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Document of the Month

Within this page, you will  find infromation relating to PRONI's past and current 'Document of the Month'. PRONI seeks to use this page to illuminate and celebrate archival documents within its collections which are particularly unusual, or which tie in to notable dates on the calendar. We hope you will enjoy exploring the stories behind these documents and hopefully they will prove useful in providing insight on PRONI holdings.

December 2014: Poster For Hunter's Xmas Circus

PRONI's document of the month for December is a poster for Dr Richard Hunter's Xmas Circus.

Dr Richard ‘Dickie’ Hunter was a lecturer and secretary of Queen University, Belfast and a curator of Belfast Zoo.  In 1938, he went to England and met with the Chipperfield Circus family and the opportunity arose to become a stand-in ringmaster.  Dr Hunter was so good that Chipperfield asked him if he would consider becoming a full-time ringmaster for their famous circus.  He declined the request but the die had been cast and Dickie decided that in order to fulfil his new interest, he would have to open a circus in Belfast.

On Christmas Day, 1940, he presented his first circus in the Belfast Hippodrome in partnership with G.L. Birch as proprietor.  It was a huge success and the first of many he would bring to Belfast. More and more people got to know Dr Dickie Hunter, not as an academic but as a ringmaster, resplendent in his scarlet uniform and top hat.  He moved with his 'Continental Circus' to the Empire Theatre and it became an integral part of Christmas in Belfast for many people and they ran until 1969.

Dr Hunter describing his love for the circus:

"I am still a boy at heart, and feel the thrill of excitement at the mere sight of the brightly coloured bills and posters which announce the approaching visit of a circus".

November 2014: Letter to Marquis of Abercorn

PRONI's document of the month for November is a letter to the Marquis of Abercorn.
Letter to Marquis of Abercorn
The Document reads “I tell you to shave off that dangerous gurl ruinin baird or lave the cunthry at once – if ye don’t do one or the other and that pretty quick see what you are to expect – chuse baird or no baird, yur baird or yur life...”

PRONI’s Richard Lecky explained: “This threat was made against the Marquis of Abercorn by his tenants. They described him as a “rampaging ram” with long red beard and young deceitful looks and accused him of lookin and winking at our sisthors and our swateharts” and “stealing the afexshuns of the poor misguided creatures”.

“They warned him, twelve of us have sworn to have your harts blood and singe yur baird and pull out with red hot pincers every hair that is not singed and send you home as bald as a scalded pig... and threatened: We are lying in wait for ye, watching ye, we got the instruments all ready to perform the operashon”.

“And, as if that was not enough, they illustrated their point with grotesque death related images, the hanged man over a fire is particularly gruesome.”

“I chose this letter as November Document of the Month for a few reasons. Firstly because of its facial hair references, some of us at PRONI are growing moustaches for Movember to raise awareness and funding for men’s health. Secondly because I found some of the references in the letter quite amusing and finally because I grew up not too far from the estate in Tyrone”.

October 2014: Spiritualist Photographs

PRONI’s document of the month for October is a set of four Spiritualist photographs to celebrate Hallowe’en.
“These photographs from the 1930’s show ‘spiritualist manifestations’, surround people who were involved in a séance. These manifestations appear as ‘faces’ surrounded by white mist known as ‘ectoplasm’. This was considered the spirit taking form in the material world.

“The photographs remind us of the post-WWI period in which many personal tragedies were being played out. Many people had lost family members in WWI without having the opportunity to say goodbye. During the 1920-30s some sought comfort by trying to contact their missing loved ones through their belief in spiritualism.

“It is thought the photos were created either by double exposure of the plates or by creating a ‘spirit-like’ mannequin.”
The photographs dating from the 1930’s were found within the records of Lieutenant Colonel E. J. Gordon Tucker. PRONI ref: D3122/4/4/A-L.

Enhanced images are available.

September 2014: "David the Dolphin"

PRONI’s document of the month for September relates to a dashing dolphin.

David Beatty, a naval officer, was promoted to Commander of the Grand Fleet in 1916 and Admiral of the Fleet in 1919. It is a little known fact, however, that as ‘David the Dolphin’ he was also a member of Lady Londonderry’s Ark Club.
Papers relating to the Ark Club are held in PRONI as part of larger collection known as ‘The Londonderry papers’. The Ark was established in 1915 by Lady Edith, the charismatic wife of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry. The club acted as a refuge for those involved in the war effort. Members of the Ark read as a roll call of the great and the good in society at the time. Membership was eclectic with the likes of Winston Churchill (‘Winston the Warlock’) mingling with society beauty Lady Diana Cooper (‘Diana the Huntress’).

Lorraine Bourke who selected Lord Beatty’s Ark caricature as the Document of the Month said: “I love the fact that Lord Beatty’s ‘Ark’ caricature captures his dashing style and his well-known tendency of wearing his naval cap at a jaunty angle.“ She added that: “PRONI is holding children’s workshops based on the Ark Club as part of our programme of events for European Heritage Open Days and Culture Night. Children of all ages can enter the weird and wonderful world of the Ark by inventing their own Ark name and making an Ark hat”.

August 2014: Advertisement for a Scavenger in Lurgan

PRONI’s Document of the Month for August is a printed notice advertising for the post of a Scavenger in Lurgan town 1846

This document, which comes from the records of the former Lurgan Borough Council, shows a job advertisement for the post of a Scavenger for the town of Lurgan, County Armagh. Local Authority records for towns such as Lurgan provide many interesting insights into everyday life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Gavin McMahon from PRONI explained: “ One has to remember that this post was advertised back in August of 1846. This was a dark period for Ireland with the famine having just begun and disease rife in many towns and cities. Many major towns would have had a scavenger employed by the local commissioners with their main duty to ensure that all streets were cleared of manure and soil. This was also a period before the age of motor vehicles so one can imagine the amount of waste being produced from the horses and cows that were being driven down the streets.

“This post was advertised during a summer month and the need to clear such waste and ensure water pumps were operational would have been to the fore of requirements for the town. Even though the post was not one of the best jobs in the world, and carried this rather unfriendly title, it did have its perks. With all that manure, the scavenger could have had the best garden in the town.”
For an enhanced version of this document please click here

July 2014: 'Donkey for Sale'

The document of the month for July reflects local efforts relating to events in Europe, 1914 and has been chosen by Alyson Stanford from PRONI’s Public Services team.  
The picture, which comes from the records of the former Bangor Borough Council, shows one of the many initiatives to raise money for the refugees. The donkey was auctioned in November 1914 in Bangor in aid of the Belgium Relief Fund. It is just one of many thousands of documents from this period held in PRONI which illuminate the experiences of Irish men and women during the war years.
Alyson Stanford states “While working on an enquiry from a member of the public, I came across this charming photograph of children with a donkey.
It is amazing to find that such charitable actions were being made by local people with all kinds of items (and animals) up for auction with the proceeds going to good causes.
The proceeds of this sale would have been given to the National and Belgian Relief funds which had been in the fore as a result of the outbreak of war in 1914.
I hope that at the end of the day a generous amount of money was raised and more importantly the donkey went to a good home.”
The 4 August 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. The War was to have a profound impact on Ireland with more than 200,000 Irish men and women serving with the fighting forces, of who some 30,000 died. The impact of the War was also felt on the home front. One of the earliest manifestations of the horrors for people in Ireland was the large number of refugees from Belgium who arrived in the autumn of 1914.
The original photograph is available for consultation at PRONI (Reference: LA/20/50/GA/5).
To view a high resolution copy of the image, please click here.

In an update to this story, PRONI has since been contacted by a relative of the person who generously donated the donkey for auction. A news story in the Spectator of 13 November 1914 reported that the donkey was sold for fifty shillings and the total sale proceeds “amounted to the creditable sum of £20.10s.0d.”

June 2014: 'Council cuts in on Last Tango'

As Titanic Quarter is now the location of Belfast’s thriving film and television industry, PRONI’s document of the month for June has a movie theme. It concerns Belfast City Council’s decision to ban Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial depiction of a doomed love affair. Four decades ago, the council’s Police Committee had the power to censor films it deemed unsuitable.

The document itself is a 1973 letter of complaint to the Town Clerk of Belfast City Council. The author states that the film ‘contains the most horrible debauchery’.  They add that if the Police Committee believe the film is suitable for release they, ‘have taken leave of their senses’. He continues the Town Clerk may wish to see excerpts from the script if they remain unconvinced, but adds that, ‘your mind should be left thereafter with the task of trying to forget what you have read’.
la7-3e_19_26-1          la7-3e_19_26-2
Iain Fleming, from PRONI’s Digital Preservation Team, who picked the document of the month, said: “I love movies and the history of film. Last Tango in Paris is a controversial classic which went on to earn Oscar nominations.

“A little over 40 years ago, a Police Committee made the ultimate decision about whether audiences in Belfast could see it. I find that fascinating and a little strange - that is why I was drawn to this letter, which gives some sense of the moral outcry around the film.”

This letter forms part of a correspondence campaign from a number of civic and religious groups who complained to the Town Clerk. Following a special screening to members of the Council and Police Committee, the film was banned in September 1973.
In the PRONI catalogue, the letter, along with a range of correspondence relating to the controversy, is contained in a Local Authority file with the PRONI reference LA7/3/A/223. The document is open to the public and available to view at PRONI.
To view a high resolution copy of the letter, please click here:

May 2014: "The greatest Match the world has ever seen"

PRONI’s Document of the Month for May has a football flavour, but one which comes with a strong helping of pathos.
PRONI’S Gavin McMahon, who chose the document said, “As a passionate football fan with a keen interest in military history, I am both fascinated and horrified by this army recruitment poster which is styled as a football match-day programme for “The greatest Match the world has ever seen”.

Describing the War as a “Grand International Match”, the programme (PRONI ref LA/20/50/GA/5) identifies the opponents, the setting, “somewhere in Germany”, and the rules, “Unlimited number of players on both sides.”.”
Gavin explained “The poster dates from early 1915, when hostilities were entering a new phase. Stung by the strength of the German Army and plagued by new threats such as coastal shelling and Zeppelin raids, the Allied Forces were desperately in need of greater manpower.

“The Military Authorities had to rely on volunteers to help bolster their reserves. They were creative in how they tried to entice recruits, often producing colourful posters and literature which combined themes of heroism, local folklore and bravery.

”This poster capitalises on the innocent glamour and excitement that idealised the early stages of the First World War Sadly, such notions of adventure would be wiped out by later bloody losses at Gallipoli and the Somme. In total, 210,000 from Ireland were to volunteer over the course of the War”

“With the World Cup, the greatest sporting occasion in the world, almost upon us,  it’s poignant to remember that football-fever was a fixture of life one hundred years ago. As a poster, this is a classic example of contemporary understatement”.

In June, PRONI will publish a guide to the sources it holds about the First World War; from August, PRONI will put online previously unpublished First World War material, including letters and diary entries.
To view a high resolution copy of the programme, please click on the following link:
The greatest Match the world has ever seen LA_20_50_GA_5
PRONI is a partner in the First World War Centenary Partnership. Click onto their website for further details.

April 2014: 'The Big Start: From Gymkhana to Giro'

In advance of the Giro d’Italia 2014 coming to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter in May, PRONI’s Document of the Month for April features a motley crew of Victorian cyclists in fancy dress who were participants in a cycling gymkana.
Dated 1895, the photograph (PRONI ref. D3642/E/2A) comes from the family papers of Samuel Cleland Davidson of Seacourt, Bangor, founder of the Sirocco Engineering Works in Belfast. It appeared in an 1896 edition of Sketch magazine.
Garth Stewart who selected the document said: “With the Giro coming up, this image jumped out at me! The enigmatic dress and posture of the figures is fascinating, as is the gymkana’s undefined location somewhere in Belfast, which is described simply as a “floor used for dancing”. I was even intrigued by the use of the word ‘gymkhana’, an Anglo-Indian term for an ‘athletic sports display.’
“The cyclists are captured in highly varying forms of fancy dress; from a matador to a sailor, from jesters to military personnel. Indeed one gentleman is in full army regalia, but it is unclear whether he is part of the festivities or just keeping a watchful eye on proceedings... Whatever the case the group look like they are ready to commence a race of some sort, tying in nicely with the theme of Giro’s ‘Big Start’ in Belfast!”
“The gymkhana was organised by a Miss Bottomley of Clanbrassil, Cultra, Co. Down, who also designed the costumes for the “skilled riders”. For her efforts, Miss. Bottomley was awarded a gold bracelet and pearl broach by the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava and the Countess Annesley.”
This photograph is just one of a
rich array of cycling related items owned by PRONI, a small selection of which will be exhibited in PRONI and on the PRONI website as part of the Giro celebrations.
To view a high resolution copy of this photographic image, please click on the following link:

From Gymkhana to Giro D3642_E_2A

March 2014: ‘Emergency Bread Exercise’

PRONI’s document of the month for March is the Emergency Bread Exercise, PRONI Ref D3118/6/5.
The file ‘Emergency Bread Exercise’ dating from 1953/54 was found within the records of the United Co-operative Baking Society, Belfast. The report, originally marked as ‘Confidential’, gives detailed predictions of the probable scale of destruction following an atomic strike on Belfast. As well as commenting on the grim realities of casualties and evacuation, the record also concentrates on another crucial aspect of life for us all: the supply of our daily bread.
PRONI’s Repository team picked the document. Team leader Alan Robertson, “this early fifties emergency planning  exercise provides an insight into the expected aftermath of an atomic attack  – with ground zero based at the now demolished, Midland Railway Station, York Street. It illustrates the disturbingly naive attitude to the impact of such a devastating attack, and the optimism prevalent at this early stage of the 'Cold War.’”
The exercise highlights well-known flour mills and bakeries in Belfast and provides insight on the post-war bakery industry, including the importance of house to house deliveries. The report details that in response to an atomic attack emergency bread centres would be established with a mobile bakery unit situated in Castlewellan and exports strictly prohibited.
Maggie Smith, Director of PRONI said: "In 1953 people were planning for survival in the event of an atomic attack. The Northern Ireland Emergency Bread Exercise demonstrates forward planning and creativity and is one of many unusual documents held in PRONI. Now in 2014 the Cold War is a topic within the NI GCSE curriculum and this great document will fascinate students looking at Cold War topics from a local angle. “

February 2014: ‘Lonely Hearts Letter to the Lord Mayor’

In 1935, a native of Seattle, USA, attempted to take charge of Cupid by writing to the Lord Mayor of Belfast seeking an “Irish colleen” for a wife.

This would-be suitor was quite specific in his requirements for a bride who would “join him in the journey of life”. Assuring the Lord Mayor that he was “well enough fixed” financially, he also provided the names of three referees that would vouch for his character.

Brett Irwin from PRONI’s Private Records’ team, who picked the document of the month, said: “I was drawn to the letter because I loved the idea of the Lord Mayor of Belfast’s duties including wife-finding! This is definitely added value for rate payers.”

Maggie Smith, Director of PRONI said: “It is testament to the diverse range of records held at PRONI that a ‘Lonely Hearts’ letter was found in the seemingly unlikely location of a box of Belfast Corporation papers.

“We hold over three million records in PRONI and I would encourage everyone to visit PRONI and delve into the records. You never know what you might uncover.”

To view a high resolution copy of this letter, please click on the following links: