Archives and History News: Glastonbury Festival, women in the First World War, and sound recordings!

Glastonbury festival has gradually moved from from hippy counter-culture to mainstream middle-class staple. The V&A now keeps an archive about Glastonbury, the final nail in the counter-culture coffin. Glastonbury is dead. Long live Glastonbury!

An image from the V&A’s Glastonbury archive

I found this incredible story via a friend. Dorothy Lawrence, a woman-in-disguise-as-a-man fought on the frontline during the First World War. The British authorities weren’t too pleased. In contrast, Flora Sandes, another British woman, went to Serbia as a nurse. The Serbians weren’t as choosy as the British, and Flora not only become a respected soldier, but she was also promoted to Captain. She loved the war, as it was a time of unimaginable freedom for a woman.

Captain Flora Sandes

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has made digital copies of more than 400,000 artworks available to download for free, for non-commercial use. That means you’ll all be be able to go to their website and use wonderful images like this:

The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, by Juan de Borbón, 1852

The New Yorker magazine has a great story about how an experimental physicist was inspired by The Grateful Dead (who are rather keen on archives) to help preserve nineteenth and early twentieth century ethnographic recordings of Aboriginal music. You have to subscribe to get the whole story.

Over in India, All India Radio Tiruchirappalli is working hard to digitise a huge collection of tapes and records, of Indian classical and folk music and talk shows, for future generations to enjoy.

This month you can also hear me, on the Who Do You Think You Are? magazine podcast, talking about lunatic asylums, along with plenty of information about First World War genealogy. I also have a feature about asylums in the July issue of the magazine.

Heroes of History: Thomas Wakley

Have you ever gone to hospital for an operation and wondered whether your surgeon had any kind of training? Ever wondered whether your baby’s food is poisonous? Ever wondered whether coroners actually know anything about the causes of the causes of death, or whether they just make something up? No?? Say thank you to Thomas Wakley – boxer, surgeon, editor, coroner, MP, and one of the nineteenth century’s greatest heroes!!  Continue reading

Archives and History News: Andy Warhol, Sinn Fein, Jeff Beck, Aboriginal photography, Mussolini and the LAPD!!

Digital art by Andy Warhol

The archives world is very concerned with digital obsolescence. This may seem like an obscure topic, but it’s one that’s increasingly going to affect our lives. In 1985 Andy Warhol created some digital artworks and saved them on Amiga disks. After a painstaking 3-year project, they’ve now been recovered from that obsolete data format. That’s not a problem you have to worry about with art on canvas. Continue reading

News: genealogy and gin

I have an article out in the June issue of Family Tree Magazine, all about eighteenth century hospital records, specifically maternity records, and how to use them in genealogy research. It’s a great issue, with features on Victorian fatherhood, tracing your police ancestors, the bawdy courts, asylum handicrafts, the First World War, and more!

Yes - I am drinking a gin cocktail from a shoe!

Yes – I am drinking a gin cocktail from a shoe!

Last Wednesday I went on an incredible Gin Journey with a company called Shake, Rattle and Stir. For the princely sum of £50 we were taken on a chauffeur-driven tour of five fabulous and hard to find London bars, tasted 5 samples of artisanal gin, and drank five incredible gin cocktails, while learning all about the history and production of this wonderfully English spirit. Much of that knowledge has mysteriously faded away from mind… but I can tell you that gin is simply vodka flavoured with juniper (and other botanicals), and that a mere ten gin and tonics will be enough to prevent you getting malaria!

The ultimate gin and tonic - exclusive to the Gin Journey!

The ultimate gin and tonic – exclusive to the Gin Journey!

Archives and History News: Beer, Einstein’s mistakes, vegetarians and justice for Jewish families.

Here’s what you’ve all been waiting for: the which archivist are you? quiz. If you can find a more obscure quiz, let me know!

Archives – perfectly represented by an acid-free box

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10 fantastically diverse Victorian novels

Many people think Victorian novels are boring novels. I blame schools, for only ever teaching the really dull ones. In fact, Victorian novels are span every genre, style and topic you can think of. Here’s a list of ten fantastically diverse Victorian novels, showing there really is something for everyone.

1: Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot was of course the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, who like many female writers of the time had to pretend to be a man to get a work of ‘serious’ fiction published. This is exactly the type of book that Victorian-haters hate: a long and leisurely novel, detailing the lives and milieu of several people in a fictional Midlands town. Well, tough luck for you, haters, but it’s the greatest work of realism of the Victorian age. The struggles of poor Dorothea, a lonely and misguided intellectual trapped in a disastrous marriage, mirror Eliot’s own struggles as a woman in an age that gave women very little freedom.

2: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 

In a fight between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre would win. Jane Eyre gives us the tortured Mr Rochester, evil school teachers, sinister priests, a madwoman in the attic, and a whole maelstrom of melodramatic gothic romance. It also has Jane, one of literature’s greatest heroines: a true fighter, trapped between her immense passion for life and her deeply held religious and moral convictions. On the other hand, Wuthering Heights has a complex literary structure, a damp moor in Yorkshire and a sadistic, wife-beating, semi-literate, pet-murdering bastard called H**thcl*ff, who is supposed to be a romantic hero. I rest my case.

3: Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Victorians could do horror just as well as anyone writing since. Possibly even better, since the morals of the time required required a discreet veil to be drawn over sexual matters, making everything even more mysterious and exciting. Dracula has a complex, epistolary style, and is an intense, vivid, adventure story, with some brilliant scenes and a great cast of characters: Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing the Vampire hunter, Renfield the asylum inmate, Lucy the unfortunate victim, and of course Dracula himself.

4: The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s only novel, published in 1890, was greeted by howls of outrage, calls for him to be prosecuted for indecency, and was censored before it was even published. It tells the story of Dorian, who remains forever young and beautiful while he pursues a life of hedonism and debauchery. Meanwhile his portrait, stored in the attic, changes to reflect the hideousness of his soul. The novel is both an example of the aesthetic movement which coined the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’, and a critique of its hollowness. Adaptations never do the novel justice: it’s interest lies more in its decadent, literary style than the plot.

5: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 

This state of the nation novel deals with factory workers in Manchester. It has a fantastically exciting plot, combining murder, romance and revolution. This makes the novel’s left-wing political stance and realism in depicting the hardships of ordinary people’s living conditions even more startling. It’s paints a far grimmer picture of the class divide than Dickens ever did, but also gives a voice to the working classes, including many genuine ‘folk’ discourses of the day, from political speeches to poetry and quack remedies.

6: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll 

Alice has become such an iconic part of our culture that it’s easy to forget it was originally a surreal Victorian children’s book, written by a mathematician and possible pervert, and one of the finest examples of the ‘nonsense’ genre. As it was aimed at children, it’s a lot easier to read than many Victorian novels, which do tend towards the ‘stodgy’… If you only know the book through pop culture, it’s well worth reading the charming original, which includes many more mathematical puzzles than you might expect.

7: She by H Rider Haggard

She is one of the best-selling and most influential novels OF ALL TIME, and yet very few people seem to have read it. It’s a sort of colonial adventure story meets fantasy, one of the first of the ‘lost world’ genre and an inspiration to sci-fi and fantasy writers ever since. The novel features two intrepid chaps who discover a hidden country in darkest Africa, ruled by Queen Ayesha or ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed.’ Of course it’s all terribly imperialist, racist, sexist, and worryingly obsessed with degeneration theory and eugenics, but don’t let politically correct distaste put you off! It’s a really wild book, with treasure maps, cannibals, eternal life, magic and romance. It’s also soooo badly written – which is all part of its crazy appeal!

8: The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

This science fiction novel features actual genuine Martians – in suburbia! Humanity (or at least southern England) is nearly wiped out, until the Martians all die from a common cold. The novel is pretty violent, and explicitly compares to the Martians, with their environmental destruction and imperialism, to the British Empire. Plus, it’s impossible to think of without immediately belting out some tunes from Jeff Wayne’s wacky 1978 musical album. Altogether now: ‘the chan-ces of an-y-thing com-ing from Mars, are a million to one they said!!!’ You will now be singing that for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

9: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The second Sherlock Holmes, published in 1890, introduces Dr Watson’s future wife Mary, who brings a baffling and mysterious case to Sherlock. It features a secret hoard of Treasure stolen from British India, soldiers, convicts, family feuds, murders, ludicrous disguises, and a villainous one-legged man and his dwarf assistant. It’s also the novel that introduces Holmes’ drug habit – Watson tells him that taking cocaine three times a day is bad for his health, but Holmes counters that he would be bored without the constant mental stimulation. In fact at the end of the novel, Holmes is not too bothered that the bungling police take all the credit for solving the case – he has plenty of cocaine to cheer him up.

10: Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog!) by Jerome K Jerome

And finally, to prove the Victorian’s weren’t such a po-faced lot as we think, a comedy. This delightful novel tells the story of 3 clerks taking a boating holiday on the Thames. It was originally intended as a serious travel guide, but the author’s silly side got the better of him. The critics hated it, dubbing it a vulgar book for ‘Arrys and ‘Arriets – people who *shudder* dropped their aitches. But it sold millions of copies. And who can blame people for enjoying it? It’s light, carefree tone perfectly captures the delights of lazy holidays, friendship, the eccentricities of the English, and elevates life’s minor disasters into high farce. A joy.

Archives and History News!

Archivists and conservators the world over face all the problems – protecting vast collections from the ravages of time, and official indifference. In theory, this sounds a little dry, but in practice it can be very exciting. For example…

A unique collection of over 30,000 photographs, documenting 120 years of life inside Buddhist monasteries in Laos, has been digitised thanks to The British Library’s Endangered Archives programme. The images are not all online yet, but it looks like a fascinating collection, giving a unique insight into the monastic way of life.

An image from the Buddhist archive of photography

In Cambridge, catastrophe threatens the city archives, in the form of slowly creeping mould and rot. The national archives has condemned the city’s archive storage conditions, and threatened them closure. The stores, in the basement of County Hall (where else?) are damp and leaky. Cambridge University has pulled out of a £12 million project to create a joint archives and heritage centre, seemingly in a squabble about ‘priorities’. I hope Cambridge City Council and University get their acts together. It’s not every day you can come up with that kind of money to save your priceless historic records from obliteration.

A conservator cleaning a celluloid film

Similar squabbles and mismanagement threaten the survival of the Sinamatek film archive in Indonesia. Film buffs have complained about the poor storage conditions at the Sinamatek centre for film archives and education. In this case the Jakarta Tourism agency and city authorities may step in rescue the archive. Fingers crossed.

Documents from Cologne

In Cologne, 200 conservators and assistants are working to restore the artefacts damaged when the Historical Archive in Cologne collapsed five years ago, because of an accident with the construction of a new subway. The builders probably hadn’t thought about quite how much paper weighs. About 95 percent of the total stock was rescued, but the collection – parts of which are more than 1,000 years old – is far from restored.

J Edgar Hoover, FBI director, spy, and information hoarder

Meanwhile, on a completely different note, the tricksy old USA has been hiding secret information for decades - intercepts of diplomatic cables, and records of spying on both friendly and communist states. In 1948 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover gave orders for sensitive political papers to be stored away in Room 6527 – known as the Confidential File Room – at its Washington headquarters. The records did not show up in any index so that the FBI would be able to deny any knowledge of the relevant documents should anyone start to ask questions. There were so many documents that their weight began to threaten the building’s structure.

Celebrate International Women’s Day with historical heroine Elizabeth Garrett Anderson!

In honour of International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate one of the most inspirational women of the nineteenth century - Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

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