Ware and tear – The challenges of cataloguing a large solicitors archive

This week I wanted to share the journey of one of our archive cataloguing projects and how we made a 78 box collection accessible to the public for the first time.

Our volunteers work incredibly hard and you’ve heard from and about them in our earlier blog posts and on social media. They dedicate their time to us every Thursday in the Archives Reading Room at York Explore.

One of the largest community collections to have been brought back on-site was Ware & Co Solicitors. It’s a complex legal collection with documents relating to a wide range of Yorkshire families, properties and businesses.

The challenge was how to organise such a large collection with so many different parts. The records themselves were also quite challenging as they date back to 1554 so can be difficult to read and interpret without specialist skills.

Volunteers enjoying historical legal documents, complete with wax seal!

Initially we thought that it might prove to be an easy collection, despite it’s size, as there was an old printed list and most of the boxes were labelled. We set the volunteers off checking items in the boxes against the list. The complexity of the records and the list meant this was slow going and we all started to feel like we were never going to get anything done! Families, properties and business were all mixed up together, often in poor condition, with many items not appearing at all on the original list.

So we needed a new approach. The work the volunteers had done so far had given us a good idea of the types of records and their condition but it wasn’t sustainable to keep working at such a detailed level.

Our new system was to first come up with an arrangement for the collection. We printed out the names of 67 families as well as 15 properties and businesses and set the volunteers the challenge of matching up the boxes to the names. Once all the boxes had been assigned a name, this gave us a starting point for writing catalogue entries. We chose to keep the descriptions brief as almost all of the collection consisted of the same types of legal records.

The volunteers, who by this time had a lot of experience using the collection, recorded the key details about the items including covering dates and a brief description of the documents.

We also set our volunteer Richard the task of discovering more about each family. The information he found was especially important as some of these families have played a key role in the history and development of the local area.

In just 4 weeks…that’s 80 hours…we had gone from a un-usable collection to one full labelled and searchable on the online catalogue. Without the support of our volunteers it would have taken one member of paid staff over 2 weeks to complete the collection…and that’s without them working on anything else!

The now organised Wares Solicitors collection. Searchable on the online catalogue at Ref no. WSC

The now organised Wares Solicitors collection.  Ref no. WSC

We learnt a valuable lesson on this project, that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tacking an archive cataloguing project, and it’s something we’ll take forward to the rest of the archive team as we build a lasting legacy to the Gateway to History project.

The full collection will be searchable via the online catalogue w/c 21st September with the reference no. WSC For further information about this collection please email jennifer.mcgarvey@exploreyork.org.uk.

The Community archive collections are coming!

January 5th is fast approaching and the whole team is busy preparing York Explore for opening. Right now a team of library and archive staff are hard at work stocking the shelves and preparing archive collections.

Preparing the archives has been a process that Francesca, Georgie and I have been working on since August and we were all so excited when we got a huge scale delivery from Deepstore two weeks ago. It was the first time since I started my job back in January that I had actually seen the community collections I manage.

The archives arrived from Deepstore, who are based in the salt mines in Cheshire

The archives arriving from Deepstore from the salt mines in Cheshire where the archives have been kept safely while we built our strongroom.

We had around 300 boxes delivered, most of which were Civic records to be processed by Justine but it also included some previously inaccessible community collections. We haven’t had everything sent back as we are doing this gradually to make sure that the collections we make accessible are catalogued and properly packaged.

The first of the community collections safely on shelves in the strongroom

The first of the community collections safely on shelves in the strongroom

Due to the hard work, and a real team effort, we’re pleased to announce that so far we have 15 community collections ready for researchers to use when our doors open.  Justine is hard at work making sections of the Civic archive ready, which will form the bulk of the archives ready for use.

Here’s a taster of what community collections you’ll be able to discover:

  • The York Art Society
  • York Rugby League Club
  • York Musical Theatre Society
  • Boy Scouts Association York
  • York Educational Settlement
  • Cundall Family Papers and Photographs

The Boy Scouts collection is full of exciting finds including loads of troop photographs and log books!

All of the collections we have available will be searchable via the Library catalogue and we’re currently working on a programme of work which will allow us to continue making collections accessible gradually throughout 2015. We’re creating a Pinterest board to showcase these collections, similar to the one we have for our First World War material. We’ll also be sharing collection updates via our website and here on the blog.

Finally, I just wanted to say a huge thanks to Georgie who is a Reading and Learning Advisor at York Explore. She came across to this project on secondment to gain archive experience and she has been responsible for half of the collections we’re making accessible in January. You’ll probably see Georgie around the library as she is returning to her previous role and will be working in all areas of the library and archive service.

Georgie, complete with high viz working on one of our collections

Georgie complete with high viz working on one of our collections

Francesca has been responsibe for the other half of the collections and you’ll also see her and myself around as she’ll be working with me throughout 2015 to deliver outreach activities. I’ll be blogging shortly with more details about what you can expect to see from the Gateway to History project next year.

We’ll see you in January!

An archaeologist in the archives

Hello! I’m Francesca – the new Community Collections Assistant working on the York: Gateway to History project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. For the next six months I will be working alongside Sarah (Community Collections and Outreach Archivist) where I will be making a start on cataloguing our community archive collections whilst also identifying where these can be used for outreach and engagement projects in the future.

Me at the end of my first week at Explore!

Me at the end of my first week at Explore!

Before coming to explore I worked at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, designing and delivering outreach projects such as Who Were the Aero Girls? – so I look forward to using my experience to promote Explore’s fantastic collections!

Firstly I have a confession to make – although having worked with archives, I’m not an archivist. I’m really an archaeologist by training, so my interests mainly lie in reconstructing the everyday lives of people in the past by using the objects they left behind. But archives fit into this really well. Rather than being hunched over in a muddy trench in torrential rain, I now get to ‘dig’ through archives containing historical papers, correspondence, books, photographs (and more) to reconstruct past lives instead. It’s every bit as interesting but a little more comfortable!

One of my first tasks here at Explore is to help create a WW1 pop-up exhibition in partnership with the York Alternative History Group to accompany their autumn film programme at the York City Screen. It is my job to dig up some interesting local stories that will highlight the effect the war had on the people of York themselves.

Me and Gary Craig from the York Alternative History Group exploring our collection at Yorkcraft. Here we are looking through our collection on conscientious objectors which includes photographs, postcards and other correspondence.

Me and Gary Craig from the York Alternative History Group exploring our collection at Yorkcraft. Here we are looking through our collection on conscientious objectors which includes photographs, postcards and other correspondence.

Yesterday I met with Gary Craig from the York Alternative History group to have a rummage through our collections and uncover some of these stories. It was fascinating to see how much of a ‘war’ was being fought at home as well as on the front lines. There are numerous accounts of people losing their livelihoods due to rationing and new legislation, or losing their homes as a result of the Zeppelin raids. There are also records about conscientious objectors, in particular William Varley who was imprisoned as a result of his refusing to obey military orders. Some of these stories we hope to tell in our pop-up exhibition.

I will keep you updated with my progress on the exhibition and other projects I will be working on at Explore so stay tuned to the blog and our twitter feed – I look forward to updating you soon!

The York Alternative History Group’s Remembering World War I film season runs from August 4th – November 24th at the York City Screen. For more information see the flyer below. Tickets can be booked on the York City Screen website .

CityScreen Flyer

Lucky Dip #7 – Debtors’ Account Books

It’s time for another Lucky Dip! Aisle 7 contains various types of court records, which have been catalogued under the “F” class. Court records are not part of my cataloguing project, but have a place in the new structure that they will be put into later. I selected this box off the shelf… “Debtor’s Prisoners Account books.”

1 box of records - debtors prisoners' accounts

1 box of records – debtors prisoners’ accounts

At first glance I assumed it would be accounts for the running of the debtors prison, but as the label says, it is the accounts of the prisoners themselves. When debtors were taken to court for defaulting (in York this was either at the Guildhall or the Castle) their business accounts were inspected as part of the process. As you can see, they were not always returned!

We have several boxes of these accounts, which are a window into the everyday dealings of business folk in York. This box is from the 1830s. They were not created as civic records, but entered the custody of the council as evidence in the legal process.

Out of the pile of books, I picked the top left one to look at in more detail to see what these records have to offer us.

The notebook is around modern A5 size

The notebook is around modern A5 size

This is the cash book of Henry Holmes, Miller, 1836-1838. Physically it is very different from the official corporate records we have had for most Lucky Dips.  You can see that is a small notebook of paper pages, card boards, a parchment wrapper and a nice little clasp, that has the options of three different holes to use as the notebook expands in use.

The plate with the holes on has come off, but was still slipped in the cover, so I put it back to show what it would have been like

The plate with the holes on has rusted off, but was still slipped in the cover, so I put it back to show what it would have been like

It has been annotated on the back by the court, like all these notebooks, with the name of the debtor (some of the others also have the date of their court appearance). I don’t know how I’d feel about the court scrawling all over my nice notebook, they even wrote upside down!

The label added by the court - Henry Holmes' case was at the Castle, not the Guildhall

This writing was added by the court – we learn that Henry Holmes’ case was at the Castle, not the Guildhall

Inside, the book lists all the orders of the miller – who and what he is selling to individual customers. From this page you can see the  types of grains that he milled and sold by the imperial bushel: wheat, barley, oats .This is a great primary source for his trade in this period.


A double page spread of orders, grouped by customer

However, what’s even better is that as well as his customers, he also kept in this book the bills that he paid to others (or not, if he ended up in court for debt!) These have been kept in a little pocket in the book. I tipped these out and looked through to see what I could find.

Who can resist filling a pocket in a notebook with receipts!

Who can resist filling a pocket in a notebook with receipts!

There is a whole mixture of transactions recorded here, from hay and coal deliveries to the purchase of a coat, and repairs to the leather belts that drove his mill. The bills and receipts vary from pre-printed forms to barely legible jottings from other tradesmen.

Here are the tiny folded receipts - the open one is for a new coat.

Here are the tiny folded receipts – the open one is for a new coat.

This bill, for lengthening a leather mill strap, has been "settled" - paid - and so wasn't the reason why he was up in court.

This bill, for lengthening a leather mill strap by three feet, has been “settled” – paid – and so wasn’t the reason why he was up in court.

Just by using this one book as a historical source, you could piece together a picture of how this miller ran his business and interacted with the city around him. Using all these books in this series together allows a more complex picture to be built up of local trading networks.

Part of this work has already been done at the archives. This particular collection, part of accession 203, has been listed at item level by volunteers, and a database of customers with over 4000 entries has been created. Some have also been cross referenced with entries in the York Herald. This is exactly the kind of highly detailed information that we have about some parts of our collection, that has been gained over time by close study, but is currently hidden away.

acc 203 debtors lucky dip 7

So, at the moment we have a detailed list and database, but a user walking into our searchroom has no easy way of knowing that these account books exist at all unless they ask someone who happens to know! That is why this project is necessary, because it will place individual records in a bigger picture, or map, of the collection, and make them easier to find.

Once a user knows individual series exist, then they can make use of the hundreds of detailed lists that we already have, and get the benefit of research by staff and volunteers over the decades. It’s the perfect example of why archival cataloguing needs to start at the general before moving to the specific, why we need to share the gist of the whole before focusing on the parts.

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!

When a ‘tache was for life, not just for Movember

It’s that time of year again when family members, colleagues and friends cast aside their regular grooming habits in aid of mens’ health charities and grow a moustache for Movember. This spectacular seems to be growing in popularity every year, offering men carte blanche to experiment with their facial hair without scaring off their nearest and dearest.

My dad has gone back to his trusted David Seamen tache from the 80s’, but looking around you can see a variety of styles, many evocative of a particular place or historical period.

So for today’s post I’m going to share with you a collection of moustaches from our fair city of York from 1880s-1920s. It’s interesting to see from the group photos when moustaches were ubiquitous, and when they were more about personal taste and expression.


Close-up from group Police photograph, c.1888

Let’s kick off with this recently re-discovered gem from the archive, which appears to show members of the York police force around 1888. Facial hair was most definitely “in” ! This is a wonderful photo, hopefully we will be able to be identify some of the individuals by cross referencing the numbers on their collars with other records we have in the civic archive.


Aldermen Dodsworth, Sheriff of York 1897

Here we have another York character, Aldermen Dodworth, Sherriff of York at the time. Complementing his chain of office he has cultivated a snazzy moustache as benefited a civic gentlemen.


Moustaches were not just for police and officials, here we have a great photo of workers from the Terry’s confectionery factory taken sometime in the early 1900s.  A couple of them are clearly too young to “Mo”.

Terry’s workers from the packing department at Clementhorpe, early 1900s


York has a strong tradition of amateur dramatics – these gents are dressed as royalist civil war soldiers for the 1909 historical pageant.

This is a bit of a cheat! It’s clearly not a photo of actual civil war royalist soldiers, but was taken at the highly successful 1909 York historical pageant. Clearly moustaches were seen as part of the necessary costume – I can’t quite tell which are real and which are fake (click to zoom in) but there seems to be a mixture.


Edward, Prince of Wales and the Lord Mayor in May 1923.

The ultimate accessory for both casual and formal scenarios, this image shows the Lord Mayor, a jeweller, dazzling Edward Prince of Wales with his majestic mo. I love how the Lord Mayor is taking up the red carpet, so the Prince has to walk along the edge!

That’s it for the archives this Movember, and remember you’ve just two days left to snap a picture of the mo’s around you this month to record for posterity before they disappear on the 1st of December. Let’s see if we can confuse historians of the future…

Lucky Dip #4 – Chamberlains’ account books 1666-1679

Aisle 4 contains some of our older civic records. Let me introduce you to Lucky Dip #4 – Chamberlains’ account books 1666-1679 [CB 26].

Chamberlains' Account Book Volume 26 1666-1679

Chamberlains’ Account Book, Volume 26, 1666-1679 [CB 26]

The Chamberlains kept the official City accounts, and the post goes back at least as far as 1290 in York. We have two major series of their records, known as the Chamberlains’ books and Chamberlains’ rolls.

The rolls (1398-1835, with gaps) are the “official” audited accounts, and were signed off once a year, whereas the books (1446-1835, with gaps) were everyday records and contain more detail and bits and pieces such as receipts and bills.

Lucky Dip #4 records money in, money out, savings, investments and charity accounts of the City of York during part of the reign of Charles II. It’s so information-rich that any page is fascinating, but here are a couple to show a range of transactions.

In order to spend money, the City had to first receive money. Listed on this page are some of the “casual receipts” for miscellaneous income in 1668. These include interest on bonds, and one resident’s payment to become a freeman.

"Casual Receipts"

“Casual Receipts” – click to get to the massive image you can zoom into

If the City chose you to be an officer, like Sheriff, you either had to accept the appointment or pay hefty fine to avoid it. As being an officer was not only a faff but could cost a lot of your own money (which you may or may not manage to claim back), many people paid the fine to avoid it. This was a substantial amount of income for the City, who sometimes took advantage of it by targeting their nominations to those they knew would prefer (and could afford!) to pay up.

In March 1668 they managed to get an impressive total of £60 off two candidates in the space of a week! That was a lot of money, and such fines for exoneration from office were a substantial portion of city income for centuries.

Close up of text

The fines were sometimes fixed and sometimes varied – for some reason John Paylin paid twice as much as Andrew Hessletine to get out of being a Sheriff!

So what did they spend it on? Like today, part of the money was spent on setting up young people in apprenticeships, another portion paid the people who kept the public administration running, such as the mayor, common clerk, cook, baker and caretaker:

Quarterly salaries paid for the running of the common chamber including the mayor and caretaker.

Daily expenses were varied, seen below for the month of January 1668/69. Payments went to a messenger delivering a letter, a lawyer for drawing up a petition, a porter for carrying coal to the council chamber, and slightly worryingly, “To the tipstaves [sherrif’s officials] for whipping people openly and privately” – presumably to do with the corporation’s responsibility for crime and punishment.

Payments made in January 1666/67

Payments made in January 1668/69

But not all the money could be spent on local matters. York had national responsibilities to send money up to the king. Lucky Dip #4 has several examples of these taxes, particularly for wars, via the expenses claimed by the sheriffs for collecting it.

Close up of text

Entry for paying the sheriffs’ expenses to collect the royal assessment for war funds.

So that’s the content of the record, but what happened after it was no longer in current use? All physical objects have a history of their own, and a significant point for these accounts was the flood of 1892 when the records came to the attention of William Giles. As well as writing his catalogue he also sorted and arranged the records (just like I am doing 100 years later, albeit differently) and sent some to be conserved and rebound at the Public Record Office in London.

The codex we are looking at would not have been familiar to its original authors as it has been altered in the 19th and 20th centuries. The volume is actually made up from a number of smaller volumes, which have been bound together with a new PRO binding and titlepages.

Open volume with modern title page

Can you see the different sized quires bound together into one composite volume?

You can easily see where books of different sizes have been put together. We are lucky they didn’t cut them down to fit and look neater which sometimes happens!

We see Giles as a bit of a hero, but his actions were not purely beneficial. Whilst he arranged for the records to be professionally conserved by experts of the day,  some of their methods of conservation proved damaging in the long run.

We can see it here where some of the pages have been discoloured to a dark yellow.  This page isn’t too bad as the text is dark but for some pages in our older records it is almost impossible to read what’s written.

Open volume with one yellow page and one white page

The page on the left was conserved in Giles’ time and has gone yellow since.

Modern conservators now follow a principle that all work should be reversible. Parts of Lucky Dip #4 were conserved again, to modern standards, using high quality acid free paper to stabilise the pages and make it clear which bits are original and which are additions. It was attached with starch-based glue so it can be removed with water if required.

Page with modern conservation repairs with white paper.

Modern conservation paper stabilisation of a fragmented page.

I’m really fascinated by the journey of physical items, on top of the informational value they contain. It really is like archaeology; you search for clues and look at different layers to put a story together. Nowadays we help out our successors by keeping records about our records, recording exactly what we have done to an item “on our watch”.

As I re-catalogue the archives I will give them new reference numbers, but the older ones will still be recorded on the catalogue entry. This means old and new references will still match up and this chapter is only one of many in the 350 year old chain of custody (all within the City of York Council) from the clerks who wrote them, via Giles and his contemporaries to us in the early 21st century and beyond.