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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 –

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

4. Journal of William Dixon, 1811

By Nicholas Dixon

One of the most memorable sets of items I have found in an archive is the journals and notebooks of William Dixon (1756-1824), a farmer from the village of Holton le Moor in Lincolnshire. Deposited in the Lincolnshire Archives, 54 of these roughly bound volumes survive, some of them with pages recycled from letters and handbills for livestock sales and auctions. In them, Dixon recorded his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, including religion, politics, agriculture and poor relief. Most pertinent to my own research (on the influence of the early nineteenth-century Church of England) are Dixon’s reflections concerning his Anglican faith, which motivated him to found a house of industry and several Sunday schools in his locality. Yet, despite sharing a surname with one whose writings are highly relevant to my research, I am not (so far as I can tell) any relation!

Image: Author’s own, by kind permission of Lincolnshire Archives.

3. A Mother to her Son: Isabella of Angoulême and King Henry III

By Emily Ward | @1066unicorn

How did Isabella of Angoulême, queen of England, greet her son, King Henry III, when she wrote to him in the years following the nine-year-old boy’s succession to the throne in 1217? A desire to answer this question, and to resolve two conflicting modern transcriptions of a letter sent from Isabella to Henry in 1218/1219, led me to The National Archives. Letter SC 1/3/181 opens, quite traditionally, with a greeting. Isabella addresses Henry as ‘her dear son, by the grace of God illustrious King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou Read more

2. The hidden luxury of the artisan casa in Sixteenth-Century Venice

By  Zoe Farrell  | @zoeffarrell

In 1534, a man named Michele died in Venice and an inventory was taken of his possessions. Proceeding through the different rooms in his casa, Michele’s inventory details a large variety of material goods. Starting with precious objects of gold and silver, it proceeds to detail his fine clothing and furniture. From this inventory, we can see that Michele lived in a world surrounded by luxurious material items. He owned, for example, una vesta de pano negro alla dogalina fondra di vari – which was a gown typically worn by noblemen, with a lining of fur. He also owned many items made of fine materials such as velvet and damask, as well as several Moroccan rugs and painted and woven wall hangings. He kept books, paintings and a large amount of wooden furniture, in addition to silver knives, forks and spoons. [1]
This list is enviable even by today’s commercialised standards. However, Michele was not a nobleman. Instead, he made a living by making casks and barrels. He was a craftsman, an artisan, of modest means, yet he was able to possess an extraordinary number of material items in his home. Michele’s inventory is one of many like it and he was certainly not alone in his level of material consumption. Instead, he is representative of a trend which is strongly evident in sixteenth-century Venetian inventories, where men in the middling classes surrounded themselves with a wide variety of material objects, many of which were simultaneously functional, decorative and devotional.


[1] Archivio di Stato di Venezia: Canc. Inf., Misc. Not. Div., b. 36, n.10, f. 1r – f. 6r.

Image: The Grand Canal from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola, Canaletto, about 1738. J. Paul Getty Museum (J. Paul Getty Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons:


1. Blackmail, murder, and a trail gone cold

By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys

5 December 1730
Dear Sir,
You are desired to leave 19 pounds in the church yard under the further…tree by one a clock to morrow night if you put any Watsh on [or] Disobey our commande by G-d you and your family shall be outerly Destroyd and your house burnt as Jacks was
From your humble Servant
C: F: Esqre

These words, sent to Thomas Bechier, a Catholic gentleman and merchant of Monmouth, greeted me one sunny morning in Cambridgeshire Archives. Scrawled on a scrap of paper in an untidy hand was the chilling threat of an apparently murderous serial blackmailer. Four days later, Belchier received another note ‘From Your Loveing Friend’, which acknowledged receipt of the money, but stated that it ‘will be of ill consequence for by G-d we will murder you the first opportunity and if possible burn your House…for we are not to be fooled’. Who was this frightening individual? And what had Belchier done to incur his wrath? Read more

Experiencing the law in sixteenth-century England

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

‘To London once my stepps I bent,
Where trouth in no wyse should be faint,
To westmynster-ward I forthwith went,
To a man of law to make complaint.
I sayd, “for marys love, that holy saynt /
Pyty the poore that wold proceede.”
But, for lack of mony, I cold not spede. [1]

This vivid tale of a Kentish husbandman seeking legal redress in the Westminster courts comes to us through ‘London Lickpenny’, an anonymous, fifteenth-century popular poem.  It stands out for the insight it provides on the litigant’s experience of the late medieval and early modern legal system – something which, it might be assumed, we cannot gather so easily from the formulaic and arcane court records for this period. Read more

Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in British Prison Museums

By Dan Johnson, University of York (@Dan_Johnson19)

Prison museums are becoming a popular form of dark tourism around the world. In the last few decades, infamous prisons that have been in use since the beginning of incarceration as a form of punishment in the nineteenth century have begun to close their doors to make room for more modern prisons. In the UK, many former prison buildings have been saved and repurposed, rather than torn down. Some former prison buildings have even been transformed into boutique hotels and student accommodation. Although there has been a recent rise in the closures of Victorian prison buildings, there was a first wave of closures of some of the first British penitentiaries following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878. In the nineteenth century, many prisons were destroyed, however, some became tourist attractions. One of these prison buildings-turned-tourist sites is the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle. Read more

A cracked voice…

Writer Graham Palmer (@GP_writer) explains how he’s using music to explore the past in his exciting collaborative project, Cracked Voices.

Warning: my history is suspect. It is fake news. I am not a historian.

But I am fascinated in the way we are all complicit in fashioning stories, in interpreting our own lives and those of others (however distant). The narrative thread is well and truly woven into our being now that Time Team and Who do you think you are? have taught us that anyone can uncover truth with a trowel, a census or a curious mind. In an online world where the loudest, most outrageous opinion echoes and re-echoes over social media and blogs, everyone has become an expert (including me). History has never been so contemporary, nor so contentious (or so goes another myth that strokes our fragile 21st century egos). Read more