Tag Archives: Cataloguing

Cataloguing the Syon Abbey Archive: Project Completed!

Annie with the archive

In November 2016, I began my new role as the project archivist working on the Syon Abbey archive, and immediately recognised that I faced a daunting but exciting task. The archive was large, complex, created over six centuries, and there was no discernible order into specific management groups. Nineteen months and 152 repackaged boxes (in addition to outsize material on shelves and in three plan chest drawers) later, the cataloguing project has been completed, allowing the archive to be more easily searched online and accessed in our reading room. You can view and browse the new archive catalogue here.

 

The archive has been arranged into 23 sections to reflect the different functions and activities of Syon Abbey, and to provide context for how the records were used. The sections are listed below with their reference numbers.

There have been many challenges through the course of this project, but there have been an equal number of (if not more) pleasures. With such a large archive, one would expect (as initially did I) that I would have a favourite section or one that I would particularly dislike, but this has simply not been the case. In each of the sections I have found records that have intrigued, moved, gripped or amused me; through each of them I have learnt what makes religious communities, and Syon Abbey in particular, unique, but also identified the many things we share in common; and while sorting through the material I’ve considered a multitude of different avenues of exciting research that could be – and I hope will be – pursued, now that the archive is more searchable and accessible. Nevertheless, I did want to share a very small selection of my favourite items with you, which you can view in the slideshow below.

 

As with all things, this project would have been much harder and less joyful if I had gone it alone. Fortunately, I am part of a wonderful team of colleagues who have supported me throughout, and I am very grateful for their kindness and expertise. A special thanks to Angela Mandrioli for her help in interpreting Latin documents and cataloguing papers relating to history and research; and to Sophie Morgan, our student volunteer, who did fantastic work in cataloguing the 100 community diaries and 155 vows at item level.

Volunteer Sophie Morgan with eight boxes containing the 100 community diaries she catalogued

So that just leaves me to say goodbye for now! I have so enjoyed working on this project, which has been my very first cataloguing project as a newly-qualified archivist. The skills I have developed (I can now proudly claim to be capable of making a four-flap folder), the new knowledge I have acquired, and the people I have met through it, have made this project very special to me and I will miss it greatly. However, I am pleased and excited to be continuing in my role as archivist at the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, where I will soon be embarking on a new project.

Photomontage of records in the Syon Abbey archive

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Syon Abbey archive (which I hope you are!), why not check out the new online catalogue, revisit previous blog posts about the Syon Abbey archive, or take a look at our tweets about the archive on Twitter. And don’t forget – in addition to the archive, we also look after the Syon Abbey manuscripts and printed books from the Syon Abbey library, as well as several other Syon Abbey related collections. For more information, please contact us at libspc@exeter.ac.uk.

I hope you enjoy your journey of discovery into Syon Abbey!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

 

Volunteering at the Ronald Duncan Collection

University of Exeter Special Collections is lucky to have a number of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. In this blog post our Volunteer Rhiannon McLoughlin talks about her experiences volunteering with the Ronald Duncan Collection.

When I say I work in a library people often respond with “Oh do you like reading?” Whilst I do like reading this doesn’t tend to be part of the job description! However, my time volunteering at Exeter University Special Collections during 2017 in order to gain some insight into the differences between library and archive work did, I am happy to report, involve a lot of reading.

When I found I was to work alongside Project Archivist Caroline Walter on the Ronald Duncan Collection I was intrigued as he is not an author I had come across before. Caroline kindly loaned me the first volume of his autobiography and I enjoyed getting to know this colourful character alongside the work.

I started out cataloguing the Ronald Duncan book collection. Cataloguing books for an archive is a far slower process than the new library books I normally deal with but can be much more fascinating. I found myself leafing through items looking for anything that made them singular – notes, dedications, markings, edition numbers, or inserts of letters, press cuttings, even a risqué postcard!

I was impressed by the wide variety of writings Duncan produced. Writer, poet, playwright, librettist and editor the collection shows his interests lay in many directions. As a Devonian I particularly enjoyed the local connection and could not help but stop occasionally to read bits and pieces about North Devon life. Whilst his former home and rented buildings may look idyllic now it sounded a far more hardy existence then in wartime and winter months. The tales of pouncing on items washed up on the beach particularly made me chuckle whilst his “Guide to housebuilding and smallholdings” and volume on tobacco farming demonstrated his determination to turn his hand to self-sufficiency.

The book collection contains not only his own writing career but writings and responses by others to his work- from letters in journals to student theses about him. There are works in progress, annotated books, proof copies and newsletters pieced together. There are a large number of different literary journals he contributed to and programmes for his plays. There are anthologies where his verse was included – “The site: choose a dry site…” seems a particularly popular choice. There are also items translated into other languages including Polish and Turkish and of course various musical scores and items relating to his work with Benjamin Britten.

I found some of Ronald Duncan’s self-published items by his own Rebel Press to be of especial interest. These are often short limited edition runs such as the volume “Auschwitz” with sobering illustrations and a volume of poems by Virginia Maskell under a pseudonym [Leaves of Silence by Simon Orme].

The book collection indicates the important relationships in Ronald Duncan’s life. Most copies of his own work are signed by him and many are also signed “desk copy” so were clearly his own personal copies – one amusingly “if anywhere else it was stolen”! But many of his books are variously inscribed to friends and family – including a multitude to his wife Rose Marie – usually loving inscriptions but some hinting at more challenging times in their relationship. A particular marker of his friendship with Gandhi are gifts of tiny books of silvery woody paper with Gandhi’s writings – one complete with woodworm holes spiralling throughout.

Once I had finished cataloguing the book collection I began to read through some of Rose Marie’s diaries in preparation for digitisation and also to sort photographs into archival wallets. Rose Marie’s diaries are written in a lively and readable style and give a real sense of the challenges of their North Devon lifestyle (including having the band Deep Purple stay in their rental property) and provide a further window onto Ronald Duncan’s work. Repackaging photographs offered pictures of their life I had been getting to know through words – family members, the house, the coast and their beloved horses.

I volunteered to get experience of archival work but found myself equally glad to have gained experience of Ronald Duncan. Working on this collection I got drawn in by the writing and whilst I found myself often having to record that there were signs of damp in the condition note of the books I rather liked the sense that gave of somebody working away at the edge of the sea in his little writer’s hut.

It’s National Poetry Day!

To celebrate Exeter Poetry Festival and National Poetry Day I have been tweeting one of my favourite Ronald Duncan poems every day this week. Why not take a look at the @UOEHeritageColl twitter feed and read a few?

Ronald Duncan published five main collections of poetry during his lifetime (Postcards to Pulcinella [1941], The Mongrel [1950], The Solitudes [1960], Unpopular Poems [1969], For the Few [1977]). In addition to these he also published a five-part epic poem ‘Man’ (1970-74) and many other individual poems. On National Poetry Day I’m moving away from the polish of published works and taking a look at some of the unique manuscripts held within the collection which offer an insight into Duncan’s life and writing process.

The poet at work

Portrayals in film and TV mean that I often imagine the writing process as a deeply organised one. The poet sits in front of his favourite typewriter, or pulls out a pocket notebook carried for such occasions, and reels off lines of beauty conveniently supplied by a voiceover. Working on the Ronald Duncan Collection has swiftly disabused me of this notion.

While the collection does contain many workbooks, and these seem to be an integral part of Duncan’s early working process, it also contains poems scribbled on paper plates, napkins, the backs of old letters and various assorted scraps of paper. To me this suggests a furious kind of franticness to the writing, an urgency that the poem must be recorded now while it is still fresh. One of the paper plates has clearly been used before being re-purposed and though it isn’t perhaps the romantic ideal of a typewriter, there’s a certain charm to the thought of Duncan wolfing down a finger sandwich or sausage roll before flipping the plate to compose a poem.

 

The gift of words

Like many other poets, a great number of Duncan’s poems are dedicated to family members and friends. Weddings, birthdays and christenings are all celebrated in verse and the grief of death is likewise immortalised. The idea of poetry as a gift is well established.

Duncan, however, takes this idea a step further than most. A manuscript poem dedicated to his granddaughter Karina reads ‘No Easter egg, my child, because I forgot to get one’ and provides a poem as a substitute. Though I’m not sure that I personally would have appreciated this exchange of chocolate for poetry as a child, it provides a lovely glimpse of family life. Another poem is dedicated ‘For Rose Marie, as good a craftsman in exchange for her parsley sauce’.

 

The art of poetry

Many of Duncan’s poems use colourful imagery to describe the natural world and a small proportion of the manuscripts in the collection have been illustrated to reflect this. The illustrations tend to be painted onto the manuscript and vary from simple bright swirls of colour to abstract representations of the poems’ subjects. The vibrant designs give a tantalising glimpse of what was in Duncan’s mind when composing the poems.

 

The final word

However familiar I become with the Ronald Duncan Collection, I am always aware that my interpretation of Duncan’s work is only one possibility. With this in mind I leave you with an audio clip of Ronald Duncan talking about poetry, one line of which I particularly enjoy;

“If you can’t hear me it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough, and if you don’t understand me it is because the poetry isn’t any good”

(please note that in some browsers the ‘Play’ button does not seem to appear. If you click before the timer on the left hand side of the sound bar it should start playing)

Thoughts of a GBP intern: my internship in Special Collections

From January to March 2017, we were very lucky to have Emma Burman working with us as an intern on the University of Exeter’s Graduate Business Partnership scheme. Now Emma looks back at her internship and reflects on how working in Special Collections has helped her on her chosen career path…

 

My name is Emma and I worked as a GBP (Graduate Business Partnership) intern in the University of Exeter’s Special Collections for three months from January to March 2017. GBP is a scheme designed to help get graduates into paid internships in organisations usually based in the South West. Before you ask, ‘isn’t an internship just slave labour?’, the answer is no; the best part of these schemes is that you truly are valued. You gain paid work experience, and you are assigned a job role with its own projects and responsibilities. So they really are the perfect opportunity for any graduate!

I graduated from the University of Exeter in July 2016 with a BA honours degree in History. I had known that I wanted to work in the heritage sector for a couple of years, and I had already gained voluntary experience within several museums and heritage organisations. However, after completing my university degree I found it really difficult to find a job. Most roles required relevant work experience, but in the typical catch 22 scenario, the only way to get the experience was by securing one of these jobs. As a result I ended up working part-time in customer service, trying to gain more work experience by volunteering, whilst also applying for countless jobs.

As a recent graduate of the University of Exeter, the Career Zone had regularly sent internship opportunities to me. They were generally science, geography, marketing or student services related roles, which didn’t suit my interests. However, one day I saw an advert for two heritage and museum roles. They looked perfect, so I applied for them both in the hope that this could be my chance to get some paid experience. Lo and behold, I was offered the role of Heritage Collections Support Officer, working within the University’s Special Collections team.

So for three months I worked full-time within a heritage organisation – my dream come true! And it really has been a wonderful experience. My main role when I arrived at Special Collections was to update the Heritage Collections website with information about various collections from the archives. I really enjoyed this project as it required a lot of in-depth research into the collections, and it provided me with the opportunity to look at and handle archival material. I also used social media and other forums, such as articles for the Arts and Culture Magazine, to advertise these updates and the work I was doing for Special Collections.

The updated Collection Highlights on the University of Exeter’s Special Collections website

My final project was to design, research and curate an exhibition on the Norman Lockyer collection, which went on display in July as part of the International Astronomical Union symposium at the University of Exeter. It was a real honour to be entrusted with the responsibility of independently curating the exhibition for this event.

The exhibition of material from the Normal Lockyer archive for the International Astronomical Union symposium

Through these projects I have learnt a lot more than just the basics. As an intern, everyone on the team has offered me the opportunity to learn about their role. I have learnt skills such as cataloguing, website maintenance, and copyright procedures.

Helping an archivist to catalogue material from the Syon Abbey archive

I was even invited on a trip to the South West Film and Television Archive in Plymouth by one of our archivists to research and listen to reel to reel tape recordings from the Ronald Duncan Collection, and I became a bit of an expert on using the machines! As a result I have gained many new and different skills that are really useful in this profession.

Using a reel-to-reel tape recorder at the South West Film and Television Archive

I think the GBP schemes are invaluable as they offer university graduates the opportunities that many employers ordinarily might not be able to. They give them a chance to get their foot in the door, gain new skills, learn about the working world, and earn a good salary. I feel the importance of these schemes is evident in the fact that since being employed by the University, I have been offered a job in a heritage institution and I now feel optimistic about the future. So for any graduates, my best piece of advice would be to apply for a GBP scheme internship, because the skills and experience you will gain from it will really help you to pursue your career and achieve your goals.

Click here to find out more about Graduate Business Partnerships at the University of Exeter.

Click here to view some of the collection highlights held at the University of Exeter’s heritage collections.

Cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive: project highlights

Eight months have elapsed since I began working on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, and since then I have been cheerfully cataloguing my way through a multitude of fascinating records. You can find out what has already been catalogued via our online catalogue here.

As I reach the halfway point, with a further eight months still ahead of me, I take a look back at some of my highlights of the project so far…

 

Profession papers

A very special collection of records within the archive are the profession papers, which I first looked at in January 2017. The profession papers record the vows made by novices when they officially entered the order (often referred to as ‘simple’ or ‘temporary profession’) and the renewal of these vows at a later period (often referred to as ‘perpetual’ or ‘solemn profession’). The handwritten profession papers in the Syon Abbey archive date from 1607, when the community was living in Lisbon in Portugal, to the late twentieth century, when the community was settled at South Brent in Devon. It is clear that these documents were of great importance to the community, not only because we know they were kept in a safe at Syon Abbey before they were deposited at the University of Exeter, but also due to the very great care that was taken in creating them. The vows have all been lovingly transcribed and signed, and a large majority of the vows have been beautifully decorated, illuminated and illustrated. Below are four examples of vows illustrated by one of the Syon nuns, Sister Mary Stanislas, in the 1920s. I’m looking forward to cataloguing the profession papers soon as part of the ‘Community’ section of the archive.

 

History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland conference

A great highlight of the project for me personally was the opportunity to attend the annual conference of the History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI). H-WRBI is a research network which encourages research of women religious, and includes academics, archivists, students and others interested in the history of women religious. This year the conference took place in June at the University College Dublin and the theme was: ‘Sources: Archival, Oral, Visual, Material, Digital’. I gained new knowledge and insight into current research from the fascinating series of papers, which has proved invaluable in understanding the context of the records I have been cataloguing. The conference also impressed me with the sheer variety of research interests and the different ways in which archives have been used and interpreted by those engaged in the study of women religious. I therefore left Dublin feeling inspired and excited to continue cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive, to ensure the archive is as usable as possible for future research and innovation.

You can visit the website of H-WRBI here.

The O’Brien Centre for Science at the University College Dublin, where the conference took place.

What the Abbey Cat Saw

Whilst creating a box list of some unlisted boxes in the archive in December 2016, I came across a pamphlet with the rather delightful title ‘What the Abbey Cat Saw’. I was pleased to have another opportunity to look at it in May this year, when I catalogued it as part of the section ‘Syon Abbey publications and printed matter’. This pamphlet was published in 1957 and written by Abbess Mary Magdalen Nevin. Written from the perspective of Punch, the Abbey cat, it describes daily life at Syon Abbey, providing insight into the structure of a Syon nun’s day and the different personalities within the community, as well recounting some humorous incidents involving the cat! You can find the pamphlet in our catalogue here.

 

Finding a fragment!

In August 2017, I catalogued the financial records in the archive, including a large number of account books. Within one account book I was startled to discover a fragment of parchment that appeared to be from a medieval manuscript! There was significant fire damage to the fragment; however, it was still legible and had a lovely decorated initial in blue and red ink. In addition to the Syon Abbey archive, the University of Exeter’s Special Collections also looks after Syon Abbey’s medieval and modern manuscript collection. Within this collection (reference EUL MS 262) is a folder containing fragments of manuscripts that were found c 1990 in the attic of Syon Abbey in South Brent, Devon. Upon looking through the folder, I was thrilled to find a fragment that corresponded to the newly discovered fragment in script, decoration, and fire damage. The newly discovered fragment has now been removed from the account book (a slip of acid-free paper marks the page from where it was removed) and has been placed with the other fragments in EUL MS 262/fragments. The discovery of this fragment and the reunification with its other half was a very exciting moment. It just goes to show that exciting things can be found in the most unexpected of places – especially in archives!

Detail from a newly-discovered manuscript fragment in EUL MS 262/fragments.

Looking ahead to the next eight months…

Over the next eight months until the project completion at the end of March 2018, I will continue cataloguing the Syon Abbey archive and making the description of the records available for you via our online catalogue. I also hope to carry on promoting the archive in a variety of ways, including via this blog, on Twitter, and at conferences next year. At the end of the project I hope to leave behind an archive that is much easier to search and use, as well as some new highlights to share with you!

 

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

 

 

Exploring daily life in the twentieth century at Syon Abbey

What was life like for the community at Syon Abbey in the twentieth century? What did the nuns and sisters do during the day? And did major world events have an impact on life in this enclosed community? These questions and more can now be explored through recently-catalogued material in the Syon Abbey archive.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Community Diaries

A valuable archival resource for exploring daily life at Syon Abbey are the 100 diaries, kept by the community between 1890 and 2004. These diaries provide details relating to spiritual matters, such as prayer, feast days, and religious ceremonies, but also offer greater insight into the intricacies of day-to-day life in a religious community. These include references to: recreation; visitors to the Abbey; growing crops and raising livestock; construction and repairs to buildings; correspondence sent and received; and observations about the weather. The diaries also reveal that the Syon nuns were aware of national and international news outside of the enclosure, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the death of Joseph Stalin. Furthermore, the diaries indicate that global events, such as the First and Second World War, did have an impact on the community. For example, the diarist writes much about the Belgian refugees living in the local town of Chudleigh between 1914 and 1916, as well as the American soldiers who in the 1940s were encamped on land belonging to Syon Abbey. Finally, the diaries also bring to light the personalities and interactions within the community through several light-hearted as well as heartfelt entries.

The community diaries can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Syon Abbey Community Diaries (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5)

Diary 1947-1950 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5/47) The entry for the 26 April 1947 reads: ‘1st annivers:[ary] of Lady Abbess Consecration – day opened with a chimney on fire in Presbytery – sung mass – tea & happy recreation.’

The Book of Customs

Another useful document for gaining insight into the daily routine at Syon Abbey is the so-called ‘Book of Customs’ or ‘Customs Book’, which provides guidelines on community life, both spiritual and secular. It includes instructions on conduct in the choir, where and when silence should be kept, and how often different types of laundry may be washed. The Book of Customs also contains details of the duties of the different offices the nuns could hold, such as those of the cellaress (responsible for food and drink), the sacristan (responsible for church furnishings), and the infirmarian (who nursed the sick). There are a number of manuscript copies of the ‘Book of Customs’ in the archive, transcribed into notebooks and dating from the late nineteenth century to approximately the mid-twentieth century. Several notebooks contain handwritten amendments, indicating that the Book of Customs was revised regularly.

Material relating to customs can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Book of Customs (Ref: EUL MS 389/RUL/4)

Minutes of the Chapter and the Council

The minute books of the Chapter (all the sisters in solemn vows, as well as the sisters in temporary vows who had been professed for three full years) and the Council (a small group of advisors to the abbess) shed light on a broad range of matters regarding the management of Syon Abbey. The Conventual Chapter generally discussed and voted on matters such as the election of abbesses and councillors, new admissions to the Order, and any sister wishing to make her vows. The Council would meet with the abbess to discuss issues on a wide variety of administrative matters relating, for example, the appointment of staff, revisions to the constitutions, and the management of the estate. The minute books of both the Chapter and the Council provide fascinating insight into the day-to-day administrative challenges of managing a monastery in the twentieth century.

The Minutes of the Chapter can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Minutes of the Council can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Notebook entitled ‘Minutes of the ‘Discreets”, 1898-1907 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/2/2)

On a personal note…

As an archivist with little knowledge of religious orders and women religious prior to embarking on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, these records were invaluable in gaining an understanding of the community and the day-to-day operation of a monastery. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

‘The past is a wastepaper basket’ – An Introduction to the Ronald Duncan Collection

Part of the Ronald Duncan Collection

Hello Readers!

2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the University of Exeter Special Collections Team. We have two interesting projects taking place, thanks to generous funding and we’re taking to social media to keep you all up to date on them. You can read my colleague Annie’s introduction to the Syon Abbey cataloguing project here.

I’m lucky enough to be working as Project Archivist on the Ronald Duncan Collection as part of an 18-month project to catalogue and improve access to this fascinating collection. You can follow the progress of the project through this blog and also through @UoEHeritageColl on twitter.

The archive was permanently acquired from the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation in 2012, having previously been on loan for a number of years, and the foundation has now generously funded this project to ensure that the collection is accessible for future researchers. In addition to being a full resource on the life of a West Country writer, the archive is a treasure trove of material on literary, musical and stage culture from the 1930’s. Its contents include material relating to many notable figures of the day, including: Gandhi, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Jacob Epstein and George Devine. It covers topics ranging from Politics to Self-Sufficiency, and also holds material relating to Rose Marie Duncan (nee Hansom), Ronald Duncan’s wife and a talented artist in her own right.

In his first Autobiography ‘All Men Are Islands’ (1964) Duncan writes:

‘When the present is interesting we do not bother with the past. We try to remember only when we’ve lost the vitality of doing anything worth remembering. The past is a wastepaper basket. We burrow into it only when we feel we have no future.’

Well, no offence to Duncan, but I disagree. I find the past every bit as exciting as the present and I hope that you will continue to join me as I delve into Ronald Duncan’s ‘wastepaper basket’

 

A short biography of Ronald Frederick Henry Duncan (6 August 1914 – 3 June 1982)

Ronald Duncan as a child

Born in 1914 in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), Duncan spent his early life in London before reading English at Cambridge under F.R. Leavis. An interest in pacifism led him to write the manifesto for the Peace Pledge Union and sparked an invitation to visit Gandhi at his Wardha Ashram in 1937. Later settling in Devon, Duncan ran a community farm at West Mill, Bideford during WWII and entertained notable figures of the day; including Benjamin Britten, Virginia Maskell, and Lord Harewood. His work on the Exeter Taw and Torridge Festival led to the establishment of the Royal Court Theatre in 1956.

Duncan’s career spanned stage and screen, with over 25 plays to his name, including ‘Abelard and Heloise’, ‘This Way to the Tomb’ and ‘Don Juan’. In 1968 Duncan scripted Jack Cardiff’s ‘Girl on a Motorcycle and in 1969 the BBC Drama Workshop released a ground-breaking vinyl record ‘The Seasons’, setting Duncan’s poems to music by David Cain. Though largely ignored at the time, this recording achieved cult status in the 1990’s and was reissued in 2012. He also had a prolific literary career, publishing several volumes of poetry and short stories in addition to three rather controversial autobiographies and a five-part epic scientific poem entitled ‘Man’. He is however, perhaps best known for the libretto in Benjamin Britten’s ‘Rape of Lucretia’ and for his poem ‘The Horse’, written for the National Horse Show.

In 1941 Duncan married Rose Marie Hansom, a talented illustrator, and the couple had two children. Duncan died in 1982, age 68, leaving a fascinating archive and the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation (set up during his lifetime) as his lasting legacy.

More information on Ronald Duncan and his works can be found on the website of the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation here

For more about the University of Exeter Heritage Collections click here, and to search the current list of the Ronald Duncan Archive click here

Introducing the Syon Abbey Archive

Hello everyone, and a very warm welcome to this blog.

My name is Annie and I joined the team in November 2016 as the project archivist for the Syon Abbey Archive.

Syon Abbey was a monastic house of the Order of our Most Holy Saviour (also known as the Bridgettines), and the only English community of religious to have existed without interruption since before the Reformation. The house was founded directly from the Mother House in Vadstena in Sweden in 1415, and the community followed the Rule of St Bridget of Sweden. This enclosed Bridgettine community – comprising both monks and nuns and governed by an abbess – was renowned for its dedication to reading, meditation and contemplation. In the course of Syon Abbey’s almost 600-year history, the community faced great upheaval and demonstrated remarkable strength. In the wake of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the community split into smaller groups and continued their religious practice, with some remaining in England whilst others sought refuge abroad. Although Syon Abbey was restored in England under the Catholic rule of Mary I, following the accession of Elizabeth I and the return to Protestantism, the community went into exile. The community then spent over half a century wandering through the Low Countries and France, experiencing, at times, extreme poverty and hunger, and along the way encountering rioters, war, and even pirates. The community eventually found a new home in Lisbon, Portugal in 1594 and remained there until 1861, at which time the sisters (the last brother of Syon Abbey having died in 1695) were able to return to England, initially residing in Spetisbury, Dorset. Following a further relocation in 1887 to Chudleigh, Devon, the community finally settled in South Brent, Devon in 1925. 86 years later, in 2011, on account of the decline in numbers and age of the remaining community, the decision was made to close Syon Abbey.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Of course, the archive – deposited for safekeeping with the University’s Special Collections in 2011 – has many more fascinating stories to tell from Syon Abbey’s extraordinary history than have been briefly summarised above. It currently spans around 114 boxes and comprises material from the 16th to the early 21st century, although the majority of records date from the 19th and 20th century. The archive is large and complex, containing a range of different records relating to daily life; worship; religious rule; the management of land, property and finances; relations with other religious communities; and much, much more. Once catalogued, the archive has the potential to be a rich and powerful resource, particularly for anyone interested in the history of women religious, ecclesiastical history, and women’s studies.

When I arrived, my first priority was to look at different material from the Syon Abbey archive and to learn as much as possible about the community and its history. This understanding then enabled me to draft out a hierarchical structure for the archive that reflects the main functions and activities of the community and provides context for how the records were originally used. Although an original order can be identified in several of the boxes in the archive – for example, some related papers have been kept together in chronological order – in other boxes the records are a little more jumbled up. Consequently, the arrangement of the archive that has existed up to now has meant that it would be difficult for both users (you!) and the archivist (me!) to find the information we are looking for within the archive and to understand how one record relates to another. My job as archivist on this project, therefore, is to arrange and describe the archive in a way that will make the records easier for you to search, find, understand and use.

Over the next year I will be re-boxing, cataloguing and promoting the archive, with an aim to make it more discoverable and accessible, and to encourage its use in teaching, learning, research and innovation. By the end of March 2018, the archive should be catalogued to at least file level, and be searchable using the online catalogue. I hope you will join me on this exciting journey as I share my progress, as well as highlights from the archive, with you via this blog and on Twitter @UoEHeritageColl.

Talk to you again soon!

Click here for more information on the Syon Abbey archive and other related collections.

Click here to search the University of Exeter’s archival collections via the online catalogue.

 

By Annie Price, Project Archivist