Tag Archives: cataloguing

Archiving the Web: collecting web crawls for the University Archive

Sam Brenton, Bridging the Digital Gap Trainee, writes about his work in Special Collections and the Theatre Collection.

Hello, my name’s Sam and I’m the Digital Archives trainee on the Bridging the Digital Gap programme from The National Archives. This scheme aims to place people with technical skills within archives around the country to help preserve the increasing number of digital items they collect. Over the past fifteen months I’ve been at the University of Bristol, working on a number of digital archiving projects with Special Collections and the Theatre Collection. One of the things I’ve been working on is expanding the quantity of web pages in the University’s web archive.

Illustration by Jørgen Stamp digitalbevaring.dk CC BY 2.5 Denmark.

Illustration by Jørgen Stamp digitalbevaring.dk CC BY 2.5 Denmark.

So what is a web archive? And how is it different from the website itself? A web archive is a collection of web pages preserved offline and is totally independent from the source website. This means that should the original web pages become unavailable, or are altered in any way, there is still a perfect copy of the original. The pages are stored as WARC files, a format specifically designed for the preservation of web pages as it acts as a container for all the elements that make up the web page, such as text and images.

When we’re concerned with long term preservation we can’t guarantee that the pages will still be hosted by their original source. Sometimes this is simply because an organisation likes to regularly refresh its content, for example a manufacturer listing their current products. But even something that appears to be more permanent, such as online encyclopedias and other information resources, may be altered, or older content might be removed without warning. It’s important that an archive is aware of any websites that come under the scope of its collection policy, particularly any that might be at risk.

I’ve been archiving parts of the University’s own website, such as the various news and announcements and the catalogues of courses offered, by crawling them in Preservica (our digital preservation system). The websites were identified by the University Archivist as being similar to traditional paper elements of the archive. So in order to mirror those collections, I’ve been doing small individual web-crawls based on dates (either year or month). These smaller crawls deliver more consistent results and will allow for better cataloguing in the future.  Sometimes this is challenging, as it takes a lot of time to process each crawl. When web crawling, it is common to run in to issues when rendering the pages, this if usually because complex JavaScript elements of modern web pages, such as interactivity and animations, are difficult for the crawlers to capture, so it was important that I checked each crawl before adding it to the archive. Fortunately for me, the sites I’ve been crawling are relatively simple, so the only issues I had were with the .WARC viewers themselves. Each one behaves slightly differently, so it’s useful to try rendering the crawl in a different viewer (such as Conifer) if there are issues with it, before re-doing the crawl.

WARC files of crawled University web pages in Preservica.

WARC files of crawled University web pages in Preservica.

In the future I’d like to look into adding relevant external web pages to the collections. In due course, we also hope to be able to catalogue and make web crawls accessible. In the longer term I would like to look into archiving social media profiles.  These are far more challenging to preserve due to log-in requirements and the large number of interactive elements, but they are arguably just as important as standalone web pages. The posts are far more ephemeral than web pages and we are reliant on the platform to maintain them.  They are also a key way that the University communicates with the public.

Atlantic Bristol: Connecting the City to Central America and the western Caribbean

Karl Offen is Professor of Geography and the Environment at Syracuse University in New York. He specializes in the historical geography of Central America and the Caribbean. Caroline A. Williams (1962-2019) contributed in absentia to this post. Caroline was a professor in The Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the University of Bristol until her untimely passing. An article about her many and diverse scholarly achievements can be accessed here. As much as I would like to say that Caroline co-authored this post, I must acknowledge that she did not and that any errors are mine alone.

‘Prepare to be amazed!’ This was how Caroline started an email to me in 2014. She had just received transcriptions of some 30 family letters of a private collection that we had been searching for. ‘There is so much information, I’m at a loss for words’. The email could not contain her elation, and after reading the rest of her message I too understood that we had stumbled upon a once in a lifetime find.

Fast forward seven years to October of 2021, and I was finally able to bequeath the entire trove of associated documents to the University of Bristol Library. The appropriately named, Peter Blencowe Collection (PBC), contains almost 300 letters and miscellaneous papers covering 1730 to the mid-nineteenth century. The collection has the reference number DM3028 and will be catalogued by library staff in 2023.

The collection offers much to scholars of the Georgian era of the greater Bristol area, the epistolary world of Atlantic families, and political events shaping the western Caribbean. Above all, the documents illustrate how multiple generations of Hodgsons maintained family, business, and social ties across the Atlantic.

Central America and the Caribbean. From Thomas Jefferys, A compleat chart of the West Indies, ‘The West-India atlas...’, London, 1775. Courtesy of United States Library of Congress.

Central America and the Caribbean. From Thomas Jefferys, A compleat chart of the West Indies, ‘The West-India atlas…’, London, 1775. Courtesy of United States Library of Congress.

Readers interested in how we came to acquire this private collection are encouraged to peruse the full story in the second half of this post. The short version, however, must highlight the forethought and generosity of Mr. Peter Blencowe. Peter inherited the documents from the descendants of J.J. Blencowe whose first wife, Gratia-Maria Prowett Blencowe (1806-1840), was the grand daughter of Robert Hodgson II, the writer, receiver, or principal subject of the vast majority of the PBC. Peter worked diligently with the documents, and his published writings about the provenance and family significance of the collection can be found in The Hodgson Papers, Appendix VIII of the book The Blencowe Families: The Descendants of the Blencowe Families of Cumbria and Northamptonshire, edited by J.W. Blencowe and published in 2001 by The Blencowe Families Association in Oxford. Peter gave the collection to Caroline and I in 2016 under the condition that we would ensure its public availability.

Book cover of ‘The Blencowe Families’.

Book cover of ‘The Blencowe Families’.

Central characters in the documents are members of the Hodgson family, including Robert Hodgson (father) and especially his son – also named Robert – both of whom served as British Superintendents for the Mosquito Shore (1749-1758; 1768-1775), a British outpost in eastern Central America that was always contested and claimed by Spain. The dominant force on the Shore, however, was the native Miskitu people whose leadership formed a political alliance known as the Miskitu Kingdom. The letters of Robert Hodgson I (the father) and Robert Hodgson II (the son), as well as letters from Robert II’s spouse, Mrs. Elizabeth Pitt Hodgson, and their four children, expose political intrigues in and beyond the contested borderland for much of the eighteenth century.

A particular highlight of the Peter Blencowe Collection is the letters that Elizabeth Hodgson Symons sent to her brother, Robert II, from her home in Stony Hill (part of which is now named Stoney Hill, part Park Row) in Bristol that she shared with her husband, the Bristol solicitor Thomas Symons, and their daughter Elizabeth (Betsy) Symons.

Part of 'A Plan of the City of Bristol', drawn and surveyed by John Rocque, engraved by John Pine, dated MDCCXLII, and published in March 1743. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Bristol Library. Stony Hill (part of which is now named Stoney Hill, part Park Row) can be seen above and to the left of The Red Lodge

Part of ‘A Plan of the City of Bristol’, drawn and surveyed by John Rocque, engraved by John Pine, dated MDCCXLII, and published in March 1743. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Bristol Library. Stony Hill (part of which is now named Stoney Hill, part Park Row) can be seen above and to the left of The Red Lodge

Between 1768 and 1776, Elizabeth Hodgson Symons sent 33 numbered letters to Robert II on the Mosquito Shore – sadly letters 9, 13, and 32 are missing. Her letters paused in 1776 because the British government recalled Robert II to answer charges of misconduct. When he returned to the Caribbean in 1780 as a colonel to advance the British assault along the Río San Juan in Nicaragua (along with compatriots Horatio Nelson and Edward Despard), his sister wrote him four more letters.

Elizabeth’s letters contain mundane gossip of Bristol, news from London, the prices fetched by Hodgson’s natural resources, and, especially, notices of relatives near and far, including the Tyndales of Bath and Bathford, Lords Delamere and Earls of Stamford, the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, whose sister Margaret Maskelyne married Robert Clive (Clive of India). In short, the epistolary world of Elizabeth Symons provides an intimate glimpse into eighteenth-century domestic life of an aspiring upper-middle class family and the role played by letters in passing along news, maintaining family relations, and strengthening commercial networks locally and across the Atlantic.

A second highlight of the PBC is a set of letters connecting Robert (Rob) Hodgson II (c.1737-1791) with his four children – William (Billy) Pitt Hodgson (1767-1800), Robert (Bob and Rob) Hodgson III (1769-1808), Martha Maria Hodgson (1774-1850), and Ariadne (Ari) Hodgson (1776-1792) – and his wife, Elizabeth (Betsy) Pitt Hodgson (1740-1797), over a period spanning the American War of Independence through his death in Guatemala City.

Letter from Robert Hodgson II in Guatemala to his son, Robert (Bob) Hodgson III, in Bristol, June 2, 1791, four days before he died. Courtesy of Yamil Kouri.

Letter from Robert Hodgson II in Guatemala to his son, Robert (Bob) Hodgson III, in Bristol, June 2, 1791, four days before he died. Courtesy of Yamil Kouri.

In a letter announcing their father’s passing, Robert Hodgson III assured his sister Martha Maria, ‘at the moment of his death (our father was a) Brigadier General, a Knight of the Order of Charles the third (the first foreigner who ever arrived to that most distinguished Spanish Title) with an appointment of 30,000 Dllrs. per ann. pension …’ Given that none of the family could attend his funeral, he sought to convince his sister that all due respects were paid: ‘The funeral cost three thousand Dollars which were paid by the King. He died a steady Protestant. The King of Spain has sent an express message of Condolence to my mother with his royal word that she and her Children are to be considered his peculiar protection’.

Maps of Bluefields drawn by Robert Hodgson II in 1770, in which he laid claim to the region by virtue of having purchased it from the Miskitu king and governor in 1757. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

Maps of Bluefields drawn by Robert Hodgson II in 1770, in which he laid claim to the region by virtue of having purchased it from the Miskitu king and governor in 1757. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

The revolutionary Atlantic was a time of significant upheaval for many families and the Hodgsons were no exception. Many family members were physically separated by great distances, and in order to stay in touch they needed to cooperate with Spanish authorities, especially following the British evacuation of the Mosquito Shore in 1787. When complex Shore tensions came to a head in 1790, a faction of Miskitu attacked and destroyed the Hodgson property at Bluefields. Robert II, Elizabeth, Billy, and Ari fled to Panama, and then to Nicaragua. Following Robert II’s death in 1791, the family fell on hard times and relied on the generosity of well-connected Spaniards in Central America. Surviving Hodgsons who reconnected at Corn Islands (Elizabeth, William, and Robert III) eventually had to seek refuge in Jamaica where they all died destitute. (Ari had died earlier as a fluent Spanish speaker in León, Nicaragua).

Robert Hodgson II's letter to Thomas Symons from Portobelo, Panamá, informing his Bristol relations of his detention, June 3, 1783. Courtesy of Yamil Kouri.

Robert Hodgson II’s letter to Thomas Symons from Portobelo, Panamá, informing his Bristol relations of his detention, June 3, 1783. Courtesy of Yamil Kouri.

At the very beginning of 1783, Robert Hodgson II was taken as a prisoner of war by a Spanish patrol ship off Portobelo, Panamá. For the next several years, he negotiated his position with the Archbishop of Santa Fé de Bogotá and Viceroy of Nueva Granada, Antonio Caballero y Góngora, while being detained in comfortable circumstances in Cartagena.

'A Map of the Bay of Honduras and the Moskito Shore with the number of inhabitants and the commodities exported in 1782', drawn by Colonel Robert Hodgson II and William Pitt Hodgson. At least 14 maps of different parts of the shore are attributed to Robert Hodgson II, but this is his magnum opus. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa de España.

‘A Map of the Bay of Honduras and the Moskito Shore with the number of inhabitants and the commodities exported in 1782’, drawn by Colonel Robert Hodgson II and William Pitt Hodgson. At least 14 maps of different parts of the shore are attributed to Robert Hodgson II, but this is his magnum opus. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa de España.

Following the British evacuation of the Mosquito Shore specified in the Treaty of Versailles and the follow up Convention of London in 1786, Robert returned to Bluefields as a colonel in the Spanish Army. Hodgson’s ability to speak Miskitu and his knowledge of the region convinced Caballero y Góngora that he was needed to help bring the Miskitu leadership to Spanish interests. At least 50 letters in the PBC contain correspondence relating to the important decade of the 1780s. For scholars of the Mosquito Shore, the PBC complements the well-known collections covering the activities of Hodgson II held at the Archivo General de Simancas and other locations in Spain, Britain, and Colombia.

The Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, London. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the great surprises of the PBC is its connections to the life of Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Franklin lived on Craven Street in London during two extended stays between 1757 and 1775. There, he lodged with the widow Mrs. Margaret Stevenson and became livelong friends with her daughter, Mary (Polly) Stevenson Hewson. Polly’s ‘dear friend’ from childhood was Mrs. Elizabeth (Betsy) Pitt Hodgson. Two months before she died in 1795, Polly had sent Martha Maria Hodgson a letter stating that she had known her mother Elizabeth for more than 40 years. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth Pitt is mentioned in several letters between Benjamin Franklin and Polly Stevenson, and Pitt and Franklin must have interacted on numerous occasions. The first of these letters, dated circa 1759, was written from Craven Street; Franklin signed off by presenting ‘my best respects to your good Aunts, and to Miss Pitt’. Scholars of Benjamin Franklin have not identified Miss Pitt as Mrs. Elizabeth Pitt Hodgson and now the PBC provides evidence for this and places it in a rich social context.

A stylized Spanish map by Luis Diez Navarro from 1765 showing the main British settlement at Black River in today's Honduras. The map highlights the residence of William Pitt, the settlement's 1732 founder, the grandson of a former governor of Bermuda, a distant relative of the eponymous British prime minister, and the father of Elizabeth Pitt Hodgson. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica of the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

A stylized Spanish map by Luis Diez Navarro from 1765 showing the main British settlement at Black River in today’s Honduras. The map highlights the residence of William Pitt, the settlement’s 1732 founder, the grandson of a former governor of Bermuda, a distant relative of the eponymous British prime minister, and the father of Elizabeth Pitt Hodgson. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica of the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Elizabeth Pitt was born at Black River on the Mosquito Shore, the favourite daughter of the settlement’s founder, William Pitt, and a Spanish widow that William had rescued from the Miskitu following a shipwreck sometime in the late 1730s. Elizabeth (Betsy) Pitt married Robert Hodgson II in London in 1766, returning home by herself before her husband followed in 1768. Letters in the PBC reveal that Robert II spoke with Franklin during and after his courtship with Betsy in the mid-1760s.

First page of a love letter from Robert Hodgson II writing from London to his wife, Elizabeth Hodgson, care of her father at Black River on the Mosquito Shore, Oct. 1, 1766. As he put it, 'My uneasiness at our Separation increases upon me if possible, in so much, that some times I am so miserable about it that I scarce know what I do'. He did manage to enclose a letter to Betsy from her 'dear friend' Miss Stevenson.

First page of a love letter from Robert Hodgson II writing from London to his wife, Elizabeth Hodgson, care of her father at Black River on the Mosquito Shore, Oct. 1, 1766. As he put it, ‘My uneasiness at our Separation increases upon me if possible, in so much, that some times I am so miserable about it that I scarce know what I do’. He did manage to enclose a letter to Betsy from her ‘dear friend’ Miss Stevenson.

At some point, Mary (Polly) Stevenson Hewson had loaned Robert II money. Her will of 1794 – available in The National Archive at Kew, and which varies in significant ways from the published version – testifies to her friendship with Elizabeth: ‘I bequeath to my friend Elizabeth Hodgson the Bond with all the Money due to me from her deceased Husband Robert Hodgson. It is a small mark of the Love I bear her’.

Much more can be said about the traces of Benjamin Franklin in the PBC, and to his poorly known connections to the Mosquito Shore more broadly – including the fact that his only daughter with his common law wife, Deborah Read, Sarah Franklin, married Richard Bache, the brother of Deborah Otway (née Bache), the wife of Mosquito Shore Superintendent Captain Joseph Otway whose appointment was situated between those of Robert Hodgson I and Robert Hodgson II. But that will have to await another venue.

Four watercolours by an unknown traveller dated to July 1845 showing dwellings in Bluefields on the Mosquito Shore at the beginning of a new British protectorate. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Four watercolours by an unknown traveller dated to July 1845 showing dwellings in Bluefields on the Mosquito Shore at the beginning of a new British protectorate. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Family members presumably preserved these documents in hopes of recovering property in Central America. Hodgson II’s oldest daughter, Martha Maria Hodgson Prowett, and especially her husband, the Rev. John Prowett (d. 1851), fought long and hard to acquire Hodgson’s property at Bluefields, or to receive monetary compensation from the Spanish government, and later from the Federal Republic of Central America, and finally from British officials seeking to establish a protectorate at Bluefields (see Colonial Office 123/61; 123/78 at The National Archive). A dozen letters in the PBC document Prowett’s correspondence with British ministers, lawyers, embassy staff, and even a hired investigator who retained a translator in Guatemala to dig into Hodgson II’s possessions at the time of his death. The documents suggest that Prowett became obsessed with his quest, and that his repeated failures ultimately consumed him.

Two letter covers from Robert Hodgson III to his sister, Martha Maria Hodgson, in Bristol. Left: from Blewfields, 17 April 1792, reporting on his return to the Shore. Courtesy of Jesús Sitja Prats. Right: reporting from Corn Island, 1 August 1792, after the family was once again forced to flee Bluefields. Courtesy of Yamil Kouri.

Two letter covers from Robert Hodgson III to his sister, Martha Maria Hodgson, in Bristol. Left: from Blewfields, 17 April 1792, reporting on his return to the Shore. Courtesy of Jesús Sitja Prats. Right: reporting from Corn Island, 1 August 1792, after the family was once again forced to flee Bluefields. Courtesy of Yamil Kouri.

Although the Rev. Prowett emphatically claimed his wife was the last living heir and thus the rightful owner of Robert Hodgson II’s property, including his rumoured pension of 30,000 dollars held in Cartagena, this was not completely accurate. In his Jamaican will of 1807, Robert Hodgson III, left a portion of any share of his father’s pension to the children he shared with his domestic partner Mary Pitt, Catharine Maria Hodgson and Robert Pitt Hodgson. Mary and her children were of African descent and could have also laid claim to Robert Hodgson II’s property and pension. Indeed, the many Hodgsons of today’s Nicaragua and to a lesser extent Jamaica almost certainly trace their ancestry in some way to Catharine or Robert Pitt Hodgson, Robert Hodgson II, Robert Hodgson III, or William Pitt Hodgson.

By the early nineteenth century, many Creole Hodgson descendants resided at Bluefields and likely elsewhere such as Corn Island. More than 20 percent of 53 property lots registered on an 1846 map of Bluefields were owned by Hodgsons with different first names, suggesting they had claimed Robert II’s property on their own (see Foreign Office 53/5 at The National Archive).

How did we learn about these documents?

Caroline and I had been exchanging emails for many years when we finally met in person at The Tap on the Line, a Kew Gardens pub, in the summer of 2014. There we hatched a plan to write a book about Robert Hodgson II. Each of us had been working separately with Hodgson’s diplomatic writings found in Britain, Spain, Colombia, and in other depositories around the Atlantic (e.g. the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan), for over a decade.

My chance reading of ‘The Hodgson Correspondence: 18th Century Mail from the Western Caribbean to England’ – a 2003 article by Yamil H. Kouri, Jr., and Leo J. Harris, published by the Postal History Journal – altered the scope of our research. The article discussed some unusual Hodgson family letters sent from Bluefields, Corn Island, and León, Nicaragua, to Bristol via Spanish carriers. Through daily correspondence with Yamil and, then with his fellow philatelists Leo Harris, Brian Moorhouse, Neal West, Bill Byerley, Mike Birks, and Jim Mazepa, I was initiated into an unknown (to me) world of enthusiastic collectors and knowledgeable Nicaraguan historians. From the good will of these individuals, and especially Yamil Kouri, I received numerous scans of Hodgson family letters that collectors had purchased for their rare postal markings. They were more than willing to provide me with scans, and some of their letters are shown in this post – because these particular letters remain in private collections, the PBC only holds photocopies of them.

When I told Caroline of this correspondence she replied, ‘I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about this discovery’. We learned that 21 letters had been sold during a Christie’s Robson Lowe auction on 16 July 1992. This got Caroline and I thinking about who had sold these letters and, more importantly, if there might be more of them.

Two pages from Christie's Robson Lowe Catalogue, London, 16 July 1992, showing the sale of the lots 318 to 328 referred to as 'The Hodgson Correspondence'. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Two pages from Christie’s Robson Lowe Catalogue, London, 16 July 1992, showing the sale of the lots 318 to 328 referred to as ‘The Hodgson Correspondence’. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

After finding a review of The Blencowe Families book mentioned earlier, Caroline reached out to Peter Blencowe in an email explaining our interest in the Hodgsons. Peter quickly wrote back, confessing that he had ‘been waiting for an email or letter like (hers)’ for a long time. When Caroline planned a trip to meet with Peter in person in the summer of 2016, he told her ‘to bring an empty suitcase’.

Screen capture of a database showing a small portion of our early efforts to catalogue the Peter Blencowe Collection.

Screen capture of a database showing a small portion of our early efforts to catalogue the Peter Blencowe Collection.

In the summer of 2017, Caroline and I sat down together in her home in Bristol and did a quick reading of all the documents and a cursory cataloguing of the entire collection. Although we always planned to give the papers to the University of Bristol Library, Caroline’s sudden hospitalization, unexpected passing, and the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the transfer until the autumn of 2021. Thanks to the special care of the documents by Caroline’s husband, Richard Williams, and Gina Robinson, who helped Richard organize Caroline’s papers, the documents are now safe with Special Collections.

In her last email to me, and not hinting at any worrisome health conditions, Caroline offered her commentary on a paper I was presenting on Robert Hodgson II at the Annual Conference of the Omohundro Institute in 2019.

She wrote to say, ‘my inclination would be to emphasise again in the conclusion of the paper the significance of the PBC! What it allows us to do, among many other things, is to delve into and juxtapose the professional and personal aspects of Hodgson’s life, his wider family, the role that close relations (Elizabeth & Thomas Symons, John Peighin, etc played in facilitating his trading activities, the way family fortunes may have motivated his or his father’s adventuring and the impact of these on his children), how their letters shed light on the ways in which a close family maintained contact and – for the Hodgsons – a sense of belonging and identity.’ And so I did, and so I shall.

Pieces of China in Bristol – cataloguing Historical Photographs of China material

Jamie Carstairs has recently catalogued the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ material held in Special Collections. In this post, he describes the material in outline and mentions some highlights.

During the fifteen years of the Historical Photographs of China Project, a surprisingly large amount of archival material was accumulated. This was never the plan, but came about incidentally. As well as photographs, the project acquired negatives, 35mm colour transparencies, post cards, books, vintage cameras, newspaper cuttings, scrap books, maps, silver shooting trophies, shipping labels, cine film, memoirs, ephemera – as well as a Shanghai Municipal Policeman’s whistle, penknife, bus pass, freemason regalia, slippers and other objects (John Montgomery Collection, DM2836). Most of this material was donated, while a few photographs were purchased with a view to filling gaps in the collection.

A print of a caricature by Miguel Covarrubias, of the successful businessman Sir Victor Sassoon with a Leica camera and lighting kit, in Bali, dated 1934. Sir Victor loved photography, horse racing, travel, international friendship and the party life of 1930s Shanghai. This print is in a scrapbook in the George Hutton Potts Collection (DM2831/21).

A print of a caricature by Miguel Covarrubias, of the successful businessman Sir Victor Sassoon with a Leica camera and lighting kit, in Bali, dated 1934. Sir Victor loved photography, horse racing, travel, international friendship and the party life of 1930s Shanghai. This print is in a scrapbook in the George Hutton Potts Collection (DM2831/21).

The first few frames of a roll of 16mm cine film, in the Robert Peck Collection (DM2838/4/1). This part of the footage seems to show a Christian proselytising in a street in China, c.1937. The two reels of cine film in this collection have not yet been viewed or digitised.

The first few frames of a roll of 16mm cine film, in the Robert Peck Collection (DM2838/4/1). This part of the footage seems to show a Christian proselytising in a street in China, c.1937. The two reels of cine film in this collection have not yet been viewed or digitised.

A barograph trace, made on the luxury liner ‘Empress of Asia’, showing an off-the-chart drop in atmospheric pressure during a typhoon in October 1921. The barogram is in a scrapbook in the George Hutton Potts Collection (DM2831/19).

A barograph trace, made on the luxury liner ‘Empress of Asia’, showing an off-the-chart drop in atmospheric pressure during a typhoon in October 1921. The barogram is in a scrapbook in the George Hutton Potts Collection (DM2831/19).

A portrait of a boy reading ‘Amateur Photographer’ magazine, 1940s/1950s (HPC ref: Ha-s056), from the extensive Tita and Gerry Hayward Collection (DM2830), which includes Basil Edward (Dick) Foster Hall (1894-1975) material. A few images in this collection have been published on the HPC web site.

A portrait of a boy reading ‘Amateur Photographer’ magazine, 1940s/1950s (HPC ref: Ha-s056), from the extensive Tita and Gerry Hayward Collection (DM2830), which includes Basil Edward (Dick) Foster Hall (1894-1975) material. A few images in this collection have been published on the HPC web site.

This archival material is now held in Special Collections. It has recently been catalogued and these records can be consulted on the Online Archive Catalogue. To see all the catalogue records for the HPC material, select ‘China (Historical Photographs of China)’ in the ‘Major collections’ drop-down menu in Advanced Search. Or search for a particular archival DM reference in ‘Reference number’ in Advanced Search, or a keyword lucky dip in ‘Any text’ in Advanced Search.

A screenshot showing some results of a search for ‘China (Historical Photographs of China)’, in the ‘Major collections’ drop-down menu in Advanced Search, in Special Collections’ Online Archive Catalogue.

A screenshot showing some results of a search for ‘China (Historical Photographs of China)’, in the ‘Major collections’ drop-down menu in Advanced Search, in Special Collections’ Online Archive Catalogue.

The oldest photographs we hold date from the late 1860s/early 1870s, in an album thought to have been compiled by John Gurney Fry, of the famous chocolate family (DM2887). Many of these beautiful and well-preserved albumin prints are photographs by the great photographers Lai Fong and John Thomson. The John Gurney Fry Collection has been digitised and the images can be viewed on the HPC web site.

Four musicians (singers), with instruments, Fuzhou, c.1868-1874 (HPC ref Fr01-044). Photograph by Lai Fong (Afong Studio). A page from the John Gurney Fry album (DM2887).

Four musicians (singers), with instruments, Fuzhou, c.1868-1874 (HPC ref Fr01-044). Photograph by Lai Fong (Afong Studio). A page from the John Gurney Fry album (DM2887).

Most of the HPC material dates from the 1870s to the 1950s, but we have also collected slides and photographs taken during the early stages of China’s Cultural Revolution (Colin Andrew Collection, DM2818), and slides taken during a bicycle trip from Nanjing to Shanghai in 1983 (John Lyle Collection, DM2993) as well as photographs taken in the 1980s for two historical architectural books by Professor Ronald Knapp (DM2992).

Unidentified event, Jingshan Park, Beijing, c.1966 (HPC ref Aw-t415). One of 553 slides (35mm transparencies) taken by Colin Andrew during the Cultural Revolution (Colin Andrew Collection, DM2818/4).

Unidentified event, Jingshan Park, Beijing, c.1966 (HPC ref Aw-t415). One of 553 slides (35mm transparencies) taken by Colin Andrew during the Cultural Revolution (Colin Andrew Collection, DM2818/4).

The collection includes fascinating self-published memoirs, such as I Remember One Time by Paul Kaye (DM2990/6), and Out of China by Ronald Kliene (DM2990/10). Both Kaye and Kliene were in the Shanghai boy scouts, 1930s. Also of great interest is an ‘extra-illustrated’ mss entitled ‘The Diaries and Letters of Rev. Robert Walker Debenham Peck’ (DM2838/1). Peck was a Methodist missionary in Wuhan during the Second Sino-Japanese war. Other donated books include Five Months of War (North-China Daily News, 1938), illustrated with drawings by the Shanghai’s premier cartoonist ‘Sapajou’ (Georgii Avksent’ievich Sapojnikoff) (DM2836/7).

The cover of Five Months of War, published in 1938. This book about the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) contains many photographs by North-China Daily News photographers and others, cartoons by Sapajou, and maps. (John Montgomery Collection, DM2836/7).

The cover of Five Months of War, published in 1938. This book about the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) contains many photographs by North-China Daily News photographers and others, cartoons by Sapajou, and maps. (John Montgomery Collection, DM2836/7).

Some of the material in Special Collections has been digitised, but many historical photographs remain uncopied and their content undescribed, samples below.

A page from the album in the Pearl Bercht Collection (DM2820). Pearl Bercht was an American missionary, in Guangzhou (Canton) 1919-1922.

A page from the album in the Pearl Bercht Collection (DM2820). Pearl Bercht was an American missionary, in Guangzhou (Canton) 1919-1922.

An uncaptioned photograph in a large album entitled 'Coronation Day / 12th May 1937 / British Embassy / Peking' (Berkeley Gage Collection, DM2827/2). The photographs in this album are by the Russian friend of Hedda Morrison, Serge Vargassoff (1906-1965). Research is required to identify the guests at the Legation event, which include Qin Dechun (秦徳純) (1893-1963) and Zhang Guangjian (張廣建) (1864-1938).

An uncaptioned photograph in a large album entitled ‘Coronation Day / 12th May 1937 / British Embassy / Peking’ (Berkeley Gage Collection, DM2827/2). The photographs in this album are by the Russian friend of Hedda Morrison, Serge Vargassoff (1906-1965). Research is required to identify the guests at the Legation event, which include Qin Dechun (秦徳純) (1893-1963) and Zhang Guangjian (張廣建) (1864-1938).

A trade fair in a mat shed, either in Hong Kong or Singapore, early 1930s. The women are in sailor rig, emblazoned with the words ‘BOVRIL – PREVENT THAT SINKING FEELING’. The John Arber Collection (DM2985) includes many Hong Kong photographs relating to advertising and marketing.

A trade fair in a mat shed, either in Hong Kong or Singapore, early 1930s. The women are in sailor rig, emblazoned with the words ‘BOVRIL – PREVENT THAT SINKING FEELING’. The John Arber Collection (DM2985) includes many Hong Kong photographs relating to advertising and marketing.

Material in Special Collections that has been digitised, but is not yet published on the HPC site, include rich collections such the James Helbling Collection (DM2829) and the Cyril Whitaker Collection (DM2845), samples below.

A Cartier-Bressonesque photograph by Cyril Whitaker, captioned in the album: ‘Calibrating a [petroleum] tank by pumping out and weighing water on alternate scales. Jan. 1938’ (HPC ref: CW08-80). Whitaker was a talented ‘semi-pro’ photographer who documented the Asiatic Petroleum Company (APC) installation near Chongqing. Cyril Whitaker Collection, DM2845/8.

A Cartier-Bressonesque photograph by Cyril Whitaker, captioned in the album: ‘Calibrating a [petroleum] tank by pumping out and weighing water on alternate scales. Jan. 1938’ (HPC ref: CW08-80). Whitaker was a talented ‘semi-pro’ photographer who documented the Asiatic Petroleum Company (APC) installation near Chongqing. Cyril Whitaker Collection, DM2845/8.

This photograph of an impressive matriarchal family group is captioned on the back ‘Lau Ahchiang & family / Tai Ping Compradore 1906 / Foochow’ (HPC ref Od-s017). James Helbling Collection, DM2829/1.

This photograph of an impressive matriarchal family group is captioned on the back ‘Lau Ahchiang & family / Tai Ping Compradore 1906 / Foochow’ (HPC ref Od-s017). James Helbling Collection, DM2829/1.

A recent donation is the fruit of a lockdown clear-out, the Yangtse Corporation Collection (DM2998). The images of salt mining in this collection are on the HPC site, referenced as YC-s.

Special Collections also hold a large born-digital collection of images – the Nicholas Kitto Treaty Port Image Collection (DM3051) – over 4000 colour images of surviving/restored pre-1950 architecture in the former treaty ports, photographed by Nick Kitto in 2008-2016. Kitto drew from these in his book  Trading Places, A Photographic Journey Through China’s Former Treaty Ports (Blacksmith Books, 2020).

The Custom House, Guangzhou, one of the oldest Custom Houses in China, photographed here by Nick Kitto in 2008. This image is on the cover of 'Trading Places, A Photographic Journey Through China's Former Treaty Ports' by Nicholas Kitto (Blacksmith Books, 2020).

The Custom House, Guangzhou, one of the oldest Custom Houses in China, photographed here by Nick Kitto in 2008. This image is on the cover of ‘Trading Places, A Photographic Journey Through China’s Former Treaty Ports’ by Nicholas Kitto (Blacksmith Books, 2020).

DM2956 is a catalogue record of the c.62,000 HPC digital images (i.e. the output of fifteen years digitisation by the HPC project), now stored in a DAMS (Digital Asset Management System). All 168 HPC collections are listed in DM2956, as well as their archival DM references and whether the images in a collection have been added to the HPC web site, or not. DM2956 also includes an outline history of the HPC project, which ended in 2021 – details here.

For the future – a new HPC web site is due to be launched later in 2022. The redesigned site, on a new platform, will draw images and metadata direct from the DAMS. There’s plenty more work to do inputting metadata into the DAMS. This metadata includes descriptive information about the image, names, dates, locations, keywords, etc, which makes images findable on the HPC site. All being well, some of the many thousands of already digitised China photographs that we hold in Special Collections, which are not yet on the HPC site, will gradually be added to it.

If you have any queries, do please contact us.

Photographing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s S.S. Great Eastern

Emma Howgill is a project archivist at Special Collections, University of Bristol. She has recently completed the cataloguing of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s S.S. Great Eastern letter-books.

As a project archivist, my job is full of enjoyable moments and satisfaction. There’s the satisfaction of being one of a privileged few people who get to go through, in painstaking detail, a variety of archives. There’s the joy of getting to know someone who may be long dead, through their own words and personal correspondence and relationships. Then there’s possibly the best part of my job; the thrill of putting disparate bits of information together to make connections. These connections might be between different parts of the same archive, with material in other archives or with knowledge floating around in the back of my brain.  While cataloguing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s correspondence relating to the S.S. Great Eastern (DM1306/11/1), I got to make all three sorts of connections.

The S.S. Great Eastern was Brunel’s last project; the third and largest of his three great ships and was dogged by misfortune throughout her life. From a fire in the shipyard and the bankruptcy of the shipbuilder, John Scott Russell, to the three months that it took to launch the ship and a disastrous explosion that blew up one of the funnels and killed several of the crew during her trial voyage from London to Weymouth, the ship seemed ill-fated. Even once in service, disaster seemed to follow the ship and eventually she was broken up in 1889, having served out her last few years as a floating billboard for a local department store in Liverpool. Yet in engineering terms, the ship was a significant achievement. At 692 feet and over 18,000 tons, the S.S. Great Eastern held the title of the largest ship ever built for over forty years.  The ship was also packed with revolutionary engineering techniques; from her double-layered iron hull to a series of bulkheads allowing compartmentalisation of the hull in case of flood or fire.  It is no wonder, with such revolutionary size and construction techniques that Isambard Kingdom Brunel wanted his magnum opus to be recorded in detail.  And that is where the connections come in.

Over a period of six months, I catalogued six volumes of correspondence, covering eight years and countless correspondents on numerous topics.  Cataloguing a sequence of correspondence like this allows themes to emerge. In October and November 1854, Brunel and his ship-builder, John Scott Russell, discuss a set of photographs that Brunel wishes to commission of the ship’s construction. This phase of correspondence finishes on 8 November 1854 with a letter from Brunel to John Yates, secretary of the Eastern Steam Navigation Company, mentioning that Brunel has commissioned a regular photographic record be made detailing the progress of the construction of the Great Eastern (DM1306/11/1/1/folio 304-305). Seven months later there is another set of correspondence about these photographs, beginning with a letter from Isambard Kingdom Brunel asking to see the photographs of the Great Eastern under construction (DM1306/11/1/2/folio 72). This set of correspondence ends with two pages of Instructions for Photographs listing exactly how Brunel wants any future photographs to be taken (DM1306/11/1/2/folio 85-86).  And just over a year and a half later, on 9 December 1856, there is a letter from Joseph Cundall of the Photographic Institute in New Bond Street, requesting payment for taking these photographs. Brunel’s letter-books, carefully showing the sequence of all the correspondence that he both sent and received about the Great Eastern allows us to trace the development of Brunel’s idea to illustrate the process of constructing his great ship, from its conception to payment.

First of page of Brunel’s Instructions to Photographers, 14 May 1855. DM1306/11/1/2/folio 85-86.

First of page of Brunel’s Instructions to Photographers, 14 May 1855. DM1306/11/1/2/folio 85-86.

This correspondence also allows us to connect our collections at the University of Bristol with those at the Special Collections of the University of Bath. The Hollingworth collection at the University of Bath contains typed transcripts of correspondence about the construction of the S.S. Great Eastern as well as copies of some photographs of the ship.  Close examination of these photographs reveals them to be the ones commissioned by Brunel from Cundall and Howlett, and in fact demonstrates that Brunel’s chosen photographers actually included many of the points made in his Instructions for Photographs of the 14 May 1855 (DM1306/11/1/2/folio 85-86).  For example, comparing the photographs shows them to have been taken from several distinct spots around the ship, so that when the photographs are arranged chronologically, it is possible to track the growth of the double-skinned hull across the months by comparing distinct landmarks incorporated in each photograph.  This echoes Brunel’s explicit instructions to ensure that the photographs are taken from comparable spots. The images also demonstrate Brunel’s wish to have the date of each photograph somewhere in the image itself, thus allowing quick and easy identification of the rate of progress, and it is possible to engage in a Victorian game of ‘Where’s Wally’, finding the date of each photograph, whether hidden on wooden beams or inscribed on the side of a watchman’s hut.

Photograph taken by Cundall and Howlett showing the S.S. Great Eastern under construction. 23 January 1856. Photograph from the University of Bath Special Collections.

Photograph taken by Cundall and Howlett showing the S.S. Great Eastern under construction. 23 January 1856. Photograph from the University of Bath Special Collections.

Now come the external connections. Joseph Cundall, the photographer writing to Brunel in December 1856 requesting payment for his work, was the senior partner in the firm of Cundall and Howlett. Cundall himself had earlier been tasked to photograph the rebuilt Crystal Palace with which Isambard Kingdom Brunel was also involved when he helped to design the steam heating system of the new Crystal Palace. Cundall’s junior partner, Robert Howlett, through this Great Eastern commission, was subsequently responsible for what may arguably be one of the most recognisable photographs of the Victorian Age. As well as photographing the construction of the S.S. Great Eastern, Howlett was commissioned by the Illustrated London News to capture the launching of the Great Eastern in November 1857.  As part of this later commission, he photographed Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing, with his ubiquitous hat and cigar, in front of the great drums of the launching chains of the Great Eastern, an image that has come to define not only Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also Victorian engineering. Before Howlett’s untimely death in 1858, he had been commissioned by Prince Albert to photograph some of the interiors of Buckingham Palace and the works of artist Raphael, as well as being commissioned, with Joseph Cundall, to produce photographic portraits of soldiers returning from the Crimean war for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. And so this one letter from Joseph Cundall forges a series of connections within Brunel’s Great Eastern correspondence, with neighbouring archives but also with two of the early pioneers of photography and with one of the most instantly recognisable photographs of the Victorian age.

If you want to explore Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern correspondence in more detail, please visit our online catalogue, or you can arrange to visit the original letter-books which are held at the Brunel Institute.