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Archives and Special Collections

Welcome to the Geography and Environment guide

This resource guide provides an overview of some of the collections held by the University of Exeter that may be particularly useful for the study of geography and the environment. The boxes below describe different themes or collections and contain links to the catalogues, through which you can explore the collections further. 

The resources highlighted in this guide have been identified using our catalogues, but are not exhaustive. You can search our archives catalogue and library catalogue with key word searches to identify further items of interest. More information on searching the catalogues can be found on the Searching our Catalogues LibGuide. If you come across any other sources within our collections that you think should be included in this guide, we would be very pleased to hear about them.

Archives and rare books held by Special Collections are available to everyone. More information about accessing the collections can be found in our Visiting Heritage Collections LibGuide. Please note that there may be some restrictions on accessing and copying (including photography) material in the archives and books held by Special Collections in line with current data protection and copyright legislation. Always make sure to check the access conditions on the archive catalogue and email Special Collections before your visit for more information about specific restrictions.

Common Ground archive

Common Ground is an arts and environmental charity, which was founded in 1982 with a mission to link nature with culture and use celebration of the everyday as a starting point for local action. The charity has raised awareness of a variety of environmental issues through its innovative projects, which have involved public participation; the commissioning of new artistic works; the organisation of exhibitions, events and conferences; the launching of new calendar customs; and the publication of books, pamphlets, newsletters, leaflets and postcards. Many of the projects - in particular, 'Parish Maps', the ‘Campaign for Local Distinctiveness’ and 'Apple Day' - have proven to be highly sustainable, continuing long after Common Ground's active involvement in them ceased.

The Common Ground archive comprises a wide range of material created and collected by the charity in the course of its activities between 1982 and 2013, including project planning papers, correspondence, reports, financial papers, research material, press clippings, photographs, promotional material, and publications. 

Between 2018 and 2020, a cataloguing project was undertaken at the University of Exeter Special Collections to make this archive more accessible to the public and open it up to new research. The archive has rich potential for interdisciplinary research in a wide range of areas, including environmental studies, geography, literature, visual culture, cultural studies, sociology and business studies.

The Common Ground archive has rich potential for interdisciplinary research on a wide range of areas, including environmental studies, geography, literature, visual culture, cultural studies, sociology and business studies.. Some possible areas of research are listed below.

  • Relationship between nature and culture - Common Ground believes that the combination of nature and culture makes each place unique, and this forms the basis of its work to stimulate public interest and enthusiasm for the commonplace in our localities. Research into archive material relating to the different projects can shed light on how Common Ground explored the links between nature and culture, especially through its commissioning of artwork, prose, music, and poetry, and organisation of cultural events.
  • Environmental issues in the UK - Research material relating to a range of environmental issues - including the climate emergency, pollution, deforestation, flooding, droughts, natural disasters, the use of pesticides, and habitat loss - can be found within the archive. The archive also includes a variety of responses to these issues such as ideas for and examples of local conservation, as well as reports, policies and strategies by the British Government and environmental organisations. 
  • Project planning - The archive contains project planning papers for each of its projects, from the early 1980s to 2013. This material includes planning notes, project proposals, grant applications, meeting minutes, correspondence, and project reports. These records can be used to understand how arts and environmental are planned and organised, as well as provide insight into Common Ground's practices in particular.
  • Sustainability - Common Ground has pioneered several projects that were designed to be sustainable and encourage long-term local action without extra support from the charity, in particular, the ‘Parish Maps' project and ‘Apple Day’ The success of the sustainability of Common Ground projects can be researched through reports, correspondence, and press clippings in the archive.
  • Sense of place -  Sense of place has been explored by Common Ground through the concept of 'Local Distinctiveness', a term developed by the charity in the early 1980s to examine the relationship between places, people, nature and identity. Correspondence, notes, essays and promotional material relating to the 'Campaign for Local Distinctiveness' can provide more insight into the development of this concept.
  • British culture and landscape - In its mission to raise awareness of what makes our everyday places distinctive and unique, Common Ground collected a vast amount of research material on British landscapes, wildlife, buildings, art, music, literature, customs, history, heritage, and folklore. Research material, promotional material, correspondence and more in the archive, which was arranged by Common Ground alphabetically by subject, can be used to research contemporary Britain.

The Common Ground archive has been catalogued and descriptions of the material within the archive can be browsed on our online archives catalogue under the reference number EUL MS 416.

William Harding King photographs relating to his explorations of the Libyan Desert (EUL MS 11)

William Joseph Harding King (1869-1933) was an explorer and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He travelled extensively in the north African deserts; in 1900 and 1908 he was in the Western Sahara, and from 1909-1912 he explored the central portions of the Libyan Desert. This collection comprises a series of 508 black and white photographs taken by William Harding King in the Libyan desert in the early 20th century. They include many images that capture the local people and culture, including photographs of the Tuareg people.

Find out more about this collection on the online catalogue

The South West

Edmund Collection of Local History

The strengths of the Edmund Collection lie in local history. The main emphasis is upon Exeter and East Devon, although there is some material from West Devon (such as Plymouth) and Dorset and Cornwall. There are a few more general books in the collection, covering British history. The majority of the items (which includes books, pamphlets, periodicals and maps) covers various aspects of the west country, notably the history of towns and villages and their residents. Social history is well-represented with material on religion, transport (particularly railways), education and local myths and legends.

The collection is fully catalogued and entries appear on the University Library's online catalogue.

Papers of E W Martin relating to the history and literature of the Westcountry, late 19th c - 20th c [EUL MS 309]

South Tawton and District Local History Group photographic archive, including photographs of community activities such as carnivals and fairs as well as quarrying and agricultural work, 1980s [EUL MS 180]

Literature and the environment

                            The University of Exeter holds a rich collection of twentieth-century literary papers including those of Daphne du Maurier, Charles Causley, William Golding, Jack Clemo, Ronald Duncan, Ted Hughes, Agatha Christie and Henry Williamson. One of the common factors shared by these writers is their links to the South West of England. The relationship between the writers and the environment - in regards to both their personal lives and influences on their literature - can be explored through these archives. 

Middle East Collections

Material specific to Oman includes the personal papers and photographs of John Shebbeare (1919-2004), British advisor to the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, and the extensive collection of research papers and Omani manuscripts of John Craven Wilkinson, including a rare manuscript notebook (left) relating to water holdings and tribal settlements at al-Falaj al-Malki near Izki, one of Oman's oldest irrigation systems, containing names and holdings of the owners of the water shares over a period of approximately 50 years (ca.1825-75). The 500-page manuscript has been digitized and can be accessed hereThere are also several documents and reports relating to Oman among Sir William Luce's papers.


Read more about the John Craven Wilkinson Collection in the Special Collections blog post: 
Where oil and water mix: the Omani papers of John Craven Wilkinson (EUL MS 119)


The Gale and Morant Family Papers relating to enslavement on plantations in Jamaica (EUL MS 44; EUL MS 44 add. 1; EUL MS 130)

The Gale and Morant Family Papers include correspondence, accounts and other papers (1731-1939) relating to the management of family-owned sugar plantations in Jamaica at the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Both sides of the family acquired sugar plantations that used the forced labour of enslaved people of African descent. These papers include lists of the people who were enslaved on the plantations, noting details such as their name, age, country of origin, occupation, and the enslaver's assessment of their 'condition' and 'value'.

Find out more about this collection on the online catalogue under the reference numbers EUL MS 44EUL MS 44 add. 1EUL MS 130.

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