Eighteenth Century Record Keeping…..

QS/1 is the series of Sessions Order Books, an official record of much of the business of the Quarter Sessions. QS/1/20 is the book for the years 1759-1776 and is packed full of interesting bits and pieces of information. Tucked away on the bottom of page 343, written for Easter Sessions 1768, is an innocuous comment that could easily be skimmed over, but which caught the attention of one of our volunteers:

“Ordered that the arms and old military stores now in the chamber of the chapel be removed from there to a more convenient place and that the gunpowder now in the chamber adjoining to the Record Room in the castle be forthwith removed from thence and that there be never anymore put there for the future”.

While I’m glad that some clear-headed folks decided to start implementing some sensible record keeping procedures in 1768, (because, thankfully, we still have the Quarter Sessions records to enjoy) I have to ask who on earth thought putting gunpowder next to the records room was a good idea in the first place! We’ll never know of course, but from a twenty-first century perspective it illustrates a few interesting points about attitudes to records.

At some point, after all, people either weren’t too bothered that these records might get lost in a calamity, or at least didn’t place storing them safely as too high a priority, and yet later on attitudes changed and the records were regarded as meriting much safer storage. There were probably plenty of possibilities for these records to become destroyed or damaged in their history, yet they survive, really, because ultimately they’ve been deemed to have some value. The value placed on these records has been variable at times as this example neatly illustrates, but they have at least been kept, despite everything that’s happened around them down the centuries. There’s an interesting point to be made here, too. It’s an irony known among archive and conservation professionals that often rare books and manuscripts have been given, historically what was then effectively regarded as being scrap paper for the end papers of the binding. Occasionally such documents as these are now regarded as being of enormous historic value in their own right, simply because of their comparative rarity, yet to our ancestors, they were scrap, and expendable. In other words, both the records deemed worthy of keeping and those deemed scrap have turned out to have a value to society in the end.

There’s all sorts of side debates we could fall into here about the records of our own time, and what exactly constitutes a historic document or a document likely to become regarded as having a historic or heritage value, and to a large extent there are often no easy answers for some material. The judgements we make today might be ones our descendants regard as invalid, of course, and it may come to pass that in centuries to come archivists and archive users place a vast historic value on records that we today currently don’t. That’s the way of the world, I suppose, but one thing we can be glad about is that although our society will doubtless not preserve everything our descendants would wish it had done, at least those records we do decide to keep should be kept, in theory, a lot more safely than the Sessions bundles were up until 1768!

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One comment on “Eighteenth Century Record Keeping…..

  1. Maureen Selley, Chairman Devon FHS says:

    You asked: “….who on earth thought putting gunpowder next to the records room was a good idea in the first place! We’ll never know of course, but from a twenty-first century perspective it illustrates a few interesting points about attitudes to records. ”

    I would suggest the same type of person who decided it was a good idea to give planning permission for a Tyre Depot next to the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office.

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