Exploring the archives

PUBLISHED: 14:28 06 February 2020 | UPDATED: 14:28 06 February 2020

The strong rooms, which occupy three floors of the Hampshire Record Office and have around eight miles of shelving Photo: Stephen Roberts

The strong rooms, which occupy three floors of the Hampshire Record Office and have around eight miles of shelving Photo: Stephen Roberts

Archant

Hampshire Record Office has been keeping tabs on the county’s important documents for more than 70 years

Hampshire Record Office has been keeping tabs on the county's important documents for more than 70 years

Externally, it resembles an oceangoing liner. Internally, you feel that you're prowling the bowels of that ship. But I'm securely on 'terra firma' at Hampshire Record Office in Winchester's Sussex Street, just a pebble's lob from the railway station.

Paper for banknotes, which was made in Hampshire (originally Portals’ papermaking business, Whitchurch, founded 1712). Photo: Stephen RobertsPaper for banknotes, which was made in Hampshire (originally Portals’ papermaking business, Whitchurch, founded 1712). Photo: Stephen Roberts

This modern, purpose-built facility was officially opened by HM the Queen on 19 November 1993. But the service goes back much further though, to just after World War II in 1947. A number of buildings were utilised, including St Thomas's Church in Southgate Street, which is now to find a new use as housing.

At the record office there's a strong-room extending over three floors, where all the valuable material is stored, and a large open-plan search-room, where members of the public may come and conduct their own research, by examining the material in controlled conditions. That strong-room is a story in itself.

Hampshire Record Office, Sussex Street, Winchester, which resembles an ocean liner from the outside Photo: Stephen RobertsHampshire Record Office, Sussex Street, Winchester, which resembles an ocean liner from the outside Photo: Stephen Roberts

As the county archivist, Caroline Edwards and I made our way around just a small section of something that resembles Fort Knox, she said: "The strong-room is over three levels, has some eight miles of shelving, and yet, is actually beginning to get quite full, as we get a steady flow of accessions (additions to the collection) - around 300 a year in fact. We have a back door for the largest accessions, which could be so sizeable, they'll arrive in a lorry! We do have to impose some parameters, otherwise we'd be inundated with material. The most important one is that there should be Hampshire relevance, so we've received items from a range of organisations, including the WI and Scouts/Guides, that really make up the history of our county."

To ensure the best possible preservation the strong-room temperature ought to be 13-23˚C, with relative humidity at 35-60 per cent. In the conservation studio repair and preservation work takes place on documents that have been reduced to an incredibly poor condition.

The Record Office has been without a conservator for a year but is planning to recruit to an externally funded post. It will be seeking donations to conserve specific documents in its collections and will also offer charged-for conservation services.

Talking to Caroline and councillor Seán Woodward, who as executive member for recreation and heritage at Hampshire County Council has political responsibility for the Record Office, it was apparent that the county is rightly proud of what it has here. It also recognises that it's very much part of a bigger picture. The entire archive holdings were awarded Designated status in 2006 by the former Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, signifying their outstanding nature. Although the emphasis is on Hampshire's records, some of these only make sense in a broader regional context (for example with county boundary changes), and also as part of the national story, such as material pertaining to the two world wars.

There's a small sales area downstairs, but also an online shop, which Councillor Woodward has utilised. "I never realised that my grandfather had been interviewed about his war service, when still a teenager, during World War I. He ended up being invalided out of the war and was the sole airman in the military hospital at Netley.

"When I discovered this, I was able to purchase a CD of the recording. It's a very personal thing, as are the letters that we have from the Great War; heartfelt exchanges that are so human, so poignant. Letters and diaries generally are very personal things."

Requests for information come from around the world. Last year the record office was awarded Archive Service Accreditation, the UK quality standard for the archives sector. There are a million entries in the online archive, which equates to considerably more in terms of individual items, as a single entry could encompass several items.

As well as maps, deeds and parish registers, there is film and sound as the methods of recording information have advanced into the modern world.

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