After nearly three years and over 30,000 documents later, my time working on the Bankes Archive at Dorset History Centre is at an end. I wanted take the opportunity to write a summary of the project, pick out some highlights, and reflect on the process.
Throughout the course of the last few years, I have often joked that I have come to know the Bankes family better than I know my own. The truest things are said in jest.
I couldn’t tell you what my relatives were doing, or even who they were in 1635 when Sir John Bankes was buying up the lands of Corfe Castle and Purbeck. I have no idea how my ancestors responded to the political turbulence of the early 1800s, when Henry Bankes II was belligerently sitting in Parliament opining about everything. And I have little idea about what my relatives were building when Walter Ralph Bankes was having his brand-new stables erected.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve come to know the Bankes’ pretty well in three years!
The project has been hugely fulfilling from a professional perspective. I said at the beginning that this felt, for a newly qualified Archivist as I was at the time, less like jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool and more like jumping into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It was clear from the outset that this was a huge undertaking: 800 boxes of material, and by my rough calculations, at least 25,000 records.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it alone, and here is my first offer of thanks of this blog. The team of dedicated and committed cataloguing volunteers who sat for many, many hours and listed box after box of paperwork, some interesting, some less-so; deserve a huge amount of praise. We couldn’t have achieved all that we have in the last three years without their contributions. Between them, they have directly contributed over 13,000 catalogue entries to the collection, which is a massive achievement.
By the end of the cataloguing portion of the project, that we have breached the 30,000-records-catalogued figure is a wonderful result. We now have a catalogue which is (hopefully) more easily useable, which is now searchable, and which is now much more accessible than at any point previously. By our rough calculations use of the Bankes collection in the last three years has gone up by over 50% of what it was prior to 2015. Hopefully it will continue to grow.
This number of users includes all the volunteers who have been researching and writing material for this website, and here is my second nod of thanks. The researchers, or indeed anyone who has used the collection to contribute stories or blogs for the project, have been an equally dedicated and passionate group as the cataloguing volunteers. Their broad range of interests, personal writing styles, and obvious fascination with the collection all have shone through in their works. We couldn’t have brought this archive to life without your input.
And bringing this collection to life has been one of the more rewarding parts of this whole process. I have been delighted to see people engaging with the Bankes family, and the archive, much more than they ever would have before. There have been requests for talks about the collections, there have been schoolchildren engaging with the tales of William John Bankes’ travels in Egypt, and families seeing the archive in exhibitions, such as Beyond the Portrait at Kingston Lacy, or Wildflowers at Priest’s House Museum. This is a countless number of people engaging with archival material, engaging with the stories, and taking something away from their experience. Professionally, what else do we do this job for, if not this outcome?
I think though, that I was most thrilled to see a packed-out hall at Queen Elizabeth’s School, Wimborne for our project conference. Over 200 people choosing to spend an entire Saturday listening to talks and presentations about a range of Bankes-related topics? That was pretty fulfilling. These people actively engaging with the history, engaging with the story, and hopefully, becoming more aware about the importance of the archives to our understanding of our past.
And it is ‘our’ past. It’s easy to see the Bankes collection as a tale about a rich aristocratic family who lived a life separate to modern understanding. However, scratch away at the surface, and you find lists of names, workers who lived on the estate and looked after the animals; who sold soap or game; or who were blacksmiths, bricklayers or thatchers. You see lists of the poor, you see lists of tenants, you can trace families in title deeds or account books. In short, there’s much more to the collection than just the Bankes family!
And amongst it all, it’s also wise to remember what the collection doesn’t tell us. There is very little about the Civil War and the fall of Corfe Castle. An undoubtedly fascinating story, about which there is little original paperwork. Similarly, the First World War is another period where there is little in the way of records, especially relating to the family, but also in the sense of the wider estate. And the long goodbye at the end of the tale, following the death of Hilary Bankes in 1966, is completely absent from the family records. Again, even estate records are fewer after the 1950s. Archives don’t profess to be a full history, but they’re a start!
To add to the physical records though, we have undertaken oral histories, and spoken to people who have lived and worked on the estates in the 20th century. People who have tales of the Bankes family, or of their life and their experiences, and are happy to share them. These oral histories complement the paper records, and fill in some of the details in the later part of the overall tale. They add colour to the narrative, and give us a glimpse of personality, something which can be lacking from paper or parchment. They are just another source to help us understand the history of Dorset.
All this rambling brings me back to my main point. Archives in general, and the Bankes collection in particular, are a wonderful resource for historians, amateur or professional alike. What this project has demonstrated to me is that wherever you look, there is an appetite for history which is nigh-on insatiable. People enjoy engaging with the past, with the physical records, with the dirty old books, or the rolled-up maps. And hopefully, this project has been a gateway to facilitating access to these wonderful records in the long term.
To help all this is the team of wonderful staff at Dorset History Centre. They are deserving of the biggest thanks of this blog. The project team have been brilliant to work with, and have made the whole project a brilliant experience. Beyond them, the rest of the team at Dorset History Centre have been supportive, helpful and patient throughout. Again, and most pertinently, we couldn’t have done this project work without them.
My final hope as I leave the project, is simply that people will continue to use the Bankes Archive. It is a fabulous resource, which can complement a wide range of work and study. It can support artwork, or theatre performances. It can support fiction or non-fiction writing. It can support academic theses or notes for a parish magazine. And it is all there, just waiting for people to use. That, for me, is the real result of the project. I’m just glad to have helped.
~ Project Archivist, Luke Dady
The Unlocking the Bankes Archive project is coming to a close at the end of November 2018. Please continue to support us by taking part in our events and visiting the collection here at Dorset History Centre.