Manuscripts and Special Collections

Points to consider when using the collections

When making use of such large and varied archival collections there are many different points for users to bear in mind. The following list is designed to act as a general guide.


Geographical Coverage

The geographical coverage of individual collections can be wide. Though they were frequently centred around a local 'heartland' of property, the landowning interests of individual families could stretch from one end of the country to the other, and might even extend abroad.

Therefore, users should not assume that the collections held at the University are relevant only to research on Nottinghamshire. There is much relating to the adjoining counties - Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire - and beyond.

Users of the Newcastle Collection, for example, will find records relating to estates in Hafod (Wales), Surrey, Wiltshire, London and Ireland (to name but a few!), whilst users of the Portland Collection will find material from London, Buckinghamshire, Northumberland and Scotland. Such patterns are repeated throughout the major family and estate collections.


Family Relationships

There were complex inter-relationships between members of the landed and titled classes, generally brought about through marriage unions. As a result, many landed family and estate collections can overlap, and the papers of one member of a particular family may well be nestling within the archive of another family.

The Harley Family papers, for example, are a constituent part of the Portland Collection, having descended via the marriage in 1734 of Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley to William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland. Lady Margaret was the heiress of Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741), and his wife, Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles (1694-1755).

Users should be aware, therefore, that they may sometimes need to extend their search for information about a family member whose collection is held at Nottingham University to the archive of another family, possibly held at another repository. An understanding of the family relationships is key.


Origination of Records

Following on from this, records contained within a family and estate collection were not necessarily generated by the family itself - or indeed anyone connected with it.

Property records provide a prime example of this. They tended to be passed from vendor to purchaser when a property was conveyed. Thus the Middleton Collection, for example, contains deeds generated by entirely different families, from periods long before properties passed into Middleton (Willoughby) hands.


Coverage and Continuity

Another point users should be aware of is that whilst family and estate collections are often extensive, their coverage is not always completely comprehensive and their continuity can be broken. The survival of particular records cannot always be relied upon.

Records relating to a particular property once held by the family may well have been passed on to new owners once that property was sold - either purposefully or inadvertently, if say, records were left in an attic! Individuals sometimes put their own personal papers into the hands of third parties, to be assessed, and possibly disposed of, after their death.

Furthermore, destruction of records was not always intentional. Many landed families have suffered floods and fires at their family seats (such as the fire which occurred at Clumber in 1879) which have resulted in significant loss of archive material. Simply because a family archive survives, then, users should not automatically expect particular records to be present within it.


Original Purpose

Bear in mind when reading records in family and estate collections that they are unlikely to have been created for the purpose for which you may wish to use them. As a result, the information you require may be buried away, or it may not be immediately obvious how and why a particular record could assist you in your research. A degree of lateral thinking can sometimes be required.


Detective Work

This leads on to another point to bear in mind when using family and estate collections - namely that research can be painstaking and time consuming.

Relevant information is frequently dispersed across a number of different record series. Each one will need to be consulted, and the process may sometimes be a little like finding lost pieces of a jigsaw puzzle before being able to put them together again.

Thus, for example, if you are researching a particular person who worked on an estate, you may need to trawl through several books of accounts, numerous items of correspondence, a number of reports, and so on, to identify references to the individual. Even then, you may not be sure that the reference you've found is to the right 'Joe Bloggs', so you may need to find supporting information to clarify and authenticate your reference.

All this said, however, when your effort pays off, and the pieces of the jigsaw begin to come together, it is extremely satisfying.



Researchers using family and estate collections at the University of Nottingham should be aware that the catalogues to the collections are completed in varying levels of detail and are presented in differing formats.

Whilst the catalogues to some of our most important collections are fully searchable online, completed to individual item level, and with extensive indexing of names, places and subjects, others exist only as traditional typescript catalogues. These are usually completed to bundle level, meaning that a few lines may be describing 50 or more documents. Accordingly, the indexing provided in these catalogues is much less extensive. Thus varying search strategies will be required to identify relevant information.

Users should also note that simply because something is not indexed, does not mean it does not exist within the collections. It would not be feasible, for instance, to index every name appearing within every estate rental.


Skills for Understanding Documents

Finally, users should be aware that they may face challenges in interpreting the records found within family and estate collections.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge is that of palaeography (old handwriting). Styles of writing have changed significantly over the years and documents may well contain letter forms which are unfamiliar to present-day users.

Language can also be an issue. Particularly with early documents, users may encounter items written in Latin or early French.

Other challenges which may present themselves relate to unfamiliar spellings, vocabulary and terminology, or to the use of unrecognisable dating formats. In addition, not everyone is experienced in dealing with money expressed in pounds, shillings and pence, or with historical forms of recording weights and measures.

Manuscripts and Special Collections has developed online Research Guidance units on Dating Documents and Weights, Measures and Money, which offer advice and guidance in these areas.


Using Different Types of Document

There are also issues relating to particular types of document. Users may be unfamiliar with the charge and discharge method of accounting, and may not know how a feoffment with livery of seizin brought about the conveyance of a property; they may not understand the administrative processes reflected in manorial records, or they may be confused by the 'scale of chains' indicated on a map.

Why not look at our Research Guidance units on Deeds, Deeds in DepthManorial Records, and Maps and Plans, to help with these issues?



In spite of such challenges, users should certainly not be discouraged from accessing the wealth of information family and estate collections have to offer. There are numerous reference works available to assist in the interpretation of records and guidance on particular record types can be accessed via this web site.

All in all, users will undoubtedly find that undertaking research using family and estate collections is a fascinating and rewarding experience.


Next page:  Types of record found within the collections 

Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4565
fax: +44 (0) 115 846 8651