Art trouvé

‘Hold on – is this a book or a film?’

The researcher was telling me the story she was writing as a result of her long research in the private archive in which I had just begun to work as archivist. It sounded very like the opening scene of a drama: a fire in the grate in the Muniment Room of the stately home, and the owner secretively burning letter after letter towards the end of his life in order to rewrite his own chapter of the family’s history. The story, by Catherine Bailey, has now been published. It is called The Secret Rooms and it is a mystery inspired by archival research. It wasn’t the story she (or the family) thought it was going to be.


‘Truth is stranger than fiction’, wrote Mark Twain, and researchers in archives often glimpse stories that might make a good fireside anecdote, a short story, a novel, or even TV serialisation or the cinema. Often they are sideshoots of the family tree or other narrative we are researching; we sigh or chuckl100_5879e and return our focus to the matter in hand.

Artists have a name for this kind of thing: art trouvé. Ready-made ‘art’ that they collect or curate. Their eye discovered it. But they didn’t just pass by; they picked it up and present it to the world, not as theirs but as something that was meant to be.

Stories from archival research that would make great novels or films. It might be just a hook, the merest suggestion of a mystery. ‘Sorry I am that the ill conduct and misbehaviour of my eldest Son Charles hath given occasion’ dictated Roger Gale of Northallerton before disinheriting his son and heir in his will in 1776. There must be a story there, mustn’t there? Scandal is usually silenced in families: this hint on the other hand stimulates the imagination while defying investigation. Nothing is revealed by the Cause Papers of the ecclesiastical courts at York (Borthwick Institute). Local newspapers can often flesh out family scandal, but few go back quite this far.

Tracing the English roots of George Collins, a felon transported to Australia on the Mellish in 1829, I round the following report in the Lincoln Rutland and Stamford Mercury of Friday March 14 1828:

Wednesday before Chief Baron Alexander
Robberies in the neighbourhood of Bourn & Stamford

George Collins, aged 24, late of Edenham, labourer, was indicted for stealing a sheep, the property of Mr Robert Stubley, of Edenham, on the night of 5th of December last. The principal witness was an accomplice of the name of Wm Osborn of Carlby, in whose house the prisoner lodged : they slaughtered the sheep in a field, and, hiding the skin in some furze, carried the carcase to an old house which Osborn had at Carlby : on the following Sunday the prisoner was married, and part of this stolen sheep furnished forth the wedding feast. When the prisoner was apprehended in February, he said that “he did not kill the sheep, but only helped to fetch it away ; he should not have gone but for Osborn, who had been his ruin” – Guilty – The Judge said it was not his intention to press judgment against the prisoner to the utmost; but he must be removed from this country, and never expect to see it again.
The prisoner was then arraigned on an indictment charging him with having stolen a gun from Mr Stubley’s house on the 9th of November ; and William (alias Corporal) Wright, aged 34, late of Stamford, was charged with having feloniously received the gun. – The principal witness in this case also was Osborn, the accomplice in the theft ; whose evidence was conclusive as to the guilt of Collins ; but the Judge thought there was not evidence of a guilty knowledge on the part of Wright sufficient to warrant a conviction. Collins guilty, Wright not guilty.


What a tragedy: George stole the sheep for his wedding feast, and was ‘grassed up’ by accomplices who got off scot-free (his landlord and a Corporal in the Militia – more plausible witnesses than an illiterate labourer). His wife, Sarah, was forgotten, and he married again in Australia. Cinema potential? Told from Sarah’s point of view?

Time and again, researching Nottingham families, I notice ‘France’ as birthplace of local residents in the nineteenth-century census returns. There’s a pattern. Many lacemakers migrated to northern France in the 1820s, returning after a few years to the East Midlands. The last emigrés returned in the Hungry Forties, forced out of France by the 1848 Revolution, and then forced out of Britain by poverty. They sailed to Australia and their descendants are the Lacemakers of Calais. Read about it on their website, and ask wouldn’t that make a great film for our time, our Age of Migrations?


Called in to help WDYTYA researchers with their trickier documents, I am always impressed with their quest for accuracy. This means that there is a lot of tedious searching and checking of census returns and parish registers before the narrative finally emerges that will wring tears of joy or of empathy from the celebrity on camera. Parish registers can be among the most boring records, and even when extracted to construct the framework of a family’s history, it takes some imagination to get beyond the bare essentials. I am so grateful that Find My Past and Ancestry have semi-automated such searching! But very occasionally a different story emerges, as it does in three pages of Wrexham parish church baptism register on 23rd July 1879. 13 people were baptised in one celebration, their ages up to 32 (the man I was tracing); the Minister was David Howell, then Vicar of Wrexham. He was charismatic, an Evangelical (and a Welsh Bard with the bardic name Llawdden), who was clearly instrumental in many conversions. The data captured in the register was in standard form on a grid of printed rows and columns (with one column added for date of birth), but the event and its impact on lives must have been extraordinary.

IMG_3966‘Tudor Noir’ has become fashionable television, and while watching Wolf Hall by night last year, by day I was working on Chancery depositions and pleadings about the Griffiths of Penrhyn. Their story, told and retold in the courts during their very own ‘Cousins’ War’, has all the edge, skulduggery, deceit, feuding – and even bigamy – of a Hilary Mantel drama, but I don’t believe it has ever yet been serialised. One of the key events is the theft and burning of the family entail, and there are as many different versions as there were witnesses. My favourite ‘episode’ would be the one where Edward Griffith – soldier and owner of Penrhyn – dies on campaign in Ireland, and whoever gets back home to Wales first of his wife and his brother will be able to seize the family property for themselves. There’s a kind of sailing race; Jane, his wife, is put ashore nearest to home, while Rhys, the younger brother, is blown off course and lands on the Lleyn Peninsular. The widow and daughters take possession, burning the entail, and so begins a hundred year feud… Except that no one tells this particular version until about 70 years later. Tales get taller with telling.

Why does Chancery process produces such amazing incidental stories like this?  Witnesses were not summoned to appear in Court.  Rather, Commissioners were instructed to take their sworn depositions and return them, sealed, to the Court.  So, instead of being heard only by a Judge, Counsel and Jury (and, if it happened to be a cause celebre, whoever was in the public gallery), their words have been preserved for researchers to read now.  Their now becomes our now.  The same procedure was followed by the Church Courts (it might surprise you to know that England had something akin to Sharia Law until the reign of Victoria); I have sat in the reading room of Lambeth Palace Library with a retired Reverend, reading of rumpled sheets and drawn blinds in depositions of witnesses to the Court of Arches. And out of doors, it was not so much ‘what the Butler saw’ as ‘what the ploughboy spotted’. I’ll leave you, dear reader, to make up the rest of the story. There are many more like it in ‘Bawdy Court’ archives.

IMG_1746Family history is a quarry often frequented by aspirant novelists. It’s been successfully carried off by Anne Enright (The Gathering) and by Kate Atkinson in Behind the Scenes at the Museum – a book I only discovered when our teenage children were reading it for GCSE English but which resonates with every family, not so much in its core tragedy but in the way that objects (like museum exhibits, hence the title) mediate between present and past. Does every family have its own novelist? Ours was Florence Allcock: she published Facts and Fiction in 1927.  My grandfather’s second cousin, family members treasured a key linking the characters and locations in Florence’s novel with their ‘cousins and uncles and aunts’ and their homes. No key was really necessary as all names had been barely disguised; for example our verifiable ancestress with the most beautiful real name Penelope Rainbow was greyly in print as plain Mary Raine. The story was all aristocrats and gypsies – staples of romantic fiction of that era – but a ‘genuine’ family tradition about West Indian Plantations lost in Chancery was apparently rejected. My wife’s extended family also numbers an historical novelist, Maureen Peters, who describes an Anglesey farming family very like her own in Trumpet Morning. I haven’t put it on my reading list. I suspect that the truth, when I eventually get round to researching my wife’s family, may well be stranger.


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