By Sophie Coulombeau
A very hearty welcome, on behalf of the whole project team, to the website of the AHRC-funded project ‘Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers’! If you’re here, then presumably you’ve seen news of our project launch and you’d like to find out more about what we’re up to. Good news! – this is the place to do it.
In 2007, then-Culture Secretary David Lammy slapped a temporary export ban on the archive of the Bluestocking writer, courtier, and antiquarian Mary Hamilton. Thousands of important eighteenth and nineteenth-century documents related to Hamilton – letters, commonplace books, catalogues and more – were in danger of leaving the country, bound for a US library. And Lammy was effectively saying that it would be a disaster for the cultural life of the UK if that were to happen. Luckily, after heroic fund-raising efforts, the John Rylands Library stumped up the money to buy the archive, and it’s lived in Manchester ever since.
Fast forward a decade. The collection has been lovingly catalogued by the Rylands’ wonderful archivists, but academics haven’t used it as much as they might have hoped. Several valuable articles have recently been produced that discuss Mary Hamilton – but, given the scale, range and importance of the collection, there’s much still to do!
That’s where we come in.
In 2016, David Denison, Professor Emeritus in English Linguistics at the University of Manchester, contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in chatting about Hamilton. Along with his colleague Nuria Yáñez-Bouza, he’d been using the Hamilton archive to give undergraduate students of English language some first-hand experience of original eighteenth-century documents. This had led to a good number of high-quality transliterations online, under the project banner Image To Text. The more David and Nuria delved into the Hamilton archive, the more fascinating they found it – and they were wondering whether there might be potential to develop their pilot project into something bigger. They’d heard that I knew a bit about Bluestocking culture and literature of the period – perhaps we could talk further over Skype?
Things quickly snowballed. Nuria, David and I decided we could work rather well together, and Hannah Barker, head of the John Rylands Research Institute, brought a wealth of management experience and expertise in eighteenth-century history on board as Project Investigator. The four of us spent 2017 and 2018 working up an application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We wanted to produce a first-class open-access digital edition of the Hamilton papers, bringing the papers firmly and sustainably into the public realm. We wanted a searchable personography. We wanted to produce high quality research outputs that would be useful for numerous disciplines – papers on social networks, reading practices, forms of address and the development of auxiliary verbs. Our aims got more ambitious – we located Hamilton materials at ten other libraries worldwide, and we wanted to include those too. We wanted to produce a short film, write a feature for radio, and devise a programme to engage Manchester primary school pupils with the archive.
Luckily, the AHRC dared to dream as big as we did, and we learned in summer 2019 that our grant application had been successful. We recruited our crack team of Research Associates (Cassie Ulph, Tino Oudesluijs, Christine Wallis) over the autumn, and the team was complete. The project started formally in December 2019, and since then we’ve all been undertaking training, workshopping our approach to the technical elements of the project, and getting ready to launch ourselves into the world.
Consider us launched! As of now, Team Hamilton is fully up and running – transcribing, researching, networking, and engaging with anybody interested in Mary Hamilton. We’ll be updating this website frequently, and taking turns to blog at least once a month about particularly fascinating documents in the archive that have whetted our interest(s). You can see the letters we’ve transcribed so far here. We’ll be uploading a very special cache later this year, and aim to make available a beta version of the entire archive in January 2022.
Please do follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for bonus material. And if you’d like to get in touch privately, use the contact form here. We’d particularly welcome any leads about uncatalogued materials related to Mary Hamilton that might be lurking around the place – so if you’re a librarian, a rare book dealer or just a person with a dusty box in an attic, please let us know if you think you might have something that would pique our interest.
We are so excited about the next three years – we think the archive has a huge amount to offer the academic community and the wider public. We hope we’ll make David Lammy’s decision back in 2007, to keep the Hamilton archive around for the good of the nation’s cultural life, seem like a no-brainer. Watch this space!