Conference Summary

Localism in Religious Archives

The 2013 conference, which included a diverse range of speakers, gave an insight into the archives of religious practice in London and other parts of the UK. It addressed the importance and value of religious archives in relation to exploring the history of the local area and community. The venue for the conference was the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), the largest local authority record office in the UK, which is home to a wide range of records including documents, maps, films and books about London. LMA also holds a wide range of religious archives that include around 800 parish collections. A short introduction was given by Clive Field, the Religious Archives Group President, and Geoff Pick, the Director of LMA.

The conference began with a talk by Jamil Sherif, from the East London Mosque, who introduced the library and archive at the mosque.The collection currently consists of ten cabinets of documents that are in the process of being organised. Examples include minute books, financial records, marriage deeds, and building records. Jamil highlighted the importance of preserving records such as correspondence with synagogues and Jewish organisations which show solidarity and support, and marriage deeds which reveal interfaith marriages. In addition, he talked about the value of records that may seem trivial but are actually rich in history and can prompt research interest. For example, a postage book revealed information such as the recipients of letters. Having received a grant of £42,000 from national cataloguing grants, plans are underway to improve the care and management of the collection by June 2014. The project aims to catalogue the collection, establish protocols for access, develop a specification for secure storage, and ensure conservation standards. There are also plans to initiate oral history recordings from members of the community. This will play a role in linking stories with the records. Throughout the presentation, Jamil gave the audience an insight into the history of the Muslim community in East London, from the early settlement in the 18th century to the development and formation of a Muslim place of worship in East London. This enabled a greater understanding of the development of the East London Mosque’s archives and importantly highlighted the link between religious archives and localism.

The next presentation was by Sarah Flew who spoke about her PhD research at The Open University. Sarah is investigating the financial archives of the Diocese of London in order to evaluate the Anglican community’s support during the period of 1860 to 1914, in terms of who gave financial support and how this changed. Her research observes a range of sources including annual reports, cashbooks, ledgers, in-house publications, minute books that indicate the organisation’s financial views, and periodicals that reveal the Treasurer’s objectives. The main focus is on looking at philanthropy by individuals and corporate bodies, examining income in the form of donations, subscriptions, bequests from wills and church collections. Sarah also talked about the use of financial records from a researcher’s perspective. She emphasised that financial records may reveal important aspects of religious, social, and cultural history, and highlighted the importance and value of these records for historians of religion.

Charles Tucker, from the United Synagogue, gave a detailed account of the formation and development of The United Synagogue and the Federation of Synagogues. He described the records from these institutions that include detailed minute books, annual financial reports, and parliament files. However, Charles explains the loss of material in the past due to a variety of causes ranging from neglect to theft. Interestingly, the most substantial loss of records was a result of Synagogue office-holders removing them at the time of their retirements. However, on the retirement of Immanuel Jakobvites, who held office from 1967 to1991 and was considered a controversial figure, a change of policy within the United Synagogue meant that he was not permitted to retain official papers. These records, deposited and catalogued at London Metropolitan Archives, reveal for the first time how the Jewish community has entered the political and social mainstream. Of particular interest was Charles’s account of the history of the Jewish community in London including the settlement of Jewish people around London, their working and religious lives. Again, as with the account given by Jamil Sherif, this enabled a greater understanding of the development of the Jewish archives and emphasised the relationship between religious archives and localism.

After lunch and the AGM, Ann Barwood and Ellie Jones gave an interesting insight into the development of the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archive. The main question posed at the start was ‘was saving the Exeter Cathedral Archive worth it?’ They described the financial constraints of preserving archives in a religious institution, however emphasised the need to keep archives on site to ensure they remain at the heart of the community. After receiving a large amount of funding from a local trust, major improvements were made to the archive and library. The results of the development included vastly improved conditions for collections, greater access for people, increase in education and outreach, an improved volunteer policy, the development of an interpretation gallery, and the separation of functional spaces in order to keep the stored collections separate from the reading space. Most importantly, the development of the cathedral’s archive show the benefits of keeping archives on site and accessible to the local community. However, Ann and Ellie emphasise the need for continuous work on collections development and access.

To end the conference, Hannah Thomas from Swansea University gave an informative overview on The Cwm Jesuit Library Project. The project is a joint venture between Hereford Cathedral and Swansea University and forms the basis of her PhD thesis. It involves analysing the little-known Jesuit Library of the Cwm, now housed at Hereford Cathedral, and researching its historical and religious context, including its importance in relation to the history of the region. The Cwm collection is one of only two surviving from all fourteen missionary sub-divisions of the English Province of the Society of Jesus. The main questions posed at the start of the project concerned the provenance of these books, the printers and booksellers, and the role of the Jesuits and the Cwm in the recusant community in South Wales. An important aspect of the project has been examining the different marks and inscriptions found in the books, particularly those by Anselmus, a pseudonym for Robert Jones, head of the English Mission from 1609 until 1615. Many of the books have notes and scribbles in the margins, showing that previous readers have engaged with the information contained within them. The archives that form part of the collection include Privy Council minutes, recusant rolls, assizes records, parish records, papers of Sion College, and wills of individuals. The findings of the research demonstrate that the collection is not just important for its religious significance, but also for its significance to the history of books, ideologies of book collecting, people’s engagement with books, and local history.

Through a range of discussions, the 2013 conference explored the importance of religious archives for the study of localism and community history. There was also an emphasis on the value of other records, such as financial records, for historians of religion. The successes of projects were shared and the challenges involved in preserving and increasing the significance and use of religious archives were explored. Speakers gave an insight into different collections of religious archives in the UK and highlighted their significance to the local communities, with an emphasis on the need for continuous improvements to collections development and access.

Mehzebin Adam, Catalogue Editor at London Metropolitan Archives

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