Discarding Women’s Words

It’s bad enough to be neglected or ignored, but it’s worse to be discarded altogether.  Recently a fellow blogger at Stumbling through the Past wrote a post about Women and Archival Silences, dealing with the way women’s voices are silenced in the records, subsumed within their husbands’ papers (and their husbands’ names), or scattered between various references, because nobody thought to catalogue the work they did, or recognise its importance.  Her post reminded me of an egregious example of this that I came across many years ago.

In the late 1940s two elderly sisters gave a large collection of their family papers ‘as a gift to the nation’ of New Zealand.  Mary and Emily Richmond were the unmarried daughters of C. W. Richmond, a lawyer, and his wife Emily Atkinson.  C.W. [William]’s sister Jane Maria married Emily’s brother Arthur Atkinson, so the extended family established a pattern of interlocking, close family ties across several generations.  The Atkinsons and Richmonds were important people in colonial New Zealand, early settlers who had been involved in the Maori land wars, in politics and in journalism, so their private papers were historically of great importance.

Together with a later deposit by Emily Richmond, the papers came into the hands of Guy H. Scholefield, the chief librarian of the General Assembly Library in Wellington from 1926 until his retirement in 1948.  Scholefield had devoted his life to New Zealand history, tracking down primary sources both in London and at home, and publishing valuable finding aids: Historical sources and archives in New Zealand (1929), A union catalogue of New Zealand newspapers (1938), a Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1940), and the New Zealand parliamentary record, 1840-1949 (1950).

In retirement, he set to work to edit the papers.  In the post-war boom, there was money available to subsidise publications, and the government printer published The Richmond-Atkinson Papers in 2 volumes in 1960.  Largish chunks are available on Google Books.

Scholefield’s concerns were political and nationalist: to tell the story of New Zealand from colony to nation through the eyes of its pioneers.  The papers were a means to this end, and clearly he thought that, once the edited volumes had been produced, the papers would have served their purpose.  As he went through the letters, he marked them up – which passages to include, which letters to save or to discard.  Many of the pages just have ‘DISCARD’ printed on them in a thick editing crayon.  In the introduction to The Richmond-Atkinson Papers, he explained that he had left out ‘mere gossipy passages’ – which were overwhelmingly the letters written by women.

maria atkinson discarded

Jane Maria Atkinson and her mother, Lely Richmond! 1852 (scribbled over by me!)

It would be easy to say that Scholefield was a man of his times, but his attitude to these letters fits better within the late-Victorian era, when many selectively edited collections of private papers were published, often by dutiful widows or daughters, before they destroyed the originals.  By the 1950s, Scholefield’s attitude was way out of date.  Fortunately an assistant intervened.

Frances Porter was born in 1925, and graduated with an honours degree in history.  She joined the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs in Wellington in 1948, and became aware of Scholefield’s activities.  I’m not entirely sure of the sequence of events – whether she persuaded him to keep the Discards, or whether she just retrieved the letters from the bin – but thanks to her efforts, all the letters, complete with their disfiguring markings, are now safely held in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

In 1990 I spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand, doing research for my biography of Maria Rye, who visited New Zealand in 1862/3.  Everyone recommended a recent book that dealt with this period through the lives of the Richmond and Atkinson families.  That book was Born to New Zealand: A Biography of Jane Maria Atkinson by Frances Porter.  It won the New Zealand Book Award for Non Fiction in 1989 and is now available as an Ebook.

Unlike Scholefield’s volumes, her work is primarily social history, but it’s not ‘mere gossipy’ stuff.  Porter points out that within the extended Richmond and Atkinson families, not one man died during their many engagements with the Maori, while numerous women died in childbirth.

Jane Maria Atkinson lived long enough to see New Zealand introduce women’s suffrage in 1893.  William Richmond reported that she was ‘cock-a-hoop’ – or rather ‘hen-a-hoop’ – at the prospect, and quite right too.

10 responses to “Discarding Women’s Words

  1. Marcus Harmes

    what staggering arrogance on his part!

  2. Yes. But he isn’t the only one. It was a classic way of dealing with private papers in the 19C, it’s just staggering that he thought that way as late as the 1950s.

  3. This takes my breath away! My examples could be explained by thoughtlessness or oversight. The example you give is a deliberate erasure – a calculated move to remove the memory of others thought worthless. The photo with the word “discard” scrawled in red over it is a very powerful image.

  4. Thanks Yvonne. But I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression – that photo was scrawled on (electronically only, I promise) by me, not by GHS!

  5. Ah – I did misunderstand. Thanks for clarifying it.

  6. What makes Scholefield’s actions even more appalling is he was a librarian!!!!

  7. Perhaps the worst that I ever heard of, though, was Christabel Coleridge, who wrote a biography of Charlotte Yonge (#1 bestseller Victorian author – “The Heir of Redclyffe”, “The Daisy Chain”, etc.). Anyway, after Christabel wrote her biography, she BURNED ALL THE SOURCE MATERIAL. Aaarrrghhh!

  8. Pingback: Breaking Voices | Historians are Past Caring

  9. Pingback: The Leslie Papers transcribed | Historians are Past Caring

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