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Friday, 18 April 2014

Guest Post: Perishable goods and perishable heritage?

One of my favourite manuscripts held in the archive at the National Maritime  Museum is a letter reporting the terrible state of the Admiralty records referring to by John Ibbetson, a clerk at that time, working for the Admiralty administration. I like to refer to it as the chicken sandwich letter because it is written to the fourth earl of Sandwich and mentions that the manuscripts in Ibbetson’s care will ‘expire in a blaze round an ill plucked chicken or sink into the same abyss with its remains, never to rise again.’ See full transcript below for more details. 

The clerk is making a stand against the onslaught of attack the records faced at the time. Clearly, and at a time when there were no professional archivists around, Ibbetson saw the importance of the material being lost as he refers to the ‘most renowned of our ancient naval heroes are condemned in all probability to the meanest and dirtiest uses.’ If individuals such as this clerk, who felt passionate about the significance of what is being kept, didn’t act: then this would have been at the expense of our nation’s heritage. It was like minded people that over the centuries managed to save records for the future and also pave the way for the development of the archivist profession and the establishment of the Public Record Office.

National Maritime Museum


9 February 1781

Mr Cooke the late messenger being dead, may I take the liberty to suggest to 

your Lordship the necessity there is for reserving the apartments occupied 

for the use of the office, for the following amongst many other reasons I could 

mention to your Lordship.

- The great want of room for lodging the books and papers in, which are 

now, for want of it, in a dirty perishing condition and many of them in all 

probability lost from their being kept in the messengers scullery intermist 

with his pots and kettles and in the same room with his necessary

- The great danger there is from fire from the messengers servant sleeping 

in one of the rooms (where the principal books are kept) in a bed shut up in 

the very press which hold them

- The impropriety of those books and papers being exposed to the 

inspection of himself, servants and visitors, at all hours, and the temptation 

they afford to the servants and others wanting paper for all kinds of uses; 

when the most renowned of our ancient naval heroes are condemned in all 

probability to the meanest and dirtiest uses, and expire in a blaze round an 

ill plucked chicken or sink into the same abyss with its remains, never to rise 

- There is not the least necessity for the messenger to reside in the office as 

a proper watchman constantly sits up in the hall to receive all expresses which 

come in the night.

- The above apartment will not only give room for arranging and keeping 

the books and papers (daily increasing very much) in a regular, clean and 

accessible manner, but occasionally afforda retreat, when anything particular 

is to be done, from one of the noisiest, most confined and most inconvenient 

offices of any in the Kings’ dominions.

I heard of Cooke’s death but this moment and thought it necessary to acquaint 

your Lordship with the above as soon as possible, which is the reason it 

is written in this manner, and I hope will plead its excuse- I am, with the 

greatest respect

Your Lordships

Most humble servt

Jn Ibbetson

9 February 1781

Image courtesy of National Maritime Museum
Guest post by Mike Bevan, Archive Manager at the National Maritime Museum. Learn more about the library's holdings with their new series of Library Lates

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