Archives Blog November 2017

Current exhibition in the Venerable Magdalen Taylor Heritage Room, Brentford.

At the moment (and until New Year) there is a small display in the Brentford Heritage Room of letters of Mother Magdalen Taylor. These are part of the exciting project which has been on-going since 2015 to transcribe electronically the whole of Mother Magdalen’s surviving handwritten letters, and which has led to the closure of the archives until the re-opening timed for January 2018.

The letters on display have been selected as a very small sample of the c.2,500 surviving letters, which have been transcribed and partially re-edited by the team of Tony Finerty, Alison Quinlan and Paul Shaw in Brentford. The transcribers have been ably aided by a team at Mater Dei Convent in Rome, who have been producing electronic versions of letters already transcribed, and many other SMG Sisters in England who have been involved at one time or another on this challenging project. The vast majority of the original letters are held in the congregational archives in Brentford, though the archives team are very grateful to archivists in other institutions who have assisted in giving access to letters of Mother Magdalen in their collections (such as the Birmingham Oratory archives, and the archives of the Archdioceses of Liverpool, Southwark and Westminster).

In many cases the letters had been transcribed in the past by hand, sometimes on multiple occasions, and versions of some have appeared in previous biographies of Mother Magdalen, or in printed compilations produced for internal congregational distribution. But, by returning to the original letters, many of which were very fragile, we have aimed to produce definitive electronic versions, preserving Mother Magdalen’s precise wording and characteristic style of writing and layout, and including editorial notes where possible to provide context and assist with dating. Mother Magdalen’s handwriting is typically far from easy to interpret, and we have thus provided a service to future generations of researchers to help them access the archive of one of the most important of the distinguished Victorian religious founders. A small edited selection of the letters and other historical transcriptions was made available to the delegates at the recent General Chapter, including Mother Magdalen’s complete surviving correspondence with Cardinal Newman, who was a notable associate in her early literary work.

In some cases only later or contemporary transcriptions written by other hands have survived, requiring the team to carefully compare different versions: this is particularly the case with Mother Magdalen’s very valuable ‘circular’ letters to groups of Sisters, or to the whole congregation.

A necessary prelude to the completion of this task has been the painstaking conservation and re-packaging of many of the letters, from May to July 2015, by a team led by Ruth Stevens ACR of the Sussex Conservation Consortium, who have kindly allowed us to reproduce here photographs of their work.

Paul Shaw