From the archives
Behind the scenes at Surrey History Centre
We have a lot going in Surrey historywise and we are lucky to have a dedicated centre which brings everything together under one roof. The Surrey History Centre, in Woking, assiduously collects and preserves the records of the county’s past and present, everything from the 12th century to the 21st. The centre was part funded by a large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and officially opened by Prince Charles in 1998. During its first decade over 50,000 enquires were received from all over the world (Surrey has global reach), and the centre’s search-room received 90,000 visits.
This year, the centre celebrates 20 years as well as the 70th anniversary of Surrey County Council’s first professional archivist being appointed. The centre replaced the Surrey Record Office (formerly in Kingston), the Guildford Muniment Room and the Surrey Local Studies Library. At the same time the Surrey County Archaeological Unit moved its home to the centre to create a new service, Surrey Heritage, to concentrate expertise in caring for and promoting the county’s past.
Surrey Heritage’s remit is to promote an awareness and understanding of Surrey’s Past, and within its walls are millions of documents, the oldest of which is a parchment deed dating to the reign of Henry II (1133-89).
PROVIDING CLARITY Let’s clarify a couple of things. Parchment now that’s not paper, it’s a writing material but made from specially-prepared untanned skins of animals (usually sheep, calves and goats). And Henry II? He was the father of Richard the Lionheart and King John, among others, an able and energetic ruler, who’s most remembered for his spat with Becket. And did he utter those immortal words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”. No, what he said was, “I have nourished and raised up in my Kingdom indolent and wretched fellows, faithless to their master, whom they allow to be mocked so shamefully by a certain low-born clerk.” I guess it amounts to the same thing.
As an enlightened monarch, whose reign was characterised by great legal reforms, I’ve no doubt Henry II would have approved of the thousands of manuscripts dating to the Middle Ages and six miles of shelving. The centre incorporates the County Record Office and Local Studies Library, helping visitors’ trace their Surrey antecedents.
We’re familiar with family history from Who Do You Think You Are? but property history is also popular, as residents seek to unravel their building’s past. Staff provide free advice and information, although there’s also a paid research service. The extent of the collection is mind-boggling. Staff can guide you through that heap of records though. There’s help with just about everything here from early handwriting to military history, from identifying old photographs to advice on record conservation.
All the history doesn’t preclude the latest technology though and there’s advice on using the Internet for family history research. Findmypast, Ancestry and The Genealogist websites are free to browse, and visitors use the centre’s own computers, or its Wi-fi. Many records have been digitised and can be searched online, and the online catalogue (‘SURCAT’) gives a comprehensive view of what is held.
This is no dusty, musty place with archivists bedecked in cobwebs though. The centre is an events venue and has its own conference facilities. There are regular events, talks and exhibitions held throughout the year, not just at the centre, but county-wide. The History Centre reaches out to its community.
The building is no ordinary edifice either. It was designed to provide the best-possible conditions for preservation, whilst also permitting public access. The main strong-rooms are maintained at between 13 and 16˚ C, the optimum for ensuring no further deterioration. I am considering setting my home thermostat to a similar temperature to see if I can preserve myself.
The building’s focal point is the foyer. The Surrey Tapestry extends along the upper part of the rear wall, telling the county’s history from Roman times to today. Also, in the foyer, is Surrey in Glass, two large, engraved