Accessibility statement

Women's history


Although almost any of the archive collections held at the Borthwick could produce material of interest for the study of women's history certain archives are more likely than others to have large amounts of relevant material.

Some of the most useful collections are described here.

As with all archive collections the Data Protection Act means that personal data less than 100 years old will be closed, although researchers may still gain access to many of these records under special conditions: please contact an archivist at the Borthwick for details.

Other private collections may also have particular closure periods imposed upon them and archivists can also advise about these.

Women's history can, of course, also include Lesbian and Transgender history.

Church records

Although the established Church was for many centuries exclusively organised and administered by men, its records tell us a great deal about women and their role in society. Amongst the diocesan archives, the papers of the Church Courts, known as Cause Papers, include many cases brought by or against women. These include defamation (slander) cases – including many cases of sexual slander - and those involving marriages – their enforcement and annulment and legal separation of couples. Amongst the latter cases are some instances of domestic violence. Additional information about some of these cases can be gained from other collections of records and the story of Ann Mould – an eighteenth century York wife seeking a separation from her violent husband – is a good example of this. Researchers should note that medieval cases are in Latin, and parts of cases continue to be in this language up to the 1730s.


When the archbishop or archdeacons made one of their regular visitations enquiring into the state of parish life, courts were held at which wrongdoers were presented and ordered to perform penance or suffer excommunication. Many of these were women, accused of fornication or adultery or of having bastard children, appearing with or without their co-respondents, and some seem to have appeared more than once before the courts. The records of these courts – the court books – survive from the sixteenth century onwards, although until the eighteenth century parts of the entries remain in Latin. Evidence from these books can occasionally be supplemented by letters to the archbishop from particular clergy referring to individual cases. From the late nineteenth century the clergy discipline files (records relating to clergy brought before the diocesan courts under the Clergy Discipline Act 1882) include references to women cited as co-respondents in cases where clergy are accused of adultery or fornication.

Modern records

For the twentieth century the Papers of the York Diocesan Association for Moral Welfare and its two associated homes for unmarried mothers are also a valuable source and for the 1950s and 1960s in particular include information about the day to day running of the houses and admissions and discharge information as well as, for example, papers for discussion courses for teenagers on relationships in the 1960s.

Probate records

Until 1858 wills were proved in the Church courts. For the diocese of York the Borthwick holds over half a million wills dating from the fourteenth century to 1858. These can tell us about what was bequeathed to and by women. Between about 1690 and 1750 – sometimes later – inventories (lists of the deceased's belongings and debts owed to and by them) sometimes survive with wills and these can provide evidence of women working as early bankers or moneylenders. The probate records for Ursula Simpson, who died in 1640, provide examples of the range of information which can survive.

Business records

The Rowntree and Co. company archive includes papers concerning the employment of women in the Rowntrees factory, particularly including references to differences in the way male and female staff were paid, recruited and trained. There are also papers relating to the disciplining of staff and to research and tests carried out by the psychological department. The Cocoa Works magazine – the official magazine for Rowntrees employees – produced from the early twentieth century provides information about social activities and a number of improving articles expressing opinions about how, for example, employees should spend their leisure time.

Additionally, much of the Rowntrees advertising material is aimed at women – either single women or mothers – or urging men to use Rowntrees chocolates to impress their wives or girlfriends.

Hospital repords

The papers of three psychiatric hospitals are held at the Borthwick. Two of these, Bootham Park and Clifton, are part of the NHS York Health Trust Archive whilst the third, The Retreat, is a private Quaker hospital which pioneered humane treatment for psychiatric patients in the early nineteenth century. Although patient records are closed for 100 years all three hospitals include sufficient nineteenth-century patient files to study the differences between the treatment of men and women defined as mad. The records of The Retreat also include collection of letters to and from some individual patients and for some parts of the nineteenth century the case books for Clifton Hospital include photographs of the patients. For an example see the case of Charlotte Anderson who was admitted to Clifton – then the North Yorkshire Pauper Lunatic Asylum - in 1893.

Family records

The papers of private families include many collections of women's diaries and letters. The papers of the Wood family (the earls of Halifax) include commonplace books (with entries ranging from knitting patterns to poetry), letters and diaries to and from many of the female family members beginning in the eighteenth century. The papers of the Quaker Tuke family also include many women's letters and the papers of the York family include the complete eighteenth-century diaries of Mary Ann York, née Lascelles.