Making friends among the dead is a familiar diversion of archivists. I am no exception. In my several incarnations as an archivist (a surprisingly unsteady and nomadic profession), I have encountered many people through the personal papers they leave behind for whom I have felt a great deal of affection.
Some have lived ordinary lives, if ever there is such a thing, but their papers give us insight into what life was like in a particular place, at a particular time. Others have lived more extraordinary lives, furthering science or medicine. But all of them have left traces of the sort of people they were which seep through their papers.
As a student of archive and information studies, I came across a wonderful quotation which encapsulated the importance of personal papers in the study of history, and reminded me why I wanted to be an archivist during a particularly tedious bout of exam revision. It comes from an essay titled ‘The Vital Stuff of History’, which was published in Ontario History some time ago in 1964:
From government records, newspapers, and other conventional sources we extract the data which become the skeleton of our historical narrative, the essential bones of history. It is from the more personal sources…that we can concoct the warm, living flesh to clothe these bones. An historian should never be allowed to forget that he is studying people, and that people, even in mass, are still a collection of individuals. Ready access to the records of individuals is an effective reminder of this fact. Where there is a good collection of personal papers there is a greater likelihood of history remaining a humane study.
The diaries of Florence Turtle, held at Wandsworth Heritage Service, are a prime example of papers which put human flesh on the bones of history. Florence was born in 1896 and died in 1981, and left behind several years’ worth of diaries spanning from 1917-1981.
The diaries are pre-printed appointment books – some of them have a week spread over two pages – so the writing is often small and densely packed, but very neat. We know she read them frequently throughout her life – they came to us with makeshift repairs to the spine, and she refers back to previous entries in her writing.
Florence often comes across as a brusque individual who has little patience for the frailties and foibles of others. When she writes her diary in 1938, she is working as a stationery buyer in a department store. There is a fear among the customers of war, which of course we know was not unfounded. This results in huge demand for cellophane. Florence tells us that customers in the stationery department were ‘purchasing cellophane paper to paste on windows to prevent splintering in the event of air raids – stupid panicking I call that’.
She prides herself on being a stoic, and she reports with more than a little triumph that the customers all want to return their cellophane after an agreement is announced between Britain, France, Germany, and Italy on September 29th.
However, it is often through Florence’s love for the many pets that punctuate her days and her life that we see a far more tolerant side to her. For these creatures Florence’s patience and compassion is limitless. In the 1950s, her Alsatian Dinah ‘makes a complete wreck of our little garden’ (given that Florence and Florence alone owned her home, I can only assume that Dinah is part of the ‘our’ here), and Florence remains sanguine, simply planting some grass seed and hoping for the best.
The personalities of these creatures who enrich the life of their owner are recorded in as much detail as those of her friends and family. Her mother’s tortoise, gifted with the steady name of George, she rather wittily describes as ‘taciturn’. George is not simply quiet because he is a tortoise. He is sober and thoughtful because he is George, and that is his wont. Her beautiful half Persian cat, Toesie – so called because of his little white ‘toes’ – is ‘a lion hearted little cat not in the least bit afraid of Dinah’.
Inevitably, having a dear creature in one’s life ends in heartache when they are gone. This too, Florence endures and records:
I have been reflecting that this was has been a tragic year & that five people whom I have known … have died … some of these deaths have grieved me very much but none have affected me with the sense of personal tragedy and deep loss as that of darling Brunnie or Toddie-Tan-Toes or any of the other silly names I used to call her.’
She is not sentimental in her description – she is simply truthful. For her, her animal companions are every bit as valuable as her human ones.
There is much about Florence to admire – as a single woman she was the main breadwinner of her family. She shows a great deal of kindness to her family, often supporting them financially throughout her life, with family members living in her home. She is generous to the point where even she wonders if she is being taken for granted. Despite achieving financial independence in adulthood, she lives in fear of returning to the poverty of her childhood, frequently worrying about money – though this doesn’t stop her buying fish for Toesie and horsemeat for Dinah.
But it is in her relationships with her creatures in which she feels comfortable enough to express the depth and breadth of her feelings, whether it be how dear they are to her, or how devastated she is when they are gone. Collections like Florence’s diaries might add flesh to the bones of the archival record, but doubtless the many animals she cared for and loved added flesh to the bones of her own history.
This month’s blog is by Emma Anthony, Archivist, Wandsworth Heritage Service, Battersea Library, London.
All images courtesy of Wandsworth Heritage Service.
The diaries and the photographs shown here were donated to Wandsworth Heritage Service by Florence’s niece Sylvia Turtle. They form the basis of part of the Pets and Family Life project’s pop-up display Pets in the Archives, organised by Royal Holloway, University of London, with Wandsworth Heritage Service, and which is on display at Putney Library from 26 May to 10 June 2018.
Dr Rebecca Preston is giving a talk on Pets in the Lives of Twentieth-Century Londoners, focussing on the diaries of Florence Turtle, at Putney Library at 2pm on 8 June during Wandsworth Heritage Festival (26 May – 10 June 2018). Details here.