Saturday, September 23, 2006

Change and decay 6

The papers of most landowning families are testimony to their two great passions: the accumulation of land, to generate income, and litigation, to expend it upon. The Sheldons were, it appeared, more interested in the former than the latter- certainly the correspondence with the family lawyers was mainly about property rather than law. It was no surprise to me, then, that the majority of the records filling the room were legal papers, neatly tied with fading pink ribbon, sealed with cracked red wax, grubby to the touch.

A librarianship student once told me that the ‘dirty bits’ in library books can easily be found because in much-borrowed copies they become physically dirty, begrimed by hundreds of sweaty thumbs, or worse. Old title deeds are similar; the bundles of documents fall open at passages of particular interest (usually financial).

It was clear that the Sheldons were free from any snobbishness about trade: following the Emperor Vespasian’s dictum that ‘money does not smell’. As well as running their park and home farm, and leasing out neighbouring farms, they had a hand in the local ironworks, railways, brickmaking kilns and shops.

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