Documentary jewels

‘Per Inspectionem Rotulorum’: the reference value of the early English Chancery Rolls (Part II)

The roll is a difficult instrument to manipulate and, as the National Archives handling instructions warn, has a mind of its own. The clerks were aware of its inadequacies and that is why they resolved to mark the regnal year and the sort of roll they were drawing up at the beginning and at the end of the sewn membranes. The Patent Roll for the sixteenth year of King John starts with the following heading: “Littere Patentes de Anno Domini Johannis Regis sexto decimo”24. The same roll closes with Hic “desinit annus regni domini Johannis Regis Angliae septimus decimus. De Litteris Patentibus”25. Whichever way the roll was wound, when the clerks wanted to find out whether they were looking for the right roll, they had a way of knowing without having to unroll it further26.

I have so far tried to establish that the early chancery rolls had the potential to be searched and consulted. They were full of weaknesses but it is my belief that the chancery clerks, at least in this early period of the enrolled royal records, were not altogether dispirited when an opportunity to search the archives arose. It is therefore quite possible that when John lost Caen in 1204 and the Norman archives were entrusted to his clerk Peter de Laon to be conveyed in carts back to London, the documents might also have been saved for their usefulness as reference tools27.

It is now time to check the substance of the rolls for evidence as to whether the chancery clerks took the time and trouble to inspect and make use of them. The retrieval of information was a laborious thing, even for the most indefatigable clerk. Henry III’s fine rolls bear no more than six instances of consultation between 1228 and 1239 and we know that from the “per inspectionem rotulorum” entries in the rolls28. If credence is lent to these entries, then the clerks may have actually searched the archives with positive results29.

One reasonable question is why did the king and his “cancellaria” need to search the archives. We are a long way from Edward I’s claims to Scotland and his injunction to corroborate that claim with documentary evidence available in the century-old rolls. Inspection followed from all sorts of reasons. Perhaps the king had made a grant of property to an individual and he wanted to make sure not to give away the same privilege or concession to another. Records were kept so that the king knew what and to whom he had given, whether it be a piece of land, a licence or right, a wardship, or a mere exemption. Most of all such solemn privileges were mainly enrolled on the charter rolls of which the first survives from 1199 . They weren’t always faithful to the original engrossment as far as the witness list is concerned but this need not bother us since it is indicative of the fact that the rolls were not designed as legal material but rather as a tool for general reference30.  The granting of privileges would sometimes lead to dispute. This is precisely what happened in 1201 when the monks of the abbey of St Etheldred of Ely opened a market at Lakenheath with royal sanction31. When the abbot of Bury St Edmunds heard about it, a dispute soon arose between the two abbeys. Jocelin of Brakelong then tells us that the king ordered a search to be made “per registrum suum” to find out the exact terms of the licence granted to the monks of Ely. Upon the royal “inquisition”32, the entry was located in the charter roll, perhaps with some help from the adjoining marginal note that read “Carta monachorum de Ely”33. It was revealed that the market had been granted on condition that it should not damage neighbouring markets. I would like to dwell a little on the use of the words “registrum suum”. Jocelin’s chronicle has been honoured by two translations, the first made in 1949 and the other in 198934. The two are similar in most respects except when it comes to making sense of the word “registrum”. Michael Clanchy draws attention to the fact that the term holds a wide range of meanings for the period we are concerned with.  A monastic cartulary, the chancery rolls, the Capetian registers and even Domesday book, all were qualified by this all-encompassing term since they were all “edited collections, in books or rolls, which had been compiled from primary sources from separate pieces of parchment”35. The first translator of Jocelin’s chronicle renders “per registrum suum” “by his registrar” thus applying a fallacious meaning to the word36. The 1989 translation is “through his register”, which seems more appropriate.   The king’s register were the Charter Rolls and the search was successful. That the register was “suum” conforms perfectly well with what we know about the non-public character of the chancery records. As Nicholas Vincent put it, “the rolls were servants of the king”37.

This story illustrates both the chancery’s ability to build sufficiently searchable material and the clerks’ means to do a profitable search of the royal records. Let us not forget however that the lifespan of a document was relatively low. Memory seems to have been fairly limited in the 1200s as it continued to be for the rest of the middle ages38. The chancery clerks entrusted with elucidating the Ely-St Edmunds muddle were dealing with recent documents and therefore able to locate the required roll and the entry therein contained with relative ease. Indeed, the roll hadn’t even been completed by the time the inspectio took place. The Ely charter had been granted on 25 March 1201 and Jocelin of Brakelond is parsimonious in dating the dispute39.

Sometimes, the clerks were enrolling fines, letters or charters that related to previous engrossments. The survey of these occasions is very likely to produce evidence of the rolls having proven their potential for reference. I shall be looking at the cancellations that occur quite often on every chancery roll. First of all, these cancellations are almost always accompanied by a note stating the reason why the cancellation was effected. These reasons are manifold. I shall not attempt to catalogue them all but I will bring out a few in order to show the clerk busy in his scriptorium looking through the whole set of rolls, asking for previous documents and readjusting entries on the go. The most common reason given for a cancelled entry is that a duplicate memorandum exists on a different roll. Fines are enrolled on the close rolls but are subsequently cancelled. In 1205 the king holds quit Robert of Ropsley of two tuns of wine40. The release from payment should have gone to the fine rolls instead. The entry gets cancelled and a note is appended: “cancelled because enrolled on the fine roll”. When the king commands all the knights and freetenants of Westmoreland to do homage to Robert of Vieuxpont, he causes a letter patent to be sent to the community of Westmoreland but his chancery clerks enroll the writ on the close roll41. The entry is crossed out and the cancellation note explains that the writ had been transferred on the patent roll42. Elsewhere, a cancelled letter patent made its way in the charter roll43; another one in the close roll44. Occasionally, the cancelled transcript wasn’t in a different set of rolls but in a roll of a different regnal year. Readjustments were happening all the time because the clerks had no means of knowing if a given writ or charter had already been enrolled. It was only after committing everything to writing that a certain reorganization could be undertaken.

Inadvertences like the ones we’ve just seen are plentiful but they all seem to tell us that the clerks were expected to make use of the information they were so careful to preserve in the right place. In 1200, Hugo de Havensham gave the king 200 marks to have the custody of the late William of Clinton’s lands. The entry recording the fine was enrolled on the fine roll of 1John45. A cancellation note invalidates the offering and points out that Isabella de Clinton whom I suspect to be William’s widow, offered the king 300 marks to have her husband’s inheritance. In the 3John fine roll, Isabella’s oblatio is duly recorded46. This is to be understood thus: Hugo made his offer to the king then was outbid by Isabella once the transaction was revealed to her. The clerk recorded the fine in the later roll and then went two rolls back and cancelled Hugo’s fine.

The clerks went a step further in facilitating the inspection of rolls. When an entry was duplicated, one of the two duplicates was cancelled and a explanatory note added. The note said where the other entry was, whether “inferius”, “superius”, “infra rotulum”, “in dorso” or simply “alibi”. Sometimes, the clerks were even more generous in their indications. A charter was granted in 1208 to the Flemish merchants of the cities of Ypres, Gant, Bruges, St-Audemer and Douai. A copy was enrolled in the charter roll. For some unknown reason, the chancery clerks re-enrolled it at the end of the last membrane. Quite consistent with what we have seen so far, the clerks cancelled the original entry on the following notification: “cancellata quia inferius in fine rotuli sub eadem forma”47. There is a striking example of the chancery working towards improved precision in the charter rolls. In August 1200, the king granted Peter Robert and his heirs 200 librates of land in England. The record was cancelled because Peter was subsequently conceded a grant of land at Marbote in Aquitaine. The cancellation note indicates that the “predicta carta de terra de Marbote” was enrolled in “rotulo anni regni domini Regis tercii”48. This is exceptional but it shows how far chancery cross-referencing could go at such an early age.

All these cancellations increased text visibility. The primitive system of cross-referencing enabled the royal officials to bring most rolls into play, at least the most recent ones, as documentary memory was short and fragile. When writs and charters started to be systematically dated, the chancery staff realized what a reliable instrument that could be for later searches of the rolls. Dating was however not everything as far as enrollment went. Every now and then, the charter, patent and close rolls give mention of notable events which may have been intended as visual aids to future clerks: the death of the archbishop of Canterbury or the time when king John sailed back to England in 120649.

I have tried to see the extent to which king John’s chancery records were apt to be searched. I haven’t said it enough but the evidence is patently scanty. However, the way the rolls were drawn up, the different devices used to improve legibility and to articulate the different set of rolls in a coherent whole, shows that the Angevin rolls could be searched. They were admittedly inconvenient and difficult to handle but they were functional nonetheless. Jocelin of Brakelond’s story might not have been so singular. There might have been other instances of searching and inspecting the rolls but we might never know for sure.

24. Rotuli litterarum patentium, 141

25. Ibid. 180

26. Similarly, ibid. 82: “Rotulus litterarum patencium noni anni”

27. Rotuli de Liberate ac de Misis et Praestitis, regnante Johanne (ed. T. D. Hardy, 1844), 102-3; Rotuli litterarum clausarum (ed. T. D. Hardy, 1833-1844), 3

28., 12/118, 19/17, 19/20, 19/26, 19/69, 23/302

29. Four out of six of the aforesaid entries contain the phrase “quia constat nobis per inspectionem rotulorum” which the Henry III Fine Rolls Project translators rendered “because it is clear by an inspection of his rolls”. This may prove that the clerks succeeded in locating the entries they were looking for. The use of the plural for “rotulorum” may point to a protracted search in more than one roll.

30. At least that’s what Nicholas Vincent appears to hint at when he criticizes Richardson’s argument that the scribes were “mere automota”, “incapable of constructing an intelligent précis”, Vincent, Why 1199, 36. While there doesn’t seem to have been any financial rationale underlying the enrolling of chancery records, I suspect the charter roll entries to have been enrolled in full so that their general terms could serve as serviceable memory for future inquiries.

31. Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, (Oxford, 1989), 117

32. The Latin verb Jocelin used was inquirers

33. Rotuli chartarum, 91

34. Jocelin of Brakelond, The chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond : concerning the acts of Samson, abbot of the monastery of St. Edmund (tr. T. Nelson, London, 1949); Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, (Oxford, 1989)

35. Clanchy, From Memory, 80

36. The Latin word for registrar is registrator; Du Cange et al., Glossarium mediæ et infimæ latinitatis. There is no instance of the word registrum having been used as the official responsible for keeping the official records. Besides, if John’s records mention such an office, then it is merely referred to as custody of the rolls, like the note contained in the Close Rolls, Rot. claus., 196b, where William Cucuel “receipt rotulos custodiendum” 

37. Vincent, Why 1199, 48

38. Ibid., 29

39. Jocelin of Brakelond (1989), 117: “in the same year”

40. Rotuli clausarum, 21

41. Ibid., 23

42. Rotuli patentibus, 51

43. Ibid., 60, 87, et al.

44. Ibid., 71

45. Rotuli de Oblatis et Finibus (ed. T. D. Hardy, 1835), 61

46. Ibid., 173

47. Rotuli chartarum, 182

48. Ibid. 74b: the Charter Roll for 3John is regrettably missing.

<< back to part I of the article

Calendar of Chancery Warrants (1244-1326) (London 1927).

Jocelin of Brakelond, The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond : Concerning the Acts of Samson, Abbot of the Monastery of St. Edmund (London 1949).

Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds (Oxford 1989).

M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (London 1979).

D. Carpenter, ”In Testimonium Factorum Brevium’: The Beginnings of the English Chancery Rolls’, in: N. Vincent (ed), Records, Administration and Aristocratic Society in the Anglo-Norman Realm (Woodbridge 2009), 1-28.

M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (London 1979).

Fine Rolls Henry III Project, available from

V. H. Galbraith, Studies in the Public Records (London 1949).

T. D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Patentium (London 1835).

  •     (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum (London 1833-1844) 1v.

  •       (ed.), Rotuli De Oblatis Et Finibus (London 1835).

  •       (ed.), Rotuli Chartarum (London 1837).

  •       (ed.), Rotuli De Liberate Ac De Misis Et Praestitis, Regnante Johanne (London 1844).

The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) C53: Charter Rolls, C53/1.

S. Painter, The Reign of King John (Baltimore 1949).

H. G. Richardson, ‘Introduction’ Memoranda Roll for the Michaelmas Term of the First Year of King John (1199-1200) (London 1943).

N. Vincent, ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment under John and His Contemporaries’, in A Jobson, ed., English Government in the Thirteenth Century (Woodbridge 2004), 17-48.

W. L. Warren, The Governance of Normand and Angevin England (London 1987).

‘Per Inspectionem Rotulorum’: the reference value of the early English Chancery rolls (Part I)

At the turn of the fourteenth century, king Edward I enjoined his chancery clerks to “search all the rolls and remembrances, search Domesday at the Exchequer at York and all the other rolls of the Exchequer and Chancery, so that nothing is left unsearched, then go to London to search all the other rolls there”1 Nothing is known about what came of their efforts but judging by the overwhelming mass of royal records that had thitherto accumulated, one is likely to expect little from such an endeavour. A hundred years had passed since the English chancery started compiling, keeping and storing its documentary output. From the reign of king John, different sets of rolls survive which indicate that although enrollment may have started long before he came to the throne2, the Chancery activity was accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Rolls were kept for the two types of documentary instruments that the Angevin government could issue, namely, the sealed writ and the solemn charter. These documents were increasingly being enrolled so that by the fourth year of John’s reign, four types of chancery rolls survived to the present day: The fine roll, the patent roll, the close roll and the charter roll. It is not the place here to discuss the particulars of each roll in turns nor to decide when the outgoing chancery letters and charters “took the quantum leap into enrolment”3. A word, however, should be said in this introduction about what these rolls came to signify by the beginning of the thirteenth century. The English chancery was experimenting with a new model of literacy that was to set the society on a new course. By keeping all these rolls, let alone going to all the effort of compiling them, the Chancery was transforming itself. The seals evolved4,  diplomatic practice was enriched with an improved dating clause5, the intitulatio formulas reached new levels of standardization6.

The first rolls to come into existence seem to have been the fine rolls. This is because the fine roll was closely connected with the Exchequer which had started enrolling its proceedings before 1130. The fine rolls were used to draw up the so-called Originalia rolls which were an essential tool to the barons of the Exchequer in the annual auditing process7. There has been a lot of research into the nature, purpose and scope of the chancery rolls but it seems to me that one question is yet to be fully appraised: to what degree, if at all was the first generation of the chancery records prone to be of any use for consultation as a reference tool. All documentary records abide by the principles of the human memory: production, storage and retrieval. Indeed, there would be no use for drawing up annual rolls if they weren’t eventually going to serve as written memory and facilitate the access of lost information.  Whatever roll the chancery was drawing up, its chief purpose was to be used as memoranda8. I am introducing this metaphor of the human memory to draw attention to the importance of retrieving stored but remote knowledge. My first presumption is that this key moment in the existence of records, whether royal, monastic, baronial, etc, informs the whole process of documentary production.

In this essay I shall be looking at the earliest chancery rolls so as to determine  the extent to which the Angevin royal records were used for consultation and reference and if so, whether the chancery clerks did make any use of the available and inflating amount of enrolled records. The retrieval of information was a vital step in the production and handling of government records.

This question has not been ignored by historians like Galbraith9, Richardson10, Clanchy11 and Vincent12 but none of them, to my knowledge, has looked far enough for evidence that the early rolls were capable of being or actually were searched for information. Most of them have contented themselves with precipitous pessimistic conclusions, pointing out the laboriousness of searching the rolls or the inadequacy of the Chancery for storing and retrieving its own archive material13. Moreover, Michael Clanchy noted that it was only in the 1300s that “the government subjected them [i.e. administrative documents] to comprehensive inspection14. I agree with them as to the scarcity of evidence concerning instances of actual attempts to search the rolls in the first quarter of the thirteenth century but I wouldn’t stop there. I think it presumptuous to infer ex silentio that the chancery staff were simply unable to locate an entry in some previous roll nor that they completely gave up searching the compiled archives15.

A sensible starting point is not the substance of the rolls but rather their “para-textual” structure. It has been argued that the mere fact that English chancery preferred enrolment over the other, continental way of enlisting written records, namely the register or cartulary, was a stumbling block in itself.  It is admittedly much more difficult to search the sewn roll than the bound register but not altogether impossible. If the roll was favoured above the codex for reasons of portability and lightweight convenience16, then it is safe to assume that John’s peripatetic chancery expected to have easy and quick access to the knowledge contained in the roll and not to wait for the rolls to be fetched from the multiple depository locations.

Our discussion takes us to the question of storage and safekeeping. Let us remind ourselves that this is a time of great transformation and unless we are cautious, we may fall into anachronism when discussing the depository of chancery records. It is therefore difficult to tell where the rolls were more likely to be at any one time but there is evidence of different places where royal records were kept by the Angevin kings. The court was itinerant and some rolls were travelling with the king  “in cofris suis”. When not moving, the documents stayed in many places, ranging from the Treasury to palaces, monasteries and churches around London. Whether on the move or in a fixed place, the records were kept in boxes bearing different identifying signs, albeit not alphabetical, systematic or coherent, that show, to some extent, that the Chancery was at least envisaging the possibility of coming back to those boxes and rolls if need be. The impression is one of orderliness, at least insofar as an itinerant chancery was capable of17.

The layout, headings and listings indicate that the rolls were at least developed with the purpose of reference in mind. Everyone who has seen and worked with the rolls knows perfectly well how clear and orderly their layout is. Each entry is sufficiently spaced out from the others so as to increase visibility. Nicholas Vincent has pointed out a major limitation of the rolls in their inability to index entries by subject. The Charter Roll for the first year of king John bears almost as many marginal notes as entries, which might even be considered to be listings18. These notes describe the nature of the contiguous enrolled charters thus displaying what I believe to be strong evidence that the rolls were actually held to be approachable as a reference tool. Similarly, the Patent Roll for the seventeenth year of king John contains a large number of marginal notes that go in the direction of an index by subject matter. For instance, the entry for a letter patent addressed to the knights and servants of the castle of Oxford carries a marginal note that reads “custodia castri”19. Further down, Emilius the moneyer is confirmed the right to continue issuing coin in the king’s name. The adjoining note says “De moneta facienda”20. Other thematic notes refer to granted lands, wardship of counties, letters of protection, advowson, keeping of the peace, election of abbots and miscellaneous financial transactions. It is evident that the chancery was experimenting with different ways of rendering the rolls more accessible. The mention of the month is increasingly present in the marginalia21. On the dorse of the Patent Rolls late in John’s reign, there are marginal notes serving as headings and describing the place where the writ or charter was issued22. I shall now discuss the layout of the fine rolls where marginal notes abound. Apart from the county headings, there is a great deal of information about the nature or the outcome of the different pecuniary pledges made to the king. For instance, when Radolphus Bloet gave the king a palfrey to have a licence to enclose a hunting park on his manorial land in Colchester, the sheriff of Essex, Hugh de Neville was instructed to secure the palfrey on the king’s behalf. There are two marginal notes affixed to this entry and one just below it: the marginalia notations describe the county the entry belonged to, which is mistaken for Wiltshire, and the subject of the matter pertaining to forest law; the lower note is a clause quitting Hugh of all debt and preventing the fine from being sent to the Exchequer23.

>> proceed to part II of the article

1 Calendar of Chancery Warrants (London 1927), I, 120

2 For the beginnings of the Chancery rolls, see D. Carpenter, “‘In testimonium factorum Brevium’: The Beginnings of the English Chancery Rolls’, in Records, Administration and Aristocratic Society in the Anglo-Norman Realm, ed. N. Vincent (Woodbridge 2009), 1-28; N. Vincent, ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment under John and his Contemporaries’, in English Government in the Thirteenth Century, ed A Jobson (Woodbridge 2004), 17-48

3 Vincent, Why 1199…, 17-8

4 S. Painter, The Reign of King John (Baltimore 1949), 106-108

5 M. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (London 1979), 236-41

6 Vincent, Why 1199, 40

7 Carpenter, In testimonium…, 6-8

8 Painter, King John…, 104

9 V.H. Galbraith, Studies in the Public Records (London 1948), 26-88

10 H.G. Richardson, ‘Introduction’ to the Memoranda Roll for the Michaelmas Term of the First Year of King John (1199-1200) (London 1943), xi-lix

11 M. Clanchy, From Memory…, 138-47

12 Vincent, Why 1199…, 44-48

13 Ibid. 48

14 Ibid. 48

15 Painter takes a quite different view from the other historians who discussed the early chancery practice. While discussing the charter roll and its value for retrieving grants made in the king’s name, he concludes that “the mere fact that one cannot produce clear evidence that they used it for purposes of general reference seems to me to be of slight importance”, King John, p. 101

16 Ibid. 48

17 W.L. Warren, The Governance of Normand and Angevin England (London 1987), 126: “Not even the papal chancery could match the royal chancery of King John’s day in the ordering of its archive”

18 National Archives C53/1; Rotuli chartarum (ed. T.D. Hardy, London)

19 Rotuli litterarum patentium (ed. T.D. Hardy, Record commission), 159

20 Ibid. 160

21 Ibid. 88

22 Ibid. 83

23 Rotuli De Oblatis Et Finibus (ed. T.D. Hardy, 1835), 221

Meaning in a Matchbox

In January 2007 I moved from the UK to India to teach in the department of Visual Communication at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. Walking through the city I came across matchboxes almost everywhere I went. At a cost of one rupee, these economical and disposable matchboxes are often found empty and discarded on the roadside near truck stops and littering the footpaths around chai stalls and cigarette shops. Purchased from convenience stores, these ubiquitous objects are commonly used in homes to light stoves, the pious havan or diyas for religious rituals and lighting cigarettes or their cheaper counterparts, the beedis.

One of the first matchboxes I came across in Bengaluru featured an illustration of a killer whale with the word ‘Dolphin’ written above it. Another early find had a photograph of three ‘Famous’ kittens in a wicker basket. Later I came across a matchbox titled ‘Jamesbond’ with an illustration of a German Shepard. Coming from a background in visual communication and editorial illustration, where the clear communication of messages was central to my practice, I enjoyed the seemingly random relationships between text and image present on so many of these labels. Over time I collected a variety of matchboxes from across India and as the collection grew commonalities between designs began to emerge, with characteristics that include the duplication and mirroring of iconography, incongruous juxtapositions between text and image, thematic variations, textual iterations and copy-cat imitations of popular labels.

No.6, Yelahanka, Bengaluru, 2007

No.44, KB Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, September 2008

No.698, Defence Colony, Indiranagar, Bengaluru, July 2015

No.737, Brigade Road, Bengaluru, December 2016

For me, collecting and categorising these small visual-tactile objects was one way of making sense of my surroundings and the local visual culture that I found myself engaging with. The imagery on these boxes include Hindu symbolism, historical figures, Bollywood actors, foreign brands and cartoon characters, everyday objects, consumer goods, aspirational items, and a variety of popular and exotic animals. The disparate visuals, meanings and juxtapositions that are present through the collection encapsulate quite perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture seen in many parts of India today. As cultural artefacts these matchboxes tell us about national identity, modernity and tradition, gender roles, religion and globalisation and how these themes often merge and co-exist.

Phillumeny, the practice of collecting matchbox labels requires commitment and discipline. The routine process involves photographing each design, maintaining a physical and digital archive along with a record of the date and location of where each matchbox was found or purchased. In the essay ’The System of Collecting’, Jean Baudrillard wrote that “it is invariably oneself that one collects” (1994, p. 12) and as visual signifiers, many of these designs embody personal memories. Collectively the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places I have been to and the experiences I have had… an early morning trek through Periyar National Park with my father and brother, a 48-hour train journey to Varanasi with my students, cycling and sunburn in Hampi and many conversations with friends and colleagues in Bengaluru.

No.707, Kruti Saraiya, September 2015

No.160, Yelahanka New Town, Bengaluru, 2009

No.44, KB Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, September 2008

While the visual and material qualities of these matchboxes vary between regions, a large number of them are printed in Sivakasi, a town in Tamil Nadu known for producing fireworks. In the ten years that I lived in India my collection grew to over 750 matchboxes. What has kept me going is that new labels are produced all the time and across such a vast country, as India is, I could only ever have a fraction of the designs available. The collection can never possibly be complete and so each new addition does not offer a resolution, but instead adds to the continuing story. It is the notion of absence which is essential to the act of collecting. Baudrillard wrote, “the collection is never really initiated in order to be completed… the missing item in the collection is in fact an indispensable and positive part of the whole, in so far as this lack is the basis of the subject” (1994, p. 13).

In 2018 my interest in collections led me to the British Library, where I work as a digital imaging technician on the Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme alongside a team of photographers, archivists, content specialists, translators and conservators. The skills I have developed in this role can be applied to my own digital archives. This includes photographing the matchbox collection to higher imaging standards and with due consideration towards image size, resolution, consistent lighting and accurate colour. A lot of visual, textual and material information is currently missing from my digital matchbox archive, including the reverse sides of the boxes, which include details about the price, manufacturer and place of production as well as the phosphorus striker strips on the sides that display a variety of patterns. At the British Library we photograph the front, back, spine, edge, head and tail of each book, similarly, capturing the matchboxes from all six sides will provide information about the physical condition of each item.

In my role at the British Library I have been introduced to principles for conserving, archiving, managing and curating collections and this engagement has provided me with ideas for developing the Indian matchbox project. While the metadata of my archive includes numbering and information of where and when each matchbox was found, this can be expanded to include details of the manufacturer, place of production, label description, box measurements, material and cost. I began digitising Indian matchboxes over ten years ago, with the simple aim of sharing the range of unique designs online via my personal website. My long-term aim is to create a dedicated website for the collection, with high-quality images that are searchable and categorised sequentially and thematically. This may provide contextual information on the design, cultural, historical, social and economic aspects of Indian matchboxes along with personal stories about notable items. All of this shows that while I no longer live in Bengaluru, this project is far from complete and my journey through the collection has a long way to travel.

This Indian matchbox project is about drawing meaning from a personal collection of cultural designs that are individually unique and collectively identifiable. The full collection of ‘Matchboxes for the Subcontinent’ can be viewed on my website.

No.533, Doddaballapur Road, Yelahanka, Bengaluru, April 2012


Baudrillard, J. (1994). The System of Collecting.


Images property of © Matt Lee