In 2000 I moved from Keele University to the University of Manchester. Not long after that I met Sarah Green, a PhD student who had been supervised by James Vernon before he headed west to California and she was forced to interrupt her studies due to illness. I saw Sarah a few times to discuss her work. I loved her topic – banknote forgery and the paper pound – and her enthusiasm for her project and for archival research, and I was truly sorry when she felt she had no choice but to stop working again because of the impact of the powerful drugs she was taking to try to keep her alive. Alhough I got in contact with her a couple of times after that, it was clear that she was not really in the mood to discuss her PhD (who could blame her?) and we lost touch.
Some 16 later I was contacted by a friend of the family looking for a home for her books and research notes. I’d never forgotten Sarah and was sad to learn that she had died some years earlier. A few weeks later I made the drive up to the former mill town of Nelson to meet Sarah’s husband, Dave, and to pick up her papers and books which we loaded into the back of my car.
Once home again I sorted through her stuff. Looking back through her research notes and early chapter drafts was particularly poignant, as was seeing my own (terrible) handwriting on a few of the pages suggesting edits and asking questions. As one historian looking at the records of another historian’s research it’s hard not to think about what we leave behind us, and about how our work might live on after us. Unfinished projects are not always easy to pick up, but in the case of an incomplete thesis – where wanting to produce some sort of legacy for Sarah seemed so pressing – this is what I had in the back of my mind as I started to read. I was lucky that Sarah had been so well organised and such a dedicated archival researcher, and lucky too that a way of combining Sarah’s interests in forgery, and mine in shopkeepers, become apparent as I read through her folders of notes.
Though it took a while to see the light of day, ‘Taking money from strangers: traders’ responses to banknotes and the risks of forgery in late Georgian London’ is now available free to anyone (Open Access) in the Journal of British Studies. It’s a good journal and one that her old supervisor, James Vernon, has published in as well, so I like to think that Sarah would be pleased. I hope it’s also a decent piece of history writing that people will read and that does some credit to Sarah’s considerable efforts as a historian. I only wish she had lived to see it herself.