I am lucky enough to spend one day a week as a volunteer in the archives at Chatsworth. Reliable witnesses and my diary tell me I have been coming here for just over a year. Each day here goes very quickly because it’s so interesting. I have always been fascinated by history and qualified as an archivist years ago. Now I am able to use some of those skills in retirement. There are several volunteers and we get a wide range of work to do, organised by a friendly team of archivists. They even give you home-made chocolate cake at tea break (you have to be quick!). The projects I have undertaken at Chatsworth have been varied. I have helped in long term projects such as cleaning and repackaging documents, cataloguing estate maps and plans and listing and cataloguing all kinds of documents.

At present I am cataloguing correspondence of Victor Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire. The work generally involves sorting the documents chronologically, making sure that they are clean and in suitable packaging, assigning reference numbers, and then entering the details onto a spreadsheet. I identify dates, provenance and give a brief description of each letter’s contents. To do this I have to read the letters. Bliss! The personalities leap from the page. That is the best bit for me. Sometimes you feel that you can hear the people speak. You get to know their handwriting, but then have that sinking feeling when you realise you can’t quite make out their signatures. It is a wonderful body of information about personal, social and political life in the early 20th century. In one letter you can be reading about national and international events and next you come across a detailed description of the estates and workers at Holker Hall or Bolton Abbey, a bishop wondering who to appoint to a benefice or a correspondent thanking the Duke for a gift of grouse.
Cataloguing letters is enjoyable, but often frustrating ... particularly when you can’t make out the signature like in the letter above.
The oldest documents I have worked on are some letters written by Georgiana, 5th Duchess of Devonshire, including a hymn she wrote while in childbirth. I have also worked on listing a collection of Buxton Bath Books where I saw the names of all kinds of people who used the thermal spa at Buxton, ranging from an Archbishop of Canterbury to someone who was described as ‘itinerant’. Then there was the Thomas Bateman Collection, a collection of historical, archaeological and geological material compiled in the nineteenth century by a renowned local antiquarian. I have also helped to catalogue the diaries of Lady Lucy Cavendish (illustrated by her with amusing sketches), the diaries of ‘The Bachelor Duke’ and the diaries of Lord Edward Cavendish.
Extract from a diary of Lucy Cavendish, complete with sketches

As for Chatsworth, this is the most beautiful place to come to work, all the grandeur of the buildings and estate, and underpinning it, a record of the generations of people who built, worked and lived here. It is a great privilege to get up close to such an important archive, and to help preserve it for future generations.
Collections Volunteer
Discover what can be found in archives and explore theDevonshire Collection Archive as well as archives in your local area. Visit www.exploreyourarchive.org to find out more or follow the stories on twitter #explorearchives.

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