Secrets of the archives

Secrets of the archives

Comedian Johnny Vegas
A rather young-looking Johnny Vegas, winner of the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year competition in 1997.
The UK’s archives are full of astonishing artefacts and thought-provoking finds. We asked National Lottery-supported projects to share their favourite items...

From the unusual to the humorous, the heartfelt to the heart-wrenching, these examples demonstrate the wealth of stories held in archives around the UK.

Hopefully they'll inspire you to get out and explore your own local archive!

egg vending machine
Egg-dispensing machine on Umberleigh railway station, 1972. Credit: Roger Deakins/Beaford Archive

Egg-dispensing machine

An intriguing 1972 photograph by Roger Deakins shows an egg-dispensing machine on Umberleigh railway station. It's one of 80,000 previously unseen images by Deakins, now an Oscar-winning cinematographer, and photographer James Ravilious, recently digitised at the Beaford Archive.

roll of honour
A handwritten First World War roll of honour from North Collingham. Credit: Nottinghamshire Archives

First World War roll of honour

An outhouse is not the first place you'd think of as a fitting memorial to war heroes, but that's where churchwardens of All Saints’ Church, Collingham found a handwritten First World War roll of honour. It lists all those from North Collingham who saw active service during the 1914-1918 war.

Thankfully, the National Lottery-supported Collingham in the Great War Project ensured the honour roll will be properly preserved.

Theatre set
Set design model for Canary Girls, Mikron Theatre Company, 2016. Credit: Heritage @ Huddersfield, University of Huddersfield

Mikron Theatre set design

The Mikron Theatre Company rather uniquely tours the country by narrowboat. The Heritage @ Huddersfield project enabled the University of Huddersfield to record and preserve its 55 years of history in a 31-metre-long archive of 120 boxes.

Shem, the hamster. Credit: Cornwall Records Office

Shem the hamster

Cornwall Records Office are busy digitising hundreds of glass negatives and early photographs of the county, thanks in part to £11.7m National Lottery Heritage Fund grant. Staff were amused to discover this photograph of Shem the hamster, owned by a local family in the 1920s or 30s.

Jonny Vegas

The Leicester Folks Telling Jokes project tracked down, archived and preserved a wealth of photographs to mark the 25th anniversary celebrations of Leicester Comedy Festival - among them, a very young-looking Johnny Vegas, who won the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year competition in 1997.

Funny poem
A humorous poem published in a Dowty in-house magazine. Credit: Gloucestershire Archives

Humorous poems

Gloucestershire Archives' Delving into Dowty is opening up a large and significant engineering archive. This humorous poem published in Dowty Propellers' in-house magazine conjures up a now-lost world of work.

Fake fried egg
A plastic egg (still in its wrapper), sent to the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art by Harriet Chan. Credit: Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art

Art by Harriet Chan

In the archives of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art is correspondence about a sadly never-shown 1995 exhibition featuring artist Harriet Chan. Chan's work played with stereotypes - her CV was presented in the form of a Chinese takeaway menu.

Archbishop's seal
The Archbishop’s seal on a wartime marriage licence. Credit: Salisbury Cathedral

War-time marriage licenses

Salisbury Cathedral's Beyond the Library Door archive project came across 15 special marriage licences  issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the two world wars. Archivists selected five couples to explore further and were relieved to find that all five men survived and returned home to their new wives.

A letter with Pictograms
A letter from Frances Bankes to her son Henry (then aged nine) at boarding school, incorporating pictogram imagery. Credit: Dorset History Centre

18th-century letter

The Bankes Archive at Dorset History Centre is a rich collection of documents that date from the 13th century to the present day, dedicated to the Bankes family who have lived in Dorset since the 17th century. It includes a letter from Frances Bankes (1760-1823) to her nine-year-old son Henry at boarding school, partly written in pictograms.

Written down slave song
An African slave song written down by 18th-century anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp. Credit: Gloucestershire Archives

A slave song

Gloucestershire Archives holds a unique African slave song written down by 18th-century anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp. The song, which was recently added to the UNESCO International Memory of the World Register, lets us hear the voices of enslaved people working in the sugar plantations of Barbados.

Sketch of Corfe Castle
A sketch by William John Bankes of a rebuilt Corfe Castle. Credit: Dorset History Centre

Corfe Castle sketch

Also from the Bankes Archive, a sketch by William John Bankes (1786-1855) depicts his vision to rebuild Corfe Castle (now 1,000 years old). It is likely that the project was too expensive even for the wealthy Bankes family, and Corfe Castle remains a ruin to this day.


Plans for a ship
Plans for the ship, Thorina, which starred in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Credit: East Riding Archives

James Bond ship

Volunteers for East Riding Archives' Trawling Through Time uncovered the ship's plans for the Thorina. The ship acted as the doomed vessel St Georges, blown up in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

What about you?

What's your favourite archival discovery? Share your nominations on social media using  #ExploreArchives.

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