Centuries of village life in the internet spotlight

THEY were sealed up in a cupboard for more than 100 years, and have spent the last three decades in filing cabinets in the parish offices of a village on the edge of the Pennines.

Made up of around 40,000 sheets of paper, the collection includes painstaking records made by generations of officials who oversaw the finances of tiny Bradfield, near Sheffield.

But the documents, which tell the fascinating stories of hundreds of lives led in the 18th and 19th centuries, are now entering the internet age after a 20,000 "digitisation" project.

Each sheet has been carefully scanned into a computer, and the details of people who were entered into the books and ledgers will be available on a website currently under development.

Bradfield Parish Council's part-time archivist Malcolm Nunn has been involved in the project from the start and said villagers had the idea after family history research became popular.

He added: "The documents are mainly of the poorhouse and the workhouse in High Bradfield, and contain the names, ages and other details of those who were on 'parish relief'.

"These people were destitute, they were paid for by the parish rates and a lot of them seemed to spend their whole lives there, even training youngsters who came into the poorhouse.

"Those who were capable of doing something appear to have been put to work in the parish doing jobs like felling trees and mending roads and some of the younger ones were apprenticed."

The village's workhouse and poorhouse closed in the 1840s and until the mid-1970s the records of those who had lived there remained in the cupboard where they had been stored.

Several residents took the building and two elderly women lived in the house for decades, but when they died the documents were discovered and passed to the parish council for safekeeping.

Among other things, the records also reveal that the parish was forced to pay out for a watch house in the village churchyard in the 1830s to deter grave robbers, who were caught digging up bodies.

Mr Nunn said: "It was at the time when several churches were suffering the same thing, and in Bradfield a hexagonal-shaped house was built so the verger could see all parts of the graveyard.

"The records seem to suggest that there was demand for bodies from a medical research centre in Sheffield, which led to people coming out to quiet villages to dig up recently interred bodies."

The digitisation process was carried out by staff from Kettering-based Townsweb, which specialises in fragile historical documents.

Workers from the firm spent around a fortnight in the parish offices going through the records and scanning them, and another two weeks making the files ready for the internet.

Townsweb's managing director Paul Sugden said: "We use specialist scanning equipment, its not like a scanner you might use at home where the document is placed on glass. There is no contact between the machinery and the document at all, and all the images are captured from above and we use special stands to ensure the spines of books are not strained.

"Once the scanning in Bradfield was complete we spent another two weeks working with the images we had captured, which are high enough quality to make exact reproductions.

"The project in Bradfield was very unusual, because most of our work is done in central archives where documents have been sent from communities over a wide area.

"It was great to work with the village and with Malcolm, who could help us catalogue the documents and point out links we might not have seen."

It is hoped that the Bradfield archive website will go online in the middle of next month.

PARTNERSHIP BACKED PROJECT

Funding for the Bradfield archive project was provided by the East Peak Innovation Partnership (EPIP), which aims to promote "rural development projects" in Yorkshire communities.

It was set up in 2008 to distribute Government and European grants and covers four geographical areas – North Sheffield, which includes Bradfield, Penistone, Denby Dale and Kirkburton.

Projects which are based in any of these four areas can apply for cash from the Partnership, and each application is judged by a panel made up of people from one of the four EPIP areas. If the idea is approved by the group, it is then put forward for funding, and will receive a grant directly from the partnership.

Bradfield Parish Council is hoping to apply for more funding to digitise more records in the future, and other projects include developing the area as a destination for cyclists and a scheme to promote local food.