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Blog - Tam Gilbert

Sensing Helen: Dorset History Centre: Training and Initial Research…

Group of women looking at a large book of records

Research Training: Tam Gilbert and Michele O’Brien with Maria Gayton, Dorset History Centre. Photograph by Alastair Nisbet, ScreenPLAY

My second blog post comes slightly later than I would have liked; so much has happened in the last few months, it has taken a while to process!

The Sensing Helen project is now well underway. We’ve finished our Research, which took us out of Dorset and on a road-trip to Bristol and have started to share it with the Arts Award group at Victoria Education Centre who are part of Liveability and linked to Holton Lee and other young people (to be discussed in my next post.)

October and November saw us as semi-permanent residents at Dorset History Centre (, home to over a thousand years of Dorset Archive material. We were here for two purposes: to receive Oral History Training to enable us to gather 10 oral histories later in the project, and also to actually conduct our Research and find material for workshops.

Our Oral History Training was led by Maria Gayton, Community Engagement Officer and her team. We’d invited students from Victoria Education Centre’s Broadcasting group to join us for the day, which allowed us to introduce ourselves and Helen Keller to some of our young people and start to learn a few names.

Copy of archival record of admission to hospital

Order for the reception of a Pauper patient: Elizabeth Groves

Training began with a tour of the public and non-public areas of the Archives, hearing about safety and archived document storage mechanics (both equally fascinating to the team and the young people!) We then listened to a selection of audio interviews, learning the protocol for recording and collecting information and questioning. The students, who have their own Radio station in school, were able to practice on volunteers, making sure they included all the Meta data needed about the interviewee for archive purposes.

After months of planning Sensing Helen, it felt wonderful to actually meet some of the participants benefitting from our endeavours and it helped me re-focus and ensure I find some juicy material for them!

Our time-frame for the Research began with 1880s Dorset, to tie in with Helen’s early years, with a focus on the records of women, rather than men, who were identified as having a visual impairment. An initial search through the online catalogue suggested a few suitable looking entries, so our four Research days looked hopeful! But before we could get started, we needed an initial training session with Maria. I’d expected a long lecture or a few handouts about methodology, with any Research taking place on another day, so I was excited when after only a brief introduction we were issued with library cards and got down to business!

We’d discussed various avenues with Maria beforehand, and the table was adorned with huge books for us to go through. “The best way to learn” she said, “[was] just to get stuck in.” And, it would be difficult to find individual records, so we needed to go through the huge volumes of hand-written entries for Dorset County Lunatic Asylum – later known as Herrison Hospital, at Charlton Down – and we’d soon get our eye in…

Of course, for someone with a visual impairment, this proved untrue – even the Ocular Viewer (a magnifier) didn’t help as the writing was so small and illegible – not much dissimilar to doctors’ handwriting today. We started with the team reading every entry to me out loud, but this proved slow work and it was faster for them to scan the page to see who was admitted as ‘blind.’ We found that women were being sent by their families for all manner of reasons which had nothing to do with Mental Health, the primary reason for being admitted. Many suffered from broken hearts and we even found a young woman who had fainted from exhaustion (which can’t have been helped by wearing a tight-fitting corset) after travelling on the Railway!

It was beginning to feel like an impossibly inaccessible task, when, at the end of our first day a name sprang out which I recognised from our initial online search! Elizabeth Groves had been admitted on 23rd September 1889, aged 31 and was described both as “almost quite blind” and also “a blind girl [who] is extremely troublesome… quarrelling with those admit here… talks incessantly and then cries without reason.”

Although I had expected to see some outdated language, it still hit me hard to see a young woman described in this way. Reading on, I found against all odds, Elizabeth was educated – she possessed braille scriptures which she read “over and over.” This immediately drew comparisons with Helen – both women were feisty achievers, whom circumstance dealt very different outcomes. I felt drawn to Elizabeth Groves and felt sure she was just a frustrated woman battling a Non-understanding, male dominated System. We found her admission document, which, unbelievably, was pristine, 128 years later! I started to use the Census to delve further – an accessible computerised tool, which I shall discuss more, along with the rest of our Research in my next post.



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Colin Phillimore
Colin Phillimore
2 years ago

I’ve really loved seeing ‘Sensing Helen’ grow from it’s early creativity as a 10/15 minute piece at Salisbury Arts Centre, to the HLF funding bid (many meetings!), initial finds at Dorset History Centre and now the visceral and measurable pleasure of students from Victoria Education College and Home Educated students exploring the lives of Sophia and Elizabeth. This work is so pertinent to current discussions. We pride ourselves in ‘how far we’ve come!’ in the field of inclusion. We build up our Paralympians as Superheroes and Strictly Come Dancing pioneers (love you Johnny-really) and they are amazing. Whilst everyday, parents,… Read more »

Trish Wheatley
2 years ago

Can’t wait to hear more Tam. The archives sound fascinating. It’s so close to me, I want to get down there and have a nose around. Hope you’re able to find out loads and produce some really interesting results.

Maria Gayton
2 years ago

Hi All. I’ve really enjoyed the two blogs, and the whole experience of working with Tam and the SH team. The archives at Dorset History Centre contain the stories of thousands of people, and SH has really taken the trouble to understand how to find those stories and how to research around an individual to find more of their life circumstances. Dorset History Centre loves this commitment to historical research as a basis for artistic outcomes; it is one of the best ways to discover, explore and share the past with varied audiences. Michele O’Brien and Alastair Nisbet have used… Read more »

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