Archive searching: it’s that old story of the needle in the haystack. Only the hay is millions of individual documents and the needle looks like the rest of the hay, and you can only examine three pieces of hay at a time based on rough descriptions to see if one of them is in fact the needle. And once you look at the hay to try and figure out whether it is a needle or not it is covered in the most indecipherably squiggly eighteenth-century handwriting, just for an added challenge.
You get the picture. Trawling through archives is a long and drawn out process and there’s no guarantee of success. As often as not it turns out the map or document you’ve called up is from slightly too early, or it doesn’t quite cover where you need it to, or it relates to a different agreement between two landlords. While it is obviously fantastic that there is such a wealth of sources available to any budding historian, and there is an undeniable excitement of holding a three hundred year old handwritten document in your hands, the sheer scale of archives can be daunting.
The Derbyshire Record Office (DRO) is situated in the very picturesque surroundings of the Peak District which you get a good feel for as you arrive at the DRO because it’s located at the top of the steepest road imaginable. Once you haul yourself through the door you have to deposit your belongings in lockers upstairs and are given the briefing of how to handle the documents before being buzzed through to the reading room. It all feels very secretive. By the time you’ve promised not to photograph any of the documents you’re just waiting for a voice to announce that your map will self-destruct after use to prevent anyone else seeing it. No such drama though. You send off your requests for papers and maps and within half an hour or so they’re brought to you. The wait’s a bit of a pain but better than me being sent down into the dark corridors with my lantern and canary to find it myself. I’ve been nitpicking but in reality the service is excellent and the staff are extremely helpful with any queries.
In my trips to the archives so far I have mainly been looking through maps of areas along the Derwent River. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of detailed maps of the areas between the enclosure maps of the eighteenth century, the tithe maps of the 1840s and the Ordinance Survey maps that followed. This allows you to build up quickly a good idea of how the area has been shaped by the growth of factories and mills. Secondly, I struggle to read a word of the handwritten documents!
But hopefully by using the maps from the three periods we will be able to build up a decent picture of how the area has changed throughout the Industrial Revolution and how the river and industry interacted. The resultant image should be give us a clearer idea of how the physical environment of this fantastic part of the countryside has changed through human interaction, so watch this space!
Post by Joseph Elliott, MA History student, University of Sheffield