Many of us are quite used to reading sources only for the information that they explicitly give us – burial registers tell us the dates of burials, and so on. But quite often those same sources can be very revealing about other issues, things that aren’t explicitly stated. The same burial registers can reveal an accident or epidemic in a village, for example, if there are a more of burials than usual within a few days of one another.
Thinking sideways about the sources in this way can lead us to a much fuller picture of life in the past than we might otherwise have had. In particular, it allows us to build up a picture (sometimes directly, sometimes by inference) of what everyday life was like for ‘ordinary’ people in the past – something that few historical sources do. In this blog, I’d like to highlight a few interesting examples of this from within our collections.
One of the most difficult things to discover about the past is what people wore in their everyday lives. Most of the clothing that has survived through to the present day tends to be high-status clothing, either belonging to an ‘elite’ or only worn on very special occasions. Even in the age of photography, it can be surprisingly hard to get a sense of what people wore: until relatively recently photographs were expensive and out of the reach of most people. A consequence of this was that having a photograph taken was often only done for special occasions, and was frequently quite a formal event that people wore their best clothes for, so the images don’t necessarily reflect what people wore every day.
One of the more unusual ways of finding this information is through photographs of people who had just been arrested, in the police force’s criminal records. We have quite a few of these images in our Constabulary collection (F5), and they usually include a photograph of the offender, alongside a summary of their details and the crimes they were convicted of. They’re mainly used for researching details of the crime(s) committed, but they’re also incredibly useful for giving us a snapshot of everyday clothing at the time, as well as the ways in which fashions changed over time or across social groups, as you can see from these two images taken eighteen years apart:
Interestingly, they can also tell us about tattoos and body art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the records also include any identifying marks, as in this example which shows the convict having a tattoo of a woman and a man on his right and left forearms:
Another thing that can be quite hard to discover from surviving sources are the more mundane elements of daily life. Often what has survived are official accounts, which don’t offer much of a window into the realities of the everyday. One of the best sources to use for this are wills. These, of course, tell us a lot about people’s possessions (which can be revealing in themselves, as we’ll see), as well as helping to confirm the names and relationships of relatives making them an important source for any family history. Very occasionally, however, they can reveal something of the nature of those relationships, particularly if family members had fallen out with one another.
This will from William Edwards in 1732 refers to ‘the many and great troubles expences [sic] and vexations occasioned me and my dear wife by the undutiful and disobedient behaviour and perverseness of my son William’, and left him ‘one shilling and no more’:
Wills also offer a glimpse into private living arrangements. In 1763 Richard Townson left his possessions to ‘unto Anna Maria Byer who lives and cohabits with me (and is Really and truely my wife)’, where most sources talk of married couples.
They can also reveal some of the more sinister elements of private life that aren’t captured in other records. In 1625 Richard Dawers left his daughter Anne (and her children, should she have any) £20 in trust so that her husband could not access it. ‘The cause of debarringe my sonne in law to have any medling or dealing therewith’, he wrote, ‘is in regard to his unkind & churlish dealinge with my daughter his wife, duringe my life time, that I doe much feare, if god give him not more grace, it shall goe worse with her after my death’.
On a lighter note, sometimes wills offer an insight into some of the more mundane parts of everyday life. Francis Lambe left his daughter daughter a pair of ‘waffinge irons to make waffers’.
Last but not least, my favourite: in 1596, Thomas Warr gave his daughter Alice ‘a cowe knowne by the name of Whurlock’ – proof that giving animals odd names isn’t confined to the present day!
If you are anything like me you may be giving quite a few books as gifts this Christmas, and you might have spent a long time considering their content and choosing the right book for the right person. But have you ever looked at the structure of the book and thought about how it has been made? Although the process is mechanised today, the traditional skill of bookbinding is still practised and over the last few months some of the staff here at the History Centre have been giving it a go after work, guided by our Archives Conservator, Sophie. It’s been a lot of fun and certainly makes you appreciate the work, skill and time that it takes to create books by hand.
Much more interest and scholarship has been directed towards the decoration of books rather than their components or the processes used to create them. However, it is often the ‘forwarding’ of the binding (making it fit for the finishing or more decorative elements) that makes a book really pleasing to use.
Books can be bound in many different styles and vary according to age, value and the use to which the book will be put. Bookbinding first begins in the 4th century AD with a change from rolls to flat sheets, which, although easier to transport and store, required some kind of protection. The first bindings were simple folded sheets sewn together and wrapped in leather.
The development of the printing press created a surge in binding activity and prosperity for the bookbinder. In contrast to previous manuscript versions which were often richly ornamented with costly materials such as enamels and carved ivory, the printed book was often covered with plain leather, calf or deerskin, or occasionally parchment. Covers could also be wooden boards, sometimes backed with leather, which was drawn partly of wholly over the wooden covers, the latter usually fitted with clasps.
The above example is an early 14th cent. -16th cent. wooden covered Liber Evidentiarum B (the 'B' indicates that it belongs to the bishop, as opposed to a similar volume, 'C', belonging to the chapter). It contains copies of royal and other charters (including Magna Carta  and the Forest charter, compositions, ordinances, etc., and was mostly written in the early 14th century, but with 15th and 16th century additions. We think the wooden cover is original but it has been rebound many times (you can see holes for previous binding, and where there used to be a clasp).
A faster form of decoration - blind stamping (creating an image, design or lettering formed by creating a depression) - became prevalent as the numbers of books increased in the sixteenth century. This was superseded by the more visually appealing gold tooling technique (decorating the cover and spine with gold leaf, impressed into the cover with a heated finishing tool). Around 1750 the construction process also changed, when many books began to be sewn on cords let into the backs of sections. This, in contrast to the usual practice of sewing on raised cords, gave a smooth back. The spines were often lined with many layers of paper, which gave a good surface for tooling work but could mean that they were difficult to open.
The demand for books and bindings increased following the industrial revolution, although the quality of hand-binding was poorer; the construction of the binding deteriorated and attempt was often made to conceal the poor quality with lavish gold ornament on covers and spines. With the industrial revolution also came mass production, and machinery for cutting, blocking, case-making and pressing. Later in the 19th century, techniques for machine decoration were also developed.
The arts and crafts movement countered this industrialisation and inspired individuals such as lawyer, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson to study the craft, and to experiment with binding construction and decoration. His designs continued the methods of gold and blind tooling, and often incorporated flowers, leaves or branches in a geometric design. The scope for originality and creativity also prospered following World War One, and artists, designers, and amateurs all made worthy contributions to the craft.
Our local studies and archive collections includes examples of different binding constructions. However, the tools and equipment of the trade can also be explored through looking at wills and inventories...
As shown by one of this year’s Explore Your Archive themes #Archivecatwalk ‘the history of fashion is the history of people’. Archives can provide a unique insight into the fashion of the past from sources such as inventories, wills, household accounts, bills, photographs, drawings, magazines and periodicals, diaries and more. Sometimes they can provide evidence where little else has survived. I’ve picked a few examples from our collections for this blog, but there are many more out there!
Inventories, wills and bills
Inventories can provide evidence for the garments and quantities of clothing in households of varied status. Textiles and clothing are not only revealed through bequests in wills but in the given occupations of testators including clothiers, cloth-workers, glovers, haberdashers, hat makers, draper, cordwainers, weavers etc.
Bills and accounts give us dated evidence of prices paid for all sorts of clothing and textiles, such as this example in the papers of sisters Miss Mary Codrington of Walcot in Bath (died 9 March 1754) and Miss Dorothy Codrington (died at Bath in 1768).
We also hold a detailed bill for Lady Elizabeth Seymour dating to 1669 which is mostly for clothing. It includes white and coloured worsted stockings; fabrics including tabby, lutestring, satin, sarsnett, venetian, cambric, farindin, avignion, parrigone, tifiney; laced shoes, and a “pare of golosus”; damask and jessemy powder. Rather pleasingly it also includes an entry for 8 pounds of that most essential of items ‘iockaletta’ (no prizes for guessing!).
Women in the mid-17th century often wore low cut bodices laced down the front with ribbons and coming to a deep point, a linen collar (which was sometimes transparent) ¾ length sleeve with turn ups of lace. They would have worn gowns and petticoats (which are also listed in Lady Seymour’s bill). There was also a fashion for adding ‘patches’ to the face which satirist John Bulwer described as the ‘vain custom of spotting their faces out of affectation of a mole, to set off their beauty’. The shapes could vary from spots, to stars, crescents, or even ‘a coach and horses cut out of black ‘court plaster’. Amazingly this was a fashion which lasted for more than 50 years.
For men the custom of wearing a periwig was adopted following the King appearing in one in 1663. Samuel Pepys recorded his wearing of a periwig in his diary, and is seemingly a little disappointed not to have provoked more interest: “I found that my coming in a periwig did not prove so strange as I was afraid it would for I thought that all the church would presently have set their eyes upon me” The fashion lasted for nearly 100 years, although the use of powder did not begin until the latter part of the 17th century.
Nearly 100 years later, a 1741 inventory of the Earl of Ailesbury’s clothes in London and at Tottenham includes suits of cloth in various colours, flowered crimson velvet, bargen, camelet, flowered silk, 4 tied wigs and 3 bobs, silk and thread stockings, 4 swords, buttons, shoe and knee buckles in gold, silver, pinchbeck and enamel.
Magazines and periodicals:
In a collection of family papers we have 11 copies of ‘The Ladies Cabinet’ magazine covering fashion, music and romance. This 1835 edition includes an advert for ‘French and English Corsets’ with the Patent Black which is ‘instantly unlaced in cases of sudden indisposition’. There is also the Elastic Stay which prevents pressure on the chest in the case of pulmonary complaints and the Gestation Stay, which gives necessary comfort and support to ladies during pregnancy. The corset had come back into fashion after the earlier ‘Empire’ gown of the end of the 18th century. The pursuit of this style led to some extraordinary effort; Laver notes in ‘A Concise History of Costume’ (p162) that in one corset advert a mother is advised to make her daughter lie face down on the floor so she might place a foot in the small of her back to obtain the necessary purchase on the laces.
In slightly less restricted attire, a 1928 magazine snippet shows the remarkable speed record-holder Mrs Bruce (see our Principal Archivist’s blog on some of her favourite archives to learn more about Mary Bruce’s extraordinary story). Post war, fashion began to pick up again, and the flared skirt which had lasted throughout the war was replaced by a more cylindrical ‘barrel’ line with shorter skirts (knee length). This can be seen in this sketch where she is described as ‘a picture of practical smartness in her redingote of beige and grey tweed. With it she wears tan gloves and a felt hat to match’.
I was interested to read a recent news story which described scientific work to extract DNA from parchment using a non-destructive technique, giving us remarkable and unexpected source of information about the animal the page was created from. It has also proved possible to extract DNA of people who have touched or kissed the manuscripts over the years (devotional prayer books for example).
Thinking about the physical fabric of the archives led me to consider our more common archive material; paper. We see paper as a prosaic item nowadays and take it for granted, but it used to be much more valuable and remained expensive until the advent of the steam-driven paper mill.
There is limited documented evidence about paper making before the 18th century and the knowledge and skills would primarily have been shared directly between family members and master and apprentice. We have records of apprenticeships in our parish collections including Edward Hayword from Bradford-on-Avon who was apprenticed to a Gabriel Sweet, Weston, Somerset in July 1745 and a Thomas Whale from Chippenham, apprenticed to a Charles Ward, papermaker at Doncombe, North Wraxall in November 1804.
The process of making paper was a complex one involving many stages and can be read about in more detail in various publications including The British Paper Industry 1495-1860 by D.C Coleman available in our local studies library (shelfmark 338.476). The cellulose fibres in plant tissues were macerated and mixed with water until the fibres separated and were lifted from the water using a sieve-like screen, leaving a sheet of matted fibres on the screen’s surface. This then required pressing, drying, sizing, and finishing before it could be used as paper.
We have several wills in our collection left by papermakers. These can give some indication of the kind of wealth and social standing of the profession.
In the 1792 will of John Lewis, paper maker of Yatton Keynell he bequeathed all his household goods and furniture to his wife, Mary Lewis. He also left an annuity of £8 to be paid to his sister, Elizabeth Parker, to be paid in equal quarterly instalments every year until her death. John Lewis makes it explicit that this money ‘is not liable to the debts or engagements of my said sisters husband or any other husband he may hereafter have and that her receipt alone…’ He also bequeathed to Thomas Vincent, a grocer of Calne (named as executor alongside his wife), all his real estate at Longdean and Yatton Keynell. It is pleasing given his profession that he sees fit to mention the paper that the will is written on:
“… to this my last will and testament contained in two sheets of paper set my hand and seal as follows (that is to say) my hand to the first sheet thereof and my hand and seal to the last sheet and my seal at the top where both sheets join”.
Another will belonging to Thomas Bacon, papermaker of Downton, dating to 1679 includes an inventory of his goods. These include materials and goods from the mill house including scales and weights, paper moulds and their respective values.
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.
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.
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.
Over the last few months, I have been cataloguing the Lacock archive with the help of several volunteers and just about every day I come across some interesting documents, some of which I hope to share with you over the next few months.
Recently, for example, I have been able to find out information gained from wills and other legal documents about the identity of illegitimate children of John Talbot (1717-1778), one of the owners of the Lacock estate who was married but widowed after only two years, and had no children from the marriage. He did, however, have at least four children with local women. At least two of the children were provided for in John Talbot’s will (another had died, and it is assumed that the fourth did too but no evidence has been found). However, he was clearly very concerned about the welfare of his children and tried to ensure that they would be provided for not just in a legal sense. A very touching letter has been found in the archive, dictated just before his death to his friend John Santer, which shows his concerns. This is a lovely thing to find in the archive as it shows the human side of an aristocratic family who, especially with the issue of illegitimacy and inheritance, tended to keep very discrete.
A transcription of some of the letter shows John’s troubled mind: