What’s on : Lectures

Following the Paper Trail: The Value of Country House Archives.

23 Mar 2021
Start time
7:30 PM
Dr Christopher Ridgway, Curator, Castle Howard
Following the Paper Trail: The Value of Country House Archives.

Event Information

Following the Paper Trail: The Value of Country House Archives.
Dr Christopher Ridgway, Curator, Castle Howard.

Using examples from houses in the Yorkshire Country House partnership and elsewhere, this talk will explore what has been called ‘the hidden heart’ of the country house: the documents and records that underpin any understanding of a historic house and its occupants.

Image credit: Castle Howard

This lecture will be held on Zoom and an invitation with details will be sent to all YPS members.

Member’s report

23 March Following the paper trail: the value of country house archives, by Dr Christopher Ridgway, Castle Howard Archivist, and Chair of the Yorkshire Country Houses Partnership. . Via Zoom.

The word ‘archives’ is understood by many to be a fusty, dusty, boring collection of out-of-date material fit only for the bonfire. This is what happened to the estate records of Wentworth Woodhouse as late as 1972, when the 10th Earl Fitzwilliam consigned sixteen tons of papers to a bonfire that lasted for three weeks. The history of the house and estate, social, economic and human, was thereby lost along with earlier 20th-century records which had already been destroyed. Thankfully archive records of previous centuries survive in public record repositories.

An example of estate records that survived – by pure chance – is Strokestown House, a fine Palladian mansion and 27,000-acre estate in County Roscommon, Ireland. In the 1970s, its owner Olive Mahon sold the whole estate to Jim Callery, owner of the neighbouring Westward Garage company. He might have destroyed the archives but for happening to notice a 19th-century petition from estate tenants for relief during the Irish famine. It intrigued him so much that not only was the whole remarkable archive saved from destruction but so was the mansion, which was restored. Strokestown Park now houses the National Famine Museum, whose archive reveals the story of the Irish famine of the 1840s in vivid human detail.

History, whether national, local or individual, lies in archives of written records, paintings, photographs, and objects of different kinds. The façade of a house, like a portrait, is only the tip of a potential iceberg of information. The bland uniformity of a society portrait, such as that of the 3rd Earl of Carlisle’s three daughters, is countered by their own letters which survive in the archive. In the case of the 5th Earl, the archives suggest he was a cross between PG Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth and Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring. Among other things he officered the Castle Howard Riflemen, but his ‘swagger’ portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds is belied by the contents of his library and his own notebooks which reveal him to be an early proponent of improvements in farming.

The paper trail is two-way: it may explain the significance of an object like a painting, but in the case of the initials carved in the roof at Castle Howard and the hammer found with them, the object leads to the paper trail which identifies the workman who left them.

In 1999, the Yorkshire Country House Partnership was formed, a collaboration between, now, twelve Yorkshire country houses and the University of York to research their shared history from estate records. The exhibitions and country house trails it has inaugurated include one at Harewood House which provided a narrative of women’s lives, demonstrated, for example, by a family tree showing the female line, and documents concerning female servants. Other displays have described the servants who actually ran the houses, and the role of the houses in wartime. Maps are often used to describe the social and economic history of these estates, both indoors and out. Estate ledgers reveal important changes brought about by improvements in drainage, sewerage, and developments in lighting – from candles, to gas, to electricity; and the coming of the telephone, the motorcar, and the typewriter.

Digital records, which do not have the lifespan or readability of papyrus, parchment or paper, are a new challenge for record repositories. To be stored, retrieved and read, the digital document, whether on floppy disk or in the cloud, and however formatted, needs the machine and software it was written on – if such equipment is still working.

Carole Smith