Tag Archives: research

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!

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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”.

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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.

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Guest Post: Barbier Archive Launch

This guest post is courtesy of Katy Stone, an undergaduate with the School of Modern Languages who is currently working through the fascinating Barbier family archive as part of a CUROP project to catalogue this unique resource.


Following a year of study abroad at l’Université Savoie Mont Blanc, France, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to participate in an 8-week placement with the Cardiff University Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP). My responsibility during the eight weeks is to pursue the efforts made by Pip Bartlett, last year’s CUROP student, in scoping the Barbier archive under the supervision of Professor Hanna Diamond, a 20th century French historian, and Alan Hughes, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University. So far this has involved organising, archiving and describing materials from the archive, using my language skills to translate and interpret the sources. I have been cataloguing the information into a spreadsheet for future researchers. Thus far, I have completed boxes 1898, 1903 and 1904, which have revealed fascinating details about this period.

Soon after commencing my placement, I participated in the official launch of the archive and unveiling of a special commemorative plaque in honour of Jacques Vaillant de Guélis, a Barbier family member, on Wednesday 6th June, the 74th anniversary of the D-Day landings. I thought it would be fitting to offer an account of the event for my first blog post.

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The afternoon of celebration took place at the Temple of Peace in Cathays Park. The Special Collections team had put together a small exhibition about the history of the Barbier family, Jacques Vaillant de Guélis and the archive. The display showcased some treasures of the rich and extensive archive, including a framed letter from Prime Minister David Lloyd George discussing Belgian refugees in Cardiff.

Guests included members of the Franco-Welsh Barbier family, some of whom had come specially from France to attend the events. It was clear to me that for many of them, some of whom had not met for many years, the event was an opportunity for a family reunion. Owing to the family’s bicultural identity, in some cases, I witnessed first-time meetings between those based in France and relatives who hailed from Paris and elsewhere in France, with others coming from UK destinations such as Devon and Marlborough, Wiltshire.

I found the introductory presentations by Hanna Diamond and Alan Hughes extremely illuminating. They highlighted the extraordinary range of materials in the archive including an abundance of diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings and photographs. I was particularly struck by the significant extent to which the 19th century Frenchman influenced Cardiff’s society through his involvement with local cultural societies like ‘La Société Franco-Britannique de Cardiff’, and his personal commitment to preserving the Welsh language. As a consequence, it is clear that the archive boasts an important array of sources on social history. I would be curious to mobilise the archive to discover more about what life was like for people in Victorian Cardiff during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Mrs. Delphine Isaaman, granddaughter of Paul Barbier who donated the archive to the University along with her cousin Paul Barbier, also spoke about how her interest in her family’s story grew after finding family documents. This led to her spending around a decade researching in order to fill in the gaps, and resulted in the development of the archive. Delphine had actually stored and catalogued much of the archive before it arrived in Cardiff University Special Collections. In her talk, she shared tales from the archive, such as tips from other family members on bringing up babies, much to the amusement of the audience. This particular story demonstrated Hanna Diamond’s earlier statement that “the archive holds vast research potential for people working on the role of women in World War One”.

06.06.18 mh Barbier Jacques Guelis Archive Launch 29

To celebrate the life of Paul Barbier’s nephew, Jacques Vaillant de Guélis, the talks were followed by a swift relocation to his birthplace at 3 Museum Place, at the heart of the University campus. During the Second World War, de Guélis played a crucial role as a spy in the secretive Special Operations Executive due to his Franco-British background. A Blue Plaque to honour his remarkable achievements was unveiled by Professor Colin Riordan, President and Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University, together with Claudine Ripert Landler, the Cultural Counsellor of the French Embassy in the United Kingdom. As a historian and a linguist, it was thrilling to see the war hero’s efforts formally recognised, and the pure elation upon the faces of those who came to witness it. Thanks to the former spy’s bilingualism, he was able to go unnoticed behind enemy lines, fighting with the French Resistance on the ground and contributing to the liberation of Nazi-occupied France. For me the event therefore highlighted the value and importance of learning foreign languages. One monolingual member of the Barbier family who I talked to teased that he was envious of his sibling’s bilingualism. I am optimistic that the plaque will promote Jacque’s story, and I hope that it might inspire others to engage in learning a language.

After the emotions of the plaque unveiling, the afternoon closed with a drinks reception in the foyer of the School of Modern Languages, at 66 Park Place. This was a final chance to exchange with the family and other interested parties. It was a valuable opportunity to get to know the family, and I even managed to practise my French with some relatives from Paris! I very much look forward to conducting oral interviews with Hanna Diamond to capture the life stories of Paul and Mary Barbier in July. Flowers were also laid on Jacques grave in Cathays Cemetery by his cousin and the Friends of Cathays Cemetery, a touching tribute to the brave man and a moving end to such a special day.

Barbier relative at Cathays

Overall, it was a humbling experience, and a pleasure to finally put some faces to names. I look forward to immersing myself in the project, with the ambition to help unlock the incredible story of this French Cardiff family and especially their role in Cardiff during the Victorian era.

Guest post: CUROP Research Project – Pattern and the Romantic Imagination, 1780-1840

This guest post comes from Felicity Holmes-Mackie. A graduate of Cardiff University, Felicity has been working as a research assistant for Dr Jane Moore School of English, Communication and Philosophy on a CUROP (Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme) project using ladies’ periodicals held in Special Collections and Archives.

Posters from all the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences CUROP projects undertaken this year will be exhibited later this week on Friday 16th October in the Viriamu Jones Gallery in Main Building between 12.00-13.30.


‘The fashionable colours for this month are…’

dress 2During my undergraduate degree at Cardiff I have been fortunate enough to enrol on several modules taught in conjunction with Special Collections and Archives. Having been exposed to the wonderland of exciting resources nestled underneath the Arts and Social Studies Library, I naturally leapt at the chance to embark upon a research project based there during summer 2015. Now, thanks to a project led by Dr Jane Moore and supported by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP), I have spent a summer picking my way through the moveable shelving and examining the treasures I discovered.

The project, entitled Pattern and the Romantic Imagination: the creative interchange between poetry and needlework 1780-1840, explores the links between material crafts and imaginative poetry and prose fiction of the Romantic period. I have been, slowly but surely, rifling through the hard copy collections and online digital databases of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century
spinesperiodicals. The main publications I have focussed on are The Ladys Magazine, La Belle Assemblée, and The Ladies’ Monthly Museum, which feature a wide range of articles. These include serialised prose fiction, illustrated biographies, recipes for medicines, word puzzles, and needlework patterns. They were generally aimed at upper class ladies and contain work written by both male and female contributors, who were often unpaid.

dressThe most interesting discoveries of the project were undoubtedly those found in the fashion descriptions which feature in all three publications. Each magazine had a slightly different approach to reporting on the latest fashions; while some articles aim to inspire with vivid descriptions, others dictate what the reader should or should not be wearing according to the tastes that month. La Belle Assemblée outlines upcoming fashions, whereas The Ladies’ Monthly Museum describes fashions of the past month in its regular feature ‘The Mirror for Fashion’. The Ladys Magazine includes similar monthly features, but twice a year it also provides vivid and detailed descriptions of the court dresses worn on royal birthdays. In these pieces, each lady’s outfit is described and judged in terms of taste; sometimes the line between gossip and fashion description becomes somewhat blurred!

detailThese fashion articles can seem repetitive and uninteresting, perhaps something to skim quickly before finding the next instalment of a gripping serialised novel or the next letter in a stream of huffy correspondence. However, delving into these articles reveals an arsenal of technical language and a veritable rainbow of descriptive vocabulary. One of the highlights of the project has undoubtedly been the rich, varied, and occasionally eccentric colour vocabulary which features in all the publications to some degree. From pigeon’s breast to faded dove, marshmallow-blossom to date-leaf, ponceau to ethereal blue, the ‘fashionable colours for the month’ are rich, varied, and occasionally eccentric.

dress3The coloured fashion plates too, are a real treat. The majority of plates show ladies sitting or standing in ways which will show off their outfits, but some also show ladies dancing, at the beach, playing musical instruments, or picking flowers. In some months hat fashions go into overdrive and resemble crowns, large turban-style wraps, or even Roman helmets.

These fashion articles and plates are certainly more stimulating and imaginative than they might first appear. Not only did the colour vocabularies surprise me but the technical descriptions of the dresses offered an insight into thinking about outfits and dress which was peculiar to the period and is far-removed from the way we think about style today. The periodicals generally offered a range of unexpected and fascinating articles and illustrations and I certainly feel lucky to have familiarised myself with them.

First World War resource guide launched

Special Collections and Archives has launched its new Resource Guide for the First World War era.

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While the library’s circulating book collections relating to the First World War cover about 10 shelves, in Special Collections and Archives we have another 10 shelf metres of contemporaneous reference sources: printed, ephemeral, and archival material produced in the period 1914-1920.

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So far this is an untapped resource by students, and most academic staff, and we’re keen to promote this material for both undergraduate and postgraduate work. We estimate we have over 3,000 items in the Library’s collections from the period 1914-1920; we have selected around 700 for the guide which are focused on the War itself.

The 1914-1920 material outlined by the Resource Guide includes –

  • Eye witness accounts from the front line,
  • War poets and literary writings, especially the huge Edward Thomas archive,
  • Wide ranging political debates raging during the war,
  • Much League of Nations material, from early in the war to well after 1920,
  • Pro-war and Conscientious objectors’ perspectives,
  • Extensive press cuttings collections throughout the war years, giving a week by week, blow by blow account from the war’s start to its end
  • Pictorial and illustration sources from a wide range of printed material,
  • Many sources showing what life was like on the ‘home front’ during the war period.

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Hopefully, from these original and contemporaneous sources, students will get an enhanced perspective on the War, getting a flavour from contemporary sources of how people thought, felt, and reacted in that difficult time.

Special Collections and Archives staff received extensive help from a volunteer, an American librarian in Cardiff, to produce the eventual guide, and we are grateful to Katherine Wilkins for her assistance.

The Resource Guide features on the Imperial War Museum’s guide to events, exhibitions, projects and activities. Find out more at www.1914.org.