No viruses or check-sum inconsistences at the Digital Preservation Party please: validating, verifying and transferring born digital architecture records.

To acknowledge Digital Preservation Day, staff at Newcastle University Special Collections wanted to share some of their recent experiences in accessioning born digital material. The practical part of the digital preservation process has been on pause since the start of the pandemic, but now we are back in the office, interacting with our colleagues and scrutinising all the data involved in protecting the longevity of the bit stream.

Introducing Digital Preservation

Before we dive into what we have been doing, we thought it would be good to introduce our understanding of digital preservation, what it is and why it is considered increasingly important for archival collections. For those of you au fait with the theory of born digital material feel free to skip to the next section.

Digital preservation can be defined as a structured set of activities designed to ensure continued access to born digital materials for as long as it is deemed necessary. This includes maintaining the availability of compatible hardware-software relationships, trained practitioners, and appropriate workflows to select, transfer, ingest, and access ‘born digital’ files.

There are no rigid workflows for a successful digital preservation strategy that are applicable for all organisations, but there are widely used software, helpful resources and models to aid you when formulating your own managed set of activities which can be tailored towards your own institution. See here for a handy guide introducing you to the technical jargon.  The presence of born digital materials held in archival collections is becoming increasingly paramount, especially when cataloguing and providing access to late twentieth century material. Therefore, it follows that the knowledge and skills to preserve and provide access to them is also being increasingly highlighted.

Digital Preservation within Newcastle University Special Collections

A department wide digital preservation strategy has been in place within Newcastle University Special Collections since 2019. This includes full workflows to accession, process and catalogue, access, and preserve born digital materials within the wider aims of facilitating research, encouraging collection transparency and maintaining a pathway to providing long-term access to heritage collections. Following these steps users of special collections can now access digital material held within the Bloodaxe and Donaldson, (Sir Liam) collections.

Newcastle University has recently become the recipient of the Farrell (Sir Terry) Archive, and one of our next priorities is to process the collection. You would expect a substantial architectural collection to contain voluminous quantities of physical building plans, and this collection is no exception. However, the archive also contains a substantial amount of born digital material in the form of CAD and drawing files, along with the quantities of reports and contractual documentation involving the professional practice of Sir Terry as leading architect over the course of his professional life. These digital records are predominantly contained within CD-R’s and the occasional floppy disc.

A box of CD'R's from the Farrell, (Sir Terry) Archive.
The born digital materials, demonstrating that great things come in small packages.

Fresh from ‘Novice to Know-How’ training prepared by the National Archives, Senior Archives Assistant, Jemma Singleton set about actioning the existing digital preservation strategy for this material. It was a way of testing out new-found knowledge in a practical way, and to explore the applicability of conducting regular digital preservation as a parallel exercise to more traditional archival cataloguing. The second part of this blog post details what we did, challenges we faced, how we creatively solved these challenges, and what we learned during the process.

Accessioning Born Digital Architecture Files

The items selected for digital accession and file transfer involved Sir Terry Farrell’s work for the refurbishment of the Royal Institution, along with some video interviews. The item containers (eg: the CD-R) had already been physically catalogued, but the contents needed to be virus checked, validated and transferred. The following working practice, supported with in-house demonstration and advice by Archivist, Ruth Sheret, is detailed below.

  1. Assign a parent-code file ID and keep daily log of activities up to date for steps (2-5).
  2. Run each disc through virus checking software (Malwarebytes Premium), using an un-networked quarantine computer, and note the results.
  3. Validate digital item using DROID to check for encrypted files, unexpected file types, file structures, or files that are not wanted, and note the results.
  4. Transfer files to a local area, using checksum SHA-56 on the material, once prior to transfer and once it has been transferred to the local area. Check they match.
  5. Refile physical item and repeat for all desired material.
  6. Transfer files from local area to shared access area once computer is connected back to the network (but only if it remains virus free!).
Jemma at a computer doing conducting born digital material checks.
The feeling you want to have when everything checks out.

Challenges and Workaround Solutions

Appropriate Equipment in the Right Location

The Farrell (Sir Terry) Archive is stored separately from the majority of Newcastle University Special Collections. The process of acquiring and setting up an appropriate virus checking computer is currently delayed with the IT department at Newcastle University. This meant that identified born digital items within the collection were transported to the main library where an established quarantine computer was used. Although it would be ideal to have the appropriately set up IT systems in the right location, transporting items where there are adequate digital preservation resources may prove to be an adequate long-term work around. This solution had the serendipitous consequence of enabling other colleagues (Rachel Hawkes, Literary Archivist) working on other collections with born digital material to engage in training, enhancing the digital preservation skill set of the wider team.

Ruth and Rachel engaged in virus checking and check-sum validation.

Appropriate Software

As we hadn’t used this computer for a while, one of the first things required was an update for all the software we use for transferring born digital material. One of our tools (DROID) was glitchy in the morning and so we decided on an alternative work around – either hold off on the validation process for a later date, or make manual checks. This was an easy decision to make for the material we had, Ruth checked the material and quickly decided that manual checks would be reliable and not very time consuming. It was decided to harvest the metadata at a future stage in whole digital preservation process.

Checksum Inconsistencies

This session was a virus-free party and special care was taken to make sure the hardware was always unplugged from the network. However, some checksum results pre and post transfer were not exact. This was often due to an inbuilt folder within the portable hardware storage device, acting as a secondary digital container but not a relevant digital record. Nevertheless, this required an in-depth, manual check of files transferred from its physical format onto the local system.

Time

Aspects of the virus checking and file transfer process can feel like lost hours, as they are out of your control once the computer processes have been initiated. The most significant factor to consider is how long it can take to transfer quantities of large files from a local-offline environment to a shared networked workspace at the end of a digital preservation session. For this session there was a total of 3851 files requiring 38 minutes to transfer over. Knowledge of the length of time that different parts of the digital preservation process can take will come with experience and the confidence to conduct other workplace activities alongside digital preservation. Top tip – save enough time to do the offline to online file transfer at the end of the day, especially if you have a bus to catch, or a dentist appointment, or post-work fun times.

Digital Preservation Day Reflections

It is a positive step to begin implementing the long-term working strategy for born digital files from the Sir Terry Farrell archive, in line with the existing processes of Newcastle University Special Collections. It also felt good to create solutions to working obstacles that cropped up along the way. Future steps for this collection will be to formally catalogue the digital files and make access copies for users, along with incorporating regular digital preservation sessions into the cataloguing activities.

It was noted that much of the intellectual content of born digital materials transferred as part of the Farrell (Sir Terry) Archive already exists as a physical copy within the collection. This has raised a wider question about how many copies of an item should be kept and in which format? A preference for physical collections is space hungry but relatively stable to store, where-as born digital material is physically economic for space, but cost over time to host and maintain on a server. Then there is the umming and aaahhing about how an appropriate strategy is resourced and organised for the long-term accessibility of born digital materials that increasingly form the records of any modern organisation, and, specific to this blog, archives dealing with late twentieth/early twenty first century material. But that may need to wait for another time: protect your bits and Happy Digital Preservation Day.

Sir Terry Farrell’s archive has been generously loaned to Newcastle University Library and is currently being catalogued. Once catalogued it will be made fully available to the public.  All rights held by The Terry Farrell Foundation. 

Frederick Douglass: From Enslavement to Abolitionist

Frederick Douglass, photograph by an unidentified artist, c.1850, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.80.21

Frederick Douglass’ story as a black American started in the same way as many others of his era, born into slavery. Thanks to his determination and good luck he was able to escape the lifelong toil that many of his fellow black Americans endured, educate himself and then tell his story highlighting the plight of fighting for the rights of black Americans. The story of his life includes a journey to the UK, and Newcastle, where he would meet a local family that had a lasting impact on his ability to live a free life in America.  

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on a plantation in Talbot, Maryland. His father was white, and possibly the ‘owner’ of his mother. He was removed from his mother as a young child, and only had limited contact with her prior to her death, while Douglass was still a child. After being a slave for a number of years he escaped from his owner in Baltimore on the 3rd of September 1838 and travelled to New York. Once there he set about educating himself and eventually telling his story through an autobiography.

In 1845 ‘The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: written by himself’ was published. This detailed his early life, escape from slavery, and new life as a free manAcross the Atlantic and during the early years of Douglass’ life, the Whig government in Britain (led by Earl Grey II who hailed from Northumberland) passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. This act would make owning a slave in much of the British Empire illegal by 1840.  

In August 1845 Frederick Douglass sailed across the Atlantic to Great Britain to promote his cause. A review of his book was published in July 1846 in the Newcastle Guardian. The review highlights in critical terms, the American ‘institution of slavery’ and introduces his story and selected quotes from his work.

 Excerpt from pg5 of Review of the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, written by himself, 19thCentury Collection 942.8 REV The full review can be found at https://cdm21051.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p21051coll23/id/96/rec/15
Plaque at 5 Summerhill Grove, Newcastle upon Tyne commemorating Frederick Douglass and the anti-slavery activists with whom he stayed whilst in Newcastle

During his 19 month stay in Britain he toured the country giving public lectures detailing his life, slavery in America and promoting abolition. This included a short stay in Newcastle, at the home of Henry and Anna Richardson and their sister-in-law Ellen. They were Quakers who lived in a house on Summerhill Grove near the city centre. His stay, and the impact the family had on Douglass’ life is commemorated by a plaque on the house. He made such an impact on the Richardson’s that they set about raising £150 and instructed a lawyer in America to formerly buy Douglass’ freedom from his former enslaver in late 1846. 

Near the end of his tour of Britain Douglass was invited to give a farewell speech at the London Tavern on the 30th of March 1847 by the Council of the Anti-Slavery League.  They later published a transcript of the speech he gave, a copy of which forms part of Special Collection’s Cowen Tracts Collection, collected by Joseph Cowen, a 19th Century reformist MP from Newcastle. You can read more about the life of Joseph Cowen here

In his speech at the London Tavern Frederick Douglass covers a number of topics. He covers the American constitution, the slave keeping system and references the abolition of slavery in Canada which had been enacted by Earl Grey’s government.

Caption: Excerpt from Farewell Speech of Mr Frederick Douglass previously to Embarking on Board the Cambria, upon his Return to America March 30, 1847, pg14, Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, https://collectionscaptured.ncl.ac.uk/digital/collection/p21051coll85/id/58/rec/1 

He went on to talk about the purchase of his freedom by the Richardson’s saying:  

… As to the kind friends who have made the purchase of my freedom, I am deeply grateful to them. I would never have solicited them to have done so, or have asked them for money for such a purpose. I never could have suggested to them the propriety of such an act. It was done from the prompting or suggestion of their own hearts, entirely independent of myself…. (Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, pg16) 

Later in his speech he went on to recount his feelings and experience of the 19 months he spent in Britain, contrasting it with the conditions he encountered in Boston before he boarded the Cambria and travelled across the Atlantic: 

… I say that I have here, within the last nineteen months, for the first time in my life, known what it was to enjoy liberty. I remember, just before leaving Boston for this country, that I was even refused permission to ride in an omnibus. Yes, on account of the colour of my skin, I was kicked from a public conveyance just a few days before I left the “cradle of liberty”. (Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, pg19) 

He also recounts his experience of being refused entry to churches in Boston and not being permitted to “even to go into a menagerie or theatre, if I wished to have gone there” (Pg 19) and that “I was not granted any of these common and ordinary privileges of free men.” (pg 20).  

He concluded his speech by explaining his hopes and plans for his return to America saying: 

…I go, turning my back upon the ease, comfort, and respectability which I might maintain even here, ignorant as I am. Still, I will go back, for the sake of my brethren. I go to suffer with them; to toil with them; to endure insult with them; to undergo outrage with them; to lift up my voice in their behalf; to speak and write in their vindication; and struggle in their ranks for that emancipation which shall yet be achieved by the power of truth and of principle for the oppressed people… (Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, pg21) 

The speech he gave at the London Tavern gives us a valuable insight in Frederick Douglass’ own words of his experiences of slavery, how he valued the time he spent in Britain and the people that met and supported him while here. It also demonstrates that though he was now free himself he saw his future in helping his enslaved brethren, using his platform to promote their cause and work towards their emancipation, even if that meant experiencing the racial prejudices of 19th Century America.  

On the 4th of April Frederick Douglass embarked the Cambria to travel across the Atlantic back to the United States. On boarding he was informed that the birth he had booked was occupied and that he would not be allowed to mix with the other passengers on account of his colour. After returning to America he would go on to spend the next 50 years working and campaigning for the rights of black Americans and women. He died in Washington DC, aged 77 in February 1895. Newcastle University’s Frederick Douglass Building, close to where he stayed during his time in Newcastle, is named in his honour.  

Excerpt from Farewell Speech of Mr Frederick Douglass previously to Embarking on Board the Cambria, upon his Return to America March 30, 1847, pg14, Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, https://collectionscaptured.ncl.ac.uk/digital/collection/p21051coll85/id/58/rec/1 

Di Great Insohreckshan by Linton Kwesi Johnson

“Writing was a political act and poetry was a cultural weapon…” 

So stated the renowned Jamaican dub poet, recording-artist and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson (b. 24 August 1952). Based in the United Kingdom since 1963, in 2002 he became the second living poet, and the only black poet, to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series. 

In the Bloodaxe Books Archive, Special Collections holds a set of proofs for Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 1991 poetry anthology Tings an Times which accompanied an album of the same name. Amongst the proofs resides this draft typescript of Johnson’s great dub poem Di Great Insohreckshan which he famously wrote as a response to the Brixton Uprising which took place 40 years ago this year, in April 1981. The poem first featured on his album Making History in 1983.   

Typescript draft of Di Great Insohreckshan by Linton Kwesi Johnson prepared for his anthology Tings an Times published by Bloodaxe Books (Bloodaxe Books Archive, BXB-1-1-JOL-1-3-1&2) 

Dub poetry, a term coined by Johnson himself, was a form of performance poetry of West Indian origin, written to be spoken out loud against a backdrop of reggae music. 

Watch Linton Kwesi Johnson performing Di Great Insohreckshan.

The Brixton Uprising, also referred to as the Brixton Riots, took place 10-12 April 1981. It was the first large-scale racial confrontation between black British youth and white British police.  The rioting was sparked by decades of injustices experienced by black people in the UK. 

Next month will see the fortieth anniversary of the publication of the Scarman Report, commissioned by the UK government in response to the Brixton Uprising. Amongst other conclusions, the Report found there to be unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of ‘stop and search’ powers by the police against young black people and placed the Brixton Uprising into the context of the racial disadvantage faced by them. 

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry is deeply political in its nature, dealing mainly with the experiences of being an African-Caribbean in Britain. Written and spoken in Jamaican Creole English, Di Great Insohreckshan railed against the injustice and oppression which brought about the tensions leading to the Brixton Uprising, giving full vent to black people’s anger and highlighting the government’s political failure. 

When first performed, Di Great Insohreckshan grabbed and demanded the attention of those who heard it, with its intense, urgent, streetwise and intellectual delivery. Forty years on the poem is held to stand alongside TV and radio archive as a primary source in its own right, helping future generations understand the cultural and political upheaval that led to the Brixton Uprising of 1981. 

Pilgrim Street, Roads and Robert Burns Dick

Newcastle seems to be experiencing an endless period of building and regeneration. The Evening Chronicle recently reported that a ‘run-down corner of Newcastle city centre is currently being redeveloped to bring new office buildings, a public square, shops, bars, and restaurants. ‘Pilgrim Place’ is currently being built in an area on the eastern side of Pilgrim Street, after the scheme was approved by Newcastle City Council’s planning Committee in July 2021. 

As a main route into (and out of) Newcastle, Pilgrim Street has been the centre of many similar schemes in the past. When construction of the Tyne Bridge commenced in 1925, the lower end of Pilgrim Street was cleared of many historic buildings dating back to the Sixteenth Century. 

Two pages from a Charles Philips Trevelyan family album, dated 1925. They feature photographs of the bottom of Pilgrim Street, which was being cleared for the construction of the Tyne Bridge. The note informs us that ‘Some houses there were dated 1575’. CPT/PA/12, Trevelyan (Charles Philips) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

When the Swan House roundabout was built between 1963 and 1969, more buildings were demolished, including the ‘revered’ Royal Arcade which many people still mourn, even though it was never a commercial success and had fallen into disrepair due to its location outside the main shopping area of the city. 

A view up Pilgrim Street in the Nineteenth Century. The Royal Arcade is the large building on the right. ILL-11-268, Local Illustrations, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.
Interior view of the Royal Arcade. ILL-11-270, Local Illustrations, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

The imposing Pilgrim Street police, magistrates court, and fire station building, the work of local architectural firm Cackett, Burns Dick & MacKellar, is a central landmark in the new development. Built between 1931 and 1933 to replace a previous station, it was Grade-II-listed in 1999 and is earmarked for conversion to a five-star hotel. 

Thomas Cackett & Robert Burns Dick contributed greatly to the appearance of Pilgrim Street; further up the road, they were responsible for the design of the stately Northern Conservative Club at 29 Pilgrim Street, near the Paramount cinema (later the Odeon). This was later demolished to make way for one of the city’s most-disliked buildings, Commercial Union House. Blame T. Dan Smith!

Robert Burns Dick enjoyed a larger-than-life reputation in his adopted home town of Newcastle. Born in Stirling in 1868, his family had moved south when he was very young and Burns Dick always regarded himself as a Geordie. 

Family portrait of the Dick family, showing Robert (Seated third from left), his siblings, and his mother. His father and a brother are present in the two framed photographs. RBD-1-1-3, Burns Dick (Robert) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

After attending the Royal Grammar School and art school, he moved through various architectural firms before entering into partnership with another Scot in Newcastle, Thomas Cackett. Burns Dick provided the creativity while Cackett looked after the business. The company went on to design many of Newcastle’s most important buildings, including the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle University Students’ Union building, the Pilgrim Street police and fire station, the Bridge Hotel, and the extension of the Northumberland County Council offices, now the Vermont Hotel. Away from Newcastle, Burns Dick was the man behind Whitley Bay’s recently-reopened Spanish City buildings and Berwick-upon-Tweed’s old police station (regarded by many as the model for the Laing Art Gallery). An advocate of the Garden City movement, in the 1920s he helped design west Newcastle’s low-rise, low-density and landscaped Pendower housing estate.  

The Burns Dick (Robert) Archive 

Our Burns Dick (Robert) Archive was collated after a 1984 exhibition about the architect, held by the Royal Institute of British Architects Northern Region. Although instrumental in the design of some of the area’s best architecture, it was felt that Burns Dick had been ‘forgotten’. The archive comprises photographs of Burns Dick and his family, two University dissertations about him, and a collection of press cuttings about Burns Dick and the exhibition. These provide a good overview of his life and outline some of his ambitious plans for Newcastle. 

Copy photographs of Robert Burns Dick and his wife Margaret. RBD-1-1-4, Burns Dick (Robert) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.
Photograph of Millmount, the Dick residence in Cowgate, Newcastle upon Tyne. The house was designed by Robert Burns Dick with a large garden which was drastically reduced when the Cowgate bypass was built in front of it in the 1960s (hence the metal fence). RBD-2-1-1, Burns Dick (Robert) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

In 1924 Burns Dick was a founder member of the Newcastle upon Tyne Society to ‘Improve the Beauty, Health and Amenities of the City’. He advocated a green belt around Newcastle and drew up a list of city centre historic buildings to be saved from any future demolition or decay.

Newcastle’s pre-eminent Victorian architects, Richard Grainger and John Dobson, had created an architecturally beautiful city but its roads were designed for horses and carriages. Burns Dick, although appreciating the pair’s work, said,

‘Is not Newcastle still trading on the brains of Grainger and Dobson and Clayton? . . . It has done nothing since worth mentioning in the same breath.’

He drew up plans for new roads to accommodate the arrival and proliferation of motor vehicles in the city, including a development of his partner Cackett’s 1905 plan for a south to north axial road running from the new Tyne Bridge to Barras Bridge to the east of Northumberland Street, and then to his proposed civic buildings on a site near Exhibition Park.

One of the articles shows a 1936 proposal for a new town hall and office space in the Haymarket. This appears to be in the space now occupied by offices over Haymarket metro station. RBD-3-1-6, Burns Dick (Robert) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Had Newcastle Council not suffered a funding shortage and a change in political power, Burns Dick’s plan for roads, and his grand entrance arch at the northern end of the Tyne Bridge, may have gone ahead. The arch would, of course, have led onto Pilgrim Street, which became the Great North Road (later the A1).

Article from The Journal, 1 November 1982, showing Burns Dick’s plan for a grand archway entrance into Newcastle upon Tyne, dated 1925.RBD-3-1-5, Burns Dick (Robert) Archive , Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Maybe as compensation, Cackett & Burns Dick were handed the contract to design Newcastle’s new fire, police station and courts.

Burns Dick eventually moved to Esher, Surrey, and died there in 1954. His body was returned to Newcastle and he was buried in Elswick Cemetery.

In Newcastle, the city’s 1960s planners sat and planned a new north-to-south road running to the east of Northumberland Street. This was eventually opened in 1970 and named after one of the Newcastle’s Victorian architects, John Dobson.

T. Dan Smith, Leader of Newcastle City Council from 1960 to 1965 and the city’s ‘bogeyman’, is often credited with the destruction of Newcastle’s historic buildings and their replacement with ugly concrete blocks, even though much of what he is held responsible for was built after his period in office.

The Black Feather Falls: A Comic Book Series of Interwar Mysteries, Crime and the 1920s

The front cover of comic book, Lindner, E. The Black Feather Falls, book one 2013, Wylie 741.5 LIN (used by permission of Soaring Penguin Press), Wylie (Terry) Comic Books, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Ellen Lindner’s The Black Feather Falls is part of the recently-acquired collection of comic books that were formerly owned by Terry Wiley.

The Black Feather Falls was originally published in three volumes that were collected and published as a single-volume graphic novel under the same title in 2015. The series is set in the 1920s and features as its main character Tina Swift, a young American woman, who has recently moved to England and works in a dress shop in London. The street outside the shop becomes a murder scene where Tina discovers a black feather – a clue to the crime, but one that the police dismiss. Tina decides to solve the crime herself with the help of Miss McInteer, a stenographer at the local paper, which leads her back into the past, to events of the First World War. The series was nominated for the Ignatz award for Outstanding Series in 2014; the awards recognise outstanding achievements in cartooning and comics and are held annually in the United States.

Page 21 of comic book, Lindner, E. The Black Feather Falls, book three 2014, Wylie 741.5 LIN (used by permission of Soaring Penguin Press), Wylie (Terry) Comic Books, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

This work is of particular significance for its blending of literary genres. The interwar mystery that comprises the action of the plot relates to the interwar ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction that occurred both in Britain and the United States. Lindner’s choice of a main character that is both a professional woman, working to live independently, and amateur detective also relates to the growing number of women embarking on careers in this period. The artwork for this series demonstrates a use of limited colour palette and strong outlining to characters and scenes, showcasing Lindner’s distinctive style whilst detailing many aspects of the 1920s setting such as the clothing fashions and interior designs. The appearance of cosmetic items such as lipstick and compacts, along with ‘flapper’ style dresses of a looser fit and shorter hairstyles with cloche hats relate to the specific context of the 1920s that saw these changes in dress styles, accessories and millinery.

The Wylie (Terry) Comics are currently being catalogued. These three volumes are part of a collection that spans several decades of comics and graphic novels, and many artists, authors and cartoonists. These are not the only examples of the use of crime and mystery genres; there are also many volumes of Paul Grist’s Kane series about a detective working in a precinct of a fictional American city and works set in previous decades and fantasy worlds are also well represented. Special Collections and Archives also has many items relating to independent publishers, including the archives and collections of Iron Press, Bloodaxe Books and Flambard Press, and of illustrators including satirical prints, such as those in the James Gillray Collection, and children’s books.

“People don’t know about them…”

The story of Dr Ruth Nicholson and the women of Royaumont Military Hospital

Panel on the Royaumont women in the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, stitched by Andrea Cooley

This is an online version of the exhibition People don’t know about them…, which was on display in the Marjorie Robinson Library Rooms, Newcastle University, 28th October 2016 – 15th January 2017.  The exhibition was the result of a collaborative oral history project based at Newcastle University Library, and part of the Universities at War programme.

Many thanks to the creators of the original exhibition, Sam Wagner and Rosemary Nicholson.

Three Women

Our story starts with Rosemary Nicholson, a local Newcastle woman who contacted the Universities at War project to tell us about her husband’s aunt Ruth – a Newcastle University medical graduate who had worked as a surgeon in a military hospital in France throughout the First World War, under the direction of the French Red Cross.

A female medical graduate?

A military hospital staffed entirely by women?

And why the French Red Cross?

The story caught the eye of Sam Wagner, an archaeology student in her final year of study at Newcastle University, who had joined the Universities at War project in 2015.

A combined image of Ruth Nicholson, Rosemary Nicholson and Sam Wagner
Ruth Nicholson, Rosemary Nicholson and Sam Wagner

Sam’s exhibition is the result of her own historical research and interviews with Rosemary – capturing her memories of family stories about Ruth, as told through Ruth’s sister, Alison, who was still alive when Rosemary married into the family.

It is the fascinating story of an amazing Newcastle woman, whose story had been almost forgotten – passed on by the women in her family who had never forgotten and who wanted her story to be told.

The College of Medicine – Newcastle upon Tyne

Ruth Nicholson completed her high school education at Newcastle upon Tyne High School and registered as a student at the College of Medicine in 1904.  After graduating in 1911 she worked in a dispensary in Newcastle before going to Edinburgh where she became an assistant to Dr Elsie Inglis in the Bruntsfield Hospital.  As Rosemary states, she then worked in Palestine before returning to England at the outbreak of the First World War.

Ruth (seated far left) with her brother and five sisters

“There were seven of them all together, one brother and Ruth the eldest.  This was taken at Newton Vicarage where they lived later on in their father’s life. Their father was a vicar.

Their mother was rather a remarkable woman I think for her time because she wanted all her children to get professional qualifications regardless of whether they were men or women … So Ruth qualified as a doctor in Newcastle, and then the youngest, Wyn, also qualified as a doctor.  The only one who didn’t get special qualifications is Alison. She was always rather a joke in the family. She had a lover in Romania and that’s what distracted her!”

Ruth’s Graduation photograph, 1909.

“That picture’s Ruth in 1909 when she qualified … she qualified as the only woman in her year.  And I think that she probably was quite a convinced suffragette. I don’t know whether she was a suffragette or a suffragist but you know Newcastle was a centre for a quite militant suffragette movement … Newcastle had some quite militant women!

It was quite difficult I think for women to get work as doctors in England. She went to work briefly in Edinburgh with a very distinguished woman doctor called Elsie Ingles and then she went to work out in Palestine in Gaza, which was before the First World War.”

The start of the First World War

“And then 1914, obviously the First World War is declared and she came back to England, and she’d been working as a surgeon. She offered her services to the War Office and the War Office accepted her and said yes and then she got her kit together and turned up at Victoria Station in London to join her group to go out to France to the military hospital out in France and the doctor in charge said “I’m not having a woman. I’m not taking her”.

So she was very, well according to the family, she was terribly terribly angry and upset. And she went back to Elsie Inglis in Edinburgh … she’d [Inglis] started a 100-bed hospital entirely with women, it was called the Scottish Women’s Hospital and she had also offered her 100-bed hospital to the War Office but the War Office said – I’ve forgotten what it is exactly they said – something like “Go home and sit down”.

She didn’t like that!”

Elsie Inglis, image kindly provided by the Imperial War Museum

Rosemary’s family stories appear to be entirely correct.  Research by the National Archives confirms that Inglis was told by an official “My good lady, go home and sit still”.  In her 1928 book, The Cause, Ray Strachey found evidence of accounts that suggested the commanding officers had told Inglis they “did not want to be troubled with hysterical women”.

The Hospital at Royaumont

“ So they offered the hospital to the French in London – the French Ambassador and he said “yes please” the French would like them, because apparently the French, this is again just through the family myth probably, the French were very aware of the deficiencies in their medical services and they were worried when the war was declared.

The president of the [French] Red Cross found them Royaumont, but Royaumont, the abbey hadn’t been inhabited for quite a long time; been used as stables and it had no, I don’t think it had electricity and it didn’t have any lifts, which they found really really difficult for dealing with stretchers and trolleys and things like that when they opened the abbey.  The abbey was full of nuns, they were kind of helping out, but it was an empty shell of a building and it was in a terrible state. So, quite how they managed to get it open by 1915, I don’t know what they did.”

Royaumont Hospital, image kindly provided by the Imperial War Museum

Royaumont was the largest continuously-operating voluntary hospital in France at the end of the First World War – over 10,000 patients were treated at Royaumont and its mortality rates were better than its army-run equivalents.

Frances Ivens at Royaumont, by Norah Neilson Gray, image kindly provided by the Imperial War Museum.
Royaumont – by Norah Neilson Gray, image kindly provided by Helensburgh Public Library.

“ They started with 100 beds and by the end or at some stage, they had 600 beds. You probably know that, and some of the wards had 100 beds in them… I mean, I just don’t know how they coped, I don’t know how they did it…They were tough, I think, really tough.”

“ Unfortunately, I never met Ruth because she lived in Devon and she died in 1963, and my husband and I got married in 1962 and I never met her… but I knew Alison because she lived locally [Ruth’s sister Alison had also served in the Royaumont hospital, as an orderly, from September 1916 – March 1919].  I knew her quite well. And she used to talk about it all – they went on having Royaumont reunions right on until the sixties, the middle sixties, you know, which is a long time, you know… She talked about how traumatised people were, nightmares, they continued to have nightmares about it and things.  And the doctors too, I think.  I think it must have been awful. Really awful.”

“ I make it sound all gloom … but obviously in the First World War they had times of terrible crisis and awful fighting and then other lulls and really not much happening.  And apparently, the nursing staff and the doctors, I supposed they were very used at home to providing their own entertainment and things and they would put on shows … Well Ruth, apparently had learnt how to do, while she’d been in Palestine, Dervish Dances, I think she called them her scarf dances!  I think the patients liked them a lot!”

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals depended on an extensive network of fundraising, much coming from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) whose London units provided an x-ray van.  Newnham and Girton colleges in Cambridge provided both money and volunteers, as did women in the USA and around the world.

Frances Ivens was the first foreign-born woman to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour, and thirty of her Royaumont colleagues were awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Ruth (standing far left) and Frances Ivens (seated) receiving their Croix de Guerre medal.
Frances Ivens, image kindly provided by the Imperial War Museum.

“ And then at the end of the war, these are some of the doctors who got French medals. They got the French Criox de Guerre. This is Frances Ivens … she was the first non-French person ever to get the Legion d’Honneur.”

“ There were two surgeons, Ruth of course, second in command of the hospital I think they called her, and the boss was called Frances Ivens. She was … the rather inspirational woman in charge … I think it’s incredible that quite a lot of the women who came out to be ambulance drivers actually brought their own cars, and had them slightly transformed I think! So, quite a lot of quite rich, I think, young women who could provide their own vehicles. ”

After the War

After the war Ruth specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology and became Gynaecological Surgeon and Clinical Lecturer at the University of Liverpool and was one of the earliest Fellows of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. She became the first woman President of the North of England Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and played a prominent part in the Medical Women’s Federation. Dr Ruth Nicholson died in Exeter on 18 July 1963.

Staff of Royaumont, Francis Ivens is Centre, with Ruth to her right.
Ruth’s sister, Alison Nicholson, who went to the Royaumont Hospital in 1916 to serve as a nurse.

“ I felt she never got the credit she should have had, or the recognition she should have had, or Alison.

People don’t know about them, I mean I write to everybody. I heard the programme on Women’s Hour about the women’s hospital in London and I rang right in to them saying, you know, “What about Royaumont?!”

It was a matter of pride!”

Ruth later in life, thought by her family to have been taken when she lived in Liverpool.

The Roots of Vaccination – 300 Years of Variolation in England

Title page to A Dissertation on the method of inoculating the small-pox … (1721) Medical Tracts v1(7), Medical Tracts, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186

While we are all familiar with vaccination, its predecessor variolation is less well known. The goal is the same – to use a medical procedure to induce immunity to a disease. Before the invention of vaccination, variolation was the only preventative against smallpox available. This pamphlet, from our Medical Tracts Collection, is one of many English publications on the subject from 300 years ago in 1721. A translation of a Portuguese pamphlet by Jacob de Castro Sarmento, it outlines the variolation process ‘as it is practised in Thessaly, Constantinople and Venice’. The process is relatively simple – warm pus from someone suffering with smallpox is applied to a freshly made incision on the variolation patient. This triggers an immune response in the patient, which renders them less susceptible to future infection.

1721 was a key year in the history of variolation in England. While the practice had been taking place in Asia and Africa for some time, in the early 18th Century its adoption in England was cause of much debate. Since the 1710s the Royal Society of London had explored and discussed its use, but the high level of risk involved had prevented it from being introduced to English society. Arguments for and against the process continued to be published. Then in 1721, several events took place which contributed to its greater acceptance in England.

In April of that year, a smallpox epidemic led Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an aristocrat and writer, to have her daughter Mary “engrafted”. Montagu had first encountered the procedure while in Turkey some years earlier. She had written about it to friends and had her son undergo the process whilst there. Back in England, Mary’s inoculation was observed by three members of the Royal College of Physicians, becoming the first documented inoculation in England. After the successful inoculation of her daughter, interest in variolation rose sharply amongst her aristocratic friends (which Montagu strongly encouraged. It came to the attention of Caroline of Ansbach, then Princess of Wales, who wished to inoculate her three children.

It was felt that more evidence of the safety and effectiveness of the procedure was required before risking the health of the heirs to the British throne, and so in July, the royal physicians finalised arrangements to conduct variolation trials on inmates at Newgate prison in London. Seven inmates were offered the choice of participating in exchange for their sentence of transportation to the Americas being remitted. Those who accepted (which was all of them) underwent “engrafting” on the 9th of August 1721. The initial procedure was heavily attended by observers and the participants’ progress was discussed in newspapers and pamphlets.

Watercolour drawings of the left arm showing smallpox inoculation (variolation) on verso and cowpox inoculation (vaccination) on recto. Wellcome Library number WMS 3115. Reproduced under Creative Commons.

The Newgate trial was deemed a success, with all the participants recovering well and displaying immunity. One of the participants, Elizabeth Harrison (originally sentenced to death for the theft of 62 guineas), was taken to a school which was suffering a smallpox outbreak to demonstrate her immunity. The royal children were eventually inoculated, but not until April 1722 after further trials on orphan children had taken place. While debate continued around the safety and effectiveness of variolation, these events contributed to its increased acceptance and by the 1740s, charitable inoculation hospitals were being established. It became common practice to use variolation to reduce the impact of smallpox outbreaks in rural areas. Variolation continued to be used in England until the invention and introduction of the safer vaccination process eventually led to the Vaccination Act of 1840. This entitled everyone in England to smallpox vaccination free of charge and banned the use of its riskier predecessor.

Read the whole pamphlet on CollectionsCaptured.

Crawhall: Family History

Joseph Crawhall, Morpeth, 1865 , JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.

‘The accompanying letter from the late John Hodgson, the Historian of Northumberland, to Mr. Thomas Sopwith having only been partially answered, induced me to prosecute further enquiry into our family history, & the result of such enquiry, with the authorities will be found in this volume’.

Joseph Crawhall II is perhaps best-known as a wood engraver of idiosyncratic illustrations which adorned books published by, among other, local printer Andrew Reid and London-based Andrew Tuer at his Leadenhall Press in London.

With a great interest in local history, folklore, and traditions, Crawhall seized upon the opportunity to research his own family after reading clergyman and antiquary John Hodgson’s queries to local mining engineer Thomas Sopwith, for whom he was carrying out family history. Crawhall, with both the time and resources to do so, began gathering together a large selection of family historical material. This is now referred to as the Crawhall Genealogical Scrapbook (JCII-8).

The Crawhall Geneaological Scrapbook open at a page about Joseph Crawhall II’s brother Thomas, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.

The c.150-page volume is a treasure trove of family history collected by Crawhall. Its contents include notes and family trees transcribed by Crawhall, sketches and paintings of family members, family photographs, newspaper cuttings, sale catalogues, letters. The historical material is drawn from a range of sources including Hodgson’s extensively-researched History of Northumberland, where the Crawhall family is traced back to the Twelfth Century (where the name is spelled ‘Crauden’, ‘Craweden’, or ‘Crawenden’). The 16th Century Crawhaws lived at Crawhall near Thorngrafton in Northumberland and were responsible for governorship of the Middle Marches “From Hexhamshire to the Water of Irdin (Irthing) on both sides of the Tyne”, near Hawteswell (Haltwhistle).

Page from the Genealogical Scrapbook with transcriptions by Crawhall from Hodgson’s History of Northumberland, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.
Heugh Crawhaughe, Commissioner for Enclosures upon the Middle Marches, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive , Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186

The majority of the material traces the history of the Crawhalls after the family was established in Allendale, Northumberland. Joseph II’s grandfather, Thomas was a lead mining agent, and married Ann Bownas in 1771. Their son, Joseph Crawhall I, (born in 1791) was apprenticed at a Newcastle ropery to learn the trade and eventually bought the St. Anne’s Ropery near the Newcastle Quayside. The company earned a commendation at the 1852 Great Exhibition for ‘Improved Patent Rope Machinery’.

Commendation awarded to St. Anne’s Ropery at the Great Exhibition 1851, JCII-8,Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive , Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.

A shrewd business man, Joseph I held shares in the family’s lead mine at Rotherhope, near Allendale and, in his spare time, was a keen amateur artist. He eventually became mayor and sheriff of Newcastle. Joseph I lived (and died) at Stagshaw House, near Corbridge, with his wife Margaret.

Sketch of Thomas Crawhall by Joseph II, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.
Sketch of Stagshaw Close House by Joseph II, 1852, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.
A watercolour painting by Joseph II(?) of his birthplace, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.

Joseph II was born at West House, St. Anthony’s, Newcastle, on 16th May 1821 and quite early on exhibited a talent for art which he was able to pursue throughout his life. An adept, skilful draughtsman and watercolourist with a distinctly Northumbrian sense of humour, he is now best-known for his wood engravings in the chapbook style.

Watercolour and engraved cards by Joseph Crawhall II, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.

His work was not restricted to paper – a certificate in the scrapbook was awarded to Crawhall for commended work in an 1873 exhibition of paintings on china for the Art-Pottery Galleries in London.  

Certificate awarded to Joseph Crawhall II for painting on china, JCII-8, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.
A china plate painted by Joseph Crawhall II, Crawhall (Joseph II) Archive, Newcastle University Special Collections & Archives, GB 186.

More information about the Genealogical Scrapbook and other Crawhall items can be found in our collections.

The Herschel Building and Spiral Nebula

Biochemistry Opening 5th May 1967, NUA 16/7/1/9, Newcastle University Archives, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186

The Herschel Building is home to the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Physics. Opened in 1962, the building was named after the astronomer Alexander Stewart Herschel, who was known for his work relating to meteors and comets. Between 1871 and 1886, Herschel was the first Professor of Physics and Experimental Philosophy in the University of Durham College of Science, one of the institutions which formed Newcastle University.  

The Herschel building was a response to a post-war demand for skilled physicists, and provided state of the art laboratories. The Architect, Sir Basil Spence, tried to anticipate developments in research by ensuring the workshops were not too specialised, and that the building itself allowed for improved electrical supplies. 

Spence also commissioned the imposing Spiral Nebula sculpture which stands in front of the building. It’s sculptor, Geoffrey Clarke designed the piece to reflect the pioneering research focussing on space which was taking place at the University at that time. When first installed, Spence disliked the sculpture, feeling that it distracted attention from the building itself, so Clarke re-finished the sculpture in a less striking grey. Restoration work undertaken by Clarke’s son Jonathan in 2012 returned the sculpture to its intended appearance. 

Installation of Spiral Nebula sculpture 1963, NUA/025892/1, Newcastle University Archives, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186
Installation of Spiral Nebula sculpture 1963, NUA/025892/5, Newcastle University Archives, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186

Visit CollectionsCaptured to see more photographs of Newcastle University campus from the University Archives.

Sources

Historic England (2021) Spiral Nebula outside the Herschel Building, off Haymarket Lane, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1437126.                               

Newcastle University Collections Captured (2021) Department of Biochemistry opening leaflet. Available at: https://cdm21051.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p21051coll2/id/1155/rec/2

Sitelines (no date) Tyne and Wear HER(11003): Newcastle, Newcastle University, ‘Spiral Nebula’ – Details. Available at: https://twsitelines.info/SMR/11003

Want to learn more about the history of Newcastle University campus? Why not explore all the articles in our Campus Tour blog series.

Stephenson Building

Aerial photograph showing the Stephenson Building on Claremont Road,
NUA/005670/2, Newcastle University Archives, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186

The Stephenson building, named in honour of inventor of the steam locomotive and local resident George Stephenson, was officially opened by H.R.H Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh in December 1951. Design work began after the end of the 2nd World War with the intention of creating new purpose built accommodation for the School of Engineering which had previously been located in the Armstrong Building and other temporary spaces around the university.   

The space incorporated laboratories and workshops that were designed to be easily accessed for the handling of heavy equipment and machinery. The new building included space for Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical, Agricultural and Marine Engineering and mathematics. After a period of expansion Chemical and Electrical Engineering and Mathematics moved to the newly built Merz Court on the other side of Claremont Road in 1964. 

Photo of the Heat Engines Laboratory in the Stephenson Building 1954, NUA/003405/4, Newcastle University Archives, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186

Starting in 2021 a multi-year project is underway to largely redevelop the Stephenson Building to create an eye-catching new entrance to the campus and provide cutting edge facilities for the Department of Engineering. The project will double the building’s floor space by demolishing the two storey wings of the building and replacing them with a striking new four storey facility.  

Visit CollectionsCaptured to see more photographs of Newcastle University campus from the University Archives. 

Sources

McCord, Norman (2006) Newcastle University Past, Present and Future. Newcastle: Third Millennium Publishing.  

Newcastle University (2021) Engineering Facilities. Available at: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/engineering/who-we-are/facilities/

Newcastle University Press Office (2021) Stephenson Building enters a new stage in its rich history. Available at: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/articles/latest/2021/04/stephensonbuildingapproval/

Pamphlet commemorating the official opening of the Stephenson Building 1951-11, NUA/16/007/01/22, Newcastle University Archives, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186