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: 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

The Keep News: First World War CPD day for teachers and a visit from PACA

27th June 2014

The Keep was buzzing with local teachers on Monday, who were here to find out more about the First World War resources available in our collections, and elsewhere in the county. The Sussex Schools’ 1914 World War I and Christmas Truce Project Meeting offered an exciting programme of activities, enabling teachers to get hands-on experience of how to access archive material, as well as an opportunity to network with local interest groups. A great day was had by all, with presentations, workshops and displays from Sussex Family History Group; Geoff Bridger, military historian; Heritage Learning; South East Grid for Learning; National Children’s Football Alliance, Chris Kempshall, The East Sussex World War One Commemorations Project Officer, and the East Sussex Historic Environment Record.

PACA FinalOn Tuesday, the Mass Observation Education and Outreach Team had a great day exploring diaries with children from Portslade Aldridge Community Academy. As well as looking at a range of diaries from the Mass Observation archive, students also searched for their house and school, using maps of Portslade from ESRO’s archive. Comments and discussion revealed that the students had really got to grips with different diary styles; from long reflective entries to short snappy observations. When looking through Henry Hudson’s agricultural diary, they were also surprised to discover a few shocking entries, including one about a dead body being discovered in a hedge!

In other news…
We’ll be sad to see Alice Gibson, one of our Archive Assistants, leave this Saturday. Alice will be moving on to exciting new pastures at The National Archives, where she’ll be working as a Transfer Adviser. We wish her all the best in her new job.