Beachy Head Lighthouse lantern slides acquired by East Sussex Record Office!

1 December 2017

We were delighted to announce yesterday that East Sussex Record Office has acquired at auction a wonderful collection of lantern slides showing the construction of Beachy Head Lighthouse, taken between 1900 and 1902. The purchase was made possible thanks to funding from the Arts Council/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries, Trinity House, and the Friends of The Keep Archives, plus the generosity of a number of individual donors from the Eastbourne area.

ACC 12988-06

The photographs are thought to have been taken by Sir Thomas Matthews, the son of a borough surveyor who joined the United Kingdom’s lighthouse service, Trinity House, in 1874. He succeeded to the office of Engineer-in-Chief in 1892, and went on to design over a dozen lighthouses for Trinity House. He also worked on illumination systems, notably a lamp designed to burn oil vapour.

Matthews’ most significant achievement was the construction of Beachy Head Lighthouse. Completed in 1902, it was the last rock lighthouse built by Trinity House. The work took two years to finish; it involved building a coffer-dam and an aerial ropeway from the cliffs to transport materials, both of which are illustrated by these slides.

Beachy Head is an iconic feature of the landscape of East Sussex, and a crucial element of its maritime heritage. The site of a naval engagement in 1690 and celebrated by Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) in a watercolour of 1939, it also provides an element of the frieze which decorates the external faces of The Keep, home of East Sussex Record Office. A large collection of lantern slides which minutely record the construction of the lighthouse is an important acquisition, and we are delighted that we will be able to conserve them for future generations and to share them with a wider public.

ACC 12988-08

We currently hold digital copies of 31 of the slides, and these can be viewed on computers in our Reference Room (reference ACC 12988). When the complete collection of slides arrives at The Keep, they will be delivered to our conservation studio, where they will be cleaned by hand, using warm, distilled water, by a dedicated group of volunteers. They will then be dried with cotton buds, and the remaining 40 will digitised, so a complete set of scanned copies will be available to view. The glass plates themselves will then be placed in Silversafe envelopes designed for photographic conservation, packed in custom-made boxes, and stored in our environmentally controlled repository.

It has been wonderful to see the level of local interest in this material, and we’d like to reiterate our thanks to those who contributed or helped publicise our bid. We shall be looking at ways of providing access to this remarkable collection in 2018, both on our website and through our events programme; the possibility of producing a book has also been mentioned. Updates will appear on our blog and social media channels, so watch this space!




Meet the Volunteers: Julia Wacker, volunteer for the German Jewish Collections

4 October 2017

‘The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there’, Gandalf (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings)

‘I wanted to get out of my daily routine, even if it was just for two months. I’m doing a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Besides my studies, I work as a student assistant at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. My weekdays include a three-hour commute between my hometown and Berlin.

Julia at work in the conservation studio

Julia at work in the conservation studio

The Erasmus programme gave me the opportunity to do the required internship for my Master’s programme in another country. As I wanted to polish my spoken English, Great Britain was my first choice. I contacted many institutions all over the country and The Keep responded with interest. As my native language is German, the German Jewish Collections held by the University of Sussex were a perfect fit. After organising the flights, lots of paper work, a small language test and finding accommodation, I was able to start my little adventure.

My first day at The Keep was 31 July. Everyone here is welcoming and very friendly, and speaking English all day turned out not to be that difficult. I was amazed when I realized how many different types of materials are held here: maps, photos, newspapers, prints – and many more. Considering all the different projects people are working on, I also found it surprising how well staff get on with one another.

I was shown around the whole building, which includes the reading room, the repository for all the stunning archival material, the digitisation suite and a lot more. I got to see the University of Sussex campus, including the library, where I worked for a week. I joined a number of workshops, helped at The Keep’s Open Day and attended a conference, Digitising the Past: Revealing Jewish History, at the London Metropolitan Archives . I also got an insight into some of the other collections, such as the Mass Observation Archive and, for a special treat, learned how to bind my own book in the conservation studio.

Regina Mallachow's diary, SxMs 170/3/2/8, which was transcribed by Julia

Regina Mallachow’s diary, SxMs 170/3/2/8, which was transcribed by Julia

The family collections of the German Jewish Collections include really personal mementoes, like watches and Poesiealben (friendship books). During my time at The Keep, I worked continuously on various things. I transcribed a German diary written by an 18-year old girl in 1884 from old German script into modern script, which was sometimes quite difficult because of the handwriting. I enjoyed that very much, because it contained a lot of gossip about a ‘Mr Springer’ and I wanted to know if they became a couple in the end – they didn’t, because ‘Mr Springer’ paid no attention to her. I also processed many digital images of archives so that they can be made accessible to The Keep’s users. Further, I boxed and described books about Rudyard Kipling, and repackaged and listed a new donation for the German Jewish Collections.

All in all, it really was the right decision to leave my shell and to go for an internship abroad. The Keep is full of lovely staff, fascinating materials and many mysterious stories about people from another time that are there to be explored. I will also really miss the gorgeous tea.

Meet the Volunteers: Brian Nash, conservation volunteer

2 June 2017

‘We love coming in and have formed long-lasting friendships with others in the group’

The newspaper archive is one of the most popular and widely used resources at The Keep – and it keeps on growing. Last year, approximately 437 bound volumes of local papers dating from 1831 to 2003 were transferred from Hastings and Battle libraries to The Keep. Brian Nash, a volunteer at The Keep, has begun making bespoke boxes and packaging for each of the volumes, which will protect them from damage and preserve them for the future. He talks to Lindsey Tydeman about his work on the Hastings newspapers and about his wider role as a volunteer with the archive.

‘I was taught to make boxes by The Keep’s Head of Conservation Melissa Williams and now I, in my turn, am teaching others! Today I’m working on a bound volume of the Rye Observer from 2001-2002. I take the measurements of each volume and transfer them to a plan on a piece of card, scoring along the folds before cutting out and folding into shape. Once the volume is inside the box, the box is tied with thick tape. I’m a quick worker but it depends on the size and shape; these are large so I’ll probably make six today. It would be nice to read the newspapers which are going into them but there’s no time for that!

‘Before retirement I worked for Brighton and Hove City Council as a care officer looking after people with dementia. My wife, Jennifer, managed the Search Room at the East Sussex Record Office, based at The Maltings in Lewes. She encouraged me to join her in the office every other week – Thursday evening was known as ‘Volunteers’ Night’ – where several groups worked on different projects. I was involved with transcribing the East Sussex Baptism Index, transferring baptismal records from 16th century church registers in Rye on to cards and creating a card index. Even in normal circumstances this would have been a challenge as the writing of that time isn’t easy to read, but an added complication was the fact that at least ten per cent of births in Rye at this period were to French immigrants, whose names were recorded phonetically or scribbled down quickly by the English parish officials. Sometimes these officials didn’t even bother to try and write the surname but simply recorded the family as ‘French’ or ‘Frenchman’. That accounts for so many people with the name ‘Frenchman’ living in the Hastings area today!

‘When Jennifer and I retired we decided come over from Shoreham once a week to volunteer in Conservation. We knew about the planned move of the Record Office to The Keep, so started work on the thousands of documents which had to be cleaned and packed before this could happen. All of them were filthy and we had to wear masks and protective clothing before tackling them. The whole process took about two years, finishing just in time for our move here.

‘Since then I’ve concentrated on making boxes for a whole variety of archives stored at The Keep. It’s repetitive work but never boring as the archives themselves are changing constantly; you never know what’s going to turn up next. Recently I made a box for the earliest document we hold, a seal and charter of Henry I. It was dated 1101 – I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hand! Then there were scores of boxes which had to be made for the glass plate negatives of photographs from The Argus. My local knowledge of Brighton proved invaluable here as many of the photographs came without identification, and I could help the archivist identify the places and buildings featured. I also enjoyed being involved with the conservation of the WW2 Book of Remembrance for St Peter’s Church in Brighton. That is beautiful.

‘I’ve lost track of the documents which have passed through my hands in Conservation. If I had been a student I would have taken notes of them all, but, of course, as a volunteer you don’t think about doing that. What we do know is that very little of this work would get done without us. We love coming in and have formed long-lasting friendships with others in the group. All you need is a common link; ours is an interest in local and family history and all the ‘old stuff’ that goes with it!

The collection of East Sussex newspapers at The Keep dates back to the middle of the 18th century, while those for the Brighton area start with the early editions of the Brighton Herald in 1806. The bound volumes recently transferred from Hastings include the South Eastern Advertiser, Hastings and St Leonards Observer, and the Hastings and St Leonards Pictorial Advertiser. The earliest is the Hastings and Cinque Ports Iris; St Leonards Chronicle or Sussex and Kent Advertiser, 1830-1831. Details of these and other newspapers in our archive can be found in our online catalogue and in our Guide to Newspapers. There is also a paper copy of the listing that can be consulted in our Reference Room.




Artists in the Archives – Ravilious and Friends

23 May 2017

By Kate Elms

2017 is proving a good year for Sussex artists. We have seen Sussex Modernism celebrated in an exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, while at Dulwich Picture Gallery, a Vanessa Bell retrospective is entering its final weeks. And opening in just a few days at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne is Ravilious & Co: the Pattern of Friendship, focusing on the artist and his network of friends and collaborators.

At The Keep we have a special interest in this exhibition, not just because Ravilious and many of his circle are represented in the archives held here by East Sussex Record Office, but also because some of this material features in the exhibition. A Ravilious cartoon (full-scale preparatory drawing) of his friend and fellow artist Edward Bawden, for example, has been repaired and preserved by our conservator Melissa Williams for inclusion in the show.

A letter from Peggy Angus to Eric Ravilious discussing paintings of the cement works near her Sussex home, RAV 3/3/1

A letter from Peggy Angus to Eric Ravilious discussing paintings of the cement works near her Sussex home, RAV 3/3/1

The key facts of Ravilious’ life story are well-known: born in 1903, he moved to Eastbourne as a boy and was educated there at the Grammar School and later at Eastbourne College of Art. From 1922-25, he was a student in the design department of the Royal College of Art in London, where Paul Nash was one of his tutors and Edward Bawden and Peggy Angus were among his friends. After graduation, he returned to teach part-time in Eastbourne and it was there that he met and fell in love with Tirzah Garwood, often described as his most talented student. They married in 1930 and in the early 1930s shared a house in the village of Great Bardfield, Essex, with Bawden and his wife Charlotte. In 1934, Ravilious rediscovered the Sussex Downs and, in subsequent years, was a regular guest – often with Tirzah, his lover Helen Binyon or other members of his extended circle – at Furlongs, Peggy Angus’ cottage near Glynde.

These stages of the artist’s life are reflected in his body of work – the murals produced with Bawden at Morley College in London, the watercolour of Tirzah and Charlotte Bawden in the garden of their home in Great Bardfield, and the paintings of Furlongs and the surrounding area, where he seemed to feel so at home. Correspondence in our archives reinforces the picture of an extensive network of friends and collaborators who cared enormously about each other and liked to keep in touch.

Letters to Edward Bawden, for example, discuss both professional and personal matters, from the acceptance of their designs for the Morley College murals (commissioned in 1928), to Ravilious’ relationship with Tirzah: ‘Let me earnestly recommend the married state,’ he wrote from Cornwall. ‘Marrying TG was the best thing I ever did, no doubt of it.’ Other correspondents include Percy Horton, Douglas Percy Bliss and Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn – all RCA alumni – and the contents of their letters range widely, from discussions of work in progress and future plans to the more sensitive subject of Ravilious’ affair with Binyon.

Peggy Angus also sent and received many letters, her own often illustrated with playful little sketches. Again, there is a mix of the creative and the everyday; in one letter written to Eric in February 1934, she talks politics – ‘Do you feel any pains in the stomach over the unholy horror in Vienna? You see, I know the places they’ve been blowing up…’ and goes on to discuss renovations at Furlongs. A couple of months later, she focuses more on work in progress – ‘I have finished the oil painting of the cement works,’ – before going on to say, ‘Percy has gone too now – so Helen and I are alone.’

Edward Bawden Working in His Studio by Eric Ravilious, from the Royal College of Art collection

Edward Bawden Working in His Studio by Eric Ravilious, from the Royal College of Art collection

The Ravilious archive includes many papers relating to the artist’s working life, such as invoices from framers, details of teaching appointments, and commissions from publishers and other clients, including Wedgwood and London Transport. And in some cases, the personal and professional overlap: one letter from the Zwemmer Gallery, dated 2 July 1935, congratulates Eric and Tirzah on the birth of their son John, then moves swiftly on with, ‘About those lithographs…’ On a much more sombre note, there’s a letter from the Admiralty, dated 23 December 1939, asking Ravilious, along with John Nash, to consider taking on the role of war artist.

Returning to the cartoon loaned by East Sussex Record Office to the Towner Gallery for Ravilious & Co. It’s a preparatory drawing for a painting of Edward Bawden in his studio; the painting itself, which is tempera on board rather than Ravilious’ usual watercolour, is part of the Royal College of Art collection and will also feature in the Towner exhibition. There are a couple of changes to the original cartoon: the preening cat seems to have been a late addition (and in the subsequent painting has been moved on to the rug), and one of the curtains has also been pasted on.

As if to reinforce the significance of the pattern of friendship’, the drawing is part of the Peggy Angus archive, now held at The Keep. Found in very poor condition, it required extensive treatment in our conservation studio to be fit for exhibition. ‘It was falling to pieces, very dry and “friable”,’ recalls Melissa, The Keep’s conservator. ‘It was also very sooty, perhaps because of gas lighting at Furlongs, where it had been stored.’

After microchemical testing, Melissa embarked on a series of processes, first mechanically cleaning the drawing with a soft-bristle brush and then a smoke sponge (designed to treat fire-damaged documents). Next, she cut tiny wedges of eraser that she used to remove the dirt between the pencil lines, a painstaking task that took about 40 hours. Humidifying the paper to relax the fibres and enable it to lie flat was the next challenge; this involved the creation of a polythene-enclosed chamber in which the drawing was placed on a sheet of Bondina polyester fabric which itself lay on a wet blotter. Once dry, the torn, missing areas were filled in using paper of the same type and thickness, colour matched with watercolours and secured in place with wheat-starch paste.

The Ravilious cartoon (PEG 12/4) alongside the painting from the Royal College of Art collection, in the Towner Gallery exhibition

The Ravilious cartoon (PEG 12/4) alongside the painting from the Royal College of Art collection, in the Towner Gallery exhibition

The transformation has been remarkable, and we look forward to seeing the drawing in situ when the exhibition opens!

Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship – English Artist Designers, 1922-1942, is at the Towner Art Gallery, Devonshire Park, College Road, Eastbourne BN21 4JJ, from 27 May – 17 September 2017.

We’re delighted that Andy Friend, co-curator of the exhibition and author of the accompanying book, will be discussing his research at a special event at The Keep on Tuesday 27 June at 5.30pm. Tickets, which include a glass of sparkling wine or a soft drink, cost £10 and must be booked in advance. Please call 01273 482349 for further details and to reserve your place.

The Keep will also be hosting a talk by artist Carolyn Trant about Peggy Angus and British Women Artists, which will include a display of archive material, on Wednesday 12 July at 2.30pm. Tickets cost £3, advance booking recommended. For more information, please see the events page of our website.




Plan of the River Rother and Rye Harbour comes to The Keep

23 March 2017

By Lindsey Tydeman

In January 1839, the Rye Harbour Commissioners requested the prestigious canal engineer William Cubitt to organise a preliminary survey of the River and Rye Harbour. It was an information-gathering exercise, intending to enable the Commissioners to make decisions about improving drainage and river navigation. Cubitt worked with land surveyors James Corry Sherrard and Sydney Hall, whose partnership was at 2 Great George Street, Westminster, London.

The result was on a monumental scale: A map consisting of 20 sheets of paper, mounted on linen and rolled, measuring about 6 metres by 1½ and drawn to a scale of 100 feet : 1 inch. It represents the extensive area from the town of Rye southwards to the outlet of the river Rother at Rye Harbour, showing elements of drainage and the town of Rye in considerable detail. Also depicted are the Preventive Stations (bases for the Riding Officers whose job it was to prevent smuggling) at Rye and Camber, the Royal William public house, lighthouses, flagstaffs, Camber Chapel and the sites of kettle nets.

The map (AMS 7199) rolled out on the floor of the conservation studio

The map (AMS 7199) rolled out on the floor of the conservation studio

The map was bought last year at auction from Bonhams with funds from the Friends of The Keep Archive and the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund. It arrived in its original metal canister, which had rusted and become a ‘very bad’ environment for the document, according to Keep Conservator Melissa Williams. It was decided nevertheless to retain the case as part of the archive although the map will be stored in a custom-made calico bag.

The map was unrolled in The Keep’s reading room and found to be in surprisingly good condition. ‘The majority of the damage had come from frequent rolling and unrolling,’ says Melissa Williams. ‘The first panel was very worn and the edges were badly torn from where it had been stored upright in its case. Some sections had been repaired, probably in the 1980s, and now those repairs themselves were causing problems; for instance, additional pieces of white linen, too heavy for the original cloth, had been glued on to the back.’

The main issue from a conservation point of view was the dirt. In fact, the cleaning of the map has become a communal project, with everyone in conservation doing their stint over a six-month period. ‘But it wasn’t a straightforward case of simply cleaning it,’ says Melissa. ‘There had been lots of additional markings to the map in pencil and we knew we had to retain those. So we began by mechanically cleaning the front and back, avoiding all the annotated areas.’

The map is quite robust, being made of attached sections of paper on linen. Typically, conservators clean a defined front section, using Mars Staedtler erasers and a soft brush, before rolling it back and cleaning the other side; this prevents remaining dirt on the back transferring to the front sections as the map is rolled up. Melissa Williams comments; ‘When that is finished we will start from the other end, this time cleaning section by section, repairing as we go and moving on to specialised cleaning of the pencil marks. This will involve great lightness of touch!’ Tears in the fabric are repaired by infilling with non-starched aero linen fixed with a methyl cellulose adhesive made on site.

Conservation assistants Kim Mercado (left) and Fiona Bailey, working on the map

Conservation assistants Kim Mercado (left) and Fiona Bailey, working on the map

‘The sheer size of this map has been a challenge,’ says Melissa Williams, ‘but once we started to clean it the quality of the colouring was astounding. It is beautiful and each colour is extremely well preserved, even the yellow which is usually the first to fade. No information has been lost.’

County Archivist Christopher Whittick says that it would have been unthinkable for East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) not to have attempted to purchase this highly informative work. ‘Maps convey a large amount of information in a very small space; they capture the appearance of a locality at a moment in time; they convey information of value to the local historian, biographer, historic buildings specialist and student of place-names. Of all the types of document in a local record office they are among the most readily accessible to an inexperienced user.

‘Our sources at The Keep archive allow the story of Rye harbour and the lower Rother to be told, but they lacked the crucial piece of the jigsaw – this map.’

The map is currently in conservation but will be catalogued and made available to public access in the near future.

The archive of the Rye Harbour Commissioners 1724-1932 is held at The Keep (ESRO KRA, NRA 9), as is that of Rye Corporation (RYE) and the Commissioners of the Rother and Brede Levels (DAP), which includes copies of Cubitt’s reports.



Conserving the Ashburnham family archive

7 February 2017

By Lindsey Tydeman

The Ashburnham archive constitutes one of the largest and most important collections of family documents in East Sussex. Settled at Ashburnham Place near Battle from the end of the 12th century until the death of Lady Catherine Ashburnham in 1953, the family accumulated vast estates throughout Britain through marriage and royal service. When the estate changed hands in 1953 the archive presented archivists with problems of classification and distribution. Equally challenging has been the conservation of the 4,500 title deeds which are now housed at the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) at The Keep. They arrived in bundles of loose deeds and were packed between sheets of strawboard which were then tied together with cotton tape. Any attached seals had been wrapped in cotton wool and placed in hand-sewn greaseproof-paper pouches. Keep Conservator Melissa Williams comments wryly that this was, ‘Very bad news. Strawboard and greaseproof paper are now considered far too acidic to use for conservation.’

Grant in fee farm at 10 shillings (ASH 4500/52) indentures. Cleaned document with seal attached in felt pouch

Grant in fee farm at 10 shillings (ASH 4500/52) indentures. Cleaned document with seal attached in felt pouch

The new Conservation Studio at The Keep provides the ideal space in which these issues can be resolved. With large windows on its two right-angled external walls, there is space for each Conservator to custom-make their own work station where materials and tools can remain, rather than having to be packed away at the end of the working day. A Conservator can clean between ten and twenty title deeds each day before they are repackaged in boxes constructed on site. ‘The principle has to be minimal intervention and long-term preservation,’ comments Melissa Williams.

Jennifer Nash is a Conservator who has worked with Melissa for five years. She specialises in the mechanical cleaning of documents and is currently working on a ‘grant in fee farm’, a land contract involving elements of modern-day lease and sale, dated 1391. Written in Latin, the contract was written out twice, head to head, on the same piece of parchment and then the document was indented, cut into two halves with a ‘tooth’-shaped join – hence our term ‘dentures’ – and one given to each party. This guaranteed the document’s authenticity; when reassembled, any tampering with the text on either half would immediately become evident.

Working on a blotter, the document is first cleaned using a soft bristle brush and a section of dry chemical sponge, then any remaining marks are removed with a Mars Plastic Staedtler eraser. The ancient seal attached to the deed has been gently removed from its greaseproof paper pouch and Jennifer makes a ‘sock’-shape pocket from archival felt. The felt has a Tyvek© membrane which allows enclosed materials to breathe while keeping moisture out. It takes Jennifer a few minutes to stitch the drawstring pouch; this particular deed has only one seal attached whereas others can have up to five. Where smaller seals are attached to documents, the top of the pouch is left open so the seals can be slid out and examined easily. Conservation volunteer Brian Nash constructs the manila boxes used to store the deeds, the size of each being determined by the number of seals it must accommodate; usually 20 to 30 deeds will go into each box.

Melissa Williams thinks it will take a further six months to clean and repack the Ashburnham deeds. ‘But after that they will last for ever.’

Introducing The Argus Glass-plate Negatives

7 June 2016

By Kate Elms and Emma Skinner

The Keep’s conservation volunteers

The newspaper archive is one of The Keep’s best-loved local history resources – it’s rare for a day to go by without at least a handful of people coming through our doors to search through back issues of The Argus or one of the other Brighton and East Sussex papers that we keep on microfilm in our Reference Room. What we have never been able to offer, however, is the opportunity to view the photographs accompanying the published articles and reports, which range from events of national importance to family weddings and local sporting encounters. But thanks to some of our wonderful volunteers, we’ve taken the first steps to making digital copies of some of these images more accessible.

The Keep holds a substantial collection of glass-plate negatives from The Argus‘s photographic archive. Some came directly from the paper to East Sussex Record Office, others were part of Brighton Museum’s local history collection and have recently been integrated with ESRO’s holdings. They date from the early 1930s to the early 1960s and, potentially, offer a tantalising visual record of Brighton’s history at this time. However, before any of these images can be viewed, there is an enormous amount of work to be done.

The first phase, now complete, took place in our conservation studio, where a dedicated group of volunteers have been meeting every Thursday for the past 18 months to clean the negatives. Around 15 people have been involved in the project, some coming for a few months, others just in the school holidays or in between paid work. A core group have come in nearly every week since September 2014. Over the weeks, they all gained confidence in their manual handling of these fragile items and, after a few boxes, became highly adept at cleaning, documenting and repackaging something in the region of 40,000 glass plates.

The conservation process initially required assessment of the boxes in which the negatives had been stored in the delivery area of The Argus‘s office in Hollingbury. The completion of documentation is a core conservation task and serves to record all treatment carried out on the plates themselves. Gelatin silver glass plates are covered with a gelatin coating containing silver particles making up a negative photographic image. They are prone to silver mirroring (bloom) and delamination, whereby the emulsion comes away from the base caused by extremes in relative humidity and poor storage conditions.

The plates were lightly brushed on both sides to remove surface dirt, and then cleaned on the glass side only with cotton wool and a small amount of water. It was often challenging to tell the glass side from the emulsion side and, for the first few weeks, the volunteers would need a second opinion before they became confident in telling them apart. Once cleaned, the glass plates were repackaged; with nearly half of the original boxes damaged beyond repair, new ones were made with acid-free card. Gloves were worn at all times, and extra care had to be taken handling cracked or broken plates. These were packaged separately, with the contents clearly marked that extra precautions should be taken until further conservation treatment could be carried out.

We originally predicted it would take three years to complete this project, and so to finish in just 18 months is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our conservation volunteers. They did admit, however, that they were pleased they never saw the archive in its entirety at the beginning as it would have been overwhelming to see the extent of the task ahead!

An extract from one of the negative registers

The next step, which will be equally challenging and time-consuming, involves matching the numbered negatives to their corresponding entries in the negative registers. The registers were completed by Argus staff at the time the photographs were taken, providing details of their subject, where and when they were taken, and where and when they were published (the registers also refer to photographs published in the Brighton Gazette and Sussex Daily News). While one dedicated volunteer transcribes the registers, creating digital records that can later be uploaded to The Keep’s online catalogue, another is scanning the negatives themselves – one numbered box at a time – creating an archive of fantastic images.

The two strands of work are being carried out simultaneously and, when the job is done, it should be possible to search for images using a keyword, name or date. This is because the cataloguing process will cross-reference entries in the negative register with the scans of the negatives themselves. It’s a huge task – so please don’t inundate us with requests for specific photographs as we’re not at that stage yet – but it’s certainly a worthwhile one. Tests carried out so far suggest that the quality of these images is superb – although glass-plate negatives were disappearing from consumer use by the 1920s, some professional photographers continued to use them until about 1970 for this very reason.

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

We would not be able to undertake projects of this scale at The Keep without the time and skills offered to us by volunteers. We hope, in return, that they enjoy their time with us while developing their knowledge and skills, meeting other people who are interested in local history, and helping look after the wealth of material held in our archive.

Updates on progress with the Argus negatives will be posted on our blog and social media channels – watch this space!

Meet the Volunteers: Elaine MacGregor, conservation volunteer

3 June 2016

‘I love the camaraderie you get in a volunteer group’

‘When I started volunteering at The Keep about 18 months ago, I chose to work in conservation – we’ve got lots of old family photograph albums and documents at home and I wanted to learn how to restore and conserve them. The first job I was given was cleaning maps, and I was surprised – and thrilled! – to be handling some which were nearly three hundred years old.

Elaine in the conservation studio‘Today I’m cleaning glass-plate negatives of postcards; I put blue nitrile gloves on first, then use a really soft bristle brush on both sides, followed by cotton wool and water on the shiny side only. You’d be amazed at how much dirt comes off. Then they’re repacked in the original boxes with unbleached buffered tissue between each one. The negatives are a recent purchase from the Brighton-based business Wardell’s Postcards which was started by Bill Wardell in the early twentieth century – there are over 6,000 of them – and we’re also trying to sort them into areas as we go along.

‘I love the camaraderie you get when working in a volunteer group. You talk as you work and there’s not a subject we haven’t covered – sex, politics, books – you name it, we have discussed it! I’m one of the oldest volunteers at 71 but, old or young, it really doesn’t matter. We’ve been round to each other’s for dinner and have stayed in touch after people have left. And although having an interest in history is useful, it’s not absolutely necessary because conservation work is a goal in itself and we’re all working towards it.

‘One thing that has sunk in during my time here is the importance of preserving documents correctly if we want them to last. I was in India last year researching some ancestors who had lived and worked in Trichinopoly, Southern India. We visited the local Anglican church and I was handed a plastic bag containing the church register from 1810-1834 – the book was virtually in pieces and riddled with silverfish. How I wished I could have brought it back here and repaired it! But I did manage to photograph every page – over 1,000 in all – so at least there’s a record. I’ve also transcribed about 3,000 baptisms and burials from this book and have uploaded them with the photos on to various family history websites.

‘Volunteering is a fascinating way of finding out how an archive works from the inside. I have Thursdays marked on my calendar through the year now – I can’t imagine not coming to The Keep!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman

National Volunteers’ Week 2016 – cause for celebration

1 June 2016

By Kate Elms

Today is the beginning of National Volunteers’ Week and, as we did last year, we will be marking the occasion with a series of blogs celebrating the work of The Keep’s fantastic volunteers. In the latest newsletter produced by and for the Friends of The Keep Archives (FoTKA), county archivist Elizabeth Hughes describes their role as ‘building on the work of the core staff to make what we do even bigger and better’, and it’s certainly true that volunteers are a key part of life here, contributing to everything from cataloguing to conservation.

Recent editions of the Friends of The Keep Archives' newsletter

Recent editions of the Friends of The Keep Archives’ newsletter

Perhaps a good place to start, though, is with the ‘Friends’ themselves. Originally founded as the Friends of East Sussex Record Office, the group has recently been renamed and the hard-working trustees and committee members (all volunteers) now support The Keep’s three partners. Money raised through events and membership is used to help acquire and conserve historic material that would otherwise slip through the net. The most recent, and one of the more spectacular purchases has been of the diaries of Tirzah Garwood, wife of the artist Eric Ravilious. Tirzah was a distinguished artist in her own right, and the diaries provide an insight into her own work as well as a commentary on that of her husband. The Friends also funds specific projects and, in some cases, contributes to the costs of outreach activities which make our holdings more accessible to all.

As well as championing The Keep in these and many other ways, the Friends produce a twice-yearly newsletter, maintain and update their website, and arrange a programme of interesting visits for their members. If you’re interested in joining, you’ll find details on their website, here.

In the coming week, we will be posting interviews with some of our current volunteers on The Keep’s blog, catching up with some of those who have used their experience with us to move on to other things, and we’ll also be highlighting some of the tasks that couldn’t have been completed without their help. So keep an eye on these pages and on our Twitter feed and, if you’re interested in getting involved, there’s more info here.

Keep volunteering!



Meet the Staff: a day in the life of an archive assistant

29 January 2016

Archive assistant Emma Skinner is interviewed by Lindsey Tydeman

‘The BA History course I took at Manchester University was so varied – it touched on ancient, medieval and modern history. I fell in love with the medieval period and wrote my dissertation on Renaissance Sienna. After uni I had various temping jobs and did loads of volunteering for arts and heritage charities, including Brighton Festival (which was fantastic), the Regency Town House and local art galleries. It was while I was temping at Sussex University that I saw an ad for an archive assistant on the council website – and now I’ve been here nearly two years.

‘The first thing I realised was that history at The Keep is very different to the history I’d been used to! As the archive for East Sussex, it’s primarily about local and family history. Visitors can consult maps, plans, deeds, street directories, parish registers, wills – the resources are almost inexhaustible. The broad range of visitors was another aspect of the job which came as a surprise – I had no idea how open the access would be. Archives are so valuable I assumed they’d be restricted to academics but that’s certainly not the case here.

Emma S IMG_1195

‘There’s a real variety to my week. I could be ‘picking’, bringing boxes of documents from the repository to the production room ready to be issued. Or I could be on the front line, helping people in the reference room or issuing items in the reading room. Or I could be where I am today – in the conservation area, where we’re cleaning and listing glass plate negatives from The Argus newspaper archive. Working across all these areas lets me appreciate that we have two priorities; providing access to the public as well as maintaining the security of the documents. It’s a challenge sometimes, for example when people come in to look at their house plans. Once they have the document in their hands they can be quite rough with it because they sometimes assume it belongs to them! I have to remind them that although they are welcome to make a copy of it, the original, which is often very fragile, belongs in the archive.

I’ve never stopped feeling the privilege of the job – the fact that I have access to this amazing range of historic sources – and that I can share it with others. At first it was daunting and I was frightened of making a mistake. Every item we issue is different and needs to be handled with care, whether it’s a letter, plan, photograph, diary or document. So you can’t panic! But the best moments are when someone finds exactly what they’re looking for, perhaps a marriage or baptism record for an ancestor in East Sussex – they leave very happy and you know they’ll be back.’