Rochester Bridge Trust
23/10/2020Alison Cable - Archivist
Alison Cable, archivist at The Rochester Bridge Trust, talks about her experience of moving from roles in local authorities looking after dozens of collections, to this very specialised collection. The Trust is one of the oldest charities in England and the archive goes back to the early medieval time. It holds documents accrued by the Trust over the centuries, including civil engineering documents from suppliers nationwide and material of interest to local historians. She talks about the challenges of digitising oversized paper based plans and the challenge of archiving born digital material from contractors. Alison discusses her hopes for increasing visitor numbers to the archive with the refurbishment of the medieval chapel owned by The Trust.
Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.hello and welcome to the max communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by alison cable archivist for the rochester bridge trust hi allison would you like to introduce yourself and talk about what you do and about what the rochester bridge trust does hello there yes hi i'm alison cable um i'm the archivist here in rochester at the rochester bridge trust i've been an archivist for i hate to say 30 years this year and i have previously worked almost exclusively in local authority archives where you're sort of required to know a bit about hundreds of different collections and i decided that after about 25 years it might be nice to work in an archive where it's a bit more specialist i could really get to know the organization and the collections and just specialise in that and and i've worked in kent probably since about the year 2000 i've initially moved to kent to work for the county council archive service and i worked there for about eight years and then i worked for medway council i was their archivist and i was there for about nine years and so when i saw this job i thought well that's a perfect way to do something a bit more specialized but also to utilize the knowledge i've accrued about the history of kent over the last 15 16 years and one of my first jobs after i qualified was actually with time and weir archive um where they had a lot of industrial history and lots of engineering records and so forth and obviously um the river town has a lot of bridges so i could see sort of lots of parallels and and common strands with with this new role so i came here to the bridge trust about two years ago and how do you spend an average day then i suppose probably like every everybody else the first thing you do is just check um you know what inquiries are coming but i have to say generally speaking the inquiries tend to be um internal inquiries from from colleagues and from our partners and from our contractors and so on it's it's quite an exciting day if i've got a historical inquiry in from a member of the public or something to do with with local history and so at the minute i've got a few projects on the go we recently took all the data from an old redundant software package and had it um put onto a new software platform i've been using id lists when i first arrived here which not many people have encountered and it's you know it's totally unsupported so we thought we'd get with the 21st century and and uh use some foxfield software so um a lot of my time has been spent certainly for the last year in date of hiding and working out what fields are working best for me and so forth um i also look after a lot of the current records because we have a lot of um files that have been generated to do with the actual engineering works that are going on the bridge so they can you know on any one day i don't know what's going to land on my desk in terms of news materials to um appraise and catalogue and we also have um a lot of estates that we manage in terms of property that we own and that elicits a great deal of legal documentation which has to be capital pretty quickly because the chances are you know be required for consultation you know with a quite quick turnaround so yeah as i said most days start with checking my emails seeing what inquiries there are and also checking to see if anybody obviously not in the last few months but if anybody wants me to actually look at the original document yeah the rochester bridge trust is quite an old organization so what type of material are you dealing with well um we we date we we take our starting point as being 99. obviously there was a bridge over the midway before that time um but the trust actually takes its 30th point at 1399. and when when the trust was established it was initially called a trust but um we we acquired and were given various parts of the land um mainly in in seoul north and west kent so we have an awful lot of state records going back to 14 15 centuries and then we have i suppose really in the simplest terms the collection is divided into sort of the admin financial records of the trust um and then we have the technical records which are all sort of civil engineering records to do with the bridge and it's its predecessors then we have a huge collection of records that relate to the estates that we own and that we have owned in the past and we we we actually own property and most of it's in ken but we actually at present own property in other parts of the country including west yorkshire cambridgeshire and lincolnshire so you know we've got quite a a wide range of different types of records most of them of course are your traditional paper and parchment lots of volumes but as you might imagine because the the bridges is being permanently maintained uh we've got a lot of technical and engineering plans which can be quite large and unwieldy so yeah i mean we've got records going back centuries we're probably one of the oldest charities in in england i would say who accesses your collection mostly yeah it's mostly um internal inquiries i mean it can be and that in itself can be really diverse i remember last year i was getting inquiries from you know some of my technical colleagues asked me to look through the archives to find out you know what what color paint was used in some point in the victorian period and my other colleagues that deal with with managing the estate will be asking me to look for documents to do with way leaves and rights of way and so forth or your tenancy agreements but um from time to time i do get some really quite interesting inquiries from from members of the public doing historical research quite often it's local historians you know the local um physics societies and so on are very interesting the records that we have because you know we're very integral to the history of rochester you can't really talk about rochester without talking about the bridge because it's a means of getting you know sort of the a2 across the river that way um but it it it never ceases to amaze me you know what archives were used for one of the first visitors i had was um i had actually met him before when i went to the archives but he was doing this on great fire of london and he was wanting to look at some of the rental ledgers that we hold because we used to hold a property in lebanon hall street in london and he was wanting to look at the ledges and over a period of time to find out really you know what properties existed before the great fire and and what properties remained afterwards that was quite an interesting um inquiry i've also also had inquiries about and the history of london you know from various academics and so forth um and then you get people who are actually doing uh genealogy who may be one of their ancestors a tenant on one of the farms that we own or used to own or quite often one of their ancestors or relatives used to actually work for the bridge trust maybe maybe they've worked you know on the bridge doing sort of engineering work and and so forth or maybe they actually work for the album inside um and then equally you can get just random inquiries from members of the public who have um who are interested in in some of the buildings that we are so although you think it would be very civil engineering based which is mostly um it's it's very very history and local history there so you do get the variety even though it's a very specialist collection you know i do i do get a good variety of enquiries but but by and large most of most of the inquiries are dealing with my internal customers yeah um you mentioned that uh you do land management still and obviously bridges require civil engineering just to maintain them so are there any particular challenges that come from managing this particular archive as opposed to the ones you've worked on before i think it's actually in many respects it's it's simpler managing an archive like this because um you know for the most part we own and we created all of the archives whereas when you're working say in a local authority archive you're managing um collections that quite often they don't even belong to to your employing authority and that you know that's very challenging um you know how to um keep the depositors happy and informed about how you're using the material and also you know being worried about copyright and so forth if you digitize items so um i think the only challenges really that i've faced that do cause any consternation actually to do with the physicality of some of the documents as i mentioned previously we've got heaps and heaps of um technical drawings and that even after a program of digitization they create absolutely massive massive files and and actually physically getting them digitized in the first place can be a bit challenging because you know some of these plans are you know they're much better than the other side for example the other day i was i was moving some plans around in my in my strong room and um i found a plan that was propped up in the corner in a big sort of you know one of those big hard card tubes with with pins with either end and i had to carry it upside down it was a good foot taller than me and probably about 10 inches wide wow it was always like you know carrying a huge i supposed to be like you know tossing a caber um or it could have been if i dropped it and i was hoping to maneuver this huge and quite heavy unwieldy plan bridge chamber so yeah it's the physicality that that's the most challenging and also i think probably increasingly it's it's the amount of information and records that we're creating that i think it's a worry for all archivists isn't it we're creating more records i think they might be in different formats but they still need to be managed and we all take far more photographs than we used to and we tend not to really weed them as much as we should because it's very time consuming whereas you know back in the day you'd have your your film that you popped into the back of your camera you'd have like 36 images on on that and that that was a finite amount whereas now you know we have we just take as many photographs as as we feel like and then we have to upload them and go through them all and then sort of try and create the metadata for each photograph whilst you've still got the information about you know what it is that's been photographed especially if it's something technical like a you know a river wall or something like that and you need to find out you know what it was taken ideally what it was taking on and recording you know even the most basic metadata takes quite a while so i don't think i'm any different from any other accuracy any other organization at the minute and that there is a fear that that we're being deluged a bit with all these digital files that we're having to manage they might i think a lot of people think you just you know stick them on external storage and away you go but they have to be managed and they have to be migrated and you have to catalog them in the same way you have to make sure they're accessible and and certainly you you have to create metadata for images of which you know we are all increasingly got huge amounts stashed away our computers that we know that we need to tackle so um as i say in many ways it's a lot more straightforward because everything is related to to the trust but um yeah some of the plans i mean at the minute we have a major major refurbishment project i'm on the grid um which has been going on for many many months and i just know that once that's completed uh there will be a another sort of archive created by our contractors of all the technical uh files that they've created all the plans that have been drawn up all the photographs all the tests all the archaeological and you know watching greece so on they'll all have to be processed but that's all they're at at the back of my mind um but you know across that page when i come to it so just it's amazing how many bridge metaphors there are actually what are your hopes for the future of the archive going um forward i would like i would like for more people to use the archives and uh that's that's certainly in hand um as well as the refurbishment of the bridge and the estimate of rochester we're just about to commence a refurbishment of the bridge chamber which was the um it was the hq of the trust which was built in 1879 beautiful victorian building that sits on the escalade overlooking the bridge in the river we're refurbishing that that's where my strong room is and we're going to create a more user-friendly building with it's going to be more accessible for people and we're going to create a new search room and ideally it will have better you know graphics facilities and so on so we'll have more of a focus for people to come and do historical research and what's what's very special about our bridge chamber is that um alongside it is the medieval bridge chapel which um obviously was built in medieval times you think it was about 1393 and the position of the bridge at that time was um such that the the chapels was very close to the old medieval bridge almost alongside it so when people came across it they could go into the chantry chapel and and pray and say well but over time the the bridge has moved slightly along and and the chapel kind of remains there and i've discovered when giving talks but a lot of the local people in rochester haven't really realized that that it was a medieval chapel attached to the bridge chamber so um i'm hoping to use the archives to do a bit more research about about the chapel and um let people know about it so we can invite them to the viewing sort of heritage open days and so forth but um i'm really looking forward to hoping about a year's time you know being able to welcome more researchers actually into the bridge chamber and and more visitors to the chapel also and it will be an opportunity to get those back on display you know things like paintings and furniture and artifacts that we found that relate to the bridge so there's quite a lot going on but it'd be nice to actually spend some time you know face to face uh once all the pandemics over and so forth um best face chatting to people about the archives because um you know when you're in a busy locatory office you don't always get the chance to speak to researchers so much and it's really nice for me to be able to tell them about the collections and how i've catalogued them and and guide them in the right direction of how to use material which i mean it's great that people can do a lot of research online now but traditionally the role of the archivist was always to catalog and interpret archive collections and and i always think of interpreters obviously creating a useful catalog and finding aids but also chatting to people and explaining about the documents and suggesting different documents in the catalog that they might not have thought about using so obviously when you over you get to understand of information that's in there and uh it's just so satisfying when you you can say to somebody oh have you thought about looking at this series of lectures or whatever and you know they may have overlooked that so i'm really really excited next year to get back a bit more traditional public service and you know hands-on with with material and meeting people and hearing also what what about their research and you know and how they're actually using our collections you don't always get that feedback from people that are using online resources so quite a lot going on um i mentioned about the the new um obviously um once i provided the data data i'll be working on the new public interface which will be accessible via our website um which will be much more streamlined and i'll be able to add images and so forth of documents but i've got i've got quite a lot quite a lot going on um and i'm i'm really keen to sort of get out there and really publicize our collections and um you know we we've got quite a active twitter and facebook um community and i really like sort of drip feeding through new acquisitions and so forth and it's it's really great getting feedback on there because people are just so engaged with with you know the history of of medway and rochester and it's it's nice to feel that that we the trust are very much part of that so yeah there's lots of things lots of things to look forward to and i'm very lucky and to be getting a you know refurbished strong room and a nice new search room and hopefully some needs and so forth yeah do you need equipment for these kind of things yes yes i will do i will be doing um because even for our own purposes it's quite you know it's quite useful to be able to use um certain documents and you know we're producing booklets or brochures or even if we're doing you know powerpoint displays and what have you we will use this product to maybe do some some scanning in-house and so yes i will be needing some equipment what in your opinion is your favorite item you've got such a wide range of material that covers such a a period of time what should what really captures your imagination well i think like again like a lot of um archivists and curators it's it's known impossible to have one favorite document because by virtue of the fact that something's become an archive you've deemed it to be you know suitable for permanent preservation but but there's there's always documents that sort of pop into your mind and there's always documents that are quite pretty that you always you know bring out for um you know open days and what have you i'll be honest a lot of the um plans and elevations for the various incarnations of the rochester bridge are are very beautiful because um you know at the end of the day that they are civil engineering but they're pieces of architecture as well and we've had um several bridges in rochester that we've looked after or you know as i mentioned these they're all rochester bridge but we had the medieval bridge which existed until 1856 there's some fantastic um plans of the medieval bridge which were drawn up probably in the 17th century to do with you know the maintenance and so on and then we had a victorian bridge which opened in 1956 then we had um the bridge that was opened just before the first world war and so i mean some of these some of the drawings for the actual details on the bridge are absolutely beautiful you may not be familiar with the current rochester bridge but it's got some fantastic and sculpture on there and we've got some beautiful lions sitting on the bridge um pieces of sculpture essentially we've got fantastic iron work and so on and uh to actually find the drawings of those in the archives that they just would be like to look at but aside from those um i've always been really really interested like a lot of people in old mac um because of the huge estate um collection our class collection that we have we've got some fabulous um estate maps of mainly of kent but of you know london and so forth um one of the items i particularly like in your steak collection is the aforementioned property um in london hall street where you've got a plan of um these buildings but also there's um at the top of the plan there's an elevation showing what that section of the street looked like and as far as we can tell me and a colleague were trying to work out where these buildings were and we think um they were somewhere i think i think there's a building on the hall street now and people call it the cheese grater yeah do you know where i mean yeah yeah we think that the property that the trust owned was just where that is now i mean obviously you know what a a planet a building looks like an an elevation but at the very top of this it is like the whole of that part of lady and it's a beautiful and very informative plan and what's also quite interesting about the property on red and hawk street is that um it's included now much to my surprise it transpires there's a whole history of turtles too it was quite the thing in the victorian period it was very popular and there's a certain problem in london that served it um i think it was from the caribbean and it was it was an absolute delicacy and you know and this this um inn used to serve it and they used to fight to be prince of wales at the time and so that's part of our history as well so that's that's rather interesting um we've also got you know letters from people like thomas telford um in the collection it's always nice you know you you read about these historical figures and you learn about them at school when you're doing you know the industrial revolution and so forth but it's always really nice to to be a little note written by them just a few lines with their signature at the end saying things like you know oh i'll be in rochester this time i'm i'm staying at the bullying and so it just makes them seem you know much more three-dimensional and so that's probably one of my favorites um but i think even things like account books can be very interesting because it's quite fascinating to see all the items things that an organization bought and paid for in terms of things like materials and so on and i also find them quite useful for studying you can fix the history of how we spelled words um you can see how you know even something like the word cities would be sometimes written with two t's in the other used to be extra ease on the ends of words and so on um i want me and one of my colleagues were having a chat the other day about you know when did spelling become much more formalized and we decided it was probably with with the you know onset of the printing press and newspapers in the 1700s and that so we decided there's a blog in that somewhere i'm going to look at some examples of you know from the archives of common words but that was felt differently maybe in the early 1700s they're recognizable now but they're just felt a little bit differently and people often spell things before they said them so if they had a particular accent they might spell them in the way that they thought it you know itself so yeah even things like account books and rental ledgers can be useful in that respect and um we've got some fantastic photographs as well and one of the sub collections of our fantastic collection is a series of photographs which and the copies of which was donated to us by the royal engineers and royal engineers are based uh in chillingham which is very very close to rockstar and and they've always had quite strongly with the bridge trust and in the um 1850s when the victorian bridge was being built that was really incubitable they pretty much documented um the building and the demolition of the old bridge and so we've got this series of fantastic of not just the bridge and the river but also the buildings in the background and the people that were working on the bridge so you i mean that's the beauty of old photographs is that you can get so much information from them about um geography um transport fashion and so forth and what's what's really nice is that um they managed to capture the demolition of the medieval bridge so for a short period of time the two bridges existed in tandem as you might imagine and you know they have to have a handover so we had the new victorian bridge and then just you know a few meters away as a medieval bridge and the royal engineers were um commissioned to demolish the bridge on behalf of the trust which was um probably um good experience for them because they have to you know hone their skills and after all the royal engineers are involved in building and destroying bridges and and so forth during times of war so there are fantastic theories of protocols and um they always go down well when i get told and as a as a sort of offspring quote from that little story about the royal engineers photograph and when the medieval bridge was demolished a lot of the work was was reused and a lot of the old space work on the entrepreneur here in rochester but um equally a lot of these was sold off so you know people locally who there are many stories of people having bits of the old medieval rochester bridge in their houses or gardens and apparently um somebody gave some of the stonework to charles dickens who lived quite locally and one of the villagers not far from rochester and he had it made into a sundial for his for his garden and there was a letter i think at the vicki's museum in which he mentions this and it's just amazing i will go out and give talks locally and people will say oh i think i think our house has got you know part of the medieval bridge and in the garden wall and so i mean obviously it proves that but quite it's quite a nice thought you know that that kind of the medieval bridge is gone but it lives on so i'm always collecting stories from people about you know bits and bobs that they think have been rescued from uh field rochester bridge and so on and uh i think i think photographs and maps and plans are probably the favorite documents of a lot of people not just um archivists and curators but um of our collections as well i think you know if you have a group in you it always goes down well when when you bring out maps and photographs because people can identify with them they can try and locate um places on those maps that that they know now and they can see how how topography has changed and so on and how you know fields have now been built on that and as i mentioned before photographs people love looking for little details in there and you know what sort of cars people are driving or people spotty things like charm lines in photographs you get the transport enthusiasts we're really excited to spot certain you know models of vehicles and so on or on railway lines running by and so on i think the visual stuff always oh that gives you an idea of quite how diverse our collection is i've gone from turtle soap to charles dickens sundial via thomas telford that is an absolutely fascinating collection that you've got there and the the stories you can tell from it are clearly so diverse um so yeah you are working to make it more accessible obviously on site which is at the moment a bit of a of a sticky situation for everybody and but you're keen to get people on social media and their feedback and if they've got any stories about medieval bridge in their house then you want to know about it that would be amazing yeah or any photographs or anything like that i'm always keen as well to hear from people um earlier who believe that maybe one of their loads of people who worked you know not not just the people who were the four men or the or the um you know bridge engineers or you know worked i mean we even had people that had to do diving in the river to do research work on the on the piles to the bridges and so if anyone's got any stories um about about relatives having some connection with the trust we'd be really pleased and hear about that and if people contact us but we always respond really quickly we'll put a link to that so people can follow through because archives are nothing without people to look at them are they absolutely right absolutely yes and i'm always adding to the collections um obviously we've got quite um a specific collecting brief but in terms of visual material it's amazing how much it's still out there in terms of depiction of the bridge be it watercolors illustrations from things like you know illustrated london news um old postcards i mean very fantastic results and it is you seem to be quite difficult to take a photograph of rochester without including the you know the river the bridge and the castle so i'm i'm you know i'm always on the lookout for new materials for the collection here and even an artifact uh that might have an illustration of the bridge on it we sometimes see on online auction um you know plates and jugs and gravy boats you know maybe the castle on one side and the bridge from the other you know we're quite interested in collecting i need your pictures for um about about the bridge um i'll just give you an example um during the during the summer i purchased a few postcards um online and to add to the collections and one of the words what i thought was a fairly mundane straightforward mid 20th century photograph of lots of fridge from the street side and um my colleague put it on facebook and you know got a few favorable comments and i'd had to have with a guest and i'd gone with i don't know i think i've said it like 1950s but there's just no other visual clues um and then the the bridge clark noticed on the left-hand side a rather interesting very high sort of street lamp and this morning we've deduced that it was a lamp that would have been probably put in place when there was um and we know that the tram ceased to be used in rochester in 1932 and my line manager pointed out that there was no sign of any overhead lines for the trial and then i thought i wonder if you can find out online what it cost post the postcard at certain points in the 20th century because on the reverse of the postcard there was no writing and there's no postage stamp but there was printed on it the cost of you know what it would cost to send it which was one and a half old pen so i found um a website which just gave a very um brief table of charges and in postcards of the 1960s and from that so from the comment about the light that my uh that the the bridge park has offered and this website that told you that between 1925 and 1940 it cost one and a half pence send a postcard we were able to to date the postcard and um what was quite a mundane image has now become quite interesting because because of this lamp that i haven't spotted you know on the left-hand side of the photograph so yeah i just love looking for clues in phoenix and paintings that just help not just tell the story of the fridge but as well so um so if anyone's got any any visual um images that they want to share with us on facebook or twitter please please feel free to do so thank you for talking to me today allison it's been a real treat to hear about your enthusiasm for what is clearly an integral part of rochester community yeah we we like to think so yes so yes there's lots of exciting things happening it's been it's you know it's felt this year hasn't it like it's it's all been a bit of a non-event um but you know when heritage open days came round and normally we would open the doors to the bridge top and so on you just have to be a bit more creative so you know like a lot of people who did a virtual exhibition of the chapel and so on um but hopefully next year we're going to start showing the doors and people have a look around the aforementioned medieval building at the side of the river medway i'm sure it'll be a lovely day trip to look forward to okay thank you for your time allison thank you