Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Change and Decay: Chapter 13

In what seemed like no time, and was in fact relatively little time, I was on the train heading away from Durston. Parts of me were sore; my head was pounding; I felt as if I'd been at Littleworth for years. I couldn't resolve my emotions; all I could do was smile as I remembered what Bruce Dawkins, my boss, had told me when I started the project: it would be a mundane task with no surprises. He had been right, though, when he had gone on to say that tact would be needed.


Back at the archives, after a few days leave, I started to prepare my report on the Littleworth Papers. The factual part was straightforward - I listed the groups of material and date ranges; but I found it hard to determine its value for research. I checked through the Durston Council Records for possible overlaps and duplication, since uniqueness is a critical indicator. The catalogue highlighted a series of Public Assistance Committee files covering Littleworth parish, so I retrieved the relevant box from the shelves in the strongroom. It was a relief to be working with clean, labelled, sorted material; and it was a relief to keep busy.

The Committee was part of the Council that bridged the period between the Poor Law Unions and the welfare state: in the 1930s, it ran the workhouses and children's homes in the area. In this collection, as was typical, the records survived patchily, but there were admissions books for the workhouse and some related letters. The name William Jenkins on one of the bundles caught my eye. I unfolded it and laid the letters out flat on the desk.

The first was a standard printed form:

Application for indoor relief
I, William Jenkins, do hereby request assistance from Durston District Council, being without means or livelihood on account of my infirmity.

Signed William Jenkins 10th June 1939

Another hand had appended beneath the signature:

Inquired of Sheldon - J's former residence was provided as a staff member; he is no longer employable having lost his leg in a shooting accident. No pension payable by the estate. Ben Davies, Overseer of the Poor, Littleworth parish.

And finally it had been annotated:

Approved to enter workhouse, 17th June 1939.

The second was a small square of paper, not, it turned out, a letter, but rather a receipt, dated December 13th 1942, acknowledgeing the payment of £1 10s by Durston District Council to the Revd George Williams for "officiating at the pauper's funeral of William Jenkins".


I sent my draft report to Bruce, and the next day went to his office. I always felt that the chaos and clutter he permitted here reflected poorly on his claim to professional standing, but perhaps this was unfair; perhaps there are many dentists who don't clean their teeth, or plumbers with dripping taps at home. It would have to be admitted, though, that Bruce was exactly the sort of archivist the Sheldons had expected - old, shabby, and cheerfully disorganised. Our working relationship had taken some time to settle down; eventually we had reached the implicit understanding that he was willing to let me follow best modern practice in collection management, as long as it didn't apply to him or his favourite collections, the fastidious cataloguing of which had occupied the majority of his working life. His knowledge of these was intimate, and it was topped up with half a century's gossip with the gentry families of the area.

"I know that you and I differ on the question of relevance,' he said, but on this occasion I see that we agree. I would say that the Littleworth collection is important because of the light it sheds on the Sheldon family's stewardship of their lands - and you would say it's important too, but because of the evidence they contain of the family's faults."

"I suppose you're right," I replied. "Historians these days usually have strong political interests, and they will have a field day with this."

"Here's the report back- you'll see I've marked a few points." He handed me a printout obscured by neat emendations in pencil. "How did you find the Shedlons?"

I gave a noncommital answer.

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