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 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!’



New drop-in service for researchers

5 January 2016

We’ll be starting the New Year at The Keep with a new, free service for those undertaking local or house history research. We realise that the range of material available – to order through our online catalogue and to consult in our Reference and Reading Rooms – can be daunting, both for those starting out and for those who feel they have reached a dead end. So from 13 January 2016, on alternate Wednesday afternoons, our in-house researcher Andrew Lusted will be available for short one-to-one consultations in the Reference Room.

A probate inventory dating from the early 18th century (PBT 1/10/1452)

A probate inventory dating from the early 18th century (PBT 1/10/1452)

For house historians, Andrew will be able to advise which sources might be worth a look, from building plans, street directories and electoral registers to local wills, court books and records of taxation. Where appropriate, he will also introduce the tithe, estate and Ordnance Survey maps held at The Keep. For wider local history enquiries, he may suggest exploring parish material, estate records, local newspapers, or archives relating to schools, asylums and workhouses (bearing in mind that the closure periods for the last three of these can be up to 100 years).

Our aim with this new initiative is not to carry out the research for you (we will continue to offer a separate research service); instead, we can provide a little more time than is usually available (20-30 minutes max) for an introductory chat and some expert guidance. We hope this will ensure you benefit from as wide a range of resources as possible. Our frontline staff will be on hand, as always, for additional help and advice and, for genealogy enquiries, volunteers from the Sussex Family History Group are often here to share their expertise. The sessions will run initially on a drop-in basis, so appointments are not necessary and there may be some waiting time. Please see the What’s On pages on our website for further details.

Keep Asking Questions: How do I find First World War resources at The Keep?

23rd January 2015

By Dr Chris Kempshall

The Keep has a huge range of sources that relate to the First World War but knowing where to begin can be tricky. The sensible starting point would be to type ‘First World War’ into the search bar on our website and this will bring up a lot of different resources and material. However, it is not a conclusive set of results. Such is the wealth of material that is held in The Keep’s archives we have not yet labelled everything that relates to the war with ‘First World War’ so it appears in the catalogue. We are constantly building this aspect though so give us time and we’ll get it all!Example of an Advanced Search

In the meantime there are alternative ways of searching. In many ways, anything that happened between the years 1914-1918 relates to the First World War. With this in mind searching for particular dates or places (such as ‘Hastings’ AND ‘1917’) within that timeframe will bring up records relating to the war effort that may have slipped through the net on a general ‘First World War’ search. You can also use the advanced-search option, where you can add a single date or range (for example, 1914-1918) and other more specific search terms.

In the Reference Room we also have access to the databases of through which you can find the surviving military records and medal rolls for soldiers who served in the World Wars. This can be a particularly useful source of information when trying to work out where a soldier was deployed, which regiment and battalion they served with, and any awards or decorations they received.

If you find items of interest regarding the First World War in East Sussex then please also consider contributing them to the East Sussex WW1 website: The website showcases the County’s many different stories and experiences during the war.



Keep Asking Questions: How does The Keep’s catalogue differ from a search engine?

5th December 2014

By Abby Wharne

This is the first in a series of blog posts designed to answer frequently asked questions. I thought I’d start the ball rolling by looking at a tricky one – how does an online archive catalogue differ from a search engine?

I first encountered an archive catalogue when I was writing my undergraduate dissertation. My research had led me to the National Archives website, and I soon realised that their search feature was no Google. Since working in the Reading and Reference Room at The Keep, I now know that I’m not alone; many users are thrown by initial search results. So, to understand more, I asked several members of The Keep team: why is an online archive catalogue different from a search engine? I hope their responses, listed below, will be helpful:

  • The Keep’s catalogue doesn’t use predictive text, so users really need to make sure they enter an exact spelling, wording or document reference.
  • Unlike Google, the search results are not listed by popularity.
  • The title and description of a file level document is all a user can see – not what is contained within (generally!) However, there is often much more information listed in the series or fonds/collection level (see below to find out how to get to this level). Clicking ‘read more’ will only reveal a little more information about the record.
  • Archives are arranged according to the person, or organisation, creating them. Consequently, our users may need to use the ‘browse by hierarchy’ tab to look up or down the ‘tree’ to find discover more details about a document.

It was also noted that:

  • Cataloguing is an ongoing process – it takes time to list an archive, so what the user sees online could be a work-in-progress.

Finally, the company who designed our website commented:

  • It’s mainly about context: the hierarchy, browse and serendipity of an archive catalogue are hard to reproduce in a straight search-engine listing.

So … it’s complicated. For people who have never used an archive before, a few of the responses in themselves might require more explanation. When I first started working at The Keep, I used some of the excellent resources on The Archives Hub, which explain many of the challenges involved in using and searching archives; they are well worth a read.

rudyard lockwood kiplingBut, don’t fear, there’s good news. As you can tell from the responses above, the Keep team are aware of the complexities in using the catalogue, and are constantly working hard to make it more accessible. The University of Sussex, for instance, has removed a lot of initials and abbreviations, and replaced these with full descriptions and names – making it easier for users to find information. They have also added detailed pages to the website, which focus on some of their larger collections. The great thing about our website is that these introductory pages appear in search results. For example, someone looking for more information about Rudyard Kipling’s personal papers can find an introductory page by simply searching Rudyard Kipling.

East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) has recently relisted some of their records, making it easier for users to find detailed information. A good example is a sample* of pre-1857 Registry of Shipping and Seamen records for vessels registered at Newhaven and Rye. They include merchant ships’ agreements, crew lists and official log books required under the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1835, 1862-1914, and crew agreements for fishing boats over 25 tons required under the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1835 and later, 1884-1915.

RSS_1_87_1Previously, someone looking at these records on the online catalogue would have had no idea whether or not details of their ancestor might be found within. To improve the catalogue listing, ESRO added the names of the crew, their ages, place of birth and rank, and also the details of the voyages undertaken.The Record Office are also creating place-themed pages, which include links to The Keep’s online catalogue, scanned images and historical information about local parishes.

We hope that our new ‘question-themed’ blog posts will be another way of supporting our visitors. And, if you ever have any questions, please ask a member of staff in person, over the phone, or email us at – we are very helpful! You never know, your question might inspire a blog post …


*The pre-1857 Registry of Shipping and Seamen records are held by The National Archives. The agreements, crew lists and logbooks dating from 1857 onwards have been dispersed to various locations: the bulk of the records were sent to the Memorial University of Newfoundland, while a number of samples were retained by The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and local record offices.