The Odysseys of Captain George Henry Parlby White (1802-82) – Naval Diaries, EUL MS 418

While taking a slight repast in the Temple of Venus, we were surrounded by a bevy of young girls dancing the Tarantella       
–     
George H.P. White R.N., Diary entry, May 1836. EUL MS 418/6

Old travel narratives can be a source of reading pleasure as well as edification, as the charm of their quaint language and their unusual perspectives on regions both familiar and unfamiliar can help us to think again about our own views of the world. The literary pretensions and insatiable curiosity of many of these travellers combined to produce chronicles of their journeys that sometimes reveal as much about the culture from which they came as they do about the culture they were exploring.

We are fortunate to have in our collections a series of six notebooks written by Admiral George Henry Parlby White R.N. (1802-82) between 1819 and 1845 when he was a young naval officer stationed in the Mediterranean. These record his journeys around the coasts of Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia, as well as voyages further afield to South America and Canada. He later served on HMS Implacable during the blockade of Alexandria in 1840 when the British navy engaged with Egyptian forces who had invaded Syria, although these events are not included in these books.

Four of the six notebooks in which the diaries are written        EUL MS 418

The author of the diaries had been born into a naval family. His father Admiral Thomas White (1766-1846) was a native of Buckfastleigh and lived at the Abbey House, the castellated Gothic mansion built on the ruins of medieval Buckfast Abbey. Thomas spent 66 years in the navy, having entered the service in 1780 at the tender age of eleven. Three of his four sons followed him into the Royal Navy, with George being joined by his younger brothers Edward John White (1805-47) and Richard Dunnington White (1814-99), whose son Vice-Admiral Richard White died in Exeter in 1924. Richard also took part in the naval operations off the Syrian coast and painted a watercolour The Bombardment of St. Jean D’Acre – November 3rd – 1840 which is now held in the collections of the V&A.

George was born on 11 October 1802 at Droxford in Hampshire, and after entering the Royal Naval College in November 1816, he served on ships within British waters before joining the crew of his father’s ship HMS Superb in August 1819. The diaries begin with an entry for 9 September 1819: ‘Sailed for South America in HMS Superb. Longeur and Hyperion in company.’

HMS Superb (on the right) engaging with the French flagship Impérial at the Battle of San Domingo in 1806. Painting by Nicholas Pocock, National Maritime Museum

All the diaries are written longhand in lined notepads, with sporadic inclusion of dates and long prose passages that continue over several pages.  It is not long before the reader gains some sense of White’s character and interests. Having caught sight of Tenerife and crossed the Equator, a dolphin is killed for food and the young midshipman writes out some thirty lines on ‘The Dying Dolphin’ by William Falconer – an extract from Canto II of the poem The Shipwreck (1762.) The wording varies in several places from the published text, suggesting that White was quoting the passage from memory. As the diaries proceed, the sailor’s literary interests and skills become increasingly apparent, as does his intellectual curiosity and observant eye.

When the ship arrives in Rio de Janeiro (24 October 1819) he writes a vivid description of the sunset over the harbour, and is soon exploring inland, recording in detail the riding skills, habits and cuisine of the gauchos, or cowboys, of Maldonado (January 1820.) Life here was not without danger – White’s diary notes how ‘The Hon. Lieutenant Finch was basely assassinated when returning from a shooting party,’ (29 August 1820) – but he evidently found much to interest him in the region, from the ‘immense number of sperm whales’ on the voyage to Valparaiso (13 February 1821), to flamingos, condors and other local birdlife (15 September 1821) – indeed he regarded Chile as truly ‘the country for the Poet, the Artist, the Botanist, in fact every lover of nature and her works; at every step he sees something new, he treads on something yet unknown.’ (13 April 1821.) When not exploring South America’s flora and fauna, there was naval work to be done, such as a fortnight’s pursuit of the Chilean pirate Vicente Benavides (5-19 July 1821); although White and his crew failed to find Benavides, he was captured soon after and executed the following February.

The first diary ends in January 1825, by which time White had attained the rank of lieutenant. Later that year, he would be promoted to captain. At the back of the notebook, written in the opposite direction, are almost 100 pages of poems and prose passages, some of which – such as Lines on Botogago Bay, Rio de Janeiro and Admiralty Leave to Tell! A Soliloquy. In the Royal Marine Barrack Yard – appear to be White’s own work. Others have been selected and copied out from books, periodicals and other sources in the manner of a commonplace book, including poems in Greek and Italian, the work of Gabriel Rossetti and Petrarch, an Ode to Lord Byron and some lines from Morning Twilight, by ‘Maria Colling, a servant girl living at Tavistock’. Some of these passages are dated as late as 1845, indicating that the notebooks were reused.

There is more evidence of reuse in the later volumes, with some entries duplicated in different books, indicating that the diaries were copied out at some point. The wording of the two versions is not always identical. Although we only possess six notebooks, these are numbered in pencil as Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, and the full extent of the original diaries is unclear. Pencilled dates have been written inside the covers, either by White or a later hand, but these do not always represent the contents accurately. An approximate summary of the actual dates would be thus:

Notebook I    September 1819 – January 1825, with additional material up to 1845
Notebook II   September 1829 – June 1830
Notebook III  August 1830 – September 1834
Notebook IV  February – August 1834, and September 1841
Notebook V   August 1836 – May 1840
Notebook VI  May 1836 to May 1838

Part of White’s account of his visit to the temple on Aegina, December 1829. EUL MS 418/2

Following White’s departure from South America he had a brief stint off the coast of Africa, but most of his subsequent career was spent in the Mediterranean, which is the background to the events recorded in the rest of the diaries. Notebook II chronicles his ship’s constant cruising between Gibraltar, Malta and the coasts of Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Those who imagine that sailors spent their time ashore seeking the pleasures of wine, women and song might be pleasantly surprised to find White and his fellow officers pursuing other interests. Upon reaching the Greek island of Aegina, he writes ‘Let out with ten officers of our ship to visit the remains of the Temple of Jupiter.’ (4 December 1829). This was the famous Temple of Jupiter Panhellenius, which had only recently become known in the west. After an energetic walk across the island, White provides a detailed description of the site as well as recounting the legends about its foundation. It has since been recognised as being dedicated to Aphaius rather than Jupiter.

‘Temples of Jupiter Panhellenius, Aegina’ engraving by William Miller published in H.W. Williams, Select Views In Greece With Classical Illustrations (London, 1829)

He sailed on to Smyrna in modern-day Turkey, where he visited a mosque and commented, ‘There is something particularly impressive in the simple and unostentatious worship of the Mahomedan. No noise, no bustle, no laughing and talking, as is often the case in Christian churches.’ (20 December 1829). On a later visit to Smyrna he enjoyed a Turkish bath, which he also describes in detail (Notebook III, 17 September 1830, see below.) His ship then moored at Parikia on the Greek island of Paros, where he led his fellow officers into the nearby marble quarries ‘in search of antiquities’ (9 January 1830) only to stumble across the famous bas-relief depicting the Festival of Silenus (a companion of Bacchus). A few days later Captain White ‘formed a large party from our ship to explore the celebrated Grotto of Antiparos’ (15 January 1830.) The party’s enthusiasm for seeking out ancient ruins gives some insight into the degree to which their view of the region was highly coloured by knowledge of classical literature and mythology.

White’s account of a Turkish bath in Smyrna, September 1830. EUL MS 418/3

Later entries cover his visits to Siciliy with detailed descriptions of the Cathedral at Grigento, antiquities in the museum at Syracuse and the Benedictine monastery at Catania, pursuing a Spanish privateer off the coast of Gibraltar, sailing to Tangiers and Tétouan on the African coast, a narrow escape during a boar hunt in Tunisia, a description of the Carlist wars in southern Spain, including the brutal murders of the governors of Malaga and the military exploits of General Miguel Gómez Damas and Don Antonio Escalante, plus carrying troops of the 71st and 73rd regiments around Quebec and Halifax. There are interesting passages in which White ponders on the location of Troy, expressing his doubts about the theories of Dr Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822) and advancing his own ideas as he examines inscriptions and the terrain around Berika Bay and Bounarbashi (Pınarbaşı in modern Turkey.)

White married in 1847, retired in 1863, and was subsequently promoted to Rear Admiral (1865), Vice Admiral (1871) and Admiral (1877). Returning to Devon, he lived in Ashburton for a while and later at Rockwood Villa off Totnes Road in Newton Abbot, where he died on 29 December 1881 leaving two daughters and a son.

The diaries would be of interest to anyone doing naval or maritime studies, particularly with regard to the Royal Navy, as well as those researching Victorian travel, antiquarianism, amateur archaeology and classical studies, the political and military histories of Spain and Latin America, the Kingdom of Greece, the Ottoman and British empires, early Victorian encounters with Islam and the Orient, the relationship between Britain and its colonies, 19th century memoir-writing and vernacular literature. The local connections are also strong, with the links to Devon and occasional references to the west country. More details about the contents of the diaries can be found in the online catalogue entries here.

Tracing the ‘roots’ of Tree Dressing Day in the Common Ground archive

In December 1990, the arts and environmental charity Common Ground introduced a new annual custom which it called ‘Tree Dressing Day’. ‘Tree Dressing Day’ was envisioned by Common Ground as a day for people to decorate and celebrate trees in their local area. It was to be held on the first weekend of December of each year, neatly coinciding with the already existing National Tree Week. As the first weekend of December 2018 approaches, I delve into the Common Ground archive to find out how it all began…

Promotional material in the archive relating to ‘Tree Dressing Day’

Common Ground started work on its ‘Trees, Woods and the Green Man’ project in 1986. In a leaflet preserved in the archive, the charity explains the meaning and purpose behind the project:

They [trees] have been our friends through the ages and they have helped us make sense of the world. They are important economically, socially and ecologically and they are deeply part of many cultures. They need our help now, not just in the tropical forests, but here in the street and down the lane…Common Ground’s work around Trees, Woods and the Green Man is trying to give information and ideas to help you to look at the trees around you and think of ways to involve yourself and others in celebrating and caring for them. Make every tree a wanted tree. (Reference: EUL MS 416/PRO/4, File 2.1)

The project resulted in a variety of activities and events, including publications, exhibitions, and artistic commissions. It was also from the ‘Trees, Woods and the Green Man’ project that the new calendar custom ‘Tree Dressing Day’ emerged.

‘Tree Dressing Day’ files in the Common Ground archive

Early research by Common Ground into the custom of dressing trees revealed that it had existed for centuries in many different forms all around the world. This inspired the charity to launch its own ‘Tree Dressing Day’, providing advice and encouraging people to decorate trees in their neighbourhoods. The first ‘Tree Dressing Day’ was celebrated in 1990, and the custom has proven to be sustainable, with celebrations continuing to the present day. The success of the initiative and Common Ground’s enthusiasm for it are indicated in a report dated February 1993, in which Common Ground writes:

There is excitement among us that we may have begun the reinvention of a tradition in which young and old, professional and amateur, all cultures and places city and country can share. And in which the seeds of the social and public celebration of trees…becomes an easy first step to long term shared commitment and care. (Reference: EUL MS 416/PRO/4, Report on Tree Dressing Day in 1992, File 1.4)

The Common Ground archive contains a significant amount of material relating to ‘Tree Dressing Day’, including correspondence, reports, press releases, photographs, research material, promotional material and press clippings. It even includes some decorations that were used to dress trees! This section of the Common Ground archive will be catalogued in the course of the next two years, making this exciting material much easier to discover and access.

Archivist Annie showing Sue, one of our volunteers, decorations in the Common Ground the archive that were made by the UK Asian Women Conference for ‘Tree Dressing Day’ (c 1992 or 1993)

Find out more about ‘Tree Dressing Day’ on the Common Ground website, which also includes some lovely images.

Why not start your exploration of the Common Ground archive via our online catalogue today? Simply search ‘Common Ground’ or the reference number ‘EUL MS 416’.

You can also find out more about the Common Ground archive cataloguing project by taking a look back at our previous blog posts.

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

Oil, Pearls and Politics: cataloguing the papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave (1894-1969)

Belgrave’s diary for 1917 along with articles on Bahrain written for ‘The Times’ EUL MS 148/2/1/2 and 10

One reason why the papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave provide such a fascinating resource is the distinctive nature of his career in the Gulf. Most of the diplomats whose papers are preserved in the Middle East Collections served in specific roles – such as ambassador or political resident – under the British government, and tended to move from place to place every few years. Belgrave was appointed as ‘Adviser’ to the Sheikh of Bahrain in 1926 and held this post until 1957. This thirty-year period saw Bahrain transformed by the discovery of oil and a series of modernising administrative reforms led by Belgrave, who oversaw improvements in the legal system, infrastructure, police service and public health. As he was an employee of the Sheikh rather than the British government, Belgrave occupied a unique and somewhat ambiguous position, balancing the interests of the Al Khalifa rulers and the Bahraini people with Foreign Office policy and British strategic aims for the Gulf region. The papers in our collection shed light not only on the achievements, challenges and controversies of Belgrave’s life and work in Bahrain, but also reveal the means by which the society and economy of this small island altered dramatically during this time, and the role played by British and American interests – both political and commercial.

Pages from Belgrave’s diary for 13 August 1926, recording events in the wake of a fatal shooting at The Fort, the police headquarters. The Political Agent, Major Clive Daly, was badly wounded in the incident – hence the arrival of the cruiser referred to above, which Belgrave clearly regarded as an over-reaction. EUL MS 148/2/2/6/4

Prior to his appointment as Adviser in 1926, Belgrave had obtained experience of the Middle East through military service with the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade during the First World War in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine. He then held administrative posts in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt – recorded in his book Siwa: The oasis of Jupiter Ammon (London: Bodley Head, 1923) and Tanganyika (formerly German East Africa, now part of Tanzania). It was while on leave from East Africa that he saw a job vacancy in the ‘Personal’ adverts of The Times (10 August 1925) – a life-changing moment that gave its name to his autobiography Personal Column (London: Hutchinson, 1960) and also featured in one of Belgrave’s watercolour paintings, a photograph of which is in our collection (EUL MS 148/2/2/4/1).

Having secured the job after interviews with British government officials, Belgrave undertook a three-month Arabic course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and tried to find out what he could about Bahrain – only to discover that very little information was available. After marrying his fiancée Marjorie Lepel Barrett-Lennard on 27 February 1926, the Belgraves sailed for Bahrain, arriving on 31 March which is when his diary starts.

It should be noted at this point that – with the exception of a few small sections – the diaries we have here are copies and transcripts, rather than the original books (which remain with his family.) The papers in the collection were assembled by Charles’ cousin Robert Belgrave while working on a biography of ‘The Adviser’ that sadly remained unfinished when Robert died in 1991. In addition to the printed versions of the diaries which Robert had transcribed and typed, the collection includes original letters and documents, artwork by Charles Belgrave, printed material on Bahrain, copies of numerous official documents and presscuttings, as well as Robert Belgrave’s early drafts and working papers for the biography.

Copies from a large album of presscuttings chronicling the visit of Sheikh Hamed Bin Isa Al Khalifa, to the UK in June 1936. EUL MS 148/2/2/5

During the cataloguing process I read through Belgrave’s diaries from his arrival in 1926 to the final months of 1956 when his departure was imminent, and was struck by the extent of the changes that took place both in Bahrain and in Belgrave himself. In addition to his duties advising the royal family and steering British policy in the region, he set up the police force, sat in judgement in the law courts, oversaw improvements in the health and education systems on the island and played a key role in supporting the establishment of the petroleum industry in Bahrain after oil was discovered in the early 1930s. He took a hands-on approach to all these activities, taking part in midnight raids on illicit arak stills, interrogating prisoners in the police cells, interviewing applicants for various posts on the island and generally involving himself in the minutiae of everyday life in Bahrain. His personal influence in the region was so extensive that he was referred to not only as المستشار (‘the Adviser’) but also as رئيس الخليج   (‘Chief of the Gulf’).

                   An original page from Belgrave’s diary for 7-8 April 1928 EUL MS 148/2/2/6/4

Despite Belgrave’s heavy workload he was able to make time for leisure activities including playing bridge, reading novels and listening to gramophone records. At times the references to dull dinners, ‘awful people’ and ‘ghastly’ cocktail parties suggest that the constant round of social engagements – integral to his job – could grow tedious. One form of entertainment that does begin to appear more and more regularly in his diary as the years progress is the cinema, which is referred to at the foot of the above letter. Belgrave was able to watch films at a number of different venues, including home movies at the Residency, onboard visiting naval ships and a small theatre in the oil workers’ camp as well as the commercial cinemas that were later established in Manama. Belgrave’s records of how these cinema venues developed provides a fascinating reflection of the changing society in Bahrain, and may be the subject of another blogpost.

Bahrain’s transformation from a small island economy dependent upon pearl fishing into a modern society owes much to Belgrave, who not only managed the island’s administration and controlled its budget, but also took a personal interest in raising standards of education and health, training the police force, establishing hospitals, improving roads and drainage. However, by holding so much power in his own hands and closely aligning Bahrain’s ruling family with British political interests, he made himself a target for the growing nationalist ferment which manifested itself in a series of demonstrations, several of which turned violent and involved the burning of cars and buildings.

These events, and Belgrave’s response to them, are recorded in detail in his diaries, alongside his concerns about intrigue involving Persia and Egypt, and his personal frustration not only with the Foreign Office but also the attitudes of some of the Political Residents – over a dozen of whom came and went during his time there. It is instructive to compare his analysis of political events in Bahrain with the (often critical) confidential reports (EUL MS 148/2/1/3 and MS 148/2/1/5) written by British and American officials – a picture that could be further fleshed out by consulting the views of his opponents, as published in local newspapers and tracts, and the openly hostile opinions of his role found in the Egyptian and Iranian media. Another perspective on the rise of nationalism and the decline of British influence in the Middle East can be traced through the papers of Sir William Luce, who arrived in Bahrain as Political Resident in 1961, four years after Belgrave’s departure, and was instrumental in Bahrain becoming an independent state in 1971. In his diaries for 1956, Belgrave notes the appointment of a new Governor in Aden (Luce) and comments on the troubles there, which in many ways echoed the unrest in Bahrain at the time.

Documents and presscuttings relating to the trial of Abdul-Rahman Al-Bakir, Abdul-Aziz Al-Shamlan and others. EUL MS 148/2/1/7 and 8.

The nationalist movement in Bahrain was led by a small group of individuals who called themselves the Higher Executive Committee, (later the National Union Committee), and made Belgrave’s life increasingly difficult in later years. In November 1956 he had the leaders arrested following a number of deaths and injuries during riots that he claimed had been instigated by the Committee. The trial and conviction that followed caused controversy both in Bahrain and the UK – these events are documented at length in various materials that can be studied in the collection.

Although Bahrain never formed part of the British Empire, during the nineteenth century the ruling Al Khalifa family entered into a series of legal treaties that offered Britain a degree of control over defence and foreign relations in exchange for military and naval protection from pirates and hostile neighbours. As a British Protectorate, Bahrain was nominally independent but effectively supervised by British government officials. Control was exercised by means both subtle and unsubtle, and when the erratic behaviour of the ruler Sheikh Isa ibn Ali Al Khalifa threatened the island’s stability, the British had him deposed in 1923 and replaced with his son Hamed, Belgrave’s employer. After Hamed’s death in 1942 he was succeeded by his son Sheikh Salman, for whom Belgrave continued to advise and govern. Modern readers may find it hard to justify the moral compromises involved in balancing Britain’s vested interests in oil revenues and foreign influence with the authoritarian and feudal nature of Bahrain’s sheikhdom, but the papers in Belgrave’s collection reveal how those engaged in this policy understood their role and perceived the value of their actions.

Demands for ‘The Adviser’ to leave had been circulating for years and were steadfastly resisted by Belgrave, but his position became more and more untenable as the political turmoil in the Middle East during the 1950s was worsened by the disastrous impact of the Suez crisis. There is evidence that the Political Resident, Bernard Burrows, along with the Political Agent Charles Gault and various individuals in the Foreign Office were manoeuvring in the background to have him removed. When Belgrave eventually left Bahrain it was arguably too late, as his refusal to go had only hardened resentment against him as a symbol of British imperialism. In consequence, Bahraini historians – if not exactly airbrushing Belgrave out – tended to minimize the extent of his contribution. While his diaries provide ample evidence of just how much he did for Bahrain, these personal writings also reveal the prejudices and attitudes that were typical of colonial administrators at this period. Those seeking to understand the history of modern Bahrain, the influence of British strategy in the Gulf region, the relationship between Middle Eastern politics and the petroleum industry, or how nationalist movements flourished on regional, national and international levels, would find much of interest by reading Belgrave’s diaries in conjunction with other documents among his papers, as well as other materials in our Middle Eastern collections and the rich resources held next door in AWDU. The catalogue for the papers can be found online here, but please note there are special access requirements for the Belgrave collection.

#LoveTheatreDay 2018

It’s Love Theatre Day and what better way to celebrate than delving into the Northcott Theatre archives…

In December 2007 the Northcott was about to re-open after a 2.1 million pound refurbishment when it was hit with a blow out of the blue: the Arts Council had recommended that it’s £547,000 funding package be withdrawn. Without this money the Northcott faced potentially having to close it’s doors not long after re-opening them.

 

In reaction to the news the theatre staff, local politicians, community groups, schools and the residents of Exeter and it’s surrounding towns mounted a ‘Save the Northcott’ campaign to show how much they loved their theatre and to persuade the Arts Council to reverse it’s decision. The records from the campaign are a poignant display of the theatre’s loyal audience: petitions comprising a total of more than 17,000 names were collected, along with hundreds of letters and emails written in support of the theatre. Theatre-goers from all over Devon, and many from further abroad, voiced their personal connections to the theatre, their support for it’s writing and acting talent, and their worry that one of the few professional theatres in Devon would be lost.

 

Living in Newtown Ward myself, I was particularly pleased to see a letter from Richard Branston, councillor for Newtown ward, to the chair of the Arts Council enclosing a petition which all but 12 of the ward’s residents had signed. A turnout of 99%. Local schools and community groups that worked with the theatre also collected their own petitions, with one group assembling a book in which 630 young children signed their names on stickers in support of the theatre. My favourite item in this part of the collection however, has to be a tree assembled out of leaves on which people have written what the Northcott means to them. A striking visual representation of the support for the theatre.

Though the Northcott Theatre has faced a number of challenges in it’s fifty years of productions it is clear from the collection that it has loyal supporters in it’s theatre-goers. Love Theatre Day is the perfect day to celebrate both the Northcott Theatre and those who love it; the theatre-goers of Devon.

 

 

 

A not so sticky situation: conserving press cutting albums from the Northcott Theatre

Halloween may be over but i’m in the middle of an Archivist’s nightmare. Along with the other treasures in the Northcott Theatre Archives are 13 wallpaper sample albums crammed full of press cuttings. These albums are not only unwieldy due to their size, but many of the volumes have also had the cuttings taped onto sheets of plain paper which have then been taped into the albums.

 

As many of you will know, any kind of adhesive tape is a poor choice for long term preservation. The adhesive from the tape has stained the cuttings leaving brown discolouration and over the years the tape has dried out and many of the cuttings have come loose from the albums. At it’s worst this degradation has left us with some albums where there is simply a pile of loose cuttings in the front and in other cases the movement of the cuttings has caused significant creasing and tearing.

Staining from old tape and adhesive

The majority of the albums are not in a fit condition to be handled as they are without causing more damage and so the decision has been made to remove the cuttings from the albums where they are already coming loose. Once removed the cuttings will be stored in the order they were in the album (if this is still discernible) and the albums will be retained separately. It sounds simple but it’s delicate work and rather time consuming. With five albums completed I have enough loose tape in my bin to remake several rolls.

Loose tape from one album

The cuttings are a fascinating read: containing reviews and general news relating to Northcott Theatre productions, arts funding and other west country theatres, particularly the Plymouth Theatre Royal. The albums themselves are also incredibly interesting, I feel like I have taken a journey through wallpaper history in the past weeks. I’ve even recognised wallpaper from my parents house – further proof, if any were needed, that it’s time for them to redecorate. The presence of the albums is still a little bit of a mystery though. Were they simply a useful receptacle for the cuttings that someone happened to have lying around (perhaps from a second job moonlighting as an interior designer), or were they perhaps used by the set designers? The range is vast; spanning William Morris designs to the bobble textured wallpaper of the 1980’s and the office has had great fun revisiting the wallpaper highs and lows of the past. Only 8 more to go….

 

Windows on Iraq: the Papers of Jonathan Crusoe

Jonathan Crusoe was born in Kuwait in 1953 and lived there with his parents until the age of eight when they moved to the village of Goudhurst in Kent. After completing a degree in Arabic and English at Leeds University, he began working as a journalist for the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) in December 1976. Over the next fifteen years he closely monitored developments in Iraq and Kuwait, as well as Yemen, building up an international reputation as a specialist on the region. On 21 December 1991 he was killed in a car accident near Peterborough at the age of only 38. His working papers were deposited with the University of Exeter as part of a donation from MEED.

Some of Crusoe’s published work held in the Arab World Documentation Unit (AWDU) in the Old Library at Exeter University

Crusoe’s papers consist primarily of presscuttings, telex press reports, working notes and correspondence (often by fax or telex) on almost every aspect of life in Iraq between 1979 and 1991. There are over 170 folders with the contents arranged thematically in the categories originally assigned to them by Crusoe – topics include: Agriculture, Dams, Archaeology and Architecture, Education, Housing, Power – including Iraq’s nuclear programme – Foreign Relations (with some two dozen individual countries), the Petroleum Industry, Political Opposition groups, Saddam Hussein and his family, Sports, Tourism and Health.

Plans for the new University of Baghdad campus (top) and a 1981 brochure for the University of Basrah (below) – some of the ‘Higher Education’ material compiled by Crusoe. EUL MS 143/8/2

Although many of the presscuttings are from British and American newspapers, there is a wealth of original source material from Iraq, much of which is either unique or hard to find given subsequent events in the region. These include numerous articles extracted from the now-defunct state-run newspaper the Baghdad Observer reporting on everyday life in Iraq, original photographs of Iraqi dams being constructed, advertisements and prospectuses giving details of commercial contracts and building projects, as well as Crusoe’s own handwritten notes and annotations of other documents.

Material on the Kurdish peoples of Iraq, Turkey and Iran is found in dedicated folders as well as elsewhere in the collection, including press releases and booklets issued by different Kurdish groups during the 1980s.

This selection of publications gives some idea of the diverse groups operating (mostly in exile) to oppose the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. EUL MS 143/14/2/1

Crusoe’s death shortly after the war that followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait meant that he never saw the later conflict and US occupation of the region. There are six folders of material covering what he termed – following standard usage at the time – the First Gulf War, between Iran and Iraq (1980-88), and a much more extensive collection of over thirty folders covering the Second Gulf War (1990-91) which covers the conflict chronologically as well as under topics such as sanctions, conditions in Iraq during the war, the oil embargo, burning of oil wells, hostages, media reporting, food and medicine shortages, and postwar reconstruction.

A photograph – probably of Basra – taken during the First Gulf War (1980-88) between Iran and Iraq: note the sandbags on the right, a protection against air and missle strikes. EUL MS 143/19/7

Although Crusoe did much of his work from the offices of MEED in London he also visited Iraq and Kuwait – among the collection of hotel and restaurant brochures is his room card for the Hotel Meridien in Baghdad, where he stayed in 1982. Other material was obtained through his contacts with other journalists, contractors and personal sources in the region, and the archive contains a large amount of telex or fax correspondence through which he gained detailed information on business contracts, construction projects and economic statistics. All this was recorded in his meticulously neat and miniscule handwriting, and it was by carefully cross-referencing and filing this research that he was able to build up the encyclopaedic knowledge for which he was renowned.

Some of Crusoe’s notes on Iraq’s nuclear programme. EUL MS 143/13/2

Students and researchers interested in the history of the Middle East during the 20th century could find the Crusoe papers a valuable resource for learning about life in Iraq or understanding topics such as agricultural practices, the extent of foreign investment in Iraqi infrastructure under Saddam Hussein, or how information is compiled and presented by conflicting media interests. Despite its strong pro-government bias, the extensive illustrated coverage of everyday life in Iraq found in the Baghdad Observer could be helpful for those interested in understanding how local and international affairs (such as relations with Iran and Syria) were reported to and perceived by the Iraqi people, as well as opening a window on – for example – social conditions or agricultural practices that are often hidden, or the ways in which cultural and political agendas underpinned architectural design projects such as the hotel below.

A photograph of the Hotel Nineveh Oberoi, on the banks of the River Tigris in Mosul. EUL MS 143/19/6. It was later captured by Islamic State militants, who used it as a base from 2014 until its recapture by Iraqi forces in January 2017. Its present ruinous state contrasts sharply with the sense of luxury conveyed by material in the Crusoe papers.

The Hotel Nineveh Oberoi was opened in 1986 during celebrations marking the anniversary of the July Revolution that brought the Ba’athist party to power in 1968. Eleven storeys high and comprising almost 300 rooms and suites with additional bars, restaurants and leisure facilities, its unusual and striking design was intended to evoke the structure of ancient ziggurats such as the one preserved at Ur in southern Iraq. This was part of a wider campaign by Saddam Hussein to draw parallels between the glories of the ancient Babylonian past and his own regime – evidence for which can also be found in the archive materials relating to the ‘International Babylon Festival’ (EUL MS 143/5/2) and Saddam’s restoration of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. There are other presscuttings about the new hotel during the 1980s and a letter from an Indian journalist to Crusoe, pointing out that the Indian construction company Oberoi had incorporated traditional features of Indian architecture into the design.

Designs produced by the Architects Collaborative for a community project ca. 1981. EUL MS 143/4/1

Crusoe collected information on such projects at every stage, amassing hundreds of adverts from the Baghdad Observer in which the Iraqi government sought contractors for infrastructure schemes and building works. He also compiled lists of foreign contractors, with contact details, notes on personnel, financial records, trade prospectuses, commercial bids, architectural plans and annual reports. Working within the Crusoe archive it is possible to study these items within a wider framework of material on the political, cultural and economic context; users of the archive could augment their research using the resources in AWDU, such as official reports, documentation, statistical records and presscuttings, as well as an extensive run of MEED and similar publications. Those interested in the history of journalism and media studies can trace the process by which raw material from original sources evolved into published reports by making a close comparison of Crusoe’s notes and correspondence with Reuters press messages, draft typescripts and the final text that appeared in MEED and other publications. There is also a 58-page typed document compiled by a senior staff writer at MEED, entitled ‘Sources of Construction Information and their Use in Construction Reporting by MEED Writers’, which examines in detail how different members of the journalists’ team obtained, used and verified their sources.

Anyone wishing to use the Jonathan Crusoe archive should contact Special Collections. The catalogue can be consulted here.

Further Reading

Obituaries of Crusoe were published in The Independent on 30 December 1991 (p.17) and the Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), 10 January 1992 (p.15).

Jonathan Crusoe’s published work includes

MEED Special Report: Iraq.
London: MEED, 1985

‘Economic outlook: guns and butter, phase two?’, in Frederick W. Axelgard (ed.),  Iraq in transition: a political, economic and strategic perspective.
Washington: Georgetown University, 1986.

MEED Profile: Iraq
London: MEED, 1989

MEED Quarterly Report: Iraq
London: MEED, 1990

Kuwait: rebuilding a country (with Peter Kemp)
London: MEED, 1989

Apples and Archives: Getting to the ‘core’ of Apple Day in the Common Ground archive

Warning: may contain puns

Every year on and around the 21 October, apples and orchards are celebrated in the UK as part of a custom known as Apple Day. Indeed, Apple Day has become so firmly entrenched in the British calendar that it could easily be believed to be an ancient tradition. However, Apple Day has only officially been celebrated on 21 October in the UK since 1990, when the arts and environmental charity, Common Ground, initiated its very first ‘fruitful’ – in all senses of the word – celebration of apples in the Plaza of Covent Garden in London.

The Common Ground archive, which has been in the care of Special Collections at the University of Exeter since 2013, contains a significant amount of material created and collected by Common Ground throughout the course of the Apple Day project. The richness of this material offers a tantalising opportunity to delve into the archive and explore the history behind the ‘fruits’ of Common Ground’s labour – and as I am currently in the process of surveying the archive before the cataloguing begins, that is exactly what I did.

Author’s own photograph of apple varieties on display, taken at Killerton Apple Festival in Exeter, 2018

In 1987, Sue Clifford and Angela King at Common Ground became aware of the sharp decline in traditional orchards in the British Isles since the 1950s whilst conducting research for the Trees, Woods and the Green Man project. They recognised that this decline not only had an ecological impact on the British landscape, but also signfied a loss of associated cultural practices. Not only would we lose regional fruit varieties, local distinctiveness, and richness of wildlife, but knowledge of recipes, stories, songs, and skills such as planting, grafting and pruning would also diminish. To raise awareness of this issue, the charity launched its Save Our Orchards and Community Orchards campaigns, which sought to encourage and ‘a-peel’ to people to protect traditional orchards, as well as create new community orchards.

Realising it was ‘crunch’ time for orchards, in 1990, Common Ground introduced a new initiative to further protect and promote the ecological and cultural importance of orchards – a calendar custom which it named Apple Day. The charity hoped that demonstration and celebration of the apple – with its thousands of varieties, and rich history and symbolism – could raise awareness of the orchards in danger of being lost, as well as inspire real positive change in the way that people source food and engage with their local environment. The first Apple Day celebration was organised by Common Ground with forty stalls in Covent Garden in 1990.

Apple Day promotional material and apple-related publications produced by Common Ground in the archive

Common Ground initiates and manages projects that inspire people to care for and forge meaningful connections with their local environment through the arts, and which – perhaps most importantly – are sustainable. In this vein, having piloted Apple Day in London with great success in 1990, in the following year the charity encouraged people nationwide to organise their own apple-related events on and around 21 October. The initiative soon ‘bore fruit’ and Common Ground took on an advisory and promotional role towards Apple Day, supporting the increasing number of local organisers in co-ordinating their own events. This continued until 2010 – the 21st Apple Day and year the custom officially ‘came of age’ – at which point Common Ground considered the day to have so firmly ‘taken root’ in the British calendar that it was capable of continuing without extra support from the charity. In addition to supporting local organisers, Common Ground published several books relating to apples, including: ‘The Apple Source Book’ (1991, 2007) and ‘Apple Games and Customs’ (1994) in the course of the project.

Apple Day events have been organised across the length and breadth of the country by villages, community groups, councils, historic houses, museums, arts centres, pubs, restaurants, agricultural colleges, hospitals, schools, wildlife trusts, tree nurseries, markets, farms, and commercial and community orchards – phew! – and from its inception has risen from one to hundreds of events nationwide every year. An Apple Day event can incorporate all kinds of different activities, such as displays, identification, and pressing of local varieties of apple; sampling and sale of orchard produce; tours of and talks about orchards; as well as music, crafts and games, including wassailing, apple bobbing, and the longest apple peel competition.

The Apple Day material in the archive is currently organised into clearly labelled folders

The recent survey I conducted of material in the archive relating to Apple Day provided me with a good overview of the contents and order of this section. The material in this section of the archive is generally well-organised (always ‘apple-easing’ sight for an archivist!) into files arranged by year and record type, and comprises correspondence, newsletters, promotional material, photographs, press clippings, reports, research material, and notes. The papers that I personally found most interesting were those sent between Common Ground and Apple Day organisers between 1991 and 2010, which include letters, event information forms, and feedback forms. When studied together, these papers provide fascinating insight into the development, success, and geographic distribution of Apple Day events across the British Isles. Other items that I found particularly delightful were examples of crafts made at Apple Day events, which include an apple crown made by schoolchildren and a felt finger puppet in the shape of an apple.

An apple finger puppet found in the Common Ground archive

Exploring the history of Apple Day in the Common Ground archive has been ‘apple-easure’, and I’m already looking forward to cataloguing this section and making it more accessible for researchers via our online catalogue.

In the meantime, I hope you have a very happy Apple Day this year and every year – may it continue ‘apple-y’ ever after!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

 

Why not start your exploration of the Common Ground archive via our online catalogue today? Simply search ‘Common Ground’ or the reference number ‘EUL MS 416’.

You can also find out more about Common Ground and the archive in our first blog post about the cataloguing project: ‘Introducing the Common Ground archive’.

The Archives of Sir William Luce: Reframing the Personal and the Political

The personal face of diplomacy – Sir William Luce meeting Gulf leaders.                                    EUL MS 146/1/4/7

While at Exeter University Glencairn Balfour Paul, one of the founders of the Centre for Arab Gulf Studies (later the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies), wrote The End of Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s Relinquishment of Power in Her Last Three Arab Dependencies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) in which he paid the following tribute to Sir William Luce’s work as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Gulf Affairs:

Luce had to deal with the vain and arrogant Pahlavi government in Iran, with suspicious Saudis and anxious Gulf Rulers, not to mention his political bosses in London, some of whom were far from committed to the decision to terminate the British protective presence in the Gulf. He charmed everybody, he persuaded everybody, he was patient, good-humoured (with occasional explosions) and skilful. (xviii)

Some sense of Luce’s personality – and how important it was for his diplomatic work – can be gleaned from the collection of his working papers that are held in our Middle East Archives and have recently been catalogued. Material relating to his earlier career with the Sudan Political Service (1930-55) is held at the University of Durham, while the papers here in Exeter cover the period between his arrival in Aden in 1956 and his final visit to the Gulf States in 1977 shortly before his death.

Following posts as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Aden (1956-60) and Political Resident in the Persian Gulf (1961-66), he was called back out of retirement in 1970 to act as Personal Representative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary – Sir Alec Douglas-Home – overseeing the arrangements for British withdrawal from the Gulf. His task here was to ensure ongoing stability and the continuation of good relations with the various Arab leaders in the region – he played a vital role in the establishment of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar as independent states, as well as the foundation of the United Arab Emirates.

Text of Luce’s speech at the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Aden, 28 April 1958. Luce had become a confident speaker of Arabic while in the Sudan, but when giving speeches in Arabic he wrote the text out in phonetic script which he evidently found easier to read.                            EUL MS 146/1/1/5

Luce’s success in these complex and delicate negotiations was due largely to the personal relationships he had forged over the years, earning the trust and affection of Gulf leaders during a time of great political tension and mutual suspicion. Although the papers held in our collections relate almost entirely to his official activities, they reveal the extent to which diplomatic relations between the Gulf states relied upon human contact between individuals and Luce’s own personal skills and charm. So what can do the archives reveal?

The Luce Papers: personal or political?

The papers held here are a diverse group and include handwritten and typed correspondence, political memoranda, official reports, notebooks and appointment diaries, speeches, presscuttings, offprints and printed works such as pamphlets and journals. Some of the papers were written by Luce for his own use, or to be shared privately with close friends or colleagues, and retain an intimate, informal tone. (It should also be noted here that a large collection of personal papers and correspondence remains in the family’s possession.)

Notes written on cigarette paper during his Gulf visit in January-February 1970 reveal the spontaneous and informal aspects of Luce’s work, as well as reminding us that the concept of ‘winning hearts and minds’ in the Middle East has a long tradition.                    EUL MS 146/1/3/5

Others were intended for much wider platforms, such as public meetings or print media, and are phrased and framed with this in mind. The fact that these items are in the archive itself indicates a personal choice – that at some point Luce made a decision to keep a particular paper or booklet in his possession. There is a need to be aware not only of the material that is not in the archive – i.e. that related papers might have been discarded, lost or simply rejected for preservation – but also that other material may exist elsewhere in other collections that may complement or contradict the picture presented here. Each of the parties that attended meetings with Luce may well have recorded their own version of events, so that even an official government report must be treated as offering only a subjective and partial view of the topic – something especially pertinent for anyone approaching the complex kaleidoscope of Middle Eastern politics.

Excerpt from Luce’s confidential report on a meeting he had in Dubai in 1970 with Sayyid Tariq, Prime Minister of Oman.                  EUL MS 146/1/3/7

The above typed report is from a document entitled Thoughts on Oman and reflects upon conversations Luce had with Sayyid Tariq, Prime Minister of Oman, following the very recent bloodless coup in which Said bin Taimur, the sultan of Muscat and Oman, was replaced by his son Qabus bin Said Al Said. It illustrates the extent to which the wielding of power in the region was part of a tapestry of political allegiances, personal relationships, family history and ancestral relations. Luce’s ability to navigate his way through these complexities relied upon the detailed knowledge he had acquired over the years. The document shows how Luce drew on private discussions in order to advice the Foreign Office on points of strategy.

Personal Representative

Luce had reached the Sudan Political Service’s voluntary retirement age of 48 in 1955 but made it clear to the Foreign Office that he had no intention of ceasing to work. Even after his retirement from the Gulf in 1966 he maintained an active interest in the Middle East, appearing regularly at conferences and discussion groups to make his views known, and writing articles for publications such as Round Table. We have many of these talks and articles in the archive (EUL MS 146/5) as well as related correspondence that reveals the high esteem in which he has regarded within both political and academic circles.

Meanwhile the economic pressures upon Harold Wilson’s Labour administration had forced a reconsideration of foreign policy. In July 1967 Defence Secretary Denis Healey announced that Britain would withdraw its forces from the Gulf within ten years. The following January Wilson announced that this would be carried out by the end of 1971.

Luce strongly opposed this decision, regarding the announcement of any timetables as detrimental to the government’s position for negotiating terms of withdrawal – a position he had made clear as early as 1966 (EUL MS 146/1/2/2). The Conservative Party opposed Labour’s move in principle and let it be known that they would reverse the policy if re-elected. Following the election of Edward Heath as Conservative Prime Minister in June 1970, Luce was appointed personal representative to the foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, on 27 July 1970.  Heath and Luce had almost met the previous year during a tour of the Middle East undertaken by Luce between February and April 1969 in his capacity as a non-executive director of shipping agents Gray Mackenzie & Co., while the then Conservative Party leader was also visiting the region. While Luce thought any attempt to reverse the withdrawal would be unwise, Heath chose to leave that option open, at least in public.

Letter from Edward Heath to Luce, responding to a communication sent to the Conservative Party leader while he was at Abadan in Iran.                    EUL MS 146/1/2/14

How Luce worked to steer Heath’s cabinet in the right direction is the subject of a large chunk of the archive, which relates to his activities as ‘Personal Representative for Gulf Affairs’ between July 1970 and 1971. He made five major tours of the Gulf during this time, holding meetings with (among many others) the Shah of Iran, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Fayek, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the United Arab Republic, various parties at the Arab League Headquarters in Cairo, Abdul Hussein Jamali, Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister of Iran, Sayyid Mehdi Tajir (principal adviser to Shaikh Rashid of the UAR), the Amir of Kuwait, the Sultan of Muscat, the rulers of Umm al-Quwain, Ras-al-Khaimah, Ajman and Sharjah, Shaikh Ahmed bin Ali al Thani, Emir of Qatar, and his cousin Shaikh Khalifa bin Hamed al Thani, and the Emir of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Sulman. Each trip is documented by a mass of papers, including draft itineraries, guest lists, arrangements for travel and accommodation, as well as detailed records of conversations, confidential reports based on these conversations, and official government papers showing how this material was then interpreted and communicated for parliamentary debate or cabinet-level discussions. These papers reveal how Luce shuttled from place to place, carefully observing matters of precedence and etiquette in the frequency and sequence of his visits to successive rulers to avoid offence, painstakingly building up agreements and negotiating points in every successive meeting. Early on he had realised that the future of the Gulf Region after the British had left depended upon solidarity between the various Arab leaders, and with that in mind he set about laying the ground for a federation of the nine sheikdoms around the Gulf peninsula. Although he was unable to unite all nine of them – Bahrain and Qatar declared themselves independent states in August and September 1971 – he managed to bring together Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah to form the United Arab Emirates. The remaining state, Ras Al Khaimah joined the UAE the following year.

Headed letter from Brigadier F.M. De Butts of the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Defence, to Luce, dated 29 August 1972, and providing an update on various military and security issues.        EUL MS 146/1/4/1

Luce was strongly realistic and pragmatic in his approach to Britain’s involvement in the Persian Gulf and was under no illusions about the historic and political reasons for their presence. Writing in the Daily Telegraph he admitted: ‘It is important today to remember that these Gulf agreements were made on British initiative and primarily to serve British interests. We did not undertake the ‘policing’ of the Gulf for some vague, altruistic purpose; we went there, and remained there, because it has suited us to do so.’

William Luce, ‘Aden’s Shadow over the Gulf’, Daily Telegraph, 12 April 1967.         EUL MS 146/1/2/10

Although there is not space to discuss this here, studying the archival records of Luce’s career provide evidence of how his work in the Gulf was shaped by his earlier experiences in the Sudan and Aden. The range of documentation held in the Luce archive provides a fascinating resource with which to explore the wide range of factors that determine how political strategies are both formulated and implemented. While much attention continues to be given to famous and infamous figures in the early history of the British Empire, there is perhaps a need to start focussing more closely on those who played a prominent role in its final stages. The papers of Sir William Luce could provide a bridge for researchers between the contemporary political landscape in the Middle East and its historical roots in the imperial past, as well as illustrating just how much the personal and the political elements of diplomatic life connect and overlap.

Further Reading

Glen Balfour-Paul, The End of Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s Relinquishment of Power in Her Last Three Arab Dependencies.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

M.W. Daly, The last of the great proconsuls. The biography of Sir William Luce.
San Diego, CA : Nathan Berg, 2014

Luce, Margaret. From Aden to the Gulf: personal diaries, 1956-1966.
Salisbury : Michael Russell, 1987

There’s no archives like show archives: Introducing the Northcott Theatre Archive

EUL MS 348 – Programmes from the Northcott Theatre Archive

It’s new cataloguing project time here at Special Collections and I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be cataloguing the Northcott Theatre Archive as part of our 21st Century Libraries initiative. It’s a fascinating collection spanning from the theatre’s opening in 1967, to its threatened closure in 2010. Quite simply, everything about it is appealing (alright, I’ll stop with the show tunes now!).

Exeter has a long history of theatre; with evidence of a possible Roman amphitheatre on Dane’s Hill. In 1721 the first regular theatre venue in Exeter opened in the Seven Stars Inn and a series of theatres followed (often destroyed by fire) until the Theatre Royal opened in 1889. Many Exeter residents still remember this theatre, which was demolished in 1962, and a small amount of records survive in the Northcott Theatre Archive relating to its productions.

EUL MS 348 – Printing plate for Theatre Royal jubilee production of Mother Goose

After the demolition of the Theatre Royal, G.V. Northcott was offered a site at Exeter University and the Northcott Devon Theatre and Arts Centre, as it was originally known, was established. The theatre opened its first production on 2nd November 1967, presenting The Merchant of Venice, which starred the theatre’s first Artistic Director Tony Church. The abolition of the official censor in 1968 enabled a new artistic direction and early directors fostered new writing talent. Edward Bond’s controversial play ‘Bingo’ was performed in public for the first time at the Northcott under Artistic Director Jane Howell. The theatre also fostered acting talent and many famous actors performed there early in their careers: including Honor Blackman, Celia Imrie, Robert Lindsay, John Nettles, Diana Rigg, Imelda Staunton and David Suchet.

EUL MS 348 – Production photographs by year from the Northcott Theatre Archive

In recent years the theatre has faced the threat of closure twice, in 2008 and 2010, both sparking community campaigns to save the theatre. On 5 June 2010 a new company was set up as the Exeter Northcott Theatre Company, formed with the University of Exeter, and the immediate future of the theatre is now more secure, with its fiftieth anniversary celebrations taking place last year.

EUL MS 348 – Tree from a campaign to save the Northcott Theatre with leaves written by the public saying what the theatre means to them

The archive contains a wealth of records relating to the Northcott’s productions and administration. Show files, prompt books, administrative records, programmes, posters, photographs, press cuttings, and much more illustrate the work behind bringing a production to the stage and the changing trends in theatre going. The archive is a wonderful piece of South West theatre history and I look forward to sharing more gems with you as the project progresses.

Caroline Walter (Project Archivist)

Introducing the Common Ground Archive

An exciting new season of cataloguing is underway here at the University of Exeter Special Collections! Three archival collections are now in the preliminary stages of being catalogued as part of the ‘21st Century Library Project’, due to be completed by July 2020. These include the Middle East Collections, the Northcott Theatre Archive, and the Common Ground Archive. In this blog post, the Common Ground Archive cataloguing project is introduced by project archivist, Annie Price.

Promotional material in the archive relating to Common Ground projects

Having fondly waved goodbye to the Syon Abbey archive (now neatly organised into boxes and described in the online catalogue), in August I embarked on a new cataloguing project: to catalogue the archive of Common Ground, an arts and environmental charity (reference number EUL MS 416).

Common Ground is an arts and environmental charity that was founded in May 1983 with a mission to encourage people to emotionally engage with their local environment through the arts. For over three decades, Common Ground has been collaborating with local communities, artists, writers and composers to celebrate the ordinary – and not just the extraordinary – in our localities and, in doing so, encourage conservation at a grassroots level. Projects initiated and developed by Common Ground, and which have had a considerable impact on the cultural geography of Britain, include: the ‘Parish Maps Project’, the ‘Campaign for Local Distinctiveness’, and ‘Apple Day’. The output from the many projects has included artistic commissions, performances, exhibitions, conferences, and publications.

Common Ground publications in the archive

One of the aspects I most enjoy about being an archivist is the opportunity to learn something new and develop expertise in the most unexpected areas. Every archive offers new knowledge as well as new challenges, and I knew the Common Ground archive would be no exception. Over the past month I have been conducting a survey of the archive to gain an understanding of how it was used and organised by Common Ground, and to identify any potential issues. The archive comprises a range of material, from correspondence, notes, financial papers, reports, press clippings, and research material, to photographs, audio recordings, sheet music, publications, and promotional material (which even includes t-shirts and tote bags!). The archive also contains some different types of media such as cassette tapes, CD-ROMs, VHS tapes, and floppy disks. Dealing with these different formats and making them accessible for use now and in the future will be a new and very different kind of challenge to those I faced on my last project, but one that I am looking forward to tackling.

Box files in the Common Ground archive

The Common Ground archive has rich potential for interdisciplinary research on geography, literature, visual arts, sustainability, sense of place, the relationship between nature and culture, and the British landscape and culture. Although the archive is already roughly organised according to the various projects, over the next two years, considerable sorting, repackaging, and basic preservation will be required to ensure the records are in the best condition possible for long-term access. In addition, the archive will be described at least down to file level, and will be searchable via our online archive catalogue. And as with my last project, I look forward to sharing highlights from the archive and keeping you updated on my progress via this blog and our Twitter account.

I hope you’ll join me again soon!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist