Sunday, 22 October 2017

HARC - Archives are Fascinating

I went up to Cusop Village Hall on Friday evening for the talk on the Herefordshire Archives and Records Centre, and it was entirely fascinating.
Before we started, I was told that membership of the Group was free (having paid my £3 to get in). I wasn't going to bother - I was quite happy to pay for the talk, but then I discovered that there is a members' trip in the New Year to the Ashmolean Museum, with a talk and a look behind the scenes. This was too good a chance to miss - I've wanted to go to the Ashmolean for years - so I joined up on the spot and paid my deposit for the trip!

The Archives service used to be housed in an old barracks building in Hereford - it was old, it was big, and it was empty, so it seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, it was also damp - just about the worst thing it could be for old records. Some of the mould was, apparently, rare Herefordshire apple mould, and a form of penicillin, but even so....
So, just before recession and cuts hit local authority services, HARC moved to a brand new, purpose built facility in Rotherwas, which may be unique in the world. It's built on the passivhouse principle, with so much insulation it's a constant temperature like a cave inside, which saves them something like £100,000 on heating and air conditioning bills a year.
Rhys Griffiths, the speaker, said that he was very pleased to be in Cusop, because it demonstrated the importance of boundaries. In Hay, there is also a history group, which is very Welsh based, whereas Cusop is firmly based within Herefordshire, even though they are very close together. As well as the county records, HARC also keeps the diocesan records, which extend into South Shropshire.
There are maps, of course - one interesting thing they're doing is to take the 6inch maps of the area and match them up with aerial photographs - some of the field boundaries have stayed the same for centuries. He showed one early map of Cusop Dingle with pictures of four little water mills spaced out along the stream.
He also showed examples of form filling from 1720, with a local vicar ticking boxes (as it were) to say, yes, the church did have a fair chalice for services, and the chancel was in good repair, and there were no dissenters in the parish. An even earlier Visitation for Cusop had the vicar of the 1390s describing the adulterous relationships between members of his parish, in some detail! (So-and-so has thrown his wife out of the house and installed his mistress!).
The records are also good for people who are interested in the history of the railways, with many records and maps. A lot of these come from the Quarter Sessions, which were a sort of proto-County Council, responsible for the upkeep of roads and so on as well as local crime. The Quarter Sessions accounts also cast a light on poorer people in the area who were involved in crime - the horse dealer convicted of stealing a chestnut mare, and sentenced to transportation, for instance, and on the same page, the sad story of a girl who had tried to commit suicide, who was sentenced to a short period of imprisonment for it.
There are also wills, showing what the average household contained over the centuries, as there are often inventories of contents.
Rhys Griffiths said that, in the past, archivists had been a bit sniffy about family history researchers, preferring academics with leather elbow patches in their tweed jackets, but now they welcome people who are researching their own families - one of whom was in the audience, and chipped in to provide extra detail a couple of times.
For instance, there was a map showing the sale of part of the Moccas estate - we had been following the fortunes of Llydyadyway Farm, under its many different spellings - and the chap from the audience pointed out the small plots along the main road, where big houses like York House were built, and the field behind, where Victoria Terrace was built the following year, as a speculation - the houses were then bought by landlords who let them out to poorer families.
He talked a bit about palaeography - the study of old handwriting - and how the Mormons have helped by transcribing records for their own purposes. A lot of information is now online, but it is still possible to visit the Centre in Rotherwas for research, and there are some records that can only be consulted in their original form.
And then there's the census, started in around 1810 mainly to count how many able bodied men there were in the country who could be called up for military service in the Napoleonic Wars - and as time went on the civil servants realised they could collect all sorts of other useful information at the same time, including how people moved from place to place - the rural population was not as static as people tend to think, especially after the coming of the railways.
So, with a bit of work, and help from the archivists and their team of volunteers, all sorts of information can be extracted from the most boring-sounding documentary evidence.

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