From the Archives: our 'Explore Your Archive' exhibition



On the 26th of November, the Jesuits in Britain Archives once again took part in the annual Explore your Archive campaign by holding an exhibition for members and staff of the Province that celebrated particularly interesting or unusual items in the collection. Explore Your Archive is an Archives and Records Association tool for public and private organisations across the UK and Ireland to showcase the hidden gems stored in their collections. Each year a list of themes is released for archives to explore on their social media during the launch week. The themed hashtags that we chose to focus on this year were #SweetArchives, #MysteriousArchives, #FriendlyArchives, #SurprisingArchives, #ActionArchives, #ArchivesatSea, and #ArchiveVoices in order to demonstrate the huge variety of the archive’s collection. I assisted Alex (Cataloguing Archivist) in preparing for the exhibition by helping to locate and remove the artefacts that had been chosen for display and then arranging their order for the exhibition. While writing some of the labels used to explain and give context to the items, I learnt some fascinating details that I will recount below.

Among some of my favourite artefacts displayed in the exhibition were those that belonged to Fr Augustus Law SJ (1833-1880), because they perfectly convey the extraordinary life that he lived. We displayed his fork and two of his diaries written while serving in the Royal Navy from the age of only twelve years old. These diaries, filled with funny illustrations of ships and people, describe his journeys to exotic places, like a voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore. His Zulu phrasebook and notebook of useful advice, such as cures for tapeworm and bronchitis, reveal details of his missionary mission to the Zambesi, where he died shortly upon reaching safety after weeks of walking without supplies in order to escape bandits.

Extract from Fr Law’s cadet diary with illustrations (ref: SJ/32/1/1)

Amongst the #SweetArchives category was another of my favourite artefacts, a beautiful watercolour sketchbook in which Fr Leslie Walker SJ (1877-1958) depicted scenes from his time as a military chaplain from 1915 to 1919 in extraordinary detail. Many of his paintings are certainly not sweet, such as the bombed ruins of Ypres, a claustrophobic trench and no-man’s land piled with bodies, but the image we chose to display was the contrastingly peaceful image of an army school of cookery. Fr Walker was asked by his superiors to sketch the battlefields as a result of his artistic talent, and his colleagues expressed that it was remarkable he managed to do so, with such accuracy, despite the great danger of exposing himself to the enemy whilst observing the scene.

Watercolour of Army cookery school in France during WWII by Fr Leslie Walker SJ (ref: SJ/51/11/6)

Under the #MysteriousArchives section, we included a letter sent from Napoleon to the Bishop of Orleans. Interestingly, Napoleon signs himself as ‘L’Empereur’ in this letter, written on the 21st of May 1804, a few days after he accepted the title. This letter is arguably the archive’s most mysterious item because it is unclear why and how the letter came to be here.

Part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s letter with his own signature (ref: OI/10)

One of the most surprising artefacts of the #SurprisingArchives were the locks of Fr Cyril Martindale SJ’s (1879-1963) hair, cut at a very young age and sent to his father. I already knew that locks of hair were popular Victorian keepsakes, but it was still peculiar to see so much blonde, over one hundred year old hair!

I really enjoyed helping with the ArchI’ve Explored exhibition because it allowed me to see and learn about a huge range of the archive’s collection.

Natasha Wilkinson, Archives Volunteer

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