Working in Cathedral Archives

This week Helen Sumping discusses her exciting new job cataloguing the records of Salisbury Cathedral and making some fascinating discoveries

In September last year I was lucky enough to be employed as the Assistant Archivist at Salisbury Cathedral to catalogue the Cathedral’s archives. The post is funded by a grant from the HLF and the Sackler Trust.

The Archive contains records created by the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral. Its earliest item dates from the 12th century. The first ‘catalogue’ of the Archive was published by the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1901, in its Report on Manuscripts in Various Collections Vol 1 (pp.338-388). In addition to this, a combination of printed and handwritten lists was created from the 1950s onwards alongside a card index of medieval deeds. Until 2013, these items were all that existed in terms of an archive catalogue.

From the 1970s until 2011 the Archive was managed by the then Cathedral Librarian. In March 2014, as part of an HLF grant to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it was possible to employ a full-time archivist (Emily Naish) to improve standards of collections management and to bring the archives to a wider audience.

My first task as Assistant Archivist has been to catalogue and rehouse the Cathedral Fabric records, which relate to the accounts of the Clerk of the Fabric or Clerk of the Works (a role which still exists today). The Fabric Fund was overseen by two canons called the Masters of the Fabric, under whom was the Clerk of the Fabric. The Clerk was in charge of administering the Fund and compiling accounts. The documents date back to 1464, and record work done to the Cathedral and its property as well as rents, tithes and various payments. They reveal the salaries, activities and materials of craftsmen and other figures, and subjects range from building work, to tuning the organ, to making curtains. There are also payments for other activities such as ringing a bell for the burial of Princess Augusta in 1840 (one of the six daughters of George III). There is even a bill for killing foxes and badgers.


Fabric records ‘before’ and ‘after’

There are quite a few unusual words and interesting spellings in the records and many of the earlier documents are in Latin. The handwriting is often challenging too. One item that I found particularly fascinating to work on was a 1673 memorandum between the Dean and Chapter and a joiner, Alexander Fort, concerning discrepancies in the payment made for the repair of the Cathedral Quire. In addition to a list of work carried out (interesting in itself) there is a reference to a Doctor Wren, Surveyor General. On the reverse of the memorandum there is a statement from Doctor Wren himself – none other than Christopher Wren.


Christopher Wren’s signature

Back in 1668, Wren had produced a report on the structure of the Cathedral and had made recommendations for work needed (the report is held in the Archive). In 1671-1672 the Quire was renovated, overseen by Wren, and Alexander Fort was employed (one of Wren’s acquaintances) to carry out the work. The memorandum was only recently discovered in the Archive, so it was exciting to be able to compare it with Wren’s 1668 report.



A page from the report.

What I have learnt from my experience at Salisbury Cathedral: start slowly. I spent the first few weeks reading the HMSO catalogue, the paper listings and the accession register (created in the 1980s) in order to understand the history of the Archive and how the Fabric records fitted in amongst the other collections. I’ve learnt that it is essential to read everything available to get an idea of what you are trying to catalogue. I’ve also learnt that it’s important to read around the subject. I had some experience of ecclesiastical documents but the Cathedral Fabric records are incredibly varied in format and content. I found it helpful to make notes and to write down key names or words, particularly unusual ones, as these often reappeared. Finally, I’ve learnt that it is important to share what you are doing and ask questions. It is guaranteed that someone else will know more about what you are working on than you do!

 For more information about Salisbury Cathedral Archive, see Have a look at the Archivist’s blog too, which is updated regularly –

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