Lost in the Archives

Funny how time, days and good plans disappear when I step into an archive. There is nothing better than the thrill of the chase, the catalogue search, filling in carbon request slips with pencil, handing them in then finding things to do while waiting (these past two days I’ve spent diving between the archives and the library as request items became available).

Finally, a package of promise arrives in a stiff plastic sleeve. Inside are documents plucked from history telling tiny parts of people’s lives. They have a particular smell – musty and old – and a particular feel – brittle or stiff with age. Sometimes there is a slight crack as the ink, pressed against the next page, snaps away.

This trip I was looking at documents to do with the swamps of Perth. Most were more than 100 years old. One lot were documents and the other field books.

Surveyors from the Public Works Department made their way around the streets and suburbs of Perth surveying all the houses and buildings to connect them to the town sewerage system. I need to do a bit more research, but this seems to have happened around 1912, although some field books are earlier than that.

Each field book is littered with scale drawings of the exterior of houses and includes lovely details like ‘lawn’, ‘garden’, ‘fowl run’, ‘well’, ‘washhouse’, ‘WC’ (always against the Row to the rear of the property) and careful diagrams of the steps that lead to verandahs – labelled with a ‘V’ to denote them from the ‘B’ or ‘D’ meaning building or dwelling. These are all done in ink – proper ink, I would imagine, with a nib. Scattered around the diagram are intricate measurements of every little piece of the property. I like thinking about that person’s life, going from one house to the next, probably with an assistant doing the measuring, drawing little diagrams and ordering new books (as you can see in the name plate above). But these field books are also a goldmine of built heritage information. They can tell us about how people organised the land around their houses and the shell of a house at a particular time. These things in turn can be used to guess at the kinds of lives these people lived.

I’m going back to the library today (where the archives have sent some request items for me) to look at more packages of promise. So I’ll be back with more stories about the fascinating documents I’ve also been looking at.

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