Reconstructing the past

I headed out to Whitstable this morning, to do further research on one of the workhouse families. I’ve decided that a short story based on the story of one of the children will form my contribution to an anthology of short stories my writing group is intending to publish, and I’m looking for material to flesh out the story and bring it to life.

I walked around the town, finding the house where they used to live, walking alongside the harbour, and identifying the school she would have gone to, and then went round the local museum and had a look at the local history section of the library.

As I walked back to the car, I passed a pub, which had a notice outside: “Back in 2015”. I’m guessing it refers to their live entertainment, but it felt strangely fitting, as for those two hours I’d been back in around 1880, and it felt strange to return to the present day.

As I drove home, I started musing about the difference between writing historical fiction and writing fantasy. In historical fiction, I’m trying to keep as true to the facts as I can, and weaving a story around those facts. I have a lot of flexibility, but within a very tight framework. It’s so easy to make a simple mistake with facts and instantly alienate a lot of readers. I’m also aware that I’m trying to fill in very large gaps – it’s one thing to imagine what she might have done on her way home from school, but I’m not even sure what she would have called her parents!

In one way, writing fantasy is easier. I’m creating my own world, and nobody can tell me that I’ve got my facts wrong. But in another, it’s the same thing. I want my world to be credible, and so I’m trying to think about how societies change and evolve. How do three very different races start spreading out and co-operating, only to have relationships break down and become hostile? How does a town function? How does a religion spread? How does intolerance show itself?

Admittedly, on some of those points I only have to read the papers, and the current world situation is definitely feeding itself into my novel. But that feeling of power, of deciding policy, is very real. And the feeling that it’s got to be close enough to the truth, or in this case at least A truth, is still very strong.

I thoroughly enjoyed my morning, and will be repeating the experience, with more time. In the meantime, I’ve got a new draft of my short story to get on with, and a novel or three to get finished.


Writing about war and hate

My current concern is that my novel needs to include more violence and hatred and religious intolerance. It’s never easy to think about those topics, and never easy to write about them, but in order to have the impact I want it to, my novel needs to push a lot harder into that area.

Sadly, I find I get all the inspiration and ideas that I need on the topic by reading news websites. We seem to be particularly nasty and intolerant as a society at the moment. It’s sobering to think that however much we protest about the holocaust, people are making similar comments about those caught up in the immigrant camps to those made about the Jews when the Nazis were in power. History is repeating itself, and those who are enacting it are either oblivious of the irony or don’t care.

One big topic these days is the phenomenon of white male privilege. How being born male and with a white skin gives advantages that these people are not even aware of, leaving others struggling in their wake. The privilege I’m seeing at the moment is one of being born in a developed country that’s fairly well off and fairly stable politically. That doesn’t make us better people than those who live in war-torn countries, or developing countries. Don’t we have a duty to share what we have, to make the most of our privilege to help others onto the same level?

Instead, we’re polarizing into us and them, friend and foe, judgement and condemnation. Any small act is publicised and either praised or condemned almost universally. We can’t make a mistake without it being held up for all to see and criticise. We can’t do some small kindness without it being lauded by complete strangers. We can’t see the true enemies because we’re too busy hating those we are told are enemies.

And so, as I struggle with my novel, one thing that keeps me going is the thought that maybe, in some small way, it might make at least one or two people think about what makes an enemy, what’s the purpose of war, and who are the true heroes.


More stories from the workhouse

As Sunday is a day off from the A-Z challenge, I thought I’d better get back to stories from the workhouse.

A reminder – I’m researching our local workhouse, the Blean Union Workhouse in Kent, and these are notes taken from the minutes of the Guardians of the Board, the locals who were charged with overseeing the administration of the workhouse. The first collection of stories is here, and searching the workhouse category on this blog will discover other articles I’ve written about my research.

In February 1879 a fire was reported in the drying closet. The firm who installed the closet were called in to inspect, and discovered that a grating had been removed that should stop clothing falling on the pipes. They made it secure and advised that when used for airing purposes a smaller fire should be kept.

Later that year, a builder, Mr S. Stupple, was accused of theft of an iron bar belonging to the guardians. Upon investigation, the accusation was found to be unfounded, and made by an apprentice whom Mr Stupple had recently discharged for misconduct.

Around 1880, issues were reported with the contracted coffin maker, who caused “serious inconvenience and scandal” when a coffin supplied was larger than ordered, the hole then proving to have been dug too small. A further, similar complaint was made a few weeks later and he was told to pay any charges accrued from the inconvenience. He reported that the confusion was due to measurements not being stated as internal or external. By the end of the year he had lost the contract for workhouse coffins, the contract instead being awarded to Daniel Stupple, who was presumably related to Mr S. Stupple (above).

In January 1880 three boys in the school were “brought before the Board by the Master, two having absconded from the workhouse by getting through the dormitory window, visiting a public house and stealing therefrom a bottle of gin, which they brought and consumed with other boys in the yard, and the other having used grossly insubordinate language to the master; they were ordered by the Board to be severely flogged and confined to the Workhouse until further orders.”

An order was put in for about four tons of flints to provide work for the able-bodied inmates and vagrants.

Parcels were opened because it was believed that money was being sent and kept by inmates. The sender was admonished and the money was “appropriated towards the paupers’ maintenance”.

In September of 1880, a year after a trial change in diet had been initiated, it was taken to the Local Government Board for permanent approval, the change having proved beneficial for the children and aged at the workhouse.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the library and continuing my research – there’s still a lot more to read through!



Stories from the workhouse

Just to remind you of my workhouse project: I’ve been researching our local workhouse, Blean Union Workhouse, which was in the north of Canterbury, particularly around some of the inmates who were present for the 1881 census. Previously I’d been looking at the admissions and discharge registers, the death records, and the Medical Officer’s book.

Last time I visited the archives, I started looking at the minutes of the Guardians’ meetings. The Guardians were local men who were responsible for attending meetings and ensuring the workhouse was running smoothly. Meetings were held sometimes weekly, sometimes fortnightly. The minutes were written by hand in large ledgers, which must have been around 18 inches by 12 inches, and a good 4 inches thick (this is me looking back and estimating; I must remember to take a tape measure with me next time!). I started with the book that covered 1878 to 1882, and by the end of the day I’d managed to read about three-quarters of it, so there’s still a long way to go! There were 13 previous volumes, covering earlier years, and several that followed this one.

Each meeting recorded the names of those present, gave figures about the workhouse, and then recorded any other issues that had to be dealt with, or letters received, and these proved fascinating reading.

One of the first things I read was a report furnished by members of the committee who had attended the Kent Lunatic Asylum at Chartham (later St Augustine’s Hospital) to check on the welfare of the 26 inmates who were chargeable to the Union. There were 10 men and 16 women, of whom all but two were recorded as chronic and incurable cases. The committee inspected the facilities and domestic arrangements and were satisfied that “in their opinion the Establishment is efficiently and carefully conducted and reflects credit upon the Staff concerned in its management.”

Some of the entries concerned applications for transfer of inmates between different workhouses, either returning them to their home area or accepting them as the Blean Union’s responsibility. This would be done either by mutual agreement if they were satisfied as to the inmate’s area of residence, or by obtaining an order if there were any dispute. There were also issues with family members who were asked for money to help support a relative in the workhouse.

Another big issue was staffing.

Questions were raised over the medical officer, who was in trouble for non-attendance at a patient, delayed vaccination forms and illegible writing. He was also at one stage instructed to find himself an assistant, as he claimed he was struggling to fulfil all his duties.

In October 1878 the porter was summoned and warned over his disobedience of orders, insobriety and general neglect of duty. In June the next year he left, with no notice, and the post was advertised for a single man between the ages of 25 and 45, at the sum of £20 per annum. A new man was employed shortly thereafter, and a letter was received from Canterbury workhouse asking for a reference for the former porter, who was now employed there. The reference was given stating that they had no fault to find with the character or conduct, but that his duties were not always carried out as well as they would like.

It was only a few months until the new porter was reported absent from his post for three days and then being insubordinate, so he was sacked and the post was vacant again. It was offered up for the same £20 per annum, with furnished accommodation, and was duly taken by a man from Chartham. He did not last long either, and in fact the porter changed several times over the period I read. At one point it became known that the man currently in the position was married, and he was called before the board, where he explained that they had been separated for two years. As he had otherwise discharged his duties satisfactorily, they agreed to overlook the deception.

In 1879 the schoolmaster was admonished for the way he was failing to see to the industrial education of the boys at the workhouse. Shortly afterwards, following an inspection of the school by HM Inspector of Workhouse Schools, he resigned, and  the current industrial teacher, a Miss A.T. Hewlett, was allowed to take up the higher post of schoolmistress, at a wage of £30 per annum. A new industrial teacher was advertised for to teach the girls, at £20 per annum. This was advertised as suitable for a single woman or widow, and included accommodation. Two applications were received, one from Kent and one from London, and their third class train fare was paid to attend for interview, from which one was unanimously chosen.

All posts made to the workhouse were sent to the Local Government Board for approval, and this was the only example I came across where they did not simply approve without comment, for they demanded figures as to the numbers of girls at the workhouse, and their ages, and then declared that there were not enough girls to make her appointment worthwhile, and she was given notice. The post of industrial teacher was instead given to a man, who was a tailor and could pass on his trade to the boys. He was employed at a rate of £30 per annum. I believe that around this time a small extension was built to the workhouse to include a tailor’s workroom.

There were problems finding a new Chaplain for the workhouse, until eventually one was found who was willing to take on the post, at a salary of £60 per annum, on condition of the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury being received. For this money he was expected to “perform Divine Service once on Every Sunday, Christmas Day, and Good Friday between the hours of 10am and 4pm, and [to] pay at least one intermediate weekly visit to the workhouse, to examine the schools and visit the sick.”

I also found stories about behaviour issues and issues with contractors, but I’ll save them for my next post. I can’t wait to get back to the archives and continue reading! It was amazing to think of the men whose discussions were recorded, and the hours that must have been spent painstakingly writing up the minutes – I’m not sure how many people could write that much by hand with few or no corrections these days. I know I couldn’t. Another skill that’s being lost.


Learning to read

I first learned to read when I started school, many years ago, and I’ve always found it easy. I remember one afternoon when I was around seven years old I read two Enid Blyton books in one afternoon. By the time I was ten I was reading books written for adults, and I chose my secondary school on the basis of the books in the school library.

So it was a shock today to experience problems reading.

To be fair, it wasn’t that surprising I was finding it difficult: hubby and I had gone on a one day course with the local library service, introducing palaeography, or reading old handwriting, with the idea of showing how to access old archives.

There were nine of us plus the tutor, and with her assistance we worked our way through a variety of documents, from wills to stocktaking to personal letters, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some were easier than others, but in just about all the documents there were unfamiliar ways of forming the letters, strange flourishes that were sometimes for decoration and sometimes significant and we even came across one writer who dotted his Cs!

The most entertaining was a letter from a man to the woman he was supposed to be marrying that day, expressing his deep sadness at being unable to marry her – from what we could gather, he had lost his voice and would be unable to say his vows, but he hoped that remedies of sugar candy would restore his voice and allow the marriage to go ahead at a later date (“From your dearest husband to be. Give my love to your maid Susan”!).

I found it frustrating to have the writing in front of me but struggle to make out the letter forms, or to put the letters together and understand what word was made. Sometimes letters were left out, sometimes the spelling was non-standard and sometimes it was simply a word that was unfamiliar in modern times. A P with a line underneath it, for example, was usually short for PAR or PER, while a P with a line over it was PRA or PRE. W and V were interchangeable, and a W with a flourish over meant VER, so EVERY looked a little like EWY. One document spelt TOWN as TOWEN throughout. Often if a word was abbreviated there was a line over the top – I guess that was the origin of the apostrophe to show omitted letters in the abbreviations we commonly use, such as ISN’T.

The whole experience brought home to me how dependent we are on reading to help us in our everyday lives, how we take the skill for granted and how tough it must be for someone who does struggle with literacy. I wondered what people would think in years to come, trying to decipher some of the writing people do these days, such as B4 U GO and TY, and how consistent they would consider our spelling and letter forms to be.

I’ve just completed a writing challenge, to put 50,000 words together. I enjoy words. I enjoy the stories they can tell. I’m grateful that I can complete such a challenge, and that reading is not normally an issue for me.

And I’m looking forward to the time when I manage to get back to the library again to get back to the workhouse records, because maybe I’ll be tackling the handwriting in the documents with a little more confidence because of my experience today.

Look out for learning experiences at your local library – well worth the effort!


A trip to the workhouse

The main workhouse is on the left

The main workhouse is on the left

My workhouse writing has not made much progress lately; I’ve done just about all I can on the actual families, I’m on an economy drive so can’t afford the petrol to go to the archives centre for more general research on the workhouse, and I haven’t yet managed to get focused on the background reading.

I did order the death certificates for Edwin and Fanny Newing, the parents of the orphans – they both died of tuberculosis, a couple of years apart.  Edwin’s death was reported by his brother Edward, who had been present at the death in Kent and Canterbury Hospital, and records his occupation as house painter and age as 32. Fanny’s certificate recorded she’d had the disease for years, and her death was reported by her cousin, who was present at death. The cousin must have been illiterate, because the certificate shows “the mark of”.  Fanny’s occupation was marked as “the widow of Edwin Benjamin Newing, Painter (master)”.

Poor Fanny. A widow and mother of five children at the age of 28, already in ill health, and dead by the age of 30. She’d already been in the workhouse for a few weeks before her death, with all the children, whose ages ranged from 14 to 2. They all moved back out for a while, then the children were back in and Fanny presumably went to stay with a cousin, where she died a few weeks later.

I decided it was about time I visited the site, so this morning I walked out that way with a camera. It’s about 15 mins’ brisk walk from home along the main road, and as I walked I found myself wondering if Philadelphia ever walked that route; it would have been vastly different then. No busy traffic, just the occasional horse and cart, or other walkers maybe. The route is lined by a hedge and horse chestnut trees on one side; I wondered whether they had been there back then, whether the children ever picked the blackberries or collected conkers. Maybe, just maybe, one of the children planted a conker at the side of the road and it grew into one of the trees that are there now.

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

I walked along what had been the main entrance track to the workhouse, looking at the the buildings and trying to tell the old converted buildings from the new buildings that had blended in so well. The original descriptions of the workhouse say it was built in a quadrangle with an enclosed courtyard (“Build poor men’s houses, but instead of having one long street, bend it into a quadrangle, which forms also a prison,” said the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner for the area), and that extra, separate wings were added later, for nursing infectious patients – stables and a carriage house, with a fever ward over, reports one source. There are accounts of the bell between the fever ward and the main building not working, and repeated notes from the medical officer that it should be fixed. Reports also tell of draughts in the women’s ward, with requests for something to break up the windflow so the patients did not get so chilled.

Even later in its history, further wings were added as the building became a home for “difficult” women and then a hospital for the chronically sick.

Now the whole area has been turned into housing, with some houses converted from the original building and others built either free-standing or adjoining the existing buildings. I visited the place once, when it was a hospital, but have only very vague memories of it. It’s not a tall building – only two storeys – but sprawls over a large area, and looks very peaceful and pleasant – a far cry from when the sewage flowed freely only yards from the windows!

From the other side of the old entrance

From the other side of the old entrance

I really want to find out more about the building and the people who lived in it, so I think the next stage for me is to start looking at the notes from the Guardians’ meetings. I’ve no idea how specific or detailed they are: at worst there’ll be very brief summaries of each meeting, and at best detailed accounts of issues arising from specific inmates.

That’s when I get settled with income again and can justify the expense of the petrol to get there. In the meantime, it’s writing up the notes I have about each family and carrying out general research.



A workhouse holiday

rear view of the building showing garden and red brick building

The rear view of the Red House Museum – a lot more welcoming than I’d expected!

I went away for a week recently with my family, and I just had to do a little bit of work while away, so we visited the Red House Museum in Christchurch, Dorset, an ex-workhouse that’s now a local museum.

The Red House was built in 1764, and the building was really not at all what I had expected. The Blean workhouse was built only thirty or so years later, in 1791, but the buildings look nothing alike. This made me focus on what I imagined the workhouse to be like, and I decided that most of my ideas probably come from Oliver Twist and the few photos I’ve seen.

I guess I imagined a large, dark, cold building with high ceilings and plenty of space for people. Instead, the Red House was small, with low wood-beamed ceilings and small rooms – it was hard to imagine that a large number of people would have lived there at a time. I was sorry that there was so little information about the workhouse itself; there was a display of the fusee chains, the tiny watch chains that the people – including children – would have sat making for hours at a time, and there were a couple more displays, but the museum covered all aspects of the area’s history, not just the workhouse.

The study room within the museum

The study room within the museum

At this point I started to feel indignant that those who lived there were so unrecorded, but at least the workhouse stands in their memory. In fact research is encouraged, with a small room in the building itself devoted to local study. Still, I’m glad that I’m researching our workhouse, and I’d like my work to stand in memory of the poorest amongst us, the problems they faced and their fate.

Children were encouraged to explore the museum, with activity packs designed to help them learn more about the life of a specific child, or about the master of the workhouse, and I read these with interest. I had always assumed that the life of the children would be similar to the lives our children lead now, but according to their records the children had about ten minutes of schooling a day and the rest of the day would be spent working, particularly on those tiny chains that I would strain to see properly, let alone assemble into watch chains.

The yards were divided into men’s yard, boys’ yard, girls’ yard and the laundry yard – presumably the women spent their time working on the laundry rather than marching round the yard exercising. The gardens are very pleasant to walk around and sit in now, but I wondered just what they would have been like in workhouse days – did they do any work in the garden? did they grow their own food? did they get to play games out there?

The master's desk

The master’s desk

Another feature of the museum was the master’s desk. He originally had his own office, but when the poor law came into effect and the board of guardians needed somewhere to meet, his desk was moved to the half landing, where I admired his collection of books and papers.

Probably the part I found most interesting was the kitchen, being forced to consider the practicalities of feeding such a large group of people efficiently. The workhouse at Blean was criticised for its poor diet, with the meat being mostly fat and gristle, and recommendations being made for improvement of diet, but I can’t imagine it would be easy to feed so many people. The kitchen at the Red House was fitted out with all sorts of Victorian paraphernalia, and I tried to imagine the groups of people rushing around preparing meals – did they have a rota? did the people cook for themselves, or did someone come in to do it? I gathered they were in charge of doing their own laundry.

large fireplace with victorian artefacts

Fancy catering for large numbers on this?

I’ve reached the point where the research on the inmates is going well but I really need to start focusing on the workhouse itself, and on life generally in those times, to get a better idea of what conditions were like, what happened on a day to day basis and what their lives would have been like inside the workhouse and outside.

Some new software is helping me to organise my research and notes into something resembling a book, so I’m starting to feel I’m really making progress. Now I need to transfer the information that’s in family tree form into text and start playing with it and working out how to make it interesting for the reader, and to start the more general research. I also want to get back to the archives and continue my work there. Next time I’ll be taking the laptop, as I’m starting to want to record more than pencilled notes. I’ll also look into paying for a camera licence for the day, so I can keep pictorial records as well as written records.



In the workhouse – getting more specific

I think I’ve decided on an approach for my book – I’m going to look at five people or groups of people, choosing a range of situations, and look at the people themselves, what their lives were like and why they might have been in the workhouse. While doing so I’ll take a look at life in the workhouse more generally, and what life and available support was like for people in their situation, so having a general look with a very specific group of people in mind. Comments on that welcome!

So my five groups are:

  • The orphaned Newing family – five children who went in the workhouse after both parents died. In fact my research shows that they went in with their mother a year or so earlier, after the death of their father, were discharged with their mother and then were back in shortly after when she died as well. So what killed her and her husband, who were both in their very early thirties? What fate awaited orphans? How did they escape from the workhouse and what sort of life could they make for themselves?
  • The elderly Goodwins – both in the workhouse at the age of 74. Both died in the workhouse. Was this a typical end for an elderly couple? What can I find out of their life before the workhouse? Was it successful up until then or were they, like some other families I’ve found, frequent visitors?
  • The lunatic John Hearnden – a single man, never married, working as a labourer and a hawker, in the workhouse at the age of 49 branded a lunatic, and moved on to Kent Lunatic Asylum. What was actually wrong with him? How was he treated?
  • The single parent family the Curds – this is the latest research I’ve been doing, and involves Emily Curd, an unmarried domestic servant who at the age of 25 went into the workhouse with two children and left a few months later with three. The youngest died before reaching the age of 2 (possibly on a return visit to the workhouse for the whole family). Emily then married Brice Kemp, who was either the father of her children or adopted them, as he is listed in later censuses as their father, and had three other children.
  • The single lady Sarah May, who wormed her way in by dint of appearing so often in the admission and discharge register, heading in every few weeks, staying a few days and then leaving again. At the time of the 1881 census she was listed as unmarried, 57 and a charwoman by trade.

What I’m finding interesting now is that for tomorrow’s research session, unlike previous sessions where I’ve gone in to see what I can find out generally, I’m going in with specific questions to answer:

  • Can I find the record of the birth of Emily’s baby in the workhouse?
  • Did she die in the workhouse? If so, can I find the entry of her death?
  • Who was listed as the father? Can I find out anything about the father of the other two girls? Was Brice Kemp their father or did he take on two illegitimate girls alongside his new wife?

I also need to find out what sort of records I’ll have access to regarding births, marriages and deaths – I’m not sure whether the only way to see the full records is to order copies of certificates, which will incur costs, or whether it’s possible to read the entries for myself.

I have a microfilm prebooked for me tomorrow. I can’t actually recall what it was, but I have details written down of the resources that I would find useful. Two that I really want to look at are the punishment book and the medical officer’s book, as they might give me more specific ideas of what life was like in there.

I’ve also got books on the workhouse that I purchased but haven’t read yet – I need to get stuck into those, to see what more general information I can find out.

I sent a message to someone on this morning, the first time I’ve made the effort to contact someone who looks like they’re researching the same tree, because not only does it look very certain that it’s Emily Curd’s tree he’s researching, but he actually has a photo of her! It was very strange to look at the photo of this lady standing in a doorway and think that it’s one of the actual people I’m finding out more about via old records.


New books, old books, so many books

I headed into Canterbury just before lunch today, and started by wandering around the city. I bought a cute notebook from Paperchase that’s two books in one, one half plain paper and the other half lined paper, and then I ended up in the Costa Coffee in Waterstones, making up stories about the people I saw in the city and admiring the number of books. There are loads of books. All looking very readable. All written by authors eager to have people read them. And those are just the books that make it to publication by publishers who sell them to bookstores. There are far more books available that never even make it as far as hard copies, and they’re all looking for readers.

Are there too many books and not enough readers? Or is it a case that in this new world where it is so easy for anyone to publish their own book the market for bestsellers, read by many people, is dying out, to be replaced by a market where many people each publish to a much smaller audience? But do we have more creators than consumers? Can the market survive in this way? Will there always be a place for a few high quality products, or is that being replaced by the many of possibly lower quality? Or can you maintain the quality while increasing the variety? And if so, how do you choose, if there’s not the gateway of the established publishers to go through, but just an online catalogue where everyone screams out, “Pick me! Pick me!”?

The world of reviews is becoming more and more important, I feel, as people add their views of books to places like Amazon and Goodreads, and help others to pick through the choices available, and this has the dual role of making readers just as important as writers, and then of making those readers writers in their turn, as they express their opinions of what they have read.

I’ve been pondering for a while what right I have to feel I have anything worth saying in print, any idea that’s worth the effort of making available to readers. In short, what point there is in me adding to the many many books already available. At this point in the coffee shop I was beginning to feel there was little point in even trying.

Then I headed to the Cathedral in the middle of the city, via a very pleasant walk along by the theatre and river (must go on a river tour by boat sometime in the summer!). I made my way to the Cathedral Lodge, a very imposing building in the Cathedral Precinct that serves as a hotel and conference centre. There I joined with about 20 others who had booked for afternoon tea and a tour of the archives.

Smoked salmon sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, fruit cake and tea or coffee were on offer, along with a very pleasant chat with some of the other visitors and the Cathedral Conservator, and then we made our way through the Cathedral itself to a room through a mysterious door. This proved to be a very long room full of bookshelves, which was the collection of a previous Archbishop, I do believe – a typical Victorian library with bibles and prayerbooks mixed in with books on natural history, the abolition of the slave trade and many other topics that we were told were the standard Victorian gentleman’s fare.

Set out on display in that room were some real treasures – a charter signed by William the Conqueror and Queen Matilda, for a start, plus books and other charters dating from around the 11th century onwards. We admired these for a while and heard about some of their history, and then moved on through the reading room upstairs to the conservator’s room, where we saw some of the projects she was working on and heard about some of the work she carries out to help preserve the ancient documents and books that form the library. Apparently there are enough books in the archives that if the bookshelves were laid in one line they would reach 2 kilometres – I can imagine that distance from parkrun, it’s a lot of books!

So my musings about the books available these days were mixed with musings of all these ancient books, and what they contain, and how often they are looked at, but the focus on the tour at the cathedral was definitely on the hardware rather than the software, so to speak – preserving the documents themselves and their historical significance, rather than the information they contain. It was a very interesting debate between preserving and restoring documents, between their content and their physical presentation, and made me think of both the flimsy design of modern paperbacks and the difference between preserving physical books and their electronic equivalents.

So did I come to any conclusions? I think what I decided in the end was that it was the act of creating that matters. That someone at some point considered them important, so the books and documents came into being. As for my own writing, it’s no good writing because I want to sell lots of books. I need to write because I love it, because I want to get my own ideas down. If I get something worth printing at the end that’s a different topic altogether, but it should never be the first focus.

Oh, and I came to a decision about my workhouse book, I think, at least for now. I’ll be picking groups and individuals who are maybe archetypes of the workhouse inmates, exploring their lives and using them as illustrations for life generally for them and the role the workhouse played in their lives.

I’ve got the Newings, who ended up in there as orphans (although they went in previously with their mother, but that story is for another day), there’s John Hearnden, who went in there as a lunatic, but was in and out of there in the decades preceding the census as well, there’s the Goodwins who ended up in there for their final years, and there’s two more groups to start researching: the Curds, who ended up in there as a young single mother with children, one of whom was born in the workhouse, and Sarah May, bless her, whose name cropped up so many times in the admissions/discharges book over the years that she kind of wormed her way into my heart and so the book.

Altogether it was a fascinating afternoon in the cathedral archives, with lots of food for thought, even though we got to see a very small part of the massive store of resources they actually possess. And now it’s up to me to continue my search through archives to pull a story together from what I find, to preserve that story for generations to come. That project, at least, I am confident is worthwhile.


Serious research time

Goodwin, Mary, aged 74, died 24th January 1882, body taken by friends

Goodwin, Mary, aged 74, died 24th January 1882, body taken by friends

After saying yesterday that the response from the historical records centre should be received within 20 days, I did receive a prompt reply, advising me how to book a desk at the centre. A couple of emails later I had a place booked from 10am, and so set out this morning happy in the knowledge that by the end of the session I would at least know what I was facing, research-wise.

I found a parking space just down the road, paid for four hours, then wandered round the library for half an hour just looking – they have a substantial section of local history books for loan and for reference use, as well as the records.

Then I approached the desk, had my ID checked and explained what I was after. A librarian (I assume that’s what she was!) sorted me out with a computer and some microfilm to start with, having briefly shown me a  ringbinder that served as an index to the records. She also gave me a lanyard containing a swipe card to get into the search room, a desk number and a locker key, and some pink sheets that I could fill in to request other records.

It’s been many years since I last used microfilm, but a quick lesson later I was searching documents for sight of my inmates. The microfilm was threaded onto a machine that was linked to a computer for easy viewing – four buttons drive the film, fast forward and back and slow forward and back, but the slightest tap of the slow button could shoot on further than I wanted at first. It was also tough to read the handwriting, and zooming in on the image was no help as it just pixellated. Most of the books had been photographed with one landscape page per shot, but one of the books I tried to look at had been photographed as a double page spread, which in landscape orientation made for a much smaller image that proved more or less impossible to read. It also took me a while to realise that the microfilm contained several books, each one starting and ending with a title shot giving details of what it contained, e.g. Blean Union Workhouse Deaths 1866-1890. Linear searching, with no central index – how quaint!

After an hour or so on the microfilm, I decided it was time to venture into the search room itself, so I put everything except my papers, mechanical pencil and ipad (with bluetooth keyboard) in the assigned locker and used the swipe card to enter a large room with huge flat desks. The room itself had a glass wall and door dividing it from the main library, and was air-conditioned. I assume it was for the protection of the books, but I wasn’t complaining! There were a few other people in there, all looking very studious with laptops and huge tomes in front of them. A bookshelf lined one wall, another, smaller, bookshself contained the ringbinder indexes, and there were a couple more computers and microfilm viewers against other walls. A librarian sat at a desk by the door and she took my library card. I found my desk and the resource I’d asked for was brought to me – a big, heavy old ledger that the librarian arranged on a foam pad with wedge shapes to hold it open comfortably.

I found what I wanted in there with little trouble, and then wandered round to look at the books along one wall – these ranged from general history/reference books to things like lists of marriages.

With some more help I located the index to the records again, and by now the system was starting to make more sense. I carefully wrote down some of the references that I thought might be useful, and attempted to order one, using the pink cards on the desk. When it was brought over, however, I’d managed to order the microfilm again! I soon spotted my mistake, but by this time it was only half an hour before my parking ticket ran out, so I arranged to visit again next week, returned resources, collected my belongings and left.

One problem I found at first was that between requesting the records and receiving them I’d forgotten what each reference was for and so wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for inside, so I’ll be more careful next time to take notes. I did find some useful information – it was strangely moving to find the names I’d researched handwritten in the records – but there’s definitely a lot more to find out, and I’m looking forward to next week, when I’ll be much more efficient right from the start. I’ve also gone back to the online index, and now that I’ve thought to look beyond the first five results (!) I see there is indeed a long list of the different resources available, alongside their finding number. What I’m not sure of is what happens if they’re available on microfilm – on the paper copy of the index in the library there is a pink dot and a number written next to those available on microfilm, but the online version seems to carry no reference to this. (Note to self: the number only refers to the entries with pink dots – don’t look at ordinary entries and then look up the page for the nearest number!)

Goodwin, Edward, aged 77, died 28th May 1844, buried in Blean.

Goodwin, Edward, aged 77, died 28th May 1844, buried in Blean.

What did I find out? The death register for the workhouse confirmed that Mary Goodwin did indeed die in the workhouse, and gave the date as Jan 24th 1882. Under Burial, the entry says “body taken by friends.” Two years later, on May 28th 1884, Edward Goodwin also died, and he was buried in Blean.

I also found out from the Lunatic Asylum records that John Hearnden was admitted there on 7th January 1882, and was listed as “removed” on 28th August 1895, with no indication of where he was removed to. I found it interesting that in my notes I referred to the place as St A’s (St Augustine’s), finding it very difficult to use the words “lunatic asylum”, but I suppose I should get used to referring to it as such. Again, there are more records to be searched, so my research on John Hearnden will continue.

I didn’t find any trace of the Newing family, but I wasn’t really looking at the right records for them this time round, and I think I’ll also try to add one more inmate or group of inmates to the research list for next week’s visit. Right now I need to add the screenshots I took of the death entries to the Goodwin tree on – and then get on with some other outstanding work.