Copying before the photocopier

If you’ve ever used late 18th century or 19th century business records, you may well have come across ‘wet copy’ letter books.  These distinctive volumes are made up of letters on very flimsy, thin paper, with rather blurred writing which appears in reverse – although because the paper is so thin, you can read the writing from the other side.

Wet copy letter books are definitely not one of my favourite kinds of record.  Because the paper is so thin, you get hundreds of  fragile blurry letters in each volume; I’m always impressed by the researchers who have the patience to go through them.

Despite their drawbacks, you have to admire the ingenuity of the invention, which was patented in 1780 by James Watt.  There’s an excellent article by Dr Brian H. Davies about the invention of wet copies on the Ceredigion Archives blog, which explains how they were produced.  There are also pictures of wet copy letters, so if you’ve never seen one before, do take a look – and be glad you don’t have to use them!

Matlock Almanacks


The Local Studies Library at Derbyshire Record Office has recently acquired 17 old Hodgkinson’s Almanacks for Matlock, dating from between 1893 and 1944. Full of fascinating old advertisements and local information, and including some examples from both world wars.

Sue Peach, Local Studies Librarian

What do you think of our catalogue?

Hello everyone,

It’s been 18 weeks since we installed the new version of our catalogue.  That isn’t traditionally regarded as a significant anniversary, I know, but it’s probably long enough to allow for reflection on progress to date.  We would love to hear your opinions.  Is the new catalogue better than its predecessor?  What do you like about it, and what would you like to see changed?

  • Have you tried looking at some of the images that have been added to the catalogue?

(If not, now’s your chance – follow this link:*)

  • Do you like being able to read the lists that aren’t yet in the database?

(If you haven’t had the need to do so, please give it a try:*fk)

  • What would you change if it was up to you?

Please let us know by any of the following channels:

  • Replying to this blog post
  • Filling in a comments form on your next visit
  • Sending an email to (subject line: FindersKeepers)
  • Collaring me (Mark) or one of my colleagues to offer your opinion in person

I can’t promise to be able to make all the changes that are asked for, but I will reply to any comment that needs a response.  There is every chance you will suggest something that is already in the pipeline – with a bit of time (that most precious commodity!) there are a lot of improvements to be made.




rave review


I have just finished reading the enthralling “The Secret Rooms” by Catherine Bailey. She set out to write a history of the impact that the Great War (1914-18) had on the  Duke of Rutland’s estate at Belvoir in Leicestershire, but found herself drawn instead into a real life mystery concerning the forbidding locked rooms where the 9th Duke died in 1940, which had been kept closed ever since…

She discovered that three separate time-spans had been completely erased from the records in these rooms, the Muniment Rooms where the estate documents live, and had been deliberately deleted across all categories of records; the clear perpetrator must have been the Duke himself, who literally died in the attempt.

A real page turner ensues, with a child’s tragic death, swindled inheritances, and intrigues at the very top of the British World War One Command. The 9th Duke had not managed to completely destroy the trail, and Catherine Bailey was able to piece together most of the sad, dark story.

If you love archives and libraries (and you do, you are reading this), I highly recommend this gripping read, which dramatically highlights the importance of irreplaceable original documents and the amazing real life stories they illuminate.

Borrow it from your local library!

Registering a Complaint

As someone who spends a fair amount of my time searching through parish registers, I have been known to silently (or not so silently) curse the handwriting of a long-dead vicar or parish clerk.  They should have foreseen that a few centuries later I would need to decipher their scrawl to find Great-Great-Great-etc-Grandfather Fred!  So I was rather amused to find this note in one of the Castleton registers:

(unless the Parish will provide better Parchment, it is impossible to write on it legibly   

Castleton parish register

Perhaps I shall be a tad more charitable in future, though it’s a poor workman who blames his tools…

That hiking picture…

Regarding my last post – well, it seems Fridays bring questions and Mondays bring answers. Lisa has pointed out to me that you can see details of the images on Peakland Heritage by hovering the mouse over the little preview. D’oh! Still, that gives us an opportunity to give credit where it is due – specifically, it is due to James Walker Tucker (1898–1972). The original hangs at the Laing Art Gallery in Tyne and Wear. Full details can be seen on the BBC Your Paintings website.

It’s a very handy website for this kind of caper. You can search by gallery as well as by artist. I have checked the Derbyshire Record Office entry, and find that we have one solitary image to our credit: . It would be more if George Woodward’s cartoons and John R. Biggs‘ woodcuts counted as paintings, perhaps? Of course, within Derbyshire County Council, works of art are properly the bailiwick of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, who are credited with stacks of them:


Exactly one year ago today we opened our newly combined Local Studies and Archive service in our refurbished home in New Street. Thank you to all our customers for their patience and enthusiasm during the past twelve months – we hope you’ve enjoyed your new Derbyshire Record Office experience as much as we’ve enjoyed seeing you.

Packing up the old archive Searchroom

Packing up the old archive Searchroom

Getting the new Searchroom ready

Getting the new Searchroom ready


The Local Studies Library then...

The Local Studies Library then…

...and now

…and now









Finally a place to relax with a cup of tea

Even a place to relax with a cup of tea

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