For me, one of the hardest things about doing archival research is knowing that the collections I am consulting are mere fragments of what they would once have been. Often the absences are as striking as what remains: where are the letters of the other correspondent? Where are the photographs mentioned in that autobiography or published in that periodical? Why have account books not survived? What were the names of mentioned domestic servants and how much were they paid? I’m sometimes left to wonder why specific individuals or organisations decided to deposit what appear to be random pieces of paper.
I’m not usually sentimental about institutional papers. I know that collections are rarely complete. Some papers are filed away, to be used again by the owner and later by the scholar, others are simply destroyed. But in Lambeth local library and archive last week I was horrified to witness in several letters written in 1959 the pruning of Lady Margaret Hall Settlement papers, so horrified in fact that I let out an audible gasp.
In the library I read how Olive Butler, head of the settlement in the early twentieth century had stopped by the settlement to tackle the papers housed in the bathroom cupboard of 131 Kennington Road. My initial reaction was: they stored their papers in a BATHROOM CUPBOARD?! With eyebrow raised I turned all Elizabeth Bennet and declared to myself: they must have had shelves in the cupboard. Lady Catherine would be pleased.
But it was reading how Olive Butler had torn up letters from the 1890s that really broke my heart. From a letter dated 14th October 1959 it appears that Olive Butler was asked if she could come and look at the settlement’s papers, something she was happy to do despite the fact that ‘it will take some time, as I no longer work at twice the speed of time’. From a letter sent on 30th October 1959, it appears that Butler had visited the settlement from her home in Gloucestershire the day before where she reported that ‘some masterly hand seems to have dealt with the cupboard since I last saw it!’ From this we can assume that the settlement is decluttering and has decided to ask Butler to assist with this. She reports that ‘The oldest packet containing record of the beginning of the settlement is most interesting and should certainly be kept.’ But for some reason she decided to tear up some of the settlement’s earliest letters because they were only, she writes, ‘from (the) 90s (and) from people accepting invitations to the annual meeting’. I had to read this sentence twice before I fully understood that she was referring to the 1890s and not the 1990s. How could she not only throw them away but tear them up, I wondered. What right did she have to destroy them! These letters were nearly 60 years old.
She was probably right to get rid of these letters: they were probably insignificant, even boring, letters. But then why had the settlement kept these letters until the 1950s and not other letters from the period. I wonder if she – or someone else- had decided to tear up other older more important letters in this pruning or maybe they were destroyed when they were actioned.
Of course the crux of the problem is that I wanted these letters to survive. Until being confronted with the act of them being destroyed I hadn’t even thought about the lack of letters in this particular archive collection. I was quite happy to assume that they were disposed of at the moment of being read. As a historian I need archives to exist but I just don’t need to know that they were destroyed many years later. I clearly with my audible sigh felt that the age of these letters would have been enough for Olive Banks to have wrapped them up again with paper and white tape and put them back in the bathroom cupboard.