Random Thoughts: Cracking a previous book owner’s handwriting

Today I’ve started my ninth book in my attempt on this year’s 20 Books of Summer.

It’s a 1900 edition of R D Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. I bought it from Withnail Books in Penrith. There was a mystery in the front.

On the back of the front end papers is the name of a previous owner, surname Kerr, and an address. The house number was easy, redacted here in case Mr/Ms Kerr still lives there. The rest of the address was less easy. Did it say Aliliobeat? Where was there a place called Keleo?

As an archivist, part of my training was in palaeography. Reading handwriting from more than 400 years ago is relatively easy, once you understand the writing system in use and have your eye in with the individual scribe’s style. Carolingian minuscule, from the mediaeval period, looks like code until you’re given the tools to understand the contractions and letterforms. Secretary hand is a cursive style developed in the 16th century that also has distinct letter forms. By the 17th and 18th centuries, though, Secretary began to be mixed with other legal writing styles that people had picked up along the way and, as more people used writing in everyday life, not just for legal documents, form and legibility became less important. From the 19th century onwards, reading handwriting becomes trickier, because handwriting styles vary so much, and not everyone writes clearly.

In our palaeography training, we learned to be detectives. We were taught to read as much as jumped out at us, to piece in the gaps like a crossword puzzle, using visual clues as to what individual letters might be, based on their presence in words we could read easily. You need a full document to stand a chance, and ideally for it to be a formal document with set phrases. A single line, like the name and address at the front of Lorna Doone, written in an individual 20th century hand, narrows your chances of cracking the code.

Aside from two uppercase Ks, Mr/Ms Kerr had only given me a repeated lowercase e to go on, present and identifiable in Kerr, quickly readable before the lowercase a in the first word of the address and following the uppercase K of the second word.

I looked more closely at what I thought might be a fourth lowercase e, following the Kel of the address’s second word. Mr/Ms Kerr’s other lowercase e-s go clearly looping up from the baseline to the right, rising backwards to the median line and then falling back on themselves down to the spur of the e on the baseline, whereas this potential fourth e rose up from the baseline to the left before descending from the median line to the right and looping back to the start of the ascent to then send the spur forward along the baseline. Suddenly, I knew that this was a lowercase s, and the place was Kelso in the Scottish borders.

I looked again at Aliliobeat. The final t had a bold flourish. I wondered why, and looked more closely at what I was thinking of as a lowercase b. What if the bowl of the b wasn’t a bowl at all? What if the b’s ascender was another t, crossed by the flourish of the final t? The bowl of the b looked similar to the s I’d uncovered in Kelso. So then I had Aliliotseat. Something bothered me about that ‘lili’. There were no dots above the i-s. But maybe Mr/Ms Kerr didn’t dot their i-s. These were the only i-s I had to go on. Crossword mode kicked in. What made more sense in the gaps? A__otseat. There is an abbey in Kelso, so could it be Abbotseat?

I used Google maps to find that Abbotseat, Kelso existed, and then the Ordnance Survey maps available digitally on the National Library of Scotland website to find that the housing estate that Abbotseat forms part of was planned and built between 1954 and 1967. Before that, Abbot’s Seat Road had run through the countryside to join Dryinghouse Lane just North East of where Abbotseat now is. Abbot’s Seat Road became Golf Course Road around the time the housing estate was built.

Mystery solved, then, and only a slight diversion from getting down to reading the book Mr/Ms Kerr had handed on for me to buy and read.

If you’re interested in palaeography, The National Archive has guidance and tutorials here. I was sad to see that the book I used to hone my palaeography skills 27 years ago, F G Emmison’s How to Read Local Archives isn’t on the TNA reading list. But perhaps it’s defunct as a format now we have the internet.

11 thoughts on “Random Thoughts: Cracking a previous book owner’s handwriting

  1. What a satisfying bit of super-sleuthing. I saw a book in a book sale this morning – a very battered copy of Walter Scott works – not my favourite. All the same, I rather wish I’d bought it. It had a charming letter on the inside front cover to a Lady Graham, sending her this book as the two words ‘thank you’ wee so inadequate to express her gratitude for a delightful few days. It was a lovely period piece and I missed an opportunity there. All the same, I bought 14 decent hard backs for a fiver. The asking price was £2.80, but the cause was good, and the sum derisory for what I tottered home with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t have been able to resist that, Margaret. How wonderful! What did Lady Graham do that ‘Thank you’ wasn’t reward enough, I wonder. I love the traces left behind by other readers. I used to write my name in books when I lent them to other people. I used to write messages to to recipients in the front of books I gave as presents. I’ve fallen out of both habits without knowing why.

      That sounds like an absolute bargain, 14 books for a fiver. I was just feeling pleased with myself for having recently knocked 10 books off my To Read list, and then found 11 more that I’d bought but forgotten to catalogue. There’s also a bag of books that a friend has lent me that aren’t on LibraryThing either.


  2. Great detecting! I must admit, my first instinct once you said this was an address (and Kerr is a common Scots name, is it not?) was that ‘Keleo’ was actually Kelso, but I didn’t spot the lack of dots to the putative letters ‘i’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s true – Kerr is a Scots name. I was fixed on having bought the book in Cumbria, though, initially, and hadn’t thought that secondhand book dealers often travel the country to buy books. It was fun cracking the mystery. And now I want to visit Kelso to see the Abbey ruins.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s really interesting seeing how scripts have had different forms for different purposes, starting with court records and ending up at our common or garden handwriting. I’m not surprised there’s TikTok content about it – it’s really visual.


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