To work in an archive you sometimes need to be a detective. This is especially true for the tangled web of the mill world, where everybody knew everybody and things were constantly passing from one person to another. A little digging can reveal unexpected connections between material that came to the archive by completely different routes.
H E S Simmons was a Sussex photographer who toured the country by bike in the 1930s taking pictures of mills, which he sold as postcards. Our collection of Simmons cards, gathered together from various sources, was catalogued by volunteer Talbot Green, who discovered that Simmons had his own numbering system for the cards. By chance we came across a handwritten notebook in another collection listing all the cards in number order – this was a great help to Talbot in cataloguing, but who wrote it? It wasn’t in Simmons’ handwriting, nor that of Michael Short, in whose collection it was found, nor Martin Mason, creator of much of the material now in the Short collection. It was a mystery – but the clue turned up unexpectedly.
Karl S Wood was another cyclist who toured the country seeking to record the disappearing mills of Britain, in his case in watercolour. His planned book The Twilight of the Mills with black and white versions of all his mill pictures was never written, and his watercolours were acquired by the Lincolnshire Museum Service in 1977. The Karl Wood Collection at the Mills Archive consists of around 1400 pen and ink sketches, perhaps intended for the book, which came to us in the collection of Frank Gregory, the Sussex millwright.
It was only when we looked at some of the small scraps of paper found with the Wood sketches that we discovered a link with Simmons. The handwriting was the same as the Simmons notebook. Till now we hadn’t paid much attention to the rest of the notebook, but now we saw that it also contained a list of Karl Wood drawings – a list that corresponded exactly to the contents of our Karl Wood collection.
So the writer of the notebook owned not only a large number of Simmons cards, but also the Wood sketches that had somehow ended up in Frank Gregory’s collection. Hunting through the Michael Short collection for more items in the same handwriting, I at last came upon a name on a letter – T J Mason. Much of Short’s collection came originally from Martin Mason – so who was T J Mason? A relative? With only the name and the address on the letter to go on another volunteer, Guy Boocock, put his family history research skills into action and drew up the complete Mason family tree in a morning. As well as confirming that the handwriting was T J Mason’s (by means of his signature on a census return), he identified him as Thomas James Mason, 1881-1961, son of a Surrey wheelwright and uncle of Martin.
Meanwhile I had contacted Michael Short who told me that he bought the Mason collection from a shop in Cecil Court, London in the 70s. In fact this seems to have caused a bit of a stir at the time – I then found several letters in the archive referring to the sale, which included many Simmons cards. One of these letters is from Simmons himself, and describes how he gave his cards to T J Mason. There is also correspondence between Frank Gregory and Stephen Buckland regarding the postcards – and it is from their collections that the majority of the Simmons cards in the archive originate.
So this is our reconstruction of events: T J Mason seems to have been friendly with both Wood and Simmons, and acquired collections from each of them. On his death this passed to his nephew, Martin Mason, and together with his own collection was sold at the shop in Cecil Court. Michael Short bought some of it, including the notebook, while the postcards passed to various people including Buckland and Gregory. Although none of the sources found so far refer to the Wood drawings being on sale also, it seems fair to assume they were there as well and were also bought by Gregory. Finally all these collections found their way to the Mills Archive.
All of this underlines the importance of the archive as a place where related collections from diverse sources can be brought together, each gaining from the context provided by the others. In the ideal world all archives would be fully digitised and available online, allowing this sort of detective work to be carried out regardless of the physical location of the collections; until such a world emerges however, a specialist repository like the Mills Archive will continue to be valuable.