Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability


Chris Olver - Archivist

Chris Olver was brought on board as Archivist at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in 2018 after The National Archives judged the collection as being of national significance.

The hospital was established in 1854 and has managed to retain it's full set of patient records since it's foundation. Some of these patients spent years in residence and so these records provide a fascinating insight into the treatment of neurological conditions throughout the years.

Chris talks about the extensive work going into digitising this collection in order to widen access to the general public. There is an exhibition planned for this summer, taking place in the Capability Brown designed hospital gardens for the staff and patients, which will also be available online for the public to view.




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 Mass Communications 2021 podcast, a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections. My name is Faith Williams and I'm joined today by Chris Olver, archivist for the Royal Hospital in Premiere Disability. Hi, Chris, would you like to introduce yourself and talk about what you do at the hospital? Yes, I would. So my name is Chris Hill, but I'm the archivist at the Royal Hospital for your disability. My role has been so I'm the first archivist here at the hospital and I started in January 2018. And since that day, the the aim of the service is just to establish an archive service, which we are still in the process of undertaking. But we have been definitely helped for the contribution of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, who have currently funding us to open up our archives. Since the start of 2019 and the project is ongoing until November 2021. OK, so if you're the first archivist, how do you spend an average day for getting this collection together, ready for people to access? Basically, the the the archive service was initially sort of founded by tonight. We're asking who used to work in the fundraising department back in 2013 and the National Archives actually came in and found out that all records were of national significance. And over the course of that period, it was decided to have a to install a part time permanent archivist, which is when I started in 2018 in terms of my day to day. It's it's very mixed because since 2010, well since 2020, it's been nonstop National Lottery Heritage Fund project. So the first year of the project were very much focused on getting the archive up to sort of scratch to make it publicly accessible. So cataloging conservation, work and digitization and pre-pandemic, we actually had a group of really confused Wasik volunteers on site who were doing a lot of the cleaning work of our permanent collection. But unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we had to stop that work and a lot of the work had to be changed to be done remotely. So in terms of my day to day, at the moment, it's a real mixed bag, but I would mainly describe it as public engagement work. We have an ongoing oral history project which is documenting the COVID 19 stories of both our staff and patients at the hospital throughout this incredibly stressful time, and we've recently trained some of our remote volunteers who had been creating record summaries to to undertake oral histories themselves because previously I was doing all the oral histories and quite frankly, I was getting sick of my sound, of my own voice, which must be the same for you. But yeah, I mean otherwise. From the oral history work, we are also day to day. I'm also kind of focusing on preparing for an exhibition, which we are hoping to have at the hospital in July this year, which will be a physical exhibition space in the gardens of the hospital for patients, family and staff to be able to attend, but also on our website to allow sort of, yeah, members of the general public to actually come and see and learn about sort of our heritage, but also to showcase some of what's been happening at the hospital in the last year. Fantastic. I'll be really excited to engage not only in public, but the people who are actually resident at the hospital. Absolutely. It's been one of the real, well, one of the great things about this kind of the funding has. It's allowed me to kind of work more hours last year as full time for the first time, but actually engage with kind of patients. So back in September, we actually had a pilot art workshop where I, in scrubs, masks and gloves, went into the art room and gave a presentation about kind of the history of the hospital . And then we sort of talked a little bit about with with patients, a patient group there about some of the the origins of the hospital, but also looked at sort of duplicate material, which they could handle and actually kind of created a sort of art project based on the historical material of the hospital. So it was like, design your own postcards because there's a really nice set of picture postcards at the hospital from, I think, dating back from 19 seven to 1922, which is at the start of we're still in the boom period of the picture. Postcard, but then go. Yeah, I did a bit of research on picture postcards, it's actually quite a fascinating subject. The hospital was founded in 1854. Is that correct? Yes. Yes, it was quite an old collection. It's I mean, it's quite old, it's difficult when it's, you know, comparing yourself to other archives because it's just like, say, you know, Bart's Hospital, it's like that. I think that oldest document is like eleven hundred or something, and I'm sure I'm getting that wrong by 200 years. But we're yeah, we what is very good about our hospital is so to say something about our origins. We have been around since 1854. We were not always called the Royal Hospital for your disability, predominantly because in your disability wouldn't have meant nothing to the Victorians. We were used with our first official title was the Royal Hospital for Inaugurals. We were a voluntary hospital which was set up to care for people who had chronic disability because back in the fifties, there was no state provision for people with disability. If you were fortunate to be rich, you could get sort of like a private nurse. If you were unfortunate to be very poor, then you would go into the workhouse. But for a vast well, and even then, that was not that was not great provision at all. But basically there was no state provision, so it was all based on charity. So our founder, Reverend Andrew Reed, he he said that this was his fifth big charitable institute. It's yeah, he was a serial philanthropist, philanthropist. Which sounds awful. But anyway, it's he. He set up this institution back in 1954 and we, yeah, we were the first of our kind of hospitals, but of incredible hospitals. There are a few which are still going today. I think the only one off the top of my head I know of is the British Home, which is also in London, which used to be the British home for incurable, but there is around 13 or 16 of these hospitals. Majority of these hospitals joined the NHS, but we have always stayed independent and for the most part, that was. It has allowed us to to provide specialist care and rehabilitation services, which actually kind of are very much have been for a long time, almost since the start of the NHS. Incorporated into the national health structure, it is a very it's a unique is, is a very unique institution. And I think how I usually describe it is, is that we are this Victorian institution, this institution for incurable, which is a very well it's a very pejorative term and it is is one of the issues sometimes with with the difficulties of this archive service where you're dealing with clinical records from a bygone era where some of the language is, well, very offensive, but from pretty much from the 1970s that the focus was very much on complex neuro disability. So where people nowadays associate the hospital with, say, locked in syndrome or people recovering from strokes or car accidents, and that's that really is the major focus is on traumatic brain injury and thus almost a world away from from the initial kind of cohort of patients now. So what type of material do you have in the collection that marked it as of national significance? Well, I wasn't there when he was going round. Sorry. He being the. Member of the National Archive, who I can't remember the name of, but I would imagine it would be the case of what was said. Well, one of the great things is it's it's a it's a small archive. There's around 300 standard size archive boxes. So I think that's 33 linear meters. But I've always been very bad with my linear meter slot to box conversion. But we we basically have almost a complete run of certain record series, so I sort of administration records. So the House minutes, the committee minutes we have from 1854 to the present day, which doesn't sound exciting on paper, but it's actually really it's it's really good because you can see the change at, say, the treatment of disability over time over this almost 170 year period. You can see how, yeah, how patients are treated for as they're seeing sort of like the different kind of light examples of patient voice and also in terms of sort of leisure and occupation of what people were doing here. Because for the most part, even though it's a hospital, this is not an acute setting. People come came to the hospital because they had a chronic condition and people would. I think the longest day was over 80 years. So you have people essentially living their their life here. So it's it's it's a really kind of remarkable to be able to see to have this window into into sort of like the past of of disabled lives from, yeah, from the 19th century. Are you still adding to the collection with oral histories that you have other content that you are adding such records? Yes, I think in terms of the content which we're currently adding, so we've been very fortunate because of the grant from the National Lottery hedge fund to get quite a lot of our collection digitized. And one of the reasons is that that is strategic. By having more material digitized and available online, then we can sort of like widen our access because, well, not only are we in a pandemic in terms of the sort of the reading room infrastructure on sites. If you could see a picture of me here. This is also the reading room and we have capacity for two researchers and that was before COVID. So now the one researcher, so actually having digitized collections, this is fantastic. It also opens up the collection for our patients and residents because again, physical access or being able to handle material and documents can be quite difficult without assistance. So having digitized images is fantastic in terms of our current collection policy. For the most part, what we're getting is still things which are from internal sources, so it departments. So recently, I think, yeah, last week actually, we went I was summoned to a room in another outbuilding and we found lots of portraits of former like Big Oil paintings of former committee members with strange names like Lord Cave and also like a big room of sort of department or files which desperately needs going through. So at the moment, that's what we're kind of focusing on is just collecting all the historic papers which are still around the hospital, but also actually kind of contacting others, sort of like staff and patients who potentially have taken material away because there was no resource for sort of like collecting historical papers. So that's that really is kind of like the future goal with the kind of really kind of expand to become proactive in our collections policy. He also says your collection at the moment, who who do you welcome and your reading room, who we have had in the past is kind of like because of the for the most part, the collection had not been fully cataloged. We could not make it available to the public. So for the most part, the research we have had in a been internal. But even then, it's been quite rewarding over the last two years to to welcome them into the archives. So we've had people from communication and fundraising, basing sort of articles promoting our heritage to our supporters network. We've had people clinical staff who've who've been using the archives for presentations to get like historical context of their roles, like speech and language therapists. And finally, I think. And yet my favorite was kind of, like some people from the financial department came in and just wanted access to sort of like the old financial records going back 120 years. I think they were kind of because we still have so some investments and bequests, which are a really historical. So and I find that kind of fascinating to see kind of where sort of like where money was invested in in this charity because prior to, well, at least until the second World War, almost every year, everything was this. This entire medical charity was always funded by donations and bequests. So it was it's really interesting to always kind of follow the money trails. I would also say that in terms of although, that's we've had fairly few physical visitors. We do get quite a lot of remote inquiries from people looking to family history of that potential sort of four former relatives who who came to the hospital or were also finding academics, especially people in medical humanities, who are kind of very interested in sort of the history of disability and the history of medicine. So it's it's it's sort of as you'd expect from a medical archive, but yeah, it'd be really great. And you kind of get some of those remote inquiries here in person here. Do you anticipate or who do you hope will access your collection when it's been digitized and those wider access available? It's the same as the people who are already kind of curious about kind of the archives, I think it's ideally it would be a case of kind of widening participation. So once things are sort of fully cataloged and digitized, then it's a case of trying to build our audiences. Well, first of getting the traditional kind of archive users or family historians and academics in, but then really what we're trying to of the other sort of groups I would like to attract to the archives are sort of like local schoolchildren because I think there's a lot in this archive, which is quite interesting and actually kind of fits into sort of like the national curricula. So we have letters from Florence Nightingale and Charles Dickens was an early supporter. So it's there's a lot of kind of like Victorian around the collection, but also for them to learn about the lives of disabled lives in the 19th and 20th century. I would also the the other group is is is patients residents. So I've already kind of mentioned how we have started working with patients and residents for with the art workshops. But we're also trying to incorporate sort of we're also recording oral histories with them. And sort of we actually got a song about COVID recorded as well, which we hope to sort of use in the forthcoming exhibition as well. So I think that's that's the really kind of the two kind of growth areas, and it's where they're sort of trying to sort of appeal to those researchers, well to those audiences by going to them and doing various public engagement events or just maybe creating online resources for both those people. You just mentioned a letter from Florence Nightingale and then you ubiquitous Charles Dickens, you would think. Yeah, well, social endeavors such as the Royal Hospital. But what is your favorite item that really appeals to you? Yeah. Don't get me wrong. Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale a great, but a lot of people can have links to Charles Dickens Florida. Something go. And I think for me personally, there's I'm I think it is actually kind of going back to kind of the committee minutes because there's so many of them and it's it can be quite. It can be quite difficult sometimes access because that handwritten and some of the sort of the handwriting can be difficult to read. But it's it's so worth pursuing because even the snippets that I found are just sometimes delightful. So I mean, one of the stories, which is quite is quite interesting, is during the first World War, we had some of our reporters, I think in 1917 was sacked because they were the steward decided to sack them because they were conscientious objectors. And so basically abstain from going to war. And there was such a hoo ha about this. Like patients were in uproar and sort of like wrote to the board to get them reinstated. So you had all this kind of going on all these reports and they actually were rehired and the board ended up sacking the stupid because because there was like such a kind of protest about this action. Other times, it's kind of like really sort of small little incidences as well where like a little notes that sort of, I think in the 1880s that sort of like the London and Brighton railway, they created a special carriage to actually kind of for disabled patients because even then, most of our patients were in wheelchairs. And so a special carriage to go in the railway back down to St Leonards, where the the hospital had a seat site home at that time. And then, yeah, I mean, then finally, there's just some really strange ones like like, I don't like heading toward like bees and it's just like a matron, sort of like one of our former patients died and her husband kind of gave a BS to the hospital. And then it's just like, you don't get that gratefully received, but then you never hear anything else about these bays. And it's yeah. So there's a few things, but there's a there's a lot else as well. I mean. I feel I should say, because it's a mass communication podcast like the videos. So we had some 16 millimeter sort of reel to reel films, which were adverts and adverts, and so presentations about the hospital from the 1970s. And I've seen some previews and they're fantastic. So you've got like Queen Elizabeth, the second visiting. And it really kind of goes into kind of like the work of the hospital. And by interviewing patients, it was like, has this really elaborate fire safety video, which was personalized for the hospital, which? He's such a kind of weird kind of Easter egg to have. But yeah, there's there's an awful lot of things which I think I'm very I'm a massive fan boy of of my own archives. So, yeah, well, I mean, that's the best way. Best way to work is that we've got the real gem. Yes. No. Well, I I hope to be. Yeah, proved right on that. Yeah, for sure. So how far through the distribution process are you? Well, essentially what we we've been doing is we've been in two types of digitization, so we've been doing external digitization, which is based on material which was essentially we could not do in-house. So it's either oversize or a particularly kind of vulnerable. So we just didn't have the equipment. So say glass slides or medical case books. So all that material has been completely digitized. It's just now is the process of quality control. It's spot checking all the thousands of images and then uploading it onto our archive catalog, which is where possible, because again, it's making sure that the images of sufficient quality to be able to sort of like upload onto onto that catalog. In terms of our other sort of digitization, we are doing internal digitization, which is halfway through and this this was the legacy of our original kind of bid book from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, where we wanted to employ volunteers to select photographic material to be scanned and put onto our catalog. Unfortunately, because it was not possible to have volunteers working on sites anymore, we've actually changed the project to hire a digitization assistant to come in and scan selected, well, material selected material by myself for a website. And I think we put the yeah, the the plan is to do 4000 images and we're halfway there at this point . Well, are they available online for people to see or are they all going to be uploaded at once? They they are not available at the moment, but they will be uploaded. I think hopefully it will be. Yet later in 2021, they will be all available. When is your exhibition, is that going to be what form is not going to take online? Yes. So the exhibition the best way to see the exhibition would be to visit our website, which is W W W Dot RH and dot org UK. And what we have is that we got dedicated heritage pages already on our website, so the online exhibition will be an add on to those pages in terms of the physical exhibition. What we are hoping to do is from July to September to have a outside exhibition. So we have these A0 poster boards, which we will get to canvas boards, which are going to pop up around the the arch and gardens, which incidentally would have been here since the gardens actually are older than the mansion. They're 18 some of the gardens from the 18th century, its capability Brown did some of the landscape gardening around here, so that which is a real shame because it's kind of like it would be great to get people to come visit the hospital. But we're still not too sure if we will be able to cater for external visitors even in our grounds. So I would say at the moment, yeah, sort of see see our Twitter page for details, but hopefully it might be possible later in the year to welcome people actually to the hospital too. Yeah, things are changing so fast all the time, aren't they? Yes. Yes, they are. Well, thank you for taking time to talk to us today. It's been a real delight hearing about what what exciting things you're uncovering in your archive. I think, as you say, some of the language is maybe a bit outdated, but the concept of looking after people with chronic conditions is actually quite forward looking. And that, yeah, I think I think the in terms of the one thing which we have a continuity about is, I guess, understanding of kind of care. We we've always been seen as a hospital, but but from the earliest days, it's always been kind of like giving being more of a home to people and trying to sort of use the best possible sort of technology and services to make life as amenable as possible. And I think I think it is one of those things which is just kind of is really inspiring to to work in an institution like that. And suddenly it's kind of like, I think, Yeah, yeah, if you are an archivist, it's it's kind of it's great to be able to kind of have a collection, which you kind of it's such a worthy cause, but a fascinating cause as well. Sorry. That's that's my spiel. Forward to say more of it as you digitize it, that we have become as big fans as you are good. Yes. No, I hope so. It's it's it's lonely. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. I'll keep you, company. Thank you. Bye bye.