Deciphering the Archive

I hate handwriting with a vengeance. This is not because I see no value in writing things by hand, nor do I disagree with the idea that the use of handwriting influences the way we learn things, as some neuroscientists claim. My problem is with reading it. Just as the past is a different country, Victorian handwriting is a different language. However, even contemporaries complained about the handwriting of their day. In 1861, it was observed that the increased pressure to write quickly in the Foreign Office meant that ‘despatches received from some of our Ministers abroad [were] so ill written that the originals could not be sent to her Majesty’. At the end of the decade, An Old Rugbeian wrote sympathetically to the editor of The Times, claiming that the English public school was to blame for the ‘abominable’ handwriting of the English gentleman.


As someone with a dreadful handwriting myself, I sympathise with this inability to write intelligibly, but my difficulties in reading other people’s jumbled words still makes my archival visits a bit of a hassle. The writing I come across is often leaning heavily in one direction, giving the impression that the entire page is about to capsize. Then there is the kind of handwriting that at first glance seems to be composed of random dots and dashes rather than any characters known to man. Tiny fluctuations mark the delineation between the letters, making the words seem like series of small waves, on a calm ocean, gently lapping against a shore of incomprehensibility.

While Foreign Office handwriting might be dreadful, it seems Victorian army officers wrote with utter contempt for their readers. While on a recent research trip to Edinburgh I was looking through a number of letters from one such officer. As I had only a limited amount of time to spend in the archive before I had to get back to London, and as I was anxious both to make my time there count and not to miss anything important, I was uncertain where to begin.

I suspect that all researchers, more or less openly, hope to find something through serendipitously stumbling over it in an archive. Preferably something that no one else has used before, a juicy lost letter or memorandum that will change our ideas about a particular aspect of history. The real Hitler diaries; a forgotten manuscript; or a letter from Heloise, telling Abelard to grow a pair. Though not as lucky as this, I have had archival visits where, through sheer luck, I’ve struck gold, finding something useful by accident. The discoveries we make by chance, as an aside to what we were really looking for, are often those that drive the research forward. At least, they can add flavor to the argument. But serendipitous discoveries cannot, naturally, be planned in advance.

This raises the question of how we read archival material, and what we search for when flipping through papers. I look for words or phrases that stand out and relate to what I am looking for. But since handwriting is so difficult to read at times, the things that actually make me pause and that I notice are often the sentences that I can actually decipher, whether related to what I am looking for or not. In this instance I also looked through other papers, including a letter book where the handwriting was legible and pleasurable to read. Therefore, those papers were what I ended up spending a lot of time reading. Like the proverbial drunkard, looking for his keys under a streetlight, rather than where he actually lost them.

However, while useful, the letters I read as an aside because of their intelligible handwriting were not where the important discoveries of the archival trip were found. Sometimes, annoyingly enough, the process of wading through seemingly incomprehensible handwriting is necessary. And it was in the Victorian officer’s letters that I found what I was actually looking for, in addition to some juicy, previously unused material. The serendipitous discoveries were, of course, right in front of me. All that was needed was deciphering the language they were written in.

Christian Melby is a Postgraduate Researcher in the History Department working on invasion scares between 1870 and 1914 

1 thought on “Deciphering the Archive

  1. Dear Christian,
    You articulate a problem that many of us struggle with. Some years ago, after the TNA allowed readers to photograph documents for research, I was working away photographing interesting bits, when I realised that the chap on the next desk was being more scientific.
    He had a digital SLR set up on one of the camera stands
    and using a radio remote control and was photographing wartime submarine logbooks which also suffer handwriting problems. He didn’t stop to read them, just shot pictures of them cover to cover, page by page, cyclically ordering up the next batch as soon as he could.
    When I asked him how he had evolved this technique, he replied that time in the archive was so precious he didn’t want to waste it deciphering handwriting. It was more time efficient to digitise the books and work on them at home.
    I learnt from that and now have my own similar camera and remote plus several extra batteries and SD cards. I shamelessly copy his technique and it has paid dividends for me. I hope this helps with your research. I’d be glad to answer any questions you may have. All the best. Keith

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