest in the collection include deeds from the mid 19th century of premises occupied by the school, including Elm Grove, Fawcett House and land in Glastonbury held by the school as an investment site. These can help us identify when certain buildings were purchased, leased or surrendered by the school and can show how the school was progressing. We also have an almost complete set of governors’ minutes, which are interesting if you’re more concerned with the administrative history of the school. I have already used the minutes from around 1889 to try and work out what happened to Miss Andrews, the headmistress before Miss Douglas, and what her reasons were for resigning as headmistress. It became clear that although she wasn’t sacked, it had been suggested to her by governors or others that the school, which was about to move into new buildings and potentially grow considerably, needed a new person at the helm. Whether she was pushed into resigning or not, the consequences were very beneficial for the school: the arrival of Miss Douglas with her attitudes really helped the school grow and become more established. It is hard to tell if this would have happened with Miss Andrews still at the helm.

In the collection there are also the school magazines, which can give a much better indication of school life and the successes of the pupils than the more administrative records can. We also have a large amount of information on the history of both the school and Godolphin House in Helston, Cornwall, which was owned by the Godolphin family but is now in the hands of the National Trust.

I was able to visit the school itself a few months ago and be shown round by Richard Clarke, who had been responsible for the archives when they were housed there. It was great to see the context of some of the documents; to wander round the Great Hall and see the development of the school site. It really helped me to understand the documents that I had been studying, and I am very grateful to Richard for taking the time to show me round and explain as much of the school’s history as he could.


Godolphin School. Copyright Peter Jordan licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The archive will hopefully be used by the school for preparations for its 300th anniversary in 2026, which although it seems like a long way away is being started now. It will hopefully be a useful resource for them. It is also starting to be used by researchers doing family or local history, and I am hoping that the new accessibility of the archive and the catalogue will open up new insights into the collection and allow it to be explored in a lot more depth.

Ally McConnell, Archivist


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