Who Do You Think You Are?

Gem From The Archive

Claire Skinner from The Box in Plymouth shares the secret messages of a lively group of teenage girls, written in an Edwardian autograph book

- Interview By Rosemary Collins

A teenage girl’s autograph book, 1909

The Box, Plymouth’s £46.8 million archive, museum and art gallery space, opened its doors in September 2020. As well as displays celebratin­g the city’s history, the building is the new home of the former Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, now known as Plymouth Archives, The Box, whose collection­s are more accessible than ever. Archivist Claire Skinner opens up one of The Box’s documents – an autograph book from over 100 years ago that provides a fascinatin­g chance to hear the voices of teenage girls from the Edwardian era.

Tell Me More About The Autograph Book.

The book was kept by Marjory Katherine Elizabeth St Aubyn (1893–1987), daughter of the 2nd Baron St Levan, who owned property in Cornwall and Devon. She went on to marry John Parker, the 6th Earl of Morley, of Saltram House, Plymouth. The volume is a small, rectangula­r, leatherbou­nd volume, with the cover embossed in gold: “The confession­s, opinions and autographs of my friends.” It uses pro-forma printed questions that have been filled in by hand by various of Marjory’s friends. The majority of the opinions and autographs date from 1909, when she was only 16, but three records at the end of the book date from 1925.

Why Did You Choose It?

I have not come across such an item before in almost 30 years’ experience as an archivist, and I think that it gives a wonderful insight into the opinions and views of a group of young people who might not otherwise have a voice in the archive – diaries and letters from teenagers of this era are relatively rare.

The 1909 entries capture a significan­t moment in time just before the First World War, and reveal the preoccupat­ions and thoughts of a lost age. The questions asked include such general topics as favourite pastimes, authors, artists and musicians, plus more controvers­ial areas such as political views and the roles of men and women. As such it acts like an opinion poll from the early 20th century, giving us valuable insight into feelings and thoughts that are often not captured in official records.

From a family history point of view, it is fascinatin­g. For the young people who were friends with Marjory, this might be the only record we have of their favourite pastimes. We learn that they admire Edward VII as “the greatest sovereign in Europe” – although some of them add, playfully, “when he is in my purse!” Several state that they are not interested in politics; others

‘The 1909 entries capture a significan­t moment just before the First World War’

support Joseph Chamberlai­n or Arthur Balfour. Their heroes and heroines range from Grace Darling and Joan of Arc to Redvers Buller, a general from Devon who won a Victoria Cross during the Anglo-Zulu War.

Their answers are often flippant and tongue in cheek, as you would expect from a group of teenagers – Humpty Dumpty and Three Blind Mice being chosen as favourite poems by more than one person!

I can vividly picture the youngsters passing around the book, and having a good giggle at one another’s responses before daringly sharing their own.

What Do The Entries Reveal About Women’s Lives At The Time?

Some of the most interestin­g questions focus on the roles of men and women, probably reflecting the country’s concern with the suffrage question. In 1909 Marion Wallace Dunlop became the first imprisoned suffragett­e to go on hunger strike, so the question of women’s rights was very prominent.

The book’s rigid binary questions may sit uneasily with modern sensibilit­ies, but must be seen and understood within their context. In answer to the question “Whom do you consider has the greater brain power – man or woman?”, two thirds of Marjory’s friends say “woman” and a few follow this with “of course!” A couple say “man”, and another three say “equal”. The next question might provide the biggest surprise to a modern audience. When asked “Do you think women should take part in public life?”, only two contributo­rs definitely agree. Two contributo­rs are more ambivalent: Dorothy Easton says “a little”; “CHS” says “yes when no men are left”. The rest are resounding­ly opposed, stating: “Certainly not.” Even contributo­rs who think women have far superior brainpower to men still answer “no”!

We must never forget that alongside the women (and men) fighting for the vote as suffragist­s and suffragett­es, there was a body of people of both sexes who opposed suffrage for women – I suspect several of Marjory’s friends fell into the latter camp. Obviously her group was from a social elite, and might be more conservati­ve in its political and social views than people from a more diverse background. Tracey Glasspool’s book

Struggle and Suffrage in Plymouth (Pen & Sword, 2019) is worth reading if you’re interested in the topic.

What Other Items Are In Your Collection­s?

We hold the standard local records such as parish registers; records of local government; hospital, prison and workhouse records; education records; records of charities and businesses; and family and estate collection­s. Our holdings can be searched at https://web.plymouth.gov.uk/ archivesca­talogue.

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