Yorkshire’s archives and the 17th Century Amazon

Chris Webb, archivist at the Borthwick Institute at York University and his  assistant Gary Brannan, with some of the archive material housed in the archives. Picture Bruce Rollinson
Chris Webb, archivist at the Borthwick Institute at York University and his assistant Gary Brannan, with some of the archive material housed in the archives. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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A new project looking at promoting Yorkshire’s vast treasure trove of archives and boosting “Ancestral Tourism’ has been launched. Chris Bond finds out more.

SLIGHTLY blackened and a little frayed at the edges, the neatly tied bundle of wills I’m staring at haven’t been opened since the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Some unopened scrolls at the Borthwick Institute.

Some unopened scrolls at the Borthwick Institute.

“This bundle hasn’t been opened since 1765,” says Chris Webb, with more than just a touch of awe in his voice. “We can tell that because of the dirt and how tightly they’ve been wrapped.”

These wills are just a tiny fraction of those held by the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. Some of the wills housed in the archive, which includes those of the Bronte sisters, date as far back as the 14th Century. “The is the main archive for wills for the whole of Yorkshire and we think there’s about 350,000 individuals represented,” says Chris, Keeper of Archives at the Borthwick.

The institute is home to many of Yorkshire’s archives including church records going back to Medieval times as well as reams of documents and maps that between them help paint a picture of what life was like in Yorkshire over the centuries.

It’s a vast treasure trove but one that many people perhaps don’t realise exists. Which is why Archives for Yorkshire (AfY) and The National Archives (TNA) have launched a project, also involving nine local authority archive services and the National Railway Museum, to promote what is known as “Ancestral Tourism”. The aim is to encourage visitors, particularly ex-pats, to visit Yorkshire and retrace their family roots to the places they lived and the streets they once walked down.

Yorkshire already has a thriving tourism industry but the aim is to look at ways of boosting this even further. “We know there are Yorkshire people all over the globe in North America, Australia and South Africa and some do come back but we want to give them a focus and show the power archives have to illustrate their stories and hopefully bring money into the region,” says Chris.

It all ties in with the burgeoning family history industry which has become something of a national obsession over the past 15 years or so, coinciding with the rise of the internet and online sites like FindMyPast and TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are?

Chris, along with his archive assistant Gary Brannan, are keen to show that archives like those held in York are far more than just a collection of fading old documents and papers gathering dust behind lock and key in some rarely visited vault.

One of the challenges is making the public aware that such archives exist and that they’re able to use them.

“It’s a way of linking people back to the actual objects,” says Gary. “You can do this online or you can come and touch something for the first time since your ancestor put the last drop of ink on it.”

Among the many archives is the inventory from a will of a York grocer, the splendidly named Suckling Spendlove, listing all the goods he had in his shop. Dating from 1690, it sheds light on what life was like in the city at the time. “His name was Suckling Spendlove and if you wanted it he would get you it.

“He had things like brandy, tobacco, sugar and coffee - it was a bit like a 17th Century Amazon,” says Gary. “There was a lot of stuff imported from the Americas and spices like pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin seeds. These would all be in sacks in the shop not in little packets like we see today in the supermarket. You would have walked in and immediately been hit by all these exotic aromas permeating the shop.”

Chris says it’s this kind of detail that many people don’t realise exists. “People are no longer just creating family trees they’re much more interested in who these people were and that makes the detail of our archives more powerful than just a list of names and dates.

“Although these documents are kept in and are centred on York they have a powerful story to tell about the whole of Yorkshire and how the county worked.”

Among the documents here are numerous church parish registers that don’t just record who died and when, but act as an important piece of social history recording, for instance, the impact of the Plague on York in 1604.

“A third of the population of York died in that particular plague. What’s poignant about this is you actually get the details of a father dying and then the next day his wife and child would die and then three days later the servants start dying.”

They also have mental health records from Clifton Hospital in York. “We tend to think of mental health as a fairly modern problem but psychiatric hospitals have existed since the mid-18th Century,” says Chris.

Among the records are those of Charlotte Anderson, a 39 year-old widow from Middlesbrough and Ellen Wilson, a 25 year-old labourer from Thornaby. As well as their names and where they’re from, the records include the doctors notes about their condition and treatment. In some cases there are even photographs of the patients.

For people trying to find out more about who their ancestors were this kind of information is priceless. “It’s that moment when a relative can look into the eyes of someone they never thought they would see and that’s hugely powerful,” says Gary.

“The whole collection is based on people and places, it’s people’s lives. How they made a living, how they looked after relatives. It’s the kind of intimate details people don’t think exists.”

There was a time when history was all about kings and queens and the wealthy, but the internet has helped democratise family history and made it accessible to ordinary people. But Gary believes there’s another simpler reason why it’s struck a chord with so many of us.

“People move around so much these days and they don’t have as strong a connection with what home is. Families are much more spread out and people want to find out about where they’re from and find their roots. “It’s also a very good leisure activity that you can do on evenings or weekends, so it ticks a lot of boxes. It’s also interesting and exciting, it’s detective work and you’re uncovering a story that wasn’t written, in some cases, very long ago.”

It is this and the inexorable desire to find out who we are and where we come from that makes archives like these so important and so enticing. “You can find the street where one of your ancestors lived and you can then go and see it for yourself, so you’re walking down the streets they once walked down,” says Chris.

“We’re not looking after documents and bits of paper, we’re looking after the life stories of people who are represented on the bits of paper. And to us these people are still alive and you get to know them and work with them and that’s something other people can get to do.”

What is Ancestral tourism?

Scotland has made a big push to develop the business of ancestral tourism which experts say is worth tens of millions of pounds a year to the economy.

It’s something that The National Archives (NTA) is keen to explore in Yorkshire by harnessing the region’s image and encouraging people to visit the region and explore their past, while at the same time boosting the local economy.

Keith Sweetmore, of the NTA, says: “We want to see archives that are thriving which is why we’re interested in looking at ancestral tourism in the region.

“Yorkshire has a really strong identity and image in people’s minds and we want to investigate through this project what additional benefits this might bring.”