From the ar­chives

Surrey Life - - Inside -

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

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