First World War Letters

A stack of letters still in their envelopes

A stack of letters still in their envelopes

There’s a fascinating article on the BBC News website today, explaining how the postal service managed to deliver millions of letters to and from front-line soldiers during World War One (  It’s answered many of the questions we in the Conservation Team have been asking ourselves while we clean, repair, digitise and re-package the hundreds of WWI letters in our collection.  Many are still in fantastic condition, even though the paper used wasn’t very good quality.  But after a hundred years they can all do with a gentle clean and some snug, made-to-measure packaging.  Some of the letters are still folded inside the original envelopes – wonderful to see, but not so good for their long term survival.  Creases in paper have a tendency to turn into tears, so we’re opening out the letters, mending tears and strengthening creases where necessary and then storing the letters with the envelopes but not inside them.

A letter and its envelope before treatment

A letter and its envelope before treatment

A letter being cleaned

A letter being cleaned

Repairing an envelope

Repairing an envelope

Letters and their envelope repaired.  We decided to keep the hurriedly opened look of the envelopes, just strengthening the edges so not more gets lost.

Letters and their envelope repaired. We decided to keep the hurriedly-opened look of the envelopes, just strengthening the edges to avoid further losses.

As conservators it’s our job to look at paper and inks, to make decissions about a document’s condition and treatment and to ensure its availability to researchers now and in the future.  The one thing we’re not supposed to do is read the contents; that’s a job for the archivists and we’re usually very happy to leave it to them.  But in this case, it’s proving very difficult not to get caught up in the words that jump out at us.  How are you supposed to glance over a letter from a soldier who you know died soon after and ignore his touching comments about his baby daughter?  Or see al the kisses he sent to his wife without contemplating the many lost husbands, fathers and sons and the pain of those who were left behind?  Handling and reading these letters provides a powerful link to a time not really so very long ago and a group of people we’re still much closer to than we often realise.

We’re currently looking for volunteers to help with our Derbyshire Lives in the First World War project, so if you’d like to find yourself surrounded by some of the thousands of words that were sent across the Channel or would enjoy the opportunity to delve deeper and investigate the impact of the First World War on the people of Derbyshire, why not have a look on our volunteering website


More about the catalogue browser

My last FindersKeepers post discussed the Calmview browser we will be using to display our catalogue and noted that “Current predictions are that this system will be up and running by mid-January”. I was cagey about exactly when it would be installed, being aware that IT systems and weather systems offer comparable levels of predictability. For now, let’s just say mid-February and hope for the best. [Deep sigh.]

Meanwhile, I offer a treatise on the subject of spaces and slashes. The subject matter mayn’t be the most entertaining, but I hope it will help at least some users get more out of the catalogue.

An eagle-eyed researcher wrote to us from the USA recently ask why there had been some slight changes in the reference numbers used in the list for collection D37. So, for example, a document formerly holding the reference D37 M/E 2/1 now appeared on the catalogue as D37/ME/2/1. To some people, those references will appear identical – but to others (and indeed to our software) there is a world of difference.

As I said in my reply to the researcher, reference numbers are intended in principle to be permanent. However, we are only now beginning to catch up with the legacy of how they have been put into our online catalogue, and it’s this that brings the change.

The main problem is that Derbyshire Record Office’s referencing system was designed long before the technology for electronic cataloguing was available. In a lot of cases, the spaces between the components of the reference are in themselves a meaningful part of the reference. By contrast, CALM – the software used by a strong majority of UK repositories – interprets a space as non-existent, so that it would read D37 M/E 2/1 as identical to D37M/ E2/1. This is not such a problem if you are viewing the results through the online catalogue as an Overview, i.e. the hitlist that you get after you click “Search”. But it is nigh on impossible to navigate if you are opening and closing sections of the “tree” view, i.e. the collapsible diagram that you can see if you click on the reference numbers themselves. That explains why I have been putting slashes instead of spaces.

But why remove the slash separating the letters in the middle? Well, this goes back to another problem with the history of our referencing system, which is that it has relied on users to draw inferences here and there. For instance, only guesswork will tell you that M/F usually stands for “family documents”, where M/E means “estate papers”, M/T means “title deeds”, and in some other collections, Z/Z means “miscellaneous”. If there was once a rule book that made these things explicit, there is no such rule book any more.

A reference like M/E is no problem if you are viewing your search results as a hitlist; but if you are using the hierarchical “tree” view, some records will appear blank because there is no directly corresponding catalogue entry. If the catalogue contains an entry which says D37 is Turbutt family of Ogston and another which says D37/M/E is Estate papers, but nothing in between the two, users of the tree will expand D37 and be confronted with “D37/M: No Title”. Only the most dedicated optimist would click the little cross next to this to find D37/M/E, D37/M/F, D37/M/T etc., etc. So we either have to insert a new level into the list, with reference D37/M, calling it something bland like “Family and estate papers”, or remove the slash from the middle. While working through our collections in recent months, I have opted for the latter course of action in most cases, in the hope that it will give people quicker access to the meaningful bits of description. Conversely, in the case of Anglican parish records, I have opted for the former solution, because formulations like A/PI are used so very consistently that to make even minor changes risks disorientating users who work with parish collections all the time. So in each instance, I have had to insert an extra level in the catalogue such as D2179/A and call it “Parish Archives”, which can be opened up to reveal A/PI (the parish incumbent’s records), A/PD (the Parochial Church Council’s records), A/PF (charities) and so on. Either of these approaches has its drawbacks. I hope you have not been unduly flummoxed by the changes.

I am still not finished. Sorry.

The new browser will work from the latest version of CALM, which has been “improved” in a way which I personally find baffling, but I hope to get used to: a search for D37 returns only one entry, the fonds-level entry which describes the whole collection. If you want to move to lower levels of the list, you must either use the “tree” and drill down to item-level, or search using an asterisk to indicate that you want to see all entries that begin with D37. Be warned, though! This also returns entries from 108 entirely unrelated collections that also begin with D37, i.e. D371-D379 and D3701-D3799 – if you want to see the whole of D37 only, you need to type D37/* (including the slash) into the RefNo field. Once we have managed the transition to the new system, I intend to enter into a dialogue with the developers to see whether this might be changed.

The new system does have its advantages, though. Calmview allows for images to be inserted so that users can download them from the catalogue. We have made a start on this by scanning much of our material relating to the First World War, and will be uploading the images in the coming months. The first image to be added was the Roll of Service of Wirksworth Grammar School – as soon as the catalogue has been upgraded I will post again and give a link to the image.

Relatively Speaking

If one of your resolutions this year is to find out more about the family tree, but you were putting it off because you weren’t sure where to start, come along to Derbyshire Record Office to hear family history researcher Kate Henderson as she shares hints, tips, and some odd and unusual findings from over thirty years of research.

Place: Derbyshire Record Office, New Street, Matlock.

Date & time: Wednesday 5th February, 10.30 – 11.30 am.

Tickets are obtainable from Derbyshire Record Office, £3 (£2 concessionary), or call 01629 538347 to book, or email on

We look forward to seeing you

50 Treasures

50 Treasures ExhibitionEver since Derbyshire Record Office turned fifty in 2012, we have been showcasing treasures from our Archive and Local Studies collections.  These items are chosen because they hold special meaning for our staff and users – their favourite, most interesting, inspiring, thought provoking, or simply the most beautiful. These are items that stir the imagination, tell the best stories, and reveal the secrets of our local history.

If you would like to nominate a treasure; a document, book, map, photograph, or even a whole collection which inspires or delights you – then please get in touch and tell us all about it!

Please email: or tel: 01629 538347 with your suggestions.

Bond villein?

My previous blogs have talked very much about the lords and ladies of the manor, so it now seems like a good time to talk about some of the other people in the manor.  I have been trying to think of an appropriate metaphor, and the famous sketch from the Frost Report in the 1960s keeps coming to mind. You know the one, with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett: I look down on him, I look up at and him and down on him, etc. It is obviously about class, and although it might seem simplistic to say so, I do think our attitudes towards class do ultimately stem from our manorial past.

 The lord of the manor was obviously the John Cleese character looking down on everybody else. The middle class, Ronnie Barker character in the manor would what was known as a free man or sokeman, who would later be known as a freeholder or a free tenants. He would have been able to dispose of his property as he wished without interference from the lord and was largely exempt from the restrictions imposed and services demanded by the lord from his other tenants. It does not mean that he was not entirely free, as he was still required to publicly declare his loyalty to their lord, attend the manorial courts and pay a very small amount of rent. He would usually be an important person within the local community, holding enough land to provide a relatively comfortable living for himself and his family. In later centuries he would become one of the class that became the ‘Yeomen of England’, the backbone of the country.

Now, the Ronnie Corbett character who looked up at both of them (and got a crick in his neck) was known as a villein. The word ‘villein’ ultimately derives from the Latin ‘villanus’, a man of the vill (or town), and originally a neutral term. It came, after the Norman Conquest, to indicate someone who was tied to the manor, occupying plots of land which he worked for himself and his family but subject to the demands and dictates of the lord. There were more limits on his personal rights, and he needed the permission of his lord to do certainly things, such as leave the manor or marry off his children, which he would usually have to pay for as well. Over time he would become known as a copyholder or customary tenant, with less restrictions on his personal freedoms.

The word ‘villain’ comes from the same source, and was used initially as a term of abuse to indicate uneducated people of low birth. The subtle change in its use, suggesting an element of criminality and bad character, happened many years before the time of Shakespeare and his cast of proper villains, such as Iago and Richard III.

There are actually lots of different words that correspond to ‘villein’. One such word, ‘bondsman’, which indicates someone who is bound to a superior in some way, or put another way, someone in bondage (not that kind!). James Bond the spy is, of course, a fictional character, but his creator borrowed the name from a real James Bond, an ornithologist who was an expert on the birds of the Caribbean. Although I don’t know the origins of this particular Bond, it is entirely possible that the surname indicates his ancestor’s English medieval agrarian roots. On the edges of the manorial system there were also people called bordars and cottars, who were essentially agricultural labourers, who generally had less land from which to eke out a living for themselves. Even among the villein class it was possible to look down at someone!

One thing which needs to be said is that the people of the manor did not necessarily fit into the neat stereotypes of the TV sketch. People’s individual fortunes could, and did, fluctuate, just as now. A freeholder could lose his land through bad personal management of his lands and end up with nothing, whereas a villein could work hard, build up his lands and eventually make himself free of the lord’s control. Advantage could also be taken of the lord and his steward who might not always keep themselves up to the mark with what his tenants were really up to. Major events such as wars, famine and plague epidemics, affected the lives of those in the manor, and although they hit people hard, they did create opportunties for some to make better lives. An example of this would be the Black Death of 1349-1350 almost halved the population, obviously devastating communities but providing opportunities for the survivors, as lords found that they had to be much more flexible with their tenants in the face of massive labour shortages.