Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Francis Johnson and the Georgian Society for East Yorkshire

This month we have been rather on trend (unintentionally!) with our work tying in nicely with the BBC’s ‘Georgian Season’ programmes.

As part of the project we have been trying to identify what other collections we hold that might be relevant to buildings and architectural history. As well as many family and estate collections we also have a number of collections relating to societies with an interest in this area. One such society for which we hold papers is the Georgian Society for East Yorkshire started in 1937 by Rupert Alec-Smith. We recently received a small additional deposit of material for the society and this was in need of cataloguing. My task this month then was to undertake this work.

As well as being a nice break from the routine of cataloguing FJ files, working on this material allowed me to discover that the society had a much greater relevance to the project than we first thought. It became apparent that FJ was heavily involved in the society throughout his career and that he was personally sought out by Alec-Smith in 1938 because of his well known interest in the preservation of Bridlington’s ‘Old Town’ area.

FJ’s own personal reasons for getting involved can be traced in various ways: in his developing architectural style which was classical in nature; in his desire to take many of his influences from Georgian architectural details; and the fact that he was keen to preserve buildings of this style and the character of the areas in which they stood.

Francis Johnson (second form left) and Rupert Alec-Smith at the Georgian Society Ball held at York Assembly Rooms in 1951. [photo held by Francis Johnson & Partners]

During the Second World War, whilst waiting to be posted by the War Office, FJ and a few others continued the work of the society. He was personally responsible for campaigning against the destruction of metalwork of architectural and historical significance in the face of War Office requisition orders. Wrought ironwork was a significant feature of Georgian street furniture and was used a great deal in the construction of gateways and lamps at residential town and country houses. Whilst many of these features were lost in the East Riding, FJ was able to save significant items such as the wrought iron gates at Burton Agnes Hall.

After the war FJ continued to be involved in the society as a consulting architect and also as a campaigner. He was highly active in a 1960s campaign to improve Bridlington High Street and was the architect responsible for the restoration of Maister House at the request of the Society. He also involved himself in the social side of the society as the photograph of him in full Georgian costume (see above - complete with wig!) attending the Georgian Society Ball at York Assembly Rooms in 1951 features in Georgian Architecture & The Georgian Society for East Yorkshire by David Neave and Austen Redman published to mark the 75th anniversary of the society.

He was a regular contributor to the society’s Transactions of the Georgian Society for East Yorkshire after the war. When the first issue of the society’s newsletter was printed in 1975 FJ was one of two major contributors, and continued to be so throughout his working life. His importance to the society can be seen in tributes paid by the society following his death in 1996, and in the fact that two well-known members, David Neave and John Martin Robinson, wrote a detailed biography of his life published in 2001. 

If you want to consult the collection of material relating to the Society (Reference U DX/99) you can check our online catalogue.

Claire Weatherall
Project Archivist

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

An Ordinary, Extraordinary Life

Portrait of Kick Murphy (Ref U DILR/4)
One of the things that I enjoy most about working in an archive is coming across collections of documents that give a really personal view of the past – they create a tangible link with a person or event that resonates through the years and makes the past feel alive. Someone lived there – someone experienced this. The past is no longer dead and dusty, but real and emotive. The letters of Michael ‘Kick’ Murphy are one such collection.

Kick was born at 50 Blackfriargate on 23rd August 1876. Living in Hull’s old town in the Victorian period was a very crowded affair, with families living in often poor and cramped conditions, and the Murphys appear to have been no exception to this. However, Kick was a clever lad who attended Hull’s Trinity House Navigation School, finishing his studies and being recommended for service at sea in June 1891. He joined his first ship, the Thistlebank, in July 1892.

The collection, which was kindly donated to the History Centre by Kick’s great-niece Mrs Linda Randerson in December 2010, consists mainly of a series of over 70 letters written by Kick to friends and family throughout his time at sea. I think that the quote below gives a taste of not only what life was like for a young seaman at that time, but also of Kick himself – a lively, well-liked lad, with a lot of familiar teenage concerns – food apparently being fairly high on his agenda!
‘When we are at sea we get coffee every other morning, breakfast biscuits butter and salt beef and pork potatoes, soup and biscuits and tea we get biscuits tea butter and all the meat that is left from dinner is chopped small with potatoes and fried in fat. We get caravanca beans and rice and marmalade on Sunday we get fresh tinned mutton, soup, potatoes, barley and a loaf of soft bread. I only miss the puddings but I make them myself now we are in port.’
Unfortunately Kick’s story does not have a happy ending. In 1895 he was transferred from the Thistlebank to the Castlebank and the last letter his family received from him was while he was on board that ship, dated September 19th 1896. Shortly afterwards, the Castlebank left on its fateful voyage to Peru – never to be seen again. What happened to the ship is a mystery as the weather in the Pacific was apparently fine at the time the ship disappeared. Kick was only 20 years old.

I believe that stories like these are all the more poignant because they relate to ordinary lives, forgotten by history, but no less important and meaningful than the stories and lives of the famous names of the day. These letters were obviously treasured and preserved by Kick’s family – and are now the only memorial to an extraordinary life. Kick’s story still speaks to us today, almost literally through BBC Radio Humberside’s recent programme dedicated to these letters – it is the story of an ordinary boy, born in a different time and place, but still so recognisably normal that we relate to him even in today’s radically different world. An ordinary life, made extraordinary by the passage of time.  

Transcripts of the letters are available, but if you wish to view the original letters at the History Centre, the reference for the collection is C DILR and the descriptions are available to view on our online catalogue.

Katharine Newman 
Reader Assistant