Museum visit: Lion Salt Works, Northwich

I researched salt during explorations for my thesis because it is an ingredient in the soda process, it has multiple domestic uses beyond seasoning food, such as killing weeds, as well as some more unusual (and minority) uses where it has been used as a punishment and a poison. Salt, therefore, can be more interesting than you initially think. The purpose of the Lion Salt Works is to showcase the production of salt from brine in open pans, at the very location that it occurred between the 1850s (not as the same company) and 1986. During my research phase, the Lion Salt Works was shut and undergoing some fairly extensive development as a visitor attraction. The museum is right on the Trent and Mersey canal, in a place that has a train station, which makes it a good mooring spot that we’ve used fairly regularly, so the museum has been on my radar for a while now. Earlier this September we moored nearby again, and I took the opportunity to visit.

Although the museums I’ve written about so far on this blog have been local museums, I worked at the Museum of Science and Industry for nine years (when it was MSIM, then MOSI) and my Museum Studies MA dissertation was based on how visitors find their way around industrial museums. I chose to study navigation solutions because industrial museums frequently occupy a number of different buildings on quite large sites, which many visitors find interesting, yet challenging. One of the ways to deal with a multi-building site is to shepherd visitors along a particular route that gives them a particular experience. This method makes sure key places are visited, so that parts of the story which often relate specifically to particular buildings can’t be missed out. Strict routes might reduce the opportunity for visitors to explore and discover by themselves, or to dip in and out, but these points are more relevant to museums with more varied collections, whereas the Salt Works if a ‘single issue’ museum. Here, the linear visitor experience prepares visitors to expect exposure to the sequential processes which are at the heart of a salt production facility.

Within minutes of arriving at the museum, I had looked at three slightly different maps of the site. The first one, located on the way into the museum, threw me completely. I like maps to be aligned, or to have a feature that I can easily recognise to help me orientate myself. This map did not show either the road I had left moments earlier, or the canal I had just walked along. However, it lists in detail galleries which do not entirely correspond to my visitor experience and are inconsistent with names on the other maps. The second map was handed to me at the reception after I paid my entrance fee, and because it showed the road and the canal as well as some photographs of the buildings or key features of galleries, it slightly improved on the first. I clutched this navigation-safety-blanket dutifully throughout the visit, but ultimately did not need it on such a linear path. The third was stylistically similar to my laminated version, but without the photographs, and positioned in accordance with the surroundings outside the first ‘main’ exhibition building. Despite the pump house being the logical starting point, as the engine and pump extracted the brine and moved it to where it was needed, it is easy to miss or underappreciate this dilapidated equipment. Perhaps at busier times of year, a guide draws more attention this area.


There were no staff or volunteers available on site when I visited on a midweek afternoon in early September, but a glance at the TripAdvisor reviews indicate that there are often tours, which go down very well. On a very quiet day, it can be a little unsettling to feel alone – or are you? – in a place that would have been so noisy and bustling. That said, it is not a silent place, at least in the first gallery, thanks to the soundtrack of very deliberate background-bustle and the staged scripts of different characters. These seemed to be one-off encounters, rather than characters we should expect to meet again, which was a bit of a shame because the archival photographs and oral histories were actually charming.

There are five main sections or galleries, each with a distinct look and feel, as well as topic or purpose. The first gallery, housed in what had been the Red Lion Inn, looks back at salt production, starting in Roman times. I spent some time wondering if an exhibition about salt really could skip over the etymology of place names, or whether I’d just missed it. Maybe the local visitors are sick of hearing it and this was a deliberate choice. In fact, the geology and to some extent, chemistry of salt is dealt with on the website. A small toy cat – part of a children’s trail – caught my eye along with the breathless squeal of a statement ‘Did you know they put wee and blood in the brine pans?’. The more grown-up interpretation did not take this information any deeper: were these protein-containing elements, equivalent to adding eggwhite to clarify a stock? The absolutely minimal chemistry throughout the exhibitions must have been a very careful decision. It was interesting that there was no mention of any scientific understanding, measuring or standardisation. The only instruments I noticed were scales in archival photographs which were used to weigh products during packing, I did not spot any analytical equipment on display. The most highly prioritised thing in this story about salt production is tacit knowledge: just knowing by practice, the look, feel, and sounds which indicate when something is right. As it dawned on me that this was the slant the curators had chosen, I wished even harder that they had been able to find and use video footage, and to make more of those oral history recordings they’d collected.

My interest in how chemicals have been used at home meant that I was interested to see bricks of salt wrapped in paper for domestic use, which, the interpretation label informed me, the housewives of Cheshire preferred until the 1970s. They pounded the salt with rolling pins or pestles. This tiny nugget of information unleashed a torrent of questions, including how long did a loaf of salt last in a household, before the fear of salt was fostered by public health initiatives? Exhibitions should provoke questions, and these objects certainly did.

The second part of the exhibition showcases the buildings and equipment used in the production of salt from the brine. The hostile environment created by the salt, heat, and water is evident in the rusted metal, as well as the degraded wood. Below the salt pans are the stoves which heated the brine to boiling point. Scooping and skimming the salt from the pans was physically demanding, yet skilled work. I appreciate that you can’t have unsupervised people potentially injuring themselves as they wrangle heavy and unfamiliar items, but I definitely wished there was a better way to experience the physicality of these manual jobs. Photographs of shirtless, wirily muscular men were the only things to go on. I found the Pan House Experience, which relied on dense drifts of dry ice to represent steam, to be predominantly atmospheric. After the boiling pans, visitors walk through several low-ceilinged drying rooms, before reaching the third section of the exhibition in Stove Houses 3 and 4, which is more hands-on. Here, there are handles to turn and buttons to push that cause water to flow through models and lights to illuminate, but more importantly, there are telephone handsets to listen to memories of workers and people who lived nearby. They were my favourite bits because they gave such lovely insights into working life. For instance, employees used to intentionally jam up the salt block crusher by overloading the machine so that they could get longer breaks.

Some of these recordings shared memories from the Lion Salt Work’s neighbours, which is important because the steam, sounds and traffic associated with salt production made quite an impact on those living nearby. There was (finally! or had I just missed it before?) an explanation of how different grades of salt were made, so the types of salt which had been mentioned throughout the exhibitions started to make more sense. Brine that was evaporated very slowly made large coarse grains for preserving fish, whereas the hottest temperatures made the finest, small crystals of salt. I had to look up what was special about the Lagos salt exported to Nigeria, which turned out to be a particularly flaky grade of salt that withstood African high temperature and humidity meaning that it was preferred by consumers there. Overseas trade means that there is definitely scope for some really great geography interventions here, especially with the Paterson Zochonis connection.

The fourth section of the exhibition, the Landscape Gallery in Stove House 2, overlooks the canal and beyond the waterway, the flash created by the collapse of a salt mine. Large photographs of the local area form the basis for descriptions of the impact of the salt industry on the environment. Subsidence meant that structures had to be built with this eventuality in mind, and there was also the possibility of sudden landslips.

The fifth and final section of the exhibition could easily be missed by a visitor who has sensed the end of the exhibition, especially as the maps do not mention that there is anything here to see.  In the corridor leading to the museum exit (via the shop, naturally), a series of panels detail the modern production of salt. This seemed very much like an effort to engage with local industry, and unfortunately, a tagged-on after-thought rather than a planned progression to describe scaled up methods and greater understanding of environmental impacts. The content was actually very interesting and I would have liked to have seen more made of what is evidently still an active local industry.

I left the museum glad that I had visited. It had obviously been a challenge to tell the full story of salt production at that site in an accessible fashion, that utilised all the buildings in a balanced and meaningful way. I was surprised that I ended up getting most of the information about salt production from other sources after my visit. What the museum achieved particularly well was the collection and incorporation of memories of the plant and its activities from neighbours as well as employees, because when an industry has such a long history and noticeable presence in the locale these are important parts of the story.


Managing a large document

This was probably one of the hardest parts of the entire process, but with perfect hindsight, it should not have been. I wrote individual chapters in MS Word for Mac (having tangled with LibreOffice and .odt documents). Sensible. There were some landscape pages in order to fit tables on them. Manageable, when there was only one orientation change. Then I tried to put all the chapters together in Word. Hahahaha ha. Do not do that. You do not want to know how much time I wasted on it, but there was more than one phone call to Microsoft Support where they tried valiantly to help me but clearly had zero experience of either the point or behaviour of footnotes.

What I should have done was convert each chapter to a PDF, then merge the PDF chapters. These are absolutely sickeningly swift and straightforward steps. None of the dizzy-with-rage-and-hopelessness that wrestling a Word document induces when footnotes refuse to be the numbers you want them to be. I wish I had twigged sooner that this was the way to do it. ‘Why didn’t you ask?!’ Well, I asked about Word because it had simply not occurred to me that you could merge PDFs, so the answers I got back were:

  1. donotknow
  2.  Shouldn’t have used Word

If I were to write a long document again, a book for instance, I would:

  • be aware of just how much awfulness section breaks can cause.
  • avoid landscape pages where possible, or use only one per chapter if unavoidable, because the section breaks introduce footnote numbering mayhem.
  • know that PDFs will be there for me at the end.
  • commit early to manually constructing tables of contents and figures, using actual tables to make everything align neatly (not tabs and full stops).
  • use heading styles to help navigate through the document, but ignore the fact that these should also contribute to a quick and easy table of contents. The chaos that followed trying to merge all my Word documents, even ignoring the footnote numbering issue and just focusing on page numbering, was not worth it.
  • the style ‘caption’ did not help me, because I could not get my captions to populate a table of figures.
  • be extremely careful about ‘insert figure’. In an ideal world I would have used the automatic figure numbering style to negate the possibility of referring to a removed image, or misidentifying figures when I moved them around during editing, but in reality it caused so much more hassle than it should have done.
  • never, ever try to operate with multi-chapter Word documents: not created from scratch, not by copying and pasting, and not even in that clever-sounding linked document way that exists.

I wish I could say that I won’t use Word for my next long document, but the reality is that I probably will. I imagine this to be a dysfunctional, somewhat abusive relationship that a lot of people remain in, because it is familiar and leaving is hard. I’d love to say I’d definitely use ShareLaTeX, which seemed to arrive slightly too late on my radar for me to adopt, but it feels like a big leap. Before using that, I still have so much work to do tidying up my EndNote entries, because guess what, when I tried exporting to Bibtex, there were all kinds of horrendous glitches with date formats, source types and author names.

Grammarly Premium: Test/Review

Overall verdict – stick to the free version

Satisfactory Aspects:

Score and reports. As I’ve said before, I respond well to encouragement even when it is prerecorded and impersonal. However, this is supposed to be personalised.

Sources of Unease:

Grammarly has missed basic things like full stops at the end of sentences and duplicate words.

Despite the “word choice” feature, Grammarly cannot be relied on to pick up words that are repeated in the same sentence, or too often. Sometimes it decides that a word has been used too often, even though it was only used once.

Grammarly’s Web Editor does not deal with footnotes nor italics, so be careful of editing here and then copying back to your document, because your references and formatting will have been lost. As Premium only works with Word for Mac if you’re running Parallels, so Web Editor is the only way review drafts with Grammarly.

Does not ignore quoted material, so it can be quite frustrating to see “critical issues” only for them to be things you are accurately quoting. If you are on the free version and Grammarly alerts you to “advanced issues”, these may well be quotation related. The image below includes examples of this. I have asked Support if this is because I’m using the web editor; it might be much better if you’re using MS Word on a p.c. (it doesn’t support Word for Mac). I’ve had placeholder responses so far.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 16.22.56

I disagree with many of the “better word pair” options (see above for an example). Here Grammarly suggests “how easy and perfect cameras were to use” in place of “easy and foolproof”, which to me has quite a different meaning. Granted, I can just ignore these options and questioning whether my preferred word fits is useful.

Infuriatingly, Grammarly wanted to change every instance of weeding to wedding. In a chapter about gardening. Definitely no context awareness here. My expectations for an intelligent spellchecker are obviously too great.

Another example of Grammarly’s questionable focus is in the screenshot below. This excerpt of my draft received a cringeworthy three question marks, two wavy lines and an exclamation mark from my frustrated supervisor, making it an extremely problematic section of writing. We discussed her annotations, and I could totally see that her points were correct. However, Grammarly would only like to hyphenate “17 year old”. Grammarly is very keen on hyphenating.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 16.48.20

Who does Grammarly think I’m writing for, and why? I am happy not to select an “academic” setting, so long as I can see a notification of what Grammarly reckons my audience or aims might be. I wonder if this would help with the quotation issue?

Ditto American/English, I’m sure it can tell, but I’d just like to see it set out somewhere. While I can see that they’re going for a minimal, uncluttered interface with as few options as possible, I really would like to be reassured. It would allow me to trust it better.


The list of things that undermine the impression of competence and authority of Grammarly is a lot longer than the section on what I quite like about it. Perhaps this imbalance is down to the fact that I’m using a Mac so am not able to get the full capability of the Word plugin. However, when you look around any university library, Macs are not exactly an unusual choice. Maybe everyone’s using Parallels; I’ve never asked. It was useful to get some detail on what Grammarly thought were the problems, but now that my curiosity has been sated (and my ire raised), I think I will attempt to make use of the “refund” 7-day money back guarantee option and stick with the free version. It definitely helps to draw attention to possible ambiguities and basic grammar, but it is too time-consuming and cumbersome to use with text that is peppered with footnotes and formatting.


Yet More Writing Woes

After sending off my last (overdue) chapter very optimistically, I received feedback which boiled down to “worst writing ever – get help”. Cue a big productivity slump and an awful lot of cringing as I went back over what I had genuinely thought was pretty good stuff and discovered what a lot of atrociously written drivel it truly was. I understand that this is quite a normal part of work, but knowing that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to deal with. Plus, the level I am working at means that decent writing is expected and when it’s not, I let myself down massively by eroding the goodwill of the reader and conveying a lack of clear ideas.

Having already worked my way through the online reading and exercises that my university directs students to as the first stage of addressing basic writing assistance, AND completed a remedial Coursera stint satisfactorily, PLUS identified my most frequently made mistakes, I’ve installed the free version of Grammarly to see if that helps at all. All the reviews say that the premium version is still no substitute for decent human proofreading, but I need as much help as I can get before I waste people’s time by making them battle through a mire of sentence fragments (the result of cut/paste rearrangement errors), wrong or inconsistent tenses, sentences that start with “This” or “That” but are not followed by a noun, as well as inappropriate colloquialisms. So far, Grammarly’s has little green/red icon has terrified me into not Tweeting or Facebooking at all (I have noticed that it can be turned off for certain websites now), let alone putting my actual work into it. However, this may change because today I had a progress email.

I am a total sucker for these. RunKeeper, Coursera, Duolingo, I absolutely appreciate these automated nudges designed to encourage me and to keep me on track. I did pilates DVDs (when I had space to stretch out) just to hear the blind positive reinforcement of “good job”. I could probably be very easily clicker trained. Anyway, it was pleasing to discover that:

Now I can think about who the other Grammarly users are that I am being compared to. Maybe many sign up and then become too frightened to write, or use it for specific, short-term projects. Perhaps a lot of them have English as a second (third, fourth etc) language, I suppose a lot of them are really quite young, therefore these results are actually quite shameful. Will my vocabulary appear less dynamic when Grammarly learns my writing better? Is this system capable of learning? Is it possible to become too dependent on it? Will it be the writing equivalent of training wheels on a bicycle?

My mother (who I keep refusing to send embarrassingly bad drafts to) reminded me the other night that I went through a long period of not being able to spell. This puzzled parents, teachers and me because I was a voracious reader and reasonably competent at constructing engaging pieces of writing (apart from the spelling). A lot of that was attention based, and I think that the root of my writing woes is probably going to be similarly located. I’ve definitely come to ignore wiggly lines in word-processors, so it will be interesting to see if that rotating green arrow can help me pull up my grammar-socks.

Society for Alchemy and Chemistry Postgraduate Workshop 30 October 2015

The theme of the workshop was the impact of chemistry on health and wellbeing and the outline for the day can be seen here: SHAC Programme and Edited Abstracts for 6th Postgraduate Workshop. The theme tied into the research that I’ve been doing, and was at the Maison Français in Oxford, so I put in an abstract. It was accepted, probably because not many people applied. I only remembered that I could use some visual material I’d put together for previous presentations (my poster drafts for Living in a Toxic World) after several weeks of fretting, again, about how regulation doesn’t really have very good images to use. As ever though, my special trick is to completely rework what I want to say the night before. The feeling of unease that I had when I saw other speakers with their printed out notes was not unusual. “Hmm… they’re giving actual papers, like articles.” However, together we presented our work in a good variety of delivery styles, which made the day go by nicely.

Elena Serrano was first on the bill, presenting her research on a device for fumigation to attempt to combat infection in Spain by releasing chlorine into the room. This particularly engaged me, because she focused on an object and discussed the way that it was used with ready-made kits, rather than making the user find and buy constituent chemicals. In fact, it resonated with what I had seen regarding functional preparations to not ‘worry’ the user, or so they didn’t have to ‘bother’ with chemical understandings, which is interesting to see happening in the late 1700s in Spain. Also, the fumigator was represented in museums, but not the chemical kits, which matched my experiences with looking for domestically used chemicals in museums.

I discussed my research next. I wanted to highlight the centrality of users’ health and wellbeing in decisions about regulations and manufacture of chemicals. I showed the different kinds of sources where users can be found, so I got to share an example that I recently found at the National Archives, of a stain remover formulation being changed which demonstrated how confusing interpreting the rules could be for all involved. My supervisor gave me a “well done” and thinks that even though we had agreed that I should not do any more presentations in order to focus on writing up, a plan scrapped when we saw the CFP for this one, that it had perhaps forced me into actual thesis for my thesis. I think it probably has, and therefore was very much worth taking part in. I often find that trying to do the occasional 200-300 word abstract for a CFP can help to get me out of a rut or the kind of paralysis that strikes during the large, long project that a PhD is, despite the best intentions of having written plans.

The chemistry session finished with a keynote from Professor Robert Flanagan, a forensic toxicologist, on drugs used to treat schizophrenia. Missing the voices, not being able to stay up late, temperature perception off kilter, excessive drooling, severe constipation, disliking the constant invasive blood monitoring to check that the treatment wasn’t screwing up bone marrow functions were all adverse effects of having schizophrenia under control, and potential reasons for stopping treatment. I would have liked to hear about user organisation, education, but there wasn’t enough time.

I am completely out of my depth with alchemy, but it was interesting to hear how passionately alchemists hated each other, I listened to some poetry in Middle English about how the pursuit of alchemy was a waste of money, which was followed by a discussion of the special pitfalls of digital research methods seen through the eyes of scholars dealing with ancient texts (spelling normalisation issues, twentieth century semantic tags being applied to medieval texts). Alchemy is clearly a subject that researchers are fiercely passionate about and are drawn to from a variety of perspectives, with the audience being about twice as large for this half of the workshop.

This room is where we had our coffee, I loved all the glossy sideboards and this very 1960s textile wall hanging. I wish I'd taken photos of the spectacular autumn trees and the cyclamen beneath.
This room in the Maison Francaise is where we had our coffee. I loved all the glossy sideboards and this very 1960s textile wall hanging. I wish I’d taken photos of the spectacular autumn trees and the cyclamen beneath.

Research Trip: National Archives, Kew

The entrance to the National Archives (not my photo, but taken and shared by Mike Peel)

A series of coincidences meant that I was able to stay in Hammersmith for a few days, which fitted very nicely with my plans to do two days volunteering on the medical galleries decant at the Science Museum and it positioned me nicely for a trip to Kew. I’d been adding to my “National Archives: Things I Might Want to Look At” list for a while, generally putting off a trip, due to it feeling arduous to get to from unknown locations, and also the fact that I should be “writing up” rather than looking at primary sources.

What cemented the trip was a Twitter conversation about fire extinguishers. One of the things I dislike about not being based at a university and working in such an isolated fashion is that there’s no-one around to bounce ideas off. Twitter can fill this gap very nicely, and I could ponder my options for accessing analysis and information about fire extinguishers with someone who had an interest in it, rather than someone who would prefer me stop talking and let them kill goblins/make groundbreaking technological advances in home automation&security systems in peace.

Sharing information about accessing sources, it's an important part of research and I appreciate David Hood's openness and help.
Sharing information about accessing sources, it’s an important part of research and I appreciate Daniel Hood’s openness and help.

Starting and extinguishing fires has come up a surprising number of times in my research, although it was certainly not an area that I had anticipated researching. Whether or not it was something that I should even include in my thesis has been hotly debated with one of my supervisors who, as a chemist, does not see keeping chemicals in the home in order to hopefully never apply them to a fire as a “use”. Typing it out like that, I can see his point. The strength of my opinion that it certainly is a use surprised me, so I have had to make space and clarify that in my text in a suitable way that does not use ALL CAPS, the word “duh” or exclamation marks. I wonder if his was a devils’ advocate move…?

I’m glad I went to the archives because I found some strong statements on the carbon tetrachloride grenade-style extinguishers I hadn’t been able to find any other information about, at least in terms of domestic users in Britain.

I also found some very good, but possibly more-suitable-for-a-paper-rather-than-my-chapter material which can be summarised as an example of how confusing regulation concerning chemicals could be to users, regulators, producers and busy bodies concerned non-users.

This time I kept to a strict one-bound-file-at-the-table-at-a-time rule, even though you can technically have three. This is because last time, I photographed the wrong number with some of the documents which caused utter chaos when I got round to sorting out the images.

I wanted to look for things to do with child-resistant packaging, but didn’t have enough time seeing as I went on one of “short” days. From the catalogue descriptions, it all looked very orientated to pharmaceuticals rather than other chemicals or chemical products. Company archives/ industrial journals may be better for this topic, but I really have to draw a line for this project and say “enough”.

Oral History Wig Out

I was finally in the right geographic location to arrange an interview with someone I found through their blogs. I first contacted my potential interviewee in July, and I can say that all the delay between then and now was down to me being a drifter, with a variety of things already in my calendar. Dave Butcher is a chemist who worked for Ilford, now he operates a photography company which includes running darkroom workshops. Given my apparent addiction to courses and desire to know about the physical experiences of things I’m writing about, I should have investigated this opportunity more thoroughly. This time though, we talked. As a user and someone who had carried out a pretty wide variety roles at Ilford, it was set to be an interesting chat.

At the end, I was extremely relieved that my recording device’s power light had remained illuminated for the duration. However, I was horror stricken to discover that the display actually said “card full”. I had taken rough notes in a belt-and-braces approach but not during last perhaps 15 minutes. Going through the information on the screen panicked me as I saw such small numbers, fearing that it had cut out after 2 minutes. I had spare batteries, I had checked the space remaining on the card, but I should have completely wiped everything else before starting – there were my test tracks and woe, a chunky WAV and an MP3 version of a previous interview which I ended up not working from that I should have deleted rather than hoarded.

I had let myself and Dave down, notes are never the same as the full recording, I’d wasted Dave’s time, it was all my fault, should have, could have… Can’t they make these things alert you when memory gets full? Despite having discovered that deleting tracks was actually quite hard to do accidentally, I became consumed with worry that I would surely lose everything if I continued touching the recorder. My spiral of despair was slowed by pastries (yes plural, I was distressed) near the station. Once safely back “home” with my instruction manual, things were better. Not sure what those small numbers meant at all, as when I later scrolled down these same page, I found a far more comforting, and thankfully correct long number. Nevertheless, I wrote notes on as much of the interview as I could remember before downloading the audio.

I connected the laptop and the recorder to transfer the file. I watched the progress bar, for a gratifyingly long time which meant I could try to start breathing normally again. I anxiously slid the player to near the end to find out how far it had recorded. Giddily, I realised my inner pessimist and blame thrower had been wrong. All was not lost, in fact most of it was there, bar perhaps 3 or 4 minutes! I emailed Dave to reassure him that it was not the total disaster I had visibly feared as I’d been packing up.

Next time I will:

  • start with an empty memory card
  • keep an eye on the time, maybe even include times in my notes…
  • take notes right up to the bitter end
  • drop the fixation on batteries – remember this is not the same as memory card time
  • continue to keep spare batteries handy
  • try not to wallow in worst case scenarios

Remedial grammar continued

My homework for unit 3: Observe a scene where people are interacting…Write 5-6 sentences describing this scene and underline the subjects of your sentences. Write a few sentences experimenting with using different types of pronouns.


am sitting awkwardly on a pouffe in bay-window of the lounge of a seaside hostel, doing my MOOC homework. Opposite me on a scuffed faux-leather sofa is

    a Chinese student

who is fixated on the screen of his laptop but who raises his head occasionally to look at the TV fixed to the wall.


waves at me as she enters and crosses the room to plug in her phone, she is another Chinese student usually based in London and will be my dorm mate for the night. An

    older man

I pigeonhole as a trade unionist here for the conference noisily eats a bowl of yoghurt and greets by name

    a chap I assumed to be Australian

based on his shorts and his tan but later discovered to be a Brightonian who has rented his flat out. We interact indirectly through muttering


to the questions posed via the TV show, QI, and I suspect that we might make quite a good pub quiz team, as between us we have enough general knowledge to back up or dismiss answers delved from half forgotten factoids.

hmmm… am really not sure about the subjects of my sentences there

Research trip: The Keep, Brighton

It is the law, that as a student of “the everyday” I must explore Mass Observation material. This is held at The Keep, which is near Falmer railway station, between university campuses for both Sussex and Brighton. I added another horrific library card photo to my collection in September 2015, pretty late on really for this project but I had digested publications based on M-O material, searched the catalogues for likely topics and generally suspected that people did not indicate their thoughts about chemicals in diary material or directive responses.

This trip has been about confirming the absence I not-so-rashly assumed. In a way it is reasonably gratifying that my gut feeling was right, but it wasn’t until I actually committed these thoughts to a chapter that I doubted my methods and decided that for completeness I’d better go and check. What if the publication authors hadn’t been interested but actually the diarists and respondents had provided such details as I was interested in?  I can’t read every single response, it would take too long, but my sample has demonstrated that it is just not on these respondents’ radar. Directive respondents who replied about housework did not generally mention chemicals, only that they spent a certain amount of time doing some general type of task, and were even vaguer when a husband responded on behalf of his wife as often happened. Or Rosemary, who I suspect was an adolescent living at home, was so uninvolved in housework or domestic maintenance that she had absolutely no idea what happened “I am not around to see it being done. I do know the hoovering is done by my father”. Dorothy layered detail on the bare bones of the day provided by Jack, a different colour biro added useful notes for future laundry researchers “laundry with Stergene” “tea towels in a bucket of Nappisan” and a heartfelt lament for lambswool dusters on sticks costing over £3 instead of 60p. Another housewife “Mrs I” named Flash and Kleer amongst her routine, which was a welcome change from “mopped and polished floor”. Nobody specifically mentioned cleaning toilets, which was a shame for my Harpic section, nor ovens, or wiping down surfaces, which I suppose must be a relatively new component and dedicated products. What was more useful for me though, was M-O’s product testing and market research, carried out on behalf of other companies. In these situations, respondents were much more guided into talking about branded products and occasionally chemicals. Handily, much of these are digitised and the search facilities seem reasonably accurate.

As I was at the archives, I also called up a lot of coroners reports on poisonings. The ones that I’ve read in other archives had been associated with accidents and I was not prepared for what I was about to handle: suicide notes. All of the stories were sad and pretty much timeless: money worries, work worries, love and relationship worries. There were lies, misunderstandings, mental illness, family breakups, difficult living circumstances. I felt sorry for the landladies and landlord who found their lodgers dead or dying, for the father unceremoniously informed of their daughter’s fate, for the wife who was unfortunately well versed in administering emetics to attempt to recover situations like this. I wondered what a landlady would do with the belongings of a dead lodger she’d only known for two days who specifically said in his note that he left his belongings to her in oder to cover his small bill. I wondered whether a wife living apart from her husband would have wanted to keep his note, would she mind it was stapled into such a file? What was absent was much discussion about why the deceased happened to have poisonous chemicals. Accidents are different, there was more questioning about the circumstances. Those determined to poison themselves were beyond any measures that could have been in place. “It is a well known fact that weedkillers contain arsenic” was as far as doctors attending cases in the early 1930s went, with no attempt to suggest that perhaps they shouldn’t. Still working on developing these ideas, groping towards a better conclusion.

I ordered up some books of registered poison vendors to see what kinds of places registered, and to see if there was any sense of this being a deterrent. Ummed and ahhed about how to do this, in the end I just went for a “general feel” and noted the variety of shops rather than a full on quantitative analysis as the information was actually quite complex, more than what I needed. There were a lot more hairdressers listed than I expected, and only one photography dealer, which made me realise that I expected there to be more. This was only vendors registered to sell schedule II poisons, so maybe photographic dealers were on the schedule I list, which I could not find records of.

It is also the law that I to go to the beach whenever it is nearby. Growing up on the Waveney, my beaches were stony Walberswick and Southwold, Pakefield and Kessingland, sugar-sandy Lowestoft. Crunching of stones underfoot drowns out all else, which is sometimes necessary. Brighton’s boardwalk was full of keep-fit enthusiasts and a few dog walkers.

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Archive details

  • follow the downhill path from the University of Brighton exit from Falmer station, not the Sussex exit.
  • lockers do not need change
  • do not drink the machine tea (as if I needed to say that…)
  • the Bridge community cafe is good
  • layer/ bring warms against the ferocious air con
  • do not attempt to log on to computers with your card number – numbers are stuck to each monitor for this purpose
  • you swipe your card to get into the search room but you must be buzzed out
  • documents come fast but they are all very separate (rather than you rummaging through a box) so keep on top of ordering.
  • Consider headphones if you’re easily distracted as there’s a large local/family history contingent, for whom discussing each find is part of the fun. I am a massive eavesdropper, which doesn’t play well with trying to speed read handwriting.

I accidentally timed my trip to coincide with the TUC conference and the Japan/Love fish fair, which I think explained the price of hotel rooms. I stayed at a midprice hostel, SeaDragon backpackers which was pretty good. I thought that this person had a good idea though: