Reflections on Transcribing the Georgian Papers

By Tom Murray, King’s Undergraduate Research Fellow, King’s College London


I was introduced to transcription as part of the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP), and as such my transcribing experience is decidedly Georgian. Having transcribed a number of documents for the GPP, however, the value of transcription for historians has become manifest. Admittedly, there remains nothing quite like engaging first-hand with primary sources – which for the vast majority of history, and certainly for the Georgian period, means written or printed documents. Having said this, however, there is definite value, both practical and otherwise, in transcription and transcribed sources. The process itself is relatively simple, though collectively represents a heroic effort on the part of the GPP with the eventual aim of digitising the Royal Archives’ extensive collections from the reigns of the Hanoverian monarchs. My transcription contributions were a number of essays written by George III, including ‘Some short notes concerning the Education of a Prince’ – intended for his son, the future George IV – and ‘Lectures on Modern History’, musing on the benefits that come of studying history; something I can certainly get behind.

Essay on the German Empire’s governance by George III (RA GEO/ADD/32/481). Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Never having known a world in which the Internet was not integrated into every aspect of modern life, I initially found the practice of reading handwritten documents bemusing. This was reflected in some preliminary difficulty in reading handwriting itself – once I became familiar with George’s style of writing, however, this became less of a problem. More disconcerting was his habit of making complex additions to and deletions from his essays, often in erratic handwriting reminiscent of exam answers I’ve written myself. Thankfully, it was clear that the GPP had foreseen this – I had been provided with an extensive transcription manual with guidelines for how best to transcribe the many quirks thrown up within Georgian writings, from aforementioned deletions and additions to marginalia and doodles. These guidelines were especially useful, providing an invaluable manual for transcribers as well as ensuring that GPP transcriptions and all their complexities are recorded in a uniform way, much to the relief of future researchers.

A secondary challenge I encountered in transcription was another product of my own twenty-first century, digital upbringing. Much to my initial dismay, George III lacked the benefit of spell-check when writing his essays, and thus his spelling, grammar and punctuation were often not as I – or anyone else writing in 2017 – might anticipate. Given that the very first instruction within the GPP transcription manual reads “Type What You See: Transcribe the document exactly as written”, I was therefore required to hold my syntactic nose and accept that when George wrote about the “pedantick applications of Colleges and Schools” or apologised for “how odly soever it may sound”, this was exactly what he meant. This took some adjustment: even in transcribing those quotes onto this blog post my own instinct – and spell-check function – attempted to alter George’s original spelling. However, once these initial challenges had been overcome, the transcription process proved rewarding and enjoyable – as well as surprisingly accessible. As a recent graduate, I was pleased to discover that, aided by the GPP manual, I was able to contribute to the programme’s transcription efforts with just my laptop, Microsoft Word, and a few hours of work. The ease and relative brevity with which the transcription project can be added to – depending, naturally, on the length and complexity of the documents themselves – surely bodes well for the project as a whole, as well as the prospect of encouraging individual contributions to the GPP like mine.

There is clearly real value in transcribing the Royal Archives’ Georgian documents that makes any challenges to the transcriber worthwhile. Following the success of a similar project to transcribe and digitise the papers of Queen Victoria, the process of transcribing the Georgian papers with a view to their digitisation seems a natural step. This would of course provide some relief to future historians, who will be able to benefit from digital access to the Royal Archive collection via the internet, not unlike my own use of the venerable Founders Online digital archive in researching for my undergraduate dissertation. Likewise, the capacity to search within a digital database, as opposed to trawling through original documents, will aid researchers in their specific pursuits. Democratising access to the Georgian papers in this way will allow historians across the world to employ them in their research, facilitating new and exciting contributions to the field of eighteenth-century and Georgian studies without requiring a visit to the Royal Archives at Windsor, as impressive an experience as I know that to be. This, surely, is the long-term objective of the Georgian Papers Programme, of which transcription forms a crucial, fruitful cornerstone.

Sharing Research: GPP Fellows Ann Little & David Hancock

By Dr Angel Luke O’Donnell, Academic Liaison for the Georgian Papers Programme, and Teaching Fellow in North American History, King’s College London.


On 17 July 2017, Windsor Castle hosted the fourth GPP coffee morning. This was the first coffee morning that Windsor has hosted and it was a great chance to share the work on the programme with new colleagues in the Royal Archives and the Royal Library. Two fellows from the William & Mary College and of Early American History and Culture scheme, Ann Little (Colorado State University) and David Hancock (University of Michigan) joined us for the session. We also heard talks by Prof Arthur Burns, King’s College London, and Roberta Giubilini and Rachel Krier, both from the Royal Archives.

The session began with a welcome from Oliver Walton and a short round of introductions. Thereafter, Arthur Burns, Academic Director, shared his experience of writing research grants in the UK environment. Arthur explained that over the course of his career the development of research outputs other than books, and especially digital products such as database, is becoming an increasing priority for funding bodies. As such, the development of GPP digital outputs will have important implications for academic colleagues over the coming years.

High-waisted dancing dress from 1809. Source: The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.

Ann Little gave us a fascinating overview of how clothing has shaped women’s torsos from the Elizabethan period to the early nineteenth century. The ideal female figure changed from a flat triangular shape, in which women’s breasts were flattened and the waist cinched in, to an Empire waist in the nineteenth century that accentuated the bosom. Ann’s research focuses on the political significance of fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century, and in particular the politics of the new exposure of European and Euro-American women’s breasts in the high-waisted fashionable gowns of the time. Europeans and colonial North Americans were accustomed to seeing women’s breasts depicted in the print culture of the eighteenth century (and presumably in person in North America), but those women were overwhelmingly Native American, African, or enslaved African-Americans, not free, white women. Ann is asking: why did the Empire waist appear when it appeared, and why did it disappear, and what does this say about the aftermath of the age of revolution and the possibility for women’s citizenship?

By the time that we met for the coffee morning, Ann had only been in the archives for a week. However, during that time, she had been working through the papers associated with George III’s daughters. Unfortunately, the six young women hardly commented at all about the dramatic shift in women’s fashion from triangular stays to the Empire waistline. Therefore, after Ann’s presentation we had an interesting discussion about where to find additional sources about this striking change in the shape of women’s torso. One suggestion was to use the portraiture of the Royal Collections, most of which has detailed provenance records, so Ann would be able to trace the development over time. Ann also looked at material in the Royal Library for prints and drawings of new dresses. Ann’s presentation prompted a fascinating discussion of how to overcome a perennial problem in research when historical correspondents are not forthcoming in the way that a researcher expected.

David Hancock presented next. Like Ann, David had not yet had the opportunity to explore the archives, and in fact, the coffee morning was the first day that David had been in Windsor. David’s project is a biography of the Earl of Shelburne, and so he gave us an overview of Shelburne’s life by talking us through various collections in Bowood House and the British Library. As in the June coffee morning, it was great to hear about how the Windsor material fitted into the broader environment of historical documents. Shelburne had a storied career. He served as aide-de-camp to George III before becoming an MP and rising to Prime Minister, overseeing the initial stages of the peace talks to end the American War for Independence. It was particularly interesting to hear about Shelburne’s intellectual and social coteries. Shelburne had a huge library of books and often allowed leading intellectuals of the day to use his collections. He also kept up correspondence with members of the Scottish Enlightenment such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Dugald Stewart. David’s work in the Royal Archives was only in the preliminary stages, but David was confident that because the Windsor material had been less inaccessible before GPP, then his time as a fellow would allow him to explore relatively novel documentary sources, potentially providing new insights into the life of Shelburne.

After David, we heard from Rachel Krier who presented a fascinating history of the Windsor collections themselves. She discussed the role of the former Royal Librarian and Archivist John Fortescue. Between 1927 and 1928, Fortescue published six volumes of the correspondence of King George III covering the period 1760 to 1783. Rachel has been cataloguing the King’s correspondence for GPP, and in her assessment, Fortescue has been treated harshly by posterity. Critics often blamed Fortescue for the poor quality of his edited collection. In part, the academic Lewis Namier helped form the negative perception of Fortescue by publishing Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue’s Edition of the Correspondence of King George the Third, a rather dyspeptic book of errata that identified many of the mistakes in Fortescue’s work. Rachel is still working through the collection, but suggests that people should be kinder to the efforts of Fortescue.

After Rachel, we heard from Roberta Giubilini. Roberta, who is currently cataloguing the papers of William IV, told us about the king’s steward James William Daniel. She argued Daniel’s papers should be included in William’s collection because they reveal William’s keen interest in agriculture and new technologies. Daniel’s collection would expand our understanding of William beyond his role in the navy to encompass new passions. Roberta is currently working on a longer piece describing Daniel’s papers and setting out her argument in more detail, but it was great to see more cataloguing work.

In the main, we heard from works-in-progress during the session. One of the best advantages of discussing a work at an early stage is that you can see the more experimental elements at work, which in turn can help with gaining a clearer insight into the design of a project.

Sharing Research: GPP Fellows Flora Fraser & Gabriel Paquette

By Dr Angel Luke O’Donnell, Academic Liaison for the Georgian Papers Programme, and Teaching Fellow in North American History, King’s College London.


On 8 June 2017, King’s College London hosted its third GPP fellows coffee morning. The coffee mornings are opportunities for fellows on various schemes to share their research in the archives. The meetings help academics, archivists, and other fellows understand more about the material being digitised as part of the programme. In this session, we were joined by the Mount Vernon fellow and award-winning author Flora Fraser, the Sons of the American Revolution Visiting Professor Gabriel Paquette from Johns Hopkins University, and Roberta Giubilini from the Royal Archives.

The session was opened by incoming Academic Director, Prof Arthur Burns (King’s College London). Arthur first welcomed the fellows to GPP and then shared his recent experience with a teaching module at King’s in which undergraduate students transcribed documents from the Royal Archives. The students produced fantastic work and engaged thoughtfully with the programme. Arthur also discussed his plans for the future, especially his aims to continue to build a scholarly community around the programme.

Flora Fraser talked through some of the material that animates her work, including some fascinating links between the Georgian material and an associated collection at the Royal Archives called the Stuart and Cumberland papers. The Stuart papers are a series of volumes relating to the deposed James II, his son the ‘Old Pretender’, and his grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie. Meanwhile, the Cumberland papers are mainly comprised of papers relating to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and named after George II’s younger son, William Duke of Cumberland, ‘Butcher of Culloden’. One of the aspirations for GPP is to find and explore these links between collections, both within Windsor and further afield, in order to understand better the significance of the material in the Royal Archives. The Stuart and Cumberland papers are helping Flora write the biography of Flora Macdonald, a Scottish heroine of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion who eventually emigrated from her native Skye to North Carolina. Flora told us the story of how Flora Macdonald helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape Scotland by himself in women’s clothing despite a £30,000 bounty on his head. This led on to a broader discussion of royal costume in general, especially other times that royalty adopted disguises and costumes.

Flora is also working on a biography of Horatio Nelson. She discussed her hopes to find material in the Royal Archives about Nelson’s rise to prominence as well as more information about his funeral. Flora has previously written a number of award-winning biographies, most recently the biography of the relationship between George and Martha Washington. These two newest projects each use biography as a genre to tell interesting stories, one to reveal the life of a woman relatively unknown to posterity and one to reassess one of the most famous Britons of all time.

Gabriel Paquette is a historian of the Iberian world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing specifically on the decline, revival and fall of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Gabe is currently researching the relationship between Spain and Britain with an interest in the American War for Independence. A lot of the diplomatic historiography of the war so far has concentrated on the French and American alliance, overlooking the contributions of the Spanish. Crucially, Gabe argued that Spain’s navy was an important factor in menacing Britain’s Caribbean colonies, and thereby, the threat of the Spanish navy prevented Britain from concentrating its forces on the continental colonies. Gabe reported that the GPP material would be particularly useful for understanding this Anglo-Spanish relationship because George III practiced ‘personal diplomacy’. He pursued diplomatic aims outside of formal government structures through his own network of emissaries. At times, this personal diplomacy actually meant that George’s messages to the Spanish were at odds with official government policy. Gabe’s presentation revealed two interesting things for me. Firstly, the significance of the Spanish involvement in hampering Britain’s movements in the American War for Independence, and secondly, it showed that George III not only intervened personally in domestic politics, but also believed he had a role to play on the international stage as well.

Finally, Roberta Giubilini gave us an update about the progress in cataloguing the papers of William IV. Roberta has completed a description of items in the William IV collection. As Roberta argued in her presentation, William IV has not had many biographies written about him and these papers may be instrumental in encouraging new historical interest in his life and reign. The papers may be particularly interesting for understanding his time as the Duke of Clarence, a period only covered very briefly in the few biographies that do exist. Roberta’s presentation prompted a fascinating discussion about William’s time in the navy, his experience as a midshipman and his later interest in military discipline. During his reign, William had a personal interest in maintaining corporal punishment in the military despite objections raised about its effectiveness. Overall, Roberta’s presentation gave an exciting insight into how the GPP material could be used once it is fully catalogued.

A recurrent theme in the discussions was the navy: its strategy, leaders, and the management of the personnel. It was great to see links between seemingly separate projects. Discovering connections that I hadn’t previously considered always provides new models for approaching historical archives in creative ways.