Editor's Note: I am pleased to share a guest weblog post by Alison Petch, who is both Museum Registrar and Researcher on the ESRC-funded project "The Other Within: The Anthropology of Englishness" at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. As noted here previously, Alison recently authored a paper on the role of Notes and Queries in the history of museum anthropology that appeared in the most recent issue of Museum Anthropology. Thanks to Alison for this reflection, which I found to be an encouraging dispatch from the front lines of collections research.
Collections Research and the Web: Reflections on a Successful [Half-] Day's Work at the Pitt Rivers Museum
On Tuesday 1 May 2007 I resumed work on a research database that I am compiling (which will ultimately be available online at the "The Other Within" website, here).
There are approximately 350 named companies and manufacturers associated with English objects in our collections. On that day I was trying to find out if there was any information on the web about a gunmaker from Oxford called Nicholes. The Museum previously only knew his surname, no other information, this information having come from the accession book entry:
Accession Book Entry - F. C. WOODFORDE, Esq. Market Drayton, Salop. May . - Pair of flint-lock pistols by Nicholes of Oxford, with steel wrench for turning the barrels. [1911.15.1]
A search for Nicholes in Google led me to one of my favourite sites: http://www.headington.org.uk/, which is expertly compiled by Stephanie Jenkins in her spare time and contains much valuable information. In this case, John Nicholes (and his father of the same name), as well as being gunsmiths, were both mayors of Oxford (see here for the site that I actually located the information on).
So I had discovered that the firearms were much older than we had thought. Then I noticed on the same site that there is a reference to the famous Parson Woodforde visiting the site and mentioning it in his diary: Parson Woodforde visited Nicholes’s gunshop when an undergraduate in Oxford, and wrote on 29 June 1763: “For a Pocket Pistol, alias a Dram Bottle, to carry in one’s Pocket, it being necessary on a Journey or so—at Nicholl’s, 0. 1. 0.”
So I googled James Woodforde and found both the wikipedia entry, which says when he was at Oxford and also the Parson Woodforde Society. Both of these sites contained much useful information.
I had already noted that the donor was called F.C. Woodforde, and had previously thought it likely that his full name was Francis Cardew Woodforde, so I got the Chairman of the Society's address and emailed him. Martin Brayne is an expert on James Woodforde and the Woodforde family, and he was kind enough to email by return and provide even more information about Francis Cardew Woodforde and the Woodforde connections. Within 2 hours I had found out it was more than likely that our firearms were owned by James Woodforde, passed to FCW and thence to us.
And all this before lunch! This kind of research would have previously taken much time to complete, would have relied upon my following up the Woodforde name similarity, reading all of the journals on the off-chance of a Woodforde connection to Nicholes being mentioned and then being able to tie in Francis Cardew to his ancestor.
The joy that webpages compiled by experts bring to researchers is not often acknowledged. I happened to be in correspondence with Jason, Museum Anthropology's editor and told him how much I had appreciated the way the web had facilitated my research, and enabled me to contact and gain knowleddge from so many experts and he encouraged me to write this piece for the Museum Anthropology blog. The more we use the web and, particularly, the more we add information to the web, the better the information will be and the more we will all gain - imagine what such investigations might be like in 100 years time.
This blog post is dedicated to Stephanie Jenkins and Martin Brayne without whose work and help I would not have had such a successful outcome.