[posted by Gavin Robinson, 11:24 am, 16 October 2011]
Today this blog has made it to five years, although there have been some significant gaps so it’s not exactly five years of continuous blogging. My book has now passed peer review and I’ve got until the end of November to make the final revisions, so I’ll be able to post a bit more frequently now. For now here are some quick links and random thoughts:
Brett Holman has made a free ebook version of his series of posts on the Sudeten crisis. Highly recommended: going through newspaper reports day by day gives a very different perspective on events.
TARDIS Eruditorum is blog which offers intelligent and entertaining critiques of Doctor Who stories. It started working through them in chronological order from An Unearthly Child and is now into the Tom Baker years. There’s also a forthcoming book compiling expanded versions of all the Hartnell era stuff.
I’ve finally got the hang of the British Library’s computer ordering system for manuscripts, but I wish they had card readers like the PRO. I still don’t get what makes the difference between select manuscripts and normal ones. It seems completely arbitrary.
I’ve found out that I have ancestors from the Isle of Man who can apparently be traced back to the 17th century. Plenty of material for future blog posts there.
I’m not sure what to make of this Daily Telegraph report about a jug supposedly made from the skin of Oliver Cromwell’s horse. I’m usually sceptical about Cromwell relics, not least because it seems unlikely that puritans would have approved of something so idolatrous. Also the names of warhorses in the civil wars are almost never mentioned in contemporary records.
The Common Swings has a new serialized story in progress involving a mysterious 1970s TV series.
The National Archives are planning to digitize all of the WW1 war diaries in WO 95 and are looking for volunteers to help sort them out.
I’ve just started to appreciate another advantage of taking digital photos of documents in the National Archives (a.k.a. PRO): comparing original signatures. That’s not exactly a revolutionary discovery, but I actually used it this week and it was quite exciting. I’ve mentioned John Gower before in posts about my work on saddlers. I had two collections of facts which I thought probably refer to the same person, but I hadn’t conclusively proved it.
The archives of the London Saddler’s Company show that a John Gower was a freeman of the company, and was admitted to the livery in 1640. The will of John Gower, citizen and saddler of London, was written on 18 October 1644 and proved by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 9 May 1645. This will mentions that John’s wife was called Jane, and that they lived in the parish of Saint Katherine Creechurch. Jane Gower went on to sell saddles to the New Model Army in 1645.
Financial records of the Essex county committee and the committee of the Eastern Association at Cambridge show that they bought lots of saddles from a John Gower. He is sometimes described as Captain Gower, and in at least one case money was received on his behalf by his ensign. It’s quite likely that this is the same Gower who commanded a company in the Earl of Manchester’s foot regiment.
On the balance of probabilities and assumed that these records all related to the same man but I wasn’t absolutely certain. This week I was sorting out some photos from my last research trip, including warrants issued by the Essex committee (SP 28/227). I noticed that John Gower had signed receipts on some of them. I already had photos of his original will (PROB 10/648) so it was easy to compare them.
This is a receipt for money for saddles bought by the Essex committee:
And this is part of the will:
They look pretty similar to me so now I’m fairly certain that it is the same man. The signature on the will looks very shaky, presumably because he was terminally ill when he wrote it.
As well as the practical benefits of record linkage, this is also a way of connecting with the reality of the past. If the same signature appears on two different documents belonging to different organisations and created at different times, the most parsimonious explanation is that John Gower was a real person who signed the documents in the course of his life. His home must have been destroyed in the great fire, if not before or after, and as far as I know none of the saddles that he made survives today. Saddlers Hall was destroyed by fire on more than one occasion, and nearly all of the company’s 17th century plate was sold or lost. These signatures are probably the only remaining physical traces of John Gower.
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:39 am, 14 November 2010]
While I was taking advantage of free access to Ancestry this week, I decided to look for the medal index card of Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, the famous poet. I couldn’t find it. These medal index cards show entitlement to campaign medals for British soldiers who fought in the First World War. Since Sassoon served on the Western Front as an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, he would definitely have been eligible for campaign medals. Although campaign medals were issued automatically to Other Ranks (or their next of kin if they were dead), officers had to apply for their medals and it isn’t certain that all of them did. If they didn’t then there probably wouldn’t be an index card for them. Sassoon is famous for becoming an opponent of the war and throwing away the ribbon of his Military Cross, so maybe he didn’t claim his campaign medals. But he changed his mind about the war more than once, and went back to the front after his protest, so maybe he did claim them. I already know whether he did or didn’t have a medal card but I’m saving that for later. First, here’s some background about campaign medals and related documents.
There were several campaign medals which were issued for taking part in the war, with different criteria for each one. The most common were the British War Medal, for anyone who served overseas, and the Victory Medal, for anyone who served in a theatre of war. Those who served in the early years of the war could qualify for the 1914 Star or the 1914-15 Star (more details and pictures). The Army Medal Office recorded entitlement to these medals on medal rolls. Despite being called rolls, these are actually books, containing lists of eligible soldiers arranged by regiment. The War and Victory medals are recorded together in the same rolls, and there are separate rolls for each of the stars. These rolls are now held by the UK National Archives in class WO 329, and are not available online. The Medal Office also created a card index to pull together details of each soldier from the different rolls. Every eligible soldier should have at least one medal index card showing name, rank, regiment, service number (except for officers, who didn’t have numbers), campaign medal entitlement and references to the relevant medal rolls. Some soldiers have more than one card, especially if they also won a gallantry medal (although cards for some kinds of gallantry medal are recorded elsewhere and not included in this collection; Sassoon’s Military Cross award card wouldn’t be here as these are in a different class and can only be seen on microfilm at TNA) or qualified for a Silver War Badge by being discharged as unfit for duty. These medal index cards were also transferred from the Medal Office to the Public Records Office (now the UK National Archives) and put into class WO 372. They were arranged as follows:
WO 372/1 to WO 372/22: British Army campaign medals A-Z
WO 372/23: Women’s Services, Distinguished Conduct Medals and Military Medals
WO 372/24: Mentions in Despatches, Meritorious Service Medals and Territorial Force Efficiency Medals
WO 372/25 to WO 372/29: Indian Army campaign medals
The cards were microfilmed and the originals put into storage. The microfilm was in black and white, and only the fronts of the cards were filmed. It’s usually reckoned that about 5% of the cards have something written on the back. This information became completely inaccessible. At some point (I think in the early 2000s) the microfilm was digitized and PDF files of the cards were made available for download through TNA’s DocumentsOnline service. These low resolution scans of black and white microfilm were not easy to read, and the information on the back was still inaccessible. The collection was indexed so that individual cards can be found by searching for name, rank, number or regiment. There are some transcription errors, so the index isn’t completely reliable. For example, the card for Arthur Evans shows that he was in the Lincolnshire Regiment, but the DocumentsOnline index wrongly gives this as 32nd London Regiment.
Thanks to DocumentsOnline we can see that Siegfried Sassoon did have a medal card, which can be downloaded here (ref WO 372/17, image 27085). The Medal Office had incorrectly written his name as Siefried Lorraine Sassoon, but as a captain in the 3rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers with a Military Cross, it’s got to be him. There’s even a note saying that his MC was cited in the London Gazette on 27 July 1916 (view page as PDF; the Gazette also incorrectly spells his middle name as Lorraine). The card shows that he was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914-15 Star. Although there is a note saying he was eligible on 20 February 1919, the medals don’t appear to have been issued until July 1985. This is nearly 20 years after Sassoon died, so it looks like he didn’t claim his medals himself and that they were claimed later by his family (no more claims for First World War campaign medals are possible now, and all unclaimed medals have been destroyed). The card is in a form usually used for Silver War Badge awards rather than the normal campaign medal styles. The box for date of discharge is blank, but “11/3/19” is written at the top of the card, which ties in with Sassoon resigning his commission through ill health (the London Gazette gives 12 March 1919). The most frustrating thing is that there’s a “PTO” at the bottom of the card, but we can’t turn it over and see what’s on the back.
In 2005 it was announced that the original cards would be destroyed to save storage space, but they were saved at the last minute. The Imperial War Museum took the women’s cards, and the Western Front Association took the rest (you can follow the story on this thread at the Great War Forum; there’s also a report at Your Family Tree magazine). For a while the WFA offered a service where they’d copy both sides of a card in return for a donation. Then they agreed to let Ancestry scan the cards and make them available online to subscribers. Ancestry scanned both sides of the cards in colour, making them much more legible than the TNA versions and making the backs available for the first time since the cards were microfilmed. But Ancestry’s indexing is notoriously bad. The Great War Forum has a whole thread dedicated to showing up the worst examples. It looks very much like Ancestry has done the transcription on the cheap by outsourcing it to people whose first language isn’t English and who know very little about British history and geography. There doesn’t even seem to have been a checklist of regiment or county names, or very much quality control. For example, T. E. Sandall, commanding officer and historian of the 1/5th Lincolnshire Regiment is shown on Ancestry’s medal card index as belonging to “1/5th Essex Tegt” [sic]. Ancestry has about 4.8 million medal cards compared to 5,482,260 on DocumentsOnline, but this seems to be accounted for by the fact that Ancestry hasn’t scanned the women’s cards from the IWM (WO 372/23), or the Indian Army cards (WO 372/25 to WO 372/29).
I can’t find Siegfried Sassoon’s medal card on Ancestry. Given their bad indexing it’s possible that the card is there but can’t be found because the name is completely wrong. But I’ve tried lots of different variants, and Ancestry has a fuzzy search which picks up similar names, and still I can’t find it. Maybe they haven’t scanned it, but it should be with the cards that they have scanned. Fortunately, there’s a way we can check this in more detail. When the cards were microfilmed, they were photographed in batches of six, arranged in two columns and three rows on the same image. When you download a card from DocumentsOnline, you get a whole page showing all six cards. These are the ones which come with Sasson’s, shown in the order that they appear:
Reginald Ellice Sassoon, Capt., Irish Guards
Sassoon Joseph Sassoon? [full name not clear], Capt., Inniskilling Dragoons
Ronald Edward David Sassoon, Lt., KRRC
Suleman Sassoon, Railway Dept
Siefried Lorraine Sassoon [sic], Capt., Royal Welsh Fusiliers [ie the poet]
B Sassounian, Interpreter, XXI Army Corps
Knowing this, I searched for the other five men on Ancestry. Their cards are all there, and their names are all spelt correctly.
Siegfried Sassoon is the only one of the six whose card can’t be found on Ancestry. This tends to suggest that this isn’t down to Ancestry not scanning the card. They clearly have scanned the batch where it should be. It would need to have moved a long way in the filing system to end up among the cards that haven’t been scanned, and it’s hard to see how that could have happened by accident. That leaves two possibilities:
Sassoon’s medal card has been scanned by Ancestry but so badly mis-transcribed that it can’t be found
The original card was removed some time between TNA’s microfilming and Ancestry’s scanning
Either would be quite embarrassing for all the organizations involved. This post has been a cautionary tale about some of the problems with digitization of historical records. There’s a real danger that archives can use digitization as an excuse to destroy original documents, even when the digital copies aren’t adequate substitutes. When private companies digitize records for profit their cost-cutting can result in poor quality transcription, paradoxically making records harder to find. Keeping public records behind pay walls is also elitist. In Ancestry’s case this is pure economics: if you can afford the subscription you’re in, if you can’t you’re out (although they do offer free trial periods). Early English Books Online takes elitism to a whole new level: they only deal with libraries and won’t even sell you an individual subscription. Meanwhile, if anyone does find Sassoon’s medal card, please let me know.
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 9:10 am, 27 October 2010]
Nehemiah Wharton was a servant from London who joined the Earl of Essex’s army at the start of the English Civil War. From August to October 1642 he sent a series of letters addressed to his master, George Willingham, a merchant at the Golden Anchor in St Swithin’s Lane. These letters have survived (although how they ended up in the State Papers is anyone’s guess) and were published in the 19th century (no free online version available, but the British Library has published a reprint as part of their digitization project). I’ve been looking at them for evidence of horses and social status. Wharton mentions another of Willingham’s servants, usually referred to as Davy (or Barry in one place, but I’ve assumed it’s the same man), who was serving in the army with a horse. The letters don’t give any further details of the man and horse, but it seems likely that Willingham had voluntarily contributed a cavalry horse under the scheme known as the Propositions and sent his servant to ride it. The UK National Archives have an account book of cavalry horses listed on the Propositions (SP 28/131 part 3), and as it’s a very important source for my work on horses, I’ve made a transcript of it. There is an entry for George Willingham, on 15 July 1642 (folio 19):
George Willingham of Londonstone painter stainer entred one gray horse, his rider David Avys armed wth a Carbine, a case of pistolls a buffe coate and a sword all valued by the Commissaryes at 27 – 00 – 00
This is close but there are a couple of potential problems because the address and occupation don’t quite match. This doesn’t rule him out completely. London stone was just around the corner from St Swithin’s Lane in Cannon Street, so they could be referring to the same place (see the Agas map). Although London citizens tended to be identified by occupations, their trades could change, and the company through which they were admitted to the freedom of the city didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the trade they were pursuing. George Willingham could be a freeman of the Painter Stainers Company and trading as a merchant. What we need is another source to confirm or deny the link between Wharton’s letters and the Propositions list.
British History Online has a published list of London citizens from 1638, but it doesn’t cover St Swithin’s parish, which is where St Swithin’s Lane and London stone were. But the National Archives do have a will for a George Willingham, Painter Stainer of Saint Swithin, City of London, proved in 1651. That looked very promising, so I downloaded it (if I’d known I was going to need this last time I was at Kew I could’ve printed out there and saved £3.10). I’ve put a transcript of the whole thing on the Your Archives wiki. In the will, Willingham describes himself as “Cittizen and Paynter stayner of London”, so he was free of the Painter Stainers Company, but not necessarily following that trade. He mentions having children called John, Samuel, Ebenezer, Hannah and an unnamed daughter married to John Colyer. Wharton mentions Elizabeth, Anne, John, and Samuel in his letters, which roughly coincides with the children in the will. According to IGI, George Willingham married Anne Eaton at St Dunstan, Stepney, on 21 September 1624. They had these children baptised at St Swithin’s London Stone:
John Willingham, 28 February 1629
Ana Willingham, 24 June 1627
Ebenezer Willingham,11 October 1642
Therefore Ebenezer wasn’t mentioned in Wharton’s letters because he hadn’t been born yet (the last letter is dated 7 October 1642). I can’t find a baptism for Samuel, but IGI isn’t complete. Given the wild variations in 17th century spelling, Ana and Hannah are probably the same person. The will also includes a bequest to “Mr Abraham Moline my deere and approved freind”, who could be the Mr Molloyne mentioned in Wharton’s letters.
The details in the will are enough to link the letters to the Propositions list and resolve the ambiguities. On the balance of probabilities, all three documents relate to the same person. Without the will it would be hard to link the other two documents together and reconcile the differences between them. This all adds up to proof that David Avyes was a servant and that his horse and arms were supplied by his master. (It doesn’t prove that he was decayed, or that royalist cavalry were any different. See my post about Cromwell and Balfour for some problems with the “decayed serving men and tapsters” myth.) Willingham must have been very rich. He bequeathed £700 to each of his three sons and left the residue of his estate to his daughter Hannah, explicitly stating that he intended her to have at least as much as the boys. That kind of wealth is consistent with trading as a merchant. He could easily afford to give away a horse and arms worth £27. The value of his contribution and the early date (July was a long time before contributions became compulsory) suggests that he was quite enthusiastic about the parliamentary cause. His will has some strong hints of puritanism. He asked for his body to be “decently buried without pompe and ringeing”, and bequeathed a book of sermons and a confession of his faith to his daughter. There’s no mention of any servants in the will, so it doesn’t help to solve the mystery of what happened to Nehemiah Wharton. Since his letters stopped in October 1642 he could have been killed at the battle of Edgehill, but as far as I know there isn’t any definite proof.
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:04 am, 20 July 2010]
As part of the research for my book (saying that still feels a bit weird, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it) I’m going through indemnity cases in class SP 24 in the UK National Archives (aka the PRO). The Indemnity Committee was set up by parliament in 1647 to protect soldiers and officials from prosecution for actions that they had carried out under the authority of parliament, such as requisitioning things for the army or arresting royalists. It also dealt with disputes over sequestered rents and debts, and helped to enforce parliament’s order that apprentices who joined the army should be allowed to count military service towards their term of apprenticeship. If someone was prosecuted in court for acts which were covered by the Indemnity Ordinance (and many were despite the Ordinance banning people from bringing cases of this kind) the defendant could send a petition to the Indemnity Committee asking for protection. In SP 24 there are 58 boxes of petitions and other papers relating to cases, such as depositions and lists of expenses. Unlike some classes these are quite well sorted: papers relating to each case are grouped together and sorted in roughly alphabetical order of the plaintiff’s name (although confusingly the plaintiff in an indemnity case is the defendant in the corresponding criminal prosecution). I’m particularly interested in cases relating to horse requisitioning. According to Ian Gentles, about 30% of the military cases involve horses, although from what I’ve seen so far military cases seem to be a minority as many cases are disputes between civilians over payment of rents and debts due to sequestered estates. It usually takes me less than an hour to skim through a box, look at the first petition in each case to see if it’s about horses, and photograph the relevant cases. Sometimes I get cases that look interesting for other reasons, but I try not to wander too far off topic too often. Since I’m photographing these papers for my research, and since the National Archives allow document images to be uploaded to Flickr, that’s just what I’m doing. I’m also putting transcripts or summaries of the documents, along with links to the images, on the Your Archives wiki. You can see what I’ve done so far, and follow my progress in future, via a Flickr collection and Your Archives category.
So far I’ve uploaded cases from the first 2 boxes. I have another 16 boxes ready to be uploaded, but I’m working on some Python scripts to automate the process. The trial run on the first two boxes proved that doing it all manually is quite labour intensive. First I copied the image files from my camera and sorted them into directories for each box. The directory structure is based on the archival reference, so there’s a directory called “SP 24” with sub-directories called “30”, “31” etc. Then I went into each of these directories and made sub-directories for each case, so it looks like this:
1 Abeary vs Windebanke
1 Adams vs Haughton
2 Alford vs King
And the path to a particular case would be:
SP 24/30/2 Alford vs King
Which looks quite similar to the archival reference.
The numbers at the start of the case name are the part number (each box usually contains three folders called part 1, part 2 and part 3 but I decided not to make directories for these). Up to here it has to be done manually as arranging cases into directories involves looking at the documents to see where a new case begins and to check the names. But from here a lot of it can be automated.
Each directory containing one case needs to have its own photoset on Flickr. I used Postr to upload one case at a time and then used Desktop Flickr Organizer to create a set and add photos to it (I got both of these applications from the Ubuntu repository – if you’re on Windows then… stop using Windows!). Then I used the Organizr on the Flickr website to drag each set into the “SP 24 Indemnity Cases” collection. Once the Flickr photos and sets were in place I went to the web page for each set, manually created a Zotero item for the case, and attached a link to the page. Finally I created a Your Archives page for each case and attached a link to it in Zotero. This includes a template that I made for indemnity cases which gives some basic information in a standardized form and includes a link to the relevant Flickr set. Doing all this manually for each case is quite tedious and takes a long time, so I’m working on some Python scripts to automate the process. What I want the scripts to do is:
Upload photos from multiple directories
Create a separate photoset for each directory, with a name based on the directory name and path
Get the ID of each set and write the IDs and names to a CSV file
(At this point I’ll manually edit the CSV file to add data that will be needed for Your Archives and Zotero and which can only be got by looking at the document images, eg full names of plaintiffs and defendants, date of the petition, summary of the case, categories/tags)
Use the data from the CSV file to construct a wiki page with the correct template and upload to Your Archives through the MediaWiki API
Export an XML file which can be imported into Zotero
So far I’ve written a Flickr upload script which does the first three steps and more or less works. Rather than working directly with the Flickr API I’m using the Python Flickr API library, which makes things very easy. It provides a flickr class with methods to handle API calls and authentication. Before using it you have to go to the App Garden and request an API key, but that doesn’t take long to do. App pages can be kept private, which is what I’m doing in this case as I don’t really have the time or skills to make my scripts fit for public consumption. The next step is to add error handling as the script only works as long as nothing goes wrong. In the real world, there are lots of things that could go wrong. The library throws an exception if it gets an error response from the API. Until I add some exception handling this means that the script just stops on an error. The script will need to keep track of what has and hasn’t been done (photos uploaded, sets created, photos added to sets) so that I can run it again if anything was left undone, and so that it doesn’t try to do the same thing again if it’s already been done. One annoying thing about Flickr’s public API is that it provides no way to create a collection or add sets to a collection. I assumed I’d be able to automate that part of the process but it looks like I’ll still have to do it manually.
For step 5 I’ll be using the Pywikipediabot library. I’ve already done some simple tests on a local MediaWiki installation and it seems quite easy to create a page. Once I’ve finished the script and thoroughly tested it I can ask for a bot account on Your Archives. Step 6 will involve learning a bit more about Zotero RDF. The easiest way to find out how to generate the right code is to export some similar existing items and look at the results.
So just because I’m writing a monograph it doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned digital history. I’ll still be using lots of digital tricks in the background, but they won’t necessarily be obvious in the text of the book. New technology is certainly making my research quicker and cheaper than it used to be. The stuff that I’ve written about above isn’t exactly revolutionary: it saves labour but it doesn’t offer new insights that couldn’t have been found before. But later in the project I’m planning to do some text mining which I hope will show me things that I couldn’t otherwise have found. I’ll also be revisiting phonetic algorithms for place name identification. And if I can’t think of anything else to blog about, there are likely to be some interesting stories in the indemnity cases.