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Familiar Faces: Kathryn Rooke, Archivist

In this blog series, we'll be interviewing some familiar faces around Gunnersbury. Next up is our archivist Kathryn Rooke.

From 18th century biscuit recipes to an Edwardian teenage girl’s diaries and behind the scenes photos of Ealing Studios – the archive at Gunnersbury Park Museum contains a remarkable collection of documents that tell us so much about the local area and the people who lived here. It’s cared for by Archivist Kathryn Rooke #fortheloveofgunnersbury

What does the job of an archivist entail?
It sometimes gets mixed up with archaeology and alchemy! But essentially archivists look after, catalogue and make available historic records. There’s a move away, at the moment, from looking exclusively at traditional paper and parchment and genealogical records such as church registers and tax records. You find more of a digital element now because the records that we create might be emails or videos. Technology changes so quickly now that there’s a danger that some digital records won’t be accessible. We already have tapes, VHS’s and CDs which we can’t access anymore, so, it’s sometimes easier to preserve things with paper than it is electronically. That’s why paper still forms the main content of archives.

What’s the appeal of archives, museums and history for you?
Everyone in my family has always loved history. We regularly had family trips to castles and museums when I was young. I love the stories – so many people’s lives are captured in some way. In the Archive at Gunnersbury, for instance, we’ve got the photographs they took, the letters they wrote, maps of where they lived and information about the shops they visited. Everything is completely different but it’s still the same. Gunnersbury is so eclectic because it’s a local history archive. We’ve got bits and bobs from people who lived and worked around here such as diaries, sketchbooks and postcards. You get a little snapshot of their lives, and that’s really lovely.

Where does the content of the Archive come from?
The pieces we have tell the lives of ordinary people – they’re like 99 per cent of the people who visit Gunnersbury today. Visitors come to this amazing historic house where the great and the good have lived but the Museum and the Archive are both very much focused on the ordinary people too. Quite often we get things because somebody has visited the museum and they have said:

“Oh, we’ve got something like that my grandmother left us.”

We’ve got recipe books that belong to people’s great grannies and diaries from great-uncles and pieces that have all these local family connections. I think that it’s more interesting in a way to think about people who lived just down your road rather than only about the rich and famous and privileged. Ordinary people’s lives were often more difficult than ours and so it’s more interesting to see how they got by, day to day.

Do people offer you things?
They do sometimes. It’s always lovely, but, as you can imagine, we have to have a policy on what we can collect and what we can’t. For instance, we can only take in records that relate directly to the local area. The question we have to ask is “Are we the right home for something? Might it be better off in another archive?” The main challenge is really just a lack of space.

You must have some favourite pieces?
There’s a little girl’s autograph book, dating from around 1909 to 1910. Her name was Estelle Ashton and she lived in Ealing. You can see how she’s persuaded her family and friends to write sweet little messages in her book. As well as sketches of cats and gnomes and household things there are lots of photographs of her too. She was really into amateur dramatics so there are pictures of her as a princess and a witch among other characters. The costumes are amazing. When she becomes a teenager, she has a collection of love poetry that she’s written out in an exercise book. It’s full of tragic poems and cute little drawings. Even though it’s over a hundred years old, it could be written by a teenager now – the language is slightly different but the themes and preoccupations are exactly the same, especially when she writes about wanting a boyfriend!

What’s the relationship between the Archive and the Museum?
The Museum curators Amy and Julia do a great job of incorporating Archive items into the collections that are on display. For example, there are photographs, posters and letters from the Ealing Studios in the leisure gallery and you’ll find digitised paintings of the watercolours of Gunnersbury Park in the pre-Rothschild period. It means that Archive objects don’t get overlooked. Amy and I worked very closely together with the Roy Gough exhibition. In fact, we collaborate all the time. That’s the great thing about being a small team.

Carltona Custard Package
Packaging in the Carltona Custard factory

Do you get a sense of the changes in the area over the decades?
Absolutely. We have a large collection of oral histories. There about 500 recorded interviews with people of their experience of living and working in the local area and some from people who moved to Southall from Southeast Asia. You can hear people’s actual voices – it’s so powerful.

What about businesses as well as people – are they represented in some way?
Very much so. When the Quaker Oats factory was knocked down in Southall, for instance, we took in their archive. It had been assessed by an expert before demolition and when that expert saw these files, photographs and papers, they contacted an organisation called the Business Archives Council that seeks to preserve business records of historical importance. The BAC asked us to take them in. We said “yes”. It’s a fantastic archive. We’ve got information ranging from the sales projections during the wartime period to examples of their packaging and advertising over nearly a century.

Who visits the Archive?
We have groups of people who are just curious about what we hold, and so I’ll get out various bits and bobs to show them. There are also people who have a particular interest – they might want to see photographs of Ealing in the 1960s or their dad might have worked in the Carltona Custard Factory and they want to see photographs of it. We sometimes have visits from costume designers who want to look at the photographs and the sketches of the costumes form the Ealing Studios. We’ve also had historians who are interested in the experience of women working on the laundries around Acton, which was known as “Soapsud Island”. A food historian came over from Canada because she was researching 17th and 18th century biscuit recipes. She baked me some biscuits from our 18th century recipe books. They were delicious. After all, everybody likes a biscuit!

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