Farley Hospital was commissioned by Sir Stephen Fox and opened in 1682. A Great Book was written in for the first time by Sir Stephen in Mid Summer 1682. The book measures 18″ x 12″, it is still in it’s original leather binding, the paper has the Jesuit watermark and it is still in use today!
The Great Book begins with statements about Sir Stephen’s intent for the buildings he was creating and how the Alms-houses should be run. It contains details for the finishing works on the building and about the building of Farley Church which was also commissioned by Sir Stephen, and designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
The Great book is however, mainly an accounting and annual record book. Traditionally this was filled in on Lady day (25th March) each year when accounts and the current residents of the alms-houses were entered. The book is still used today, although accounts have not been entered over the last couple of years. It will be again soon.
This continuous use means that the Great Book represents an important historical document not just because of it’s age, but for the continuous record that it contains. There are also interesting additional details and information in some of the margins that allude to how life carried on in Farley Hospital over the centuries.
The inevitable delay
We know that some transcriptions and photographs were taken of the Great Book by the Godfreys who were wardens at the Alms-houses in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s). The transcriptions were sent to the National Records Library and the photos were committed to microfilm. More recent attempts to scan and preserve the Great Book digitally have been thwarted on multiple occasions. The most recent saga began at the end of 2020 when the board agreed that we needed to take the book to the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre to be scanned properly. We managed to get a slot booked in Spring 2020 and were on our way to getting the book scanned and saved… Then the inevitable twist occurred in the form of COVID and everything shut down.
At every opportunity during 2020 we were attempting to contact the History Centre, but unfortunately all new work was on hold. There was a possibility that we may have been able to hit a 3 day window before Christmas, but then the second lockdown restrictions were announced and the window closed before us.
So, we emerged from second lockdown and with some triumph mixed with just a little chagrin, we managed to book a slot to visit the history centre at the start of June and we finally managed to take the book to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
It was excellent to know that the book was now in safe hands. I met with one of the History Advisors and we talked about how we can preserve not just the Great Book, but also the other documents we have in the Farley Hospital archive. There is a lot that the History Centre can do to help us.
The advisor said that it is very unusual that such an old book is still used and written in today. Usually the use of a book like this has ended and the book becomes a historic record only. It is quite special that we are still using the book for it’s original purpose.
I was shown around some of the rooms at the History centre. The picture above is of one of their newer archive stores. This space is fitted with gas suppression to stop fires without damaging the contents and is air and humidity controlled. This is where our Great Book is going to live while it’s with them, so we can rest assured that it is extra safe at the moment!
We don’t know how long it will take for the book to be scanned and returned to us, but once we get it back we can start to plan how to use and share the scans and to store the Great Book safely for people to enter updates into for a very long time to come. It is possible that some of it may be viewable as a digital book in the same way that the Life of Sir Stephen Fox can be seen in our History section.