Conserving Essex’s past: Saffron Walden on the Map

In the days when you can carry a device in your pocket which can access not only a map of the whole globe but satellite images of the earth’s surface, it is hard to imagine life without easy access to accurate maps.

Historic maps are fascinating and often beautiful documents, and the Essex Record Office holds many maps which help us to tell the story of our county’s past. Some of these maps have been well treated and survive today in good condition, perhaps a little faded and worn but largely complete. Others, however, have not been quite so lucky.

Regular readers may remember that in spring 2012, a dirty, tattered piece of parchment was found in a farm outbuilding in Wendons Ambo, near Saffron Walden. Upon unrolling it, it was discovered to be a map of the historic town ofSaffron Walden, dating to 1757. This makes it the earliest known map of the town. This is a very special find, showing in great detail the historic centre of Saffron Walden, much of which survives today.

Before conservation work. The map was brittle, dark, mouldy, and peppered with small tears and holes.

Before conservation work. The map was brittle, dark, mouldy, and peppered with small tears and holes.

The map was made by Edward John Eyre, whose slightly later, larger 1758 map of the area around the town may well already be familiar to Saffron Walden residents. It is likely that both maps were commissioned by Elizabeth Countess ofPortsmouthor her nephew, Sir John Griffin Griffin, who inherited part of the nearby estate of Audley End. 

In June 2012 the map was transferred on permanent loan to the Essex Record Office for conservation work and storage. Despite the degree of damage it has suffered, the hand-drawn streets and buildings are still remarkably clear. Since the map arrived at ERO, our expert conservators have worked to stabilise the map to prevent any further deterioration, and have made any repairs possible. 

During conservation work. As part of the conservation work the map was stretched out after being humidified. This looks alarming but it mimics the original treatment process the parchment went through when new.

During conservation work. As part of the conservation work the map was stretched out after being humidified. This looks alarming but it mimics the original treatment process the parchment went through when new.

After months of painstaking effort, the conservation work is now complete, and the map is due to make a special one-day visit to its home town for local people to come and see it.

For your opportunity to see the original map and to find out more about its conservation, come to Saffron Walden on the Map at Saffron Walden Town Hall on Saturday 16 March, 10.30am-3.30pm, were ERO Senior Conservator Tony King will be talking about his work. There will also be talks from other experts about historic maps and how they were made. You can download a programme for the day here.

After conservation work. The map is still very dark due to the layer of discoloured varnish which cannot be removed, but it has been flattened and tears and holes filled in. Despite the damage it has suffered, the outlines of the streets and buildings are remarkably clear.

After conservation work. The map is still very dark due to the layer of discoloured varnish which cannot be removed, but it has been flattened and tears and holes filled in. Despite the damage it has suffered, the outlines of the streets and buildings are remarkably clear.

Stories from the stores: what’s in a wax seal?

One of the joys of working in an archive is the potential every day holds for coming across something beautiful or interesting in our collection. Last week’s star find was a medieval deed, D/DRg 6/5, or more specifically, one of the wax seals attached to it.

The document was in the Conservation Studio with a group of other similar documents all in need of a bit of attention and better storage to protect their fragile wax seals.

The deed dates from 5 April 1462, and is part of the collection of Charles Gray of Colchester, an eighteenth-century lawyer, antiquarian and MP, and major figure in Colchester’s history. Gray assembled a large collection of medieval deeds relating to Colchester, catalogued as D/DRg 6 and D/DRg 7; the earliest dates from 1317 (D/DRg 6/2).

This particular deed grants land to William Gerard, Chaplain of the Chantry of Joseph Elianore in the church of St Mary-at-the-Walls in Colchester. Chantry chapels were endowed by individuals who left money to pay for a priest to pray for their souls to help them on their way to heaven; in this case for the soul of Joseph Elianore, a Bailiff of Colchester, and various members of his family and other associates.

The land which Gerard was being granted was 4 and a half acres, with buildings on, next to the highway leading across New Heath, bordered on the north by ‘Magdleyngreene’, on the south by land formerly owned by Robert Gete and now by John Stede, on the east by land owned by John Auntrous, and on the west by the lane leading towards ‘Bournepond Mill’ or ‘Boornemelle’.

As we mentioned recently, this is one of the advantages of using deeds in your research; they can list who owns not only the piece of land in question, but the land around it, and sometimes even previous owners.

The document has two wax seals attached to it, one very small, one medium sized. Seals were a form of security, often used to hold a letter or envelope closed, so that it could not be opened or tampered with until delivered to the intended recipient. Wax seals were also attached to the bottom of documents, as in this case, when they served as a means of authentication.

The larger of the two seals attracted our attention because the impressions in the wax are so deep and the imagery so detailed. A little investigation showed it to be the second Common Seal of the Borough of Colchester.

The obverse of the seal shows St Helena, the patron saint of Colchester. St Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was believed to have been born in Colchester, the daughter of King Coel. She reputedly travelled to the Holy Land, and found relics of the True Cross and the burial place of the Magi, which is why Christian iconography depicts here (as here) with the cross.

Below St Helena are the borough arms, which were granted by Henry V in 1413. These again reflect St Helena’s influence, showing the True Cross and the crowns of the Magi. On each side of St Helena are niches containing angels holding shields; on the left bearing a cross, and on the right the fifteenth-century royal arms. In the niche above St Helena is a half-length Christ. The reverse of the seal shows a medieval depiction of a castellated town, with a river in front of it crossed by a bridge.

Both seals attached to the deed have been cleaned by our Conservators with a mild detergent called synpernoic A7 and distilled water, before being stowed in their own custom-made cushioned bags. These little bags are made from Tyvek with a polyester wadding. The materials are cut to size, and then heat sealed around the edge. The whole document is then wrapped in acid-free manilla before being stored in one of our special archival quality boxes.

 

Stored in protective wrappers in our climate-controlled repositories, this 671 year old document – and its wax seals – should survive for many years to come.

What have we been up to? Stocktaking 2012

We have just re-opened after our two week annual stocktaking closure where we take the opportunity to do all the jobs which we cannot do while we are open to the public.

Stocktaking gives us an opportunity to sort out large accessions, carry out large re-boxing projects, and reorganise shelving to make the most of our storage space.

Hard at work in the Conservation Studio re-storing medieval deeds

Hard at work in the Conservation Studio re-storing medieval deeds

One of the big projects undertaken during stocktaking was begining the re-storing of hundreds of medieval deeds. The deeds were stored in boxes arranged a bit like filing cabinets, hanging in plastic folders. A huge amount of effort must have been put into storing them like this a few decades ago, but the boxes had deteriorated and the ‘filing cabinet’ system had collapsed in most of the boxes.

Medieval deeds stored in a 'filing cabinet' box

Medieval deeds stored in a ‘filing cabinet’ box. The plastic folders collapse, and damage the deeds inside.

The deeds have now been stored in custom designed ‘Harris folders’ (named after one of our archive assistants!) which are wedge shaped to allow space for the seals at the bottom of the documents. The deeds are held in place on a board using thin strips of melinex (a special acid-free plastic), and then placed in the wedge folders, before being placed in acid free archival boxes. This means that the documents are going to be much happier in their new storage, and they are easier for the staff to find and produce.

Storing deeds in 'Harris' folders

Storing deeds in ‘Harris’ folders. These are wedge shaped to protect the seals attached to the documents.

Much of the work that we do during stocktaking involves re-boxing documents. This means removing documents from old cardboard boxes, which over time become acidic and eat away at the documents inside, and placing them in new, acid-free cardboard boxes made especially for archives. These boxes are also designed to fit perfectly on our shelves, making the best use of the available space. The boxes arrive flat packed, and we have made up around 500 of them!

Look how many boxes we made!

Look how many boxes we made!

Putting documents into special acid free boxes

Putting documents into special acid free boxes

Some outgoing old storage containers, replaced with specialist archival materials

Some outgoing old storage containers, replaced with specialist archival materials

This year’s stocktaking also saw the exciting replacement of one of our Searchroom windows. Regular users have probably noticed that a crack in one of the large glass panels had grown much more serious recently, and before it became a hazard the window has been replaced. Installing the new window was quite a feat to watch!

Installing the new window in the Searchroom

Installing the new window in the Searchroom

We have also made some minor alterations to the Searchroom, and given everything a good clean and tidy up.

Thankyou all for bearing with us while we get these important jobs done.

Don’t judge a book by its cover: conserving Essex Illustrated

What does an archive do when faced with a book being torn apart by its own binding? Our Senior Conservator Tony King blogs for us about conserving Essex Illustrated.

In February-March 2012 the Conservation Section at the ERO worked to conserve Essex Illustrated in a Series of Nearly 100 Views, a book of 94 prints dating from 1834. It was in a very poor condition due to the original style of binding and the quality of the materials used during the binding process.

Essex Illustrated, 1834, had clearly seen better days when it arrived in the Conservation Studio

The book contains nearly 100 prints, such as these ones of the ruins of Waltham Abbey and the now demolished Gidea Hall:

This book presented a real challenge; conservation practice is to preserve as much of the original binding as possible and only to rebind a book as a last resort. This is because it is not just the content of a book which can tell us about the past, but the physical object of the book as well.

This book was bound quickly and cheaply, which tells us something about the intended audience and use of the book. Perhaps it was given a cheap binding as the buyer was expected to remove the prints and frame them or put them in a scrap book, and to put what would have been considered an expensive binding on it would alter the nature of the book and the information that can be inferred from its presentation.

Yet to reconstruct the style of binding originally used would seem foolish as it had completely failed; however, to alter the style to a more robust one would not be in-keeping with the historical integrity of the item.

We needed, therefore, to devise a method which would reuse every part of the original binding and preserve the appearance of the book as much as possible whilst creating a strong volume so it could be used by researchers.

Investigation

The first step was to find out how the book had been bound originally. In order to do this, the pages were clamped into a finishing press with the binding removed.

Removing the binding of the book to reveal the stitching underneath

This revealed that the book was made from single sheets of paper that had been oversewn, a sewing style where the stitches are passed through the sheet of paper near the spine edge rather than through the centre of a fold as is more common. Oversewing had been used as there were no folds to sew through as each page was a separate sheet of paper rather than a folded section and it offered the fastest method for sewing the book.

This choice of sewing style made by the original binder was the cause of many of the problems the book now presented. The thick paper used for the prints was restrained by the sewing going through the page and the pages were too stiff to lay flat and articulate properly when the book was opened. This resulted in stress being placed on the pages, causing the paper to tear around the sewing holes and pages to become damaged and loose.

The pages, comprised of single sheets, had been oversewn, and the stitches had torn at the pages

 Furthermore, the style of binding (case bound) combined with the poor quality materials had resulted in a very weak binding with little strength at the point where the boards attached to the book and both boards had torn away and were completely detached.

 Treatment

After washing and deacidifying (treatment of acid present in the paper with an alkaline chemical) each print was adhered at the spine edge to a sheet of thin acid free paper which was then folded around the face of the print to form a folded sheet with a central crease which could be sewn through. These thin sections were sewn together using 5 linen tapes as support which would then be attached to the boards and act as a hinge.

The freshley sewn pages ready for the binding to be reattached

Once sewn, the original boards were reattached by pasting the ends of the linen tapes down underneath the original pastedown, thereby obscuring the new additions to the binding structure. New book cloth was required to replace the partial loss of the original and the bridge the gap created by the increased thickness of the volume.

The fresh linen tapes attached to the back board to act as a hinge

 

The linen tapes hidden underneath the original pastedown at the back of the book

The conservation work has been carried out without replacing any of the original material or drastically altering the appearance or mechanics of the structure, and following treatment the book is now strong enough to be handled by researchers, without the risk of damage to the binding or the prints inside.

The newly conserved Essex Illustrated, ready and waiting for a new generation of readers

You can see Essex Illustrated for yourself by ordering it in the Searchroom, using the reference LIB/REF 2.

Conservation Surgeries

Do you have family photographs stashed away in a shoebox in the attic? Or perhaps letters, diaries, war records or newspaper cuttings relating to your ancestors?

These documents and pictures help to tell your family’s story, and are irreplaceable. Many things, however, can threaten their survival. 

Old photographs, diaries, letters and other documents provide direct windows into your family’s past

Quite apart from the risks of loss and wear and tear, there are the invisible threats that storage in envelopes, boxes and albums can bring. Over time, acid contained within ordinary paper and cardboard will eat away at the documents stored inside.

 The yellowing at the edges of the pages of this self-adhesive album show where acid contained within the paper is seeping out

 This wedding photograph from 1945 has had sellotape applied to it – one of the worst things you can do to an historic photograph or document!

Stored and cared for properly, however, documents like this can last for generations.

To help you keep your documents and photoraphs in the best condition possible the ERO is hosting two Conservation Surgeries. Come along to these free drop-in sessions and bring your documents for expert advice from our Senior Conservator on how best to care for your documents and photographs.

 

Friday 22 June 2012       10.00am-12.00noon & 1.00pm-4.00pm

At the Saffron Walden Archive Access Point, Saffron Walden Library, King Street, SaffronWalden,CB10 1ES

Thursday 28 June       10.00am-12.30pm & 1.30pm-4.00pm

At the Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

 

Work Experience in the Conservation Studio at ERO

Hello readers!

My name is Jillian and I am currently studying on the Masters program in Paper Conservation at Camberwell College. In order to gain more experience and improve my technical skills, I have been undertaking work experience at the ERO, one day a week since July 2011.

Hard at work in the Conservation Studio

During this time I have undertaken a wide variety of projects, from repairing mould-damaged documents, badly damaged photographic material, and architectural drawings, to cleaning parchment and wax seals, and more recently carrying out a large scale map lining using the map wall.

Cleaning a seal

 The photographic project in particular was very interesting as my background is in photography. The photograph in question was torn into several pieces, had missing areas, and had areas of the gelatin emulsion that were folded back on themselves. Treatment for this object included humidification and flattening, stretch lining, infill repairs, gelatin consolidation, and finally housing.

The badly damaged photograph before conservation work

The photograph during the humidification process

The photograph after conservation work was completed

All of the projects I have undertaken so far have helped my technical ability and confidence grow immensely. I have also now experienced first hand specific techniques and treatments that I had previously read or heard about, but had not necessarily been able to carry out at University.

Work experience at the ERO has been, and continues to be, immensely useful and worthwhile, and ERO conservators Tony and Diane, continue to be fantastic in sharing their expertise, and providing advice and support.

If you are interested in finding out more about some of the projects and work I have undertaken, please feel free to have a look at my website.

http://www.jilliangregory.co.uk/

Conservation project: conserving the Takeley deeds

Conservation is a vital part of our work at ERO. Our conservators work to protect and conserve documents, to ensure their survival for years to come.

One recent project has conserved a collection of 42 early medieval deeds relating to the manor of Colchester Hall in Takeley (document references D/DRu T1/1-42). These deeds are special for many reasons; they all date to before 1250, many have intact seals, and notes made in Arabic numerals on the back of the deeds are an early example of the use of this numbering system in England.

In the last line of this note, it is possible to make out an 8 and a 3 – an early example of the use of Arabic numerals in England. The 4 is from a later cataloguing system.

Unusually for such early deeds, over half still have their original seals attached, and the cleaning has made it possible to pick out detail on the seals which had been lost beneath accumulated dirt.

One of the seals half-way through the cleaning process

Tears in the parchment have been repaired using patches of goldbeater’s skin (a membrane made from calves intestine), applied with a gelatine adhesive. The patches are applied with a tissue backing, which is then removed, leaving an invisible repair.

Removing the tissue backing from a parchment repair

The deeds were stored in cramped and damaging conditions, folded up in acidic envelopes, and even in an old manicure set box. The deeds have now been stored flat, with each being treated to its own custom-made board. 

A deed in its former storage, folded up in an acidic envelope. Left for long enough the acid in the paper would damage the deed.

 

A deed in its former storage in an old manicure set box

The newly-conserved deeds are on display for the next three months in our brand-new cases in the Searchroom.

The conservation project was possible thanks to the Newton Bequest, made by Ken Newton, former County Archivist and medieval historian, and his wife Mildred.