Unlocking the Past

April, 2020: I miss a lot during these days of lock-down, of isolation and no contact with friends, but what I’m missing more than I thought I would is the work I and a group of other volunteers have been doing with our County Archaeologist, Dr. Ruth Waller. 

“The past is another country “said J.P. Hartley, but I don’t think he had in mind the 13th or 14th centuries when he said that. It is something very obvious to me however, as a volunteer with the Brading Community Archive Group, when I open a centuries-old Rate Book, a Fee Farm Rent Book or a Poor Rate Book.  For over a year now we have been working on unlocking the past through old documents, books, paintings and photographs from the village of Brading on the Isle of Wight, a project made possible by a Grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and without which the project would not be possible.

Old Brading – British Library Print from Villages & Geographical Maps

The end result will be that books and documents which have been hidden away for centuries will be transcribed and available online to researchers.  The original documents will be seen side by side with the transcribed documents and will also be available in paper form for researchers.

Charles lst gave this once thriving seaport as security for a loan from the City of London.  Today Brading is no longer a coastal seaway: after failed attemps in the 16th century the marshes were finally drained and the embankment completed on 1881 which enabled the railway system to progress.

Brading Norman Church, Old Town Hall with Stocks Below – Photo Mari Nicholson

Brading’s history is apparent from the Norman Church at the top of the incline to the well-preserved 16th and 17th century houses that line both sides of the High Street with their eclectic range of windows, roofs and chimneys.  Next to the church is the old town hall, a stone and brick building with an open arcade housing the stocks and whipping post, once the site of the butchers’ shambles for the market first held in 1285.

It is here that we work, in the Old Town Hall, a musty room over the stocks, a cold place in the winter as we can’t have heating because of the fragility of the books.

One of Brading’s attractive buildings – Photo by James Stringer http://www.visitisleofwight.com

As bacteria, acids, oils and dirt on our hands can be transferred to the materials we are working on, disposable rubber gloves are worn at all times, no food or drink is allowed on the premises and it goes without saying that no pens are allowed anywhere near the documents or books (all notes must be taken using pencils).  Working on the books is done according to prescribed rules: opening them at 1800 could cause irreparable damage (1200 is the maximum opening) and tightly bound books should be opened no more than 900.     To prevent damage to the spine they are opened in a box made into a sort of cradle and as fragile surfaces must not be touched pages must never to be turned by the corners, and more ….  And I haven’t got to photographs and pictures yet!

Before we got to the transcribing stage we had to carefully clean the books with special brushes which wouldn’t damage the paper, first the front, back and spine, then each page.  When I say this was boring, believe me, I’m not exaggerating.  After that, each book was wrapped in special acid-free paper, tied up with acid-free cotton tape, given a number which was attached to it and then placed carefully on shelves ready for the next stage. 

Original Stocks, under the Old Town Hall – Photo Mari Nicholson

In the midst of all this ancient paraphanalia we sit among modern technology, overhead scanners, laptops, computer storage devices etc. 

Once the transcribing began the brain was engaged and the fascination with ancient ways and history meant that even two cold winters in the Old Town Hall could be coped with – just!  As well as remembering that 1752 was the first year in England to begin on January 1st (until then the New Year began officially on March 25th, Lady Day) there was the fact that two centuries earlier, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had reformed the Julian calendar because it did not conform to the solar system, and cut 10 days from the year.   England did not follow other European countries in this and remained ten days behind until an adjustment was made in 1752 and these days removed.   Then there are Regnal years versus calendar years and other hazards for the careless transcriber, one of the trickiest being documents written in the reign of Charles ll who came to the throne in May 1660 although he calculated his regnal year as beginning on 30 January 1649 the date of his father’s execution.  These anomalies do not interfere with the actual transcription of the documents but they have to be kept in mind for dating purposes.

The actual transcription has to retain the original spelling and as spelling in English was not standardised until the 18th century this can create difficulties.  Before then phonetic spelling was used and people wrote in the local dialect so when transcribing it is often necessary to say the word aloud as it appears on the page to get a sense of what the word might be.  It is useful to know where the document was written or by whom as a word written by someone who spoke in a Somerset dialect say, could differ in spelling from that of a Londoner. 

Old Brading – British Library Print from Villages & Geographical Maps

The books and documents themselves are fascinating and sometimes one can spend too long reading about the fines for allowing a pig to roam in the street, money requested for footware for a shoeless child of the village, for a cart to take an old woman to the Workhouse, or for bread for a hungry family.  One is made aware of the importance of policing certain trades by the weights and measures being strictly kept under lock and key and checked and signed for each year, and made to wonder at the many pubs the village supported.  There are many sad tales and one is grateful beyond words to have been born in this present day and age where despite its failings, there is a safety net to catch all but the most vulnerable in our society.

Part of Brading High Street – Photo James Murray http://www.visitisleofwight.com

We shall be working on the books for another year at least, but once away from the ancient past and into the 20th century it will get easier, and I dare say, less interesting.  Coronation street parties, the coming of street lighting and the contract to the lamp-lighter (£16 a year), are still fascinating but I shall miss the dark, old days, when life was ruled by the rising and setting of the sun and when having the price of a candle meant that a woman could wear her eyes out doing sewing to make an exra few pennies to feed the family.

When the lock-down is over and things return to normal, our little band of volunteers will return once more to our job of unlocking the past so that future generations will be able to research the history and times of Brading, Isle of Wight.  Although it is but a small town on an island, the broad outlines of how it was run apply equally to towns and villages all over the country and the knowledge gained by looking at this one small town gives an insight into England’s governance at a micro level.

5 thoughts on “Unlocking the Past”

  1. This post is related to the one I did before (a few minutes before actually) but I can’t find how to link them with the new system. Must be a way but I’m feeling useless at the moment! One of those days, or weeks.


  2. It sounds like an enormous task doing the transcripts, Mari, but I can see the fascination. And like-minded company, something to be prized. The prints are fabulous! 🙂 🙂 Don’t think I’d have fared too well back in the day. I never could hold my tongue 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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