Since our last visit to Sussex, a new archive centre housing four important collections has opened up in Brighton, writes Jonathan Scott.
Trace your Sussex ancestors
Construction work on The Keep in Brighton started in 2011, around the time of our last visit. Two years and £15million later the building was complete, and now houses not only East Sussex Record Office, but also the Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums local history collection (which includes the local studies library material formerly at the Brighton History Centre), the University of Sussex Special Collections, and the Headquarters and Library of the Sussex Family History Group.
The Record Office move from its old home in the Castle Precincts in Lewes required a huge amount of work. Millions of items in the three collections were packed up, a barcode attached, then catalogue entries were linked to that barcode, which meant that the online ordering system could continue to function. County Archivist Elizabeth Hughes says: “We are extremely grateful to the many volunteers who helped the staff to achieve this – including the WI, who made canvas map bags for us. We were sad to leave the old building at The Maltings, and its wonderful location, but it wasn’t suitable for a modern archive service. We are delighted to be in our new premises for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, we are bringing together four resources into one. Secondly, we are storing those archives in the best possible conditions so they are preserved for the future. Thirdly, we have much better facilities for staff and the public. We have plenty of space and computers for online access to family history websites, the latest in microfilm and fiche reader-printers, a touchscreen map viewer, and book scanners so visitors can make their own copies without damaging the archives.” The building also boasts a digitisation suite, and there are a number of projects on the go – including the scanning of parish registers and glass plate negatives.
The Record Office collection itself includes the kind of material you might expect – parish, probate, nonconformist and cemetery records, for example, and Poor Law material such as Guardians’ records, registers of births and deaths in the workhouse, admission and discharge registers and more.
“We also now hold material from Brighton History Centre, including many more newspapers and electoral registers as well as their excellent local history library. Records have been pouring in since 2011, in particular building control plans, which we now hold for the whole county and the city where they survive. We have also received the records of closed schools, including those of St Mary’s Hall in Brighton, which date from the mid-19th century, when the school was founded,” adds Elizabeth.
There have been changes, improvements and plenty of new acquisitions at West Sussex Record Office, too. The website has just undergone a major redesign, plus they have recently installed a new Bookeye scanner, which allows visitors to capture high-resolution colour images of documents on a self-service basis.
Matthew Jones, Assistant County Archivist, says: “The First World War commemorations have been keeping us very busy in the past year so it’s a good time to mention that we have one of
the best regimental collections in the country.”
The Royal Sussex Regiment, raised in 1701, has been involved in many of the great conflicts of the last 300 years, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, the Boer War, and the First and Second World Wars. In the First World War the Regiment expanded to 23 battalions, and thousands of men passed through its ranks. Matthew says that they have been receiving lots of enquiries about soldiers who served.
“As part of a wider project on the war, working with the Library Service and over 140 volunteers, we’ve made some of the key sources and indexes available on a new ‘Great War West Sussex’ website. Researchers can
access it via www. westsussexpast.org.uk. The site includes digital copies of the battalion war diaries and indexes to nominal rolls, absent voters lists and local newspapers. It’s worth taking a look!”
Between 1915 and 1919, the county asylum – Graylingwell Hospital in Chichester – was used as a hospital for sick and injured troops returning from the Front. More than 29,000 men were admitted, but unfortunately admission registers have not survived. Matthew says: “My colleague Katherine Slay has been gathering names from other sources. She now has a list containing more than 1,000 entries,e although some of the men appeara more than once. So, while we’vew often found it difficult to answera queries about individual patients,p the si ituation is im mproving as more in nformation comes in n from researchers. If f readers know an ancestor spent ti ime at the Graylingwell War Hospital,H we’d love to hear from th hem.” Katherine has published a 32-page3 illustrated booklet entitlede Graylingwell War Hospital 11915-1919 which costs £5.
There’s also a volunteer-led pproject underway to index QQuarter Sessions records held hhere. The focus is Sessions rolls frfrom 1780 to 1850 and 30 rolls hhave been indexed so far. “We’re aalready revealing some fascinating innformation about our ancestors and how the courts dealt with them. The index will tell you what your ancestor was doing in court, what the outcome was, and it may also give personal information such as number of children, occupation and place of abode.”
The information will be made available through the Record Office catalogue and the Sussex People Index provided by the Sussex Family History Group ( sfhg.org.uk).
Both county collections include occupational and business material. East Sussex RO has records of the West Pier Company, the Eastbourne Pier Company, and the Brighton Aquarium Company, to name just a few. They also have records deposited by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, including merchant ships' agreements, crew lists and official log books from between 1862 and 1914, plus crew agreements for fishing boats over 25 tons.
Meanwhile, at West Sussex they have the records of Shippam's, probably the best known local business in Chichester. “Its roots go back to 1786 when it was dealing mainly with provisions for the naval dockyard at Portsmouth. In the 19th century, the business was famous for its sausages but in the 1890s it introduced a range of potted meats and fish pastes. During the 1950s, the number of jars of paste sold almost doubled from 22 to 43 million – it was the decade when almost everyone came home to ‘Shippam's for Tea’. We have a huge archive for the business, including minutes, accounts, photos, correspondence and staff records. We even have a letter of appreciation from Captain Scott before his fateful expedition to the South Pole in 1911 – the reason being his stores included some of the famous Shippam's products!”
The chalk cliffs at Seven Sisters, Sussex
The ruins of Hastings Castle overlook the town
The Bishop's Palace Gardens in Chichester, photographed
in the early 20th century