Yorkshire archive wins international award

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Aging records detailing one of Yorkshire’s most notorious pauper and mental institutions have won a prestigious international award.

The West Yorkshire Archive Service might not sound like the most interesting place to visit but beyond its modern exterior, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of historical wonders and now it’s won international recognition.

The first time I set foot inside the then newly built Morley headquarters of the rather functional-sounding West Yorkshire Archive Service in 2012, I didn’t know what to expect. As I was ushered along corridors and through doors, all somewhat ubiquitous, part of me wondered what on earth I was going to write about.

I needn’t have worried because beyond the utilitarian exterior there lies one of the largest and most divers collections of historical documents and other objects in the county.

The archive contains millions of papers, books, notes, drawings, maps and other objects, the oldest of which date back almost a thousand years. One of the oldest documents is a royal seal from 1586 in the form of Queen Elizabeth I, along with a transcript in Latin relating to the investiture of a vicar in Yorkshire.

There are old sewer plans, box-loads of pictures from Leeds tailoring company Montague Burton, the accounting records of Leeds textile company Hainsworth and the original architectural drawings for the recently demolished Joshua Tetley site, all of which are stores in acid-free cardboard boxes held together by non-rusting brass staples.

The vast rooms in which these forgotten but not yet lost memories reside are cocooned in silence and for the most part swathed in darkness, the motion-controlled lights only flickering to life several moments after we enter. On the end of each row of racking is a thermometer and polymeter’, which measures both temperature and humidity and is accessed via a USB port.

And staff at the centre are always keen to bring history to life by staging various themed exhibitions.

The Tracks in Time project saw hand-drawn maps from the 1800s put online, allowing people to see what their area was like in the past. The maps span Leeds Metropolitan and Bradford.

In the Leeds HQ, the archive material itself is stored in temperature and humidity controlled rooms, the largest of which contains two-storey tall computer controlled shelving racks housing hundreds of thousands of documents, some of which are still to be catalogued.

The racking, which runs on runners, has to be fitted with special sensors so that no-one is accidentally squashed between them.

Documents come to the archive from all kinds of sources and in many cases they are found to be in a state of disrepair, which is why the centre is fitted with a number of ‘quarantine rooms’, where newly donated documents are stored before being assessed and, if necessary, treated, before they enter the archive.

In other parts of the building there are even rarer objects, including Medieval cookery books, the recipes from which have even been tested by some of the staff.

The service has offices in Wakefield, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield and it is at its Wakefield offices the award winning documents are stored.

It is WYAS’s second award from UNESCO, the body set up in 1945 in a bid to promote peace and solidarity through the celebration and safeguarding of cultural, scientific and historical works.

In particular, the award has been given for the Archive’s detailed records relating to the West Riding Pauper Asylum, Stanley Royd 1814-1991, being accepted for inscription on the UK National Register of Documentary Heritage by the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

The collection has been recognised as being of unique significance, being an irreplaceable source for the medical and social heritage of the United Kingdom.

The records are a complete source for the study of all aspects of a renowned hospital which was at the forefront of medical and scientific progress in the treatment of the mentally ill in the United Kingdom, and in the way patients were viewed generally by society.

Pioneering treatments were tested and implemented and a new informed way of understanding mental illness was developed.

At the heart of the collection, however, are the patients’ records themselves recording, in intimate and extensive detail, the admission, family and social background, illnesses, treatment, and ultimate fate of the thousands of men, women and children who passed through the doors of Stanley Royd over the course of 173 years.

The collection includes over 5,000 photographs of patients from the late 1860s onwards, literally putting a human face on a patient number. Each case file, whether for an adult or a child, shows the range of ailments and problems for which people were admitted.

Mary Manning, a Bradford domestic servant was admitted in 1880. She claimed to be the “Queen of heaven, possessed of great wealth and had been crowned.”

Others were suffering from general health problems such as symptoms which would be recognised today as post-natal depression.

Sarah Drabble of Wortley was admitted in 1832, aged 37 after having 18 children. She was not surprisingly “feeling in a low desponding state ever since her confinement.”

Other women were suffering from social problems. Mary Ellen Yates, a Leeds housewife, was admitted in 1887 due to insufficient food and mistreatment by her husband.

Children were admitted into the hospital from as early as 1820 and until the opening of the separate Stanley Hall facility in 1901, their cases are among the adult case books and files, many with photographs of the children.

Examples from the Stanley Hall era are in separate volumes and include Alfred Todd of Wakefield with a diagnosis of “imbecility with epilepsy.”

The remarks made on his treatment include - in answer to questions put as to name and age “he replies broken window” and on asking him names of surrounding objects replies “Alfey.”

Another mother of an 11-year-old Leeds boy says in 1911: “I cannot manage him. He is destructive, breaks and tears everything he can get to lay his hands on. I am obliged to keep knives out of his way and all windows closed…..Children in the neighbourhood are afraid of him.”

Commenting on the award, a spokesperson for WYAS said: “It is a tremendous honour to once again have a WYAS collection receive an award from such a widely respected international body as UNESCO. Stanley Royd was one of the world’s most famous and active research institutions, drawing visits by doctors and asylum administrators from all over the country and world. Its ground-breaking work instigated global scientific changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.

“WYAS is delighted this fascinating collection has been recognised nationally for its outstanding quality. With the prospect of a new Archive building for Wakefield, this could not have happened at a better time.”

the pauper asylum that inspired rock album

Indie rock group Kasabian, who headlined Glastonbury last week, named their 2009 album (West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum) after the Wakefield institution.

The imposing building still stands today and is now converted into flats.

Although Wakefield was the first, there were actually four West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylums, also including High Royds, in Menston, Leeds, Wadsley and Storthes Hall in Kirkburton.

West Yorkshire Archive Service, which is funded by the Metropolitan Districts of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield, exists to preserve the local heritage of historical documents and to help members of the public make use of them. The Service has offices in Wakefield, Bradford, Calderdale (Halifax), Kirklees (Huddersfield), and Leeds. Anyone interested in the history of Yorkshire, who would like to discover what records have survived, is welcome to visit or contact any of the offices of the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

The records of the West Riding Pauper Asylum, Stanley Royd 1814-1991, held by West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS), Wakefield, have been accepted for inscription on the UK National Register of Documentary by UNESCO.

Stephen Blake of the CMA  Photo: Vikki Ellis

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