Following on from Jen Fox’s post about working on 19th century letters, I am so pleased to bring you a slightly different perspective from graduate trainee, Maria O’Hara. I would like to thank them both for their hard work on this challenging project and for taking the time to share their thoughts on the joys and difficulties of working with primary sources. Over to Maria …
For a History grad there are few jobs more appealing than sinking your teeth into some Victorian letters, particularly when said letters comprise the correspondence of an Industrialist and a Liberal MP. That said, my first reaction upon sitting down and actually reading one was blind panic, how on earth was I ever going to decipher the handwriting? I could barely make out the obvious words like ‘Dear’ and ‘Bradford’ never mind the names, places, activities and technical terms used.
Although I adjusted to the Victorian handwriting relatively quickly and was generally able to decipher the content, I did discover that writing a special collections handlist involves a good bit of detective work. You might be fairly sure, for example, that Sir Isaac’s opposition in the 1865 Knaresborough election, mentioned in the letters, is a Mr Collins. Until you’ve done some research and found out that Isaac Holden replaced Thomas Collins as MP for Knaresborough, however, you might not be 100% certain.
As my stay in Special Collections progressed I found the more I tried to confirm specific details like names and places by checking it against details I did know, the deeper my understanding of the letters overall often became. A number of letters talked about appointments made at a conference in Penzance, for example, and until I started checking a name I wasn’t sure about I didn’t realise it was in fact a Methodist conference at which Sir Isaac was attempting to influence the appointment of a new local rector.
As a fan of 19th century history I enjoyed myself so much I even forgot to go home one night. Through the letters I got interesting insights into topics from Victorian political smear campaigns and an industrialist’s opinion of the Great Exhibition to the funeral of a Victorian gentleman. I’d definitely recommend them to anyone with an interest in 19th century history.