An Archival Mystery

If you follow the Record Office Twitter account (@DerbyshireDRO) you’ll know that we tweet an ‘Archive of the Week’. A few of us take turns doing the Archive of the Week and the archive collections are randomly generated so we never quite know what we’re going to get. For me this time it was collection D793 which turned out to be a 19th century scrapbook that the record office had purchased at a Derby auction in 1970. When I looked at the catalogue entry, however, it said that the cuttings (mostly cartoons and illustrations from Punch and the like) were pasted into a register of sickness and mortality. This seemed so odd that the only thing to do was to take a look at it for myself.

When I got the scrapbook out I saw that the catalogue was quite right – the volume was indeed a register of sickness and mortality which began in 1840 and recorded pauper children. Someone had then used the register as a scrapbook and pasted cuttings onto the pages, covering up the text. One page for September 1841 has some of the cuttings torn away so that you can see the original register page behind.

Page from scrapbook (reference no. D793/Z1 )

Disregarding the mystery as to who on earth would stick illustrations and cartoons onto a register of sick children, another mystery was which poor law union the register came from. Frustratingly, no place was mentioned in the book but with Ancestry and Findmypast to hand, I tried searching for some of the children’s names. I began to wonder if the poor law union might be in London when I found a Robert Scarlet aged 13, who was buried at All Saints church in Edmonton, Middlesex on 23 January 1840. That seemed to tally with the Robert Scarlet listed as having become sick of an epidemic fever on 4 January of that year on the first page of the register.

My hunch was confirmed when I found both Robert Godsell and George Ruddle in the 1841 census at the West London Union School (sometimes known as ‘the children’s workhouse’) in Edmonton, Middlesex. Both of these boys’ names appear on the page pictured above, for September 1841. So that’s one mystery solved although it leaves more questions unanswered: how did a register like this become transformed into a scrapbook only a few years later, who did it belong to, how did it end up in an auction house in Derby, and why on earth did the Record Office purchase it?

The register was used by the West London Union School from 1840 to 1845, but it’s not full so they either moved onto a different book or stopped keeping a record altogether. The earliest cuttings that are pasted in date to the early 1850s though most of the cuttings are from around 1864 to 1867 and some have been coloured in, probably by a child.

First illustration, possibly from 1853 and coloured in by a child (reference no. D793/Z1)

Back in 1970, the Record Office didn’t keep copies of auction catalogues or notes as to why they bought things, but a scrappy piece of paper survives suggesting that this was part of a lot of ‘books of the Hicks family’ which were auctioned at the time. The note specifically mentions the artist George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914) so does this scrapbook have something to do with him? There are a few sketches and watercolours in the book, although they vary in quality. A few of them look very much like children’s efforts (Geoge Hicks married in 1847 and had eight children so it could be their work), like this one, for instance:

Watercolour of landscape with two figures from D793/Z1

The painting below is better, though – I could believe this was a watercolour sketch by a professional artist or at least a skilled amateur:

George Elgar Hicks, however, has no Derbyshire connection – he grew up in Hampshire and lived in London. There’s not much information about him online, but I can’t see any obvious link with the West London Union School either, unless his brother John Braxton Hicks (1823-1897), who was a medical student in London in the 1840s, somehow had a connection with it – might he have tended to sick children in the workhouse? It seems likely that a doctor would treat a medical register more casually than other people so maybe it was his (or his children’s) scrapbook.

Upper Bonchurch, Isle of Wight by G E Hicks, 1849 from D793/Z1

There’s a print of one of Hicks’ works in the scrapbook but that’s hardly proof of any actual connection with the Hicks family. One possible clue is an engraved portrait of ‘George Halse 1851 from memory’ which is for private distribution only and signed underneath ‘yours truly George Drummond’. George Halse (1826-1895) was a sculptor who also worked for many years at Drummonds bank in London (which presumably explains the name George Drummond). The owner of the scrapbook might have been a friend or neighbour of Halse, even a fellow artist like Hicks. The 1861 census shows that both Halse and Hicks lived in Kensington, although not so close that you could say that they definitely knew each other.

Portrait of George Halse in D793/Z1

The mystery as to why the Record Office purchased a scrapbook which appears to have no Derbyshire content or connection is probably easier to solve than any of the other mysteries that surround this item. In 1970 the Record Office was in its infancy and trying to build its collections, so it bought items which we wouldn’t necessarily consider today. Without the internet to pin down which poor law union the register related to, the fact that this came up for sale in Derby meant that it was no doubt assumed that was local. Of course there may have been other information at the time about the lots in the auction that might have evidenced a Derbyshire connection but which we don’t have any record of now.

That still leaves the question as to how and why a West London Union School register of sickness and mortality was reused as a scrapbook and whether it has any links to George Elgar Hicks. These are mysteries that may never be solved. But these aren’t the only questions. Is this a scrapbook or is it a register of sickness and mortality? Does one record have more value than the other? There don’t seem to be any other registers like this for the West London School around, so if it were possible, should the cuttings be removed to reveal the pauper children hidden underneath? Or would that involve destroying something unique? There are no easy answers to these questions, but as a next step we will get in touch with the London Metropolitan Archives, who hold the records of the West London Poor Law Union, and see what they think.

4 thoughts on “An Archival Mystery

  1. Pingback: Another archival mystery | Derbyshire Record Office

  2. The first illustration appears to show men of the Rifle Volunteer corps under review. The rifle volunteer movement was not inaugurated until 1859 with most units not getting properly formed until 1860, so I would suggest that your date of 1853 for that clipping may be a little early.

  3. The questions about whether this is a scrapbook or something else and about whether one element has more value than another reminded me of two items in the Blockley collection (D1622). First: a volume of draft legal documents, such as wills, many of which have had 17th and 18th century receipts pasted over them. The receipts were probably collected by a Blockley family member in the 19th century and pasted into the volume. They include receipts for monies for the workhouse, receipts signed by the Mayor of Chesterfield and other receipts concerning the Corporation of Chesterfield. Secondly: a volume entitled ‘Samuel Blockley’s Book, Edensor School, Derbyshire, April 28th 1809’, appearing to contain a pupil’s school exercises, including two specimen ledgers.. The volume has been used as a newspaper cutting scrapbook and much of the original text on the pages is not visible. In the first item the visible receipts may arguably be thought to be the more valuable, given that they are unique and the partly obliterated documents are drafts whose text may well exist elsewhere in substantive form. When I came across these volumes, however, I felt some regret that the unique personal school exercises were largely obliterated by the cuttings from newspapers, the text of which could be seen elsewhere.

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