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Cataloguing George with John and Lewis!

By Rachael Krier, Metadata Creator at the Royal Archives

Over the course of the last few months I have been cataloguing George III’s official correspondence (known more widely as the Calendar). There are 38 large maroon boxes of George III Calendar in total covering the whole of his reign but this release (Summer 2018) focusses only on the first 4 of those boxes which date from the period slightly before George III became king until June 1772. Each of these boxes contains 300 – 400 documents and it can take up to or over a month to complete each one. As one of the project cataloguers at the Royal Archives, I read each document and write a précis of its contents in line with internationally agreed criteria known within the archive profession as the International Standard on Archival Description (General) or ISAD(G) for short. These criteria are: document reference number, title, extent (number of documents), date, and level (usually ‘item’ or ‘file’ indicating the position of the record within the collection hierarchy or ‘family tree’). There are actually very few required fields within ISAD(G) and while the whole standard goes far beyond these few fields, it is not designed to be prescriptive. We have therefore also developed our own in-house cataloguing standard to ensure consistency among the cataloguers at the Royal Archives.

Sir John Fortescue’s Correspondence & Sir Lewis Namier’s Additions and Corrections

In cataloguing, I am drawing heavily on Sir John Fortescue’s editions of the Correspondence of King George III 1760-1783 due to time constraints as it is far faster to read a transcript rather than many different handwriting styles often of variable legibility! Fortescue served as Royal Librarian at Windsor Castle between 1905 and 1926 but is perhaps best remembered for his multi-volume A History of the British Army. It was during this time that the Georgian Papers were discovered and a description of their arrival at Windsor can be found in his autobiography Author and Curator.

The published editions of George III’s Calendar appear to have only been developed quite late in Fortescue’s tenure. An unaccessioned day book and visitor book in the Royal Archives records the removal of the boxes of Calendar to the Royal Library on 29 June 1925: ‘Mr Fortescue says that he is making a selection of them for Lord Lascelles to print for the Roxburgh Club’. While only the Correspondence up to 1783 was published, correspondence files in the Royal Archives reveal that transcripts for the rest of the Calendar 1783-1810 were prepared albeit not published. Given that the first volumes of Correspondence were published 1927-1928, this is a very quick turnaround time and the works we term ‘Fortescue’ are very unlikely to have been undertaken by Fortescue himself – or certainly not alone. The identity of the copyist(s), however, remains undetermined as no acknowledgement is made by Fortescue of any assistance he received.

The credibility of the Correspondence has been somewhat tarnished by the errors the editions contain. Many of these mistakes are picked up by Sir Lewis Namier of Manchester University in his snappily-titled work Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue’s Edition of the Correspondence of George the Third (volume 1) published in 1937. In his introduction, Namier takes Fortescue to task over inaccurate dates or inadequate dating, and lack of referencing to other archives or published editions and acidly concludes, ‘[i]n general I should like to put forward the proposition that letters or documents which are worth printing at all deserve adequate editing.’ (p5). A worthy sentiment certainly but editing can also be ‘a stupendous piece of work’ as Namier himself wrote on 26 October 1936 to Miss Mary Mackenzie (of the Royal Archives with whom he corresponded to ascertain many of the corrections in Additions and Corrections) (ref PS/RA/CSP/GEN/NAMIER). Even in preparing this work, Namier is forced to admit, ‘I really do not know what I would have done if I could have foreseen how much work was implied in the Corrigenda et Addenda to Fortescue – possibly I would not have undertaken it at all, which is true about almost every piece of literary work one does.’ Despite this, as late as 1 May 1952 Namier was still planning ‘with the help of Eric Robson and Ian Christie…to publish Additions and Corrections at least to the last three volumes of Fortescue.’ (no.116). In writing to Miss Mackenzie, Namier appears very personable and charming – quite the opposite of the acerbic impression conveyed in either the introduction of the Additions or in this portrait by Bassano and Vandyk studios!

Use of Fortescue and Namier in cataloguing

In spite of these mistakes and omissions, I am using Fortescue’s editions of Correspondence on the assumption that while these transcripts are not good enough to be the definitive version, they are good enough to provide a flavour of the documents’ contents which is the aim of cataloguing.

Undoubtedly the greatest difficulty facing a modern day researcher using the Correspondence is the numbering. That is to say transcript no. 220 does not equal document 220 in the George III Calendar, i.e. GEO/MAIN/220 and, unlike Aspinall, the Correspondence frustratingly does not include any document reference numbers. During cataloguing it has been possible to reconcile the numbers in Correspondence to the documents in the physical boxes so the catalogue entry now records that document GEO/MAIN/333 has been published as no. 220 in the Correspondence.

At present, only around 20% of the Georgian Papers have been catalogued and digitised. Outside of the Correspondence, our principal finding aid for the collection is the writer-addressee index cards. Royal Archives staff have kept the index cards up-to-date following the arrival of any new acquisitions and we are therefore fairly confident that the index is a fair reflection of the correspondents within the papers. The writer-addressee index appears to have been compiled from box lists, i.e. a rough list of contents found within each box but these generally give no indication of the topics or individuals mentioned within a document. Until the Georgian Papers are fully catalogued the Correspondence is the best means of identifying subjects in the Calendar pre-1783 – however much Fortescue leaves to be desired as an editor and despite their apparent deficiencies, these transcripts have yet to be revised or superseded. We should not allow Namier’s criticisms of Fortescue’s edition cloud our view of his work. As Librarian, Fortescue championed the Georgian papers and his contribution to their preservation and accessibility cannot be so narrowly defined.

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