June 2017

I am Cath Mayo, the Archive Conservator. A few weeks ago another interesting item came into the Conservation Studio to be looked at. It was quite a large bound book made up of letters written by Harry Lucas, the son of Joseph Lucas who founded 'Joseph Lucas & Son' in the 1870s. The company began by selling ships lamps, before moving on to cycle lamps and then lighting for motor cars. When Joseph died in 1902, Harry took over the business. The letters were dated between February 1880 and February 1886 and seemed to be copies transcribed into a book.

Why this document?

There were two issues that were causing me to worry about the book. The first problem was that the pages were so incredibly thin that they were pretty much impossible to turn over without tearing. The second problem was that iron gall ink had been used to write the letters. This type of ink has been used for hundreds of years for writing documents and after a certain amount of time and certain conditions, the ink starts to oxidise and eventually eats through the page it’s on. As a result, the words bleed and holes appear. There are ways of slowing down the oxidising process, but in this situation, the pages were so thin and fragile, it would have been silly to even try it. There were quite a few pages in the book that had been eaten through, so the best thing to do was remove the pages one by one, repair where possible and encapsulate each one to help prevent further damage. It seemed such a shame to have these wonderful insights behind-the-scenes of the Lucas Company that no-one would be able to safely look at, so I got to work carefully removing the pages. At times, it was a very nerve-wracking job as the paper was so thin and even a small breeze would have caused disaster. It took a few weeks to do all the pages, but I got there eventually.

Of course, it was very tempting to read the letters while I was removing them from the book and I must say, some were fascinating to read. Most of them are written to Harry's father Joseph, keeping him informed of things going on in the business and some were to other companies and also clients. Some were quite normal and run of the mill kind of subjects and others were a little juicier such as people not paying bills, or complaining about defects in supplies. I had to keep reminding myself that there were approximately 1000 letters to get through and no time for reading all of them, so I ploughed on and what had been one bound books worth of letters eventually became four archive boxes of encapsulated pages.

The picture shows one of Harry's letters to Mr Tyndall – this was an ongoing problem regarding the supply of lamps that Mr Tyndall thought were of bad quality and refused to pay for. Things get quite heated between the two of them, as is evidenced by the underlining in the example above. This piece of correspondence spans from February to July 1880, when Mr Tyndall finally pays his bill.

The letters are now safe from tearing, fingerprints and hopefully further iron gall ink damage. Taking them out of the book not only safeguards their long term future but also makes it possible to digitise them so they will be both safer and more accessible in the future.