Help find 75th treasure for 75th birthday

A peek into history: Archive access manager Neil Sayer
A peek into history: Archive access manager Neil Sayer

Lancashire Archives is fittingly turning to its records to mark the culmination of its 75th anniversary year.

As a grand finale to its “75 Years: 74 Treasures” exhibition, which has been showcased at three different county venues in 2015, it is seeking a 75th treasure selected from items donated to the archives last year.

All at sea: Illustration of aquatic life from the log of the Brigantine Dolphine

All at sea: Illustration of aquatic life from the log of the Brigantine Dolphine

As decision day approaches, it wants members of the public to help mark the moment in two special ways.

Firstly, there is still time to donate or make a long-term loan of archive items. Any items deposited up to the end of February will be considered for the birthday honour.

Secondly, the public will be asked to help to choose the 75th treasure from a shortlist of anniversary year acquisitions. The winning record will then go on display in the Lancashire Archives on Bow Lane in Preston.

Archive access manager Neil Sayer reports that each year some 200 items – which can range from one document to collections of documents and associated memorabilia, are accepted by the archive.

Come on in: A sign welcoming visitors to the Lancashire Archives

Come on in: A sign welcoming visitors to the Lancashire Archives

Recent deposits have included information about the Wreck of the Mexico lifeboat disaster in 1886 when 27 lifeboatmen died, when the Mexico went aground near Southport, Hutton Grammar School records from 1929-1944 and records relating to the Holker estate from 1553-1979, as well as photographs and archives about the Freckleton Air disaster of 1944.

Neil gathered together a range of archives to share with Gazette readers to demonstrate the sheer unexpected variety of records the Bow Lane building is home to, its global reach and its continuing willingness and desire to share those documents with members of the public.

Many are on long term loan, others have been deposited by people who recognise their records have a wider significance and wish to ensure they are preserved in optimum conditions for future generations. He said: “There are nine miles of records going back 900 years. The oldest one is a medieval charter from 1115.”

A ship’s log from the 18th century chronicles journeys from Lancaster to Cork and on to Jamaica and back.

A Selection of Hangmen in 1890 at Lancashire Archives

A Selection of Hangmen in 1890 at Lancashire Archives

The log, from the Brigantine Dolphin which had sailed in April 1774, contains delightful drawings of sea creatures as well as sketches of landmark geographical features (useful on a voyages without maps) and lists of cargo.

Most notably, there is a remarkable entry where the author refers to the outbreak of the American War of Independence, noting that the news had arrived in Jamaica: “This day we had the disagreeable news of our English troops on America is come to action and the provincials of bloodshed on both sides.”

Neil noted: “The USwas not even the US it was still a colony and this boat had been back and forth across the Atlantic at least six times based on the (log) entries.”

Cargo included cotton and mahogany and included one with wood going to Lancaster firm Waring and Gillow.

One of the latest additions to the Lancashire Archive

One of the latest additions to the Lancashire Archive

But first up was a register of voters for the street where I was born, introduced by Neil with the throwaway remark that here was a “fairly dull local council record”.

A party piece if ever there was one, as I was able to see who my neighbours were when I was but a babe in arms. Neil said: “We want people to nominate things from the things we receive this year. We get about 200 deposits a year.”

Neil is still open-minded about which item could win the coveted “treasure” status and there is still time to donate to the archives – the anniversary year culminates on February 28.

But readers should be aware that the archive is not like a safe deposit in a bank cannot accept everything and will consider each offer of material on its merits and its relevance.

You can find council documents, company documents, personal papers and information from different societies.

The collection even includes a piece of a meteorite, while a more recent deposit contained a soldier’s First World War dispatches from Gallipoli.

Some of the delight of finding information from the past is discovering unexpected information by chance. Neil said: “If your ancestor was mad or bad there’s a good chance we’ve got a record of them.”

But there may be other records which require a bit of digging as many documents yield references which could not have been predicted.

He sees his job, in part, as trying to bring out the individual stories in the archive and to alert the public to the wealth of research material on their doorstep: “I’ve been her 23 years now and I am still surprised by some of the things people can find.”

Other items seen by The Gazette included documents relating to Belgian refugees lodging in Wyre in 1940 and a file from the Accrington-based national trade union, the Amalgamated Weavers’ Association, about a visit to the USSR in 1965 at the height of the Cold War.

Four people, including Frederick Fleetwood, were nominated to go on a fact finding tour to Russia and their reports are contained here, including references to working conditions, wages and prices of goods.

The archive has a cleaning facility to ensure worse for wear documents, affected by damp, mice etc, are preserved.

It would never be possible to digitise the entire archive, said Neil, but would-be researchers can do a preliminary check online to identify what records there are. But that does not, he stressed, compare to “the tactile connection with the archive.” The archives also accept digital records.

“We are not, as people think, the repository of secrets. We don’t take things to hide them. My job is to allow access, not to deny.

“The point is the 74 treasures are here for people to come and see any time they want them. They are free to access ... they are not over in America or hidden away in some academic institution. As Lancastrians we should all be proud of what we have here.”

‘Selling archives is just not the answer’

It was recently suggested by a member of the public concerned at county council’s impending cuts, including the likely closure of some 40 libraries, that the archives could sell valuable documents and keep copies to raise funds to keep them open.

But, as with the ship’s log, a battered notebook with a plain cover, deposited in the mid-20th century, many of its holdings are on long term loan and are not owned by the archive.

Neil said: ”We could do it once but what happens next time? It’s not an answer.

“If we are here to preserve things and make them available, why would we want to sell them off to somebody else?”

I am writing to apply for the position of executioner

This curious document, from Liverpool prison, entitled “Selection of Hangmen 1890”, contains letters from the applicants who wished to put themselves forward for this grisly job.

The would-be executioners ranged from William Guest of St Helens, a railway signalman with six children, to an applicant who maybe ruled himself out by noting that his heart had an “excitable” action and who requested a “table of drops”.

Another would-be hangman from Somerset had advised he was an excellent gamekeeper “and goes out shooting with gentlemen”.

Anti-fracking card is history in the making

One of the most recent deposits – and so one which could be in the running for 75th treasure, is a card with a special message presented on behalf of 39 fracking awareness groups by protesters who had lined up outside county hall to plead their case as councillors met for a crucial planning meeting.

Archive access manager Neil Sayer explained: “It came from visitors to County Hall. They presented this to county councillors before they made their decision hoping for their support in voting against the fracking.”

He stressed: ”I don’t have a particular opinion on fracking”, but he believes the document will provide valuable insights into the county’s history in future years.