Reflections on my time as Project Assistant for the John Pendlebury Family Papers Archive: 8 months of John Pendlebury and family, archaeology, travel, photographs and digitisation

Back in the summer of 2015, after a Skype interview, I was lucky enough to be appointed as the Project Assistant for the John Pendlebury Family Papers Archive Project. I moved to Athens and the project commenced at the beginning of October. I started to learn a great deal about the Pendlebury family, archaeology and Greece.

Postcards of Athens, [c. 1927-28], from Hilda Pendlebury’s travel scrapbook. Copyright: The British School at Athens
I spent a fascinating 8 months cataloguing the archive in detail, repackaging the archive, and working with a local digitisation office to organise the digitisation of the archive. By the time I left at the end of June the archive was fully catalogued (mostly to item-level) and the photograph albums, letters and travel logs were digitised. These 3 sections are the richest in the archive and contain a multitude of early 20th century photographs of Greece, details of many trips taken by John and Hilda Pendlebury, and family letters covering the whole of John Pendlebury’s life.  

Travel log containing photographs and extracts from John Pendlebury’s letters to his father, from Greece 1923. Copyright: British School at Athens

Many of these family letters were written during John Pendlebury’s time as a student at Winchester College (1918-1923). I am very grateful to the Wykeham patrons (supporters of Winchester College) who generously funded my work and the digitisation work which was carried out.

There is still some work to be done on completing the digitisation, inputting catalogue data onto EMu (the BSA’s cataloguing software), and linking the digital images to catalogue entries. In an ideal world I would have been able to complete all these tasks, but as the project progressed it became clear that this would not be possible. We had to prioritise tasks but also made a huge leap forward towards completion.

I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work at the British School at Athens on the John Pendlebury Family Archive. The project was really interesting and I learnt more about archaeology than I realised there was to know. I also gained valuable experience of cataloguing to item-level (which I had rarely done before) and working with EMu.

A page from one of John Pendlebury’s travel logs, containing photographs of a house in Cambridge and of Ralph Lavers (architect) and Herbert Pendlebury (Oct 1934). Copyright: The British School at Athens

I am writing this blog post from an unusually sunny Cambridge, where I am now working as an Assistant Archivist in the Department of Manuscripts and Archives at the University Library. As those who have followed my blog or know about the life of John Pendlebury will realise, he was no stranger to Cambridge. John was a student at Pembroke College and the Faculty of Classics, and John and Hilda lived in various houses in Cambridge between dig seasons in Greece and Egypt. Most mornings I walk past the site of one of their houses (now part of Robinson College).

I hope that my connections with John Pendlebury and the British School at Athens are not completely over, but if they are I will always look back with fond memories.

Approaching Karphi, April 2016. Copyright: British School at Athens

Week 9, 30th Nov-4th Dec

Folder of letters from John at Winchester College
A file of letters sent to Lilian and Herbert Pendlebury from John Pendlebury whilst he was at Winchester College. Copyright: The British School at Athens

Whilst completing the catalogue descriptions of John’s letters to his parents from Winchester College I discovered more about the terminology that I was puzzling over last week. This terminology is called ‘notions’. There have been official books of the terms published, and John refers to spending time learning them in his letters. The number of notions in use has declined over time, but there is still a current booklet which pupils of the College can purchase and a glossary of some of the terms on Winchester College’s website.

I also discovered that Winchester College Football is a distinct game from football, and that both are played at the College (and were played by John). Depending on the context and terminology used it is usually possible to determine which sport John was discussing in his letters. He was a very sporting pupil and as well as playing  both types of football he took part in activities including competitive rifle shooting, cricket, fives, athletics (hurdles and high-jump) and the Steeplechase race.

After finishing the first draft of the descriptions of John’s letters to his parents from Winchester, I checked through the descriptions again making additions and adjustments. I found I was able to make more sense of some of the letters once I had learnt more about the Winchester College environment and context that John was writing in.

I have now moved on to cataloguing John’s letters to his father which were written whilst he was based here, at the British School at Athens, from 1927-28. John arrived in November 1927 with a studentship and a task to trace all archaeological finds of Egyptian origin in Greece up to 664 BC. His letters to his father reveal first impressions of the British School and his fellow residents, including his future wife Hilda White.

…Miss White who alone of the lot strikes one as being at all human, she reminds me of Vera rather. The rest are definitely sub-human.” (20 Nov 1927)

“I only wish everyone wouldn’t be so obviously learned to the eyebrows. It makes me feel like such an impostor being here at all.” (20 Nov 1927)

The British School residents wasted no time in organising expeditions to other parts of Greece. The letters I have been cataloguing are full of descriptions of trips to Thessaly, the Argolid and Crete – which has prompted regular searches on Google maps!

Map from letter about East Crete trip 1928 BSA 1410
A map of John’s trip around Eastern Crete with Hilda White, Vivien Whitfield and Margaret Rodger (from the British School at Athens) in 1928. From a letter to Herbert Pendlebury. Copyright: The British School at Athens

John’s letters from Greece are written solely to his father. His mother, Lilian Pendlebury, had died of heart failure in September 1921 when she was only 50 and John was just 16. The archive does not tell us much of John’s reaction to this tragedy as there is a gap in the surviving correspondence between March 1921 and November 1927.

The only material within the John Pendlebury Family Papers dating from the mid-1920s are a few letters sent to Herbert about John from Winchester College and Pembroke College, a travel log of John’s travels in Greece in 1923, some school notebooks containing essays, and a hand-drawn plan of Tanagra (from John’s travels in 1923). I am not yet certain whether the letters from the schools to Herbert contain much about John’s reaction to the death of his mother, but this will become clear once they are catalogued.

Herbert Pendlebury, photograph in the John Pendlebury Family Papers. Copyright: The British School at Athens

So why is there a gap in the letters? Perhaps John ceased writing, or (as I believe to be more likely) the letters have been lost. He certainly did write to Herbert from Greece in 1923, as those letters were transcribed by Herbert into the 1923 travel log. Herbert moved to Malvern to live with his new wife, Mabel Dickinson (“Dickie”), in 1925. So perhaps the letters were lost in the move.

This week I will continue cataloguing John’s letters sent to his father from Greece in 1927-28, and then hopefully move on to his letters from London (when preparing for his marriage to Hilda White in 1928), Greece (during his honeymoon) and Egypt (1928-29).


Week 8, 23rd-27th Nov

I began the week by continuing working through John’s letters to his parents (Lilian and Herbert Pendlebury) from St George’s School in Broadstairs, Kent, which he attended until February 1917. I then catalogued letters sent to John’s parents from Beaudesert Park, Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire (May 1917 – Mar 1918), before moving on to his letters from Winchester College.

Letter sent from Henley in Arden illustrations
Letter to Herbert Pendlebury, from Beaudesert Park school (24 Mar 1918). Includes illustrations of Theseus killing the Minotaur and Hannibal drinking poison. Copyright: the British School at Athens

John usually sent letters home from school at least once a week, mainly written on Sundays and to his mother. There are occasional letters to Herbert Pendlebury, though mostly reporting on academic progress. The letters written to Lilian reveal a lot about John’s life at school, interactions with other pupils, and extra curricula activities. He was not shy of informing his mother about his misbehaving….

…only to find there was more excitement down at Commoner Gate so we went there in pyjamas and danced and sang Domum and heard speeches and cheered and were told to say “good night” by History Bill…which only made us sing Domum all through again. By the time we got really into bed it was 11 and there were morning lines the next morning.”


Letter to Lilian Pendlebury from John, sent from Winchester College. John mentions books by Henry Rider Haggard and uses Winchester College terminology. Copyright: British School at Athens

Last week I found myself browsing a list of books by Henry Rider Haggard, as the letters reveal that John was a big fan of these adventure stories. He often asked for these books from his parents, and discussed reading them or lending them to friends.

I have also been puzzling over terminology that was used at Winchester College, and that John used liberally in his letters home from the school. Winchester College was founded by William of Wykeham (Bishop of Winchester and former Chancellor of England) in the 14th century and has been educating boys continuously since then.

Chapel at Winchester College. Photograph by Andrew Powers (2005), Wikimedia Commons.

I have been finding ‘Winchester College : a brief history & guide’, Winchester College’s website and the Routledge Dictionary of Historical Slang useful for deciphering John’s letters from Winchester. Terms used include “cuse”, “sweats”, “Pots” and “Hatch Thoke”.

“Cuse” = the weekly order of the pupils’ marks in each division of the school. The term is used in sentences such as “I was 2nd in cuse”.

“Sweats” = chores carried out by pupils.  Synonymous with the public school system of fagging.

“Pots”= house football (and possibly other sports) leagues.

“Hatch Thoke” = Founders commemoration day (holiday).

This week I will continue cataloguing John’s letters to his parents from Winchester College (there are over 100 of these), and then hopefully progress to some later letters by the end of the week.



About the John Pendlebury Family Papers…

A poster from a BSA exhibition about John Pendlebury, first shown in 2001, to commemorate the Battle of Crete
A poster from a BSA exhibition about John Pendlebury, first shown in 2001, to commemorate the Battle of Crete

The John Pendlebury Family Papers not only tell us about the life and work of John Pendlebury, they contain a wealth of information on John’s parents and stepmother, Hilda Pendlebury (née White), Hilda’s family, and many colleagues and friends of the couple.

The collection has been named the “John Pendlebury Family Papers” rather than the John Pendlebury Papers because of the mixed provenance of the collection. For example there are many letters within the collection that were sent to John’s parents and to Hilda.

Unlike many personal papers collections, this is not a collection which belonged to John in its complete state. The bulk of the collection was given to the British School on the recommendation of a Curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, who had  received it from Joan Pendlebury (John and Hilda’s daughter). Material had been extracted and given to the Egyptian Exploration Society before it arrived at the BSA.

Some further material came to the British School from Hilda Pendlebury, via the Society for Hellenic Travel, in 1976. Material was later received from Sinclair Hood (former Director of the British School at Athens and excavator at Knossos), and most recently moved from the Mercy (Money-Coutts) Seiradakis collection and excavation records in the British School Archives into the Pendlebury collection.

A file of letters thanking John for sending copies of his book 'The Archaeology of Crete' in 1939
A file of letters thanking John for sending copies of his book ‘The Archaeology of Crete’ in 1939

The John Pendlebury Family papers have previously been sorted and catalogued to some degree by a student on an Archives and Records Management MA course, during a 2 week work placement.

The current project to digitise and catalogue the papers in detail is being generously funded by the Wykeham Patrons of Winchester College.