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Very Poor, Very Rich, or Very Bad: A Tour Around Bristol Archives

I had a fantastic afternoon at the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network behind-the-scenes tour of Bristol Archives on 17 October 2017. Archivist Allie Dillon explained that Bristol had been keeping records since 1381, when a Bristol Ordinance was made by the corporation stipulating that records should be kept under lock and key in the Guildhall. The earliest records in the collection date back to 1191. The Bristol Archives Office was established in 1924, and was only the second Archives Office to be established.

At that time all of Bristol Record Office’s four archivists were women, including city archivist Miss Elizabeth Ralph, who was the first female chair of the Council of the Society of Archivists. A tree in the grounds was dedicated to her in 1991, and it was recently rededicated by the Bristol Soroptimists –  you can find out more about Miss Ralph’s career on their website.

Initially, the Archives Office mainly looked after Bristol corporation records, but its collections have greatly expanded since then. They include Diocesan records (including probate and parish records), the records of the Bristol Commonwealth and Empire Museum which closed in 2008, court records, and records for public institutions such as the police and hospitals. In addition they hold business records, amongst them records for well-known Bristol firms Fry’s, Wills’s, and Elizabeth Shaw.
Advert for Fry's (The British Library of Flickr)
We had asked if we could see examples of records of particular relevance to women’s history, and an exciting collection of items was displayed for us. They included:-

A contract to build a new house in the High Street for Bristol merchant Alice Chester, who in 1475 funded Bristol’s first crane on the Welsh Back.

A 1709 inventory of Henbury House, owned by the Astrey family, as well as a letter written by Arabella Astrey to her sister declaring her intention to remain single and independent. Scipio Africanus, an African enslaved by the Astreys who is buried in Henbury churchyard, was in the service of Arabella Astrey.

A volume of the Registry of Servants to Foreign Plantations from the 1650s, giving details of young people who travelled to the colonies as indentured servants. The Registry was established because of the prevalence of kidnapping and transporting young people to work as servants in America and the West Indies. One of the volumes has an entry for Henry Morgan, who served a cutler before turning to piracy. 

The grave of Scipio Africanus (William Avery

Building plans for nineteenth and twentieth century Bristol buildings.

Red Lodge girls’ reformatory school records. The school was opened in 1854 by Mary Carpenter.

Glenside Hospital records, some of which include photographs of the women being treated for mental illness.

The First World War scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings collected by Maud Boucher – a particularly fascinating item, as it included a great deal of information about women’s employment during the war.

The records of the country’s first all-woman radio station, Fem FM. The station was set up in 1992 and over 200 women were involved in its week-long broadcasts – which included a Men’s Hour.

Photograph album of Margaret Duncan, who in 1918 travelled to West Africa to work as a post office clerk.  

We also learned about two interesting exhibitions in Bristol which are based on records from the archives:-

Empire Through the Lens, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery – photographs and film from the now closed British Empire and Commonwealth Museum collection. For further information see the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery website. 

Brave Poor Things: Reclaiming Bristol’s Disability History, Bristol MShed – the story of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things, founded in 1894, which provided social and training facilities for disabled children and adults. For further information see the Bristol MShed website.

Apparently, there’s a saying that you only got into the archives if you were very poor, very rich or very bad. Luckily that’s no longer the case. As the records we looked at show, Bristol Archives holds a rich and varied collection of material relating to women’s history. There are so many stories to be told and I came away thinking there’s material here for a dozen novels or non-fiction books! Alas, I doubt I shall get time to write them, but just looking at this material was a reminder of how much there is yet to discover about the women of the past.   


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