Exploring London’s archives

Volunteer Debbie Scott takes us on a tour of London’s many archives, including LSE, Museum of London, Britsh Library, London Met Archives, Bishopsgate and Tower Hamlets Local Archives.

I’m familiar with using the Tower Hamlets archive from researching my family history, so I know the procedures. I like the way it is laid out, providing easy access to directories and microfiche, although I always have to be reminded about how to use the machines. It is always well staffed, and the librarians are helpful. Doing this project I learnt some extra tips from them, such as how to select a map and how to identify the district number on Ancestry. I was also advised that Find My Past is better for searching specific streets, which I did at the British Library. Again, I have membership but had never ordered books before, so I took the opportunity to read some books which are hard to find,  and consult others which are too expensive to buy. In the 70 minute wait for the books, I accessed  Times Digital and British Newspapers Online to confirm facts and for some juicy snippets! It’s all a bit baffling but help is available.

I joined the LSE but was disappointed as I couldn’t find the books I needed. They should have been on the open shelves but some were not available or misplaced. I had to return to the Librarian on bottom floor, but even she couldn’t find them.

The best experience was viewing original material.

I wanted to view original court records at the London Metropolitan Archives, which I have also visited before but this was the first time I’d enquired beforehand. The librarian  sent me the catalogue numbers and I made an  impromptu visit, confident I could pop in. ..but my membership had expired. Luckily, I looked trustworthy  and they renewed it. I made a materials request then spent 20 minutes dawdling in the exhibition. The tatty originals were handed to me in the archive room, separated from the public area.  Although it was fascinating  to handle them they didn’t yield up any new clues. I was hoping to find addresses. I was tempted to photograph the scrawled pages but it would have cost me £5.

Having researched Adelaide Knight, I was keen to see the original Canning Town WSPU minutes held at the Museum of London. I arranged a visit via email and although the archivist couldn’t be there, she made sure the relevant material was available on the day I visited. I was met at the front desk and taken through a warren of corridors to the archive library . Left alone with the CT minutes book and a scrap book of cuttings, letters, summonses etc, I was in heaven. Though not thoroughly indexed, the scrap book was a gold mine! Originals from J Sbarboro and M Baldock plus letters concerning the Cavendish sq incident they were involved in. I filled in a photo permission form and snapped away, then got absorbed in a  brilliant letter by Kitty Marion, whom I determined to researcher  further. The CT minutes (1906-7)provided a picture of the change in nature of meetings: from formal, to planning trips, to tailing off. There was no record of the departure of A.K. but there was an insight into the mutual support of the local organisations and how they promoted meetings and the women’s cause. I photographed some pages that showed the feistiness of the women , some as evidence and some that made me laugh. I hope to go back and spend more time interrogating its treasures and I’m looking forward to delving again into Bishopsgate Institute’s basement as the tour was so wacky.

Exploring May Morris at the Women’s Library

Volunteer Ruth Singleton goes in search or May Morris at LSE’s Women’s Library.

There’s something special about old manuscripts. They carry the weight of all the people who have pawed at them over the years, all looking to find something different in the same collection of words. And, to my mind, there is something even more exciting in the personal writing and the private correspondence of people long dead, which has been preserved for one reason or another as a clue to the past.LSE archive Blog 3

As I began to sift through the reams of online information stored in relation to May Morris, William Morris’s younger daughter, looking for links to activism and queer communities, I soon found that the London School of Economics’ Women’s Library archives was a treasure trove of letters, photographs and past research. Well, I say that I found this out – in fact I was directed and supported by the archivists in residence, who unearthed a number of artefacts that I otherwise might have missed.

I booked myself in for a Saturday of rummaging and, on arrival, was immediately pleased by the orderly process. It felt like a ritual: discarding everything not required for (or allowed in) the reading room, being shown to my desk and handed the key to my ready-prepared set of resources. It was quiet, with just a handful of studious types, curiously leafing through piles of paper. There was a gentle white-noise hum of monitors, underneath which the muffled conversation of the archivists floated through the air, almost as though the room were alive, calm and relaxed. Nothing more, but the thrum of papers being turned and the keyboard tap-taps. The lights hanging over each desk remind me of something you’d see at the dentist’s, but they prove invaluable for taking photos of my finds.
Two hours pass, absorbed and un-punctuated, then three. Histories intermingle, voices besides the one I am here to find catch my eye – history in the archives is full of the voices of men, letters between them, weighty and formal. The scrawl is sometimes almost illegible, written over here and there by a slightly more recent past. Fleeting references to May Morris shine out unexpectedly like gems, and around them the complex webs of the world she inhabited spin out in different directions. I begin to recognise handwritings, learn what to look for, what is not of importance.

LSE archive Blog 2Another hour slips by as I fall down a rabbit hole of the compiled notes of a previous researcher writing a book on Morris’ embroidery. I get lost in her narrative; her endless letters, the slow and fruitless responses, the sudden burst of activity. The final product. I remember too late that her focus is not the same as mine, but still I have found some revealing passages. I put the box away.

I hand my final box back to archivist, and relinquish my key. It has been a useful day and certainly helped me understand how to approach archival research in the future. I’m looking forward to spending more time in London’s archives, these spaces of quiet and concentration, following leads and piecing information together. I wonder if archivists can still hear the gentle white-noise hum in their minds when they go to sleep at night. It’s something I could certainly get used to.