Historical research in and beyond the archive – everyday encounters with local history

Ella Bytheway-Jackson, Geography and Environment, University of Liverpool (2019 Cohort)

During my Masters programme (Class of 2020) the pandemic forced the CASE partner to my MA and PhD research, Wirral Archives, to close. My main source of data was completely shut off for an unknown period of time. I acknowledge that this is not a unique story – colleagues in the MethodsX Archives Collections and Documents of Life Stream faced equally anxiety-inducing closures, especially when the collections they intended to explore were overseas. More broadly, as a research community, we have had to learn to adapt our plans and revise expectations over the last couple of years.

In my case, this meant a switch to material available online and experiments with more creative writing styles. So to digitised newspaper collections via FindMyPast I turned, and for my MA thesis I produced a series of short stories based on historical newspaper records. These newspaper articles along with digitally available Parliamentary materials illustrated some of the studies on workhouses that I had read on the conditions of and operations of the Birkenhead workhouse and Poor Law systems in Birkenhead in the late 19th century.

Despite these fruitful, journalistic second-hand accounts providing a useful starting point to my 1+3, I continued to wonder and hope that I would be able to examine the materials written by the Poor Law authorities themselves. Fortunately, some eighteen months after their initial closure, Wirral Archives re-opened their doors in October 2021 and I have now spent time over the last few months poring through the Catalogue and Poor Law administrative records to begin to furnish my PhD research.

This seems like success – but returning to the archive felt somewhat overwhelming due to the sheer quantity of records. It is widely acknowledged in poor law research circles that the administrative records of this system are vast and rich but can be disparate across different Unions so I was unsure until I returned to the archives what I would really be faced with. The expertise of helpful archivists and clear research aims ensured that I was looking through records that were hopefully going to be relevant to my area of study. My main advice for anyone starting to use local archives for research is to create your own digital catalogue of the potential collections that are relevant to your research. For me, this meant a spreadsheet of the catalogue of Poor Law Union records. Now every time I request, review, photograph and read records, I make amendments to my digital catalogue so I can keep track of where I’m up to and refer back if necessary.

But it is equally important to me to remember that there are perspectives that are less likely to be held in the archive. Those records that were written by the Poor Law Union are fascinating and extremely detailed but they are exactly that – a record of the events according to the Poor Law Union. The perspectives of those who lived in the workhouse or the children’s homes, the gossip amongst the local community or the stories of those who had treatment in the infirmary are not recorded in these administrative logs. For me that’s one of the joys of historical research – reading these records critically and searching for other potential perspectives.

So, where to find those other perspectives? This is where I advise you to do something obvious: talk (with anyone who’s interested) about your research in and around your place of study. The archivists themselves are experts in their collection and often local history more broadly which is extremely helpful and I echo the thoughts of Dmitrijs on making sure you make use of their knowledge. But the local people that live and work around the area and visit the archives are also often interested in local research and are experts in their own family history, which can provide interesting alternative avenues.

One example of an unexpected encounter that I had (just) outside of the archives was across the road in the car park. Upon paying my car parking fee, I regularly paused for a chat with the car park attendant about what I had been looking at in the archive. One of the children’s homes that I was researching was part of a row of terraces that had been demolished in what was now the very car park that we were standing in. The next day as I headed to the archive and collected my car parking ticket, he produced the aerial photograph (below, with Children’s Homes on the Bridge Street terrace circled), which was the first one I had seen of the houses and told me that his father had spent a few years growing up there.

This encounter taught me that it really can be in the most mundane, everyday places that you can make connections with your research. It is good to talk about what you’re researching with anyone, particularly in those places where your research applies. Over the next few months, I would go on to photograph thousands of pages but I would also continue to stop for my chats with the car park attendant. As we make our way cautiously through the Winter, I am beginning to relax into this research process as we gain more certainty that the archives will (hopefully) remain open and I continue to look for potential research avenues beyond the archive.

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