Archive for Archive News

Northumberland’s Hidden Treasures


The story of how the Dickson, Archer and Thorp collection came to be acquired by Northumberland Archives is almost as rich and compelling as its 200 year contents. Often described as a ‘time capsule’ due to the detail it can offer us about Northumberland’s social, political and economic story, this value had been left largely unexplored until its recent acquisition by the Northumberland Archives.


Personal papers relating to the Thorp family held within the collection


The Dickson, Archer and Thorp collection is the culmination of work from a 200 year old Alnwick legal practice. Items within the collection can be dated beyond the practice’s establishment in the 18th century right through to the death of its last partner, Mr Reginald Thorp, in 2003. It is the only legal collection in the care of Northumberland Archives to have this level of historical volume and scope.


Notable names peppered the clientele of Dickson, Archer and Thorp; including Grace Darling and her family, The Duke of Northumberland, the Armstrong family and the Liddell (Ravensworth) family. The wills and testimonies of these individuals can be found within the collection, nestled alongside those of ‘ordinary’ locals. This mixed bag enables us to paint a captivating picture of Northumberland using the collection’s marriage, death and criminal records, as well its contemporary stamp duties and manorial papers. The collection also follows the furtherance of industry in Northumberland, by containing records relaying to notable companies such as the Amble Timber and Saw Mill Company and the Hardy’s Fishing Company of Alnwick and Warkworth Harbour.


Liddell family papers found within the collection


A Hidden Treasure


However, although the collection possesses massive local and national significance, its secrets had lain mostly untouched for the vast majority of the 20th century. With the collection kept privately within Dickson, Archer and Thorp’s three-story office in Narrowgate, Alnwick.


The office was described by those who entered as ‘Dickensian,’ on account of the floor to ceiling papers and legal materials. These papers, decades old, were neatly labelled and bundled together creating a treasure trove for the enthusiastic researcher.


A first-floor bookcase in the Dickson, Archer and Thorp office


The second-floor landing in the Dickson, Archer and Thorp office


Northumberland Archives staff were first able to explore this exciting world during the 1970s when Mr Thorp approached them to assess the collection. This initial work was carried out over a ten year period, stretching through the 70’s and 80’s. But the collection’s sheer scope and scale made creating a complete inventory an almost impossible task. Archives staff were hindered further due to a lack of artificial light within the building, meaning they could only work during the summer months. Due to these obstacles less than 10% of the whole collection was actually catalogued during this period, but its historical importance had already become glowingly apparent to archivists.


Public Auction and Benefactors


Upon the aforementioned Mr Thorp’s death the collection became the property of his heirs, whom decided to pass it on through auction. In 2005 a public auction threatened the integrity of the collection by potentially dividing it piecemeal. Some papers fell into private hands whilst others, such as some of the practice’s own business records, were secured for Northumberland Archives through the generosity of a private benefactors.


Auction pamphlet, circa 1878, found within the collection


The bulk of the collection remained in situ at the Narrowgate office, before being purchased by a postal historian who subsequently offered a significant part of the collection to Northumberland Archives. The collection was, at this time, independently assessed as being the most significant collection relating to the history of Northumberland remaining in private hands.’


From Barn to Archive


From 2005 onwards the then owner kept the collection in a barn on his property, whilst passing between 10 – 15% onto interested parties across the world. Some of these items were eventually deposited with Northumberland Archives by public spirited purchasers. The items is his care that were eventually offered to Northumberland Archives comprised  approximately 240 large banker boxes, 20 smaller boxes and a selection of plans.


This period in the collection’s journey indicated two things; firstly there was a growing, global interest in the collection and secondly there was a serious need to preserve its authentic integrity as a whole or risk its dissemination across the world.


A bundle of papers from the collection


In 2015 Northumberland Archives was approached and asked if we would be interested in purchasing the remaining collection for the sum of £150,000. In light of the collection’s historic and cultural significance the sum was declared reasonable and the decision to proceed with the purchase was made. The eventual acquisition was made possible through internal fundraising as well as grants and charitable funding from a range of grant giving bodies including The Heritage Lottery Fund, Lord Crewe Charity, Friends of National Libraries and the V&A Purchase Fund.


The acquisition was formalised in 2017, with a week set aside for archival staff to box and roughly list this immense collection. Finally the collection’s journey had brought it to be stored in perpetuity by Northumberland Archives, allowing it to be valued by all members of the public.


A handbill referring to the Craster Harbour dispute found within the collection


The Future


The future will see the beginnings of in-depth research into the collection; facilitated by a process of comprehensive cataloging. This work will be largely conducted by volunteers, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund allowing the Northumberland Archives to engage a Volunteer Co-ordinator. You can follow this project, and the secrets it uncovers, through this blog or the Archives’ other social media platforms.

News from the Archives!

We are pleased to announce that the Wellcome Trust have awarded a second grant to Northumberland Archives to continue the amazing work they have done through the Stannington Sanatorium Project.

The ‘Stannington: From Sanatorium to General Hospital: Opening Up Three Decades of Paediatric Care’ Project has been awarded £49,100. This money will allow us to digitise the main series of case files from the Stannington Sanatorium collection covering the period 1944-1966. These files comprise 100 linear feet of records – that’s a whopping 122,000 pieces of paper to be digitised! We will redact the key documents in each file – the patient progress notes, x-ray card and discharge sheet and append the redacted copies to the catalogue entry. The files span the life of Stannington from it being a tuberculosis sanatorium funded by the Poor Children’s Holiday Association (now Children Northeast), including the introduction of the National Health Service, (1947) to its final conversion to a general children’s hospital (1953), which it remained until its closure in 1984, opening up three decades of paediatric care.

The Stannington Sanatorium Project ran from August 2014-July 2015 and allowed the full cataloguing and part-digitisation of the records from Stannington Sanatorium. However, the digitisation element of the project was primarily focussed upon the original and microfiche radiographs that made up a sizeable portion of the collection and only the early case files up to 1943 were digitised at this stage. This grant will fund the digitisation of the remainder of the individual patient files included in the Stannington Collection and will fund full re-packaging of the original files in conservation grade materials.




Through this project we will utilise digitisation as a preservation tool thereby minimising further handling and potential damage to patient files through the creation of a digital surrogate which can be viewed electronically. In turn the project will increase accessibility to the collection via the redaction and web-mounting of the files. It will benefit members of the academic community who have shown a vast interest in the previous project and wish to access the files as a teaching resource or for their own research. This new digital content will be added to Northumberland Archives electronic catalogue ( where the c.20,000 images created in the first project can now be viewed.


















The project will commence in November 2015 and will run for 12 months. Two new members of staff will be employed, one full time the other part time, to undertake this arduous task and they will endeavour to blog about their progress from November onwards so make sure you keep a look out for new postings!