The Keep is the swishiest newest building under the management of the RP&M opened by the Queen last year.
The building, not quite a museum or a gallery is the home of the archives for East Sussex County Record Office, the University of Sussex special collections and the Royal Pavilion and Museums local history archives and audio collection and many more which were once housed in the Brighton Museum.
Tucked away behind trees and just off the A27 between Falmer and Moulsecoomb, it is a corner of the city dedicated to preserving the past and the people who once lived there. The collections go back over 900 years and are open to the public Tuesday to Saturday. Entrance is free, parking is easy and free and you can take your own sandwiches.
I went along last week to talk to some of the people who were in The Keep to find out what they were up to. It turned out to be a fascinating glimpse into the rich stories being rediscovered by people bitten by the history bug.
David and Lynda Russell were there to do research for David’s latest book The Pubs of Lewes. He’s already written about the pubs in Hastings and Rye. (http://www.hastingspubhistory.com/). He’s sold over 2,000 copies of his Hastings book and is hoping the pubs of Lewes will be equally popular.
“We’re looking at records such as title deeds, plans for the licensing committee and obituaries of landlords. I do all my own research with Lynda’s help, who is the publisher. You can pick up lots of interesting details. Although the books are about pubs, they are really about the social history of a place with the local characters who owned and visited the pubs and illustrate the social problems which affect the area. “
Caitlin Phillips is in her second year of a Phd at Durham University writing about offensive speech in the 16th Century.
Apparently if you slandered someone in those days, it would often end up in a government court as people were extremely keen on protecting their reputation. The offenders, if they were found guilty would be fined or put in the stocks.
Caitlin described the work she was doing. “I just scan read these court records to see if there are any interesting cases, then take down the details.”
She made it sound so easy but when I look at the text she’s scanning, it’s in olde worlde calligraphy and almost impossible to read. Apparently her skill is “palaeography” which she’ll be studying for another three years before she becomes a doctor.
Penny Lower from Seaford was at The Keep to discover more about her family history. “I’ve been researching now for two years,” she says.” I’ve been looking into my parent’s backgrounds and my husband’s. While most of them come from East Sussex, we do have a branch from Liverpool. I’ve not discovered any rich relatives, I come from a poor working class family and it’s fascinating. What is shocking is the high infant mortality in the past.”
Cheryl Catling has also been investigating her family tree for the last ten years. Cheryl comes regularly to The Keep and meets up with her daughter and sometimes her son there, since her husband died.
She’s tracked down a skeleton in the cupboard – her mother was born before her grandparents were married – a shocking thing in 1921.
“My mother didn’t know but she would have loved it,” says Cheryl. She accesses the information by using some of the popular genealogy sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past which are free to use at The Keep. She sometimes helps her friends map out their family tree.
Cheryl’s investigations have even meant she has met up with a new family member. “I’ve made contact with my husband’s cousin’s daughter,” she says. “She came to see me and we’re hoping to meet up again.”
Winchelsea local historian Malcolm Pratt is a retired school-teacher who has set himself the task of writing about the poor of Winchelsea, just along from Rye.
He’s already written three books on the town which is one of the Cinque Ports. http://www.winchelsea.com/booksdownload.html We chat about smugglers in the area and it seems Winchelsea men did smuggle but didn’t store their goods in the town as there were so many excise men who lived there.
Malcolm is looking at magistrates notebooks and inquest papers to discover more about the poor who lived there from 1790 to 1841.
“Around a third of the population sought help from the poor aid,” he explains.” The work was mainly agriculture and the wages were low.”
“I hope to finish next year,” he says.” I come along once a week and really enjoy it. It’s very interesting, there’s a very rich archive to be found here.”
Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence