There are many hidden gems in Chichester and last week I discovered the wonderful West Sussex Record Office. It’s a building many of us pass by but seldom use; outside of registering births, deaths or marriages. Behind the unassuming entrance there is a wealth of local knowledge. The building contains five strong rooms, eight miles of records and the oldest document they hold is over 1,200 years old. The resources are used by academics researching our local history, teachers and students discovering new insights to complete school projects, amateur and professional genealogists searching for missing pieces of their family history, and residents researching the roots and previous occupants of their house. It is fascinating, and the quality of records kept over the centuries by West Sussex landowners, churches, military, businesses, schools, hospitals, courts and residents are incredibly detailed. Preserving these records is of the utmost importance so it is critical they are also being saved in a digital format for future generations.
Whilst there Wendy, Alice along with Alison, who keeps the records at Petworth House, helped us research the history of our house, which is grade two listed, so we knew it was quite old. We were astonished to discover it was built somewhere between 1610 and 1616 and had been the residence of farm workers, blacksmiths, gamekeepers and was even the location of a hop kiln used to dry the hops from the surrounding fields. Interestingly we also learnt that a whole armoured brigade was encamped close to where we live in the run up to D Day.
The staff are on hand to guide you through the various sources to piece together local history and it is rather like being a detective searching through archives looking for clues. Preserving our heritage is vitally important and discovering more about our history is incredibly interesting. We are now wandering around our house spotting old beams that came from the Portsmouth shipyards and trying to work out which bit was used for what purpose and when!
The West Sussex Record Office was part of a delegation that went to Portsmouth during the recent state visit of the US President. They took along with them one of only two parchment manuscripts of the United States Declaration of Independence to show to the Queen, the US President and the Prime Minister. It is believed to have been owned by the Third Duke of Richmond who supported the Americans during their fight for independence. A fascinating discovery amongst a wonderful collection of historical documents.