Each month we look at the regional resources that can help you find your forebears
On the high street of the picturesque Sussex town Lewes, there is a plaque that reads: “Dr Richard Russell (1687-1759) author of a dissertation concerning the use of sea water in diseases of the glands (1750).”
Although this might seem quite an insignificant fact to commemorate with a plaque, it goes on to explain that Lewesborn Dr Russell is credited with launching the city of Brighton as a coastal resort. He did this by advocating the health benefits of sea bathing and before he came to the town 'Brighthelmstone' was just a fishing community.
When Dr Russell moved to Brighton in 1753, he built a house for himself and his patients, from where he further promoted his views. This move – coupled with royal patronage – helped fuel Brighton’s growth as a resort. Another plaque on the city’s Royal Albion Hotel, where Russell’s house once stood, reads: “If you seek his monument look around.”
By the time Queen Victoria visited the city for the last time in 1845, it had become a very fashionable destination. In her journal, she writes about the train journey down on Friday 7 February, 1845: “The railway is very well-constructed and goes through tunnels and over bridges, passing through very pretty country. We only took an hour and a quarter going down! In former times it used to take us five hours and a half…”
However, she found the following day far less enjoyable. When walking home from the Chain Pier, she describes how “the crowd behaved worse than I have ever seen them do and we were mobbed by all the shop boys in the town, who ran and looked under my bonnet, treating us just as they do the band, when it goes to the parade!” She later describes feelings familiar to many Brighton visitors (“walked on the shingles, which is always very fatiguing work”), ending the sequence of entries with “disagreeable as the publicity of Brighton is, still, in the end, it amuses us and we are always sorry to go away.”
In the past, many of the genealogical sources relating to the ordinary residents of Brighton and Hove were spread across several archives, with the city’s museum and local history collections housed at the old Brighton History Centre and the East Sussex Record Office county collections based in Lewes. That all changed in 2013, when these were brought together at The Keep, a new purpose-built archive near the city’s football stadium in Falmer.
In safe keeping
Andrew Bennett, the Brighton and Hove archivist, says: “The Keep brings together the archives and local studies material of East Sussex Record Office and the Royal Pavilion and Museum and both these include major collections relating to Brighton – around a third of The Keep’s holdings.
“Researchers don’t need to know which collection they are in, though, because the online catalogue ( thekeep.info/ searching) will search across all
“The crowd behaved worse than I have ever seen them do and we were mobbed”
the holdings. And, of course, The Keep also houses the headquarters and library of the Sussex Family History Group which is staffed by its great band of volunteers.”
As you would expect, the record office’s most popular material for genealogists are the parish registers. Aside from these, it has newspapers, building plans (from the mid-19th century up to 2001), school records, coroners’ files, hospital records, records of local government and taxation and papers of local individuals.
But what’s most worth examining here? Andrew says: “Our series of rate books, which cover 1744 to the 1950s for Brighton and 1841 to 1971 for Hove, are fairly under-used. They show names of
occupiers (and sometimes owners) and give taxable rates for each dwelling.”
The map collections, aside from Ordnance Survey, include maps of the city’s ‘ Tenantry Laines’ dating from the late 18th century. These ‘ laines’ were five divisions of downland surrounding the old town, which were used for agriculture. Indeed one of the oldest cartographic depictions of Hove was made by Sussex mapmaker Thomas Marchant, showing the ‘ laines’ before they disappeared.
Some other unique collections particular to Brighton include plans of Palace Pier and West Pier – although there are no original plans of the old Chain Pier which had already fallen into disrepair when it was destroyed in a storm in December 1896 – and the Ourstory archive, which records the experiences of the LGBTQ community in Brighton.
The archive of the Royal Sussex County Hospital is a potentially rich source for local and family historians. Andrew explains: “The 19th-century admission registers are not indexed, so finding a relevant entry is almost impossible unless you know when an individual was admitted. However, volunteers have been busy transcribing entries so searching is becoming much easier.”
There are all sorts of collections here that relate to different occupations and firms. Railway material includes records of local unions such as the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Friendly Society of Iron Founders and the United Society of Boiler Makers and Iron Shipbuilders, to name but a few. Andrew says, “These contain the membership details of many of the local men, but are a very under-used resource.”
Brighton Aquarium has been a major attraction since it first oopened in 1872. “We hold rrecords of staff and information aabout the exhibits and pperformers. During the 19th ccentury and early 20th century, tthe aquarium was also home to a ttheatre which put on novelty aacts, music halls and operettas. WWe have a large archive of letters ffrom prospective performers wwho were advertising their sshows.” Andrew says these iinclude Elexis, the ‘Electric LLady’ who gave powerful electric sshocks to members of the aaudience, and De Burgh and VVarso, horizontal bar performers wwhose act included a “comical sswinging donkey”.
Other important archives include the Tamplin’s Brewery collection, which has deeds of licensed premises and staff records between 1919 and 1970. Meanwhile the records relating to Allen West electrical engineers, which at its peak during the Second World War employed about 4,500 people, comprises photograph albums, company catalogues and even staff magazines.
“We have a strong volunteer programme and are extremely grateful for what they do for us in the spheres of detailed listing and indexing, conservation and digitisation,” says Andrew. “It’s a long-term project but with the help of our volunteers we can make inroads into the work.”
One team is currently working on a project to digitise nearly 40,000 precious plate glass negatives from local newspaper the Brighton Evening Argus, dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. A team of conservation volunteers has recently completed an impressive 18-month process of cleaning and packaging the negatives, while another volunteer digitised them.
Remember that genealogical and local history records don’t always respect city limits, or neatly obey the modern boundaries of East and West Sussex. Poor Law Unions, for example, often cross borders, while quarter sessions records usually cover the whole county. The East Sussex archive looks after wills of people who lived in what is now West Sussex, because the archdeaconry of Lewes proved wills from across the pre-1974 county. Civil registration districts can cause great confusion too – the Steyning Registration District, for example, covered areas in Hove, Preston and Portslade. There’s some useful guidance about parishes and census districts available through the Sussex Family History Group website: sfhg.org.uk.
Horse- drawn trams were a common sight in Brighton and Hove in the 19th century
Brighton Pier in 1931, taken from the Royal Albion Hotel