Sunday, 8 April 2012

Adventures in Local History

First, a disclaimer: I am not a good historian. I can talk about themes and culture and cultural themes, but I'm unsure how to operate a microfilm reader and I couldn't tell a parish record from my elbow. As part of my general research, however, I've started surveying texts written by and about servants in local archives and libraries in Newcastle (this has also to do with my involvement in the Popular Politics Project).

One text which has both intrigued and frustrated me is a slim volume entitled 'Tim Thrifty's Letter to his Fellow Servants', housed in Newcastle central library. It was published in Alnwick by 'J.Graham' in 1817. is apparently a letter from a senior servant upon his retirement warning fellow servants against vices like gluttony, disobedience and prodigality.

In many ways the letter is unremarkable. 'Tim' supports the hierarchical 'rank of life'. He admonishes female servants who give birth out of wedlock, servants who spend their small wages on frivolous pleasures like 'fairings', and those who have the cheek to question their lowly positions in life. Moralizing sermons like these are as common as far back as the sixteenth century, although they were usually written by preachers and the like at that time.

In fact, because the text is in many ways so rigidly conservative I can't help but wonder whether a servant really wrote it at all. 'Tim' names his master as 'Sir Stephen Allworthy' but I haven't (yet) found any record of a Sir Allworthy in Alnwick in the early 1900's. 'Allworthy' has an allegorical ring to it, like 'Tim Thrifty' and it strikes me that if an author in the 1820's wanted to induce conservative moral or social reform, publishing under the guise of a servant lecturing his fellow servants might be a clever way of doing so.

Yet 'Tim' also breaks away from moralizing at several points to reflect on more personal matters. In these moments he shows himself to be more than a mindless tool of the upper classes. He explains, for example, that he has saved his wages and can now support his nephew in beginning a trade, an advantage which will enable his nephew to 'settle in a higher walk of life than those who immediately preceded him'. 'Tim' then begins a lengthy note on the benefits of 'savings banks', a recent advantage which will allow servants and labourers to gain interest on their 'small sums'. Elsewhere 'Tim' encourages servants to advance themselves by learning to read and write.

As somebody who writes about literature, my instinct is to start linking this text with broader social and cultural movements, but I'm equally interested in working out who this 'Tim Thrifty' really was. And there are a few tantalising clues. On the first page, a handwritten note states that the text was 'probably written by...' Annoyingly, the handwriting is difficult to decipher, but a quick online search brought up a similar note in another Alnwick text by the same publisher. This note states that the text was 'probably written by J. S. Esq'. If I can assume that both notes refer to the same author then Tim Thrifty may not prove so elusive after all....

So, question for this week: what have you found to be the pleasures and pitfalls of studying local history? And, more pressingly, can I take a camera into an archive?! After four A4 pages of frantic handwriting I needed a stiff drink.

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