Tag Archives: education

Guest Post: The Barbier Family in Victorian Cardiff

Yet another fascinating post on the Barbier family courtesy of Katy Stone, who is discovering much about this exceptional family, and life in Victorian Cardiff, by working her way through their archive as part of a CUROP project to catalogue this unique resource.

In this blog post, I’d like to share my discoveries about life in Cardiff during the Victorian era (1837-1901), as seen through the eyes of the Barbiers. Since I started working with the archive earlier this summer, I have sifted through boxes of letters from 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1903 and 1904, and they have given me a fascinating insight into daily life in the Welsh capital during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Sadly, the letters reveal that poor housing conditions, outbreaks of infectious disease and premature death were not uncommon in Cardiff. Much of the archive in this period is dedicated to correspondence from Euphémie Barbier to her son Paul Barbier Fils. In one of her letters I discovered that a servant of the De Guélis household fell ill with diphtheria due to unsatisfactory sewage arrangements in the house. I have also found repeated reports of influenza, particularly during 1898 and 1899, and in one unfortunate case the family’s milkman died very suddenly, showing how the epidemic could lead rapidly to pneumonia. Euphémie’s letters also highlight poor dental health. The younger Euphémie Barbier (known as Phémie), suffered terribly from neuralgia (intense pain along a nerve, especially in the head or face). One letter from 1898 recounts how her mother had called the doctor as her daughter’s hands and face were “twitching”. I was particularly struck by Euphémie’s explanation of how she tried to bribe the doctor with cups of strong black coffee to encourage her to visit again, underlining the high demand for access to medical care. Her letters also mention a variety of other disorders including brain tumours, lumbago, ringworm and chicken pox. Victorian Cardiff’s poor sanitary conditions are boldly summed up by Georges Barbier’s stark description of the city as a “dirty hole”.

The Barbier letters also reveal stories about the widespread use of curious medicines during this era. In a letter from 1898, Euphémie Barbier advised her son to take “rhubarb pills” or “Epsom salts” to help alleviate the deafness in his ear. Another example from 1898, tells of the application of cocaine to treat an abscess on Isabelle Barbier’s mouth, which surprised me given it’s illegal today! More often than not though, simply taking a bath was recommended to relieve the painful symptoms of various ailments and illnesses. In one letter, Georges Barbier even recommends mixing disinfectant into bathwater in order to kill germs, which sounds a bit extreme to me!

1 Barbier Victorian Cardiff

The poor quality of public health appears to have put a strain on family finances as contemporaries were often forced to take time off school or work to recover. I quickly noticed from the letters that there was a daily struggle to make ends meet. Euphémie’s lists of household spending usually included only basic commodities, highlighting that luxuries were rare. Opportunities to go out or travel were often missed, and Euphémie remarked that it was “unfortunate” to have to live like that on a daily basis. In fact, as the mother of the Barbier Family, her letters are often preoccupied with money worries, describing the pressure to pay taxes as “tormenting”.

The archive also reveals Victorian attitudes to education, with a letter written by Uline Barbier featuring an illustration of a boy wearing a ‘dunce’ hat drawn by Paul Barbier Fils. Pupils who were slow at learning were made to stand in a corner wearing a tall pointed hat decorated with a letter D or sometimes the word ‘dunce’, while the teacher and their peers mocked them. Nowadays this seems harsh, but contemporaries believed that all pupils were capable of learning and that a slow or backward pupil was being deliberately lazy or reluctant to learn. I was stunned by a criticism made by Phémie’s geography teacher, Joan Reynolds; “I know that your mental capacity is not great, in fact we all know that you have not much brain power”.

4 Barbier Victorian Cardiff

Victorian Cardiff is certainly portrayed as a close-knit, vibrant community by the archive, with many letters uncovering a wealth of clues about the social activities of the Barbiers during this era. They often dined with family friends, danced, listened to music and played chess, for example, and generous gifts like brandy, chocolates, sweets and even chickens, were often received. Personally, I think this shows how much the Barbier Family were truly valued and respected by their friends and the wider Cardiff community.

I also noticed references to a number of monuments to civic pride in Cardiff during this period. Phémie writes about an exhibition for the stores of Cardiff to promote their businesses to the public at Park Hall, a theatre and cinema that was situated along Park Place, for example. Dances were also held in places such as Aberdare Hall, a residence for female students established in 1883 by the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, which now stands a Grade II-listed Gothic revival hall of residence belonging to Cardiff University.

Overall, the Barbier Archive offers colourful insights into many aspects of life in Cardiff during Queen Victoria’s reign. It has been particularly fascinating to discover a series of health epidemics, and the pessimistic outlook people held towards potential learning difficulties. I look forward to sharing further discoveries that emerge from the extraordinary range of materials I have encountered whilst working on this magnificent archive, which holds great potential for future researchers.

Archives Wales Forum 2013: Working Together

Maesmawr Hall Hotel, Caersws

Maesmawr Hall Hotel, Caersws

This week I travelled to sunny Caersws for the annual Archives Wales Forum. Held in a Tudor manor house, the conference was attended by archivists from across the country, from Anglesey to Gwent. The theme was ‘working together’, and over a fully packed day, we heard from twenty speakers on a wide range of topics from educational outreach to catalogue conversion.

The guest speaker, Dr Aled Jones, Chief Executive and Librarian of the National Library of Wales (NLW), began the day by introducing the Library’s recently launched strategy document, Knowledge for All: Strategic Direction 2014-2017.

Morning speakers included Sally McInnes on the NLW’s £20.4 million Heritage Lottery Fund bid for a national Conservation Centre, which is proposed to be built onto the area of the National Library’s building affected by April’s fire. Alwyn Roberts (NLW) reported on a project to use volunteers to transcribe shipping records, and Elspeth Jordan (National Museum of Wales) discussed their £600,000 Esmée Fairbairn funded project to conserve, digitise and carry out research on a sample from their photography collection. Both Kerry Robinson from Powys Archives and Steven Davies from Flintshire Record Office spoke about using affordable portable scanners to digitise collections and catalogues. I gave a presentation on SCOLAR’s support for a new undergraduate module in the School of English – Project Management and Research – in which students undertake workplace-based projects in exchange for course credit, in order to develop employability skills prior to graduation.

The afternoon sessions focused on a number of educational outreach projects undertaken by Gwent, West Glamorgan, Anglesey and Glamorgan Archives, involving children as young as 3. All are successfully working with teachers to link local collections in with National Curriculum themes. Sarah Winning from Denbighshire archives spoke about their WordPress blog, launched to save staff time in writing annual reports and newsletters and to help reach a new online audience.

One of the most impressive presentations of the day came from Andrew Dulley of West Glamorgan Archives Service. Andrew produced an award-winning short film of the Olympic torch relay route, as it would have looked in 1908 Swansea. The resulting film is slick, professional, and successfully brings history to life – but it cost nothing to produce. Andrew used free software to carry out all transitions, image editing and sound editing, and obtained free music and sound effects under a Creative Commons licence.  It is a superb example of what archives across Wales are managing to achieve despite financially straitened times, with a bit of hard work, ingenuity and imagination!

Lunchtime workshops: women’s history and gender studies

Special Collections and Archives’ series of lunchtime workshops continues in December with sessions on women’s history and gender studies sources. The workshops are intended to raise awareness of the breadth of material available to support research in this area, and as a general introduction to using Special Collections and Archives.

The second workshop on women’s history sources will be led by Assistant Archivist, Alison Harvey. Topics will include: biography; children’s literature; conduct/advice manuals; crime; diaries and autobiographies; education; fashion; health and medicine; international affairs; journals and magazines; literature and journalism; music; newspapers; politics, suffrage and the labour movement; travel; University history; witchcraft; and women’s societies.

Workshops will be held in Special Collections and Archives, on the lower ground floor of the Arts and Social Studies Library, Corbett Road, Cardiff. The women’s history workshop is scheduled for 12-1pm on Thursday 6 December, and will be repeated at 1-2pm on Friday 7 December.

Workshops are open to all, but places are limited, so if you would like to attend either session, please email HarveyAE@cf.ac.uk, stating your preferred time.