I am not a professional, I do not hold a BA, MA or Ph.D, and in fact O and A levels were never an option. Leaving school at 15 with basic typing skills was, and I am now happy in retirement after many years as a legal secretary. But what I do possess, and have for as long as I can remember, is a passion for history. And it wasn’t until later years that the researching and writing of 17th century history came to be a reality.
It is the researching side of things that really gets into your blood, and it is not as easy thing to ignore. It nags away at you, compelling you to delve further and further into your subject, seeking new material. I call it a dis-ease and as I have said on may occasions to date there is no known cure.
Putting my research in written form however I do not relish as much as the research, but it is a job that must be done for the benefit of readers.
Most of my work is typed on a computer. I am not one for hand written notes, to be honest my handwriting is appalling, more scrap metal than fine copperplate, and often deciphering my own writing is sometimes a research project all of its own.
Wherever possible I will always archive found material firstly in my computer favourites and then print out the most relevant pieces, with an ever growing mountain of A4 appearing on my desk. When researching away from my desk, I find using a modern Dictaphone most helpful particularly when used in conjunction with a transcription kit. Most record offices, and the like now allow a nominal fee for digital photos to be taken by a researcher. This is a real bonus, as it allows more documents to be perused, especially when travelling some distance and time is of the essence. Your photos can then be downloaded back home and the documents scrutinized at your leisure.
My fingers are not as fast or nimble as they used to be on the keyboard, so I made the decision to invest in speech recognition software, a wonderful aid and worth every penny. I was a little hesitant at first in considering this, but the modern speech recognition is superb. I found it particularly helpful in transcribing lengthy old documents. Surprisingly I found that it also works just as well in hearing direct from my Dictaphone, with the added advantage of being able to make a cup of coffee away from my desk whilst the transcription is being done for you.
I find editing your own manuscript an arduous but necessary task and is a cross we all have to bear, unless of course one has the wherewithal to employ an editor.
The main sources of my research are usually many of the excellent accessible and free online websites. For instance Internet Archive is a good source of digitized old books etc., from the libraries and archives of universities worldwide. The National Archives and the like are a never-ending source of material. Wikipedia is useful as are ancestry websites but most of the latter require a subscription. But instinct does play a big part and that is something I fear only comes out with practice.
For example my latest book, a non-fiction work on Thomas Alcock, stemmed from my studies of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester culminating in my historical faction (not a typo I do mean faction) novel ‘Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue’ published in 2014.
All that appeared to be known about Alcock was his association with Rochester as his servant, his part in Rochester’s incredible comedic deception in the guise of Dr. Alexander Bendo, and also the famous portrait of Alcock c 1650 by the celebrated Samuel Cooper held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
With my initial interest in Alcock, my first port of call was to visit the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections, which hold some original works by Rochester together with Alcock’s famous manuscript book, bound in dark green leather with gilt tooling, of ‘The Famous Pathologist or the Noble Mountebank. This was given by Alcock in 1687 as a New Year’s Day gift to Henry Baynton Esq. and Lady Anne his wife, she being Rochester’s eldest daughter. At the end of this exquisite book was the following: ‘Transcribed at Mallets Court In Shierhampton Decr the 13th 1687. by Me THOs ALCOCK’. And on reading those few words, my Alcock sleuthing began.
Bristol Archives had only four references to documents relating to Malletts Court, Shirehampton, near Bristol. The four documents are Indentures appertaining to the Malletts Court. There is a Bargain and Sale of the 21st of June 1699 and a Release of the 22nd June 1699 and two further documents regarding the sale of the house to the Governor, Deputy Governor, Assistants and Guardians of the Poor in the City of Bristol, dated the 28th and 29th of July 1701. In the High Street at Shirehampton stands an old barn, purchased by the church in 2008 and known as the tithe barn and seemingly unrelated to Malletts Court. But the later two Indentures illustrate that the barn would have been part and parcel of the old manor house of Malletts Court, with the church purchasing the building from Bristol Charities, originally Bristol Corporation of the Poor established in 1696.
In the earlier documents there is mention of Malletts Court being heretofore in the possession of a Mrs. Mary Rogers widow. At the earlier time of her living at the old manor, Alcock was also living there and it is where he transcribed ‘The Famous Pathologist’ in 1687. Sadly the manor house, a beautiful specimen, was demolished in 1937 but thankfully there are photo records in existence. It is also interesting to note that two of the signatures on the earlier deeds are those of the Earl and Countess of Sandwich, the latter being none other than the former Elizabeth Wilmot, another of Rochester’s daughters.
Alcock’s employment whilst living at Shirehampton appears to be that of a King’s Waiter at Bristol Port as found in Calendar of Treasury Books entries from 1685 to 1691.
Very few letters written by Alcock have survived, but these prove that whilst he was living in Shirehampton he was friends with the well-known Astry family of Henbury and with Sir Robert Southwell and his son Edward whose country seat was at Kings Weston.
Two of the surviving letters are held at Bristol Archives, with the third in the private collection of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House, Wiltshire. All three letters are of great interest; a social letter to Elizabeth Astry, one to Sir Robert Southwell regarding the Monmouth Rebellion and another to Edward Southwell Esq, in connection with the Gloucester Parliamentary Elections of 1690.
As I mentioned earlier, instinct is a great asset and as I trawled the net with the name of Thomas Alcock many surprising facts came to light that caught my eye, one of these being Joseph Glanvill’s ‘Saducismus triumphatus, or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions’, published posthumously in 1681. Alcock’s name appears on several occasions in the book, relating to ghost stories, and as such confirms Alcock’s secretaryship for many years to the celebrated Jeremy Taylor, Bishop of Down and Conner, in Ireland.
My researches then led me to The Royal Society, London, where again to my great surprise Alcock’s name appears in Robert Hooke’s famous ‘Lectiones Cutlerianae, or A collection of lectures, physical, mechanical, geographical & astronomical’, 1679. He is mentioned in connection with Captain Samuel Sturmy’s investigations at the Pen Park Hole, a large natural cave near Bristol, in July 1669. Alcock was present at his descent into the dark abyss, and subsequently wrote verbatim Captain Sturmy’s exploration first hand. This was sent by Alcock to Hooke for his attention…‘I received it from Mr. Thomas Alcock from Bristol’.
Further researches then led me to a letter written in Latin by Alcock to the Duke of Ormonde, on behalf of and signed by Bishop Jeremy Taylor, in 1662. The letter is archived at Northern Illinois University.
The British Library played its part too. There is a letter held by them, again in the hand of Alcock but signed by Taylor from Dublin, also dated 1662. This letter is labelled special access, and many weeks passed by before I was given permission to purchase a copy for transcription and for its image to be included in my book.
I conclude with a remarkable, intriguing and unexpected find that came to light. And what better way than to show its entry, which appears in my book:
‘In the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands in The Hague, shelf mark, BPH 151, there is a manuscript booklet; a tribute to Dr. Henry More who died in September 1687. The document was received by Sir Robert Southwell at his home at Kings Weston near Bristol from Thomas Alcock and as will be seen was written by Alcock at Farley Castle and dated the 14th of January 1687 (1687/88).
Farley Castle was the home of Lady Anne Baynton, daughter of Lord Rochester, and her husband Henry Baynton (1664-1691). As already shown earlier, in this same month Lady Anne and her husband received a New Year’s Day gift at Farley Castle of Alcock’s leather bound copy of the Bendo escapade.’
Susan Margaret Cooper has, for many years, held a curiosity for England's history, with particular emphasis on the Restoration period. Her enthusiasm has led her to scholarly research of those times, resulting in some of her works being published in 2011 and 2013 volumes of Oxford University Press Notes and Queries Journal. Sue also has unpublished pieces archived in Blenheim Palace at Woodstock, Magdalene College in Cambridge and in the Library Catalogue of Trinity College in Cambridge.
A Kindle edition of Thomas Alcock: A Biographical Account Kindle by Susan Margaret Cooper is free on Amazon Kindle for five days it can be found with this link- https://www.amazon.co.uk/Thomas-Alcock-Susan-Margaret-Cooper-ebook/dp/B075JKX31B