‘I will in the way you have proposed’: James Frederic Ferguson’s letter to John Gough Nichols of 1854

unlocking the archives

Randolph Jones, Research Associate, Beyond 2022.

Information on the past custodians of Ireland’s pre-1922 archives can be found in some unusual places. While searching online for digitised copies of any published material by James Frederic Ferguson, I came across the following holograph letter available for sale on e-Bay. Ferguson (d. 26 November 1855) worked as a clerk in the Chief Remembrancer’s office in the Irish exchequer in Dublin. By the time he wrote the letter (17 April 1854), he was unremunerated and his income as a free-lance record agent had also dried up. He therefore turned to writing articles for various periodicals in order to keep the wolf at bay.

The letter was addressed to John Gough Nichols, the editor of the ‘Topographer and Genealogist’, a journal that was published in London at irregular intervals. Ferguson had not written for this publication before, and the five articles that he did eventually write for it, were all published after his death.

The vendor of the letter on e-Bay only posted a single image of the inner side of the bi-folded letter, but it is clear from the text depicted that Ferguson and Nichols had corresponded previously. Ferguson refers to the early fifteenth-century illustration of the Irish court of exchequer sitting in session, which once appeared in the exchequer’s famous ‘Red Book’, with the suggestion that a copy should be made in Ireland. Ferguson depreciates his own ability to write an article worthy to accompany such a plate and suggests that William Henry Black, Assistant Keeper of the Public Records in England might do a better job. Ferguson had met Black when the former came to Ireland in 1849 to examine the records in the Chief Remembrancer’s Office. Ferguson’s comment about Black’s ‘soreness of eyes’ is confirmed by Black himself, when he recorded in his personal notebook on 6 July 1849, when he examined the same ‘Red Book’, his inability to read a passage of eighteen short lines because they were ‘almost utterly illegible at least in the present state of my sight’. Despite Ferguson’s reticence, he did indeed write such an article on the Irish court of exchequer, which was published with an accompanying plate in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ in 1855.

Which brings us to the final section of Ferguson’s letter, in which he takes up Nichols’ suggestion to write a piece on the murder of James Cornewalshe, chief baron of the Irish exchequer, in 1442 at Baggot Rath castle, Dublin. According to an entry that was once contained in the exchequer memoranda roll for the year 21 Henry VI, Cornewalshe

‘was sitting tranquilly at supper only with his servants. On the twenty-eighth day [of September], a certain William Fitzwilliam, late of Dondrum, Esq, came with a great multitude of armed men, in warlike array, and entered upon the hall of the aforesaid manor, in Bagot-rath, with swords, bows, lances, and clubs, and there, on the same day, traitorously and feloniously murdered the said James, against the peace of the Lord the King, as is commonly and notoriously reported.’

Baggot Rath had been granted to Sir Edward Perrers and his wife Joanna in 1402. After Sir Edward died in 1428, his wife continued to hold it until her own death, probably in 1442. Fitzwilliam was married to Ismay, the Perrers’ only surviving child and clearly considered himself to be the new owner. It is not clear how Cornewalshe obtained the castle, but it was usual for exchequer officials to be granted temporary custody of lands held by the crown following the death of a tenant-in-chief, in lieu of their wages. Yet Ismay was not the eventual heir of her parents, for in 1448 it was established that Sir Edmund’s heir was one John Hall of Southwark, the great-grandson of Sir Edmund’s brother Richard Perrers of Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire.

Ferguson does not seem to have written his article on the murder of Chief Baron Cornewalshe. If he did, it was not one of the five that was published later in the ‘Topographer and Genealogist’ or indeed anywhere else. Ferguson probably never wrote it, for on 25 February 1856, a paper was read before Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, by Mr. Huband Smith, on the history of Baggot Rath castle, which was printed in that institution’s journal in 1858. Smith quoted portions from the original Latin text that once appeared in the memoranda roll, which were probably supplied to him by Ferguson, whose willingness to share his knowledge of the documents in his care was legendary.

What has happened to the original of Ferguson’s letter to Nichols? It appears to have been sold a long time ago and reference to it can no longer be found online. If you happen to be the new owner, please get in contact with the Beyond 2022 team so that we can have an image of the other side!

From order to chaos to order: emerging from destruction via a database

From order to chaos to order: emerging from destruction via a database

Ciarán Wallace and Darragh Blake

Archivists are all about order. From a jumbled or semi-organised bundle of papers they create a structure that allows the researcher to understand what is in a collection and how to find a particular record. I often think that, without archivists researchers would be faced with a haystack of papers. When the haystack has been burned the challenge is even greater!

A list of losses. From the table of contents of Wood’s Guide (1919)
Courtesy of the Library, King’s Inns.

Beyond 2022 began with Shay Lawless, a computer scientist and Peter Crooks, a historian, looking at the work of Herbert Wood, an archivist. It was soon apparent that we needed archival friends to help us structure our approach as we developed the project’s database. Archivists working in our Core Partners, at the National Archives of Ireland, the National Archives (UK), the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, patiently listened and explained until we were able to apply modern standards to the contents of Wood’s Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Records Office of Ireland, published in 1919. Wood’s Guide is reasonably logical, but his categories, arrangement and descriptions did not fit easily into the fonds, sub-fonds, series, sub-series, sub-sub-series etc. required by the General International Standard Archival Description ISAD(G) – so we sometimes had to ask our archival friends to explain again. (Collaboration takes patience and we are lucky indeed to have such excellent collaborators.)

Planning the structure 1: reuniting digital scraps

The purpose of all this retro-fitting, applying modern archival standards to the contents of an archive created in the 1860s, was to enable us to build a database robust enough to contain all the information we had, and flexible enough to accommodate all the ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ that we would encounter. This database had to allow us to find pieces of the puzzle in many locations around the world, and bring them together in a way that was useful to the researcher. For example, copies of one part of a volume may exist in California, a summary of another part might be in London and an index to the full volume could be in Dublin – but the original volume was burnt in 1922. Our platform needed to be able to record the information from all three libraries or archives, link this back to lost original in the retro-fitted catalogue for the destroyed Public Record Office of Ireland, show all the metadata in a uniform manner, display digital images if there were any, and present this to the reader in a way that makes sense. It was quite a challenge requiring many (many) meetings as the humanities researchers and computer scientists translated their thinking to one another. 

Planning the structure 2: transcription and translation

When Transkribus (transkribus.eu) entered the equation a new layer of complication arose. Transkribus is a computer application which can, with enough preparatory training and sufficient amounts of text, provide automated transcription of handwritten documents. Suddenly we had the possibility of transcriptions, a new layer of data to add to the mix. Now a single lost record might involve many replacement sources, in multiple locations using different database structures, involving various qualities of copies and transcripts (some of which may overlap and disagree) – for one piece we may merely have the metadata, for another we might have an image, for a third section the image may also have a machine-produced transcription.

Planning the structure 3: interoperable images

Different repositories store their digital images in different ways, with a variety of technical specifications. That is fine when you are only displaying your own images but Beyond 2022 aims to bring together images from a range of locations, displaying them on a single platform. Luckily, in an interconnected world parts of some of these problems had been puzzling other researchers. Just as Transkribus was a boon (and a challenge) at just the right time, so IIIF (https://iiif.io/) solved a major problem. The International Image Interoperability Framework must have taken large teams of people many years of meetings to bring to fruition, now their collaboration allows images stored in disparate repositories using a range of file formats to be displayed seamlessly to the reader, on whatever device you are using. (Like many important things, functional sewers, USB ports and standard-sized paperback books for example, it is the product of much planning and effort, it simplifies your life, but you never really think about it.) Now our database could show its image outputs in a consistent way.

With new team members joining the Beyond 2022 in March and April 2020 we have been able to push and stretch the database, refining it as we go. Central to all this activity, Darragh Blake has been the engineering mind behind the database structure. As a computer scientist, he had the unenviable challenge of listening to his humanities colleagues as they explained the many ways in which researchers might need to search the records. The result is becoming a thing of strange digital beauty. As Darragh questions and clarifies, and puts our growing list of archival discoveries into his evolving structure, it strikes me that, just like archivists – computer engineers are also all about order.

Darragh Blake, Senior Research Engineer, Beyond 2022

My name is Darragh Blake. I am a Computer Scientist from Dublin. I work as a Software Engineer for the Design & Innovation Lab in the ADAPT Centre. My role is very exciting as I get to work on many different research projects, across a multitude of disciplines.

I am currently working as the Senior Research Engineer/Tech Lead on the Beyond 2022 project. This role is filled with interesting challenges, all revolving around the Computer Science and technology aspects of the project. Beyond 2022 uses a wide array of technologies from databases and websites to Virtual Reality, Linked Data, Information Retrieval, Natural Language Processing and Knowledge Graphs. These technologies support the researchers on the project, as well as the production of the final software components for the public.

As part of my role I am responsible for the choice, design and development of these technologies. One of the big decisions is choosing what technologies can help us along the way, and why. This makes Beyond 2022 a really exciting project to work on as many of these technologies are new and innovative, and much of it will have to be designed and built from scratch. One of my favourite aspects of Computer Science is designing and implementing large systems to work together in harmony. Beyond 2022 provides me this opportunity as many of the technologies are interlinked, such as the database and the data capture interface. This central database also helps power the Virtual Reality and Knowledge Graph elements of the project. Another aspect of Beyond 2022 I find important are the opportunities to learn. We are using state of the art technology and the latest standards from both the Computer Science and Digital Humanities disciplines. Each technology can have multiple implementations and choosing the correct one for the job is vital. Working with the Historians and Archival Discovery researchers has produced some extremely useful insights. Recently I have been working on a software application to support them in collecting and editing information and storing it in the databases. When gathering the requirements for the system I learned a lot about how Humanities researchers’ minds work. Using my computer science expertise to assist them is one of the many great benefits of such interdisciplinary research. This collaboration also gives me the opportunity to help automate processes which speed up workflows. Beyond 2022 allows us to apply pioneering technologies to historical information. Such as creating a Knowledge Graph, which offers incredible visual representation of entities and their connections throughout history. This brings a new lease of life to the historical data. I have always had an interest in Irish history, which makes me very proud to help bring some of it back.

Turning a list from 1919 into a 21st century database: a peek behind the curtain

One of our tasks is to turn the printed list of records held in the Public Record Office of Ireland into a robust database that conforms to the International Standard for Archival Description (ISAD). From conversations with archivists and historians I have designed the Beyond 2022 database to capture the information that we know about what was lost, and all the information we are finding about surviving copies and replacements. The database will also allow every replacement to be linked back to the lost original.

A quick look at my latest piece of development – the Data Capture Interface – can be viewed here

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Stephen Scarth, Head of Public Services, PRONI

The PRONI document I selected is a magnificent patent, dated 4 May 1622, elevating a lowland Scot from Dunlop, Ayreshire to the peerage. This particular lowland Scot was a certain James Hamilton, 1559-1643 (not to be confused with his distant relative and another lowland Scot, James Hamilton, who was also elevated to the peerage as Earl of Abercorn) who in 1622 was created Viscount Claneboye by the patent.  The fact that Hamilton’s Co. Down estate was based in and around Bangor, the town where I grew up and lived has no bearing on my choice of document. Nor has the fact that I live on a street named after Hamilton, and that it is the name of my local park.  It is also incidental that many of my ancestors bore the name Hamilton, and indeed still subscribe to the unlikely myth that they are part of a long lost line of Abercorn Hamiltons.

Despite all these random associations, I have always remained intrigued by this particular Scot. Indeed, Hamilton himself was no stranger to intrigue and intrigues. He was a long term associate of James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), and acted as his agent over many years, often as a ‘secret agent’. Both Hamilton and another agent, Sir James Fullerton, were sent to Ireland in 1587 to spy on behalf of their King and provide information about Queen Elizabeth’s activities in Ireland. Like all good spies, Hamilton and Fullerton were cloaked in secret identities. They ostensibly took on the role of teachers and to considerable success and respectability. They opened a Latin school in Great Ship Street, Dublin. Amongst their pupils was an 8 year old James Ussher, the future Archbishop of Armagh. Following the establishment of Trinity College Dublin, Hamilton and Fullerton both became Fellows in 1591. Hamilton would later became Bursar of the college in 1598. Hamilton’s notable talents led to him being appointed Scottish agent to the court of Elizabeth I in 1600. Following her death, he was entrusted to act as James VI’s agent in negotiations over the succession of the English throne.

In recognition of these services, James I rewarded Hamilton with lands in Ulster under dubious circumstances from Con O’Neill, the last chieftain of the Clandeboye O’Neills of Upper Clandeboye. O’Neill’s lands were extensive and stretched from northern County Down to southern County Antrim. O’Neill had already struck a deal with another lowland Scot, Sir Hugh Montgomery, whereby O’Neill’s lands would be divided between both men.  According to William Montgomery of Rosemount (grandson of Hugh) in the Montgomery manuscripts, the agreement was negotiated after O’Neill was arrested and held in Carrickfergus Gael following a drunken brawl involving O’Neill’s servants. O’Neill was said to have agreed to relinquish lands in return for a pardon. Using his influence with the King, Hamilton subsequently muscled in on the deal, and the result was that O’Neill’s lands were divided in three. Hamilton received his estate which comprised the area from Killyleagh to Bangor, through a grant in November 1605. This new arrangement was not particularly appreciated by Montgomery and led to an ongoing feud between the two men. 

The patent of 1622 that elevated Hamilton to Viscount Claneboye not only paints a picture of Hamilton himself but conveys a sense of the overall state of the country. There are references to Hamilton’s previous services to James I. He is described as a ‘trusty servant’, who ‘has practiced and done to the most serene Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory’. The disturbances and violence that characterised Ulster over previous decades is reinforced by Hamilton being said to having ‘procured the tranquility of the Province of Ulster’. Clandeboye and the Ards are described as the ‘ancient Retreat of the Rebells’, and the patent records Hamilton having erected fortresses and buildings for ‘restraining the Rebels’. In terms of matters spiritual, he is commended for the ‘restoration and bringing back religion’.  Hamilton’s legacy did include the rebuilding of the church at Bangor Abbey, on the former site of St Comgall’s famous 6th century monastery.  He also built churches in Killinchy, Holywood, Ballyhalbert, Dundonald and Killyleagh. Hamilton would later be buried at the Bangor Abbey in January 1644.

The Hamilton family’s dominance of North Down would be short lived. The grandson and heir,

Henry Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Clanbrassill, sold off or leased in perpetuity large parts of the estate. The 2nd Earl died in 1676, allegedly poisoned by his wife, Lady Alice who coveted the inheritance for herself. Henry left behind no male heirs and the title became extinct. The remaining lands, which were a fraction of the former estate, became the subject of contested lawsuits, and would further be broken up. The family titles and direct descendants have long since become consigned to history, however, the patent has continued to survive and is a reminder of the enduring power of archive documents and of the Hamilton story.

Pleading, denouncing and transcribing: The work of the Irish Record Commission (1810-1830)

Pleading, denouncing and transcribing: The work of the Irish Record Commission (1810-1830)

Anna Attwood: Doctoral Scholar; Beyond 2022

Walking into an archive for the first time is one of the most exciting and intimidating experiences for a researcher. As someone who trained as a medievalist, the majority of documents written in the nineteenth century are both a challenge and a joy.  I had become used to writing chapters based upon close analysis of a seal or by working carefully through the lines of charters that were fragmented, in places illegible. Now, I have hundreds, if not thousands, of letters, memos, and reports to read, analyse, and place back into their wider context. For Beyond 2022, I am researching the Irish Record Commission (IRC), a rag-tag group of antiquarians and civil servants who began the official collection of documents in Ireland, which culminated in the Public Records Office.

 As someone who loves a good mysteryand petty gossip, this project is perfect for me as The Irish Record Commission was a microcosm of human foibles and transgression. For instance, William Shaw Mason, the Secretary of the IRC, was (if his subordinates are to be believed) a scheming, embezzling, incompetent blaggard, who got the job because of a paperwork error. While his greatest enemy, Rowley Lascelles, the illegitimate son of a lieutenant colonel and an actress, would have you believe that he himself was the only competent member of the whole Commission. Lascelles would go on to greater infamy and write Liber munerum publicorum Hiberniae, while he was supposed to be working for the Commission. By all accounts, he was a man marked by an inferiority complex, the cash-strapped sire of six children, who, amusingly, wrote one book on a trip to Switzerland and re-edited it and reprinted it as five different books over the next fourteen years.[1]  The bureaucracy of the Irish Record Commission and its quirky workers could rival Dickens’ Circumlocution Office.

A portrait of Rowley’s mother Ann Catley
by William Evans, National Portrait Gallery London

The greatest thrill is when a series of seemingly dull letters about requests for payment between Commission staff and the Chief Secretary’s Office becomes a drama of accusations, character assassinations, and stratagems. The world of the Irish Record Commission comes alive and all the characters reveal themselves. After a time, you can recognise someone’s handwriting at a glance. You come to expect the rhetorical flourishes of a particular author. What is most unexpected, however, is how invested you become in the lives of the Commission. When the usually business-like and austere William Shaw Mason writes that “a recent domestic affliction prevented me going out for a few days” one can catch a glimpse of the humanity under the facade.[2] When an anonymous letter begs that the commissioners be paid on time saying “to give you an idea of my distress would be impossible except to say that my situation is most affecting, every source is completely exhausted” signing off with the forlorn signature “an unfortunate sub commissioner”, one cannot help but be moved.[3]

All in all, there is something very inviting about the letters. Soon you begin to feel as if you know the person who penned them. You recognise the choice of their words or the hasty way their cursive slopes at the end of a line. And this comes after just a few months trawling through only one archive.  It is easy to see the enormous benefits that will come with the completion of the Beyond 2022 knowledge base and the access it will provide to many digital archives. For someone like me, who loves details, this offers the chance to delve into the financial, social, or political lives of our forefathers. For someone else, who is interested in the bigger picture, it will become possible to see large social changes taking place, as evidenced in the arrangement of new living habits, religious affiliations, or naming customs. Now, more than ever, our links to the past can cause us to reflect on where we come from and where we are going.  These questions are a welcome distraction in these uncertain times.

Biographical note: Anna Attwood

I think I first knew I wanted to be a historian when I read Ivanhoe for the first time as a bookish nine year old. The 1819 classic novel was filled with adventure, strange customs, and much that I did not understand. This novel sparked many new questions and soon led to an interest in reading and consuming all things medieval. Of course, the hard thing about growing up was learning that Sir Walter Scott’s version of the medieval period did not bear much resemblance to the real thing. However, it is an interesting parallel that I am now researching the period of history when Ivanhoe was written and am spending each day with those antiquarians and archivists (no doubt also avid readers and lovers of Ivanhoe), who are best remembered for their contribution to the collection and preservation of medieval documents.

My role in the Beyond 2022 project is researching the Irish Record Commission, 1810-1830. The Commission was short-lived and was widely considered an expensive failure. Since its closure, it has not merited much in the way of academic interest, except for one article written in 1950. My research seeks to fill the gap in the literature by providing a detailed history of the Irish Record Commission, which gives particular consideration to the Commission’s attitude towards and conception of the medieval documents that they were collecting.         

As an Irish émigré, I spent most of my childhood in the States, attending universities in both the States and in Canada. While doing my Masters in Newfoundland, Canada, I worked on the SSHRC funded project, Urbanization and the Environment in Medieval Europe. A research grant provided by DAAD allowed me to spend some time in Germany doing archival research in the Archiv der Hansestadt Lübeck.

Working on a project with colleagues to bounce ideas off was a fantastic experience for a young researcher. So, when I saw the advertisement for a PhD position for Beyond 2022 on Twitter (see, being on twitter when you should be writing is good sometimes) which combined my interest in medievalism, archiving, and medieval documents, it felt like fate.

 Finally, I am back in Ireland. Working on a project with such an international and interdisciplinary approach has been a fabulous learning experience. It is thrilling to be in a meeting with people from all over the globe. The loss of a state archive is not an uniquely Irish problem. Almost every country has lost archives or repositories. And as the world is looking to us and how we will overcome our challenges, we look to other archives for feedback, suggestions and guidance. One can really get a sense of the power of an international community of academics coming together to help one another.


[1] De Beer, G. R. “Rowley Lascelles.” Notes and Queries 193, no. 5 (1948): 97-99.

[2] CSO/RP/1818/491

[3] CSO/RP/1820/36