About this resource

This resource delves into secret life of archives, exploring how these treasure-troves of history can spark bold and inventive creative writing. With tips for accessing archive materials and suggested creative approaches, the resource seeks to support writers of every experience-level to discover how these ‘raw materials’ of history offer an intriguing springboard for all sorts of creative writing.

Defined as ‘a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people’, archives fizz with stories and snapshots of every kind of life. This resource takes as its starting point the Through the Door project created by Poet in the City and Archives for London which paired seven outstanding poets with London’s archives to create new work and reach new audiences (see www.throughthedoorproject.tumblr.com).

Prompted by the compelling and beautiful responses Through the Door yielded, this resource explores archives’ potential to inspire new writing, celebrating the power of archives to place history in our hands and set the imagination free. So why not embark on a writing adventure across time and begin your own creative journey into an archive?

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Mapping Your Journey

Finding out about archives can be a bit daunting for anyone who hasn’t used them before. For inspiration, I’d recommend browsing online catalogues first.

Susan Snell, The Library and Museum of Freemasonry

” I suppose one could go in ‘cold’ and thereby stumble across fragments of gems scattered amongst the seams and folds of a sizeable archive… but I also spent some time online, looking at how the archive presented itself to the world.

Mario Petrucci

” There are these wonderful sleuthing tactics that archivists seem to have. It’s detective work.

David Harsent

Pathways to Writing

This section of the resource outlines a range of different creative approaches to encountering an archive, suggesting ways to weave these historical findings into new writing. We explore how an archive record can offer fresh insight into an individual’s character (‘Archive as Portraiture’), how archives might shape the form and layout of your writing (‘Finding Form’), how to engage more sensorily with archive records (‘Drawing on the Senses’), and how the unique physical form of an archive record can direct your creative work (‘Material World’).

Archive as Portraiture

Imagine an archive as a misty portrait gallery. What multiple characters might loom beneath the surface of an archive record?

And might the creator of a particular record wait somewhere in the margins too? Consider what clues we have to flesh these characters out (and what remains undisclosed or concealed): how might we conjure these characters’ views of the world, their speech patterns, their tone of voice?

During David Harsent’s time at Library & Museum of Freemasonry, the poet learnt that Louis Armstrong had revealed an aspiration to join freemasonry by becoming a member of the American fraternal organisation, the Knights of Pythias. In writing about Armstrong, Harsent ‘slightly replicates the rhythms of Storyville jazz’ in the poem’s taut line structure and carefully notated caesurae (or pauses).

Claims he was born | Fourth of July | underneath | a clear blue sky
Red light district | New Orleans | life barely worth | a hill of beans

(extract from ‘Louis Armstrong’s cake-walk on the chequered pavement’ — David Harsent)

Fiona Sampson’s ‘Washday’ glimpses a day-in-the-life of Irish washer-girl ‘Lily’ in 1864, based on Sampson’s exploration of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives.

I will swim down to the river
arm over arm among sheets
clouds and pearled river lights.

(extract from ‘Washday’ — Fiona Sampson)

Finding Form

Think about how your own creative writing can work with or against the page layout or ‘form’ of an archive record.

Page from ‘Pathological Drawings of Astley Paston Cooper’

Mario Petrucci’s ‘Pathological Haiku’ draw on the precise ‘Pathological Drawings of Astley Paston Cooper’ (found in the archive of the Royal College of Surgeons of England). Using the spare, three-line form of the haiku, Petrucci captures the vivid yet ‘disembodied’ anatomical subjects of Cooper’s illustrations.

(right: extract from ‘Pathological Haiku’ — Mario Petrucci)

hung wordless in swill
empurpled eel
eye —
grey olive
skull —
bleached oak of bone
grown from one socket

George Szirtes’ poem ‘Hologram’ is inspired by records held at the Imperial College archive on the visionary scientist Dennis Gabor. Gabor was awarded the Nobel Prize for his invention of the hologram and Szirtes cleverly mirrors the complex fabric of a hologram in the poem’s structure. The poet uses just the words ‘there’ ‘me’ ‘image’, ‘illusion’ and ‘another’ as each line’s ending across the poem’s six stanzas, the poem’s form thus beautifully evoking the intricate repeating patterns of light that compose a hologram.

Huygens Fresnel holograms

But look, the world may be perceived as image
and yet have laws that apply to you and me.
I profess myself. I am simply the image
that I see, my own self being the image
here photographed. My parents who were there
combed my hair and tidied me. My image
was what they made it. I was the very image
of them. Although a child I was another,
an image in a mirror that is itself another.
I was diffracted, refracted. I became an image
in the mirror, the mirror that was illusion.
Everything in the mirror was illusion.

(Extract from ‘Hologram’ — George Szirtes)

Drawing on the Senses

Engage all five senses when exploring an archive. Consider how these qualities might relate to the sensory world of the record’s subject itself.

 And what clues can be found in the record that convey the sensory characteristics of that moment in time? Be adventurous with your language, exploring how words can conjure rich sensory worlds for the reader — as poet Mario Petrucci suggests: ‘Listen to words — to their conversations with one another, beyond their literal, logical content or prose-like meanings.’

Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘Cherub, St Paul’s’ (written during Dharker’s time at the St Paul’s Cathedral Archive) describes the soot and chaos of the blitz, taking as its starting point a photograph of a stone cherub found peeping out amidst the partial wreckage.


          In the aftermath
the hesitant dust falls back to blanket you,
rubble tries to cradle you. Just
as we turn away, light seeks out your mouth
and wipes it with stained fingers.

(extract from ‘Cherub, St Paul’s — Imtiaz Dharker)


” I was amazed by Imtiaz’s poetry and how she brought the cathedral to life. I found her work so evocative: you got a real sense of place from these poems.

Sarah Radford, Archivist at St Paul’s Cathedral

Cherub figure, previously part of the altar table at St. Paul’s Cathedral

Based on an exploration of the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, Fiona Sampson’s poem ‘Fish Stew’ explores the experience of an inhabitant of Paradise Row in ‘who is home-sick for the Caribbean’, powerfully evoking the slippery feel of a fish.

(right: extract from ‘Fish Stew’ — Fiona Sampson)

A carcass flips
along the drainer

its black meat full
of a stew
of dock water.

Slip your hand
into thus

this slithery undoing.

Material World

Archives often contain a range of different sorts of records, perhaps including letters, lists, diaries, drawings, films, photographs, maps or microfilm.

Try pairing a record that speaks immediately to you with something you might otherwise have dismissed, and consider the possible links and dialogues that might arise?

In the opening poem of Andrew Motion’s ‘In the Stacks’ sequence, Motion draws on a letter (collected in the British Library’s archives) to Rupert Brookes’ girlfriend Cathleen Nesbitt, sent by one of the friends who buried Brookes. Motion notes that the correspondent also enclosed ‘some leaves from the olive tree that bends over [Brookes’] grave’ and captures the distinct texture and feel of these objects.

(right: extract from ‘1’ [In the Stacks] — Andrew Motion)

These dry scraps are five olive leaves
Denis Browne pulled from the olive tree
growing over the grave he had just dug

for his friend Rupert Brooke in 1915
and posted back to Cathleen Nesbitt.
They look as brittle and delicate now

as the scales of a very large fish,
but I think they are what they say they are…

Simons Jenner’s poem ‘17th November 1849’ closely draws on a stock/pea-soup recipe found in the Hackney archives, mirroring the recipe’s crisp layout and diction in his poem. Jenner notes: ‘as with all information, it’s as accurate as possible… I’ve quoted verbatim, allowing period rhythms to direct sensibility, colour tone, sonance.’

Mondays, pea soup Saturday’s salt pork liquor
being two pounds penny pepper — salt onions carrots suits
leeks to taste — salt two ounces suet dripping four ounce flour
one third Patna rice — boiled fifteen minutes.

(extract from ‘17th November 1849’ — Simon Jenner)

At the Writing Desk

This section explores the work of Through The Door poets David Harsent and Mario Petrucci, offering two practical ‘case studies’ as a guide to engaging imaginatively with an archive.

David Harsent & the Library and Museum of Freemasonry

David Harsent’s time at the archives at London’s Freemasons Hall saw the poet exploring the diverse people found to have taken the Masonic Oath, from Louis Armstrong to Oscar Wilde: “I came to see that I might produce a sequence where each poem featured a famous mason with a particular story to tell.” This poem gives an account of noted theosophist, writer and activist Annie Besant (1847-1933), and uses a range of archive materials and poetic techniques to bring its intriguing subject to life.

Illustration of a Masonic Skull

Annie Besant considers a skull:
Memento Mori in the  chamber of reflection

Either the mystery has gone from this, or this
is the mystery: the human shape beneath the shape
by which we know each other. I face my father’s face
on his deathbed and saw hope beyond hope
that only mystery could replace, coming soon in place
of who he used to be. I watched him change, and change
back again. Next day my mother’s hair was white-on-white…

I’m held in this blank stare, that hollow look the look
my daughter gave me when they took her from me, took
what was usual and rich and turned it strange, estranged
and lost to me as I was lost to her as God was lost!
to both of us. I hold this head and hold this head to be
what once was Kabbalah, Hermetica, at least the least –
once here, now gone – of what it is we know we cannot know.

Annie Besant’s letter

Mario Petrucci & The Royal College of Surgeons of England

During his time with the archives at the The Royal College of Surgeons of England, poet Mario Petrucci encountered the The Diary of a Resurrectionist, thought to have been authored by Joshua Naples between 1811-1812. In the diaries, Naples describes his activities supplying bodies to anatomy teachers in London, including to St Thomas’s and St Bartholomew’s Hospitals. Petrucci’s poem subsequently used fragments from Naples’ diary to create this colourful account of the ‘Resurrection Man’.

Resurrection Man
Joseph Naples: body snatcher

At night went out & got 3
Sold to Mr Cline St. Thomas’s.

Sunday –
Looked to see what funerals were about.
At Home all night.

Monday –
Got paid for the 3 adults & settled.
Met & settled with Mordecai. At Home all night.
Miss Naples.

Tuesday –
Brought the Shovils from Bartholomew. The dogs
flew at us. Could not succeed. Met early
at Mr. Vickers. Came home

Wednesday –
At night went out & got 10 whole. Opened another
whole through bad with small pox. Found
a watch planted.

Thursday –
Went to Pancrass. Got 2. 1 adult 1 small.
Went to Bunhill Row got 6. 1 with the throat cut.
Sold the extremities.

Friday –
The moon at the full.
Could not go got Drunk. Slept a sleep
of the unburied. I did not do

India Proofs for Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical (Gray’s Anatomy) 1858

Contact Us

  • Through the Door

    Through the Door is a unique project from AfL and Poet in the City which aims to engage new audiences for poetry, archives and local history. By exploring the rich creative resources of archives, and the imaginative possibilities of poetry, the project aims to transform public engagement with both.


  • Poet in the City

    Poet in the City is an arts organisation which promotes a love of poetry to new audiences through live events, projects, commissions and participation.

    Kings Place Music Foundation
    90 York Way, London N1 9AG


  • Archives for London

    Archives for London (AfL) brings together all those interested in archives in or about London, including users of archives, practitioners and enthusiasts.

    tel: 020 7594 8850