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Our regular readers may remember that last year we raised
£27,724 on Kickstarter to digitise 28,000 documents telling the story of a
million war time women. The work began in September and since then we have
uncovered interesting, unusual and sometimes very short stories which are
regularly posted on Twitter and Facebook. As well as these stories we have also
discovered a number of different ink colours, styles of handwriting and spills.
This sometimes makes the documents difficult to read but there are skills that
can be used to help us interpret and identify them.
Palaeography is the study of ancient and historical
handwriting, how it was formed and changed overtime rather than the contents or
the meanings of the words themselves. It is also useful alongside the study of
diplomatica for dating documents; luckily most of the Narrative Reports are
stamped or dated. There are several different types of handwriting studied on
Archive courses but modern historians and our team would find the study of
secretary and italic more useful than anglicana or gothic. However it could be
argued this does not really apply at the time covered in the digitised reports
especially those produced on a typewriter. Furthermore standardised handwriting
appears to be disappearing at this point (1938-1942); there are many different
variations within the collection which you can see in the images throughout
this blog. Although in some writing you can still see the use some identifiers
of italic. The Centre Organisers were usually middle aged women who were probably
taught italic in school. We use these skills to try to read and transcribe documets like the one below or Emma Yellowley's Diary.
Can you decipher this text? I will provide an answer at the end of next weeks blog. Though perhaps you are more interested in the different colours used in the Narrative Reports.
We’ve probably all seen the beautifully illuminated
documents of the medieval era and may not associate this with modern records; however
another thought-provoking study of these documents is the different ways centre
organisers or their secretaries chose to write or illustrate these documents. This
includes small drawings, poetry or the use of different coloured inks. So far
our archives assistant has encountered black and blue as you would expect but
also purple and green. This doesn’t only apply to the handwritten documents but
those typed on a typewriter. This wouldn’t help us to date or read the
documents as coloured inks and dyes have been around for 1000s of years even
though they were more expensive and less readily available before the twentieth
century. On the other hand the typewriter’s (first invented in 1557) design was
standardised by 1910. Though a typed document is easier to read and doesn’t require
palaeography skills it can still be used to tell us where a document originated
as every typewriter is individual. In our collection of reports there are some centres
which continually use a typewriter that punches holes when the o or e key is
used. A keen eye may also be required to read slightly blurred type or those
which are fading which is why our Kickstarter project is extremely important.
I hope that I have given you some food for thought this week
while also providing a challenge. The History of a million wartime women
hasn’t only brought a new insight into the role of women on the Homefront but
some different perspectives on the look and feel of the documents themselves. It
also highlights how significant handwriting and the ability to read it is for
archivists offering access to their collections and unlocking them for future
generations. Finally, for those of you who know me yes I have been reading
Sherlock Holmes novels again and that’s where the inspiration for the title
Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00
Monday, 03 April 2017.
Narrative Report, ,
Our archives are quite literally a feast for the eyes and soul most of which surfaces when we are looking at material to make accessible as part of our ongoing work to develop the archive. This week Matthew our Archivist was cataloguing some of our Miscellaneous Memoranda* collection when he came across a set of very interesting letters written by the cream of the crop from the word 1940s of literature.
Writers included Olaf Stapledon, a creator of science fiction; Noel Streatfield and Dorothy Whipple, children’s authors; Daphne Du Maurier, romantic novelist; Cynthia Asquith a teller of ghost stories; Margaret Lane biographer of the Bronte Sisters and Beatrix Potter and Joanna Cannon writer of Pony Books and detective fiction. All these writers put pen to paper to tell Americans and Canadians, who through the Red Cross supported Nurseries for Under Fives run by WVS during the war, how children under the age of five who could not be evacuated with their families were being cared for.
Each of the letters tell a different story of visits to nurseries in Kettering, Lewes, Lyme Park, Regents Park, Sandford Park, Ringwood Hampshire, Culham Court Oxon and Shephall Bury. Inspired by the work in these nurseries they formed very detailed depictions, excitedly explaining how funds and gifts from the American Red Cross gave the children, as Daphne Du Maurier described it, “enjoyment and complete unconcern”. They also enlighten the reader describing how the children are cared for, the matrons roles in the nurseries, Christmas celebrations and the importance of meal times.
Each letter is almost like a short story or chapter from a novel displaying the writers’ individual style so this week I will end with two quotes to give your eyes a glimpse at our cave of wonders.
"At Miss Brady's call, the children came tumbling in to get ready for their mid-day meal. The shining gadgetted bathroom, with its ordinary dozens of everything - twelve towels, twelve named toothbrushes, etc, etc, reminded me of Snow White's establishment."
Cynthia Asquith writing about her visit to Court House near Lewes, Sussex
"The door opened and in came a magnificently fat Father Christmas led by two of the little boys. Father Christmas, very properly, was an American Father Christmas, Mr Bernard Carter, your Red Cross Deligate over here."
Noel Streatfield writing about her visit to the Day Nursery in Regents Park, I feel that I should point out that in scene she describes before Father Christmas appears the Matron was seen leaving the room with a number of pillows.
* (yes I know fellow archivists are shuddering at the mere mention of the word Miscellaneous but we need to respect original order and des fonds, don’t we!)
While many may think that archivists spend all their time hunched over dusty papers in dark cellars (well we do sometimes), we also occasionally get to leave the confines of our repositories of knowledge and experience the consequences of the things we read about first hand.
This past weekend on a glorious summer’s day, without a cloud in the sky, I went on a tour around rural Dorset and ended up at Tyneham. For those who do not know the Dorset coast to the west of Wareham, the majority of it is a huge military firing range with flat lands, huge hills and hidden valleys. One of these hidden valleys holds the deserted village of Tyneham, a village requisitioned during the lead up to D-Day and never returned (unlike all the others) to its inhabitants.
In wandering through the ruined houses and the meticulously kept church with their display boards, I noticed in one of the photographs a lady, Evelyn Bond, in a WVS uniform. I knew that the WVS had been responsible for the evacuation of Slapton Sands around the same time and so the question which immediately sprung to mind was did the WVS help at Tyneham? I didn’t hold out much hope as the Slapton Sands Evacuation is hardly mentioned in the Narrative Reports, it was kept secret. Would the same be true for Tyneham?
The next day in the archive I looked up Evelyn Bond. What luck! She was the Centre Organiser for Wareham and Purbeck Rural and as a victim of the eviction she writes passionately and eloquently about the situation. Her report is transcribed below.
“W.V.S. life in Purbeck has been completely overshadowed during this month by the evacuation of part of the district for an extended Training Area. This most painful necessity involves a lot of work as, although W.V.S. are not directly responsible for finding accommodation, they have been asked to undertake visiting and enquiries, and, as there is absolutely no public transport in the affected district, the Volunteer Car Pool has been stretched to the utmost in running officials about, taking evacuees-to-be to see accommodation suggested for them, etc. The Centre Organiser herself, already turned out of her house into the coachman’s cottage by the R.A.F., is among the dispossessed, together with her entire village, and the church of which she is church warden (the Rector is away acting as a Service Chaplain.)
The notices went out on Nov. 19th - the area, to be cleared by Dec. 19th. The Centre organiser, with one of her Centre staff, visited 15 families on the 19th and reports were lodged that evening, the Deputy - Centre Organiser, with the Assistant Billeting officer (R.D.C.) toured another part of the area, and the Centre staff followed up, so that every house had a visit and was reported on in 4 days. An office has been set up at the offices of the Rural District Council (where the W.V.S. Centre have their room) and Ministry of Health, Assistance Board, Billeting Officer and other officials are in attendance. House holders from the area can come in for consultation, but the authorities attach great importance to house-to-house visiting to ascertain needs and reactions and the W.V.S. are at their disposal.
The numbers to be evacuated are not much over 200, but many very old people are involved and a considerable number of farmers and small holders - the lot of the latter is particularly hard as the Ware[ham] Agricultural Committee are quite unable to find holdings for them and their stock has to be sold and implements stored or disposed of.
One old couple are typical - husband 92 and wife 89 - they have lived in their house all their married lives and the husband since birth. Some are fishermen, one a boatbuilder, and live right down on the shore. Visiting officials have been observed, to make for their cars with alacrity when they realised that the beaches and approaches are heavily mined. Another old couple have not been out of their house this century, except for 2 nights to take “shelter with neighbours when a mine blew up in a storm and took half the roof away. They were back that time as soon as repairs were finished - now they are leaving - for "duration. It is impossible to resist the question - will they or the war last longest?
The Centre Organiser has certainly been able to help these people, being in the like plight herself, but she and other W.V.S. well though they know these Dorset folk, are amazed at the unflinching spirit in which this trial is faced. "They can’t say we’ve done nothing for the war" is the spirit, and it is touching how, in every house, the thought is always for the oldest inhabitants round about. "It be turble hard for old Mrs - - " - it is. One old lady had not had her boots on for 9 years till she donned them to climb into a V.C.P. car to go and look at suggested houses.
Our Pool drivers have been on the road as never before, many W.V.S. members and others, including an invaluable retired policeman, they have been ready with persuasion and advice as well as transport. As with the previous evacuation in this area, ancient and precious dogs, cats, boats, bees and other adjuncts present many problems. We ought to be experienced hands by now, but it is not a job which becomes easier or in any sense commonplace with repetition”.
The village of Tyneham has waited a long time for its inhabitants to return, but sadly time and decay have not been equally patient the ruined buildings a silent reminder of the villager’s sacrifice. This was a community torn apart by war, and one which never had the chance to return and heal.