By Patricia Dark, Archivist
Today one of Southwark’s collections, the Crutchley Archive, joins the UK Memory of the World Register. Here we’ll share the story behind it and explain a bit about how we help to preserve the history of the borough.
One of our early blog posts talks about what the archive holds, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what an archive is. An “archive” can be one of two things: a building that holds historic records, or the historic records themselves.
So what are records? They’re documents someone – a person or organisation – creates over the course of time that put their opinions, decisions, and actions in writing. They’re different than books, magazines and other documents because their main purpose isn’t to communicate something into the future.
One way to think about it is that records are the memory of their creator: telling us not just when and where something happened, but how and why. They give us the information that lets us call people and organisations to account for their actions. This evidence value means we need to keep some records as long as we can – those are the records that archives collect.
Obviously, archival records can get destroyed or damaged – if you think about how easy it is to chuck papers in the bin, or how creased and torn an old, much-read love letter can get, you’ll understand what we mean. If an archive’s importance isn’t obvious, it’s more likely to get damaged or destroyed. And that’s a tragedy, because archives are unique and irreplaceable: once they’re destroyed or unusable, the information in them is gone forever.
You may be familiar with “listed building” status or the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage Site programme. These programmes aim to protect buildings by highlighting their architectural or historical value. There’s a similar UNESCO programme for archives – the Memory of the World Register. The international programme started in 1992, and a UK national programme in 2010.
Both registers highlight records, or collections of records, that are outstandingly important – they tell stories that help us understand and make sense of, the history of a region, the whole UK, or even the entire world. That recognition, like listed building status, helps protect the records. The international Memory of the World Register includes the personal papers of Sir Winston Churchill, George Orwell, and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, the Magna Carta, and the film The Battle of the Somme, which was shot during the early days of the battle. Some of the collections with national inscription are the Domesday Book, Michael Faraday’s notebooks, the London County Council’s Second World War bomb damage maps, Alfred Hitchcock’s silent films, and Royal Mail’s archive.
Today one of Southwark’s collections, the Crutchley Archive, joins the UK Memory of the World Register. The collection – a group of 15 volumes or parts of volumes – came to us in 2011 as a gift from Annie Crutchley. What we learned from her was that these records were from a dyeing business her husband’s ancestors ran in Clink Street in the 18th century. We could see that there were samples of cloth in many of the volumes, and also that the nearly 300 years between then and now weren’t very kind to these records: they’ve been damaged by pests, water, and mould.
To be honest, that’s about all we knew, until Dr Anita Quye visited us in June 2014, and made it very clear that these records were special. Anita, and her colleagues Drs Dominque Cardon and Jenny Balfour-Paul, have been researching the Crutchley family, their business, and their records since then.
Some of their research gives us more background. John Crutchley, the firm’s founder, was born in 1676 – his family were dyers, and he began as an apprentice to John Trimmer, a prominent dyer, in 1691. By 1710, he was a liveryman – a full member – of the Worshipful Company of Dyers, and he’d started his own company by 1718. Four of John’s sons – Thomas, William, Coleman, and Jeremiah – trained as dyers. John died in 1727 – you can see a memorial to him in Lee Old Churchyard in Lewisham – and Jeremiah took over the business. The 15 items in our collection document the period between 1716 and 1744, a time of explosive economic growth and radical intellectual development in the fledging United Kingdom that set the stage for the Industrial Revolution; the family firm, however, continued its work until the 19th century, eventually becoming major suppliers to the British East India Company.
Dyeing was a hugely important industry in this period – as well as being a cornerstone of fashion, dyed textiles were an important export. Modern synthetic dyes hadn’t been invented in the 18th century. Instead, dyers coloured cloth using natural dyes, often extracted from plants: essentially boiling cloth in a giant vat of herbal tea. A lot of dyeplants had to be imported, and finished cloth needed to be stretched and dried – so places within easy reach of water, wharves, and wide open spaces were ideal sites for dyehouses.
It may be hard for us to imagine today, but Bankside fit that bill perfectly. Southwark’s riverfront, especially between Blackfriars and St Mary Overy Dock, was a centre of the dye trade for decades – wills and contracts the Crutchley family still hold tell us the firm had premises in Deadman’s Place (the modern Park Street), and Clink Street near Borough Market, as well as in Maze Pond, where the modern buildings of Guy’s Hospital are today. All of these places are only a short walk from our searchroom – you can walk in the Crutchley family’s footsteps – but there are only a few traces of their Bankside left: names of streets and lead seals used to mark quality of cloth bales, which are a fairly frequent find on the Thames foreshore. These records push our window into this vanished industrial Bankside open wider.
In fact, they throw it wide open — the collection isn’t just special, it’s spectacular. The collection includes two cash books, three hardcover pattern books, five dye books, and four calculation books. Taken together, they give us a complete and well-rounded view of a contemporary textile business that few other collections – in the UK or abroad – can match.
The cash books tell us that the firm took orders from more than 140 named individuals (including one woman, which is rare) between 1721 and 1725, as well as the British East Indian, Dutch East Indian, and South Seas companies. A single order could cost the equivalent of £250,000 today.
The three hardbound pattern books are large, impressive volumes that cover a period from the spring of 1736 to the winter of 1744. Each entry in the books gives brief instructions on how to create a specific colour for a specific named person; each order is dated, and most have a small sample of finished dyed fabric attached. These may well have been used in a showroom or sales office, to entice buyers with the skill of Crutchley’s employees. The colours are still vivid after nearly 300 years; they range from the delicate pastel yellows, lilacs, and pinks we associate with period dramas, to bright oranges and yellows that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1980s.
All but one of the dye books are softcover, and their instructions are much more detailed – they cover a period between 1722 and 1732, although pasted-in inserts provide details of techniques going back to 1716. Many of these recipes have fabric samples attached: they tell us that the Crutchley firm specialised in red colours. These books also record some instructions in Flemish or Old Dutch, and again translated into English – this unique survival shows the firm’s specialists learning and adopting techniques from European colleagues.
It’s the four calculation books that give us perhaps the best view into the firm’s work, though. They don’t have samples – instead, they’re working technical manuals, giving details of agents and quantities to produce specific effects. One of the books has monogram marks that resemble the notations on lead cloth seals found in the Thames: they may well specify specific cloth as well. These books even have red stains on them, proving they were used in the dyehouse itself. As Anita notes, they’re as close as we can get to watching over the shoulder of a working Crutchley company dyer.
As you may be able to tell, we’re very excited about this collection. But you may be wondering why it’s so important – there are other collections of dyeing records all over the country, including ones with samples. These records, however, are single items or small groups of records that we can’t put into context well. The Crutchley collection, on the other hand, is firmly grounded to a specific time, place, and community; that means it’s an amazing source of information on the history of an important industry.
The Crutchley collection also records techniques that were, for the most part, lost with the discovery of synthetic dyes. The hundreds of samples in the collection provide an unmatched pool of research data for chemical analysis – not only to prove that the recipes produce what they say they do, but to compare to recipes, techniques, and samples from different time periods and parts of the world. Synthetic dyes can have huge negative impact on the environment and water access; the Crutchley collection can help find ways to improve historic natural dye techniques with modern science.
Most importantly, maybe, it ties Southwark’s present back into its past in an engaging, compelling way. The pattern books pull visitors to the searchroom in with their clear Georgian handwriting and vivid colours – they’re just that enthralling. Combined with the right maps, you can use them to follow the traces of Bankside’s colourful past beyond the hundreds of years of change and development to the dyers and their vats. The collection has something to offer almost anyone – it touches chemistry, history, economics, trade, international relations, textiles, fashion, even botany. Modern Southwark is justly proud of its creative industries, not least its small fashion enterprises. We look forward to introducing designers, artists, and craftspeople looking for inspiration and collaboration to their colleagues of nearly 300 years ago.
Any effort this big is a team one, and we need to thank many people. First and foremost is the Crutchley family, whose care kept the collection safe, and Annie Crutchley, who generously donated it. Lisa Moss, our former Archive Officer, liaised with our academic colleagues and successfully applied to the National Manuscript Conservation Trust for assistance with conserving the collection: without her hard work, we wouldn’t be celebrating. Anita Quye, Dominque Cardon, and Jenny Balfour-Paul have been researching the collection since 2016 – without their efforts, it would still be a colourful curiosity in a box in our collection store. Ian Mackintosh, the archivist at the Worshipful Company of Dyers, generously assisted with research. Nell Hoare has provided support and advice on conservation. The National Manuscripts Cataloguing Trust provided financial support for conservation work; Textile Conservation Foundation and the Worshipful Company of Dyers provided research funding.