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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

The Jesuits who Shaped the Province Archives

In this blog post we reflect on some key figures that helped shape the Province Archives over the course of the 20th century. On reading the obituaries of these individuals, it became clear that those tasked with the challenge of overseeing the Archives were scholars and historians; their interest in the topic and skill with primary material making them ideal candidates for the job. Often in these obituaries, their role as Archivist as opposed to their contributions to history is over-shadowed, characteristic perhaps of the air of mystery that often surrounds the archivist’s work.

Fr John Hungerford Pollen SJ - Writer of the History of the Society 1901-1924

Fr Pollen is perhaps the figure we in the Archives owe most to. In 1895 he was

tasked with representing England in the creation of a full and complete history of the Society. The historians selected for this undertaking, under the direction of Franz Ehrle SJ, were instructed on the proper use of archives, note-taking, and filing etc. By 1920 it would seem that the capacity of his role had grown from historian to, as he is referred to in that year’s Letters & Notices, Keeper of the Archives. Pollen was not only interested in the history of the Society, but also in preserving its history as it happened; in that edition of L&N he appeals for documents as evidence of the good work carried out by the Society in the war that had recently ended, which are now invaluable resources as we commemorate the Great War 100 years on. Although the Society has a tradition of record-keeping dating back to its very origins, Pollen became involved in historical research and archives while the very first foundations of archival theory were being laid, primarily by British archivist Hilary Jenkinson, who published his Manual of Archival Administration only five years later. In Pollen we find not only a historian with an almost unrivalled knowledge of Elizabethan Catholic History, but also an archivist with a clear vision of the future role archives would play for the Society’s history at a time when the collections at Farm Street were far less considerable than they are today.

Fr Thomas Agius SJ - Province Archivist 1938-1939

In 1938 the title ‘Archivist’ appears for the first time in the Province Catalogue, the

accolade attributed to Fr Thomas Agius, who had simultaneously been appointed Assistant Socius to the Provincial, Fr Bolland, and Editor of Letters & Notices. In the latter capacity, with his new position as Archivist having surely some influence, he published a record of the graves of members of the Society buried in England and a Necrology of the English Province 1561-1937. His ‘thoroughness’ and ‘single-mindedness’ no doubt made him a competent recordkeeper. He did not remain long in the post however; in September 1939he was severely injured when a car knocked him down during a black-out. In November he went to St Hugh’s Charterhouse, Parkminster where he looked after the evacuees in the neighbourhood, and in May1940 was transferred to Wimbledon as a member of church staff.

Fr Francis Edwards SJ - Province Archivist & Writer of the History of the Society 1960-1986

On completing his tertianship Fr Francis Edwards was appointed Province

Archivist and assistant to the Province historian, Fr Leo Hicks. In the former role, Edwards conscientiously collected and organised everything in the hopes that the material would be useful for future historians, and his years as Archivist brought him significant recognitions: Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1969,Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1970, and election to the Athenaeum in 1978. It is largely due to Edwards, with his recognition of the importance of collecting material from across the Province, and his assistant, Fr Geoffrey Holt, that today we have an accessible, relatively well organised body of material that represents the Province’s history and its members.

Fr Geoffrey Holt SJ - Province Archivist 1987-1995 (Assistant Archivist 1967-1986)

Fr Holt, like his predecessors, was first and foremost a historian, his particular field of interest the period 1650 to 1815. His preference for primary sources over secondary, which he believed served nothing but the cause of prejudice and obfuscation, made him an ideal candidate to first assist, and then take the helm when Fr Edwards was appointed Archivist of the Society in 1986 and transferred to Rome.

In 2014 Fr Thomas McCoog SJ, who had first been Assistant Archivist under Fr Holt and then Province Archivist, handed over this position to Rebecca Somerset. The Province Archives is now run by professionally trained lay archivists who are bringing the work of their predecessors into the 21st century by cataloguing electronically, making material searchable online and promoting the collections, while continuing the traditional tasks of collecting material, answering enquiries and supervising visitors to the archives, all of which would not have been possible without the foresight and skill of those that went before.

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