Law and Order: The Frew Collection

This blog post was kindly provided by Jeni Park from Kilwinning Heritage. Check out their website to plan your visit to the Heritage Centre at Kilwinning Abbey Tower. Or why not give them a follow on their Facebook page?

I am the volunteer Project Manager for the Frew Collection. This is a large collection of archival documents donated to Kilwinning Heritage during the pandemic by a local business owner. It was such a large volume of documents that we had no idea what we would find. I started with a lot of planning during the rest of the pandemic period. I am fortunate enough to work in Heritage and I was able to access a lot of professionals for advice and guidance. Kilwinning Heritage does not have its own premises, so I designed this to be a conservation and digitisation project. Kilwinning Heritage will keep a digital database and our preservation partners, Ayrshire Archives, will take the original documents.

With a band of intrepid volunteers, we started to work with the documents in February 2023. Each document is carefully cleaned by hand, its contents described, and an image made. At best guess, the collection has around 25,000 documents. They came from a solicitor’s office in Kilwinning. The earliest document dates to the 1790’s and the latest to 1930’s. The name of the solicitors changed during the period in question, Hugh King; King & Barbour; Hugh & Hugh B King, Hugh King & Sons; King Sons & Paterson. They were by no means a small-town solicitor, they had a number of branch offices, and they handled clients from all over Scotland, Australia, Canada, United States, Argentina, Italy, Singapore and more.

As anticipated the stories started coming thick and fast. We have cleaned around 3,000 documents to date and already have a really interesting picture of life in the town. This has allowed us a glimpse of a Kilwinning which is not commonly seen through official records.

We have learned about the weavers that lived at Byres; about a Dalry lady, travelling around Italy, staying in palaces; about some Saturday night activities which might result in a court appearance on Monday morning; about the changing fashions of funerals, even the details about number of horses needed, food and drink required and quantities of cloth for mourning clothes. We also learn about the jobs that people did and where they lived.

The 19th century saw a great trend for ordinary people buying stocks and shares. Our documents show in great detail, their sharedealing transactions as well as the strangely named shares available, such as Nandydroog – a mine in India. There are also extensive documents about individual businesses like a yacht merchants, quarries and the Kilwinning Gas Light Company, as well as hand drawn plans of farms and fields for the purposes of sales and taxes.

It was rewarding to find so many stories of women highlighted in the collection, which were often omitted from the historical record. In the 19th century women could not have a bank account without written permission from their husband and couldn’t hold property unless it was in Trust. We are seeing evidence of a lot of Trusts to ensure the women of the family had an income if they remained unmarried or widowed. We have also seen examples of what happened when there wasn’t a Trust or a will; everything in the widow’s house was auctioned locally and she lost the tenancy to her home. The money raised from the auction would all go to the nearest male heir. If she was lucky, she had family to stay with, if not, she would have to go to the workhouse. However, sometimes the story went the other way. A Kilwinning widow was asked to return shares in the Railway, that her husband had bought her and put in her name, because they were ‘part of the estate’. She got her own solicitor, fought it, and won.

The documents also reflect the coming of the Industrial Revolution, charting the arrival of the railways, the mines, the Ironworks, and with them, an influx of people from all parts.

The documents themselves are often works of art, with very elaborate letterheads or beautiful calligraphy. The blueprints of boats are particularly striking.

Many of the documents are classed as ephemera, that is, things that were not designed to last, like posters for auctions and elections, leaflets about voting and telegrams. Sometimes these items which were not meant to be kept can give us the most unbiased look at what life was really like. There are also several documents that have been designed to last, because they are written on vellum, which is a prepared animal skin or membrane for writing on.

As you can tell, there are already a host of stories being uncovered but we have a long way to go until we are finished working with the collection. We look forward to sharing more of them with you as we uncover them.