Oxford University students have stepped in to help researchers at Wentworth Woodhouse with an important task.
They have kickstarted a digital record of the vast collection of private letters and documents belonging to centuries of the mansion’s aristocratic owners.
It was long thought swathes of records were destroyed in 1972, in a drive for secrecy by the 10th and last Earl Fitzwilliam. But in fact the huge piles of papers fuelling bonfires which raged for days had little historical value.
Most of the important family archives, known as the Wentworth Fitzwilliam Muniments, were deposited at Sheffield Archives in 1949 by the family and since the 1970s, Sheffield Archives have been the legal owners.
Researchers from the Preservation Trust, which has owned the Grade I listed stately home since 2017, regularly head to the Archives’ offices on Shoreham Street.
Information they uncover about the house and its owners has many uses – from inspiring events and lectures to providing renovation specialists with information on building materials and methods employed when the house was created in Georgian times.
Some of the Muniments have been partially catalogued, but finding the right documents is still akin to looking for needles in a haystack. And when researchers find what they need, they have to take notes, then return to Wentworth to study them.
Steve Ash, head of the WWPT Digital Team, said: “It’s a very laborious process and there’s only one way it can change. The entire collection needs to be scanned and digitised so we can create an online archive that we can share with the Sheffield City Archives.”
Finding the time, manpower and technological expertise, however, had left the Trust scratching its head.
But this summer, the Trust became an Internship Partner with Oxford University, opening the door for five of its students to come to South Yorkshire on paid two-week internships and begin digitising the Wentworth Woodhouse Muniments.
Nic Nicolaou, Olivia Hersey, Joshua Clare, Megan Burgess and Libby Bull are second and third year English Language and English Literature students and three of them are Crankstart Scholars, a scholarship scheme which supports students from challenged economic backgrounds.
They were tasked with searching for specific historic information on a number of topics to study, digitise and transcribe – some of which will help the Trust celebrate two important historic dates at the house next year.
2023 marks the 300th anniversary of the 1st Marquess of Rockingham’s inheritance of the Wentworth Woodhouse estates. It’s also the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, a defining event in American history for which the 2nd Marquess was a sympathiser.
Steve Ash from the Trust’s Digital Team said: “The students were invaluable and achieved things which we had never thought of. For example, Meg Burgess showed us a way to scan and digitise items which was much faster than the method our older brains had come up with.
“ Nic Nicolaou taught us how to transcribe scanned documents using Optical Character Reading software. He also used Artificial Intelligence software to see how it could provide further efficiencies. The software takes only seconds, rather than several hours, to read the text.
“Reading old handwritten text is difficult, words were spelled differently and people created their own abbreviations. The interns were very adept at it and in addition to digitising more than 600 individual pages, they transcribed over 100 of them.
“Their presence for two weeks also meant the Wentworth Woodhouse Research and Archive Team had additional time to search the archives.”
Fascinating family letters, documents, receipts, even an architect’s drawing of the Camellia House dated 1812 were found. Although much of their content won’t be revealed until next year’s anniversary events, the team can divulge a few titbits…
Orders, payment records and invoices from the time of the mansion’s construction revealed not just the huge variety of nails required and how much plasterers and joiners were paid, but also that women also worked as construction labourers.
While researching the papers of the 2nd Marquess, the interns found he had sent a pack of hunting hounds to a Russian prince he had met, and the prince sent him a horse as a thank you, all the way from Russia.
Sheffield Archives are supporting the Trust’s digitisation goals and the Trust hopes to arrange two further internship projects next year.
The Digital Team’s film of the students at work and all of the other videos that the team have made can be seen at: www.youtube.com/c/wentworthwoodhouse1