Transcribing the past: blackjacks and bottells.

Transcribing the past: blackjacks and bottells.

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Written by Wayne Robinson.

Wayne Robinson is a historian and historical leatherworker living in Australia, with a background in digital publishing. His blog describes the trials and tribulations of transcribing the 19th/20th Century manuscripts written by Oliver Baker, the authority on leather Blackjacks and Bottells.

Oliver Baker (1856-1939) was a painter, etcher, designer, silversmith and author. He was responsible for a small number of published works, notably ‘Ludlow Town and Neighbourhood’ (1889); ‘Blackjacks and leather Bottells’ (1921); and ‘In Shakespeare’s Warwickshire and the unknown years’ (1937). Baker was responsible for producing all the etchings and paintings that appear in the published works. ‘Black Jacks and Leather Bottells’ was privately printed by Baker’s friend, William John Fieldhouse in 1921. The Fieldhouse blackjack and leather bottell collection features extensively in the drafts and published work.

The Baker archive at the National Leather Collection is an eclectic compilation of handwritten and typewritten drafts for his book, ‘Black Jacks and Leather Bottells’, spanning a period of some twenty years, together with letters, postcards, notes, sketches and paintings. These are currently being scanned by the Museum in preparation for making them available in digital form at some point in the future. My role is to transcribe the scans and add XML tags; this allows the text to be displayed, indexed and used online.

When Baker started writing, he understood that he was documenting the demise of an industry that had been around for more than a thousand years, and hoped to have some influence on the quality of information available to the fledgling collectors’ community. The needs of that community and the necessity of protecting the value of their investments guided him. In one case, it lead him to pull a chapter on the process of making of black jacks not long before publication, to prevent unscrupulous individuals from flooding the collecting market with fraudulent blackjacks that would be indistinguishable from the originals. As a modern leather jack and bottell maker, it is a decision I have come to regret more than once. I’d like to think that I have managed to get the techniques mostly correct from the little gems Baker does provide, but the missing chapter has become a bit of a legend within the historical leatherworking community.  The hope of finding a late publication-ready draft of that chapter is part of my motivation for getting involved in the transcription project.

His handwritten manuscript is ink on paper and ranges from a ruled creamy writing paper, to the backs of old envelopes and any other paper that came to hand at the time. In this draft, the evolution from the idea to the published work is most evident; in many places two or three attempts have been made to describe a particular object or to expound a theory about a poem or song. The language used is quite formal, and in the descriptions of the objects and places, Baker displays a deference to class that seems odd and distracting to my more egalitarian modern sensibilities. His legibility varies, depending on how enthusiastic he is about an idea and how much space he has to fit it in.

The typed manuscript is purple type, on a thin, poor quality paper. It is obviously an edited version of the handwritten text and shows mark up from at least two different proof readers at different times, along with Baker’s rewrites and in some places, responses to what he finds as the readers’ unreasonable demands. The pencil-using proof reader is particularly unkind in places regarding Baker’s abuses of the language. As a consequence, sections of up to two pages in length have been struck through and hand written revisions appended. The language is less formal than in the handwritten manuscript, and the huge blocks of quoted text from poems, songs and obscure guild works has thankfully been reduced. Reflecting the passage of time between the drafts, Baker’s most frequent edit in the typewritten manuscript is to add the words “the late” in front of a collector’s name. This could possibly be an unfortunate effect of the Great War. Furthermore, part way through chapter 3 the typewriter developed a problem with the shift key; the characters are in upper case, but are half a line lower than they should be. This caused some interesting results with the OCR software that I have been running on the scans.

One of the things that stands out is the random group of jacks and bottells that Baker used to illustrate his work. The typed draft recounts accessing the collections of his friends and his father’s friends and as a result, misses a number of fairly high profile jacks such as the George Taylor Oxford Joiners’ jack, now in the Ashmolean Museum. Baker was aware of this limitation and, in the drafts, he asked his readers for help finding ones he hadn’t known about at the time of publishing. I keep thinking about how different this work would be if it were written today. Many of the collections he wrote about have since been broken up and sold, but every so often I realise that he’s talking about a jack I know and have seen on display in a museum or historic house. A couple of times, this flash of recognition has led me to review my photographs and notes of the item and hopefully will help me improve my jack-making.

So far, I’ve completed two chapters out of a total of eight. Baker took 30 years between the first drafts and publication, I hope I can finish the transcription in something under that.

Follow us on social media for updates on the Oliver Baker Archival Project, and for access once the transcription is published online. Click here to read about one of our blackjacks owned by infamous smuggler, Will Watch!

To learn more about the collection, please visit our website. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.