Lockdown, Lord Westport and Leather Pantaloons

Listing the Marquess of Sligo letters during a pandemic 

Ciara Joyce, Archivist, Special Collections & Archives

How, as an archivist, do you work from home? Reports, meetings, e-mail and all aside, how do you continue listing your collections without having them with you? In short the answer is, with some difficulty and with a lot of help from technology.

Howe Peter Browne, Marquess of Sligo (1778-1845)

Howe Peter Browne (1778-1845) 2nd Marquess of Sligo. Source: Wikipedia

When lockdown was announced in March 2020, I had just begun work on a fascinating new collection of letters from Howe Peter Browne, Lord Westport, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, to his mother the Marchioness of Sligo. This collection of 126 letters covers a period from 1809-1811 when Sligo was enjoying his Grand Tour and plundering Greek antiquities and a later period from 1813-1814 as a tourist on the fringes of the battlefields of the Napoleonic war and as a witness to the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in Paris.

Sligo was everything a wealthy young aristocrat of the period was expected to be. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he moved within Royal circles and counted Lord Byron as one of his friends. He led a carefree, hedonistic existence and was a terribly extravagant spendthrift. His time abroad was initially seen as a way for him to live less extravagantly but his interest in socialising, clothes and living well continued throughout his travels. He even convinced his mother to hire him a brig and crew so he and his entourage could travel at their ease while also occasionally engaging in chasing down pirates in the Mediterranean.

As with all antiquarians of the period, Sligo’s attitude to the acquisition of the classical world’s treasures was that they were there for the taking. He writes on the 17th of June 1810 that he is ‘up to his eyes in delight’ and although the Parthenon has already been excavated by Lord Elgin, he hopes to ‘prize for myself’ the remains of a bas relief on the temple. He also hopes to

carry away with me one or two of the Caryatides from the Pandroseum, a bit of the Cornice, a hollow stone that is in the Temple of Theseus covered with a Greek inscription and a few other little curiosities I have fixed my eyes upon’.

He complains of his fellow traveller Lord Byron who has been there for three months,

‘kicking up the Devils delight doing nothing on earth but riding full gallop and firing pistols. He has not scarcely been once to see the antiquities. In short you never heard of such a system of folly as they have been carrying on here’.

Lord Byron in Albanian Dress, by Thomas Phillips, 1813. Source: Wikipedia

His letters also contain matters of business regarding his Irish estate, his financial affairs and long lists of clothes he wants sent out including; silk cravats, uniforms and on more than one occasion his ‘leather pantaloons’.

His later letters are no less interesting. Covering a period during 1813-1814 they include details of the final stages of the campaign against Napoleon and give unique and detailed descriptions of the atmosphere in Paris at the time of his defeat. Regarding his arrival in Paris, Sligo writes

never did any revolution take place so completely good humouredly and with such universal consent….The substitution of the white for the tricoloured cockade and perhaps an extraordinary number wearing the former in their hats are they only symptoms of this most wonderful change’ (11 April 1814)

Sligo thinks that he has arrived in Paris at the most interesting time in twenty years and perhaps ever. He writes that France has returned to what it was after twenty-four years of ‘continual bloodshed’ and that it is a good lesson for other nations.

Processing the Collection

Listing of this collection recommenced in October 2020. With limited access to the physical documents, making surrogates was really the only practical option. Luckily this is a small collection with only one document type – a standard sized letter. The collection is also clean and in relatively good condition. The documents were photographed in the reading room using a Canon camera, without any attempt to arrange or organise the material. They were imaged just as they appear in their original folders. The images were then transferred to a laptop as JPEGs and were given a temporary number for identification.

The Pros and Cons

Letter from the Marquess of Sligo, At Sea off Gibraltar to his mother the Marchioness of Sligo, London. 2 February 1810 MU/PP/33

Having a digital image of handwritten 19th century letters is certainly useful for zooming in on Sligo’s problematic handwriting. A number of the pages are a little dogeared and with Sligo’s tendency to write to the very edge of the page, the occasional word is obscured or missing altogether, but this should be easily remedied when back in the presence of the original documents. Having to go to and from digital image to word document or database and back again was tedious, especially when quoting passages, so I resorted to taking some handwritten notes while looking at the images. This made the process a little longer but will hopefully assure its accuracy. Each description will be checked against the original document when restrictions are lifted and we return to site. The collection will then have to be cleaned, arranged, numbered and boxed and the finishing touches added to the finding aid.

Other difficulties of working from home during a global pandemic are not unique to archivists or other library professionals. They generally consisted of constant interruptions with questions like, ‘Can I help you with your letters Mammy?’ while you try to carefully transcribe names like Hieronymus von Colloredo-Mansfeld from a 19th century document and ‘Can I press that button?’, while sticky pudgy fingers were held over a brand new laptop keyboard. Again difficulties that will soon ease with the opening up of society again.

Work on the collection continues and when finished it will be available to researchers in the Special Collections and Archives reading room in the John Paul II Library at MU.

For more information please contact library.specialcollections@mu.ie

Further reading:

Chambers, Anne. The Great Leviathan, The Life of Howe Peter Browne 2nd Marquess of Sligo (1788-1845), New Island Books (2017)

Chambers, Anne. “‘CHAMPION OF THE SLAVES’—: Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo (1788–1845).” History Ireland, vol. 26, no. 1, 2018, pp. 22–24.

One thought on “Lockdown, Lord Westport and Leather Pantaloons

  1. Meggan Tesar June 13, 2021 / 8:04 am

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