Getting to Grips with Criminal Histories…

Me enjoying the Gaolers' journals

Me enjoying the Gaolers’ journals

Hi, I’m Jenny McGarvey and I’ve been here at York Explore doing a part-time placement for the past 10 weeks. I am currently studying an MA in Public History at the University of York, and have been lucky enough to do this placement as part of the course.

Today marks the end of my 10-week placement with York Explore and I can honestly say that I could not have asked for a more exciting, enjoyable and informative experience.

The aim of my placement was to research and get to grips with the court records held at York Explore, and produce outreach tools to encourage public interest. My final products will be used once the court records are available for public use- and believe me; once they are people should form an orderly line as there are some real gems to be discovered in the records, as I have quickly come to learn!

Books, books... and even more books!

Books, books… and even more books!

Originally knowing absolutely nothing about the history of crime and punishment, I arrived on my first day feeling a mixture of excited and daunted, unsure about where my journey would take me. But the welcome I received soon put my mind at rest and I eased into the task in front of me. For the first week of placement, I immersed myself in books, websites and anything I could find that would teach me about crime and punishment. It was a topic that I began to love.

Delving into the archive boxes...

Delving into the archive boxes…

I then set about trawling through the many (and I mean many!) boxes full of archive material relating to the court records. As I opened box after box, it became clear to me how fascinating the records are. Having initially become too immersed in the detail and stories covered by the records, I took a step back and focused on the task in hand; to create a resource discovery report to outline the contents of the records.

One of the documents I enjoyed reading

One of the documents I enjoyed reading

Another task was to create some form of ‘window’ on to the records as a way of introducing them to the public. After getting a glimpse at the wonderful collection of maps held here at the archives, I knew straight away that I wanted to use them in some way for my resource. I finally settled on the idea of creating a presentation based on old maps of York to tell personal stories of people I had come across in the court records.

One of the maps included in the presentation

One of the maps included in the presentation

I would use PowerPoint to create my presentation on “A Brief History of Crime and Punishment in the City of York”, and the finished product will be displayed on the screens that are dotted around York Explore and the local libraries.

Just some of the extraordinary maps help at York Explore

Me enjoying the extraordinary maps help at York Explore

Creating my presentation took me back to the archive boxes, excited to discover intriguing stories to include. I unearthed petty thefts, servant girls heading down dangerous paths, elaborate prisoner conspiracies to escape and even murderous crusades of revenge.

The Gaolers' Journals

The Gaolers’ Journals

My favourite part of my research process has to have been discovering the Gaoler’s journals (Y/ORD/1/2). These were absolutely captivating reads and were effectively diaries kept by the Gaolers of their everyday activities within York Castle Prison. They detailed many prison goings-on; from intakes of prisoners, executions, and prisoner punishments, to female prisoners giving birth (a surprisingly regular occurrence!), inmate rivalries and of course, the story that has come to be one of my favourites- that of a prisoner conspiracy to tie up the prison guards and escape in the dead of night. These fabulous reads have provided me with many a moment’s entertainment throughout my time here!

The finished resource is a 91-page interactive PowerPoint that both teachers and pupils can use.

The opening slide of the presentation that will be displayed on the screens around York Explore

The opening slide of the learning resource that will be used as an aid to the teaching of crime and punishment

Another outcome of my placement was the creation of a learning resource that could be used to aid the teaching of crime and punishment. I did this by adapting the original presentation designed for the screens at York Explore, with a view to it being used for Key Stages 2 and 3. This was a very thought-provoking process as I had to take into account lots of different factors, such as how to adapt my writing style to suit this new audience, and how to develop it so that it reflects the National Curriculum. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process involved in creating the resource, and it has certainly taught me a lot more than I ever thought it would.

From the initial opening up of archive boxes...

From the initial opening up of archive boxes…

Having begun my archive journey with no knowledge whatsoever about crime and punishment, and very little experience of archives besides a bit of research for essays, I have come out the other side of my placement with a passion for both criminal histories and archives.

The court records have had me hooked. I hope my resources show this passion, as they are the reason behind what will most likely be a lifelong interest in criminal histories. For anyone considering accessing the records once they become available, be warned: once you’ve started reading them you won’t be able to stop! reading about prisoner conspiracies!

…to becoming a criminal history enthusiast!

The First World War in our archive collections


2014 marks the start of the centenary commemorations for the First World War which will be taking place over the next four years. Locally there is a lot of activity in York marking this occasion, including a major new exhibition at York Castle Museum and a wide variety of community group projects such as the Poppy Road Poppy Project

So what about us? As the city archives we hold original archive material created during that period. However, you don’t find archives on a theme such as this conveniently labelled in a box all together as a collection, you have to do detective work amongst all your collections to draw out the individual treasures within.

This is what our MA placement student Lauren Bray did earlier in the year. As part of her MA programme placement at the Institute of the Public Understanding of the Past at the University of York, we set her on a resource discovery exercise to produce a guide to our collections, so we can highlight what original material we hold that can aid research and interest in the First World War. Instead of simply producing a paper booklet, she decided to trial creating a Pinterest board as a showcase. The Pinterest board is now live and available at

You don’t need a Pinterest account to see it, but if you do you can repin, comment and like individual pins.

As access to our archive collections is currently closed during the building work, we hope this can act as a shop window and taster of what types of material we have, and can be viewed in person when we reopen at the end of the year. The nature of our collections (focused on the civic archive and the archives of community groups) means that the archives relate as much to home life, as to military activity abroad. The records show how the city had to adapt quickly to the outbreak of war to solve practical issues locally, without the centralised instructions more familiar from the Second World War.


The ‘Chocolate Letters’ written by serving soldiers to the Lord Mayor in thanks for boxes of chocolate sent to the front are well known, having provided the inspiration for the play ‘Blood and Chocolate’ and are appearing at exhibitions all over the city. However, individual documents scattered over disparate collections can provide unique windows onto the local experience of the First World War in York and are important sources despite their relatively small size and number.

Did you know?

  •  Conscientious objectors in York such as William Varley were tried and incarcerated for refusing to follow military orders, such as wearing uniform

William Varley

  • Teenage Sea Scouts from York served on coastguard duty after the coastal bombardments?

 Sea Scout

  • Your house might have been hit in the Zeppelin raid in May 1916 and there might be records of a claim for war damages?


We hope you come along and see the records and our First World War exhibition once we are setup with our new facilities at York Explore, and you can get stuck in in the meantime and find out something new about the war in York by visiting and sharing our Pinterest Board.

Join us – Community Collections Assistant

I’ve some great news to share today, we’ve  opened recruitment for a brand new post on the ALH team, a community collections assistant.

We’re looking for someone to join us for 6 months (full-time) to support our community collections archivist on the York: Gateway to History project.

Our collection already includes over 150 archives created by local groups, societies, businesses and families.  These rich collections are currently only known through difficult to access typed lists of varying standards and detail.

You will pay a key role on making information on these community collections accessible online for the first time, carrying out detailed research and creating authority files – just as I did for the civic archive. You will also be involved in hands on physical processing tasks, such as packaging the archives to ensure their long term survival. We’re looking with someone who is not only interested in working with records, but people too – as you will be involved in supervising small groups of volunteers working on various tasks,  social media, blogging and awareness building such as attending local events in York.

We are looking for someone who is enthusiatic about working with archives and making them accesible to a wider audience, and has excellent literacy, numeracy and computer skills. A degree in a relevant subject area, and experience of using CALM cataloguing software are both desirable but not essential.

This post would suit someone looking for pre-qualification experience, or with an interest in heritage outreach and public history.

You’ll also be a little bit of history yourself as this is the very first new post in our new organisation, Explore York Libraries and Archives, the community benefit society providing York’s city libraries and archives service.

Sounds good? Here’s what you need to do next:

Find out more by downloading an application packfrom by navigating to the ‘Us’ section or following the link to Current Vacancies at the top of the page. If you are unable to access the website please contact or call 01904 554247 (8.00am – 4.00pm, Mon – Fri) to request an application pack quoting the job title. 

The closing date for applications is Monday 9th June 2014 at 12 noon.  Interviews will take place in York on Tuesday 1st July.

This post is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the £1.6m York: Gateway to History project.    

Ringing the changes

Hi all, it’s Justine here. Welcome to the newly tweaked City Making History blog, which I’ve rejigged and updated slightly to better reflect the archives service as a whole and where we are today, moving on from the original format of this blog as an online diary for the City Making History project.

All the original content and your comments are still here, we’ve just got a fresh look and more accurate information on the services we have going on at the moment.

I hope you like it, I think the new twitter panel down the side is a nice addition as it gives a proper look at our tweets without you needing to have a twitter account. Shiny. It’s also more easy to see who has written which post by looking at our names and job titles in the yellow tags on the left side of the screen – if you want to read posts by one person for example, just click their name for a list to choose from.

The eagle eyed among you may notice that the new design ties in with the new Explore York website, over at, with our signature light blue colour. Now we are a separate organisation from CYC we have our own website and branding that you’ll start to see more of around York as we update our buildings and services. Every household in York should have received a leaflet talking about the transfer with lots of photos so hopefully you’ll have an idea of who we are and what we are doing. The website will soon be updated to include lots of information on the new community benefit society and how you can be a member, so keep an eye out.

Thanks for following the blog for the past (nearly) two years, I hope you like the new design, just let me know if you come across any broken links or oddments and I’ll fix them as I tidy up the loose ends next week. Going forward there is going to be a post a week from one of the ALH archive team, and maybe a few sneaky extra ones when we have something we’re burning to share and can’t wait our turn. Have a nice weekend in the sun, and I’ll see you again soon.

Old dog, new tricks

Hello all, it’s Justine again. I signed off at the end of last year as my role of project archivist was coming to an end, but a permanent vacancy came up  which I successfully applied for, so here I am again wearing my new 2014 hat, Archivist (Civic & Public Records)!

Our new Archivist for Civic and Public Records, yours truly. Sadly there isn't actually a hat...

Our new Archivist for Civic and Public Records, yours truly. Sadly there isn’t actually a hat…

I still have responsibility for finalising the civic archive catalogue to make sure its ready for our service reopening at the end of this year. If you’re on twitter you will have seen that the volunteers are progressing well with the physical processing and finding lots of interest. Next I’ll have the interfaces and collections guides to work on,  to make sure we have useful resources ready.

Eileen and John used a whole 100m roll of tape to wrap volumes one day last month.

Eileen and John got through an entire 100m roll of tape wrapping volumes one day last month.

These days however I’m no longer in my project bubble but have other duties around the service. My job is to make sure that the civic archive is accessible, that public records such as coroner’s records and court records are cared for according to Public Records legislation, and to support the front of house team with enquiries.

As well as preserving and improving access to the civic and public records we already have, I’ll also be making sure that we  acquire today’s council records to form the civic archive of the future. I’ve always really enjoyed capturing the continuity between records types and council functions over the centuries, and am very chuffed that I get to keep working with these records of local life and democracy.

This is what CYC does today, and we need to capture for the sake of history

This is what CYC does today, and which we need to capture for posterity.

I’m also going to be doing more communications work this year, I will be speaking at a number of professional events for archivists including the ARA 2014 conference in Newcastle, which I’m very excited about as it’s the major UK national conference for archivists.

Disseminating the lessons of the City Making History project was always our intention, so it’s great that we can share our insights with other archive services. Hopefully it shows that theoretical approaches and ambition don’t just come from major archives, but any repository can contribute creatively to the bigger field.

So expect to hear more from me on civic and public records, now that I’m up to speed on my new job. I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts by Sarah, the new Community Collections and Outreach Archivist, and by Victoria, 2/5ths of the City Archivist. On Monday our new Public Services Manager starts, so we’ll get her to introduce herself once she’s settled in a bit.

We have a lot of behind the scenes work to do this year, so come along and stay in touch with both the obvious and the not so obvious.

The CMH project: an end and a beginning

The NCGS-funded City Making History project officially comes to an end this month, though work on the civic archive will continue as part of our preparations for reopening the archive in the improved HLF-funded spaces at York Explore in late 2014. The online civic catalogue in all its glory is intended to be one of our opening offerings.

My time is currently being spent finishing the paperwork; writing up the final report and making sure all the documentation is in place for sustainability. This is the perfect time to sum up what has been achieved by this ambitious project since June 2012, and what will be finished off in the next year.

Functional Structure

Functional structure imaged in ''

Functional structure imaged in ‘’

A major aim of this project was always to get the first big picture idea of what’s going on the civic archive, and that’s just what the big functional map has achieved. Instead of opening all the boxes and building the structure based on what I found, I instead researched what the council has done over the last 800 years and then tested it with actual documents. I have aspirations that we will be able to use this as a visual interface for browsing the catalogue, with the addition of a bit of technical wizardry…

Authority files

My IMDB of the council. An unexpected outcome of the project, but one that was vital to preserve archival context and express the provenance of documents in the collection. Every series of records will be linked to a creator, and an authority file will include facts such as the dates, functions and legal responsibilities of that creator. I get giddily enthusiastic every time I talk about authority files because they have really improved our knowledge of ourselves. There are 150 ones written at the moment, and we can keep extending those in the future.

Series-level cataloguing

This is what looks like the ‘actual’ cataloguing, but is really only the final third, after the structure and authority files. Every series is being catalogued onto CALM, our software, and linked to one or more authority files. A series can be 1 file or 20 boxes. Following a MPLP process, we are not going into any further detail everything has been done to the consistent standard, but we will add in links to existing item level information, and target new projects onto specific areas once it is done. This work is ongoing, and will carry on throughout the next year based at our York offsite storage location.

Item-level processing

Wrapping volumes to preserve them for the future

Wrapping volumes to preserve them for the future

Also going on offsite is our item-level processing, aka, the weeding and packaging of the whole collection one item, file or box at a time by our snazzy team of City Making History project volunteers. I introduced the work in my last post and everything is going well, we’ve freed up several cubic metres of space for new archives by removing unnecessary duplicates and preserved fragile 19thc registers by wrapping them in Tyvek. This work will continue alongside the cataloguing, preparing the civic collection to be used again when we reopen in 2014.

Digital and online catalogue

An important part of the NCGS project was to setup the first digital catalogue for our archive service. This has been done in software called CALM, where our cataloguing now sits beside authority files and accessions information in one big database. We originally planned to make our catalogue available online via the Archives Hub, but it is not compatible with our need to use authority files, so Helen, our E-services librarian has cleverly found a way to link it up to our main library catalogue. This is still in testing but is an exciting development that we had not previously thought possible. It will allow people to search for books, Imagine York’s historic photographs and archive material all in one place, emphasising that these original documents are an open resource for everyone who wants to see them, not just academics or celebrities on Who Do You Think You Are!

Una Stubbs visited us as part of her WDYTYA journey

Una Stubbs brought a film crew with her when she came do use our records, bu you won’t have to!

Phew it’s been a busy 17 months (a 2 month extension was added to the project due to the disruption caused by moving out of our old home at the Art Gallery,) but now we’ve built the necessary foundation for a better future for the civic archive. There is still plenty of work to be done, but all the plans and processes are in place for it to tick along, ready for our grand launch next year.

So what about the blog? As I’ve said before, it will morph into a blog for the whole service, so expect new voices and a possible change of design. Thank-you for following along this journey so far, I’ve enjoyed all your contributions very much, and though the project is formally coming to an end, the blog is going to get busier again with updates on the civic archive, the Gateway to History Project and wider work  going on everyday behind the scenes. Stay tuned and stay in touch!

Justine Winstanley-Brown
– Project Archivist –

Many hands make light work

As promised, here is an introduction to the work of the  City Making History Project volunteers – processing the civic archive at item level whilst I catalogue it at series level.

Getting to grips with the task ahead.

Day One – Getting to grips with the task ahead.

A while back I hosted a training and induction day for the volunteers to meet each other and me, find out about the project, and have a go at some of the work involved. When I asked everyone to introduce themselves we uncovered a whole spectrum of reasons for volunteering – interests in family history, local history, academic research and considering a career in archives/heritage. None of the group had volunteered with CYC libraries and archives before, though some had at other archives.

I talked about preservation, MPLP, the theory behind the project, my arrangement and description work, and then we had a nosy around the collection as a whole. It was great to see people ‘browsing’ in the strongroom, poking into boxes to get a gist for the material – something that hopefully the new catalogue will be able to replicate with its navigable structure. Then we got stuck into the practical bit…

Library colleague James carefully wrapping one of the volumes

Library colleague James carefully wrapping one of the volumes

The team are processing the collection in two ways, packaging and weeding. Different parts of the collection will require different types of packaging to protect them, so we started with wrapping large vulnerable volumes in Tyvek. The collection has lots of these nineteenth century volumes that are unboxed, and the leather is slowly deteriorating into ‘red rot’ (not actually rot but a horrible fine red dust that gets everywhere). Tyvek is a water resistant breathable membrane that protects records from accidental water damage whilst allowing the organic materials within to ‘breath’ and find equilibrium with their environment (important for paper, leather  and parchment). It also contains any red rot and dirt to prevent it being transferred onto the shelf or other records.


Everyone getting stuck in – spot the functional map in the background!

Tyvek comes in large rolls. We wrap the volumes up just like a Christmas present and tie it with acid free unbleached linen tape. We thread a temporary label onto the tape so you don’t have to open the package to see what’s inside. You can see what a difference is made with this photo of Sanitary Inspector’s Report Books below.

Before on the right and below, After top left

Before on the right and below, After, top left

The other task we’re doing is weeding the collection for duplicates. I often say to people that a vital societal function of the archivist is to throw things away! Archive space is finite and archival preservation (including simple storage) is expensive. If we kept every random scrap of paper indiscriminately we wouldn’t be able to understand, organise or navigate what we have. As we can’t keep everything, we follow professional principles to determine what has a relevant informational value or not, called appraisal. However, there is a step even before where we simply go through taking out any duplicate records:

We've kept one of each of these records, so these are the surplus.

We’ve kept one of each of these records, so these are the surplus.

Once we started going through part of the civic archive, looking for duplicates, it was amazing how much we found. This photo above shows the duplicates taken out of only 25 boxes of records about festivals in York, such as the 1900th anniversary celebrations and the 1951 festival. They are wonderful records, but we don’t need to keep 100 copies of an invitation to a luncheon with the Lord Mayor, or 10 copies of the same festival programme! Of course we keep one, but the space we free up by taking out all these unnecessary copies, will allow us to go out and collect new material so our collection continues to record the story of York.

There’s a lot of work to be done to go through all of the archive but its amazing how quickly its going with a team of focused people each gifting 3 hours of their time a week.

There will be more progress updates in the future, and hopefully guest posts from some of the volunteers themselves letting us know what they are enjoying and finding out as they go along. In the meantime we’ll be beavering away, so keep an eye on Twitter for more on the spot photos of what we find.