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(or Horrible Handwriting for Historians)
a Training Course for the Heritage Volunteers

Members of our Heritage Volunteer Group who meet regularly at the Chester Record Office where they assist  with re-housing 17th century wills, soon discovered that the handwriting in these documents can be very difficult to decipher.  Hence the great excitement when we were offered a Palaeography Course which took place in February/ March 2011.

Our Tutors (all Record Office Staff) were Liz Green, Caroline Picco and Kate Tobias-Buick.  After a short introduction to Italic and secretary hand, how to approach the subject, spellings, abbreviations and types of material, we set to work on our first documents.  These were  exerts from “Lady Stanley’s Recipe Book (1620-1760)”  and “Nantwich Parish Register (1573-1653)”

Recipe Book entries included: “For the eye-sight to keepe it”, “ A noble white plaister both for healing and drawing for every old sore or new”, “For the hott gout that swelleth”, “A good drink for the Pestilence, and “ A medicine for a Bruise”.  While entries in the Nantwich Parish Register included a reference to “Essex’ Raid on Cadiz 1596” and The Gunpowder Plot 1604.

It soon became clear that many of the words had to be read letter by letter.  Spelling was generally phonetic and not standardised until 18th century, hence the numerous different spellings of “cushions”.  Some letters were interchangeable – u / v and i / j.  The Alphabet we were given showed 6 versions of every letter – 3 for capital letters and 3 for lower case.  Abbreviations were much used as was super script, set phrases,  for wills in particular, Latin script and roman numerals.  It was almost like learning a foreign language.

From that first day we were all hooked and diligently did our homework.

Then came Wills  & Inventories.  The  Wills became slightly easier to decipher because of the  set phrases  which were easily recognisable. However, Inventories were more difficult to define.  Here we encountered a different vocabulary for some farm implements and farm animals all of which were  unfamiliar.   One entry said “too old maids” now were these old women, a cooking implement or a type of chair? We never did find out.

The amount of information to be gleaned from these various document was astonishing.  We learnt about families and relationships,  possessions, how estates were divided up and who inherited from whom.  We also realised the importance of everyday objects such as beds,  linen,  clothes and other effects and how carefully they were metered out.

The whole course was a fascinating insight into people’s  lives in the past.  It has enhanced our understanding of these historic documents and given us much food for thought.

We all came away with many samples to work on at home and wanting to learn more.