Although I had been for an introductory visit I didn’t feel that I really knew what to expect when I started my heritage placement at the Wigan Archive Service at the Town Hall in Leigh. Only having very limited previous experience with any archiving work, primarily looking at a magazine archive in London, I was excited to learn the whole of the archiving process at first hand. Little did I know I would be bequeathed with knowledge reaching beyond purely archiving experiences, ranging from career advice to research inspiration!
The ongoing task being undertaken at the Wigan Archives is the cleaning and cataloguing of the Wigan Court Quarter Sessions. These date back to the reign of Edward III in the 14th century and continued until 1972 when they were replaced by the Crown Courts. As the name implies, the courts were held every quarter and dealt with crimes such as theft and the receiving of stolen goods, primarily any crime that did not carry the death penalty or life imprisonment. The project at the archive is a huge undertaking, records of Quarter Sessions being held from 1733 to 1971. However, the work is undertaken highly methodically and taken bundle by bundle. My time at the archive was spent with a bundle of records from the 1878 Quarter Sessions held at Easter.
The first stage of the archiving process is the cleaning of the documents. This involved handling the documents with care and using different tools such as brushes, dry sponges and special archiving rubbers to remove excess dirt. Although a tedious task, this stage is necessary to make the records physically accessible and legible to any family or local historians wishing to use them for research purposes. Although many documents took a while to work on, it was refreshing to see a much clearer and decipherable document, not crumbling with a hundred years of built up dirt, once you had finished. Another very important part of this process was numbering each record as it is pulled from the bundle, ensuring the correct order the bundle was found in is maintained.
Moving on to the next stage of cataloguing, this stage is more intriguing and allowed for a more detailed exploration of the content of these documents, especially interesting to an undergraduate historian. Cataloguing involved noting all the important information about the record onto paper in order for this to be transferred onto an online catalogue. Necessary information included the reference number of each record, the official name of the document and a general description of what the document entails. The process begins from the first document in the bundle. Identifying the official name of the record was made easier by the archive guidelines which distinguished the general order the Quarter Sessions records came in. Therefore a general order began with the ‘Appointment of the Quarter Sessions Court’, moving on to the “recognizances” which called on witnesses and the “calendar of prisoners” and so on. This stage was most interesting because it allowed time for exploring the documents, and, in the manner of a historian, led to theories and links developing based on the evidence presented. I was surprised by the amount of stolen luxury clothing items such ‘knickerbocker trousers’ and jackets that I came across. From a background of newly emergent class society in Victorian England, this common offence suggests a desire for the lower classes to present the respectability and opulence of middle or upper class life through their dress. Other factors of historical interest which highlighted themselves include the sensationalising of otherwise routine court sessions and offences. Acts of burglary rather than simply committed, were committed “feloniously”. Further, counter to today’s society, it was amazing to see how often the phrase “I was drunk” was used as legitimate defence.
The final process I undertook was digitising the documents. This part especially was very fun, and I used a camera and stand set up to take pictures of the records. Although this may sound simple, the hardest part was making sure all information on the document was picked up by the camera, this involved using weights to open up folds and an awful lot of awkward repositioning. The process was easier once I got the hang of it and it was amazing to see the documents I had been working on transferred into digital form, a representation of the success of the project in making these records accessible to many people.
All in all, my time spent at the Wigan Archives was excellent and I feel I gained some unbeatable first-hand experience in a very real archive environment. Not only this, the experience allowed me to meet other volunteers, some of whom were retired archivists and who had great personal experiences from archiving as a career choice. I learnt about archiving in the civil service and gained a great deal from their invaluable advice.