Thursday, 20 October 2011

Society for Editors and Proofreaders conference

Apart from several recent visits to the Guildhall Library and The National Archives (in pursuit of some records relating to naval matters) I have temporarily put aside historical research to concentrate on editorial work. I gained a place on the mentoring scheme run by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, and the material I have been sent to work on has been challenging, to say the least; I was gratified that my mentor saw fit to congratulate me on making a decent fist of editing a lengthy and arcane text on Chinese archaeological discoveries!

I also attended the conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, which proved to be useful and surprising in equal measure. I was asked to contribute a short review of the session on the current state of epublishing given by the head of Faber Digital, and this piece is due to appear in the special conference supplement that will shortly be published by SfEP. I do not consider myself a chronic technophobe, but I am suspicious of technology as so often it seems to take away as much as it gives. However, I must concede that the two Faber iPad apps that were demonstrated (the Solar System and The Wasteland) were simply stunning; so much so that at several moments during the session I did wonder if I was witnessing the redefinition of what it means to read a book.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Repeal of the Statute of Apprentices

A recent visit to the Guildhall Library proved interesting; my long-standing client who is working on printers' unions in the early nineteenth century had asked me to look at a unique printed source (ref: Bside 20.32; no title - it turned out to be an administrative document) mentioned in an article published in 1931 in the Economic History Review.

The article was about the final repeal of the apprenticeship clauses of the Elizabethan Statute of Apprentices in 1814. Eager to be done with the thing were the coming men of nascent laissez-faire capitalism; standing out for retention and an extension of the Statute was an array of mechanics, who had constituted a working committee to formulate their arguments and then formally petition Parliament. London workmen were the driving force behind the initiative, but contacts with other tradesmen in provincial cities and towns were clearly extensive, and appeals to join the cause were even made to the masters. The essential grievance of the mechanics was straightforward: youths and men who had not served a full seven-year apprenticeship were flooding the labour market and driving down wages; not too difficult to see why the various forces involved lined up as they did on this one, and we know who was on the winning side - the race to the bottom had begun.

The document under consideration was the work of the aforementioned mechanics' committee, and several things about it are striking. Firstly, they raised a considerable sum of money (£987 8s 4d to be exact, over £500 of which was raised from tradesmen in the provinces) to finance their activities. Secondly, they must have been terrified of possible legal repercussions under 'the lash of the Convention or Combination Act', as they felt it necessary to seek counsel's view on the legality or otherwise of their proceedings (the cagey - and expensive (£177 22s 5d) - response from Mr Serjeant Shepherd? The committee and its fund-raising activities were legal, just). And thirdly, T. K. Derry, the author of the EHR article, seems to have known all about the 'enormous condescension of posterity', what with his casual and high-handed dismissal of the mechanics from the historical stage. (By way of a belated riposte, it might be worth mentioning that he was a careless transcriber who got an important quote wrong. Historians! Never trust 'em ...)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

London Society of Compositors

Another research trip, this time accompanying my client to the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick to look at selected items from the archives of the London Society of Compositors (MSS.28). I had never used early trade union records before, and did not know what to expect. We looked at a total of seven files, mostly minute books from the 1820s and early 1830s created by predecessor bodies of the LSC. It was intriguing to read the formal and austere language and see the precision with which the proceedings were recorded; curiously though, a vivid sense of the actual discussions somehow comes through, and this contrasts sharply with modern minutes I have read which tend to be very thin and arid indeed. And of course, in the era of sofa government with its inherent vagueness (handy for buck-passing), the very notion of trying to capture the essence of a discussion and then recording the voting on proposals and resolutions seems ludicrously quaint. But how much more correct these men were in their behaviour, and how useful their records to the historian!

Also worth mentioning how familiar the contents seemed to this particular modern reader: complaints about institutional inertia; money and funding worries; falling membership; the 'what did the union ever do for me?' refrain of the indolent and inactive (who were nevertheless quite happy to accept the benefits won by the union); the exhausting dedication of a few selfless activists ... It would all be wearily familiar to anyone who has ever been involved with union activity. One other thing that did stand out was the apparent insularity of the union; nowhere, amidst the wealth of unbelievably technical discussions about pay scales and work practices (this was early nineteenth-century printing remember!), did we find references to the agitations for political reform, the abolition of slavery or Catholic emancipation. Perhaps the men were too busy trying to scrape a living and organise the union to get involved in these bigger campaigns.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Nothing changes, or if it does it's for the worse ...

Two recent research trips worthy of comment.

Firstly, a trip to The National Archives a week or so back was at the behest of a client who asked me to check several reports in the (paper) National Register of Archives. I must confess to more than the usual professional interest here because I used to work at the Historical Manuscripts Commission, which, in more civilized times, used to maintain the Register at Quality Court in Chancery Lane. It grieved me to find that the NRA is now stuck away in a corner of TNA, unmanned and apparently unloved; a real loss this as the 40,000 plus reports are full of information of use to the researcher, much of which will never make it online. The Register deserves to be better known - and better treated by TNA.

Secondly, I was at the British Library last week, checking some references to the nineteenth-century printing trade in the personal papers of the political reformer Francis Place. Add MS 27,798 is a volume of Place's memoirs in which he dwells at length on his involvement in the political campaign to secure the repeal of the laws designed to prevent workmen combining to form unions. Having followed with some interest recent events involving the Australian-born American owner of The Times newspaper, I needed to suppress a laugh that would have disturbed the repose of the reading room when I came across the following choice extract that refers to a strike in 1810 by the printers who produced the paper:

'The Times newspaper was then as now [Place was writing his memoirs in 1829] in the hands of men as utterly dishonest as men can be, of men whose avowed purpose, is, to procure money in large sums by every means which may in their opinion be effectually used for that purpose.'

1810, 1829, 2011 ... And 50, 100, 200 years from now as well, no doubt, the same situation will obtain ...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections

A recent research trip to the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections at the British Library proved interesting. My client needed various sources checking for references to a particular individual and his extensive family, a wife and some 14 children in total! Curious to think that despite all of those names, and a great deal of diagnostic information with which to orient enquiries, I located just two references to the family. A disappointing result, of course, but also a useful illustration of the considerable lacunae which, as is well-known, exists in the documentary record detailing the history of the British in India.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Article in Your Family History

I am pleased to see that an article I co-authored with my good friend and former colleague Neil Kevan has appeared in the June issue of Your Family History. I spent eight years working at Title Research, the noted firm of probate genealogists, and was handed the company's portfolio of  Irish cases soon after I started, so I can claim to speak with at least some authority on this complicated subject. Coincidentally, I heard The Pogues' song 'Thousands are Sailing' on Radio 4 the other day; I hadn't heard this Philip Chevron-penned song for years and had forgotten how powerful it is. If ever there was a piece of work that encapsulates the depth of the trauma that mass emigration inflicted on Irish society it is surely this.   

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

PhDs, AGRA and Chancery records ...

Quite a busy few weeks for me recently. But first, many congratulations to my friend Victoria Carolan, who recently completed her PhD at Queen Mary, and passed the viva with flying colours. I have no doubt that her work, entitled 'British Maritime History, National Identity and Film, 1900-1960', will be snapped up by a publisher and laid before the public in due course.

The morning after celebrating with Victoria I attended the AGM of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (I am an Associate Member). Dr Nick Barrett gave a fluent and thought-provoking address, and I met many fellow toilers in the research/genealogical vineyard; all were generous with their time and advice.

And finally ... another successful visit to The National Archives on behalf of a previous client. I managed to obtain some crisp digital images of Chancery and Star Chamber records which my client needs for his research. I confess that I cannot read them, but some of these documents can be admired purely for their aesthetic qualities; my guess is that they were written in Court Hand, although some of them might be in Secretary or Chancery Hand. I will ask my client for further information. The general deterioration in the level of calligraphy is very sad, and presumably will only get worse as traditional letter-writing declines, and the keeping of written records in general is superceded by the cold impersonality of electronic documents. Much to my annoyance my own handwriting is not particularly impressive (it is, at least, clear) but my mother's hand is a joy to behold: perfectly legible, consistent and almost preternaturally beautiful.

Monday, 23 May 2011

William Thomas Whiffin

During my last voluntary stint at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, I took the opportunity of finding out a little more about the photographer behind the Whiffin Photographic collection. There is a small collection of papers (Whiffin 770 (Folder 3) includes a few letters written by Whiffin) from which I gleaned a few biographical details. The man behind these photographs was William Thomas Whiffin (circa 1879-1957), a successful and highly accomplished professional photographer, with studios in the East India Dock Road, King's Cross, Harrow Road and Mare Street in Hackney. Whiffin documented significant events in the East End (he turned his lens on the rise of 'Poplarism' in the early 1920s and the General Strike of 1926) but many of his photographs are of inconsequential scenes which are all the more fascinating because of their ordinariness. In September 1939 Whiffin applied for a permit to document life in Poplar during WW2, and was presumably successful, albeit working under restricted conditions. One particularly poignant handwritten note from a municipal official, dated 14 May 1941, presses Whiffin to attend a makeshift mortuary in Knapps Road to photograph the corpse of an unidentified boy aged 14. My first thought was that the young lad was a victim of the Blitz, but I suppose he could have died in some other way. How ever it was he died, it brought me up short when I read that. I wonder if the authorities ever did identify the child.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Military and civil engineering

Although it is wise never to indulge in any travel writing because a) it is a debased genre, and b) the great I, Ludicrous examine the folly of the holiday bore in their epic 'Oh, Really' (to be found on the peerless LP Idiots Savants), I would suggest that anyone with an interest in the history of civil and military engineering should consider visiting the Argolid region of the Peloponnese in Greece. Within easy reach of the town of Nafplion are prime examples of ancient Mycenean defensive citadels, classical Greek temples and theatres, Roman baths and Frankish, Venetian and Turkish castles; some of these structures are so immense, and positioned such in the landscape that they almost defy belief. The building techniques employed by the Myceneans, and the manner in which they must have co-ordinated the sheer brute strength necessary to transport and manoeuvre such huge blocks of stone, are particularly impressive; quite how they did it is, I gather, still a matter of some debate amongst scholars of antiquity. I have no ideas to contribute on that score (perhaps I should ask my brothers who work in the building trade ...), but I can certainly appreciate building and engineering genuis when I see it.    

Friday, 22 April 2011

Copy-editing for an undergraduate student

The genealogy is on hold at the moment, as I have been asked to copy-edit an undergraduate’s dissertation. This will require some degree of urgency and application to meet the deadline, but it will be completed, on that my client may depend. For the past three years he has been studying civil engineering, a subject about which I know nothing. This is not the problem some might think, as the brief is to run my eye over the grammar, style and clarity of the piece – I certainly won’t be tempted to meddle with the content! 

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Identifying 'lost' nineteenth-century London streets

I have made further progress with my current genealogical research project, mainly in connection with pinpointing exactly where the various branches of my client’s family lived in East London in the mid- and late nineteenth century. I have been surprised at how difficult this has been, even with numerous London street directories from the time readily to hand: I wonder if there is a handy and comprehensive modern volume recording the changes to London’s street names, dates of clearance and demolition, and also wartime destruction? Eventually, I managed to find what I was looking for by poring over the 1867–70 OS maps at the London Metropolitan Archives with a magnifying glass; not a frivolous exercise by any means, as one can distinguish the various buildings where my client’s family lived, and copies of the relevant sections of these maps will hopefully make the walking tour I am planning for him that much easier to organise.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Poplar High Street in the 1920s and 1930s

I do voluntary work at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, and try to get in for a couple of hours once a week. Managed to do so today, and catalogued part of a box of the extensive photographic collection of street scenes. The particular box I was working through mainly consisted of very evocative photographs of Poplar High Street from the 1920s and 1930s. Notes and annotations on many of the prints indicate that they were part of the Whiffin Photographic Collection. Information about this collection is at present somewhat scant, although a brief reference found on the net indicates that Whiffin’s Studio was actually based locally, at 237 East India Road, Poplar. Doubtless the staff at THLHLA would have more information about Whiffin’s Studio and the provenance of the collection: I must remember to ask next time.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Interesting connection with Israel Zangwill

Some excitement recently in connection with the genealogical research I am undertaking for my New York client. It has transpired that a great uncle of his, one Nathaniel Cooper, worked with the future author Israel Zangwill at the Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane, Spitalfields. The two were educated at the School, and went on to teach there in the 1880s; as almost exact contemporaries – Nathaniel was born in Whitechapel on 29 April 1864, Zangwill on 21 January 1864 – they surely knew each other.
On discovering the connection, I immediately checked the National Register of Archives to see where Zangwill’s papers are located. It was no surprise to find that there is a significant deposit of papers (including some of his brother Louis) among the Jewish collections at Southampton University Library: MSS 294–5, to be exact. Further investigation of the University’s online catalogue revealed that MS 294 includes some material relating to Zangwill’s early life and education at the Jews’ Free School (and MS 153 contains some early minutes and papers of the School itself). Zangwill’s papers might conceivably shed oblique light on Nathaniel’s formative education and early working life as a youthful ‘pupil teacher’ (as he – and Zangwill – is described on the 1881 census) at the JFS, and in an ideal world I would undertake a research trip to Southampton to consult them, but this, alas, is not an ideal world and time will not permit …
It is interesting to speculate if Nathaniel and Zangwill were on friendly terms, and if so, whether they maintained personal contact in later life. Zangwill’s literary celebrity – considerable in his day – remains to some extent, but Nathaniel pursued a more humble path, working as a schoolmaster, at the JFS until at least the late 1890s and then in Ilford. I have yet to establish the school at which he taught in Ilford; perhaps that could be my next project.