Exploring Sheffield Archives with CAP Fellow Adam Smith

CAP Honorary Research Fellow Dr Adam James Smith discusses undertaking the vast scoping project that led to next week’s ‘Research and Funding Opportunities Showcase’ at Sheffield Archives.


I was given a remit, seemingly as impossible as it was irresistible: go and spend two months in Sheffield Archives, see what is there and come back with some ideas for future projects.

When I first met Senior Archivist Cheryl Bailey she cheerfully told me that there was around six miles of material for me to go through (before noticing that I’d gone quite pale and offering me a chair and a glass of water). However, any trepidation I had in the face of such a vast undertaking was soon overtaken by sheer amazement once the job began.

Sheffield Archives, early in the morning.

Sheffield Archives, early in the morning.

Ahead of my first visit Cheryl very helpfully prepared a few items that she thought ‘might interest me.’ I arrived at 9.30am, by 10 I was comparing the handwriting of Charles Dickens with that of Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Brunel was neatest). By 11am I was thoroughly ashamed that all of this incredible material has been sat in Sheffield Archives the entire time that I’ve been in Sheffield and I didn’t even know.

A remarkable collection, for instance, presents itself in the letters and papers of the Gatty family.

The Gattys lived in the Sheffield area throughout the 19th century and were incredibly well-connected. Margaret Gatty, a children’s writer and marine biologist who regularly challenged Charles Darwin on the topic of evolution, married Rev. Alfred Gatty, who had previously served as the personal Chaplain to Lord Horatio Nelson during the Napoleonic wars. Their daughter, Juliana Ewing, also went onto have a successful career as a Children’s Writer, with the archive collecting her regular correspondences with the likes of Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling.

Inside the vault at Special Collections.

Inside the vault at Special Collections.

In addition to the family’s own extraordinary notes and correspondences, Alfred Gatty also instigated an impressive autograph collection which was continued on in later generations, bestowing upon the archive a number of volumes featuring the writing of such figures as William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christina Rossetti and Florence Nightingale.

I was also shocked to discover that Sheffield Archives has the world’s largest collections of letters and papers by Edmund Burke. With over 3000 items the collection includes his notebooks, speeches and correspondences. In addition to his own works there are some deeply impressive in-letters from a range of incredibly famous individuals, including: James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin and David Garrick.

Perhaps my favourite collection, however, presented itself in a 40-strong collection of volumes attributed to Sheffield’s ‘Pen and Pencil Society’, a group which met once a month from 1868-1908. Members of this Quaker Society were bound by honour to make sure that they had something written ahead of each monthly meeting but were free to write about anything they liked, as long as it was substantially original. The result is a thoroughly delightful miscellany of subject matter. As it is the original contributions that are bound into these volumes they offer an incredible and barely mediated insight into the ideas, attitudes and quotidian of nineteenth-century Sheffield.

For instance, the first volume offers such vague essay titles as ‘A few thoughts’, ‘Life thoughts’ and ‘Garden thoughts’, alongside such scholarly titles as ‘What was gained in the 1st years of Charles I before the sword was drawn?’, opinion pieces like ‘Is it the best thing to give to beggars or not?’ and works of biographical reflection, such as the tantalisingly titled ‘My first three years of marriage, a review.’

Next week Sheffield Archives will be hosting a special event, showcasing all of these findings and more. There will be an opportunity to read a letter from Edmund Burke to the Queen of France, to flick through the pocket journals of some of Sheffield’s 19th-century residents, read battle plans from the English Civil Wars, see what was showing at Sheffield cinemas in the 1920s, 60s and 70s, listen to oral history interviews recorded in Sheffield in 1982  and see a message written by Edward Carpenter to be read at his own funeral.


The event will be primarily addressed to researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities (staff and postgraduates) but all are very welcome.

The showcase will take place 3pm-5pm on Wednesday 2 December at Sheffield Archives (52 Shoreham Street, Sheffield).

For more information or to book your place, see our Eventbrite page: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/sheffield-archives-research-opportunities-showcase-tickets-19493943911

If you are a researcher in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and would like to request a copy of the scoping report feel free to email me at: adam.smith@sheffield.ac.uk

Find out more about Adam’s findings by following him on Twitter and bookmarking his blog

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