Old and New World archives share the past, present, and future: The Cumbrian connection, Part 1

gradientThe Peel Archives in Ontario, Canada, and the Cumbria Archive Service in Cumbria, UK, were recently brought together by people from the present and the past. In the next three posts, we’ll share what we can all learn from this connection. In our archivist’s personal account are some universal lessons about how archives around the world work together to weave a network of documentary memory.

By Samantha Thompson, Archivist

People are linked together across time and so archives are too. The unity of the archival mission was brought home to me recently, ironically by leaving home. As a Canadian archivist, I visited our archival counterparts in the County of Cumbria, UK.

Carlisle Archive Service building

The Carlisle location of the Cumbria Archive Service. The archives occupies the modern building on the left.

In one of those coincidences that life hands us, I had discovered that the town of Brampton, Cumbria, is close by the village in which some of my British family members live. Brampton gave its name to Peel Region’s Brampton, one of Canada’s largest cities and the municipality in which the Peel Archives, my workplace, is situated. In fact “our” Brampton’s name is the legacy of Peel’s early settlers, many of whom emigrated from Cumberland, which was later subsumed within modern Cumbria.


The Peel Archives occupies the old County Jail on the left. It is part of the Peel Art Gallery, Museum, and Archives.

From visiting Brampton (UK) I was led to the flagship site of the county’s archives – a local records service analogous to the Peel Archives at PAMA. During a warm and insightful meeting with Cumbria’s staff, I was introduced to some Canadian records held by their archives. And there, in the form of an 1857 letter from a Peel settler, I was brought full circle back to Brampton – Brampton, Peel, Canada, that is.

Why would an English archive have records from Canada? How do Canadian local records differ from English local records? What do English archives have in common with Canadian archives? In this three-part blog series, we’ll be exploring how the answers to these questions help us to understand the way archives work and how important archives are, even beyond the local areas they serve.

In this post, I’ll introduce Peel and Cumbria and their archives. In the next post, I’ll reveal how the differences in our regions are reflected in our archival records. And in the third post, we’ll explore the two Bramptons more closely as we meet some of the intrepid Cumbrian emigrants – including the letter writer above – who left their mark on the New World.

Cumbria and Peel: The Old World and the New


Maps of Cumbria (left) and Peel (right) showing their locations within the UK and Ontario, Canada. Cumbria is subdivided into five districts: Carlisle, Allerdale, Eden, Copeland, Barrow-in-Furness, and South Lakeland. Peel is subdivided into three municipalities: Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon.

Cumbria is one of the most northern and sparsely populated of the English counties. Bordered by Scotland to the north and the Irish Sea on the west, much of the county remains rural, with small towns and villages nestled between rolling farmland or craggy peaks. Its largest urban settlement is the city of Carlisle in the north.


Scenes of Cumbria: Derwentwater in the Lake District; the rooftops of Carlisle with the medieval Cathedral in the background (bottom left); the Roman ruin of Hadrian’s Wall (bottom right).

While Cumbria is home to a variety of manufacturing industries as well as livestock farming and forestry, its main source of commerce is tourism. International visitors are drawn to the region by the beautiful Lake District – the beloved haunt of poets like William Wordsworth – and Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman ruin stretching along its northern border.

Although Peel is five times smaller than Cumbria, its present population is three times larger. Peel is one of Canada’s most southerly and populous municipalities and also one of its fastest-growing. Lying immediately west of Toronto, the south half of the region (comprising the cities of Mississauga and Brampton) is dominated by dense urban and suburban development, while the hilly northern town of Caledon boasts some of the best farmland in Ontario, as well as the beauty of the Niagara Escarpment.

Peel Region lies on the north shore of Lake Ontario, a freshwater body so large that both Cumbria and Peel could comfortably fit inside it twice over. Rivers running to the lake have dominated both the indigenous and colonial history of the region.

scenes of peel

Scenes of Peel: The Absolute World towers in downtown Mississauga (left); the hills of Caledon (top right); Lake Ontario showing the skyline of Toronto in the east.

Apart from the obvious geographical differences, what truly sets Cumbria apart from Peel (and England apart from Canada for that matter) is the length of its recorded history. While both regions have seen human habitation from at least 10,000 BCE, peoples who created documentary records moved into Cumbria much earlier. The area has seen multiple invasions and occupations from the Romans to the Vikings to the neighbouring Scots. Christianity also gained an early foothold in Cumbria and the county is dotted with medieval churches, abbeys, and monastic buildings.

On the other hand, the area of Ontario that became Peel was not fully opened to settlers until the early nineteenth century after the completion of the first major surveying efforts. Until then the region was occupied by the largely nomadic and oral culture of the First Nations peoples who first met Europeans in the eighteenth century as fur traders.

Although indigenous relations with the British authorities were more cordial than with the Americans to the south (various First Nations groups were allied with the British during the War of Independence), the gradual surrender of their lands to the Crown was, among other things, a tragedy of misunderstanding.  (You can read more about the history of Peel here on our blog.)

Despite the obvious differences between Peel and Cumbria, the regions are similar in some important ways:

  • Both are mid-level administrative areas. Cumbria is an English county comprising a number of smaller districts. Peel is the successor of the older County of Peel and is made up of two cities and a town.
  • Both came into existence in 1974 by consolidating and to some extent renaming pre-existing communities. In many cases these communities continue to retain unique identities.
  • Both have a rich history of agricultural traditions and of industrial activity springing up during the Industrial Revolution.
  • Both share a past and a future through the Cumbrian emigrants who were some of the first European settlers in Peel in the nineteenth century.

Archives Across the Sea

So how do the archival services of our two regions compare?

Cumbria’s service is a more extensive operation than Peel’s, with four different locations and a larger complement of staff, every one of whom helps take care of the over 900 years of records in their custody. The Carlisle location, which I visited, is housed in a new specially designed building alongside the headquarters of the County Council.

On the other hand, at Peel we archivists are lucky to work in a complex of historic buildings comprising a museum, art gallery, and the archives, all of which work together to illuminate the region’s history. The archives is housed in the old County Jail with a purpose-built archival storage area occupying the old jail yard.

After visiting the Carlisle location of Cumbria’s archive service, however, I was struck by what even more important similarities and differences can tell us about archives.

How we’re alike:

Both archives are “total archives”.

It was Canadian archivists who in the 1970s defined and promoted the idea of total archives, although they were practicing it long before. The concept describes publicly supported archives that collect both the official records of governmental authorities and also the private records produced by people and groups, in whatever media they were created. Together these archives give us a panoramic view of a society and the individuals who make it what it is.

Cumbria archive scenes

Behind the scenes and in the public area at Carlisle’s archives: the conservation lab (top) and the search room (bottom).

Both Cumbria and Peel’s archives collect the government records of their local authorities and also the records of people who lived in their regions. We think the challenge of maintaining both is worth the public good that our collections represent.

Because of this mandate, we both have a very broad clientele. Visitors come to us to explore a plethora of topics, from the paper trail of their government to their own family roots, and from how a piece of land was used to the way society has changed (or how it should change).

Both archives offer a similar research routine.

Although every archives service has unique material, experienced researchers get to know that there is a familiar routine to using archival material. The experience of archival research unites researchers and archivists across the world, and is dictated by the requirements for preserving rare or one-of-a-kind materials.

You’ll find, for example, that both Cumbria and Peel have publicly accessible areas (the “Search Room” or the “Reading Room”) where you can use archival records. We also have secure areas where staff members can ensure that records are conserved and organized in optimal conditions.


Behind the scenes and in the public area at the Peel Archives: archival storage area (top); the reading room (bottom).

Both archives will also ask you to register and sign in, and to take certain preventive measures when handling our valuable and unique records. In this way we all contribute to handing on our past to future generations.

Both archives are run to a high professional standard.

I was deeply impressed by the dedication of Cumbria’s staff, particularly senior archivist Tom Robson, who took the time to show around a Canadian colleague. Cumbria’s residents can be assured that their recorded history is in the care of knowledgeable and committed professionals. And we at Peel think we can say the same to Peel’s residents!

The quality of Carlisle’s archival storage facilities and its conservation lab are among the very best I’ve seen. In fact both our archives strive for the highest standards of preservation and access; like archivists everywhere, we make the very best use of our resources. We invest in specialized and up-to-date equipment, supplies, and professional development so that the past is not lost to the future. Archivists must think ahead in centuries, not years.

Both archives face similar challenges.

Much of archivists’ work is done behind the scenes.  Although you might meet us in the reading room, a lot of work needs to happen to get to that point.

Samantha Thompson, Peel’s archivist, and Tom Robson, Cumbria’s senior archivist in Carlisle.

We serve the public in two major ways. First, we process records (or catalogue them, as they say in the UK) to get them ready to be used safely and informatively. Second, we provide reference services to help researchers to use these records. Whichever one we’re doing, we’re working for you. (You can read more about what archivists do in our posts, What do archivists do all day? and How do archivists organize records?)

Archivists at both Peel and Cumbria – and, we know, all over the world – are wrestling with many of the same challenges in providing these essential services, particularly:

  • Devoting a balanced amount of time to processing records; there’s a tremendous and growing amount of work needed simply to make records useable and available.
  • Spreading the word both to the public and to the authorities about the role of record-keeping in maintaining an orderly and just society.

For me, meeting informally with an archivist across the ocean was unexpectedly heartening. We archivists know that our colleagues around the world are working quietly day after day to preserve vital evidence and communal memory; but sharing our experiences shows us that we – along with our visitors, donors, and supporters – are actually all working together.

In the next post in this series, I’ll be showcasing some of the differences between our archival records: as you might expect, the age of our records is one of them.


Photo credits:

Creative Commons licensed images by Paul Albertella (Derwentwater), Soloist (Carlisle rooftops), Iain Russell (Hadrian’s Wall), jasonzed (Absolute World towers), Michael Gil (hills of Caledon), Kenny Pang (Lake Ontario), all via Wikimedia Commons.

All other photos courtesy of Samantha Thompson or PAMA.

3 responses to “Old and New World archives share the past, present, and future: The Cumbrian connection, Part 1

  1. The ‘cum’ in Cumbria comes from Cumberland, one of the three historic county areas that make up modern Cumbria. ‘Cum’ has the same origin as the ‘cym’ in Cymru (Wales) and honours the British tribal origins of the area which was once part of the post-Roman British kingdom of Strathclyde. Despite the later period of Norse settlement (reflected in the local dialect and geographic names), the ancient Britishness of the region, perhaps because it was one of the least affected by Norman colonization and culture in the early second millennium, is still recognized. Along with neighbouring Northumberland, the mountains retain some distinct folk traditions. A musical example is the use of the unique Northumbrian pipes and harp in local folk tunes.


  2. Pingback: Canadian and English archives go head-to-head with their records: The Cumbrian Connection Part 2 | Archives @ PAMA·

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