Faced with endless rows of boxes, the contents of which span 800 years, most researchers visit us with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. The archive is often seen as a place where ‘old things’ come to rest - rows of boxes on shelves imbued with a sense of mystery and possibility. The researcher’s natural impulse is to delve in and find the hidden lives and actions documented in the archive - which is exactly what writer, Désirée Reynolds is doing every Tuesday on her weekly visits to Sheffield City Archives.
Désirée recently joined us as our Writer in Residence. She was brought up in Clapham, London to Jamaican parents. She told her Mum, at about eight years old, that she was going to write a book and has been writing ever since. She moved to Sheffield in the late 1990s and writes about female identities, ideas of belonging, home/not home, rootlessness and invisibility. This links directly with her work in the archives…
“I still find that so much of our lives is untold and the silence around our stories makes me want to fill those voids with thought and emotion and the very ordinariness of living.”
Désirée is exploring a myriad of different sources, from 300-year old parish registers to case books documenting the plight of young girls in Victorian Sheffield, in a quest to uncover Black and Brown voices and the hidden lives of other marginalised peoples - those living on the periphery of society.
What has Désirée found so far? She has already published some tantalising pictures and thoughts on her Twitter and Instagram feeds…
(Pictured): A haunting still from the short film of employees leaving John Brown’s Atlas Works in Sheffield made by Mitchell and Kenyon in 1901. Look closely among the cheering throng and you will see a little Black girl aged around five or six years old.
‘Who is this little Black girl at the factory gates in 1901? Why is she there? What is her story? Such a sad little face. She is very much alone amidst the glee.’
‘Looking at the 1799 diary of Thomas Staniforth. His name is listed against 79 definite voyages in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database - most likely more. The diary itself is innocuous, about his investments in a colliery, going out to dinner, visiting his son.
“I had a few drops of ruin (gin).”
So casual, so nothing to see here and yet this man caused the suffering and death of thousands upon thousands and that legacy must run into millions.
I do sometimes run out of words…’
As Archivists, we often find that researchers come with ideas of what they hope to find but it is seemingly not there. There is an expectation - or hope - that the archive is complete, all-encompassing, and inclusive. In reality, archives are characterised by gaps. Over the next few months, we will be working with Désirée to address some of these gaps, to give voice and emotion to some of the untold stories, and stories only hinted at, in the archives. The end result will bring together creative work by Désirée along Otis Mensah and Jenson Grant in a pop-up ‘archive shop’ in the city centre.
For project updates see:
Sheffield City Archives (Twitter) @SheffArchives
Desiree Reynolds (Twitter) @desreereynolds
Desiree Reynolds (Instagram) @desiree_reynoldsu2
Watch the full film by Mitchell and Kenyon of employees leaving Brown's Atlas Works, Sheffield, 1901 (the little Black girl can be seen around 2:10 in the bottom right corner): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sjdBokDhr8