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
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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.
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
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.’ Read more
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
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
‘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
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.
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 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
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. 
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.
 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: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c7/Canaletto_Grand_Canal_from_Palazzo_Flangini_-_JPGM.jpg
5 December 1730
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
‘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. 
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
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
Fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, Nailya Shamgunova (@nailyas_) reflects on how public exhibitions have engaged with this event.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. It is an important milestone for queer history, and as such it was commemorated in various forms throughout the country. I attended four different exhibitions in three museums, two in the North and one in the capital, prompting me to think about the ways in which we remember and display queer history. Read more
By Atlanta Rae Neudorf
Approaching the past as an historian is comparable to trying to solve a puzzle whose pieces are constantly changing shape. An element which momentarily appears to fit snugly in place comes suddenly into focus as glaringly wrong when new evidence comes to light. Whilst frustrating at times, these moments of clarity during the historical research process can also be wildly exciting and lead to new understandings of the past. Equally thrilling is the experience of applying different approaches to one’s research that results in two apparently incongruous pieces of the historical puzzle joining together perfectly. The process of piecing together the complex puzzle of historical problems involves searching for the hidden tensions and unspoken meanings inherent in all human activity. Read more
By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans
Five hundred years ago this October, the German monk, Martin Luther (probably) nailed his famous 95 theses to Wittenberg’s cathedral door. This sparked a lengthy and complex process of religious transformation across Europe. Luther’s views continue to have consequences for the modern world and as this anniversary approaches, there are many questions to ask about Luther’s legacy. It is, however, also instructive to consider the parallels between the Reformation and earlier Christian debates. How radical or new was the Reformation within the broader sweep of Christian history? Read more
One of the most exciting yet intimidating elements of PhD research is the archival visit. This is perhaps particularly daunting for those of us venturing to foreign pastures and putting into practice hard-earned language skills. However, the rewards of navigating the maze of the foreign archive are substantial and the experience can be enriching in more ways than one. Read more
Theoretically, twenty-first-century Britain is tolerant; it is a place where diverse opinions can flourish. However, when opinions come into conflict, the appropriate course of action is not always obvious. As last year’s “Gay cake” row highlighted, the line between intolerance and a principled stance can be unclear. At the same time, as the recent resignation of the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron demonstrates, those who appear willing to put aside their personal belief in the name of promoting the principle of tolerance can find their integrity under scrutiny. Read more