Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Manuscripts and Archives

Historians seldom take documents at their face value. In assessing the nature of the evidence, it is often helpful – indeed, necessary – to ask a number of questions. For whom was the document prepared? To whom was it sent, and for what purpose? Was the writer or sender attempting to provide the recipient (and others) with an objective statement, or was there some ulterior or hidden motive?

With a manuscript (and `manuscript’ is used here to mean any hand-written document) the historian can study not only what it says but also how it presents itself. The way that a letter is laid out, the formality or informality of its style, the way the text has been altered or corrected, the evident care or haste with which it has been written, the existence of any docket or endorsement – all these may be useful clues. In the case of nineteenth-century Foreign Office correspondence, for instance, there is an important distinction between a despatch and a `private and confidential’ letter, and this is normally indicated not only by the style and form of address but by the size and type of paper used.

One can also learn something, however, from the company which an individual document has kept, or in which it is now to be found. Documents are sometimes produced in isolation, but more often they originated as part of a series – a series of letters, for instance, between two individuals, or a series of minute books recording the activities of an institution or a business firm. Thus the Foreign Office despatch and the private letter from a diplomat to the Foreign Secretary would belong to two separate series of correspondence. The original incoming despatch, or the official copy of the outgoing one, would be part of a series preserved in the official records of the Foreign Office. The private correspondence, together perhaps with drafts of despatches, might be kept in the personal papers of the Foreign Secretary himself. The historian using the Foreign Office records does not need to examine every document to discover its status. But the historian working on the privately preserved papers of a Foreign Secretary might well need to know whether a certain document is the draft of a private letter or the draft of a despatch.

The historian is here dealing with two archives: the Foreign Office archive and the personal archive of the Foreign Secretary. The word archive, originally meaning a place where documents were kept, is now used in a variety of senses. Most loosely it can stand for any assembly of documentary material. In this booklet, however, it is used specifically to mean a body of documents accumulated in the course of business. `Accumulated’ implies here that the papers have been created and retained in order to further the work of the organisation or individual that has created them, not primarily in order to form an interesting or valuable collection of documents. The formation of an archive is in fact a necessary act of institutional or personal housekeeping. Business implies the activities of any record-creating body, be it a department of state, corporation, commercial firm, society, charity, landed estate or individual. Personal archives, however, may be less `natural’ and more self- conscious than institutional archives.

In contrast with the archive stands what may be termed the artificial collection. This is an assembly of items culled from various sources, by purchase, gift or otherwise. It may have a certain uniformity of content: it may consist, for instance, entirely of letters or manuscript maps, or it may relate entirely to one historical period or subject. But it will lack the internal coherence of an archive, making it harder to draw any conclusion from the physical position of a document within it.

From what has already been said it will be clear that to find a document in its archival context is a distinct advantage. There are other advantages in working on an archivally coherent body of material, as opposed to a number of isolated documents from different sources. To take an example from a different kind of collection, the student of seventeenth-century agrarian history might be pleased to discover a rent account for a major landed estate, but might then find it hard to interpret it if it is merely the lone survivor of what had once been a series of similar accounts. The sums due from individual tenants, for instance, might represent the annual rental, or the rent plus accumulated arrears. If the volume survives as part of a run of rentals and accounts for the period, on the other hand, its evidence will be much easier to interpret.

The greatest merit of the archive for the historian, however, is that it is more than the sum of its constituent documents. Because of the way in which an archive is built up – or rather laid down, like sedimentary rocks – it can provide the temporal dimension that is so essential to any historical study. In other words, it provides evidence for the study of change, change not only within the institution that created it but in the wider society of which it formed a part. In choosing a research project, therefore, the existence of one or more relevant and well-preserved archives may be an influential factor. But this is not, of course, to say that the student should eschew subjects for which large collections or archives are unavailable, still less that, having found a good archive, he or she should build a study exclusively on it and look no further for relevant material. It is with an historical question needing an answer, rather than with an archive inviting exploration, that the researcher’s quest should begin.

Just as it is wise to approach an individual document with a degree of scepticism, so it is necessary to bear in mind that institutions as well as individuals can distort the record in their own interests. A medieval monastery such as Westminster or St Albans might re-write its own history by `forging’ early charters. More subtly the minute of a board or committee meeting may be `constructively’ written to record what should have been said rather than the discussion that actually took place. This is an example of where the formal manuscript record may be slow to yield its secrets in the absence of supplementary evidence from diaries, newspaper reports or similar sources.

Furthermore, although institutions develop their own personalities, it is often useful for the historian to establish which individual within the organisation produced the record. In the case of a composite archive such as a major family and estate collection this can be quite complicated. The bulk of the archive may have emanated from the estate office, under the control of the agent or steward, although a large estate may have had sub-agents with separate offices, and separately-run departments devoted to buildings or forestry. Deeds and legal papers may also be bulky, having come either from the chief family lawyer in London (or Edinburgh or Dublin) or from the offices of local solicitors engaged as manorial stewards. The family itself will in many cases have kept its own archive, including perhaps letters from stewards and solicitors to the head of the family as well as more personal material. In the grander houses housekeepers, butlers, librarians and private secretaries may all have kept records. In a manufacturing business archive the principal division may have been between the company records, including the minutes and correspondence, kept by the company secretary, and the works records, kept nearer to the shop floor.

In studying a large collection of any kind it may also be helpful to establish whose job it was to keep the records and where. The public records of this country, for instance, have had a remarkably chequered custodial history (see below, p 7). In some country houses valuable family papers might be kept in the muniment room; in others the muniment room might be the preserve of the family lawyer, and personal papers would be kept instead in the library, particularly if they were in bound volumes. These differing practices have important implications not only for where manuscripts might now be located but in some cases for whether they have survived at all.


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