For six weeks in June and July we were joined by Samantha Dunning on a student placement from Newcastle University’s MA Museum Studies course. Sam did some amazing work with us, particularly when prepping artwork for display in our Comics exhibition (now open at the Visitor Centre), and cataloguing the newly-acquired Pamela Whitlock Archive. We asked her to write about her experiences on the project…

During my six-week placement with Seven Stories, I have had the opportunity to work on a new acquisition, the Pamela Whitlock Archive.  It arrived during my first week and only consisted of two archive boxes.  Having never heard of Pamela Whitlock before, I was sceptical about whether I would enjoy perusing these two boxes.  Slowly, I became intrigued by Pamela Whitlock and fascinated by story of how her best-known work came to be. 

As a child, Pamela Whitlock met and befriended a schoolmate from St. Mary’s Convent, Katharine Hull.  They had a shared love for Arthur Ransome, especially Swallows and Amazons, which led these teenagers to write a book together.  Swiping pieces of writing paper from school and working in secret, Pamela and Katharine created The Far-Distant Oxus, published in 1937.  They planned the characters and general plot together and took turns writing chapters.  Pamela not only co-authored this book, but also drew the illustrations for it.  Once finished, they packed up the book and mailed it to Arthur Ransome.  He was amazed by this book and even more so by the very young authors.  With Ransome’s help, the book became big. 

Donated by one of Pamela’s daughters, this archive holds a variety of works from her life and material from after her passing.  I was most interested in the original illustrations for The Far-Distant Oxus and the books that came after, Escape to Persia and Oxus in Summer. 


Pamela Whitlock Illustrations for the Oxus Trilogy (PW/01/01/01/16, PW/01/01/01/31, PW/01/01/01/30) 
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

The archive also held letters from Arthur Ransome.  The letters range from 1936-1972, mostly from Arthur Ransome to Pamela.  There were others included, like early letters written to Pamela’s father to be her agent and later ones from Arthur’s wife after his death.  These letters show how important Arthur Ransome was in making this book a reality and also how close Arthur and Pamela remained until his passing.  In addition, they make clear Arthur’s love of boats.  Most of the letters at some point mention his new boat, the work he has been doing on his boat, travels on his boat or an invitation to tea on his boat.  Perhaps not the most important information, but still quite amusing to read. 


Letter from Arthur Ransome to Pamela Whitlock (PW/02) 
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books

Another interesting piece included is a letter to Pamela’s husband, John Bell, from Margaret Mary at St. Mary’s Convent.  This letter is from immediately after Pamela passed.  Margaret Mary recalls both Pamela and Katharine in their school days and reminisces about their endless discussions of Sohrab and Rustum.  I found this amusing, since The Far-Distant Oxus references the narrative poem throughout the entire book.  The girls were creating a book around a topic they studied in school, in the style of their favourite author. 


Letter from Margaret Mary to John Bell (PW/07/01/01) 
Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books
 

I really enjoyed working with this archive.  It was small enough where I could get through it all during my short time here and still very interesting.  The book was a fun read and the story behind it was fascinating.  I was able to research, sort, number and repackage this archive.  It was the perfect archive to work on and gain experience.  

Seven Stories was able to support the acquisition of the Pamela Whitlock Archive through support from a Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant. This has been awarded to Seven Stories in recognition of the museum’s national role in telling a comprehensive story of modern British children’s literature. For more information on our HLF Collecting Cultures project see:  http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/hlf.