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23. Criminal Quilts

By Ruth Singer | @CriminalQuilts

Back in 2012 I was commissioned to make a piece of contemporary textile artwork inspired by the Shire Hall in Stafford including 18th century court buildings. I found that I was drawn to archive photographs rather than the building itself. I created a series of miniature ‘quilts’ taking inspiration from photographs of women prisoners with their hands on their chests. I was haunted by these images and found the details of their clothing intriguing. I based my work on the textile details in the images and made quilts in reference to their lack of comfort in the prison system.

I have continued to work with these images and am now Artist in Residence at Staffordshire Record Office engaging in further research into the prison photo albums and the lives of the women they show. New work will be shown in exhibitions in 2018.

Image: Work by Ruth Singer, photography by Joanne Withers and original image courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.


22. Spiritual encounters in the archive

By Alice Soulieux-Evans

An English literature student, my ‘conversion’ to history came through studying the Reformation. Yet this scholarly ‘conversion’ coincided with my coming to faith. Whilst as a historian I seek to be objective, it doesn’t mean I don’t find my research and the people I study spiritually edifying as a Christian. One of my most memorable ‘encounters’ in the archives was one such occasion, when I came across a copy of Laud’s last will and testament. Read more

21. ‘Teuerster Polte’ – letters indicating the uneven friendship between Frederick Wilhelm IV. of Prussia and Leopold von Gerlach

By Laura Achtelstetter

In the Gerlach-Family Archive in Erlangen (GER), a copy of the diaries of Leopold von Gerlach, General of the Prussian Army and aidé de campe of Frederick Wilhelm IV., can be found. The originals have been lost since the Second World War. Signature LE02776 contains letters between Frederick Wilhelm IV, his wife Elisabeth and von Gerlach. What is interesting to note is the private tone some of Frederick Wilhelm’s letters contain. As an example, he addresses his general and subject with his nickname “Polte”. This salutation is normally used by von Gerlachs family members and very close friends. One might conclude that Frederick Wilhelm saw himself as a close friend. In another letter Frederick Wilhelm refers to Leopold’s gout disease. He urges von Gerlach to take a rest and the concludes ‘Hätte Papa sein Zipperlein vor etwa 20 Jahren fröhlich aufgenommen wie ich das meine, er lebte noch!’*

Those sources are interesting, as a king referring to his father and predecessor as ‘papa’ in front of a subject is quite uncommon and indicates that Frederick Wilhelm did not always see a need to maintain a respectable distance towards Leopold von Gerlach.
*Letter nb. 26, Berlin 14 March 1852. Transl.: If papa had happily accepted his gout/ minor ailment 20 years ago, as I did, he would be still alive.


Image: Franz Krüger, ‘Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia’, 1846. Oil on canvass. Public domain via Wikimedia commons –

20. Journal of Lawrence Rowntree

By Spencer Brown 

I was helping curate a museum exhibition in York on the life of Lawrence Rowntree, grandson of the famous businessman, philanthropist and social reformer Joseph Rowntree. Lawrence died at Passchendaele in the First World War, aged just 22. He kept a journal of his time with the Friends Ambulance Unit, in which his intelligence and compassion shone through. He was repulsed and exhausted by war, but the man-of-action wrote: “The excitement of it, even the fear is enticing; the glorious feeling when you overcome difficulties you thought were insuperable, and the jolly companionship of everyone which you get in the face of a common danger, and never so truly anywhere else.” His spirit was indomitable. It is a tragedy that his life – along with so many others – was cut short in the mud at Passchendaele, and his journal was the most interesting, and poignant, text or material I have encountered in an archive.


Spencer Brown has a BA in History from Durham University and an MA in Public History from the University of York. He is a recipient of the Thouron Award and is currently studying at the University of Pennsylvania.

Image: Stretcher bearers at Passchendaele, August 1917. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons –

19. Treating mental illness in the early 20th century

By Chris Wilson (

The Father Christmas figure pictured here is Theophilus Waldmeier, a Swiss Quaker missionary based in the Levant from the 1860s until his death in 1915. Late in his life, Waldmeier began raising funds for the construction of a mental hospital at Asfuriyeh, near Beirut, which opened its doors in August 1900. Envisaged as introducing modern and humane forms of treatment for the mentally ill, Waldmeier’s own annual reports on the hospital reveal some of the tensions engendered by his approach. Waldmeier saw work as regenerative, but not everyone agreed. In 1907, he wrote: ‘when the relatives of the patients come and see them at work they do not like it, often saying, “Why does my son or daughter work? This is not right – look at their hands and feet, how hard and dirty they are”, etc., etc., but soap makes all right again.’ Well they might have complained; in the same year, the medical superintendent reported that a large raised terrace had been built on the grounds of the hospital ‘almost exclusively by patients’ labour’. Even a source as official as the annual report of a hospital, read carefully, can offer up valuable glimpses of abuse and resistance. Patient work remained important at the mental hospital at Asfuriyeh long after Waldmeier’s death, but took on very different forms to the back-breaking labour performed by patients in the opening years of the twentieth century; in 1950, to end on a more festive note,  patients were responsible for printing sketches of the hospital, which were then sold as Christmas cards.


Image: Theophilus Waldmeier, from Henry T. Hodgkin, Friends beyond seas (London, 1916), p.64. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

18. Queen Christina of Sweden’s saddle

By Valerio Zanetti

When studying early modern female horse riding, Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) is an inescapable figure to deal with. She was internationally renowned for her skilful horsemanship. However a doubt arises: did she ride astride ‘like a man’ or did she prefer a more feminine style à l’amazone? Written and visual sources provide different accounts. In my investigation I turned towards a saddle preserved at the Livrustkammaren in Stockholm. Commissioned by the queen in 1650, the year of her coronation, this was reserved for her particular use until she left Sweden in 1654. Velvets preciously embroidered with gold and silver thread were ordered especially from France to be then mounted by the court saddler Simon Jüterbock. Such saddles were employed to ride both ways, but the key to the problem is to be found in an accessory element, a half-moon shaped velvet and leather cushion. This was tied to the main body of the saddle and served to support the right leg of the rider as it was wrapped around the pommel when mounting side-saddle. Evident signs of wear provided me with clear evidence of the queen’s favourite riding style.


Image: Sébastien_Bourdon, ‘Queen Christina of Sweden on Horseback’ (1653). Oil on canvas, 383 x 291 cm. Public domain via Wikimedia Commonsébastien_Bourdon-Christina_of_Sweden_1653.jpg.

17. Digitising James Charles Dale’s letters

By Emily Tilby

During my time as an Undergraduate I spent several weeks as an intern in the Archives of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, cataloguing and digitising the letters of the prominent naturalist James Charles Dale (1792-1872). Dale’s particular interest was entomology, and his letters and notebooks give an insight into the life and work of an early 19th-century entomologist. Whilst the lists of species and their locations will perhaps be the details most useful to modern ecologists and entomologists, it was the details of every day life and the interactions between rival naturalists that I found most interesting. One particularly notable example is a description of how a rival group of entomologists tracked a friend of Dale around the country, even taking up lodgings in the same house as him, in order to keep an eye on the collecting abilities of their rival.


Image: The Lulworth Skipper, the most famous discovery by Dale. Public domain via Pixabay –

16. Archival silences

By Simone Hanebaum

In the Bodleian Library, there is a genealogical manuscript concerning the Sandford family of Shropshire. It was compiled in 1634 out of ‘the private evidences of this famylie, the publique records of the kingdome, the registers and testimonies of the office of armes, with other venerable monuments of antiquitie.’ These documents were collected by William Reyley, a ‘blewman’, which was the early modern term to describe a black man. Reyley was clearly a educated man, who could read English and possibly Latin. Sadly, the story of how an educated black man found himself in service to a seventeenth-century Shropshire family may remain a mystery. Subsequent searches for Reyley have so far come up empty. Reyley embodies the historian’s greatest frustration: the conflict between the desire to tell a story that is worth telling and the reluctant acceptance of the inability to tell it due to archival silences.

Image: Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), by Velázquez, oil on canvas, 1650. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), public domain –

15. Historical doodling

By Eva Schalbroeck

I do not come across many images in my research on the Commission for the Protection of the Native Population, a colonial advice organ in the Congo. I have been through endless reports without encountering a single one and finding some is genuinely a real treat. My favourite image completely took me by surprise. In the margin of a letter to lawyer Andre Van Iseghem, written in 1904, doctor Gustave Dryepondt, a tropical medicine specialist, had drawn a man with a prominent nose and a long beard. His “doodle” could really only be King Leopold II, the Belgian king who privately owned the Congo. Renowned for his brutally exploitative regime, Leopold was denounced in an international humanitarian campaign, which lead to Belgium’s annexation of the Congo. Caricatures of him were readily used in the press by his adversaries. Finding a similar image in correspondence by the hand of a pioneer of the Leopoldian imperial enterprise shows how the “imperial founding father” captured colonials’ imagination. Or perhaps, Dryepondt just found him the ideal object for his artistic inclinations.


Image: Archives André Van Iseghem, HA.01.0036, 136Author’s own image, with kind permission of Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, Tervuren.

14. Edmund Dudley’s inventory

By Laura Flannigan | @LFlannigan17

One of the first manuscripts I ever studied was the indenture of the goods and possessions found within the home of notorious early-Tudor minister Edmund Dudley, who was executed on apparently invented treason charges in 1510.  The inventory describes a grand house of 21 rooms on Candlewick Street in London, including a ‘long galerre’ and several large halls.  It provides insight into the lifestyle of ‘new men’ in the king’s service like Dudley, who owned a great array of expensive clothing, items of ‘beyounde see making’, and drinkware engraved with the Tudor ‘rose Floweres… & pourt colys’.  This grandeur, along with cupboards full of cash collected from those in debt to the crown, may have instigated his downfall at the hands of powerful councillors.  Intriguingly, though, we also discover a stockpile of cross bows, arrows and 41 harnesses. Perhaps Dudley really was preparing to fight for his position in Henry VIII’s new regime.

Archival references:  The National Archives: E 154/2/17 — Indenture as to the goods of Edmund Dudley in ‘Candelwykstrete’, St Swithin [?London].

Image: L-R: Richard Empson (d. 1510); Henry VII of England (1457-1509); Edmund Dudley (1462-1510). Unknown artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

13. Feminist activism in the Black Cultural Archives

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

Whilst searching in the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London, I came across a pamphlet published by the Black Women’s Action Committee in October 1970. The Black Women’s Action Committee was part of the Black Unity and Freedom Party, one of many anti-racist and black rights campaign groups founded in the 1960s and 1970s in reaction to widespread discrimination. This group highlights a longer history of women of African-Caribbean campaigning in Britain. The committee’s pamphlet was distributed outside places where ‘beauty contests’ were held. Black beauty pageants were instituted in Britain for the very purpose of conveying pride in Black identity and pride. Read more

12. Oral history in the British Library

By George Severs

In 1972, Raphael Samuel wrote of the ‘perils of the transcript’, the potential for mutilation and distortion of the spoken word when it is transferred to the page. In the 45 years since then, oral historians and archivists have been keen to heed this warning, yet inevitably such difficulties persist. Read more

11. History outdoors

By Aprajita Sarcar, Queen’s University, Canada.

Driving towards a district hospital in Kerala, I find the physical manifestation of what I seek in my research. This mouldy painted image of a husband, wife and a girl child is the family that represents the national population control programme. Since 1951, this family has been changing shape: with three children, then two, one girl and one boy and currently one girl. As a child, I found this pictorial family appealing because it was always happy, each member beaming from walls, posters, postage stamps and magazines. As an adult, I seek the nation within which this image was created and circulated. Read more

10. Woodstreet Compter Commitment Book, 1765-66

By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam

As a quantitative economic historian, a significant amount of my research is impersonal. Studying the functioning of eighteenth-century debtors’ prisons and their effectiveness as a mechanism of contract enforcement rarely brings one into contact with material that connects you to the thoughts, feelings, and lived experience of an individual human being. My principal source material, prison commitment registers, as official documents, shun personal details beyond names and the size of debts. However, the register of Cheapside’s Woodstreet Compter for 1765-66 provides a rare variation. Read more

9. Using Archival Material to Create Prisoner Narratives in British Prison Museums

By Dan Johnson, University of York (@Dan_Johnson19)

While conducting research on public understandings of punishment in British prison museums, the public facing collections and exhibitions often act as the main primary sources that I engage with. One of the elements of the prison interpretation that I do rely on archival material for is the reconstruction of prisoner narratives through digital media on display. In almost every narrative of a specific prisoner and their experience, there are no first-hand accounts written by the prisoners, making sources like the British Newspaper Archive essential for creating a script for the videos in the exhibitions. Sometimes, the museums are transparent about where they find their information, and do not stray from the archival material in the digital narratives. Other times, the museums pick and choose which sources to include and manipulate them to fit into a sensational script to entertain their visitors. This then leads to questions about how much fiction is on display in our museum exhibitions.


Image: Author’s own.

8. Hidden histories

By Harriet Lyon | @HarrietLyon

My favourite archival source is the one I almost missed: a note, less than a page long, pasted into the back of a notebook belonging to the antiquary William Dugdale (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Hist. c 485, fol. 100). Dated July 1652, it recounts a shameful secret told in a private conversation thirty years earlier. Read more

7. Schoolchildren’s Jubilee Address to Queen Victoria

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897 prompted an outpouring of national celebration. The queen received thousands of jubilee addresses from local authorities, philanthropic organisations and societies across the country. These large, colourfully decorated documents were full of patriotic language praising Victoria’s long reign. Trawling through these addresses in the National Archives was an experience in itself. But I was thrilled to discover among the adult-authored documents a Golden Jubilee address from ‘The Children of St. Columb School, Forest Hill.’[1] Read more

6. Limericks, love, and loss in the archives

By Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

For me, the best archival gifts are documents which serve as reminders that you are dealing with real, complex people who are more than a public persona. Take Nathaniel Emerson (1839-1915), for example, born in Hawai‘i to American parents, and best remembered as a man of science, having published significant ethnological accounts of the Native Hawaiian people. Perusing his personal papers at the Huntington Library in California, however, we find him drafting overblown romantic short stories and poetry, thematising lost love, alienation, and his island upbringing. Emerson attempted, unsuccessfully, to have some of this work published, and it appears he suffered on occasion from writer’s block, as evidenced by an attempt at a limerick abandoned after just two lines. Read more

Capturing the Raj: visual narratives of British India

By Mobeen Hussain | @amhuss27

In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of period adaptations based on the British in India. This spat of television and film productions depicts particular historical narratives that romanticise the British Empire and hark back to the good-old-days of British imperialism. Indian Summers (2015), Victoria and Abdul (2017) and Viceroy’s House (2017) reveal a lot about the kinds of narratives that producers and the British public are interested in telling, championing and watching. With the exception of Indian Summers, these productions were post-Brexit and released in the year of the seventieth anniversary of India’s partition. Read more

5. Empathy in the archives

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith

Like death, like the cemetery which is at the centre of the village, violence is at the heart of life in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries’.

It is easy for the historian of early modern England to become desensitised to violence and suffering. Studying the religious changes of this period, changes which provoked individuals on both sides of the confessional divide to torture, burn and hang their fellow countrymen, the individuals involved can quickly become mere statistics to be utilised in support of an historiographical point. Read more