Inside The Hold’s archive tracking 900 years of Suffolk heritage
PUBLISHED: 16:50 01 August 2019
Simon Lee Photography
Suffolk’s new heritage centre, The Hold, is taking shape. Sheena Grant gets a glimpse of its fascinating archive spanning 900 years
The treasures in the Suffolk Record Office collection are many - centuries-old decorated manuscripts, records from the county's great landed estates and personal letters telling the moving stories of families whose lives were shaped by events far beyond their control, to name but a few.
The archive, spanning 900 years of history, runs to 94 million pages in 12,600 collections, and takes up an incredible nine miles of shelving.
It's comforting to hear from collections manager Bridget Hanley that one of the things that attracted to her job was a desire to make order out of chaos. Given this amount of material, you cannot help but think there's potential for a whole lot of chaos.
It is Bridget's job to manage the county's archivists, who process new material coming into this ever-growing and evolving collection, cataloguing items to make them accessible to the public and preserving them for posterity.
The record offices in Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds receive an average of 300 new collections a year, though they have recently stopped taking material temporarily ahead of the spring 2020 completion of the county's £20 million heritage centre, The Hold, taking shape at Ipswich Waterfront.
"We never know what is going to come in," says Bridget. "It might be a small package of pictures or 100 boxes of papers. It is our job to sort them out and find out what needs to be kept and what is worthy of preserving. Key to our collecting policy is that items have to relate to Suffolk and be worthy of permanent preservation."
This collecting policy informs everything the record office decides to keep, and that which it doesn't. Its oldest document is 900 years old and, while much attention is focused on collecting from the present for the future, the past can never really be laid to rest.
"I'm always surprised how much old stuff is out there still," says Bridget. "But contemporary collecting, from current-day Suffolk, is really important to us too because we want to reflect the county as it is now, and not just in its traditional communities, but the new communities that have come in.
"We have done oral history with the Bangladeshi community, for instance. It can be a real challenge to make those links but it's something we want to do.
"We are always looking 100 years ahead and thinking, what will people want to know about this present time? It's difficult to predict but homelessness is a big theme, climate change and environmental issues.
"A lot of the materials coming in now are digital. We are constantly migrating records to the most up to date forms of technology so it's always accessible." The changing way we communicate presents other challenges too. Few people keep diaries or write letters anymore and with those changes come questions about how stories from modern generations will be preserved.
"It might be that people are writing blogs or social media posts but we don't know how this is going to be kept or recorded in future," says Bridget. "That's one of the reasons oral history projects are so important, so people's memories can be recorded."
Most of the collections the county holds are on deposit (long term loan) and whenever anything new comes in its condition is assessed to see how best to preserve it. "We look to see if it is damp or if there is evidence of insects or other pests," says Bridget.
"If it is damp we will often freeze it (to stop fungal growth) and dry it out gradually." The Hold, with its conservation, digitalisation and quarantine facilities, will be a real boon to this process.
Bridget says the opportunities offered by the new building, which will replace the current Ipswich Record Office at Gatacre Road (although the strong room there will be retained) are immense. "The exhibition space is going to be great, as is the purpose-built education room, so we can really engage with school children. There will be 20 years of expansion space so we can carry on collecting material."
Family history researchers used to account for around 70 per cent of record office visitors. But now, says Bridget, so much of that material can be accessed online the profile of a 'typical' visitor is changing. Many are now community history researchers or people looking into the history of their home, along with students and school pupils.
"The outreach work we are doing as part of [The Hold] project means we can reach new audiences," says Bridget.
"Some people can be a little scared of archives and imagine them as dusty old spaces, but once they step over the threshold and look at an old map, see the names of the people who used to live in their house or spot their name on an old school register they realise they are not like that at all."
Tales from the archives
Collections manager Bridget Hanley's favourite archive materials are a collection of First World War letters and the records for St Audry's Hospital, the former county asylum at Melton, which closed in the 1980s.
The St Audry's records tell the story of a whole community, she says.
"The records go back to the 1820s. Some of the stories are very sad but people do get better and there are letters from family members thanking staff.
"We also have 200 letters kept by a Sweffling family from two brothers, George and Albert Stopher, who both died at the Battle of Arras in the First World War."
From the oral history collections, one of Bridget's favourite snippets is a story told by a man who cycled to work in the dark with a candle in a jar tied to his handlebars.
Amy Rushton, The Hold project manager, says Suffolk has some of the best map collections in the country and collections from great landed families that have been declared national treasures, as well as the papers of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England.
There are also architectural and photographic collections, social and community records, such as parish registers, wills, marriage licences, jail books, maritime records and crew lists.
"We also have more unusual things as well," she says. "Among my favourites is one of only 10 copies worldwide of an erotic satire written by the Earl of Rochester in the 17th century." Rochester was portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2004 film The Libertine.
His play holds the dubious accolade of being the first literary work ever to be censored in England on the grounds of obscenity. The copy held at the Lowestoft record office appears to be the earliest of only 10 surviving handwritten copies.
About The Hold
The Hold will create a new, heritage facility to protect and promote the county's archives and provide state-of-the-art learning and research facilities. Those behind the project say it provides new possibilities to engage a wider and greater number of people through a countywide programme of events, activities, and learning opportunities, as well as offering greater access to digital content.
Located near the University of Suffolk in Ipswich, it will provide a new home for the majority of Suffolk's archival collections.
However, the creation of The Hold has not been without controversy. Record offices in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft will remain when The Hold opens, but in Lowestoft, campaigners have formed a group called Save Our Record Office (SORO) to fight the changes and relocation of local archive collections to Ipswich.