Conference Summary

Personal Papers in Religious Archives

About 40 members of the Religious Archives Group gathered in the Historic reading room of the John Rylands University Library for the annual conference of the Religious Archives Group. In his opening remarks, John Hodgson, Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives at the Library, reminded members that RAG was celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2009.

There were three morning papers and two in the afternoon.

Rev David Hart, University of Manchester

Eighteenth-century Methodist preachers: public and private biography

David Hart gave a paper based on his doctoral research into the emergence and development of Wesleyanism in eighteenth century Norwich.  He provided a series of case studies of eighteenth century Methodists drawn directly from eighteenth century sources. His objective was to overcome the bias introduced into nineteenth century biographies, which were akin to a kind of Methodist hagiography. Nineteenth century biographies were conversion narratives; this dictated their structure and form, leading to a neglect of practical conditions. Hart made up for this absence by studying early published memoirs in search of anecdotes of everyday life. Here he found evidence of living and working conditions, and was able to reconstruct a typical itinery. Using correspondence between preachers he was able to explore the social relationships between established preachers and apprentices, examine the social distance applied to non-local preachers, and highlight the loneliness of the life of itinerant preachers. With these sources he was able to reflect upon their social standing and rank. There was a consideration of the nature of their support network and the extent of John Wesley’s authority over individuals. Tensions were generated by the organisational standards of Wesleyanism, and this was illustrated with evidence of conflict over the preaching of Holy Communion in Norwich. The focus of the paper was on the non-spiritual aspects of the preachers’ lives, areas hitherto neglected but important to an understanding of life within early Methodism.

A number of questions were raised following the paper. Asked if preachers continued preaching in a particular area, he replied that once stationed in a circuit they usually remained for two years. Though there were exceptions, once appointed to a circuit they had to stay; however, they were almost permanently on the road. Asked to comment on distortions in the sources, he said that these often emerged because of disputes between John Wesley and particular individuals. Wesley often sanitised the memory of individuals because he was reluctant to draw attention to breaks and divisions. Asked when it became possible for preachers to settle and have a family, he responded that ‘settle’ was a relative term, as wives were often left behind. Allowances for preachers’ families first became available in the 1760s, and it was from this time that families began to accompany them. However, the majority were bachelors. Asked to comment on the survival of documents, he replied that most were in the Methodist Archive and Research Centre and in local record offices.  Asked to reflect upon the differences between eighteenth and nineteenth century sources, he suggested that most of the eighteenth century material was from private correspondence not meant for public viewing. By contrast the nineteenth century evidence was published material, much of it from the Armenian Magazine, which was designed to encourage converts.

Tamara Thornhill, Westminster Diocesan Archives

The papers of Cardinals Manning and Hume: the challenges of personal papers from an archivist’s point of view

Tamara Thornhill gave a paper on ‘The challenges of personal papers from an archivist’s perspective’ using her experiences working with the papers of Cardinal Manning and Cardinal Hume. She began by providing brief biographical sketches of each individual, before going into detail about the contents of the collections and the issues raised by them.

The Manning Papers had been unsorted and unlisted and decisions had to be taken about how to arrange them. It was decided initially to list every item in original order. By contrast the Hume Papers came with their own classification scheme and codes. Far from helping the archivist, this proved to be an extremely complex system, difficult to comprehend, with sub-divisions within sub-divisions and additional apparently arbitrary coding, further complicated by the size of the collection at over 1,000 boxes.

On sorting each set of papers it was decided that much of the material did not need to be kept, and Tamara went on to give a detailed outline of the questions raised by each set of papers, and how appraisal decisions were reached. Hume’s Papers had been subjected to Records Management procedures, and she suggested possible refinements to improve upon these. Manning’s had not, however items had been removed from the collection and dispersed around different institutions. This raised the issue of ownership, which in turn highlighted the need for written agreements with depositors.

In the final section of her paper, Tamara discussed the problems relating to access. Hume’s Papers were covered by the 30 year rule, so access was limited. However, once the 30 year period is over data protection and confidentiality will remain issues of concern. The Manning Papers were no longer subject to the 30 year rule, but in this instance the uncatalogued state of the collection limited access. One way around this was to allow researchers to use the papers on condition that they listed the items they had consulted. She concluded that although the collections were very different and necessitated different approaches, the important thing was that basic principles were established and applied to each.

There were a number of contributions and questions at the end of the session. These related to the provenance of items in the Manning Papers, the use of researchers to organise papers, the rules adopted for sampling, visual material in the collections, plans for future cataloguing, and the value of the complex classification system applied to the Hume Papers. The most interesting question came from a historian who was clearly shocked at the need for appraisal and weeding. Tamara justified the procedures, emphasizing the restrictions on space and the impracticality of keeping everything. She explained how the decisions were reached and delineated the sampling methods adopted.

Professor Clyde Binfield, University of Sheffield

Congregational biography and private papers

 Professor Binfield noted the common Dissenting origins of four eminent 20th-century figures (two Presbyterian, two Congregationalist) – Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Leverhulme, Lord Reith and Lord Wilson of Rievaulx – each appearing in Who they Were in the Reformed Churches of England and Wales 1901-2000  (Donnington: Shaun Tyers and United Reformed Church History Society, 2007) – and reflected on the significant role of nonconformity in the cultural, economic and political landscape which cannot, therefore, be understood without references to this aspect. His paper focused on the contribution to national life of members of comparatively small church bodies, having in common the fact that they were, generically speaking, Reformed, but having important variations between them making it as important to understand the differences between them as to understand the similarities. The formative importance of religious influences was acknowledged in the Dictionary of Business Biography published a generation ago in 1984, but perhaps more obliquely referred to in the more recent Oxford Dictionary of National Biography of 2004, which seems more prone to mention religion in passing and less likely to represent denomination as a determinant factor in the lives of its subjects. Of course the availability of sources is of central importance in documenting this aspect, one such source of course being personal and family papers, potentially a rich seam of information. Their importance is reflected in recent efforts by Dr Williams’s Library and the Congregational Library to collect the papers of modern ministers and leading lay people. They have secured about a dozen collections so far, from a generation which is perhaps the last of the ‘paper-hoarding’ class, conscious of recording its past. They comprise letters, diaries, travelogues, news cuttings, sermons and lecture notes – even committee minutes of national and local bodies, and tax returns. Their bulk can be daunting, but the insight into the mindset they offer is great.

Such papers include material of Rosalind Goodfellow (d. 2008), first woman Moderator, and first lay Moderator, of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church – one among many offices she held. Her life was notable in respect of her office, her gender, and her personality. A second example (still in private hands) is Sir Frederick Sellers (d. 1979), a nonconformist by birth and inclination, whose papers on one level might disappoint the researcher’s hopes in their ordinariness, yet allow their own insights. The papers of Geoffrey Nuttall (d. 2007), minister and scholar, some being gathered in Dr Williams’s Library, contain diaries, annotated books, and part of his vast correspondence. A recent purchase of papers of John Sibree (d. 1877) illuminates the pastoral aspect of the career of a successful provincial minister which also contained political aspects. The totality of such archives in representing their subject’s life is of great importance. However, even where the material the historian hopes to find does not survive, he can gain much insight into their creator from surviving papers.

Professor Binfield noted the centenary this year of the birth of the poet Stephen Spender and remarked on how, alongside a Jewish ancestry that has inevitably aroused note, there is eqally illuminating and perhaps more formative evidence of Dissent. Similarly, public interest tends to focus on the Turkish ancestry of Boris Johnson – notwithstanding that he is also a direct descendant of the founder of the YMCA. Indeed, it is tempting to migrate towards a conspiracy theorist view of history whereby almost everyone turns out to have some kind of Dissenting background – whether willing to acknowledge it or not.

Lunch time sessions

During the lunch hour participants were free to visit the Rylands’ exhibition area or to listen to short presentations on the Library’s projects. Renate Smithuis spoke about the Genizah project which aims to digitise and catalogue 11,000 fragments, from the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, acquired by the Library in 1954, while Carol Burrows gave a presentation about ‘In the bigynnyng’ a JISC funded project to digitize the Library’s Middle English manuscripts.

Rag Working Party: report and discussion

The afternoon proceedings began with a report on the work of the RAG Working Party chaired by Clive Field. There were three items to report on strategic developments following the 2007 RAG conference at the British Library on the state of religious archives:

(1) The development of the RAG web pages, hosted by the John Rylands Library (JRL) and administered by Graham Johnson. Graham gave a brief demonstration and noted that he hopes a summary of this conference will join reports from previous conferences online soon. He appealed for further suggestions for web content, and can be contacted at: Rosemary Seton congratulated him on his efforts, and reiterated the desire for use and development of the site, both in its aim to give advice in the care of religious archives, and in giving guidance to researchers. There is considerable potential to extend its use.

(2) The funding bid (£14,000) for a systematic high-level survey of religious archives, also supported in cash (£5,000) and kind by the National Archives (TNA), has been sent to the Pilgrim Trust, and its decision is awaited. Their next meeting is in May. If successful, the data collected will be added to the National Register of Archives, which is known to offer an incomplete picture of the available religious archives in the UK. This will build on recent work by Clive Field on nonconformist sources. As RAG is not a legal entity, the Society of Archivists (SoA; to which RAG is affiliated) has kindly agreed to support the bid institutionally. The grant is intended to employ a survey officer based at TNA for six months, and it is hoped she or he would be able to survey via questionnaire up to 2,500 organisations. This survey would include not just denominational but interfaith and ecumenical aspects. Any follow up would then need to be undertaken by Norman James and other TNA staff, but the project would, it is hoped, plug some gaps, provide a clearer overview, and inform future initiatives. A project committee will oversee the project, on which Andrew Nicoll will serve as SoA representative. Clive Field thanked TNA for its support to date.

(3) Work has continued regarding nonconformist archives. Clive Field’s survey was published in the April 2008 edition of Archives and he is happy to supply electronic copies:

Other initiatives are mainly focusing on events in 2012, the 350th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity and the so-called ‘Great Ejectment’, often considered to be the formal foundation of nonconformity. The principal institutions involved are John Rylands, Dr Williams’s Library (DWL), and the National Library of Wales. JRL will host two exhibitions:

(i) One covering 1662-89 – the Act of Uniformity to the Act of Toleration. This will be accompanied by an academic conference hosted by the University of Manchester’s Department of Religions and Theology. It is intended the proceedings will be published by JRL in its academic journal in 2013 or 2014.

(ii) One covering nonconformity in Manchester and the north west, exploring its connections with everyday society and economy. Events will include a study day.

These link to initiatives elsewhere, for instance those of denominational societies and other archives, in which DWL has a central role. It would be desirable to find a London venue for an anniversary exhibition.

Other activities by the working party have included general advocacy and lobbying, and it has received advice from the Catholic Archives Society and various individuals. Clive invited comments on its work, either using the feedback form or more generally.

 News and announcements

Other topics for discussion included:

  • Forthcoming publication of a revised guide to sources for Baptist history
  • Intended reinvigoration of the International Council on Archives section on religious archives
  • Plans for an online archives catalogue for Scottish Catholic archives, a collaboration between dioceses, religious orders, seminaries, etc
  • Report of a successful Lottery grant to Scottish Jewish archives
  • Enquiry for information as to whether the Access to Archives website is still being updated (updates are made to existing data, but the site is closed to new data)
  • Discussion as to issues around collection of data on religious archives from the Muslim community. The importance of including both Muslim and other non-Christian faiths in the survey (including representation on the steering group) was acknowledged

Clive Field noted that the RAG email list has become more active of late, and welcomed further postings.

Joan Winterkorn of Bernard Quaritch Ltd

Religious Archives and the Trade: the valuation and sale of personal religious papers

At first Joan had thought she would be unable to accept the RAG invitation to speak for lack of any obviously religious material which had come her way but on reflection realized that a number of the private collections she had investigated had contained devotional and other materials of religious interest. She proceeded to give a most fascinating talk about the perhaps more hidden aspects of the lives of prominent English families and individuals. Among the collections she had examined were the papers of the Coleridge family of The Chanter’s House, Ottery St Mary, Devon. Some of the papers, relating to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had been acquired by the British Library but a huge family archive remained. Amongst these were papers of two family members Sir John Taylor Coleridge and his son John Duke Coleridge, later Lord Coleridge, both of whom were judges. JT Coleridge had written a biography of John Keble, leader of the Oxford Movement and she had discovered letters from Pusey, also of the Oxford Movement, and from Pugin, the famous ecclesiastical architect. Some highly personal correspondence referred to the conversion to Roman Catholicism of another of JT Coleridge’s sons, Henry James Coleridge. Another collection she had examined, the Fairhust collection, included papers of Archbishop Laud, eventually acquired by Lambeth Palace Library. The papers of John Evelyn, the diarist included a number of devotional manuscripts, while the literary papers of Hillaire Belloc often had a religious content as did those of Chesterton. Papers of Muriel Spark reveal the central importance to her life and work of her conversion to Roman Catholicism while the journals of Henry Hallam show his search for religious consolation following the tragic early deaths of his sons.

Bill Williams, Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester

British Jewish History: the importance of personal records

Bill has been working on the subject since the mid-1970s and has an extensive knowledge of the sources available. His talk focused on the multi-varied nature of the Manchester Jewish community – the synagogues, unions, particularly that of garment workers, and societies. At the outset of his career in the 1960s he could find little in the way of paper evidence, much was in fact destroyed, and there seemed little interest in the Jewish heritage. That began to change in the 1970s. The Manchester Heritage Centre and Museum opened in 1984 in a former synagogue in Cheetham Hill Road and has important collections of Jewish cultural objects, library and archives. Bill had been closely involved with an oral history project interviewing members of the Jewish community in the 1970s which had uncovered the existence of many photographs as well as some personal papers – all of which were now at the Museum. Most papers date from the 1870s onwards as many emigrants flooded in from Central and Eastern Europe. During the 1930s there was a further wave of refugees from Nazism, particularly of children brought over though the kindertransport initiative in 1938 to 1939. Documentation from this period reveals among other things  the poignant evidence of distant parenting.

In her closing remarks Rachel Cosgrave, Chair, Religious Archives thanked speakers, who had ranged across denominations, and faiths as RAG always strove to do. Some interesting issues had been raised or demonstrated, particularly appraisal methodology; researchers’ perspectives on using archives; the dispersal of archives and the power of digitization in bringing content together again. She reiterated RAG’s pleasure in coming to Manchester and thanked staff at the Library for all their hard work. She had also been gratified by the excellent attendance.