Making collections available to all is an integral part of the archivist’s role. We launch our catalogues into the world, hoping our (fair and balanced) descriptions will inspire research and enable users to find what they need. But what happens if materials aren’t physically fit for consultation, if allowing researchers to use them will cause harm? At the British Library we are able to call on the professional skills of qualified conservators in the British Library Conservation Centre (BLCC).
Lady Charlotte Canning sitting in a howdah on an elephant Images Online
The papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning formed part of a major acquisition of Canning family material purchased by the Library from the estate of the 7th Earl of Harewood. Napoleonic intrigues, Catholic emancipation, the anti-slavery movement, South American independence, the 1857 Indian Uprising and the transformation of the government of India all feature in the collections, while correspondents include Pitt, Lord Liverpool, Peel, Wellington, George III, Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale. The papers include those of the politician and statesman George Canning (1770-1827), his son Charles, Earl Canning, Viceroy of India (1812-1862), and Charles’s wife Charlotte (1817-1861). Lady Charlotte Canning travelled quite extensively during the period 1858-1861, visiting the Nilgiri Hills and Coonoor in South India, Simla, and Darjeeling. She also travelled with her husband to Oudh (Awadh) and the Punjab on the Viceroy’s first tour, and Central India on his second.
Back in 2018, I wrote a blog about the Indian diaries of Charlotte, Lady Canning, and how they and other of her papers had been damaged by a tent fire in December 1859. Lady Canning, her husband the Governor General Charles Canning, and their entourage, were travelling through Oudh (Awadh) and the Punjab in a grand progress. They held a series of Durbars or ceremonial gatherings in order to confer official thanks and gifts upon local rulers and dignitaries for their assistance during the Indian Uprising or ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857-58.
The papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning have quickly become one of the most well used collections in India Office Private Papers, with a range of researchers from family historians, PhD students, and academics all using the archive. But of course part of the collection had to remain closed until it was conserved. Now, the burned material is fully available for the first time.
Our talented colleagues in the BLCC surveyed all the items one by one and worked to stabilise the loose papers and letters – including Queen Victoria’s – to enable handling. The original diaries however required extensive conservation. Work went on behind the scenes to establish what was needed for each volume, as each required different processes. Some volumes were slightly charred, others were missing boards and parts of spines, and one from 1859 was reduced almost entirely to brittle fragments. Their transformation from ‘unavailable’ to ‘unrestricted’ has been a remarkable feat of conservation and it is a testament to the professional skills of our conservators that these materials are now available for consultation in our Reading Rooms.
Cataloguer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
India Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699, Papers of Charles Canning and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning