Family History and Beyond – talks and courses at The Keep

30 July 2018

By Kate Elms

Family History and Beyond – talks and courses at The Keep

Some of the resources available at The Keep for researching family history

One of the perks of working at The Keep and, in particular, being involved in the planning and delivery of our public events programme, is having the opportunity to attend most of the events themselves. I’ve learnt a huge amount from the fantastic speakers who have given talks here, and also from colleagues who have helped curate displays of relevant original archives, enabling us to showcase some of the remarkable material in our care.

Family historians are among our most dedicated users, and earlier this year, we were delighted to collaborate with the Sussex Family History Group (SFHG) on an introductory session for those inspired to start tracking down their ancestors. SFHG volunteer Roy Winchester gave a presentation that covered all the basics, from how to draw up a family tree to how to interpret the data to be found in census returns and parish records, as well as shedding light on alternative sources of information that can be found at The Keep, such as electoral registers, street directories and newspapers. The event concluded with coffee and biscuits and a lively question-and-answer session.

Participants share their work with family and friends at the end of our creative writing course

Participants share their work with family and friends at the end of our creative writing course

For those hoping to go ‘beyond the family tree’, we recently piloted a six-week creative writing course led by author and life historian Shivaun Woolfson. A group of ten participants met on Saturday mornings to share their ancestors’ stories and explore different ways of presenting them. Finding a balance between historical accuracy and storytelling was important; within families, much can be left unsaid – for all sorts of reasons – so using contextual information and personal experiences to fill in the gaps is part of the process. Many of the writers were inspired by a family heirloom – an object, photograph or letter – and the course included advice from The Keep’s conservator on caring for family collections as well as research tips and guidance from our archivists.

The participants read their work aloud at the last session, to which friends and family were invited. Each story was unique and personal – and all the more powerful for that – but the issues touched on were universal, from infant mortality, the impact of war, poverty and life in the workhouse to marriage, loss and the position of women. There was a strong sense of place, too, with locations ranging from Vancouver to Victorian Rodmell. The final morning concluded with a plea for us to repeat the course next year, with longer sessions and more of them! Watch this space…

Settlement examination of John Davies in the parish of Wadhurst, dated 11 June 1790, ref PAR 477/32/4/34

Settlement examination of John Davies of the parish of Wadhurst, dated 11 June 1790, ref PAR 477/32/4/34

Anyone interested in family, local or social history should make a point of delving in to what archivists refer to as the ‘parish chest’. We were thrilled earlier this month to welcome Elizabeth Hughes back to The Keep to share her expertise on this subject and to draw attention to some of the little-known gems in the parish archives.

Parishes were the main unit of local government until the mid 19th century, and Elizabeth highlighted material relating among other things to education, charity and, in particular, relief of the poor. These records illustrate vividly what life must have been like for those with no wealth or status who were dependent on the parish when they fell on hard times. Rigorous settlement examinations, for example, were recorded with care and can provide extraordinary detail about the lives of named individuals who would never have appeared in the history books. The process itself – of trying to establish the right to settle in a particular place and quite frequently being refused – has uncomfortable parallels in the present day, making it more relevant than ever.

The Keep holds an extensive range of material to support family history research, and volunteers from the Sussex Family History Group are on hand at from 10am – 4pm, Tuesday to Friday, to provide help getting started. For more information about future talks and courses, please see the Events page of our website. If you would like to receive news of forthcoming events, you can sign up to our monthly e-newsletter via our website.


Meet the Volunteers: Sam Allen, Beyond Boxes ‘buddy’

30 November 2017

‘When I began volunteering for the Beyond Boxes project, I did not know what to expect. However, I have since learned that it is about far more than helping service users with registering or using our services at The Keep. The Beyond Boxes project allows people to explore their own stories, histories and interests, with a helping hand nearby should they need it. As a volunteer, I feel enriched by my time spent at The Keep, not just in terms of guiding users through how to use the catalogue or interpret historical documents, but also in getting to know our users and their stories.


I believe the key to encouraging access to the collections at The Keep is getting to know our users, by exploring what they are looking for in the archives or simply by listening to their stories. Everyone who comes to The Keep has a story or is looking to fill in the blanks of one, be it of their family history or to aid academic research. In this way, I believe that the Beyond Boxes project sits hand in hand with Mass Observation. It appears that people are increasingly looking to inform their own knowledge of the past. As a matter of observation, it is interesting that people of our time are interested in looking back as the world is getting bigger through technology. As part of that process, I am more than glad to lend a hand where I can in helping people to find and record their stories, even if that simply means showing them how to access software on a computer or helping hunt around the Reference Room for a book or index.

Buddy volunteer Sam Allen, right, with David Dent, senior IT instructor at Blind Veterans UK, in the Reference Room at The Keep

Buddy volunteer Sam Allen, right, with David Dent, senior IT instructor at Blind Veterans UK, in the Reference Room at The Keep

Recently we welcomed a group from Blind Veterans UK to The Keep, and their enthusiasm for our collections and resources was warming and enlightening. In a recent acquisition to meet user needs in terms of accessibility, The Keep has installed a wide range of IT equipment designed to enlarge, filter and enhance our digital resources to meet the needs of visually impaired or partially sighted users. It was exciting to hear what the Blind Veterans group thought of these new innovations, and it was also an education for the buddies and staff present. The whole day was a great experience for everyone involved, as tales of lost relatives and past experiences were shared and explored. Better still was that these endeavours were led by the Blind Veterans themselves, all of whom I hope left us with a healthy appetite for what The Keep offers (beyond the inter-session tea and cake). Many that I spoke to eagerly shared their plans to return.

My hopes as a volunteer and participant in the Beyond Boxes project is to share and reflect the excitement that our users bring with them to The Keep, particularly those who may not normally seek out our services. Often, it is in the experiences of these users that the most interesting stories are found. These contemporary voices shape our local and cultural history, and each and every one deserves to be heard, recorded and celebrated.’

If you would like the support of a ‘buddy’ volunteer to access the technology in use at The Keep, please contact us by email ( or telephone (01273 482349) to make an appointment. If you are interested in volunteering as one of our buddies, please email Suzanne Rose (



A galaxy far, far away? The challenges of archive access in the here and now

14 September 2017

By Eleanor King

I am a graduate archive intern working for the University of Sussex’s Special Collections held here at The Keep, and until a few years ago, I had never visited an archive. Looking back, I am not sure what preconceived ideas I had about what might go on in a building like this. Whilst I had no doubt as to the intellectual and cultural value of the collections stored here, I don’t think I had any real idea of the range of material, or the variety of ways it can be used or interpreted. I must admit, though, that my lack of knowledge of archives, or how to navigate an archival catalogue had, in the past, made me apprehensive about engaging with archival material. But then I had never been to The Keep!

Since joining the team here, I have been inspired by the variety of work that goes on, and the range and depth of skills and knowledge possessed by the people who work here. As I consider furthering my career in the archive sector, I am now in a better position to recognise there are many challenges that the sector, and therefore the individuals working within it, face and of one these is user access.

Archive intern Eleanor King working to promote access to material held at The Keep

Archive intern Eleanor King working to promote access to material held at The Keep

Last Christmas, like all sensible people, I went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and, following repeated viewings, it got me thinking about archival access and the challenges, or perceived challenges, people might face when trying to engage with archival material.

But how can a science fiction film, set in a galaxy far, far away, inspire thinking about contemporary archive access? In the final third of the film the crew of Rogue One, a group of rebels endeavouring to destroy the Imperial super weapon, land on the planet Scarif, home to…the Imperial Archive! Here, the rebels hope to infiltrate the intimidating Citadel housing the archive, navigate the extensive catalogue, locate the plans to the super weapon and then transmit them to the rebel fleet orbiting the planet.

What occurred to me on watching Rogue One, admittedly an unlikely source of inspiration when thinking about archives, was the similarities between the rebel struggle to access valuable data, and the perceived struggle many feel they will encounter on visiting an archive for the first time. From the remote location of the archive building, to the vast, undecipherable catalogue, the perception that archives are secret, locked away places, with the contents confusing and difficult to interpret, is a common one. It is not by accident, I would argue, that the makers of Rogue One placed the Imperial Archive in a citadel. For centuries, places of worship were the home to records and manuscripts, only accessible to the initiated and the educated, and there is still a perception that if you are neither, your access will be denied. At The Keep, however, and in archives across the country, there is work going on to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding archives and their use, and importantly, their users.

Although at The Keep we have many ‘regulars’ (and we couldn’t exist without them), work is also being done to broaden our reach and encourage archive use by members of the community who may not have considered using an archive before, or for whom an archive is out of reach. Beyond Boxes is one such project that aims to break down the barriers some marginalised groups might face when accessing archival material. This two-year, HLF-funded, project led by the Mass Observation Archive is working in partnership with Brighton Housing Trust, Blind Veterans UK and Lewes Prison to address access issues these groups face. How can you use a service that requires fixed personal details, such as an address, for registration? How can a person with a visual impairment ‘read’ a document? And how can you engage with an archive if you can’t physically get there, or freely access the material?

As a result of this project, The Keep has received new technology to enable visually impaired users to access our material and a ‘buddy’ scheme has been introduced this summer to assist service users with specific needs or access issues. The project has also worked with both Lewes Prison and Brighton Housing Trust to shape the Mass Observation directives for this year, and both groups have contributed to the 12th May Day Diary for the archive.

There is also extensive work being done daily behind the scenes here to engage with a variety of users including school groups, the LGBTQ community and students. I recently assisted in a teaching session led by Mass Observation Outreach Officer Suzanne Rose, working with a group of year nine students who had never been to an archive before. Our subject was World War 2 and we were instructed it was ‘not to feel like a lesson’. Using material from Mass Observation’s World War II collection, we encouraged the students to assess the material and interpret it back to the group using one of several methods including rap, song, a drama sketch, a news report etc. It is a daunting task trying to get 30 14-year-olds excited about archival material but they really embraced the chance to be creative with the material we had given them. Feedback from the session included comments like ‘I did not expect to enjoy this, but it was really fun and I learnt something new’. By engaging young people in working with archival material, we can start to break down perceived barriers, and give them the confidence to access material that is held for them. I wish such opportunities had been open to me earlier. Certainly, our rebel friends would have a much easier time of it had they been better prepared.

Sadly, the arts and heritage sector are facing uncertain times and places such as The Keep are having to continually justify their existence as council budgets are squeezed ever tighter. If we cannot prove our worth as a place of value to the whole community, not just the privileged few, then we risk facing redundancy, and material meant to be used by everyone, will return to being used only by the few. I have had the great pleasure to have spent the last 18 months cataloguing the archive of Lord Richard Attenborough, former Chancellor of the University of Sussex, film maker, charity worker, businessman (I could go on, he did!) and some words of his have never been far from my mind since starting here. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1994, Attenborough stated ‘the arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our well-being, to our very existence, as eating and breathing. Access to them should not be restricted to the privileged few. Nor are they the playground of the intelligentsia. The arts are for everyone – and failure to include everyone diminishes us all’. Attenborough delivered this speech 23 years ago, but for those of us working in the sector today, they seem perhaps more pertinent now than they ever have. I am proud to be working in such a fascinating and important institution that is constantly striving to improve access, reach out and engage across the community from the regular visitor to the apprehensive student, to those who never knew we were here at all, let alone here for them. The collections held here at The Keep belong to all of us, and although much of it represents our past, they are kept for our future.

Brighton’s history – separating myth from reality

4th March 2015

By Kate Elms

One of the most rewarding aspects of our move from Brighton History Centre to The Keep has been the opportunity to work collaboratively with our new partners, combining resources and looking at them in new ways. The history of Brighton itself is a case in point. Not surprisingly, The Keep receives many enquiries on the subject, both from groups and individuals, and by drawing on collections held by the Royal Pavilion & Museums and by East Sussex Record Office, we have a wealth of complementary material at our disposal.

Many myths abound about the growth of Brighton as a resort town, not least the idea that it was transformed from a small fishing village into a fashionable resort by the arrival in 1783 of the Prince of Wales. In fact, Brighton was the largest town in Sussex by the early 17th century. The decline of the fishing industry in the mid-17th century did cause its population to shrink but, from 1730 to 1780, the town was able to reinvent itself. How was this possible? The fashion for sea-bathing brought wealthy visitors to this part of the coast; the fact that it was close to London, and with good transport links, made it easy for them to do so, and the willingness of prominent, well-connected local people to promote and invest in the place helped put in on the map. Facilities such as lodging houses, assembly rooms, theatres and libraries developed to meet the needs of this affluent clientele, and these contributed to Brighton’s reputation as a leading seaside resort.

It was this reputation that attracted the young Prince of Wales. Of course, his subsequent patronage was important. Between 1811 and 1821, for example, Brighton was the fastest-growing town in the country and the presence of the Prince and his entourage created jobs for builders and labourers, saddlers and blacksmiths, butchers, bakers, wine merchants and more. Without his bold, extravagant tastes, there would surely be no Royal Pavilion, which remains a key part of Brighton’s identity. But as historian and author Dr Sue Berry suggests, ‘Myths can become so well-established that they overshadow the history of a place’.

Over the past year, we have worked with groups of primary and secondary school students to show how historical documents can be interpreted and used to separate myth from reality. Our most recent visit was from a fantastic group of Year 11 students from Warden Park School, whose GCSE history project focuses on George IV and the Royal Pavilion. They studied a range of resources, including early maps and population figures that show, unequivocally, how and when the town grew; information about medical practitioners such as Dr Richard Russell, who moved his practice from Lewes to Brighton to facilitate his seawater cures, early 19th-century travel guides, and documents and reference books relating to the Pavilion itself. The students responded to the material, and their tour of the building itself, with great enthusiasm, and left us with some inspiring comments.

 ‘ I loved looking at all the documents, especially the maps – it was good to see something visual as well as the written documents’

‘ It was amazing to learn about people’s opinions from 100s of years ago #WOW’

‘Really enjoyed my visit to #thekeep today, especially liked the document by King Henry I as it was 900 years old! #learninginarchives

For further information about similar school visits, contact Outreach and Learning Officer, Isilda Almeida-Harvey (




Education and Outreach: The Mass Education Project

We’re sat in a circle, all observing closely, whispering, “I’m putting on my mac, and now my Box Brownie.” The children look around, smile, and place their imaginary cameras around their necks. Rosanna Lowe, drama practitioner, writer and director, then encourages them to discover what makes their friends feel happy – Listen carefully to their conversation and list what makes them happy? How many times do they smile? How many times do they laugh? The children get straight into character; some ask to wear hats or macs from our outreach case, while others quietly make notes.

Just before lunch, they are given a brown notebook, with the letters ‘MO’ printed in gold on the cover. “Use this to observe your surroundings at lunchtime – How many planes fly over? How many times does someone jump when they are skipping?”  Suzanne Rose, Education and Outreach Officer for the Mass Observation Archive, then holds up a purple disposable camera. The children’s eyes widen with excitement.“This is for your class to take observational photos with…snapshots of your playground from afar; just like Humphrey Spender.” She adds, “no ‘selfies’ please!”

Handing the notebooks to the teacher, Suzanne lets the class know that they can take them home over the weekend, and fill them with a diary entry, in any format – a chronological entry, a list, a comic strip, or a series of pictures. A flurry of questions follow, and more excitement as they discover that the diaries will be exhibited as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, and others will be held at The Keep for researchers to use in years to come. “So school groups will visit The Keep, like we did, and use these notebooks to find out about the past?” the teacher asks. The children smile, as a nod from Suzanne replies.  

Over the past two weeks the Mass Education project has got into full swing, with drama sessions like this in primary schools, and photography workshops in secondary. Through hands-on activities and experiences, young people have been learning all about Mass Observation; its history, techniques and how valuable the archive material is today. Props and scanned documents from our new outreach case have helped bring the archive material to life. 

The final results of the project will be on display at The Sallis Benney Theatre, as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial 2014, which runs between 4 October and 2 November. To find out more about this year’s biennial, visit the BPB website.

By Abby Wharne

Published on 21st July 2014


The Keep News: education and outreach events and a mysterious gravestone

13th June 2014

We’ve got lots of news from the Education and Outreach teams at The Keep this week.Mass Observation

The Mass Observation Team spent Tuesday afternoon with A Level History students from BHASVIC. With a behind-the-scenes tour of The Keep, and an opportunity to view documents from The Mass Observation Archive, the students had fun understanding how an archive centre works. Their experience of handling original material also inspired interesting discussions about the range of material that is available to historians, and the reliability of certain documents.

Glad Rags2Not far from The Keep, local school Moulsecoomb Primary is gearing up to give its 7th annual Heritage and Environment Festival, which will be held on the 17th, 18th and 19th of June. This is a special part of the school year where pupils enjoy three days of learning through engaging outdoor activities. The Keep will be joining in this year, with a workshop that focuses on The Royal Sussex Regiment’s service during The First World War. Documents and photographs from East Sussex Record Office, Costumes from local costume resource Gladrags, and collections from Brighton Museum, will all be used to help the children step into the shoes of a First World War soldier.

News from a visitor…
Eleanor Scattter2As ever, the public have been busy researching in our Reading Room and Reference Room. This week, a regular visitor was relieved to nearly solve a mystery involving a gravestone! Mary Norris uncovered Eleanor Slatter’s gravestone at her home in Hurstpierpoint, and has since been trying to uncover more details. Who was Eleanor Slatter? Why had her gravestone been removed? Were the details engraved on the stone correct?

Using census returns, parish documents, cemetery records and other resources held at The Keep, Mary discovered that the gravestone was originally in the parish churchyard in Ditchling; it had been replaced by a new gravestone that included Eleanor’s husband. But the mystery is not completely solved: how did the gravestone end up in Hurstpierpoint? We’ll let you know if Mary finds the final piece to this story.

The Keep News: WI Scrapbook conserved and Mass Observation outreach case nearly complete

6th June 2014

It’s been another busy week at The Keep.

Our conservation team have started work on a mixed media scrapbook from East Sussex Record Office’s Women’s Institute archive; a diverse archive that contains documents dating from 1821 to 2003. The Keep’s conservator, Melissa Williams, and Assistant Conservator, Donna Edwards, explained the process of conserving the c1965 scrapbook.

The project began with the removal of the original Formica binding, the acidic plastic sleeves, the metal clasps and what Melissa described as ‘the dreaded Sellotape.’ They are now cleaning and re-packaging the archival material, using museum board, clear polyester film and treasury tags. To complete the project, they will make a four flap enclosure.

Removing and replacing acidic material like this is vital, as it enables the scrapbook to be enjoyed by visitors for many years to come.

Meanwhile, the Mass Observation Education and Outreach Team have nearly completed their outreach case for primary schools. The case holds an exciting range of objects and copies of Mass Observation documents, which have been selected to help children engage with the collection. It also offers young people a chance to get into character as a Mass Observer. More news about this, and the Mass Education Project, to follow. In the meantime, here’s a sneaky peak!