If your builder needs to look at your orginal house plans in order to see how your house is built, they will visit the East Sussex Records Office (ESRO). If you want to research your family history, find out about historic rights that may affect you or look at past decisions taken by local council, you will need to visit the record office.   Almost every book, article or talk about our local history will have been researched at the Records Office.

The Record Office is now housed at the Keep in Falmer, a large building next to the Brighton to Lewes Road.  But a combination of poor planning and administration and East Sussex County cuts is wrecking the service.  Here someone who has worked for the Record Office describes what is going on.

THE STORY

“Just five years after it was opened by the Queen and Prince Philip, with a great deal of publicity and high hopes for what was billed as the most eco-friendly local government building in Britain, The Keep at Falmer is facing a very uncertain future.

The Keep was the new £18 million repository designed to house the collections of East Sussex County Council’s Record Office , and its partners in this venture: the Brighton History Centre, the Mass Observation Archive held by Sussex University and the University’s own Special Collections Archive. Unfortunately, things started to go wrong even before the building opened.

Expensive etched concrete murals sited high on the sides of the building, and which cost tens of thousands of pounds, could only be made out in certain light and, in the summer when the surrounding trees were in leaf, were often completely invisible. An outside projector, again costing a five-figure sum, was intended to cast images held at The Keep on to the exterior wall next to the public entrance. This has hardly ever worked and, in any case, is only any use in the dark, when The Keep is closed to the public and there is no passing footfall. There have been many other teething problems. Staff trapped in rooms when the locks on the doors have failed, a rain water collection system that didn’t work for the first four years, IT systems that regularly crash, and an on-line catalogue of the holdings at The Keep that was supposed to make it simple to find what you were looking for but is extremely difficult to navigate, even for the staff who work there.

Luckily, most members of the public have found The Keep a great place to do research, mainly because of the assistance they received from the front-line staff who helped them through the complex processes of registering on-line, using the catalogue to search and ordering documents they wanted to look at.

CUTS

Despite being such a prestigious building the massive cuts that have been inflicted on local government in the past decade have started to take their toll. The County Archivist retired a few months after the building opened and her job was combined with that of the County Archaeologist. Now a target of cuts of £210,000 from ESCC’s contribution to The Keep’s budget between 2019/20 and 2021/22 has been initiated. The ESRO Outreach and Learning Officer left and the post was deleted. Despite significant savings on this salary further cuts are now being imposed. ESRO’s two senior archivists are being made redundant and both posts deleted, along with a vacant Archives Assistant post.

The main problem for budgeting at The Keep (approximate annual cost of £1.3 million) is the rate bill of more than £300,000 a year. The rate bill is almost as much as all the ESRO staff wages added together, which might not be such a problem if the rates were met evenly by the partners at The Keep. However it has emerged that the contribution of Sussex University, which has over half the staff at The Keep, is only about 5% of the annual costs.

These cuts at The Keep are only being imposed on the ESRO staff and not, so far, on Brighton and Hove or Sussex University. The immediate change to the public’s experience at The Keep will be that only one member of staff will be on duty in each of the public rooms used for research. Those of you who have used The Keep at busy periods will know that this will lead to long delays in the production of documents. Staff are also worried that this level of staffing will lead to a much lower level of security for both the irreplaceable documents and the staff thenselves.

Added to this the loss of the two senior archivists and the retirement of the ESRO Researcher, with over eighty years’ experience of East Sussex’s history between them, must mean that the store of knowledge within the staff will be badly depleted, and thus the advice that can be given to researchers will suffer.

For example, if anybody now emails The Keep wanting advice on what is held there or how to do go about their research they currently get an informed reply from one of the above. In future they will either get a standard reply which probably will not answer their query or be told to use the on-line catalogue which, as detailed above, is almost impossible to use by someone unfamiliar with The Keep.

YOUR HISTORY LOST?

Worse news, perhaps, is for people wishing to deposit archive material with ESRO. While ESRO has a statutory duty to house records held under the Public Records Act, parish registers, the records of local government and statutory bodies, manorial records and tithe records, ESRO, in common with other county record offices, has had a policy of taking in any record that relates to the history of the county and Brighton and Hove. These range from estate archives to solicitors’ papers, Women’s Institute records to sports clubs, and things such as the wonderful lantern slides acquired two years ago of the building of the Beachy Head lighthouse. The new policy will be that, apart from statutory records, anybody now wishing to deposit material would have to meet any costs incurred such as conservation, boxing, and listing the archive. The fear is that not many depositors will want to meet these costs and so material relating to the history of the county will be lost, perhaps just thrown into a skip.

There are promises of more job cuts to come later in the year and so it will not be a surprise if The Keep reduces its opening hours and its level of service declines. ”

The Eye understands that the Keep has refused to accept the archives of Wycherley’s estate agent, which will have a huge amount of information about Lewes over a long period, because no one was prepared to pay to have them kept at the Keep.

You may want to contact your local county council member to ask them what they think about this state of affairs.

Article date 19/8/19

For some historical stories researched by your editor at the Keep see here

A group of people are researching lost rights of way at the Keep with a view to adding them to the rights of way map.  Each route that has been identified as a potential lost right of way is shown as a green dot on the map below.  If you are interested in this work email contact@leweseye.co.uk