As an archive volunteer I’ve been asked to do all sorts of things: moving boxes, indexing documents, moving boxes, answering enquiries, finding documents, searching catalogues, updating lists, moving boxes, etc. So, when presented with two ledgers to transcribe, I thought, no problem, a couple of weeks and it will be done.
Little did I anticipate how handwriting has changed over the years? My schooling didn’t involve computers until secondary school, nevertheless, I learnt to write with a ballpoint pen and not ink and nibs. On the first page I saw elegant penmanship, neat and similar to artistic calligraphy. Problem – it was like a code and I couldn’t decipher it. Not a great start, given my task was to transcribe the contents into a digital format.
These two ledgers were written by the clerks of the Shropshire Union Canal (Norbury district) and the first entry being in 1901, the last roughly 1951 (Surprisingly, entry dates did not feature heavily with these administrators). The ledgers were written not by one clerk, but several. By the time I’d made it to the last page, I’d seen many kinds of handwriting and I have to confess, things have gone downhill over time with regard to the beauty of handwriting, but in turns of legibility, much improved.
The first few pages I had to guess at the names written. Common surnames: Jones, Parker, etc. I quickly deduced, others kept me guessing for a while until I saw them repeated again in different hands. Steventon, Shuker, Slynn, are examples of names that foxed me for a while. As for first names, they began life as initials or abbreviations, which I gathered was a common representation. So James became Jms, William turned into Wm, and so on. Another code to break and with the help of my more knowledgeable archive colleagues, I learnt to interpret.
Numbers proved less of a problem when transcribing, however, an amazing number of workers didn’t know their birth dates and later, more diligent clerks, corrected the dates by referring to birth certificates. Inaccuracies didn’t extent to a day out, but in some cases a year or two. Imagine growing up without knowing when you were born. These men, who began to work on the canals in the mid-1800s stayed with the company for decades, rarely changing job, they toiled as labourers, bank tenders or hanger-ons. Others had trades where they progressed from apprentice to leading hands: carpenters, smiths or bricklayers, but always the same profession.
As expected there were the traditional roles of boatman and lock-keeper, but also the odd one variant, for example, the mole-catcher, who was dismissed – for what? Who knows, the reason wasn’t given. As the decades past, people died whilst in service – sometimes the time and date was given. One man was killed on the railway line while others passed away without explanation. The First World War recorded the younger men leaving to join up, the older men staying on or returning to work after retiring. Of those who left to fight, I didn’t see them return and their names vanished from the ledger, unlike the Second World War, when they returned to work, but frequently left again with months, probably for better paid jobs. I recorded the numerous names of men, but only one woman – Mrs Williams, employed in 1943 to 1947 as a labourer. A small example of the impact of war on society?
Eventually the names, which had recurred throughout the ledger and noted down with their pension payments, left the service or were transferred to other districts / roles. Those that stayed changed jobs or took on new responsibilities. Lock-keepers doubled up as bank tenders and many labourers became temporary dredgermen in the 1930s. By the 1950s, the decline of the canal system brought an end to the ledger of the SUC. It stopped, rather abruptly with the last entry recording the departure in 1952 of Harry Sherwin.
I recorded where they worked, when they joined the service, when they left – if provided – and anything else the clerks saw fit to note. Hundreds of names and most recurring multiple times over a fifty year time frame. I grew a little attached to some of them – seeing them pop up: France, Simkiss and Onions – and I spotted the fathers and the sons who came to work alongside them, boys who started work in their early teens (I assume, given the surnames and birth dates).
As for the handwriting, when I’d finished I went back to the first few pages, those illegible lines had transformed into legible ones, familiar names and dates. I had cracked the code of the lost art of copperplate handwriting!
Rachel Walkley – Wednesday Archive Volunteer
The Canal & River Trust archive based at the National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port tells the story of our canals and rivers and is a world class resource for study of Britain’s industrial past and researching family history.
The archive holds over 100,000 papers, drawings, photographs, plans and books relating to the waterways – a vital part of our national cultural heritage. This blog will keep you up to date on the new digital collection, research findings and projects together with general goings on in the archive.See more blogs from this author