06 Nov 2023
by Callum Walker

Four men in featureless masks wearing bowler hats dance-walking along a street with three children following.
One of the archive's mysteries - can you explain this photo? (© Buckinghamshire Archives)

Archives are an invaluable tool to help us understand the past, and Buckinghamshire Archives is no exception. Since 1938, we have been looking after over 800 years of our county’s history so that future generations can learn from it. This includes maps, photographs, registers, and lots of material on the birth of the Paralympic games and the development of the new city of Milton Keynes. We have a professional team of archivists that help the public with queries on family history and help make sure history can be enjoyed by everyone.

We’re tucked away in the basement of the County Hall, Aylesbury. It’s a 200ft tall brutalist tower built by architect Fred Pooley in 1966, which has become an infamous landmark in the quaint market town, sometimes referred to locally as ‘Fred’s Fort’ or ‘Barad-dûr’ (a dark fortess in Lord of the Rings!). Luckily, the documents we look after are more interesting than where they’re kept! We have around 1.5 million documents kept safe on our shelves, but we’ve pulled out a handful of our more curious items here as a taster for you...

The dog ate our homework!

A lot of our documents are very kindly given to us by the public to look after, but sadly sometimes they can be damaged before they get to us. Many of our documents are made out of vellum, which is a type of prepared animal skin. A depositor found this 1739 document in their loft when they were renovating and put it on their kitchen table the day before they brought it to the archive. Tragically, their dog decided that it looked delicious and took a chunk out of it! Almost 300 years separate the dog from the cow, but we’re sure it made a nice snack. Luckily, the rest of the document is still fine. It’s now safely in our archive and kept far away from pests, mould… and dogs.
Old manuscript with a large tared hole in the centre.
A 1739 indenture with a bite mark taken out of it. (© Buckinghamshire Archives)

Fingerprints from the past

Things like deeds, wills, and agreements are important legal documents, and this often means they have a wax seal attached. These seals are a way of authenticating a document and have unique designs on them, linking them to a specific person or organisation. Because they’re made of wax, if they’re not stored correctly, they can crumble over time. Luckily, archives make sure they're kept in optimum conditions so that they can be viewed hundreds of years after they’re made.
Front and back images of a red wax seal, showing the intricate designs which were once on the seals stamp.
A 1533 wax seal presents a pretty front, but on the back you can be fingertip to fingertip with the friar! (© Buckinghamshire Archives)

This 1533 seal is attached to a document sent between the Grey Friars in Aylesbury and Dame Lettice Lee, with the Franciscan friars agreeing to pray for her family. On the seal is a depiction of St Francis preaching to the birds, and amazingly on the back we can still see the fingerprints of the friar who pressed it onto the parchment! The priory would be closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries only five years after this seal was made. We’re not sure what happened to him after that, but his fingerprints live on almost 500 years later.

Bulletproof storage

As an archive, we’re responsible for looking after documents, rather than objects. But, in the 85 years of our history, sometimes things can slip through the gaps. We have a large amount of material from the Fremantle family, including a series of letters between Thomas Fremantle and Henry Halford, both competitive shooters. The two were experimenting with new designs of bullets, and we were shocked to find many of the bullets had been included in the deposit!

Type written letter with a small silver bullet next to it.
A letter to Thomas Fremantle with an alarming sample enclosed! (© Buckinghamshire Archives)

Keeping experimental bullets in a room full of flammable material isn’t a great idea, so the bullets were returned to the depositor for safe keeping.

Casebook caricatures 

Back in 1811, a Justice of the Peace was working in Aylesbury’s magistrate’s court. He kept with him a casebook which had all of his notes about the day’s proceedings. In the court he would have decided punishments for serious crimes, but during the long sessions it appears that he got distracted. His casebook is filled with many drawings like this. We think these are of his fellow court officials, judging from the wigs. Some of the other drawings even have the chairs they were sat on included. Clearly the cases weren’t interesting enough to keep him occupied!

Three sketch of different faces in old ink.
Anyone sat for hours listening may appreciate these unexpected doodles in the margins of historic notes! (© Buckinghamshire Archives)

Mysteries of Milton Keynes

In comparison to most of our collection, our documents to do with Milton Keynes are fairly modern. What makes our Milton Keynes collection special is the sheer amount of material we have. Unlike most settlements in Buckinghamshire, we have records covering the founding of Milton Keynes and its entire history. We have building plans, minutes from meetings, and lots of fantastic photographs.

Four men in featureless masks wearing bowler hats dance-walking along a street with three children following.
A mystery photo from Milton Keynes in the 1970s. (© Buckinghamshire Archives~

During the 1970s, many artists were commissioned to produce work for Milton Keynes and the town became a hub for the weird and wonderful. Some of this art became instantly recognisable, like Concrete Cows and Triceratops, but we have records for many more pieces that are less well known. This photo is just one of them. As an archive, we always say that we’re experts on looking after history, not experts in all of the history that we look after. We have absolutely no idea what this photo is about. It might be something to do with the National Theatre who were in Milton Keynes around the same time, but we’ve found no other evidence of the bizarre bowler hat people except for this photo.

Each week on our social media pages we share strange photos like this under the hashtag #MKMonday in the hope that someone recognises what’s happening. Many people have come forward after recognising themselves in our photos and have added their knowledge to our archive. For now, this weird photo remains a mystery.

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