Back in June, I mentioned that we were part of a giant group of libraries bidding for funds to digitise industrial archives, including the Holden Papers. Such archives are often particularly difficult for users to access and comprehend, with information locked away in tricky and fragile formats. Unfortunately, I heard this week that our bid was unsuccessful. There was huge competition for the funding: I gather that there were 67 other bids! Which just goes to show how much wonderful material is hidden from public view for lack of funding.
Anyway, it’s disappointing, but the process of applying did bring us lots of new contacts: we hope to continue to work together. Meanwhile I’m reflecting on how to continue the inhouse phase of the Untangling project. While not on the scale of the work for which we applied, this super new list will really help us to help readers understand this major archive.
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.
I am delighted to bring you this post by Jen Fox, one of our graduate trainees who has been working on the Untangling the Holdens Project, in which she explains what she learned from the project and the value of the letters for historical research:
Spending time with any archive is a privilege; access to primary sources of historical information just can’t be beaten. The Letters of the Holden family held in Special Collections at the University of Bradford are no exception.
Spanning over tens of boxes this archive is a veritable treasure trove of first hand information on Bradford’s wool industry during its heyday. The personal letters sent to Isaac Holden from his children reveal much about the reality of his business, from trading with other local business partners and expansion of the company to experiments with new ways of combing the wool and problems with the machinery. But they also reveal a great deal about their personal lives and family relationships.
The first challenge when reading letters from the 19th Century, such as these, is to interpret the handwriting. Skills in palaeography, the study of old hand writing, would have stood me in good stead to begin this task, but instead a determination to find out what was written in these letters had to suffice. Thankfully I found that the inky scrawl of Maggie Holden achieved more and more clarity each time I picked up one of her letters to her father. Each one revealed copious amounts about not only Maggie and Isaac, but other family members. Details of births, deaths and marriages, yet also the relationships between mother and daughter, the arguments had and apologised for, the visit of ‘the first’ physician for consumption in Europe to Mary in Torquay. It is these details which are not recorded in the history books and would be lost if these letters were not preserved.
There are also many letters sent from Isaac’s sons regarding business and touching on personal issues. But what these really reveal is the inner workings of a family business, the relationships and conversations between father and sons working together to achieve industry success. I found myself eagerly awaiting the next letter from Angus to his father, detailing the progress of the new Shed on Thornton Road and discussing the details of the chimney. Walking along Thornton Road today it seems so alive knowing some of the history of the area, empty mill buildings somehow seem more fascinating and important, which demonstrates the value of this resource for local people as well as historians.
A very happy postscript to my post about Untangling the Holdens, our new mini-project to share the rich content of the Holden Papers. I’ve been invited to include the Papers in a joint funding bid for digitisation with some other universities. Really exciting prospect! More details will follow if we are successful. If not, we will still have more information about the Holden Papers which will help with other bids in future.
The papers of Isaac Holden and his family form one of the most rich, exciting archives in Special Collections. Sir Isaac was a Bradford wool manufacturer who pioneered new woolcombing techniques, established factories in France, and later became an M.P. The papers consist mainly of letters between Sir Isaac and family members. They are full of detail about social and cultural life, religion, travel, industry, politics … Bradford and Keighley (the Holdens lived at Oakworth House) are covered, as is France and even New Zealand. However, this detail has not yet been captured and therefore the collections are not reaching their full potential.
We have a basic list which is accurate as far as it goes, but it was created long before the material came to Special Collections. It does not record many aspects that interest readers now. Hence our new project, Untangling the Holdens, in which we will record and make available the names, places and themes covered in the letters. This will help bring them to new audiences and develop exciting projects.
The library’s two graduate trainees (Jen Fox and Maria O’Hara) are working on the material during their time in Special Collections this summer. This is giving them excellent experience in handling and interpreting historic material. Once the trainees have completed their time with us, we will have more idea how long the work will take and can then consider options for continuing. I will be posting about what we have discovered and how the project will continue, watch this space!