Box after box reveals secrets from the past

Box after box of a huge family archive reveals everything from a letter signed by Charles II, while in exile, requesting a £200 loan, to the domestic shopping bills of large family estates.

Archivist Maxine Willett with some of the  doocuments  in a  metal trunk from the Graham Family archive
Archivist Maxine Willett with some of the doocuments in a metal trunk from the Graham Family archive

Stories of monarchs, politicians, writers and meticulously recorded detail of the life and workings of landed estates are all to be found in the treasure trove of 70 boxes of hand-written documents spanning 400 years that are part of the archive of the Graham family of Norton Conyers, near Ripon.

The collection has been bought by the North Yorkshire County Record Officer, in Northallerton, with a £96,300 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and efforts are now underway to catalogue the archive and open it up to the public.

Maxine Willett, project archivist, who is seeking volunteers to help catalogue and digitise the collection, says she has only just begun looking at the documents but says it is already clear they offer a fascinating insight into life above and below stairs.

“It’s just absolutely fantastic,” she said of the archive. “They seem to have kept so much material.”

Miss Willett added: “There’s lots of papers regarding the running of the estate, including the running of the land, there’s also domestic papers to do with what was eaten in the kitchen, shopping accounts, there’s title deeds, there’s cellar books, there’s a wealth of information.

“The Graham Family archive is a significant collection that sheds light on the history of landed estates...

“The position of landowners and their interactions within the national sphere ensures there is plenty here to intrigue and delight anyone wishing to learn a little more about the lives and pastimes associated with such estates; from the request of a cash loan by the King to how much was spent on groceries or paid to a colliery worker in 1665. The level of detail is truly fascinating.”

Both Charles I and James II are said to have stayed at Norton Conyers and notable manuscripts include a letter signed by Charles II, while in exile, requesting a loan of £200. An autograph album contains letters from poet Lord Byron and artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Other early finds include a book of conundrums from the mid-19th century and a recipe for rabbit fricassee from the mid-17th century, containing sheep tongues.

The records relate to the estates at Norton Conyers and Nunnington, near Helmsley, which belonged to the Graham family from the mid-18th century until 1839 when debts forced its sale. There are also papers from other estates including Bowland, Lancashire.

Extensive personal papers and correspondence give an insight of Graham family life. Notable records include papers relating to the sale of Norton Conyers in the 1620s.

In 1624, Sir Richard Graham bought Norton Conyers from his father-in-law, Sir Thomas Musgrave, for £6,500, but later took court action to have the sum reduced. In medieval times there was a village at Norton Conyers but by 1744 it had gone, replaced by parkland.

In 1796, the estate passed to the 7th baronet who was aged just seven - a lifelong lover of hunting and racing, he so encumbered the estate with debts and mortgages that in 1865 it had to be sold. However, it was bought back in 1882 by his son, Sir Reginald.

For more information about volunteering for the project email: [email protected]