Volunteers help to put history on record

Pettit and Sons staff photo, 1897, from the Northamptonshire Record Office
Pettit and Sons staff photo, 1897, from the Northamptonshire Record Office

Anyone who thinks that history disappears into the mists of time, could not be more wrong.

Much of Northamptonshire’s past, from its poignantly sad workhouse records to its photos of work forces from 100 years ago, is housed at the county’s Record Office, located at Wootton Hall Park, in Northampton.

The office, which is popularly used by family historians, academics and members of the public, is desperately in need of volunteers to help with the major task of creating digital and online catalogues for its collections.

Currently, visitors are able to find collections using an old-fashioned index-card system, but managers want to make the research experience easier by allowing users to search for items on computers.

A lot of this work will involve volunteers physically trawling through and cataloguing archived boxes of long-forgotten treasures.

Services manager Daniel Williams showed me behind the scenes at the Northamptonshire Record Office to give an idea of the scale of the task.

He said: “There are 10 miles of shelving here, over three floors; we have so many records. Not every county has a purpose-built archive and the temperature in here is a bit colder. The records cover about 800 years of Northamptonshire history, it would be a challenge to find something that isn’t represented. There are all these human stories here too. I was talking to a lady about World War One soldiers; she was researching one particular soldier who went off to fight and survived, only to come back and be killed by a taxi. All of these stories lie within the records.

“Seeing this gives an idea of the scale of what we are doing. We have new records coming in every week. We are using volunteers to list some of the records we have so we can make them available.

“This time next year we are hoping to have an electronic catalogue up and running. One of the fantastic things is you can’t beat looking at the originals, being able to come in and look through original volumes.

“For family historians, if you have an ancestor who was in the boot and shoe trade, you might even be able to come here and see a photo of them.”

He continued: “At the moment we have 20 volunteers. Some people might want to give two or three hours a week and some people might want to give a couple of days a week. One volunteer is now training to be an archivist, so for some people it will give them job opportunities.”

One volunteer, Carolyn Smith, from Hannington, has come across some fascinating finds during her time working with the Northamptonshire Record Office.

She said: “There is one collection relating to Rushden. It is only one box, but inside there were 90 deeds relating to properties showing who owned what at various times. It goes right back to the 1700s.”

Carolyn has also seen records for the Northampton Infirmary, dating back to the late 1700s.

She said: “The details for a lot of the patients were where they came from, the date of admission and date of discharge. It also included who had sponsored them to go to hospital as there was no NHS back then.”

Many of the county’s important records are today kept safely thanks to the efforts of Joan Wake, who, during the aftermath of World War One, endeavoured to ensure the precious documents of the past were not lost.

After being stored at Delapre for some time, the records held within the Northamptonshire Record Office moved to Wootton Hall Park in 1991.

The collections continue to expand, even today, as donations of papers and artefacts flood in from the public, revealing even more about Northamptonshire’s hidden history.

Nowadays the office is popularly used by researchers from far and wide and from all walks of life. It receives about 500 visits a month and about 560 email enquiries, as well as 3,500 hits on its website.

One of the most popular research sections at the Northamptonshire Records Office is – perhaps unsurprisingly – the Boot and Shoe collection.

Carolyn Smith has undertaken the task of cataloguing boxes from some of the county’s boot and shoe manufacturers. One late 19th century and early 20th century collection showed photos and pieces of leather from a tannery which was owned by the Pettit family and was once located in Spring Lane, Northampton.

Carolyn said: “There are little pieces of leather in the collection and each process is recorded. Companies used to do exhibitions and it must have been done for that sort of thing. I would think it was probably in the 1920s or 1930s. In the collection there are also photos of the tannery itself and its workers.”

One collection shows letters dating back to the late 19th century and relating to Sharman’s shoe factory in Wellingborough. At this time, shoe makers would have been more used to working at home than in disciplined factory settings, so some of the letters hinted at the boss’s frustrations with wayward staff.

Carolyn said: “You can see Mr Sharman’s letters to the War Office to find work for his men saying, ‘if we don’t find them work they will go somewhere else’.

“Then there is a letter to the War Office saying there would be a delay in the work as employees were in short supply and ‘if you push them too hard they will go off and work somewhere else’.

“The War Office offered them a second contract and Mr Sharman wrote saying they could not do this as ‘it was harvest-time and the shoe-makers’ families were out in the fields’. This confirms what I heard about this time, that they (the shoe makers) could be difficult.”