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Random Awe and Wonder... - dorsetgirl
March 4th, 2010
09:23 am
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Random Awe and Wonder...
I treated myself to a day at Canterbury Cathedral Archives the other day. (My other hobby is family history, and my great-grandfather was born and brought up in Canterbury). Towards the end of my day I requested the Vestry Minute Books for St Dunstan's, his father's parish - one for about 1824-1870 and the other covering 1780-1820. The lady at the desk said it might take a little longer than normal to bring the documents out because the usual person was away, but as it happened they were brought out to me only five minutes later.

I spent twenty minutes or so taking notes from the later one, and then carefully took the earlier book out of its protective box and opened it. As I looked at the first page I swear I stopped breathing and my heart rate doubled.

It was written in Secretary Hand. (That's the rather curly stuff you see on really old documents).

Now, I don't know when they stopped using Secretary Hand, but I do know it was rather earlier than 1780. They'd only given me the ORIGINAL PARISH REGISTER from FIFTEEN NINETY-FIVE (or thereabouts, shock does strange things to the memory).

I sat there for a few minutes just staring at it, and occasionally turning over a page very, very carefully. I was torn between: awe and wonder that I'd got to actually touch this book of parchment pages that was over four hundred years old; fear that I would inadvertently damage it or - irrational, I know - somehow lose it; and finally consternation that they would actually hand out such a document BY MISTAKE to someone who, for all they knew, would not know how to handle it. Which I don't, to be honest, but I do know enough to be careful and respectful and not put my hands on the actual writing.

See, the point is, you don't let people get their possibly grubby mitts on unique and irreplaceable old documents where there is an alternative. Like microfilm for example, the whole point of which is to make the information accessible while protecting the document itself.

OK, Canterbury Cathedral has documents dating back to like the ninth century or something, and quite possibly to them something only four hundred years old isn't so exciting. But anyone at all can visit the archives; all you have to do is show them some identification.

I'd always taken it for granted that documents like that were only for serious researchers who need to look at the originals. I shouldn't ever have got near it, and certainly never expected to.

But I'm so glad I did.

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Date:March 4th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
You think they'd be a little more careful with the really old documents but it must have been strange to touch something that old.
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Date:March 4th, 2010 07:14 pm (UTC)
I wish I'd had some preparation, you know? Time to think about it. Even better, if I'd actually got back that far in my family history it would have been like Christmas to look at the Register for myself. It really was quite awesome, though.

What really worried me was that when I took it back to the desk and explained to the guy what it was, he didn't seem at all interested. He just left it lying on the side while he answered the phone and talked to other researchers. At one point he even went away and just left it there unattended.

I think if I'd realised how casual they were going to be about it I'd have kept it for a bit longer, and actually try to read some of it. I just thought it should go back into safe keeping as soon as possible.
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Date:March 4th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
Shocked that he just left it there. A less careful person than you could have taken it.
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Date:March 4th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC)
I'm with you on the thrill of seeing and handling the really old documents. Especially if it's something your ancestor might have handled. I teach classes on this stuff, and unbelievably I get people who can't see the point of going to an actual record office to see the documents if the info. is all available online.

I don't know if the volume you had is microfilmed, but if a document isn't on film, or the film is illegible at the point you want to read, they will bring out the original for anyone requesting it, assuming it's fit for production - i.e. not falling apart.

I think the oldest thing I've ever handled dated from the early 14th - so pre Black Death. I've seen one that supposedly dates from c.699, but that one comes in a little case, so you don't actually get to handle it.
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Date:March 4th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
It certainly was a thrill; it was the first proper "really old document" I'd ever seen, but then I'm still at the stage where I was really excited last week to be given photos of my late grandmother taken in 1908.

I doubt if my ancestors ever handled the book, though - strictly peasants, my lot, or at least the Canterbury ones. Although some of them were sextons at St Dunstan's in the late C18th, so perhaps they did.

I must admit that due to basic lack of time to travel and get back within the day, the vast majority of my family history is done on line, but I do think it's much more satisfying, even if you're only working from microfilm or transcripts, to pick out the information for yourself rather than having it come up in a list of search results.

I've no idea whether this volume has been filmed, because the furthest back I've got in Canterbury is Joseph Cook born 1717, and it will be quite a while before I can visit again.

I'm only a newbie at the Archives, having only visited Maidstone twice and Canterbury the same, but there is so much more there than will ever realistically make it on line. Perhaps in a few years when all the obvious sources are online we will see people visiting Archives more knowledgeably, ie after they've already been researching for a few years.

One thing I did find, and perhaps there's a lesson for your students here: I finally found concrete evidence of the rumoured family Huguenot connection. It turns out that the baptism in question actually is on the IGI, but until I spotted Susanna and Kirby Francis as god-parents in the book of the Strangers' Church, with the entry repeated in French (Susanne et Kirby Francois!) it had never occurred to me that's where the link would be. (I was told it was the Cooks that were Huguenots).

I'd never been able to find a christening - and hence parents - for John Francis, born around 1757. But with this clue, there he was, clear as day: Jean Francois, fils de Jean Francois et de Jeanne Thorelle, sa femme. Né 19th Sept 1756. I also got his siblings.

But I would never have found him online, because I simply had no idea that he'd been christened Francois rather than Francis. It took the physical book to give me that information.
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