In November last year I started working at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. A lot of what I do involves public service, but I’m also cataloguing the papers of the Island History Trust, a community organisation set up to preserve information about an area of East London called the Isle of Dogs.
The Isle of Dogs has a very rich history. Unverified legend has it that it used to be the hunting ground of Edward III’s dogs; from the 1800s it was dominated by the docks; and, of course, it is now dominated by the financial district of Canary Wharf. Before the docks closed in the 1980s it was home to a tight-knit community of Londoners, many of whom worked in the docks and related industries. It is this part of the Island’s history from which the collection I’m cataloguing comes.
In 2013 the Island History Trust donated its archives to us. Approximately 100 boxes of photographs have already been catalogued, and most of them made available online through our digital gallery. The part of the collection I’m cataloguing comprises about 70 boxes; the largest section of this consists of approximately 600 files of letters, mostly from displaced Islanders reminiscing about life on the Isle of Dogs between 1910 and 1970.
It’s a fantastic resource. Many of the letters are extremely detailed, naming individuals, well-known families, streets no longer in existence, and long-closed local businesses. They reveal a strong sense of community and belonging. People refer to themselves in their letters as ‘Islanders’, often introducing themselves by their Island credentials: how long they lived on the Island, which other families they were connected to, which streets they lived on and knew. Although something of a data protection nightmare, every letter is headed with a home address, revealing the far-flung areas that people moved to as they were gradually priced out of the Island: Australia, Canada, America, and – much more commonly – Essex. They contain a great deal of social history, including information about local housing conditions, availability of work, local schools, and people’s feelings about those from other parts of London.
It’s also a living collection. Although the Island History Trust ceased to operate in 2013, in 2014 a closely related organisation called the Friends of Island History Trust was formed. Many of the members of this group gave something to the Island History Trust Collection: autobiographical letters, articles in the newsletter, photographs of themselves or their families at their old family homes.
A challenge of having a collection like this is making sure the people involved in creating it still have access to it. Taking something into an archive involves implementing rules around preservation, keeping it in a strongroom and allowing access only during opening hours: it is sometimes a challenge to make sure that community groups feel as able to access our collections as they should. One of the ways we’ve started to address this is through joint events. In May, for example, we hosted an Open Day for the Friends of IHT, in which they showcased four tapestries currently held by us. Hand-stitched by members of the group in the late 1980s, each tapestry contains up to 25 panels representing the history of the Island from the 1860s to the 1980s. During the event we displayed the tapestries and related archival material. Members of the group shared their memories of the tapestries and the events depicted in them with each other, staff of the archive, and members of the public. We hope to host many more such events, and to work on other ways to involve the group in the collection as the catalogue takes shape.
When I decided to work in archives I anticipated learning about the technical aspects of cataloguing, like ISAD(G) and how to use collections management systems. What I didn’t expect to learn, though, was what I’m learning about with this collection. First, I’m learning how to juggle the need for preservation on the one hand with the very real need for community ownership on the other. Second, I’m learning the histories of hundreds of people through reading their autobiographical letters: from the names of people’s childhood sweethearts to the names of local Union leaders, from recollections of Greenwich day-trips to recollections of immigrating to the Island from Bangladesh and Somalia. And finally, I’m learning that archives do not need to preserve the histories of people who are famous and powerful. Like the papers of the Island History Trust, archives can record the lives of ordinary people, even if – as with these papers – the communities involved in creating them have been gradually displaced by something bigger and more powerful than them.
Once I’ve finished cataloguing these papers they’ll be available to anyone who wants to see them. In the meantime, if this has piqued your interest, hundreds of photographs from the collection are available online and in our reading room – or follow us on twitter for any upcoming events.
Abigail Williams, Heritage Coordinator at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives and current CAIS Archives and Records Management student.