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Elephant skins, parakeets and sealing wax

Just before Christmas I was able to witness some unusual activity here at Quex. Large parcels carefully wrapped were being loaded onto a lorry heading for the Natural History Museum. For display? No, these were, as I was to find out as they returned, elephant skins, many decades old, folded and wrinkled like the documents I work with daily. These were being refreshed by being frozen, debugged and returned to our safe-keeping, as part of our renowned specimen archive.

Arriving at our Archives Office some live specimens flew into view, our local resident parakeets, settling amongst the tallest trees like fluttering green leaves, above our newly restored white fountains. One of another resident species, a jay, flew towards the Victorian walled garden, above the abundant fig trees, unusually ripe late on in this year.

As I opened the Hampstead Property documents that I am currently cataloguing, I checked the dates and provenance- 1698- in the reign of King William III, of Orange. I reflected on when these documents were last opened, was it 50 years ago or 300? Brushing carefully the dust and soot deposits from so many years of storage, then something grey and heavy fell from the documents. It felt like lead. Fragments followed, bearing a heraldic emblem. These were part of a series of seals, but unlike most which are red in colour these are now grey. Just like our elephant skins this sealing wax has aged and wrinkled, but still serves a legal purpose.

Continuing my work on the Hampstead properties belonging to or rented by the Powell Cotton family is a constantly rewarding project, whether it is examining betrothal documents, deeds of sale, or bequests, I am reminded of the huge importance of property. This was manifest in engagement, marriage and death, as well as in the pastures, barns and farmland which were eventually sold to the railway companies and developers in the 19th century, providing the city as we know it today.

Eileen Mount.

January 2016

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