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.


Abandoned! Secrets of a mystery house in Ditchling

31 January 2018

By Eleanor King

Working with archival material often requires time and patience, but rarely is it a fruitless endeavour. What is most rewarding is the journey it can lead you on; you never quite know what you are going find, or where you are going to end up. And so it was for a couple who visited The Keep in December endeavouring to find out some information about a house in Ditchling.

The colleagues, both writers from America, one an ex-pat living in Sussex, came in to do some research for a novel they were planning to write on a house in Ditchling that had been ‘abandoned’ 20 years prior to its sale at auction in 1993. They were assisted in their research by Keep archive assistant Drew Boulton and, in January, emailed us to praise Drew for his help and to tell us their story.

Some of the sources of information for house historians at The Keep

Some of the sources of information for house historians at The Keep

It was through a conversation with the developer who purchased the house that the writers were alerted to its curious history. What was unusual about it was that it was still full of personal effects and everyday items, including toiletries, when it was sold; it seemed as if the occupants had simply disappeared. Who were they? What had happened to them? Moreover, why had they seemingly abandoned their home?

Always relishing a challenge, Drew was instantly engaged when the couple told him what they were investigating. ‘I really wanted to get my teeth into this as it was such a good mystery!’ he remembers. ‘They had done a preliminary search for the property on our website and had some plans on order, but they turned out not to be for the “mystery house”.’ After conducting some further research on developments in the area, Drew discovered that the house had been renumbered, and renamed. By looking up the address in our street directories and cross-referencing it with the electoral register, Drew was able, through a process of elimination, to find the right property. ‘Sadly,’ says Drew, ‘There are no surviving plans of the house in question, so we moved the search on to finding out more about the owners.’

The writers had done some research of their own; a neighbour had told them the couple who had lived in the house ran a health foods shop in Brighton. ‘I suggested they look through the Kelly’s street directories to find out more about this shop, which did indeed exist in Brighton in the 1950s, something I was surprised about,’ said Drew. ‘After ordering up the plans for alterations to the shop front, we concluded that the business had probably been fairly successful as they were able to make several alterations to expand their signage.’

Alongside this, Drew suggested they seek the assistance of the Sussex Family History Group, based at The Keep, to seek further information about the mystery couple. Death records confirmed that the couple had not disappeared entirely into the ether; their deaths were registered in separate locations in the early and mid-1990s, 20 years after leaving the house in Ditchling. This, however, did not shed any further light on why they left.

It was on further investigation into the couple’s background that another key detail was discovered, the wife’s maiden name, which came as a particular shock to one of our intrepid researchers; it was the same as her brother-in-law. ‘You can imagine my surprise,’ she says in her email, given her American heritage. After conducting further research, it was discovered that this was not mere coincidence and that there was a family link. ‘I still can’t believe that the couple we wanted to find is a familial relation,’ she says, and goes on to note, ‘our big world is often so small’.

So, a family connection made, but still a mystery remains: why did this couple, who ran a seemingly successful business, abandon their home in the 1970s? Whilst Drew was able to assist in finding information about the property, the couple who lived there, and their business, as well as helping to make a surprising family connection, this final question may forever remain unanswered. Drew, however, is keeping an eye and an ear out for other leads. ‘Some visitors to The Keep, and the stories they bring with them, stay with you and this is definitely one of them.’

If you are interested in exploring the history of your house or local area, why not take advantage of our free drop-in surgeries, which take place on alternate Wednesday mornings. The next session takes place on Wednesday 7 February, 11am-1pm. More details on the events pages of 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 (



Building a ‘House of Correction’ at Battle

27 July 2017

By Lindsey Tydeman

Battle’s first prison was within the Abbey walls and its second, in the town, was completed in 1665. By January 1821 local magistrates decided a new building was needed and on Monday 14 May a notice appeared in the Sussex Weekly Advertiser inviting tenders for materials and workmanship for the ‘re-erection of the House of Correction’. The new building, which contained four cells and a keeper’s house, required between eighty and one hundred thousand bricks, quantities of lime, sand and mortar, foundation trenches and high quality ironwork.

Extract from Battle Prison register of committals, Q/4/B/2

Extract from Battle Prison register of committals, Q/4/B/2

Within the year the gaol was functioning and in August 1823 it passed, with an inventory listing eight beds, 25 blankets, eight stools, 12 bolsters and two water pails, to the new keeper, Samuel Cooke. The first prisoner, ‘No.1, William Vidler of Hollington’, had been apprehended on 5 May for stealing underwood belonging to John Cressett Pelham, a local landowner. Initially sentenced to a month in prison, Vidler was discharged on 17 May.

Following the 1823 Gaols Act, initiatives were put in place to establish and maintain prisoner welfare. Food was provided and divine service performed every Sunday. The chaplain also visited individual prisoners regularly and a local magistrate would visit at least fortnightly to ensure the building was clean and running smoothly. A local surgeon was available for cases of ague, diarrhoea and epilepsy.

Records were kept meticulously. Keeper, surgeon and chaplain had their own journals, while Samuel Cooke also kept an admissions book and registered individual orders of committal. During certain periods during his long tenure he also noted whether prisoners could read and write.

The Register of Committals reveals a substantial amount about the lives of the poor living in the villages and small towns of East Sussex in the difficult decades of the 1820s, 30s and 40s. Volunteer Helen Glass, who has catalogued the gaol register, reports that most committals were of young men arrested for petty theft or failing to pay ‘bastardy orders’, the local magistrates’ order that they contribute towards the upkeep of their illegitimate children. In these latter cases a short time behind bars worked its magic. After a day or two the man in question paid up or found a guarantor for the money.

Often an offender appears genuinely desperate, lacking fuel or food or the means to buy it. Theft was both premeditated and opportunistic; vegetables in fields, blankets, firewood, poaching with an ‘engine’ (a wire or trap) or the stealing of common articles which could be easily sold. All stolen items were given a monetary value, while the theft of anything worth over one shilling was considered a felony. In these cases the prisoner was remanded for trial at Lewes Quarter Sessions or Assizes.

Assault cases appear regularly, not so much the outcome of fights after drinking bouts but more often an expression of anger and frustration with authority closer to home: The workhouse regime, with its hierarchy of petty authority, often appears the catalyst for violent outbreaks. ‘Misbehaviour in the workhouse’, refusing to do duties allocated there, or leaving one’s rightful place, whether the army, the workhouse or an apprenticeship, could carry a short prison sentence.

Women and children make up roughly 15 per cent of committals, with apparently little allowance made for gender or age. Twelve-year-old Jane Allen of Brightling was ordered to pay two pounds and ten shillings in September 1832 for, ‘violently assaulting Harriet Skinner without any just cause’, and she was imprisoned for 14 days. The following year Charles Pryor of Bexhill, 14, was imprisoned for 14 days for stealing ‘a quantity of walnuts’ and in 1849 14-year-old William Pope of Iden also received 14 days for stealing three apples worth a penny. On 5 September 1823 Harriet Clapson of Hooe was committed to the prison, ‘Having been delivered on fifteenth day of June last of a female bastard child which child is likely to become chargeable to the parish and she refuses to answer on oath to the name of the father of the child’. Her sentence was to last ‘until she shall answer on oath who is the father’. She was discharged three months later on 10 December.

Begging and vagrancy caused parish constables a great deal of anxiety. Individual vagrants or families found living in tents on common ground, ‘who could not give a good account of themselves’ were taken to the cells before being transferred to the workhouse. But justice was tempered with mercy. The decision to remove elderly or sick vagrants to the prison during particularly cold weather may well have been taken with their welfare in mind.

Samuel Cooke began his keeper’s journal at the end of November 1823, probably to justify his unusually severe response to a difficult prisoner, as the first entry demonstrates the necessity of putting John Howell in irons (the 1823 Gaols Act had prohibited leg irons). Howell, who had been committed for breaking into a cheese pantry and stealing a cheese, then going on to shoot two roosting turkeys and steal two tame rabbits, did not calm down in the cells. Cooke caught him ‘wilfully cutting and damaging the doors of this prison and pushing pebble stones into two of the locks by which I am prevented inserting the keys, swearing that he would do as much damage to the place as he possibly could for which I have put him in irons’. Three days later on 2 December the visiting magistrate stipulated that the irons be continued, but ordered their removal on 4 December. He also ordered ‘more air’ for the prisoner.

Samuel Cooke successfully petitioned for an increase in salary in 1841 ‘in consequence of the present high price of provisions’. He remained in his post until 1853, when the gaol was discontinued and the building adapted to create Battle Police Station.

County Archivist Christopher Whittick commented that the Battle Prison project had been a further example of the huge voluntary efforts which support the work of The Keep and make previously hidden archives accessible to the public. ‘These records bring poor and marginalised individuals out of obscurity, providing information which will ensure that they are remembered and that their stories can be told. We are very grateful to Helen Glass for her dedicated work, and hope that it will add an extra dimension to family history research in East Sussex.’







Marriage notice books – a new source for family historians

26 July 2017

By Anna Manthorpe

A new set of records, marriage notice books from the East Sussex Registration Service, are now available at The Keep. Before the Act for Marriages in England 1836, which introduced civil marriage into England and Wales from 1 July 1837, the only legally recognised marriages in England and Wales were those performed by the Church of England, Jews and Quakers. Roman Catholics and members of other Christian congregations, as well as members of other religious bodies and atheists, had to be married in an Anglican church. The Marriage Act of 1836 allowed marriages to be legally registered in buildings belonging to other religious groups, or in a civil registry office.

Extract from the first marriage notice book for Hastings, dated 1843, REG 1/5/1/1

Extract from the first marriage notice book for Hastings, dated 1843, REG 1/5/1/1

It was necessary to give the civil registrar notice that a marriage was due to take place and where the couple were to marry, and the information was recorded in marriage notice books; there were regulations regarding the length of notice required before the planned marriage could take place, and residential qualifications. Lists of the intended marriages were put on public display, and at the end of the notice period, a certificate giving permission for the marriage was issued which was valid for a stated period.

As with marriages in Anglican churches, it was possible to pay for a marriage licence to enable the marriage to take place more quickly. Initially, marriages by certificate, with or without licence, were recorded in the same marriage notice books, but from 1968 a separate set of registers were held for marriages by certificate with licence.

Copies of marriage certificates can be obtained from the General Register Office for a fee but the indexes contain only the bare details, making the purchase of documents which prove to be irrelevant sometimes unavoidable. Checking the marriage notice books first, which contain almost as much information, can avoid making costly mistakes. The registers also give free information about marriages celebrated in places whose registers have not been deposited, and may not have survived.

The existence of a notice of marriage does not prove that a marriage actually did take place – there were sometimes last-minute cancellations. And unfortunately the earliest registers have not survived for most of the registration districts. Those that we do hold are listed on our online catalogue, and we’re hoping that the registers for Brighton and Hove will also be available before long.




Meet the Staff: A Day in the Life of our Researcher

12 April 2016

Andrew Lusted, The Keep’s researcher, is interviewed by Lindsey Tydeman

‘I’ve always been interested in history, particularly local history. As a teenager in the 1960s, I grew to realise that many of the people I knew in Glynde had been born in the Victorian age. I knew that when they went, all their knowledge and memories would disappear. It’s a lasting regret that I didn’t buy a tape recorder then.

Here at The Keep I’m a specialist adviser and researcher for family and house history. If someone can’t come in to the archive then I’ll do the work for them and the office charges an hourly rate. It usually involves a search of information they can’t find online, such as parish registers, baptism indexes or building control plans. For anyone who does make it to The Keep, I’m also available to give one-to-one advice – if they come on the right day!

Andrew at work in The Keep's Reading Room

Andrew at work in The Keep’s Reading Room

I live in Glynde and have been studying its history for the last 30 years; my ancestors ran the village shop and post office for five generations. I and a friend set up the website, where most of the houses in Glynde and Beddingham have a detailed listing, along with many other aspects of the village’s history. I often lead walks in the summer and might be considered an expert on Glynde and the nearby parishes of Beddingham and Firle!

In my lifetime village life has changed completely. Fifty years ago, everyone who lived in the village worked in the village, but now everyone commutes. And people move on. You don’t get those long-established families who lived in Glynde through four or five generations. It’s sad in a way because it’s difficult to get the community spirit going, but better in others – people aren’t so insular, in fact they’re more interesting!

For me, researching social history is a holistic thing. Every enquiry I get adds to my knowledge and with house history particularly, you often find surprises. I was researching a house near Uckfield recently for a new owner who knew very little about it. I found that it had been built in the 1890s by a wealthy banker who had funded his own cricket team that played in the grounds of the house, playing against local sides. The house had been the venue for several post-match parties and was often mentioned in the local press – all that comes as a bonus when you start with nothing.

Andrew is available to give free one-to-one advice on researching house and local history at The Keep, on a drop-in basis, on alternate Wednesday afternoons between 2-4 pm. The next sessions are Wednesdays 20 April and 3 May at The Keep. For more complex enquiries, research fees are £35 per hour (minimum one hour).

Andrew’s own website is




Meet the staff: a week of work experience at The Keep

5 February 2016

By Jordan Flynn

I’m a GCSE student at Durrington High School and I wanted to undertake work experience at The Keep because I am interested in history and research. This week has been fun and varied; from working on the reception desk and dealing with enquiries, to scanning and transcribing documents.

On Monday I had induction and health and safety training, followed by scanning documents for a school outreach project. These documents will be used in an exhibition called ‘Shared Journeys’ that can be hired by schools to teach them about their local history. I worked closely with Education and Outreach officer Isilda Almeida-Harvey to put these resources together.

Working at The Keep and being surrounded by lots of information readily to hand, I could work on my research skills. I enjoyed researching my family history; I found out that one of my ancestors was an inmate at Lewes workhouse and he died there in 1854 at the age of 82. I was very surprised that he was able to live that long in those conditions!

I also spent time transcribing documents. It was interesting to transcribe an asylum register because some of the patients were admitted for illnesses such as epilepsy and dementia, which I realised was part of its historical context and made me realise how differently we approach illnesses such as this now. It was fairly difficult to read as they had tried to write long sentences in small spaces on the page!

On Friday, I worked on the reception desk; it was very busy and varied. So after spending lots of time researching this week, I was then on the other side of it by helping and directing people towards resources for their own research.

If I were to describe working in an archive in three words, I would say ‘interesting, fun and busy!’



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.’

Meet the Volunteers: Peter and Caroline Holt, Sussex Family History Group

Peter and Caroline in the Sussex Family History Group Room 3rd June 2015

‘One day we picked up a leaflet…and soon we were helping out.’

Peter Holt’s old family Bible had always intrigued him, with its handwritten list of births, deaths and marriages on the first page. When he retired he decided to investigate further and became a regular visitor with his wife Caroline at the East Sussex Record Office in Lewes, researching church registers from Arlington, home of his mother’s family. ‘One day we picked up a leaflet about the Sussex Family History Group and went to a meeting in Hove,’ says Caroline, ‘and soon we were helping out.’

The Group’s regular meeting place was a room rented from St Michael’s Church in Lewes. ‘We shared it with the mechanism of the church tower clock,’ remembers Caroline, ‘and were often interrupted by a loud ‘clonk’ as the clock got ready to strike!’ Two years on, the SFHG has a dedicated room at The Keep where Peter and Caroline, together with several colleagues, assist anyone who has embarked on researching their family history. They advise on how to find birth, marriage and burial records, on locating parishes where ancestors may have lived and even making a start when no information seems to be available.

Helping people with computers is all part of the service. ‘Peter’s actually quite patient, much more than he is at home!’ Visitors from Australia, Canada, the US and all over the UK arrive at the SFHG to find resources that often save them a great deal of time and energy – the office keeps an alphabetical list of all Sussex baptisms, for example, and Peter is currently digitising a collection of 400 personal and family histories, including diaries, letters and burial details, which are available to search by name and date.

Peter and Caroline have numerous success stories to share. ‘Earlier this year a woman came to the SFHG, knowing she was adopted and desperate to find out about her birth family,’ says Caroline. ‘It’s taken a long time, but now she has relatives that she never knew about.’ Caroline and Peter know themselves how rewarding family history can be. Peter says, ‘We found a photograph in the Sussex Agricultural Express of my great-grandmother with her four soldier sons, one of whom was my grandfather. Definitely a ‘Eureka’ moment.’ It’s this strong sense of identity which Caroline and Peter are hoping to pass on to the next generation of SFHG volunteers. ‘After all this,’ says Peter, ‘I’ve got a lot of history I didn’t know I had.’


Interview by Lindsey Tydeman