Session Two – 15th October 2015 Norfolk Record Office


Palaeography and selecting a Case Record

A big welcome back to the Change Minds project group for our second session.  The morning began with an opportunity for the group to introduce themselves to each other and then Gary Tuson, County Archivist talked the group through the skill of Palaeography or reading old handwriting.

A skill that takes a lot of time, patience and practice!

The group each had a copy of the same case record ‘Harriet’ and participants had a go at transcribing the case record.

A bit of detective work was involved.  Looking at the words before and after a difficult to read word to try and identify it, thinking about the context to figure out the sentence and looking at each letter separately to identify a word.  Looking for clues such as the letter i was always dotted.  Once we had read through the first two sentences, by referring back to how the letters were written, we could use this as a key to decipher the rest of the document.

This was sometimes a bit tricky.  Often the shape of the letters were unexpected, some of the letters looked similar or they were written differently to how we would do now.  20151028_122501_resizedThe joined up style of the handwriting with the downstroke lines heavy and upstrokes lighter as the ink pen pushed against the paper, occasionally smudged.  At times the sentence structure was difficult to understand, often words were the wrong way round, sometimes words were split between two lines or contained words that we no longer use today.


Looking at the case record, we noticed that most of the main information that we would need for research is at the top of the page with the date of admission, the persons name, age, occupation, residence, religion, education, whether married or single and number of children.  From this Gary explained that you could find out a lot about a 20151028_122437_resizedperson and get a good picture of their life for instance through looking at census returns, marriage certificates, parish registers.  The case study had two photos which were taken upon admission and when discharged.  Discussion about the differences between the two photos as well as comparing the persons weight which was recorded upon admission and when discharged.

Rather than a diagnosis, there is a detailed description to explain the story of what had happened leading up to her admission.  Reading through the progress notes, entries were made the day after admission, then weekly, fortnightly, then a month afterwards during her short admission. There was some discussion about the use of ‘work therapy’, which at the time the asylum was very keen on promoting.  The notes described her “assisting in cleaning”, “employed in the kitchen where she works well” and “continues to work industriously in the kitchen”.  No medication was recorded as being given, her main therapy had been working in the kitchen and after a short two month admission was “discharged as having recovered”.

The group had the opportunity to look through some of the digitalised 19th Century case records and to choose the record that they would like to research for this project.  Some participants decided to work on more than one case record, one participant chose a record which included a lot of letters attached to it, another participant chose to research two women who were both dress makers.

Looking forward to seeing everyone for the third session on 5th November 2015 where we will have a talk from the Conservation team and an introduction into how to use the search room.