Revisiting Record Office Finding Aids, Steven Hobbs


Archivists in the Record Office are working to convert the paper catalogues produced over the last sixty years onto a digital database. This has led us to look again at the work of our predecessors from a time when the title deed was god, and before many of the themes and interests that now drive and inform local history today were in their infancy and, it must be added, before the proliferation of indexes that can assist in more accurate descriptions of archives. (Census indexes which can locate tradesmen whose extant records lack an address are a good example). The following description of the day and ledger books of James Bull (91/2), a tailor, probably in the Melksham area, 1817-1825, found in the Quarter Sessions archives, but removed from there because of uncertain provenance, begged closer scrutiny. Clients’ names like Pinnegar, Phipps, Haynes, Overbury and Matravers strongly suggested Westbury as the tailor’s place of work. This was confirmed by checking Early Wiltshire Trade Directories (WRS vol. 47), which placed Bull in 1822 in Silver (now Maristow) Street.

To establish the original source of such a rare survival adds considerably to its historical importance. The clients mentioned above included several of the leading woollen manufacturers in the town, who may have provided the cloth themselves. In April 1819 Robert Haynes esq. paid 14s. for a livery coat, 4d. for gold lace, 19s. 6d. for a gallon sleeve waistcoat and £1 8s. for cord breeches complete. Family historians often talk about lateral research putting flesh on their ancestors’ bones; here they can put the clothes on their backs.

The only matter to sort out was how the books got into the Quarter Sessions archives. The answer can be found in the minute book of the Insolvent Debtors Court in that collection (A1/950). James Bull was presented for debt on 11 July 1825 and was discharged. He was described as formerly of Castle Street, Leicester Square, Middlesex, late of Westbury. The account books do not indicate his financial problems, which may have followed him from London and explained his move from the capital; business was brisk and bills were settled by the Westbury men, no doubt delighted to have a tailor who was presumably in touch with the latest styles amongst them.

An account book with printed almanac for 1756 (2008/1), kept at some time by Henry Green, place not known, aroused similar curiosity. A clue was provided by the names of the children of Henry and Eleanor Green, 1784-1798, and a search by David Carter in his Nimrod Index of Wiltshire marriages produced Henry Green and Eleanor Oram, who were married in Market Lavington on 5 January 1784. This tied in nicely with the almanac which was published by Henry Season of Bromham. He is a significant enough figure to merit an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, as he was a noted astrologer and medical practitioner, whose books entitled Speculi Anni are described in the DNB as standing ‘above the bland repetitive style of his competitors’. Examples of his books for several years between 1748 and 1767 survive among the Gleed family archive in the Record Office (946/309). Each year he set his readers a conundrum and revealed the winners in the following edition. The names are exclusively from the Devizes area, suggesting a strong, loyal, local readership, even though his fame was more widespread, rather than any superior intelligence among the people of central Wiltshire.