A sideways look at sources

on Thursday, 15 October 2020. Posted in Archives

Many of us are quite used to reading sources only for the information that they explicitly give us – burial registers tell us the dates of burials, and so on. But quite often those same sources can be very revealing about other issues, things that aren’t explicitly stated. The same burial registers can reveal an accident or epidemic in a village, for example, if there are a more of burials than usual within a few days of one another.

Thinking sideways about the sources in this way can lead us to a much fuller picture of life in the past than we might otherwise have had. In particular, it allows us to build up a picture (sometimes directly, sometimes by inference) of what everyday life was like for ‘ordinary’ people in the past – something that few historical sources do. In this blog, I’d like to highlight a few interesting examples of this from within our collections.

One of the most difficult things to discover about the past is what people wore in their everyday lives. Most of the clothing that has survived through to the present day tends to be high-status clothing, either belonging to an ‘elite’ or only worn on very special occasions. Even in the age of photography, it can be surprisingly hard to get a sense of what people wore: until relatively recently photographs were expensive and out of the reach of most people. A consequence of this was that having a photograph taken was often only done for special occasions, and was frequently quite a formal event that people wore their best clothes for, so the images don’t necessarily reflect what people wore every day.

One of the more unusual ways of finding this information is through photographs of people who had just been arrested, in the police force’s criminal records. We have quite a few of these images in our Constabulary collection (F5), and they usually include a photograph of the offender, alongside a summary of their details and the crimes they were convicted of. They’re mainly used for researching details of the crime(s) committed, but they’re also incredibly useful for giving us a snapshot of everyday clothing at the time, as well as the ways in which fashions changed over time or across social groups, as you can see from these two images taken eighteen years apart:

F5/600/4 photograph of a criminal (dated 1896)
F5/610/2 photograph of the same criminal (dated 1914)

Interestingly, they can also tell us about tattoos and body art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the records also include any identifying marks, as in this example which shows the convict having a tattoo of a woman and a man on his right and left forearms:

F5/610/2 - record describing identifying marks

Another thing that can be quite hard to discover from surviving sources are the more mundane elements of daily life. Often what has survived are official accounts, which don’t offer much of a window into the realities of the everyday. One of the best sources to use for this are wills. These, of course, tell us a lot about people’s possessions (which can be revealing in themselves, as we’ll see), as well as helping to confirm the names and relationships of relatives making them an important source for any family history. Very occasionally, however, they can reveal something of the nature of those relationships, particularly if family members had fallen out with one another.

This will from William Edwards in 1732 refers to ‘the many and great troubles expences [sic] and vexations occasioned me and my dear wife by the undutiful and disobedient behaviour and perverseness of my son William’, and left him ‘one shilling and no more’:

P1/E/203 - part of the will of William Edwards, 1732

Edwards’ entire estate was left to his wife, but after her death half was to pass to his daughter Anne and half to his other son Thomas, further underlining the rift between William and his parents.

Wills also offer a glimpse into private living arrangements. In 1763 Richard Townson left his possessions to ‘unto Anna Maria Byer who lives and cohabits with me (and is Really and truely my wife)’, where most sources talk of married couples.

P4/1763/6 - part of the will of Richard Townson, 1763

They can also reveal some of the more sinister elements of private life that aren’t captured in other records. In 1625 Richard Dawers left his daughter Anne (and her children, should she have any) £20 in trust so that her husband could not access it. ‘The cause of debarringe my sonne in law to have any medling or dealing therewith’, he wrote, ‘is in regard to his unkind & churlish dealinge with my daughter his wife, duringe my life time, that I doe much feare, if god give him not more grace, it shall goe worse with her after my death’.

P2/9Reg/2 - part of the will of Richard Dawers, 1625

On a lighter note, sometimes wills offer an insight into some of the more mundane parts of everyday life. Francis Lambe left his daughter daughter a pair of ‘waffinge irons to make waffers’.

P5/4Reg/146 - part of Francis Lambe's will

Last but not least, my favourite: in 1596, Thomas Warr gave his daughter Alice ‘a cowe knowne by the name of Whurlock’ – proof that giving animals odd names isn’t confined to the present day!

P5/1596/74 - part of Thomas Warr's will, 1596

Tom Plant
Community History Advisor

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