Category Archives: Our People

Haircuts, Collars & Colours

Transcribing the Diaries & notebooks of FR Leach

“The best furnishings are at All Saints: stained glass and exceptionally rich all-over painted decoration by the William Morris firm and its local follower, Frederick Leach.” [Pevsner’s Cambridge]

David Parr worked for Frederick Leach’s Cambridge firm of master decorators and, as can be seen in the David Parr House, must have been heavily influenced by the methods and style of his employer – enough to take his day job home with him and apply his skills to the fabric of his own house.

Having offered some time to Tamsin at the David Parr House, she put me in contact with Shelley Lockwood who has access to a collection of handwritten diaries and notebooks which she needed to be transcribed in order to gain insight into the working practices of the FR Leach firm. Having been taken on a tour of the David Parr House by Shelley, I felt keen and ready to begin the task ahead: reading scans of the documents and transcribing them into a typed and accessible format. I must confess that I was a little naïve about the magnitude and complexity of the task…

The diaries document the day to day tasks and expenses of a man travelling locally and further afield, gaining experience and knowledge of his craft, managing his workers, meeting clients as well as meeting and assisting such craftsmen of the time as William Morris. Both Jesus College and All Saints Church show evidence of the hand of Fred and his team under the tutelage and supervision of Morris. When you visit just these two local examples of the work, you encounter the breathtaking beauty of hand painted wall decoration, realised through great perseverance and skill.

I think it is the juxtaposition of such achievements with the daily records presented in the diaries and notebooks that makes the task of transcribing challenging. I want to discover the creative process behind the decorative works but the documents are more complex – a record of a working life – so Fred has his haircut, buys new collars, purchases daily provisions including “Beer for men” as well as writing “Colors (sic) used B Umber Green Chrome Blue Vert B Sienna”; he then writes daily when he is away to his wife Mary Ann, friends and clients and you realise that he is communicating with William Morris but it is just slipped into the daily record:
Rec’d cheque 39.12.0 Morris sent rect to Dº & wrote to ma 2£ cheque

There have been times when I have called upon Shelley’s knowledge and experience to assist me – we meet on a regular basis to discuss what I have completed – in particular a moment when I could proceed no further as Fred had started a new system in 1867…I envisage he did this as a way of making a to-do list and crossing out items that were completed; for me that meant his hard to read pencil handwriting became illegible as he quite emphatically crossed through each item. Shelley’s calm manner pointed me to the legible letters and encouraged me to build on those to make sense of the words and phrases. I have to confess there are still some question marks where I haven’t quite understood!

The best moment for me so far was discovering in the 1867 Notebook Fred’s sketch of the Fairford Angel in a church in Gloucestershire which he executed on one of his many trips around the country. This is shown below alongside a photo of the original wall painting where you can see his skill in celebrating the original by representing the figure in a vivid and naturalistic way.
I look forward to more occasions like this when the extraordinary leaps off the page hidden within ordinary lists, facts and figures.
Julie Stephenson

FR Leach’s sketch, 1867 Notebook.
FR Leach’s sketch, 1867 Notebook.
Angel wall painting, St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Glos
Angel wall painting, St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Glos

A few of my favourite things – old newspapers from a bedroom cupboard


Diane enjoying a treasure trove of old newspapers

At last, we had finished cataloguing items in the upper part of the house.  Before starting on the downstairs rooms, we were asked to reflect on what we had found so far and which item held a special interest.  For me, this was a difficult question and I did not immediately know the answer.  So many things have given me an insight into the lives of the Parr family.  The treasures in this house are not valuable paintings or pieces of costly silver but everyday objects which have been cherished and, in many cases, put to use in a different way to that which was originally intended.  For example, a chocolate box fashioned in the shape of a casket, is used as a pretty container for handkerchiefs.

I remembered how much interest we had found in the pile of old newspapers kept in a cupboard in the front bedroom.  With so much cataloguing to be done, we had only briefly scanned them but now I had the whole morning to look at them in more detail.  These yellowing pages give an insight into the world in which Mrs Palmer lived.  It had been clear to us that Mrs Palmer was a Royalist so it was no surprise to find many pictures and articles on events such as Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation and the Investiture of the Prince of Wales.  The Daily Mail’s edition of 22nd June 1982 announced the arrival of Prince William with the headline ‘It’s a Boy’.  (Wasn’t this headline repeated only a couple of years ago when Prince William’s own son was born?)  The oldest paper in the pile is the Illustrated Mail of 13th February 1904.  This had a half page entitled ‘Women’s Corner’ which contained hints on domestic issues such as how to clean copper along with sketches of the latest fashions for women.  Long dresses with enormous sleeves seemed to be the order of the day.  A drawing of a hat described as a ‘serviceable silver grey beaver with cockade on one side’ looked anything but serviceable to me and I wondered what Mrs Parr would have made of this page.

The paper which gave me the most pleasure, however, was the Cambridge Daily News of 1st June 1953.  Undoubtedly it had been kept because of the Special Supplement on the Coronation but it was the ordinary day-to-day pages which I loved.  The advertisements and local news articles give a picture of a bygone Cambridge.  Local businesses had taken space wishing Her Majesty a long and successful reign.  (Their wishes have been granted!)  Some of the businesses such as Heffer’s and Miller’s Music are still trading but others like Joshua Taylor’s no longer exist.  There is a picture of Joshua Taylor’s shop with its windows displaying red, white and blue rosettes.  I expect all the shops in Cambridge would have been similarly decorated in celebration of the Coronation.  Dale’s Brewery gave ‘loyal salutations and heartfelt wishes to Her Majesty’.  The former brewery is exactly opposite the David Parr house and is now a coffee shop popular with local residents (and us, of course).  Looking out of the bedroom window, the large clock with Dale’s Brewery in black lettering still hangs on the wall is in full view.  It seems almost in touching distance!


Dale’s Brewery celebrates the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II


The paper reported that Jack Hobbs ‘England cricketer and Cambridge’s most illustrious son’ had received a knighthood.  A 6 bedroom house in De Freville Avenue was for sale at £3,000.  A quick Google check tells me that such a property now commands a figure in the region of £1,660,000.  Two undergraduates (one from St John’s and the other from Trinity), were fined 15s and 10s respectively for ‘riding a bicycle designed for one’.

A look at the situations vacant section shows no sign of equal rights!  Addenbrooke’s Hospital offered positions for dining staff to work 48 hours per week at a wage of 122s for men and 92s 6d for women.  An advertisement for a shorthand/typist (is there such an occupation these days?) specified that applicants must be single whilst British Rail wanted a female clerk and a smart man (25-30) as office supervisor.

This Cambridge Daily News, ordinary in its day, I now find a most intriguing historical document.   It showed me that in the intervening years much had changed but some things do remain the same.  On the evening of 1st June 1953 The Archers could be heard on the Light Programme and 20 Questions was being broadcast on the Home Service.

Working at the David Parr House is a pleasure and I am privileged to be able to see into the lives of people who lived many years ago.  I look forward to starting the cataloguing of items downstairs and have no doubt that there will be much more to discover.


Diane Heard, Camdfas Heritage Volunteer at the David Parr House


So much more than dusting!

How CAMdfas volunteers are helping to record the contents of the David Parr House


It all began back in the Autumn of 2014 when Audrey took a tour of the David Parr House which was included in the Curating Cambridge event.  Audrey told our group of what she had seen and we (the CAMdfas Dusting Divas) decided to offer our services for any aspect of the project which would prove useful.

The timing was also right for the group as we were in the final stages of our latest project.  We had already dusted and checked ancient books in two Cambridge University libraries and we all felt the David Parr House project offered a different challenge.  It was an opportunity to be involved in a very interesting venture from its beginnings.  We hoped it would bring new experiences and we would learn more about local and social history through finding out about the house, its contents and the people who had lived there.

It was a warm and bright spring afternoon when Tamsin welcomed us for a discussion and our first look at the David Parr House.  How dark it seemed after the bright sunlight outside but as our eyes adjusted, we found it hard to take in our surroundings.  We all knew this type of terraced house but the décor was far beyond our imagination.  What to look at first?!  What we thought was heavily patterned wallpaper in the William Morris style, turned out not to be wallpaper at all, but skilful hand painting.  Wood panelling and stained glass were in the hallway.  The furniture, pictures, etc. were all of a bygone age.  The more we saw of the house and the more Tamsin told us of its history, the more eager we became to play a part in its preservation.  Would we be up to the challenge?  Our experience of book dusting and noting bookworm had not prepared us in any way but we were keen to learn new skills and be part of this project.

In July 2015 work started at the house in earnest with learning the cataloguing protocol, practising with the camera and light box and light dusting.  We began upstairs in the back bedroom.  A decision was made not to catalogue the large items of furniture or the wall and floor treatments.  This simplified things slightly but it was not a simple job.  Space is very limited.  Many points needed to be discussed and agreed before pencil went to paper in the practice cataloguing book.

To our horror, nothing seemed easy.  Even erecting the light tent proved beyond our capabilities at first!  We worried constantly that we were not cataloguing items correctly and our photographic skills were not too good either.  The only part we excelled in was the light dusting.  However, practice makes perfect (or so we hoped) and, as time went on, we grew in confidence, each taking a role we were comfortable with: Wendy was our leader, Diane was very organised and had the neatest hand-writing, Sue was good with the camera, Audrey was a whizz with the fiddly numbering system and Pam was an all-rounder.   But what a time it was taking us!  A whole morning could be spent on recording the contents of a box or drawer.  What was the best way to photograph a handkerchief?  By itself or in the drawer in which we found it?  Such decisions!  Exclamations of “Do you remember this?” and “Ooh look at that!” were constant.  Newspapers recording events such as the Queen’s coronation in 1953, old paper bags from Cambridge stores which are no longer in business, hand embroidered tablecloths – we are never certain of what we are going to find.  A jigsaw puzzle had to be completed so we could photograph and record it.  Luckily it consisted of only a few pieces but we are still in dread of finding a 1,000 piece one!

We met every Thursday morning from July to December from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.  There are no facilities at the house so we took advantage of the café opposite (Hot Numbers) for a coffee and comfort break.  The unusually mild autumn meant we could continue much further into the cold months than originally anticipated.  This enabled us to complete work in the back bedroom and to start work in the front bedroom.   The back bedroom had been characterised by lots of small objects in boxes and drawers, the front bedroom was a change of items as well as setting – a cupboard full of paper ephemera, newspaper cuttings, special birthday cards and drawers of needlework and textiles.


By mid-December it really was too cold to stay in the house any longer and so a new phase began – being trained to input the data we had recorded onto a catalogue database called Modes.   We took it in turns to practice entering records.  Our efforts were displayed on a large screen.  This was a great help as what one of us had forgotten, another had remembered.  Little by little, facts fell into place.  We did not claim to be computer experts but we felt confident in using a computer.  That was until we were faced with a laptop with a built-in mouse pad which seemed alien after our own home computers.  Shelley’s patience never wore thin and with her encouragement we began to make headway.


In the early months of 2016 we continued to meet at Shelley’s warm house and, sustained by her delicious coffee, we began a further stage in our volunteering work – research.   Boxes of items salvaged from Frederick Leach’s City Road workshops required emptying, and the contents needed cleaning and recording.  Brushing off years of dust, we uncovered numerous tins and jars containing varnish and paint, a wealth of ‘tools of the trade’ many bearing the names or initials of their owners which gave them a special significance.  There were pieces of jewelled-coloured stained glass, carved wood, books and journals.  Many of the items left us guessing as to where they came from and what their use could have been.  Hopefully, our research would provide a few answers.   We found a watercolour of battleships in a bay at sunset or sunrise (we weren’t certain) but it had the artist’s name and was dated 1915, there was a wooden box containing a jointed wooden figure wearing a cloth apron together with a small painted wooden table (a mechanical toy, may be), then there was a beautiful gilded wooden cherub head with wings which had ‘left bottom’ written on the reverse side.  Where did that come from?  Our research is only just starting but we look forward, with the help of Google and Grace’s Guide,  to unveiling a few mysteries.


The David Parr House reopens for tours in April when it is warmer and so we shall also return to the house then to continue the recording.

Wendy, Audrey, Diane, Sue and Pam aka The Dusting Divas

I would like to take this opportunity to thank our wonderful volunteers for the time and effort they have spent on helping us at the David Parr House this year. They have tackled numerous tasks, often in difficult conditions, with unfailing good humour and enthusiasm. Their commitment and willingness to getting stuck in has made my job as volunteer co-ordinator so much easier and more fun. Thank you! Shelley Lockwood