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.


Exploring Brighton’s LBGTQ history and the local campaign against Section 28

21 September 2017

By Kate Elms

LGBTQ history has been in the spotlight this year as 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which brought about the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality. It’s a milestone that has been celebrated by organisations such as the BBC, the National Trust, Tate Britain and indeed Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, whose display of the groundbreaking Museum of Transology is part of a wider programme of exhibitions and events created with Brighton & Hove’s LGBTQ communities.

Campaigning newsletter from our archives (OUR 123/1)

Campaigning newsletter from our archives (OUR 123/1)

1967 was just a start, however. Homophobic discrimination remained, and research indicates that the remaining anti-gay laws were enforced more aggressively than ever. There was new legislation, too. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced Clause 28, an addition to the Local Government Act 1986, which forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. Controversial from the start, it galvanised the gay rights movement, which was gaining support in London, Manchester and elsewhere; was opposed by teaching unions, charities and other organisations; and divided the Conservative Party. It was eventually repealed in 2003.

We’ve written before on this blog about the way LGBTQ history is represented, both locally and nationally, in our archive, and you can read those posts again here. As part of our autumn programme of talks, we’re delighted to welcome broadcaster and activist Melita Dennett to The Keep discuss the campaign against Section 28 in Brighton in the late 1980s. ‘The Brighton campaign,’ she explains, ‘was one of the biggest and liveliest in the UK, and it led to a blossoming of queer activism, including the start of the modern-day Brighton Pride.’ Book your place now!

Section 28: Promoting Prejudice, a talk by Melita Dennett, will take place at The Keep, Woollards Way, Brighton BN1 9BP, on Tuesday 10 October, 5.30-6.30pm, price £3 (pay on the door). Booking recommended; to reserve a place, see the events pages of our website or call 01273 482349.


Get set for a summer of sport!

21 June 2016

By Kate Elms

Did you know that, as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, a show jumping event was held in Brighton’s Preston Park? Or that a sailing and rowing regatta took place between the Chain and West Piers in 1894? Are you interested in what Mass Observation’s panel of writers made of the 2012 Olympics? Or in the way sport was used to rehabilitate and entertain soldiers hospitalised in Brighton during the First World War? To celebrate the fantastic summer of sport that lies ahead, we’ll be sharing these and other stories from the archive on our blog and social media channels during July and August.

Swimming club poster 2 rotated

We’ve also created a small display of documents (mostly scans of originals for conservation reasons) in our Reference Room, and will be hosting two sports-inspired talks based on some of the wonderful material held here at The Keep: the first will trace the history of Brighton Swimming Club, which was set up in 1860 by a group of hardy sea swimmers, and the second will explore the historic game of stoolball, and the pioneering Victorian women from Sussex who played it.

For more information about our programme of events, please see our website or call 01273 482349.

Letter from the Archive: the Brighton Aquarium Company

3rd February 2016

‘I beg to offer you the following three shows…’

This letter forms part of the Brighton Aquarium Company’s archive, which was purchased, along with the business, by Brighton Corporation in 1901. Correspondence from Brighton Aquarium began to appear on the open market in the early 1990s, and the papers now held at The Keep were successfully rescued from sale. Despite the efforts of East Sussex Record Office and the involvement of the police, not all material was returned and a substantial group of letters relating to Brighton Aquarium is now held by the Theatre Museum in Bristol. Others are held by Harvard University.

This letter was sent to Isaac Wilkinson, the General Manager of the Brighton Aquarium from 1882 to 1889, and is part of a series of letters from agents and performers seeking an engagement at the Aquarium’s theatre. Most of the agents were based in London, which suggests it was considered prestigious to secure a performance in Brighton at the end of the nineteenth century.

The letter describes how one of the performers, the continental variety artist Francois De Blanche, had swindled his agent and taken off with his advance, and would therefore not be available to appear at the Aquarium as arranged. The musical agent Mr R Warner recommends three other distinguished acts to take his place, including a nine-member acrobatic troupe and the celebrated acrobat Haley Fernando, advertised in London papers at the time as ‘the reversible gymnast’. Cancellations were commonplace and it seems that last-minute bookings were a typical occurrence.

The Keep will be holding a workshop on 10 February from 2-4pm with Brighton & Hove Archivist Andrew Bennett and local historian Paul Jordan. Original material will be on show to bring the Aquarium’s fascinating history to life, including letters from prospective artists and performers such as this one, alongside guidebooks, theatre programmes and architectural plans. Booking is essential and spaces are limited. For more information and to book a place visit or ring 01273 482349.


The International Theatrical and Musical Agency

9 York Road, Lambeth, London

In conjunction with Rosinsky of Paris, Grunow of Berlin, Haarlem of Amsterdam and Boesnack of Anvers.

London Director, Mr R Warner

November 6th 1883

Wilkinson Esq.

Dear Sir,

With reference to De Blanche I found out he is a regular swindler, not only has he broken all contracts but has gone away with £15 that I advanced him to come over. Therefore I am sorry to say he will not appear with you but I beg to offer you the three following shows in his place, they are really three of the finest shows I can offer you and which I can recommend to you.

The Berisor Troupe 9 in number a most beautiful and marvellous and show of statuary and acrobatic terms £20 per week.

Halay Fernando A really wonderful gymnast consisting of rings, trapeze, perpendicular pole and ceiling walking terms £9 per week.

The Carles (or Musical Macaronis) 4 in number a novelty which I am sure would bring your house to pieces terms £20 per week.

Kindly let me know at once.

In reference to the 2nd violinist, I will send you tomorrow two or three names of good artists but let me know if you are still open trusting the McDonald Milne Family have proved a big success.

I remain faithfully yours,

R Warner

J F Higham


AMS 6432/5/15/108



Meet the staff: A day in the life of an Archivist

28th November 2015

Christopher Whittick, Senior Archivist (Document Services) is interviewed by Emma Johnson

Christopher has worked at the East Sussex Record Office for 38 years, since 1977. Becoming an archivist wasn’t always his plan- he read law at University with the intention of becoming a barrister, but instead became fascinated with legal history and the prospect of working with these intriguing documents that are stored in our archives.

When I asked Christopher what his role as an archivist involves, he replied ‘how long have you got?’ An archivist’s role can include many different things- from bringing in new documents, Christopher Whittick in the reading roomcataloguing them so that they can be used by researchers, to improving existing records and giving talks and presentations. As Senior Archivist for document services, Christopher spends a lot of time locating documents for the Record Office, encouraging them to be donated or deposited, and then ensuring that they are appropriately catalogued and stored.

A project that Christopher has spent a lot of time on is cataloguing the Battle Abbey Archive. In 1923 the archive was sold to an American collector, Henry Edwards Huntington, and is housed in the library which Huntington founded in San Marino, California. Beginning in 1991 and with external funding, Christopher has been visiting the library and cataloguing the documents; he finished the job a month ago, and the descriptions will appear on The Keep online catalogue as well as on the Huntington’s. On the 8th December, Christopher is giving a free talk about the history of the Battle Abbey Archive here at The Keep- please feel free to come along.

And finally, what is Christopher’s favourite part of the job? “Acquiring new medieval deeds and manorial records, cataloguing them and bringing them to the attention of people I know will be interested in them.”



The Keep News: Cringe with Mass Observation

Last week, as part of the Being Human Festival of Humanities, the Mass Observation Archive hosted an event to celebrate teenage diary writing. The event was held in partnership with Cringe, UK who host regular events in London where people read from their teenage diaries. In this blog post, the organiser of Cringe, UK, Ana McLaughlin, reports on the event.

When Mass Observation first got in touch about a potential event, I was thrilled. Cringe nights have been running in the UK since 2009, having been imported by the founder of New York Cringe

Dr Lucy Robinson reads from her teenage diary

Dr Lucy Robinson reads from her teenage diary

Sarah Brown. She had found re-reading her own teenage diaries hilarious and realised here was an enormous untapped reservoir of very funny material that was worth sharing, so she established open mic nights where people could read diaries, rock band lyrics, lists of things they hated about their parents and just about anything they had scrawled during their teenage years. In the six years Cringe has been running in London we’ve been treated to the darkest, most secret thoughts of adolescents writing in the 1990s, 80s, 70s and even the 50s – and we have learned that although cultural reference points and attitudes change, much about puberty is universal: obsessions with fashion and appearance; passions for bands and favourite television shows; sibling rivalry; bucking against parental restrictions; unrequited love. The event with Mass Observation gave us the opportunity to take the show on the road to Brighton and entertain a new audience, hear new readers and most importantly to have academics from the University of Sussex examine the phenomenon of teenage diaries as part of the Being Human festival of the Humanities, which was absolutely fascinating.

It’s always been interesting to note how readers address their diaries. They name them – Yoda, darling Janet, in several cases Kitty (when the writer has just read The Diary of Anne Frank and considers that their own musings on being allowed to watch X-Men and revising for GCSEs will probably have similar historical impact to her diary.) They apologise for not writing enough and ask questions of their diaries; often, they lie to their diaries either unconsciously (claiming they don’t fancy someone they clearly do) or consciously (the boy who implied he might have been ‘blown’ on the French Exchange and, while reading, freely admitted he definitely had not.)

This relationship between diary and writer was fascinating to have the academics examine – Dr Lucy Robinson talked about the confusion of voices she detected in her own diaries. Adolescence is a time when you’re trying on different identities for size, which includes experimenting with your physical look as many diaries intricately detail, but also with your own emerging social and political outlook. (I’m reminded of the reader who solemnly wrote: “Today, we invaded Iraq,” and followed it up immediately with, “My new pens are cool, huh?”)

Many teenage diary writers consider it likely their words will be published when they grow up and do the great things they consider themselves capable of – delusions of grandeur are a common theme – and this was even picked up in one of the readings from a Mass Observation diary written in the 1920s by a girl who wrote, “I want to do great things, to be great.” For all the restrictions placed on teenagers by school rules and parental guidance, it is emotionally often a time when possibilities seem limitless, and this sense that your diaries might one day be pored over as the juvenilia of a statesman, author or rock star (common teenage employment fantasies) can sometimes be seen in the tone – designed to impress, riddled with half-understood long words. The gap between delusion and reality is, in retrospect, what makes adolescent diaries so extremely funny – as the plan for thrashing out world peace in the Middle East is interrupted by a rant on the pettiness of a sister who won’t let the writer borrow their lipstick. Teenage dreams are big, but their actual horizons are necessarily small.

Something else that was apparent from the event was the value of diaries to social historians. Nobody engages more passionately with popular culture than teens, who are tribal about their tastes in fashion, music and literature. Jane Harvell, reading at the event, noted the fluctuating fortunes of Depeche Mode in the singles chart in astonishing detail. Often it’s the cultural reference points that really date the audience – dumping someone in pink Comic Sans font on MSN got an enormous laugh from twenty-somethings at Cringe, and references to the Body Shop’s Dewberry range tickled thirty-something women in the crowd. Teenagers are the ideal filter through which to see exactly what’s going on culturally, and diaries are the place where this incidental detail finds a natural home.

We’ve long enjoyed hearing people read from their secret diaries because it’s hilarious, and partnering with Mass Observation – as well as making for a very funny evening – gave us a new insight into what we’d been hearing all these years. Thank you for having us!

Ana McLaughlin (@Anabooks)

Dr Lucy Robinson from the University of Sussex has also written about the event. You can read her blog post here.

The Keep News: Evening talks

29th October 2015

Although The Keep’s Reference and Reading Rooms close for the day at 5pm, the building often remains a hive of activity in the early evening thanks to our varied programme of talks.

In mid-November, local historian Paul Jordan gave a hugely entertaining talk to an audience of more than 60 people about life in Brighton in the 1920s and 1930s. Focusing on the theatres, cinemas and dance halls of the period – and changes to the shopping streets in central Brighton that we think we know so well – Paul brought the period to life with some wonderful aerial views of the town, as well as images of buildings such as the Aquarium, Sherry’s, and the open-air pool at Black Rock.

The following evening, The Keep introduced the Anna Mendelssohn collection, which is now open to the public. The launch, hosted by the University of Sussex Special Collections and the Centre for Modernist Studies, gave members of the public, as well as friends and family of Anna Mendelssohn, a sneak peek of some of the material included in the archive. Alongside this, visitors were invited to attend a series of talks, and were able to find out more about the material – which includes poetry, drawings and correspondence – from archivist Simon Coleman.

Most recently, in collaboration with the Kipling Society, the University of Sussex English department and Special Collections, Professor Harry Ricketts gave a lecture on ‘What Can Rudyard Kipling do for you?’ He spoke of Kipling’s ability to recognise the ‘two sides of man’ – one that could be xenophobic, misogynistic, and fearful of anyone unlike himself, but also how that same person needs to see beyond one’s own culture: ‘You may end by looking on We, as only a sort of They’ (Kipling’s ‘We and They’ poem). Professor Ricketts spoke about his own journey studying Kipling and how Kipling’s work ‘celebrates the way that childhood and ‘grown-upness’ co-exist in the individual.’

For more information about forthcoming talks, see our website



The Keep News: Book-binding at The Keep

4th February 2015

Despite early flurries of snow last Saturday, 10 enthusiastic people arrived at The Keep to learn the basics of book-binding with Melissa. Some had vague memories of learning book-binding from their school days, but many had never made a book before and were keen to learn some new skills. Melissa was a great tutor and took them through the step-by-step process of creating a simple case binding, from cutting and folding the sections of paper to the ‘casing in’.  While also explaining how to make a case bound book, Melissa also spoke about the different types of stitching, such as the French stitch and the Coptic stitch. With the basics on the way to being mastered, there are also more elaborate steps, such as using headbands and gold leafing.

Everyone did very well and went away happily with their handmade books. They could also take their tools away with them so they can practice their skills.  I can guess what people will be receiving for birthday and Christmas presents from now on!

If you’re interested in future book-binding sessions, keep an eye on our website and printed publications. You can also ring us on 01273 482349 and we will take your details and contact you with details of future sessions. Melissa is also running a workshop on how to conserve your photographs on 7th March, click here for more details.


The Keep News: family activity and tour of The Keep

IMG_2200We recently posted about the Mass Education project, and how the Mass Observation team have been engaging young people with the archive through drama.

We are now pleased to announce that families can enjoy similar activities at The Keep, with a family event taking place on Saturday 13th September, 1-3pm.

Although this event is free of charge, booking is essential, so please visit our events page for further details.


Link to event flyer