17th century stationery binding. Catalogue reference HCA 13/58

This project is looking at records produced by the Instance and Prize Jurisdictions of the High Court of Admiralty (HCA 13). It began in 2008 and will run until 2011-12.

Instance cases were commercial disputes or disputes over wages, collisions and so on. Prize cases ruled on disputes over the legality of ships or goods captured from an enemy in time of war.

The conservation project deals with 145 volumes, half of the total in this class. They are being given priority for conservation treatment for three reasons:

  • The collection had suffered mechanical damage from use, leaving fragments of paper and structural binding elements at risk of permanent loss
  • The records are in fairly high public demand
  • The collection is important in the history of stationery bindings

Binding styles

The volumes can be structurally divided into two groups - tacketed bindings and laced cases - but variations in the execution are many and subtle. They are therefore a unique window on the development and preferences in the binding practices of blank books over three centuries.

The vast majority of bindings have parchment covers, the early ones being without boards.  A small group of books has blind-tooled leather covers over semi-rigid boards, the so-called 'ledger' binding, which is not common in The National Archives' collection.

The HCA 13's tacketed bindings fall under the secondary tackets type: the book block is sewn onto a primary support and the cover attached to the sewing support. Other features include thick leather sewing supports cut flush to the joints, commonly reinforced with wooden 'pegs', leather overbands with lacings and leather spine blocks.

Very often the middle overband extends into a buckle and belt type of fastening. Much rarer are simple alum-tawed ties, which can be found more readily on laced cases. Typical features of this group are the use of more rigid boards and alum-tawed supports inserted through the covers.

The records are written on paper text blocks, in many hands and in a variety of iron gall inks.

Conservation challenges and treatments

Conservation treatments of these 17th century stationery bindings include: 

  • mechanical surface cleaning of leaves and cover
  • minimal paper repairs, using Japanese papers and cold gelatine (concentrating especially on the few first and last sections in order to stabilise the text block) 
  • treatment of the binding structure

Whilst experienced conservators carry out the main tasks of this project, volunteers help with the mechanical surface cleaning.

Conservators have been experimenting with cold gelatine in the context of iron gall ink documents, making use of its chelating properties. Different application techniques and concentrations of the adhesive mixture are being monitored.

Sharing our knowledge

We are preserving as much as possible of the original sewing and cover attachment structures, while ensuring that the text is accessible to readers. This has led to inventive ways of tackling structural issues.

At the end of the project we aim to communicate to the wider conservation community new and innovative ways of conserving stationery bindings, minimally but effectively, and to shed light on the history of stationery binding structures.