Keeping Portsmouth’s Records – 70 Years of Progress

In the 1950s, Portsmouth was one of those few corporations whose archives were still virtually unknown to historians, although a local interest was already at work. One of the most active individuals was a young man in his twenties, who owned a newsagent’s shop in Portchester, Chairman of the Museums Society, who was to enter local government and play a major role in supporting and promoting archives in the city, and more broadly in the county. This was F.A.J (‘Freddie’) Emery-Wallis (1927-2017).

In an obituary published by Liverpool University Press, former county archivist Rosemary Dunhill notes that ‘he claimed to have first stood for the city council in 1961 in order to make the case for proper provision for the archives and artefacts of Portsmouth’s past’ (Archives, 2017, vol. 52, no. 134, 67-69). He and a small group of members of the Museums Society kick-started an interest in Portsmouth’s archives by working on the Justices Clerk’s papers, which had been transferred from the public library.

In 1954, a key step on the instigation of Dorothy Dymond was taken when the Finance and General Purposes Committee decided to engage a qualified archivist. Press coverage led to a report on the local archives of the Corporation volunteered by Margaret Hoad (formerly City Archivist of Chester and County Archivist of Cornwall) who was subsequently appointed archivist on a permanent, but part-time basis (she later left for family reasons). One early outcome, in 1956, was an exhibition of local archives held in the library, promoted by Emery-Wallis following the National Register of Archives and the Historical MSS Commission.

The birth of the Record Office proper, however, came in March 1960, when the Lord Chancellor’s Department instructed Portsmouth City Council to comply with the Public Records Act 1958. As a result Betty Masters was appointed as a full-time archivist and started work in Portsmouth Guildhall.

In 1968, at a cost of £14,200, the archives were moved to Alexandra Road, later renamed Museum Rd, a former NAAFI building.  Amongst other things, ‘a fine collection of rate books for Portsmouth and Portsea’ weighing 8 tons was transferred.

Emery-Wallis was a bibliophile and keen advocate of publishing. His obituary notes: ‘In Hampshire as in Portsmouth he encouraged a publications programme aimed at making information from the archives and the fruits of research more widely available. He revived the faltering Hampshire Record Series as well as supporting the Portsmouth Record Series; both went on to produce texts of a high academic standard. Both the county and the city also published series of “Papers”, illustrated monographs on significant topics, which were sold at a very modest price to ensure a wide readership.’

The first publication, Volume 1 of the Portsmouth Record Series, Borough Sessions Papers 1653-1658, was judged to be one of the 50 best books published in Great Britain in 1971. A copy was displayed at the world’s most important literary showcase, the Frankfurt International Book Fair.

By this time, archives in Portsmouth had a credible and growing presence. A large number of parish registers had been deposited and microfilmed, a Central Records Retrieval Unit had been set up, and theCity Archivist had been appropriately retitled the City Records Officer. Also, in 1975 the Friends of the Record Office was founded.

More recognition came in April 1977, when Portsmouth was honoured as the venue for the Society of Archivists annual conference. Later in the year Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls and Patron of Hampshire Archives Trust, opened new public facilities at the Museum Road site, which was marked by an exhibition, ‘Found in the Attic’.

In November 1979, to mark International Archives Week, an exhibition of documents and photographs from Cherbourg, Duisburg and the Channel Islands was mounted. A decade later lins were established with record offices and museums in Caen and a visit to Normandy made by Friends of the Record Office.

In the early Eighties, relations with local schools developed apace, with many visits and a day conference for 6th formers interested in a career in archives. linkss with education strengthened in later years, when the question ‘Where does history come from?’ was included in the syllabus. In 1987, five hundred school children either came to the Record Office or were visited in the classroom.

Volunteers were increasingly involved in the work of the Record Office. In 1983 the City Records Officer reported: ‘Our corps of volunteer workers…[have] worked on our photographic collections; indexing and mounting originals on acid-free card… on Crew Lists and … indexing parish registers.’ An ongoing theme was the need to balance the legitimate aspirations of searchers with concern for the welfare of the documents.

The Nineties was a period of great activity. The Local History Fair became a regular event and a new search room and archive store were created. Also the archives service merged with the museums service and the Friends of the Record Office merged with Portsmouth Museums Society to form the Portsmouth Museums and Records Society.

In 2004, the celebrated scholar of Sherlockiana and Doyliana, Richard Lancelyn Green (1953-2004), bequeathed his entire collection of 3,000 objects, 16,000 books and 40,000 archival items. The Arthur Conan Doyle Collection-Lancelyn Bequest, the archives of which were catalogued by volunteers, is now an iconic feature of Portsmouth’s holdings.

More change came in 2011, when the search room was merged with the local studies library to form the Portsmouth History Centre, a ‘one stop shop’ for users. One outcome was a new local history fair, with stalls for local groups, talks and workshops. And in 2013 the service moved from the museum to the library. The following year the Southsea Archive Repository replaced other storage facilities and in 2015 and 2016 the centre participated in the national ‘Explore Your Archives’ Week, with a programme of talks and workshops by staff and outside speakers.

Recognition of the huge progress made in archives in nearly half a century since the service started in Portsmouth came in 2016 with Archive Service Accreditation, awarded by The National Archives.

Most recently, like all archives, the Portsmouth History Centre has been impacted by advances in digital technology. In 2016 an agreement was reached with FindMyPast to digitise and index ‘name rich’ holdings (parish registers and the like).

Speaking recently on the history of the archives service in Portsmouth, Senior Archivist Michael Gunton said: ‘Given how far we have come in just a few years, who can predict where the future will take us? The story of the archives is also a story of a great crowd of people – staff, volunteers, councillors, members of local history groups – of their vision, enthusiasm and commitment. And of course it’s the story of users too.’