The Shops are Open! Let’s Explore York’s Retail History

Chapped skin from all that hand-washing? There’s a cream for that! (Copyright: City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd)

Flicking through pictures of trade cards (originally transferred to us from the Castle Museum) feels like window shopping through history. These ephemeral pieces of paper and card were never intended to survive, and yet they offer us so much insight into 19th-century life. Looking at the cards, it is no wonder that Yorkshire continues to boast such a diverse and friendly community of independent businesses. Join us as we glimpse through the windows of their predecessors and explore all the weird and wonderful products they have to offer.

(Copyright: City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd)

It is interesting to compare these cards and notices to the glossy adverts favoured by colossal companies today. In his notice of moving premises, W.C. Turner refers to customers as ‘friends’ and ‘respectfully solicits a continuance of their Patronage, to deserve which will ever be his study’. Turner promises to pay ‘scrupulous attention’ to all areas of his business and thanks his friends for the ‘liberal support’ they offer him. All this before he even mentions the products he has on offer (despite the shaving cream being ‘the best article of the kind ever offered to the Public’).

Such prioritisation of customers remains a hallmark of independent businesses today. Rather than spending vast amounts of money on adverts, local shops often rely on word of mouth. One benefit of social media is how easy it has become for customers to spread the word and share their experiences of good customer-service.

Marks and Spencer original premises, 15-16 Pavement, c.1907.
Image reference y9_pav_7606_b Copyright: City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd
(See more photographs from our archive at

Specialism also stands out when looking through these trade cards. Today many shops have grown to encompass multiple services. Marks and Spencer may have started small, but the business now boasts so many product lines that we can purchase groceries, suits, homeware, furniture, and even bridesmaid dresses from a single company. This certainly saves time, but is something lost when we can find everything under one roof/website?

Thankfully, Yorkshire continues to keep the independent, small-scale ethos alive and, now that shops start reopening, one shopping list can easily direct us to so many different local traders (keeping a suitable social distance of course!). That isn’t to say that wide-ranging shops aren’t also valuable, because York boasts multiple independent department stores that still manage to specialise in excellent customer service!

Although many large chains offer online services, it tends to be smaller and independent businesses that rely on footfall. Hopefully, these will be boosted by locals returning to shops this week. Yorkshire evidently has a rich and diverse retail history. Here’s to supporting its future!

Or perhaps you prefer keeping yourself to yourself? Maybe you think we should stop peeking into the past and mind our own business? In which case, the Neglected Home Department has just the job for you…

“What a comfort is this journal”: Anne Lister, Archival Adaptation, and Your Chance to be a Code Breaker

How often have you been told to read a book before you watch the adaptation? Do you dislike how some of your favourite characters have been depicted on screen? Does the ‘Now a Major Motion Picture’ sticker get your hackles up?

We tend to have conflicting responses to adaptations. On the one hand, it is exciting to see great stories shared more widely. On the other, you might feel something is lost in translation. There is even a website (Readit1st) where you can pledge to read stories before watching them. But films are in cinemas for a limited time and Netflix is forever at our fingertips. We encounter so many stories on screen before we meet them on paper. What really matters is whether you reach for the book afterwards. A good adaptation will make you want to do so.

Copyright: Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

What about adaptations of life-writing? Those fragile traces – letters, diaries, photographs, lists, receipts, even emails – of a life not yet bound up in story. How often do we seek those originals out?

When Sally Wainwright adapted Anne Lister’s life for television (Gentleman Jack) no one rushed to Twitter to say we should read Anne’s account first. This is not surprising, given Anne’s diary contains an estimated 5 million words and is partly, famously, swathed in code. But it is important to remember that Wainwright was not adapting a novel, a story with a crafted and exhaustible plot. Diaries run on different tracks, with the writer never knowing what the next page will hold. Anne could tell individual stories but not a definitive one; she could only create content insofar as she went out and lived it. And, as Wainwright notes, a diary is “not a narrative […] it’s day-by-day accounts written slowly over the course of years” (Hollywood Reporter). Wainwright was not adapting a preexisting story, she was using archival records to create one.  

Who was Anne Lister?

Portrait by Joseph Horner
Copyright: Public Domain

Anne was born in Halifax in 1791. Growing up, she would often visit her aunt and uncle at Shibden Hall, a 15th-century manor house nearby. Anne moved there permanently in 1815 and inherited Shibden Hall in 1836. By then she had already been managing the estate for ten years, and her diary records the experience of being a businesswoman and landowner in detail. It also recounts her love of nature, study, travelling, mountaineering, and women. It is the latter passion that has made Anne so famous, as she lived openly in unofficial marriage with Ann Walker when doing so was highly taboo. In her television adaptation, Wainwright managed to weave together many of Anne’s diverse passions and talents, but her source material was vast. There are so many more stories waiting to be discovered and told.

When Sally met Anne

Visiting the Calderdale Archive in Halifax, Wainwright was struck by the vitality of Anne’s diary. In an interview with E-News she recalled her first encounter: “It’s quite awe-inspiring and emotional […] you feel like you’re having this very intimate moment with Anne Lister, like you’re having a connection with her”.

This interaction is something Wainwright aimed to channel on screen. Whenever Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) delivers her lines to the camera, the audience is made aware of our position as surrogate page. We wait to be filled with Anne’s comments and concerns, to be confided in, to be trusted. But even Suranne Jones cannot recreate what Wainwright experienced in the Calderdale Archive. Initially, she was struck by the distance Anne’s diary imposes: “It’s vast, labyrinthine and inaccessible” (RTS). But as soon as Wainwright started transcribing, the barriers collapsed, like a veil falling away: “When you’re reading the code that you were never meant to read [it’s] as if you’re having a glimpse into her soul” (The Telegraph).

Lister in Lockdown

If there was ever a moment for digital preservation to prove its importance, it is now. Even as Covid-19 has forced Calderdale Archives to close temporarily, Anne remains accessible. This would not be possible without a strategy that understood and exploited the opportunities afforded to digital archives.

However, digitisation is only part of the digital preservation process, not its culmination. Anne’s diaries pose another challenge: legibility. Whilst the crypt-hand famously conceals one-sixth of the content, Anne’s freehand is also notoriously difficult to read. And so, in July 2019, the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) launched a project to make transcriptions of the diary available online too. Paired with the digitised originals, these transcriptions will introduce Anne, in her own words, to people all over the world.

Astronomyblog / CC BY-SA (


Transcribing Anne’s diary is not restricted to archival professionals. Just as digitisation democratises access to archives, this project opens the archiving process to everyone. If you are capable of transcribing accurately then you are eligible to join the ranks of Anne Lister Code Breakers. What better way to make use of quarantine than to connect with Anne, and others, through the pages of her diary?

Dorjana Sirola, a volunteer in Canterbury, is already “getting to know Anne by living through her entries with her”. Transcribing the diary, she finds Anne “more fascinating and complex, exasperating yet relatable, by the day. Her world grows alive before your eyes” (The Yorkshire Post).

That is the crucial point. Gentleman Jack is the adaptation of a life, not a story. And life is an unedited, fragmentary, ever vital thing. Wainwright didn’t just rely on preexisting transcriptions and biographies; she sought out the artefacts which make “history alive”. She went to where Anne’s life was documented but not yet described.

Archives are the places – whether physical or digital – where visitors revitalise the past. Engaging with traces of life, interpreting them anew, is what keeps history alive. We turn over records like stones on a beach and watch as they disclose their stories. These tales are infinite, because imagination is, and new arrivals always wash in. Gentleman Jack uncovered eight hours – just one day! – of Anne Lister’s exhilarating unruly life. Having watched one story, don’t you want to seek out the rest? Wouldn’t you like to meet her?

To transcribe Anne’s diary, visit the WYAS online exhibition, where you can learn more about Anne, the project, and how to volunteer your skills.

You can also discuss the project on Twitter with the hashtag #AnneListerCodeBreaker.


Uncovering York’s Football Heritage: A Look through the Archive

Today, Francesca discusses the work we’ve recently been doing on our Uncovering York’s Sporting Heritage project…

For many of York’s residents, men and women, young and old, the thrill of being in the crowd at Bootham Crescent and cheering on York City’s ‘Minstermen’ has been one of the defining experiences of York life. From the building of Bootham Crescent Stadium in 1923, through the ‘Happy Wanderers’ reaching the FA Cup semi-final in 1955, to the team’s record-breaking 100-point season in 1984, and the historic campaign by the Supporter’s Trust to save the club from financial troubles in 2002, York City’s history is one of highs and lows. It is a story that we have been lucky enough to be able to preserve and help to tell at York Explore, the new home of York City’s archive.

The club’s programme archive, once held at York City Football Club Foundation, has been deposited at York Explore as part of the Uncovering York’s Sporting Heritage project. The project, a collaborative effort between Explore York Libraries and Archives, York City FC Foundation and York City Knights Foundation, is generously funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and aims to preserve and share the stories of how sport has shaped York’s communities over the past decades. In addition to hosting a range of activities and working with various community groups to share Explore’s archives with residents, as part of the project we hope to engage local sports teams with the opportunities of managing their own archive, and to expand our own sporting collections by working with local teams who wish to deposit their archives with us; York City FC was the first to do so.

York City’s archive is a rich trove for uncovering the proud history of the club. The collection contains over 2,500 match-day programmes collected by fans over the decades, from single sheets noting team lists and advertising local tea houses, to the glossier modern programmes covering youth teams and charity work undertaken by the club. It also includes an extensive collection of press cuttings, fanzines, tickets and other items that tell the rich story of York City’s players and fans over the twentieth century. In this post we will have a glimpse into just a few of the treasures of the York City FC archive…

The image above is one of the oldest of the archived programmes, for an FA Cup match against Huddersfield Town in 1938. This match is still the most highly-attended game in Bootham Crescent’s history, with over 28,000 spectators. In those days there was neither seating nor covered stands at the stadium, and all viewers watched the match from banked stands behind a memorable white picket fence. The York City collection also includes this picture, reprinted later in the York Press, showing the crowd at the 1938 Huddersfield match.

One of York City’s proudest moments was undoubtedly its historic cup run in the 1954-55 season, when the plucky Minstermen reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. The squad were quickly dubbed the ‘Happy Wanderers’, after the popular 1954 song by The Stargazers, which gave the souvenir booklet below its name.

Another curious commemorative object in the collection is this first-day cover from 1974. First-day covers were special envelopes or postcards, issued by the Royal Mail in very limited runs, to commemorate significant occasions. Fans would send off for the cover and receive it in the post on issue. This cover commemorates York City’s first match in Division Two, having been promoted in 1974, and is signed by the club captain Barry Swallow.

One of the more memorable chapters in York City’s recent history was its financial troubles, and the determined efforts of the Supporters’ Trust to save the club in 2002. The Trust campaigned and raised funds to support the club through a range of endeavours – many of them recorded in the programmes and ephemera in the York City archive – even including walking over hot coals! This poster was one of many carried and waved by Supporters’ Trust members at matches and on marches through the city.

The project to sort, box, catalogue and partially digitise the York City archive has been carried out by Explore staff together with an enthusiastic body of volunteers, made up of York City fans with an interest in the history of the club. Collecting and sorting the material has provided us with a fascinating glimpse into the club’s history: one of highs and lows on and off the pitch, but telling the story of a devoted fanbase. When it is safe for us to reopen our archives service, this collection will be available for public consultation.

Do you belong to a sports club that might be interested in preserving and sharing its own archive? Explore is developing some ‘Managing Your Sporting Archive’ sessions especially for sports teams, giving you all the necessary know-how to start sorting, storing and sharing your archive – see our Events page for more details as they are confirmed, or contact us at to be kept informed of when they are likely to be. In the meantime, why not check out our Keeping Your Archives page for advice and information on how to get started with managing your archives?

“Our Letters Keep Us Very Busy.” 19th-Century Family Newspapers and How to Make Your Own

The mainstream news circles endlessly around the covid-19 pandemic. Our own movements, interactions, and activities are severely limited. Sometimes the days just seem to roll into one. So how can we find ways to delineate the hours and keep track of them? Is there a way to share our news with friends and family beyond exchanging text messages? How do we create personal records of this unprecedented time?

Perhaps we should begin by reconsidering what constitutes news: start celebrating small triumphs, seek inspiration from within our limited surroundings rather than looking beyond them. Making family newspapers can help your children tune out of the barrage of bad news and focus instead on the little things that so often fail to be recorded.

Copyright: George Charles Beresford

In the 1890s, ten-year-old Virginia Woolf began working on a family newspaper called ‘Hyde Park Gate News’. This collaborative production featured family news, jokes, poems, riddles, fictional letters, stories in serial form, and reports of visits to concerts and plays.  

Anyone with a family WhatsApp group may be inundated with jokes and riddles already. But with the speed of modern communication, these often tend to get lost. (Depending on the quality, you may consider that a good thing!) Could your own young journalists start recording these jokes or, even better, come up with their own? If screen time is increasing, perhaps they could take on the role of Family Media Critic, writing down their favourite quotes and providing star ratings on what they watch. We may not be attending concerts or plays, but the National Theatre is providing free YouTube screenings of their productions every Thursday night at 7PM. Who knows? You might have a budding theatre critic amongst you!

Family Newspapers in Yorkshire


Long before the precocious Virginia Woolf launched her writing career, the Gray children were already producing their own family newspapers. Looking through their archive, we found newspapers from the 1820s containing letters addressed to various family members, daily accounts of activities, and features on topics such as “Apple Gathering”, “Plumbs” (plums), “Fox”, “Asses” (the donkey kind), and “Hens”. In the “Measures” section we discovered a simple but ingenious method for keeping children occupied: “Papa made each of us a Yard-Wand … and we measure everything. The church is 22 yards, 2 feet, 5 inches long.”


As the young Gray journalists reveal, there is news to be uncovered everywhere. Sometimes they simply look to the sky and take notes on the moon and stars (“Wednesday: the moon being three weeks old presented an appearance”). Entire sections are devoted to pets, food, and outdoor activities. If your children have been helping in the kitchen perhaps they could include some recipes. And our exercise time is the perfect opportunity for gathering content. Did they do any running races? Perhaps they can try identifying the trees and flowers they spot on their walk. Did they meet any dogs today? Was there any drama with York’s increasingly audacious geese? If your children are learning crafts or engaging in new hobbies, they can record their progress with this too. There are so many options! They might even publish their newspaper by sending it to friends and relatives in the post.



How to Make a Family Newspaper

As the BBC Great Creative at Home Festival continues, there’s never been a better time to think about creating your own family newspapers! 

One of the best ways to make your own newspaper is to produce a zine. These are easy to make, you can print multiple copies from one original, and they are small enough to send to friends and family in the post. The small format also helps if your children are struggling to produce lots of content, as they can easily fill the pages with pictures or just a few lines.

All you need is an A4 piece of paper, a pen, scissors, and something to write about. If you want to get creative you can make more elaborate zines by cutting out pictures to make mini collages. You can also use colourful paints, add stickers, or copy any of the other techniques in the video below. Have fun! And if you want to share your newspapers with a wider audience, we would love to see pictures of your creations on Twitter and Facebook! Don’t forget to use the hastag #GetCreativeAtHome! 

Zine Tutorial

Uncovering York’s Sporting Heritage

Meet Francesca, Archives Intern on our current project, Uncovering York’s Sporting Heritage project. Today she talks you through what we have been up to so far, what’s still to come, and how you can get involved…

For many of us, sports provide some of our fondest memories. Playing games with friends and family as a child, training with local teams, or attending a match on the weekend: sports help us keep healthy, make friends and define our communities. Likewise, looking back at York’s sporting history helps us to uncover the story of how ordinary people in the city had fun, bonded and formed communities over the decades and even centuries.

In 2019 Explore York Archives, York City FC Foundation and York City Knights Rugby League Foundation were awarded £57,500 by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to support ‘Uncovering York’s Sporting Heritage’, a project exploring the importance of sport to York’s residents both past and present. Whilst we are currently having a bit of a project hiatus with the lockdown, we thought we should bring you up to speed with where we are so far!

Burton Stone Lane Adult School football team, c.1919

We have uncovered many interesting facts about York’s sporting heritage: for instance, the city was the location of England’s first recorded football riot in 1660, and the sport was banned entirely in York in 1726! The story of sport in York is also the story of the lives of its residents, from the eighteenth-century high society élite who visited York to attend the races at Clifton Ings or the Knavesmire, and the gentlemen who initially established York’s cricket and rugby clubs, to the railwaymen and Terry’s and Rowntree’s factory workers whose facilities, provided by their socially-conscious Quaker employers, were the first public gyms, public parks and swimming pools in the city.

Horse racing in York, c.1900

As part of this project, we hope to tell the story of this sporting heritage by engaging our communities in the work of the archives. As soon as we are able to, we will be running a number of family sessions and Community Engagement Days to give you a glimpse into the city’s rich sporting history uncovered during the project, and to engage children with this heritage through fun activities. We are also currently producing a reminiscence resource centred on sporting memories for use by dementia groups, helping attendees to reminisce about their own memories of sport in York. Once the Community Stadium opens in the city, we will engage fans with a new artwork in the stadium, and launch a digital installation showcasing some of our amazing sporting archives. It’s bought and ready to go!

Sporting Memories reminiscence session at Bootham Crescent

Of course, this heritage continues to grow, and we hope that going forward our archives can reflect York’s current vibrant sporting life as well. Already as part of the project, with several volunteers, we have collected, sorted and catalogued York City FC’s extensive archives (keep an eye on the blog for our future post on that), including many historic match-day programmes, press cuttings and other memorabilia, which will be accessible at York Explore as soon as we can reopen. When the Community Stadium opens, we hope to gather oral histories from match-day visitors to the stadium, to record their valuable memories of York’s sporting heritage for the future. The first phase of our schools programme was successfully completed before lockdown, and we’re busy working on the content for the second and third phases so that we can continue our work as soon as it is safe to do so.

Archives collated by York City Knights Foundation, 2019

One of the big aims of the project is to help local sports teams and interested individuals to take care of their own archives better, and to help us preserve the story of York’s sporting heritage for the future. This is where you come in! If you are involved in a club and would like to donate your archives to us once we reopen (or in the future) then get in touch with us at and we’ll register your interest ready for when we can restart the project. There is absolutely no obligation to do so, and if you would prefer to get some advice on how to keep your sporting archives better in-house, keep an eye out for our half-day Managing Your Sporting Archives workshops later in the year, or have a look at our general advice and guidance on the Keeping Your Archive pages on our website.

We are really excited by this project, and are really looking forward to being able to deliver the rest of our objectives as soon as we can! In the meantime, why not have a look at some of our sporting photographs available on Explore York Images, our new image portal?

Archives Under Quarantine: 5 Ways to Explore Yorkshire’s History without Leaving Home

In times of worldwide upheaval, it can be comforting to focus on our surroundings. Even better if you can find a way to step into history and retreat from the news for a while. Now that archives and museums are temporarily closed, it might feel like our portals to the past have vanished. But there are so many ways to explore Yorkshire’s history online. Here are five sites to get you started.

Explore York Images  

Did you know that we have a new website? There are thousands of images to explore and you might be surprised by what turns up. Elephants in York? Surely not…    

York Museums Trust

The York Museums Trust has online collections on various themes, including Social History, Geology, Decorative Arts, Costume and Textiles, and Archaeology. Once you select a theme, you can refine the results to only include items with images.

Take inspiration from the collections. Could you make your own games for self-isolation, like this cup and ball or this board game from the early 1800s?


Yorkshire Film Archive at the BFI

The Shambles might be unrecognisably empty today, but what did they look like 100 years ago? Footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive takes us on a monochrome tour of York, starting at the busy railway station, winding through the city’s streets and into the Yorkshire School for the Blind (where we find children playing skittles!). Then onward to the crowded marketplace, the Shambles, and finally the River Ouse: the constant thread that runs between York then and now.

BFI Footage of York

Yorkshire Film Archive

Art UK

Many of York Art Gallery’s collections can be found on Art UK. You can browse paintings by William Etty (a York-based artist), depictions of York itself, and many more artworks from around the world.

Stay at Home VE Day 75

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day this Friday, Explore York Libraries and Archives has assembled a Stay at Home resource pack to help you mark this special occasion. Click here to find links to archival footage of VE day celebrations in Yorkshire, information about screenings, recorded testimonies, and educational tools for children.

You can also participate in York’s Stay at Home celebration by sharing your images of any VE day celebrations held over the last 75 years. Share your memories on Twitter with the hashtag #VE75York and on Facebook. We would love to know how you plan on spending your Stay at Home VE Day!

Announcing the Launch of Explore York Images!

y_11846 Copyright: Explore York Libraries and Archives / City of York Council 2020.

York is a city that has been captured in countless images, and many of these are held at Explore York Archives. Through these photographs, illustrations, maps, and archival documents you can walk forgotten streets, visit the old city centre slums, find out about York’s stained glass history, view key events, and learn more about the people who lived in our city and the surrounding area.

Such a fantastic, ever-growing collection certainly deserves widespread attention, and so we have launched a new website to celebrate York’s visual history. Explore York Images replaces Imagine York (our previous image portal) and offers three key improvements.

Evolving Content

This website has been designed to accommodate a collection that is always growing. In addition to the images already online, we have thousands that have never been visible to the public before. We are working hard to prepare these images and will be uploading them in batches. You can easily keep an eye on new additions by navigating to the ‘Recently Added’ page.

Site Navigation

With a new controlled vocabulary and improved metadata, it should now be easier for you to find specific images. You can use the search bar to specify a keyword, such as ‘boat’, and then select categories to narrow down the results.

You can also create ‘Lightboxes’, which function like pin boards for you to collect images as you search. For example, if you were researching York’s Adult Schools you might create a Lightbox with the same title and collect all relevant images to return to later.

Residents of Hungate decorated their street for the York Adult Schools’ Jubilee, 1907.
y374_32 (c) Copyright: Explore York Libraries and Archives / City of York Council 2020.

Easy and Immediate Purchase

Many users will want to reproduce images on their websites, blogs, printed materials, and so on. The new website makes it easy to calculate costs according to your intended usage. You can also purchase images directly from the website, so downloading and using assets will be a fast and simple process. Every purchase you make will support us in our mission to preserve York’s archival heritage and promote it to future generations.

Click here to explore the new website. We hope you enjoy diving into York’s history!

The final tableau at the Historical Pageant, 1909
y_11580 (c) Copyright: City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd

Missing York? Join our Caption Challenge!

Residents and fond visitors of York, we need your help! If you are missing the sights and streets of our beautiful city during lockdown, then join our caption challenge to explore it in photographs! We have 900 images of York in need of identification and dating (approximate dates are fine). Drawing on the collective knowledge of our community, we will then upload the photographs onto our new Explore York Images website, sharing more of York’s unique history with the world.

Copyright: Explore York Libraries and Archives / City of York Council 2020.

Some of the photographs are easy to identify, some are not so easy. This will be a great way to test how well you know York! In some cases there will already be information on the image – for example, we may have the name of the building but not the street. In other cases, there will be no identifying information at all.

How to join the challenge

We will be releasing 100 new images a week (on Wednesdays) over the next 9 weeks – starting 29 April.

If you are not a member of Flickr, then you will need to join here to add comments.

You can view the images by visiting our Flickr gallery here. Once you are a member of Flickr, you will be able to participate.

You can add information about any of the photographs by clicking on the image and using the comment box below. Feel free to add whatever useful information you can. Do you know something about a business that appears in an image? Do you recognise any people or a particular building? Most importantly, where is it and when was it taken?

To share your progress, you can Tweet us at @YorkArchivesUK and use any of the following hashtags #captionchallenge #missingyork #exploreMORE #LibrariesFromHome

Thank you and good luck!

Trainee Thursday: Bridging the Digital Gap.

© City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd.
Image ref: y97_6862_f

In 2018, The National Archives launched the first cohort of Bridging the Digital Gap (BDG) trainees. The traineeship was developed to address a skills gap in the sector, but also to contribute to something more ambitious: the vision of a disruptive digital archive. Established archival practices have naturally been shaped by the physical records they aim to protect. Rather than digitally simulating these practices, The National Archives aims to “fundamentally rethink archival practice from first principles”. They intend to create a second-generation digital archive that is “digital by instinct and design”.

BDG trainees are effectively an embodiment of this disruption. None of the trainees are archivists; we have no practices to unpick. We all entered archives (some for the first time) with diverse backgrounds but two things in common: digital experience and an interest in archives. Everything we learn is built on the foundation that digital preservation is an essential archival practice.[1] Even if an archive only holds physical records, the archivists are using computers to catalogue, engage users, and correspond with depositors. Whether you can read this blog in years to come will essentially depend on digital preservation (including generous appraisal). We are all, to some degree, digital archivists. But Bridging the Digital Gap doesn’t just draw connections between archives and digital preservation. It makes archiving instinctively digital; it collapses the gap by design.

© your123 / Adobe Stock

In October 2019, the second group of BDG trainees entered the archives. Four in London and four in Yorkshire. I am fortunate to count myself amongst this cohort, and I am doubly fortunate to be seconded to York. (How can you fail to feel blessed when your commute involves riverside cycles or medieval walls?) I studied English Literature at the University of York a few years ago and will always associate York with that period of growth. But Yorkshire was never just a backdrop to an academic experience. It unlocked it. Knotty paragraphs unravelled as I ran along the Ouse. Ideas landed on long rambles through fields. Dissertation panic dissolved in a euphoric cycle down Rosedale’s Chimney Bank and an agonising ride (on ancient/broken bikes) between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay. I dived into Yorkshire and surfaced revived. I learnt that often all we need is an alternative perspective, an opportunity to engage with obstacles differently.

We are typically encouraged to conceive of technology (and most other things) in a binary and oppositional way. Paperbacks versus Paperwhite. Letters versus emails. Man versus robots. And yet, Kindle didn’t eradicate books, nor did Audible. They just enabled more people to read. Likewise, digital archives don’t threaten physical ones, they just consolidate their content and extend their reach. Technology, when used effectively, is exceptionally good at improving access: a fundamental archival principle.

Similarly, for the archive sector to be open and adaptable, it requires alternative access points. A master’s qualification might unlock entry for one person, whilst creating an insurmountable barrier for another. I glimpsed into the archival world when researching the Hogarth Press. But I couldn’t find a way into the workforce. I couldn’t afford a master’s in Archives and Record Management and I couldn’t see another way in. I started working as a freelance writer and learnt about SEO. I built rudimentary websites and tried teaching myself code. I stopped being fearful of digital technology (I am an old soul millennial) and recognised its potential. Two years later, I encountered this traineeship, and everything connected. I crossed the bridge into archives, and I brought my digital experience with me.

© City of York Council / Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd.
© your123 / Adobe Stock

In the following posts, I will be recounting my time as a BDG trainee and ruminating on the realm of digital archives. I’ll release my posts on Thursdays, for the sake of alliteration, but not every week. (Adaptability being a core principle of digital preservation!) For now, I want to thank York for having me and The National Archives for reconnecting us. Of the many things I’ve learnt on this traineeship, one thing underlies them all: access and connection are vital. I am so grateful for being granted both.  

Frances Bell @inawildflower

[1] The terms digital preservation and digital stewardship tend to be used interchangeably. ‘Digital stewardship’ draws from the environmental movement to embed the idea that archives collect, hold, and evolve records for future generations. I am using ‘digital preservation’ because the term has more widespread use. However, it is worth keeping the values of stewardship in mind when discussing this practice.

Read about some of the fascinating research being carried out on our recently catalogued  Poor Law records…our guest blogger from Clements Hall Local History Group tells us about their project.


Relieving officer

What was it like to be poor in 19th century York?  Clements Hall Local History Group is using recently catalogued Explore York Poor Law records to better understand how poverty was experienced – and to give a voice to the poor themselves.

The focus is on one parish – St Mary’s Bishophill Junior, an area both inside and outside the city walls. Researchers are looking at records of three periods: 1839-43, 1859-63, and 1879-83. The project aims to identify a sample of individuals, and attempt to track them through their lives. It is hoped to assemble a number of life stories which detail contact with the relief system, including any periods in the workhouse.

To claim relief a person had to have the right of settlement in a parish administered by York Poor Law Union. Settlement was conferred by various means including birth, marriage, residence in an area for a particular time, employment, and through various property qualifications. The project is interested in anyone applying for relief for whom St Mary’s Bishophill Junior was responsible. For example, in 1837 Joseph Spink (40) was an unemployed whitesmith living in the Shambles. A widower with four children – George, Joseph, Mary Ann and Henry – he was awarded eight shillings relief. The 1851 census records Henry as fifteen, a servant, living in Bishophill with his grandparents John and Mary Tempest.

The project aims to place an individual’s experience in context: how did the parish deal with its poor, and how much did it spend? Was a child on relief more likely to grow up to be an adult on relief ?  How did a large family – or bereavement – affect reliance on relief?

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Explore has one of the best collections of post-1834 out-relief records in the country. Out-relief allowed people to receive relief in their own homes, rather than enter the workhouse. Application and Report Books (PLU/3/1), catalogued by ecclesiastical parish, offer a wealth of data for research: name of claimant plus address, age, marital status, occupation (e.g. charwoman, soldier’s wife; shoemaker) and any disability. They also give the reason for seeking relief, whether relief is temporary or permanent, and details of relief from other sources such as charities. Where relief is in cash, the value and length of period of relief is noted. If in kind – for example, flour, tea or candles – quantities and period are recorded.

Outdoor Relief Lists (PLU/3/2) are also being mined. These name paupers, and total relief received weekly, plus amounts received per quarter and half year. The Lists  have statistical columns; for example, for gender, marital status, children and vagrants.

These sources are supplemented for project research by other Poor Law Union records such as Board of Guardian minute books. The role of the Relieving Officer can be explored by a 19th century Manual for Relieving Officers. (PLU11/5/4/9) Census data, birth, marriage and death registers, and Ordnance Survey maps for 1836, 1852 and 1889 are among other useful sources.

Project volunteers have benefited from training from archivist Julie-Ann Vickers who  also prepared a series of useful short guides to Poor Law records. Further training was provided by Kate Gibson, University of Sheffield.

For further details of the project contact e:

The Clements Hall project coincides with a three year University of Leicester/The National Archives (TNA) research project is examining poverty across England and Wales. ‘In their own write: contesting the New Poor law 1834-1900’ will use a sample of thousands of letters written by paupers to give their own point of view.

You can read about the project at

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