Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Borthwick Move 10 years on - Gazing back at St Anthony's

Gary Brannan (Access Archivist and formerly Archives Trainee 2004-5)

I was just 21 (horrifically young, with a taste in fleeces and baggy cargo trousers – it was the early 2000’s, we did things differently there) when I arrived at the Borthwick Institute for Historical Research at the start of a warm September in 2004. 

I was the new Archives Trainee, and I was nervous. St. Anthony’s Hall on Peasholme Green, York, was somewhere where I had spent a few happy months researching my undergraduate dissertation the previous summer, and during that period something had got under my skin that had made me come back.

I knew that I was starting at a pivotal time in the Borthwick’s history. The Institute, as the sign on the door reminded me, was closed, about to move to brand new premises on the Heslington campus.

Well, that's me told.

It’s strange to think that it’s just about 10 years today since the first documents were carried from the old building to the new. The moving process had started in early October with the move of a lot of furniture and library stock, but the 15th October 2004 was the last day for the collections at St. Anthony’s. Monday 18th was The Day the Documents Moved. And they didn’t stop moving for well over a month and a bit, to 2 miles of new shiny shelving.

I was there that day, with my tiny digital camera - a very small (but at the time, really quite cool) item– hence the quality (or lack of) of the images. The camera didn’t have a flash and had a ridiculously long exposure, so a steady hand - and subject – was required, especially when shooting in low light levels. Really, the lens and processing in the camera will now be beaten by the cheapest smartphone – but I’ll wager that they don’t come with a cool like LCD screen you can slide over the viewfinder! 

Obviously,  22-year-old-me was a bit snap happy, but the images below give a flavour of that heady time, of the old Borthwick, its creaking floors, draughty windows, beams soaked in history, and mysterious, untraceable footsteps in the distance.

Lots of people were taking photos at the time, so I’m sure over the next few months of other photographs will emerge, but these images mean a lot to me. For once thing, they mark the start of my journey in this career.

10 years later I’m back as Access Archivist, and it’s really quite an odd experience - as an Archivist – looking back on the images. Day to day I’m dealing with our medieval collections dating back to the 11th century, but the images I made then remind me that we’re all making, shaping and recording our personal life stories and sometimes, it’s fun to look back – before looking forward.

The images below are only a small part of our story - you can find much more on our website

The Hall - full of boxes as part of the packing up process!

The view through the cage door into the bottom of strongroom 1

The downstairs of strongroom 1 - all our parish collections ready to go

The see-through floor, which I never really got the hang of...

Map storage

Conservation, pretty much all packed up and ready to go...

The courtyard, accessible only by a very narrow passageway to the right

And there she lies - the searchrooms were the line of windows facing the camera!

Friday, 10 October 2014

The York Lunatic Asylum Scandal

Examples of early nineteenth century restraints for use with insane

The York Lunatic Asylum opened in 1777, at a time when little was understood about mental illness. Without organised institutional care available, families were left to deal with the mentally ill at home as well as they could. It was usual to chain lunatics to the walls and to leave them naked (it was not thought possible for mentally ill people to feel cold) and alone. Madness turned people into animals.

William Tuke, 1732-1822
 Although there were grand ideals when it was first conceived of providing 'relief to those unhappy sufferers who are the objects of terror and compassion to all around them', York Lunatic Asylum soon fell onto a darker path. In 1790 a Quaker woman called Hannah Mills died at the York Asylum. No Friends had been allowed to see her during her six-week residence, to support her faith or to see the conditions in which she was being held. This led William Tuke to encourage the foundation of the Retreat in York, an institution built upon the Quaker idea that everyone should be treated kindly, and as an equal.

Concerns about the York Asylum continued to grow. After William Vickers was badly treated by the staff at the asylum, a Justice of the Peace for the West Riding called Godfrey Higgins interested himself in the case. Vickers had been released from the hospital bruised, lousy, dirty and so weak he could hardly stand. Other poorly-treated patients were discovered: Reverend Schorey who had been kicked down the stairs by his keeper, and Martha Kidd whose hip was dislocated during her stay. A meeting was called to examine Higgins' accusations and nearly 40 local gentlemen (including members of the Tuke family and a number of their friends) took advantage of an old rule and paid £20 in order to qualify as governors of the asylum and effect change.

Miniature of Godfrey Higgins
Investigations discovered that the number of patients at the Asylum had been growing, but poor financial management meant that the institution was struggling and conditions for the patients were poor. This should have caused a higher death rate but the figures published in the Asylum's annual reports did not reflect this. Closer examination of the steward's books made it clear that deaths had been concealed. In addition, it was discovered that the physicians at the Asylum had misappropriated significant sums of money from the institution. Before further assessments could be made, a fire began which destroyed one wing of the asylum and all of its early records. Four patients died. Rumours said it had been set by the steward deliberately to conceal the truth but this was never proven. Dr Best was never charged for his fraud but was forced to resign due to ill health.
Affluent patients at the Asylum were generally well treated. It was the poor who suffered. On a surprise inspection in March 1814, Godfrey Higgins insisted that the staff opened locked doors near the kitchen. When the key could not be found he threatened to break open the doors with a poker. Finally he gained entrance and found 'a number of secret cells in a state of filth, horrible beyond description', full of female patients, 'the most miserable objects I ever beheld'. Elsewhere, 'you might see more than 100 poor creatures shut up together, unattended and uninspected by anyone'.

The Retreat, c.1812
 In August 1814 at the governors' annual court, new rules were made and the officers of the asylum were all dismissed. The staff were replaced with help from the Retreat Hospital.

In the aftermath, there was a full parliamentary enquiry to which Godfrey Higgins, Samuel Tuke and others contributed. The report was published in 1815 and can be read for free via GoogleBooks

Alexandra Medcalf, Archives Assistant


You can read more about the Retreat here and more about the Tuke family here here and here

Thursday, 25 September 2014

New website reveals the story of the lost Aero Girls (and boys)

Nearly a year after the search for the real life Rowntree Aero Girls began, I am delighted to announce the launch of a website dedicated to the remarkable stories of the women and men behind this collection of postwar paintings.

Left to right: Stephanie Tennant, Aero Girl portrait by Anthony Devas [R/Aerogirls] Nestlé UK & Ireland; Stephanie Tennant (Archive photograph, 1960s); Aero advert, 1956 [R/Guardbooks/W20] Nestlé UK & Ireland.
 As many as 40 Aero Girls portraits appeared in Rowntree Aero chocolate advertising between 1950 and 1957, in British newspapers, magazines and early ITV commercials. An accompanying slogan proclaimed, “For her - AERO – the milk-chocolate that’s different!”

These representations of modern young women formed part of a successful campaign to relaunch the Aero bar onto the UK market following a break in production during the Second World War. Since the early 1990s, 20 of the portraits have been stored in the Rowntree & Co. Ltd Archive, with little known about the artists or the sitters. While the advertisers J. Walter Thompson wanted the portraits to stand out as being ‘different’ - like the chocolate itself - they kept the female sitters anonymous, and the product firmly in the foreground.

The Search

After launching a public appeal for information and hosting a landmark exhibition at York Mansion House in October 2013, we were contacted by our first living ‘Aero Girl’, Pamela Synge. Synge, now in her 90s, is a visual artist, performer and writer. Her portrait was also the only Aero painting to feature in a television advert, on the newly-launched ITV in 1955. 

Left to right: Pamela Synge at home, 2014 (Kerstin Doble); Frederick Deane at home, 2014 (Kerstin Doble); Pamela de Meo, Venice, 1955 (Synge archive). 

 Another of our early successes was tracing the last living Aero artist, Arnhem veteran Frederick Deane, whose recollections provided the names of two more Aero Girls, former JWT Art Department employee Rhona Lanzon and the Vogue model MyrtleCrawford. Then, in March 2014, we discovered that the renowned contemporary painter (and soon to be winner of the John Moores Painting Prize 2014) Rose Wylie had been an Aero Girl. Wylie reflects that she was a “rebellious art student” at the time, adding that her true image was “more punk than Mills & Boon cover.” In fact, many of the other Aero Girl sitters also worked in the creative industries, as painters, lithographers, film directors and dancers.

Relatives of the Aero Girls and Aero painters have been tireless in helping us to piece together countless fascinating stories behind the paintings, which lead from the battlefields of the Second World War, through polite society in post-war London, to present-day celebrity, touching on art, social history, fashion, the changing role of women and even the Profumo Affair.

Who Were the Aero Girls? project website pages (York Digital Library, 2014)

A new website gathers together archive images, footage, biographies and first-hand accounts about the Aero Girls collection for the very first time and you can explore it all at York Digital Library

Over the last few days we have been contacted by another Aero Girl, the subject of Anthony Devas’ Art Student (c.1950). Painter and former art teacher Barbara Pitt was aged 17 and studying at Goldsmiths College of Art, London, when Devas painted her portrait. She moved to South Africa in 1965, and contacted us from her home in Cape Town with some colourful reminiscences of bohemian London and invaluable material from her own archive.

We would love to continue adding information to our online resource. If you would like to contribute to the ‘Who Were the Aero Girls?’ project please contact us at

Kerstin Doble, Project Curator: Who Were the Aero Girls?