Taking Stock of ‘A City Making History’

Phase 1 not included as it was the recruitment phase before I got here

Phase 1 not included as it was the recruitment phase before I got here

It’s now week 33 of this project, and I thought it would be a good time to take a step back and look at what I’ve done so far. I’m going to give a recap of Phases 2-4 of the project and then talk about what I’m doing for Phase 5 over the next four weeks. Obviously the work below only represents a portion of what I do in any given week as I have communications responsibilities too, but these fit around the core cataloguing project which drives the timetable.

(Phase 1 was the recruitment phase before I got here, so is not part of my remit!)

Phase 2 – Orientation and Research (8 weeks) 

This was where I arrived and got up to speed on the history of York and the archive. It was a very useful phase that is sometimes overlooked in archive projects but has paid off many times since, as it gave me a solid grounding in the knowledge and resources that are available and that I need to be able to do my job.

Phase 3 – Sub-Fonds and Structure (10 weeks) 

Having got the gist, I then spent time working out what records I could expect to find by looking at the council, not the records. I chose to use a functional structure, instead of an organisational one, and divided the civic archive fonds into 13 sections, sub-fonds. This created the big picture overview of the whole collection.

Phase 4 – Authority files (12 weeks (+ Christmas hol))

This was not part of the original project plan because the importance of the authority files only emerged after we started. As a functional structure was chosen, another way of capturing context and provenance was required so I researched and constructeda web of interconnected authority files in our CALM database.

Phase 5 – Move and Cataloguing Prep

That’s taken us up to now, Phase 5, which is going to be a short (4 week) but vital phase to initiate the switch between the intellectual and theoretical work, and the physical cataloguing. Processing 210 cubic metres of archives would be challenging enough if it was business as usual here at the archive, but due to the art gallery refurbishment and the success of our HLF lottery bid we have to completely evacuate this building in a few months time. Eek.

So what happens to me and the civic archive? I am going to be moved, along with part of the material, to a local storage facility. Some of the collection is going further afield to conservation-grade archival storage for the rest of the year and so will be inaccessible for the duration of my project.

So what I need to do in the next 4 weeks is spend time in the strong rooms assessing the archive and carving it up into blocks of material. I also need to decide what to do to each block of material and when. A key aspect of MPLP is not cataloguing everything to the same level of detail without any thought, but instead evaluating what is actually needed in each case for better public access. Some parts of the archive (like the minute books) are relatively straightforward so can be processed first and put into storage. Other bits such as the Town Clerks series are very chaotic and will need to come with me to I can physically work on them.

Quite a challenge then, but an exciting phase as I get stuck into working in the strongrooms, applying my understanding of the council’s functions and recordkeeping systems to the physical task of evaluating and sorting material. Having a time pressure does make it more stressful, but should help me to keep on track. There will be upsets and surprises no doubt, but by this stage I feel equipped to deal with whatever comes up. Bring it on!

If you’d like to come and see the old archives in Exhibition Square before the move, we have some afternoon spaces left on our Residents Festival tours this Saturday. Tours are free and last half an hour, they just need booking in advance at any library.

Lucky Dip #5 – Chamberlains’ vouchers 1799-1801

Archive boxes on shelves with temporary labels

It’s snowing outside, not that you can tell.

Time to kick off the new year with a brand new lucky dip. Aisle 5 now, which consists of documents packaged in archive boxes, rather than loose on the shelves (hurrah)!

Here’s the one I picked, with a mysterious temporary label that says “CV – Vouchers 1799-1801.”

Lucky Dip #5

Lucky Dip #5

It's like Christmas in January...

It’s like Christmas in January…

Opening it up, we see bundles of paper receipts, in years from 1799 to 1801. They are in neither original nor modern preservation grade packaging, but bear the distinctive labels of material processed in Giles’ era (c.1900). These bundles are listed (by year, not in detail) in the Giles catalogue under C class.

So what have we got here? Let’s dive in and see! I picked the bundle already opened so as not to wrestle with century-old string.

Note the non-archival quality brown paper wrapping. This will have to be repackaged.

Note the acidic brown paper wrapping. This will have to be repackaged.

Inside we find small pieces of creamy18th-century rag paper, consisting of receipts and invoices. Whilst the accounts in Lucky Dip #4 record transactions in a formal way, these are the actual bills and invoices written by those providing goods and services to the council, often in their own hand, with additional notes by the Chamberlains that payment was made, and sometimes even with receipts of payment glued onto them.

They are in date order, let’s have a look what was happening in the winter of that year.

Invoice for banquet with printed decoration

Banquet invoice from Thomas Walker

The reverse of the invoice, with authorisation on one end, and Chamberlain's note on the other.

The reverse of the invoice, with authorisation on one end, and Chamberlain’s note on the other.

One that caught my eye was this printed bill, which is for catering some kind of event – drinks, food and servants. Turning it over, a note is written that it is for the Sessions dinner and it has been authorised by three members of the Corporation including the mayor, just like we would expect modern expenses claims to be authorised.

Other items are less visually impressive but reveal insight into city history. I noticed a few mentioning New Walk, which was the riverside walk opened up as part of an attempt to beautify the city and encourage visitors in the 1730s. You can read about it in the VCH here.

Three invoices for labour on New Walk

Three invoices for labour on New Walk

It clearly took upkeep to maintain as in this bundle there are regular invoices for labourers’ wages working on New Walk – a chilly job at this time of year! The invoices are all written by one hand, a foreman representing or employing several labourers. It doesn’t say what work specifically they were doing but lists their names and the days they worked.

Opened out invoice with itemised charges for labourers

Opened out invoice with itemised charges for labourers

To find out more, I kept looking to see what other supplies might be required and  lo and behold we have an invoice for the purchase of elm trees in December from a man of Telford. I wonder if these were to replace trees which had died or been damaged since the 1730s, or for an extension.

Bill for elm trees

Bill for elm trees – like the others, this bill was folded and labelled by the chamberlains.

Bill for elm trees supplied or two dates. I wonder how large is "large" and how they transported them here.

Bill for elm trees supplied on two dates. I wonder how large is “large” and how they transported them here.

These records of business transaction on the micro level, are authentic unique sources of the little actions that go into maintaining and developing a city like York over the centuries. I could happily sit for hours and read through this box, and the great thing is that so could anyone. They are written in English, the handwriting is cursive but generally straightforward and there is no reason at all why you couldn’t order up a box and browse through for leisure, or to look for specific information on certain types of expenditure.


Pink tape – an archive weed!

A postscript: You see the pale pink tape that ties this bundle? Pink  legal tape was used to tie up bundles of records and makes archivists shudder because the dye is unstable and runs if it gets wet. I havn’t seen it quite so faded before though, perhaps this was caused by flooding? Paper and ink from this period could survive a wetting, but maybe the pink dye leaked out in one of the flooding incidents in the 19th century. This is pure speculation, but another reminder of the avenues of exploration you can find yourself in by looking at physical records!