75 years of preserving our past

PUBLISHED: 10:44 18 July 2013 | UPDATED: 10:44 18 July 2013




It was in 1938 that Frederick Emmison was appointed as county archivist and he began organising and collecting the records which together tell the story of nearly 1,000 years of Essex history, from the county’s aristocrats to the very poorest in society.

Essex was only the third English county to establish a record office (the first was Bedfordshire in 1913), and it has grown to be one of the largest county record offices in the country.

The Essex Record Office (ERO) is, in many ways, the guardian of county’s historical memory and is committed to ensuring that the legacy of the past is preserved for present and future generations. The records that are cared for there are unique and irreplaceable, and tell the stories of the lives of our ancestors.

As might be expected, the ERO has seen enormous changes since 1938, including several moves and the impact of computerisation and the internet. But its mission remains the same: to preserve the county’s documentary heritage and make it accessible for all to use and enjoy.

Anyone can visit the ERO for free, and use the records and online facilities to find out about the history of their family, house, local community or any other topic.

In fact, the ERO cares for documents, images as well as sound and video material which tell the story of nearly 1,000 years of Essex history. These records come from all over the county and have been sourced from historic estates, churches, businesses, individuals as well as countless other sources. It is the role of the ERO to store and care for these records, and make them accessible to the general public, not only the residents of Essex but also to people from all over the world tracing their Essex ancestors.

Although the ERO was founded in 1938, records were kept and organised by the county long before this. The first surviving list of county records dates from 1785, when Samuel Ennew, the then Clerk of the Peace, made a list of records he looked after at the county gaol including records of court proceedings and prisoners.

The first catalogue and storage index to the records was made in 1814, by which time the records were being kept in Chelmsford’s Shire Hall. Storage locations included ‘in the press by the side of the fireplace nearest to the window’, and ‘in the attic nearest the church’.

In fact our county records have had several different homes over the years. They were originally kept at the county gaol before being moved to Chelmsford’s Shire Hall in 1794, where they were stored in their own Record Room.

They remained at Shire Hall for 140 years until being transferred to County Hall in 1934-5, and having outgrown that accommodation they were moved again to a new block of County Hall in 1965. By the late 1990s the record office again needed more space, and in 2000 it was moved to a purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility at Wharf Road in Chelmsford. The collections now take up nearly 8 miles of shelving, and new documents, images, sound and video material is taken in to be stored on a constant basis.

Keeping the records in good condition has been a concern for at least 200 years and in 1797 the Clerk of the Peace submitted a bill of £2 13s 4d for ‘attendance at the Shire House many different times and particularly in the course of last summer taking out and cleaning all the county records and making new arrangement thereof and placing them to better advantage in respect of the dampness in some part of the repositories made for their reception there in all at least 4 days’.

Even in 1797 it was understood that records have to be kept in the right conditions to avoid being damaged by damp or consumed by mould or rodents. Nevertheless, things have come a long way and today the ERO has an in-house Conservation Studio, with two skilled conservators and a number of volunteers who painstakingly clean, repair and preserve these records.

Public access to the records was first considered by the County Council in 1908, but only for ‘qualified persons’ and not for the general public. Records were still in the care of the Clerk of the Peace, and anyone applying to see the records had to be known to the clerk, or produce a letter of introduction from an Essex Justice or member of the County Council. Just as today, searchers were not allowed to smoke in the reading room or use ink near the records, but while today visits to the ERO can be made for free, in 1908 searchers had to pay 1s per hour to consult a document.

Over the years it has become much easier to use the ERO’s records, both by visiting the Searchroom in person or online. Even after the formal establishment of the ERO and the move to County Hall, the original Searchroom was very small. Today there is a spacious Searchroom and an extensive online presence to help the public access the county’s records. A computerised catalogue called Seax, which is found at http://seax.essexcc.gov.uk/ and can be accessed for free, contains hundreds of thousands of entries with details of nearly all of the records cared for at the ERO. Times have certainly changed within the last 75 years, but in terms of preserving the county’s documentary heritage and making it accessible for all to use and enjoy, things have come a long way.

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