By Nichola Court, Archivist
2021 marks the 75th anniversary of West Sussex Record Office [WSRO]. Although we now occupy purpose-built premises in Orchard Street, Chichester, the Record Office has had a number of other homes – not all of which have been very glamorous! Read on to discover more about our former homes…
Established in 1946, WSRO’s first home was in the basement of County Hall, Chichester. Sadly, we have no images of the rooms or area it occupied, but an article published in Family Tree magazine (reference WSRO MP 8176) in 1985 described the accommodation as a ‘depressing environment’, surmising that:
‘[WSRO’s] first 20 years in two unventilated basement rooms, connected by a low tunnel, must have placed it high among the contenders for the prize of England’s most unlovely repository.’
An interview recorded with former members of WSRO staff in 2019 does little to convince us otherwise (reference WSRO OH 565). Staff recall that the tunnel was so low that they had to bend double in order to walk between the basement rooms, often whilst carrying documents; in addition, most of the cables, lighting system, water system and even the sewage system for County Hall was laid out in the tunnels. Another member of staff recalls cataloguing in a dismal room, lit by a single ceiling bulb, surrounded by pipework, describing it as ‘a very murky place to work’.
Fortunately for staff, researchers and the collections alike, WSRO relocated in 1968 to Edes (formerly Wren) House on West Street, Chichester, an elegant, William and Mary town house positioned only 100 metres or so in front of County Hall. In terms of its physical distance, Edes House was only a small step from the County Hall basement, but the accommodation it provided represented a giant leap for WSRO. According to the same Family History article, the move promoted WSRO from inhabiting ‘England’s most unlovely repository’ to residing in ‘probably the most attractive Record Office in the country’, with ‘spacious search rooms [which] offer almost luxurious accommodation for searchers’. In the 2019 interview with former staff, Edes House was described as being ‘like paradise, really’, such were the cramped, dark and claustrophobic conditions in the County Hall basement.
The new facilities at Edes House – formerly County Hall and subsequently the County Library – offered significantly more space for researchers, staff and document storage, and also enabled document repair work to be undertaken. Edes House initially offered two, and eventually three public searchrooms and there was also room for school groups; an Education Officer was appointed shortly after the move. The move to Edes House enabled the service to develop and grow, and the growing interest in family history and increasing awareness of the service meant that visitor numbers continued to climb, from around 1,800 per year in 1968, to over 8,000 per year by 1985. Deposits also flowed in, with the local government reorganisation of 1974 resulting in the transfer of significant numbers of records of redundant authorities, alongside large deposits of Petty Sessions and police records.
By the early 1980s, the service had – quite literally – outgrown its home at Edes House. Collections were increasingly being stored offsite, at the Council’s Modern Records facility at the former RAF base in Tangmere, which had become another of WSRO’s ‘homes’. Previously based alongside WSRO in the basement at County Hall (and also in the attic – just to ensure staff could really get their step count up!) but left behind when WSRO moved to Edes House, the Modern Records department relocated to Tangmere in 1975, when the Council decided to install a new telephone system in the basement at County Hall. The department was housed in one of the former RAF dormitory blocks, which came complete with bullet holes where they had been strafed by enemy aircraft during World War 2, and the staff were the sole occupants of the airfield for much of their time there.
Members of the Modern Records department would travel daily between Tangmere and Chichester, transferring documents from storage to officers within the Council, who needed to consult them. As WSRO’s collections grew, the facility provided much-needed storage for large collections and, for a number of years, it even housed the team of ten people who cleaned, catalogued and wrapped the Garland Collection of some 70,000 glass plate negatives, which remains one of our most popular and well-used collections today (you can find out more about the Garland Collection in two previous blogs by following these links, by clicking this hyperlink and this hyperlink). However, this arrangement was less than handy if you visited WSRO and found that the collection you wished to consult was, in fact, stored five miles away.
At the same time, there were other concerns over the accommodation at Edes House. The building was showing signs of structural damage, with areas closed off due to health and safety concerns, and the development of damp in parts of the basement storage area. Due to the rise in visitor numbers, the necessary third searchroom had been installed in what had been the reception area, resulting in concerns over the security of the documents as well as unsatisfactory working practices, with visitors coming and going, telephones ringing and administrative work being carried out around the researchers.
It was clear that Edes House was no longer fit for purpose, in terms of providing safe, secure, and sufficient space for staff, researchers and the documents. As early as 1983, the then County Archivist, Mrs Patricia Gill – who had joined the Record Office staff in 1956 and oversaw the move from the County Hall basement to Edes House – began her campaign to persuade the Council to fund and construct a dedicated, purpose-built facility that could accommodate both WSRO and the Modern Records service under one roof. Despite some local opposition to the plan – with one correspondent suggesting that our records could all be microfilmed and the originals destroyed, effectively removing the need for any kind of Record Office at all! – Mrs Gill’s bid was eventually successful and, after years of meticulous planning, our new building on Orchard Street opened in 1989.
The new Record Office was the final project to be undertaken by the Council’s own Architect’s department and was one of the first purpose-built record offices in the country. The building provided five strongrooms, allowing for an estimated 25 years’ worth of growth, including a cold store for photographs; a loading bay, which facilitated the deposit of large collections; two document reception areas, where new collections could be cleaned, sorted and boxed before being taken into the strongrooms; a large Conservation studio with modern equipment; improved office space for staff, better enabling cataloguing; a separate ‘classroom’ space where school groups could work without interrupting researchers; and a large, light and airy, single searchroom, meaning all researchers could work in one secure space.
Just as the move to Edes House enabled WSRO to grow and develop its service, so too did the move to Orchard Street. The increased space allowed for the development of an Outreach service and exhibitions could be held in the classroom. The collections were reunited under one roof, providing a better service for researchers, as was the Modern Records service, which was able to work more efficiently due to its return to Chichester; there was also space to take in more collections thanks to the new strongrooms. These strongrooms, kitted out with space-saving mobile racking, have provided better and more secure accommodation for our collections, in line with recommended national and international standards, keeping them safe from ‘enemies’ such as light, damp, water, heat, and pests, ensuring their survival for years to come.
Geographically speaking, WSRO hasn’t travelled very far from its first home, in the gloomy depths in the basement of County Hall, to its ‘new’ home in Orchard Street, but the service and our facilities are light years away from our subterranean beginnings back in 1946. Moving house has enabled our service and our collections to grow and develop, and has kept over a thousand years of our county’s history safe and secure for researchers to discover and enjoy: here’s to our next 75 years – and beyond!
Tim Hudson, the former editor of the Victoria County History, joint author of the West Sussex edition of The Pevsner Architectural Guides: Buildings of England (2019) and occasional guest blogger for WSRO, was based at WSRO for more than 30 years and has written about the architecture of County Hall and Edes House in his blog, Classicism on the South Coast (https://classicismonthesouthcoast.wordpress.com/2021/03/05/c-g-stillman-county-architect-2-county-hall-chichester/).
Check out our YouTube video below showing you a bit of what the Searchroom and Strongroom Areas look like in 2021!