Posted on 7 January 2021
Manuscript petition of the servants of The Retreat to The Retreat Committee, asking whether East India sugar could be bought instead of West India sugar, because of the oppression of the slave trade, 16 January 1827 [RET/8/9/5, a digitised copy can be viewed at the link]
As is the case for most of us, the past year has been a challenging one for the Borthwick. When we were asked to carry out a trial ‘working for home’ day in March little did we know that the one day would extend to the rest of the year! We’re very proud however of what we have achieved over a very difficult period. We’ve kept our enquiry and copying service running, added over 27,000 new archival descriptions to our online catalogue Borthcat, we were able to reopen a limited onsite service in two alternating ‘staff bubbles’, we’ve held zoom classes, and we launched our first newsletter and podcast to keep in touch with you all. Not bad for a team who had never attempted to run an archive service from home before!
December was a typically busy month. We reopened to the public on the 3rd December for three days a week, welcoming 17 onsite visitors between then and the 18th when we closed for the break. This early closure meant that our searchroom team were even busier than usual, making sure our copy orders and enquiries were up to date. We also uploaded a special Christmas edition of our podcast ‘Out of the Archives Box’ featuring the members of the Borthwick team reading aloud specially chosen documents from the archives with a distinctly festive theme.
As we begin January and another national lockdown we have had to once more suspend our onsite services and move to working from home. You can read more about our closure on our website. Rest assured we will still be here to answer your enquiries and assist you in any way we are able, and we’ll continue to share archives news and discoveries through the newsletter and our Twitter and Facebook pages. Stay safe everyone!
In December we continued to take in new additions to our York COVID-19 Archive, including a daily journal, and a blog post by our Director of Library and Archives Masud Khokar documenting his own experiences of contracting COVID. We also accepted a new digital archive, a short history of Heworth Moor House, the Diocesan mother and baby home which opened in York in 1947. We hold the surviving records of the home itself, dating from 1947-1995, as part of the York Diocesan Archive. Our existing Yorkshire Garden Trust archive also benefited from the addition of digital records relating to the creation of a 3D model of the rock garden built by the Backhouse family at their home in the 19th century. We also hold the archive of the Backhouse’s famous York nursery, founded in 1815.
Two of our newest catalogues on Borthcat have links to The Retreat in York, a pioneering Quaker psychiatric hospital. We were fortunate to have the majority of the Retreat archive digitised through the Wellcome Trust several years ago. Now, thanks to the hard work of our U3A volunteers and project lead Alexandra Medcalf we are beginning to add full listings for one of the most intriguing parts of the archive, the thousands of pieces of correspondence relating to patients. The surviving incoming correspondence to the Retreat dates from the foundation of the hospital in 1796 and has now been fully listed between 1796 and 1805. These include letters relating to the admission and treatment of Hannah Ponsonby, whose daughter, also named Hannah, first came to the Retreat at the beginning of the 19th century to help take care of her mother and then stayed on to become the second ever Matron at the hospital. You can read more about matron Hannah Ponsonby in our linked biography on Borthcat.
Israeli born GP and naturalist Michael Thompson also worked at The Retreat, as a Quaker he served as medical officer there in the 1960s in place of National Service before working as a York GP. It is his lifelong passion for natural history however which is the subject of his archive at the Borthwick. The Papers of Michael Thompson include his nature notebooks and mammal recording work dating between 1952 to 2011. Thompson was a founder of the Yorkshire Mammal Group and worked with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. His work on pipistrelle bats was particularly notable, in 1977 he took part in a Pipistrelle bat ringing programme in the Vale of York, the first attempt to understand and record the lifecycle of the female Pipistrelle.
Finally we have recently completed the retroconversion of our existing catalogues for Methodist chapels within the City of York. You can now search the contents of 27 chapels, dating from as early as 1786. As well as the administrative, and baptism and marriage records you might expect, the Methodist archives are full of insights into how society has changed over the past two centuries. From Soldiers Rest Rooms and Forces Canteens providing home comforts in wartime, to wives’ groups, children’s clubs, dramatic societies and choirs and musical groups, as well as details of poor relief administered by chapels and the building (and rebuilding) of many chapels still standing in York today.
Number of archival descriptions on Borthcat on 1st January 2021: 73,347
The Ancient Society of York Florists was founded in 1768, and may have been a re-founding of the Royal Society of Gardeners of York which held annual ‘Florists’ Feasts’ in the city as early as the 1730s. The Society has remained active ever since and today it holds four horticultural shows a year and boasts a plaque in the city commemorating its long history.
In darkest January we could all do with a little colour. The founding document of the Ancient Society of York Florists declared happiness to be the ‘ultimate aim proposed by the Society’, which happiness was to be obtained through the ‘cultivation of flowers’. Its founding members included such notable York figures as Quaker philanthropist William Tuke and Charles Yarburgh of Heslington Hall (now part of the University of York). Later supporters included representatives of the Rowntree and Terry families. The archive dates back to the foundation of the society - and even before, including as it does an early 18th century invitation from the Royal Society of Gardeners. It includes detailed committee minute books with the names of show judges and winners, papers relating to George Russell who bred the ‘Russell Lupins’, and various printed histories of the Society. Together they provide an unusually detailed account of an organisation which claims to be the oldest existing horticultural society!
That’s it for January, we’ll be back in February with more archive news!