Notes from the Archive

Section of pamphlet

A college, like any other society or institution, is a collection of people; people who spend a period of time in study and community and leave behind a trace of that time in the memory of those remaining. Memory, too, passes with time and even the most venerable of Fellows are challenged to recall all details of the College past. And so to the Archive: the prize of the College where essential components of Trinity Hall’s past are kept, vital to understanding the past six centuries of its life and learning and as a result, to offer a perspective on our present and future.

An archive is not easy to define. Its origin is a Greek term, archeion, or a government house, and in the plural archeia, coming to mean a place in which accounts, minutes, correspondence, reports, and other institutional records are systematically preserved. Over the years, documents have been complemented by private correspondence and photographs and other items which are now recognised as being of historical importance. So the Hall’s archive, like others, is a collection of papers and other material which forms evidence of the activities of people connected with Trinity Hall over the years. Importantly, an archive is a collection of collections – just like a library, or indeed a college – and it continues to grow and expand, in a compound manner.

The Trinity Hall Archive contains medieval parchment documents, maps, photographs and even digital files. They can be centuries old or just weeks old. Most important, of course, is that they are being looked after as part of the College’s heritage and kept in trust for the years ahead. In this first look into the Archive, I have chosen a document in a file of Miscellania, odds-and-ends in a large box of items which were not deemed to fit neatly into other files. They had been gathered into a collection in the 19th century which we hope to work on and catalogue this year. I will then turn to two short letters from 1938, written by a student of the College in his first term to a friend in London, letters which I found and bought in late 2018, showing that we continue to look for documents to add to the Archive’s holdings.

First, to the printed sheet in our Miscellania collection. In 1731, after years of debate about the right of Lutherans to live in the city of Salzburg, the Prince-Archbishop Leopold von Firmian determined to expel all Protestant residents. In a matter of months, more than 20,000 refugees fled the city and sought support abroad. The cause of the migrants resonated with many across Europe and they were welcomed into Prussia and other states. Indeed, many hundreds were, with the support of George II, sent across the Atlantic to establish the new colony of Georgia. The Archive holds a sheet which was circulated to the great and good in British life by the ‘Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge’, drawing attention to the plight of the refugees and seeking financial support for their wellbeing. The three-page pamphlet is well known in the literature on this subject but only a very small number have survived to our time – and we hold one of those precious copies. It’s not clear if the College did financially support the appeal; more important is the fact that 300 years later, Europe once again needs to support an even larger community of refugees in our midst.

Page from the pamphlet distributed by the ‘Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge’,
Page from the pamphlet distributed by the ‘Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge’,

From this pamphlet I turn to two short letters, dated 13 November and 1 December 1938, from an engineering student in his first term at the Hall writing to a friend in London. The letters came up for sale at an auction and having identified them as written on Hall stationery, I acquired them for the Archive. They are short, one rushed and written in pencil, the other following quickly and in ink. For all their brevity, they are striking for their honesty and insightfulness. “I am having a very good time up here: furiously busy all the time”, he writes, also noting that the “College is not at all what I expected: there hardly seem to be any ‘Toughs’, although we are very good at rowing.” Some indecorous words follow on his cofrères, before he returns, reassuringly, to the subject of his study: “Engineers have to do a vast amount of work here: we have 23 hours a week of lectures, and at least 6 hours of stuff for our supervisors.” He tells how he got “frogged” coming back from the Union: “my cap and gown were pinched at the Union, and on the way back, was unlucky enough to meet the ‘Frog’ with the Bulldogs. He took my name, and I thought it would cost me 13/4d”. Luckily he got off without a fine!

The letters are a real find: full of detail on College and University life, they provide the kind of social history which is often so hard to reconstruct. Deeply touching, in the letter of 1 December 1938, is the following note: “The international situation does not seem to improve: I am afraid war is inevitable sooner or later. I failed to get into the Air squadron owing to my eyesight, so I joined the Engineer branch of the O.T.C.” It would seem, from other records in the Archive, that our writer, like many others of that time, fell early in the war.

The Trinity Hall Archive is a precious, albeit often overlooked, part of our College; precious for all it holds and this is why we are not complacent about our responsibility to preserve what we have and to continue to acquire historical documents, such as the letters recently added, as well as more recent material for the future College. Great care and attention requires continuing support and investment to ensure we pass on the best legacy for future generations.

Dr William O’Reilly
Fellow Archivist and Librarian

This article was first published in the spring 2019 edition of Front Court.