When I acquired the Bill Lawrence collection on New Year’s Eve, I was taken by surprise. I wanted to ask questions, so I whipped out my phone and started recording to capture information. I find that when making notes with pen and paper, I always miss chunks of information, especially at family gatherings where there are many distractions.
Audio recording is not a quick short-cut. It takes a lot longer to make sense of a recording than of written notes. The environment in which this recording was made was less than ideal. There are multiple simultaneous conversations, and the conversation wandered off topic to take-away orders and gossip that might be libelous if repeated here. In a recording of 33 minutes, just over 7 minutes relate to Bill’s collection and life.
So, I needed to extract the relevant parts and transcribe them. Stories Matter is free open source software built for oral history. It includes audio clipping and basic transcription functions.
Listening to yourself asking questions can be revealing. I had not realized that I interrupted Gill a couple of times, which probably limited the information she was giving me. In the following clip, I was good and just listened:
How much of that did you get? I have the advantage of having been present and knowing the voices of my parents, aunts and uncle. Here is the transcript:
GILL: That school that Bill went to, Ron, d’you remember Gilbert Harding?
GILL: He was at the same school
VAL: At the same time?
DOROTHY: Uncle Harry was as well, wasn’t he?
[talking over one another]
DOROTHY: Not at the same time
GILL: Cuz I remember them talking..
DOROTHY: Oh, I thought it was called an orphanage, because it was for children who had lost a parent or..
GILL: Yeah, but it wasn’t in the sort of normal way, every kid had lost both parents
DOROTHY: No, no, it was a school, but it was a boarding school, and they took in children that had lost parents
GILL: Yeah, and err.. Cuz, apparently when she [Bill’s mother] came back here her brothers said, you know, you must find some work to do and that, so she put Bill in there. But he was telling us and showing us this book and he was saying it was that bloody cold at night in this dormitory. An, you know, they used to get out of the dormitory at night. And the headmaster used to grow vegetables, so they’d go and pinch some carrots and eat ’em straight out of the ground, unwashed, cuz they were so hungry.
In just 1 minute and 16 seconds, this conversation raises a number of questions:
- Who was Gilbert Harding, and why should Ron remember him?
- What was the name of Bill’s school?
- Was it a school or orphanage? Why the confusion?
- Who was the ‘Uncle Harry’ who also attended the school?
- What book did Bill show when talking about his school?
With a little digging I have made progress on the first three questions, but will need to ask Dorothy and Gill for clarification on Uncle Harry and the book.
Gilbert Harding (1907-1960) was a radio and TV personality in the 1950s, which is why Ron remembered him. Gilbert attended the Royal Orphanage of Wolverhampton, also known as the Wolverhampton Orphan Asylum and the Royal Wolverhampton School at periods before and after his time there.
The school was open to children between the ages of 7 and 15 who had lost one or both parents. So, Bill, born in 1915, would have been an eligible age between 1922 and 1930, and Gilbert Harding between 1914 and 1922. So, Bill could only have been contemporary with Gilbert in 1922.
The Children’s Homes website gives insight into the social standing of children granted admission. Admission was granted to “orphans of professional men, principals engaged in agriculture, manufacture, commerce, or trade, or of mercantile or other clerks, or otherwise respectably descended”, but “orphans of journeymen, artisans, labourers, and domestic or agricultural servants, or child with a stepfather” were not eligible. The admission policy is not what we typically expect for an orphanage, which could account for the confusion over the status of the institution. It was both an orphanage and boarding school.
© Sue Adams 2016
Family gatherings are often where family history is shared. This New Years Eve (30 December 2015) was no exception. My Aunt, Gill, handed me a folder of documents. She had acquired them from her cousin, Penny. The documents belonged to William Henry Lawrence who died in 2009 aged 94, leaving them to his niece, Penny. William, or Bill as he was known to family, was the husband of Gwendoline Brown, my 1st cousin once removed.
All the documents share a common origin, and together, tell a story about Bill’s life. So they make a natural collection or, in archival terms, fond. I am always excited when presented with original documents from personal collections because these are the kind of treasures that don’t find a home in an official archive. In the early years of my family history obsession I would have eagerly shuffled the contents of the folder as I examined them. Experience of using archives has taught me to keep collections in the order presented. As I started to go through the pile, carefully preserving the order, my other aunt piped up, “They aren’t in any order. We had them all over the table when Penny showed them to us.” That was time to bite my tongue! It is useful to know that the photographs tucked into the passport is about what my living relatives thought, not how Bill arranged them.
Later, at home with a table clear of New Year Chinese takeaway & fish and chips, I set about cataloguing the collection. First, I recorded the origin of the collection and asked Penny if she was happy for me to use the documents on this blog. It is important to establish whether there are any concerns that might need addressing. That covers the first stage (accession) of archival cataloguing described in Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description.
The next step is to gather related items and put them into an order. The arrangement process can be summarised in 3 steps:
- List everything and count the number of items. There are 59 items in this collection.
- Decide what to keep. This collection has already been sifted by Penny, so there isn’t anything to be discarded, except an empty plastic pocket.
- Group related things together in a hierarchy.
This video from York Libraries and Archives gives guidance for community archives.
As you can see from the video, the same collection was grouped differently by the participants, but both were equally valid. An analogy is the ways in which you could arrange a pack of cards. If you want to check the pack is complete, you could sort by suit, then by value. If you were playing rummy you would group runs in suits, and triples of matching value. For cribbage combinations that add up to 15, and pairs are important. It is easy to return a pack of cards to its original order because the information in on the cards. Historical documents are rarely so amenable.
Some people advocate organising your genealogical documents according to the people they relate to, working through your family tree. This approach is problematic, because it fails to preserve provenance information, does not accommodate documents that don’t relate to individuals and is vulnerable to changes in conclusions that are an inevitable part of genealogical research. Bill’s collection could be split between himself, his parents, grandparents, and a ship. That would lose the information that these documents were Bill’s own, and that he kept them for many years. It is possible to record that information separately, but I think that is doing things the hard way. Going back to the cards analogy, the less shuffling the easier it is to see and understand what you have.
You may recall that the collection had been shuffled, so my task was to re-create a logical order. I settled on 5 categories (series), some of which were sub-divided (files):
- Official documents
- Passports 1 item
- Civil registration 5 items
- Personal documents
- Correspondence 6 items
- Other 2 items
- Largs Bay. Voyage, ship history 5 items
- Military papers. WWII 9 items
- Photographs 31 items
Within each category, I sorted the documents by date order and numbered them accordingly. Most of the photographs are undated. I grouped them by size, paper type, markings on back and content, so photos processed at the same time should be together. There is still work to do on the photos, so I am not going to assign sub-divisions within them.
To stop shuffling when I start working with this collection, I put the photos in a slip in album and the documents in a display book with plastic pockets. This is cheap and readily available storage, which is adequate for the short term. In the longer term, I may invest in proper archival storage.
The next step is detailed description of both groups and items. I have basic description from the first list of items that could be used as a title for each item. Essential information for most descriptions include: creator, date, title (what is it), description (more details), extent (e.g. how many pages in a leaflet, how many items in a series), level (collection, series or item), reference.
So, the first few catalogue entries look like this:
|Title||William Henry Lawrence (1915-2009) collection|
|Description||Documents relating to William Henry Lawrence, his parents (William Henry Lawrence & Edith May Spencer) and maternal grandparents (Robert Spencer & Mary Ann Marsden Bentley). Born in Australia but returned to Britain on SS Largs Bay after his father’s death. Photographs, army papers from WWII, passports, civil registration certificates, national health & national registration documents, letters, telegrams, business card, funeral bill.|
|Extent||2 files, 6 items|
|Title||Passport. 289463. Mr R Spencer, wife Mary Ann Marsden Spencer nee Bentley|
|Creator||Foreign Office, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.|
|Description||Valid for British Empire. Issued 20 November 1922, expiry date 20 November 1924, renewal Melbourne 10 January 1925 – 20 November 1925, stamps 11 Jan 1923 Fremantle; 10 January 1925 Melbourne|
|Dates||20 November 1922|
|Title||Birth Certificate. Gwendoline Dorothy Brown. 11 August 1915|
|Creator||Superintendent Registrar. Balsall Heath, King’s Norton.|
|Description||Birth Certificate [short form]. Entry no 263, book 6a. Gwendoline Dorothy Brown. Born 11 August 1915, registered 22 September 1915.|
|Dates||22 September 1915|
After arranging the collection, I am able to find documents and see how they relate to one another. As I add more detailed description, the catalogue becomes an even more valuable resource. More information than typically appears in citations is included.
Would you like software that helps you build your own genealogy archive catalogue?
© Sue Adams 2016