From the Archives: Work experience in the Jesuits in Britain Archives

POST BY MAllen

During her placement Evangeline catalogued the personal papers of Bernard Basset SJ (1909-1988)

This week’s ‘From the Archives’ blog post has been written by our most recent work experience student, Evangeline Mills. Read on to find out what she did and what she learnt during her week in the archives.

In October I carried out a week of work-experience at the Jesuits in Britain Archives. Although I am already familiar with some of the practices carried out by archivists, cataloguers and volunteers alike, due to my own experience researching and volunteering in other Archives, my experience at the Archives of Jesuits in Britain was both interesting and rewarding. The Archives’ plethora of books, manuscripts, photographs, letters and other material provided an insight into how archives run on a day-to-day basis, including the cleaning, repacking and storing of archive material, as well as the lives of Jesuits in Britain from the sixteenth century to present day.

Throughout the week I carried out a variety of tasks, each one serving to further my understanding of Archival work. Prior to my work experience I completed a postgraduate degree in Medieval Studies and so I was excited to work with and learn more about antiquarian books. Alongside Lucy, I helped index books about liturgical holidays, theological treatises and in particular a pocketbook, Stafford’s Memoires, printed in 1682 by James Corker. The pocketbook retold the life, devotion and trial of William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford who was executed for treason in 1680.

Frontispiece of James Corker’s ‘Stafford’s Memories’, 1682 (ref. ALBSI/A/212)

The pocketbook included passages from the trial of Stephen Colledge, a bitter opponent of Stafford who would also be executed for treason. The work is indicative of anti-Roman Catholic sentiment during the Reformation and the persecution Catholics faced even if, like Stafford, there was little to no proof that they plotted against the throne. Stafford was beatified by Pope Pius in 1929.

Whilst at the Jesuits in Britain Archives I also catalogued the personal papers of Fr Bernard Basset SJ (1909-1988), which involved producing detailed descriptions of the items in the collection and writing a biography. Basset was a priest, author, playwright and orator, and was educated at Hodder, Stonyhurst, Campion Hall and Heythrop. He wrote many books and articles, including for the Catholic Herald and Catholic Bulletin, and taught at various schools including Southwell House where he was made Superior in 1960. His collection, which includes papers, letters and photographs, is diverse: he wrote about everything from St Bernadette, articles called Dogma for Doris advising on theological treatises, Christmas plays for Stella Maris, societal habits, and morale in Britain and in the USA. I helped reorder and repackage the collection, enabling me to understand how archivists categorise and organise archival material and the importance in doing so for the archive and for future readers of the collection.

Basset’s papers revealed his passion and life-long devotion for spreading the teaching of Christ which he preached in sermons, lectures and retreats. His correspondence in particular displayed his devotion to the church and his admiration for St Thomas More, who was canonised in May 1935 by Pope Pius XI. He wrote many articles and recorded cassette tapes about his life and works.

Draft letter seeking funding for the Thomas More film (ref. SJ/109/3/2/2)

Throughout the collection there is evidence of the film he sought to create about the life of Thomas More. At his suggestion, the French dramatist, Jean Anouilh, wrote a screenplay in the 1960s entitled Thomas More ou l’Homme Libre. It was translated into English by Lucienne Hill but due to the success of Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, it was never turned into a film.

Basset’s correspondence is further suggestive of his personal friendships. For example, between 1938 and 1983, Basset and his close friend and secretary exchanged hundreds or even possibly thousands of letters about their travels, life and work. After the Second World War Basset created the Cell Movement encouraging men and women to spread teachings of the Bible and teaching them about leadership. The movement held annual meetings and with Basset’s careful planning merged with the Sodality Movement, all of which is illustrated in his letters.

First page of Basset's history of the Sodality Cells (ref. SJ/109/5/1)

During his later life, Basset worked for the Vatican Radio and travelled across the World to places such as Jerusalem, Australia, Fiji, and the USA, as well as serving as parish priest on the Isles of Scilly between 1967 and 1977. His papers are an invaluable resource as they represent of his religious beliefs, Jesuit practices during the twentieth century, and of Basset’s personality: his sense of humour, friendliness, determination and the extraordinary life he led.

A special thank-you to Mary, Alex and Lucy for providing me with this opportunity, giving up their time and allowing me to work alongside them, answering my often long-winded questions and  helping me gain further experience of working within an archive.

The papers of Bernard Basset will be open in 2028, but access may be given before then at the Archivist’s discretion. Our reference library does, however, contain many of his publications, including his major work on Thomas More, Born for Friendship, which can be consulted by the public by appointment. If you would like to make an enquiry or appointment, or if you are interested in work experience opportunities at the Jesuits in Britain Archives, please contact us.