They Always Smelt of Bananas

Members attending during the rescue

The story of Lymington parish records

In 1975 a nightmare scenario for archivists and local historians was played out in Lymington. Many years before that fateful occasion a quantity of Lymington’s parish records were placed for safe keeping in the hands of a notable local businessman and local historian, Edward King. The reasons given at the time were that the documents, if kept in the parish vestry, would be likely to deteriorate due to damp and all those infestations so well known to those who delve into historical archives.

All was well so long as Mr King was alive and, indeed, he made much use of the records in his care to provide information for lectures and, eventually, a book entitled A Walk Through Lymington. It was published by the family bookshop, Kings of Lymington, and followed the work of a namesake who had amassed local records and in 1879 published Old Times Revisited in the Borough and Parish of Lymington. Mr King died in September 1974 and his family were faced with the question of what to do with the parish records. Perhaps, inevitably it was seen that they should pass back into the care of the incumbent of the parish. This certainly seemed to be the correct procedure for Mr King’s widow.

So it was that early in 1975 many cardboard boxes laden with rate books, poor law removal and bastardy orders, bills and accounts of local tradesmen, apprenticeship indentures and a host of miscellaneous material, arrived at the home of the newly appointed vicar of Lymington.

The subsequent events are a mystery. Faced with a huge quantity of documents the vicar called on the Lymington Corporation waste disposal service to collect them and take them to the waste tip. It seems incredible that the vicar did not seek some independent advice. In the town was an active local history society with an experienced committee, any one of whom could have given advice. Although he did look through the records, retaining some, the majority were unfortunately removed to the tip.

It was due to the vigilance and good sense of at least one keen-eyed workman at the tip that the machinery for the salvaging of the records was put in train. Amongst the heaps of refuse it was noticed that blowing around in the wind of this exposed site were sheets of paper covered with antiquated writing with some bearing red wax seals. Arthur Lloyd, the best known and most dedicated of local historians working in the area and, at that time, still teaching at Arnewood School, was informed of the discovery and with exemplary speed he notified the other members of the Lymington Historical Record Society (as it then was) and arranged for access to the refuse tip.

The story broke to the press and on Friday, 25 April 1975 the Bournemouth Evening Echo published an account of the events.

The paper announced that ‘fourteen bundles (each) about the size of a tea chest’ had been buried at the bottom of a New Forest District Council tip at Efford.

The committee of the Historical Record Society organised a team to dig at the tip to see if there was any chance of the documents being recovered. It was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Where to start was a major problem as the tip area was constantly expanding.

Early attempts to recover the documents proved unsuccessful though work proceeded on a daily basis. By the weekend the story of the valiant attempts to rescue the lost archives had reached the national press and The Sunday Express on 27 April announced in bold headlines: ‘Vicar put parish records on rubbish dump’ but had to say the diggers ‘found no trace of the records’. Following these abortive attempts detailed discussions were held with the foreman of the site to see if a more accurate assessment of the precise dumping place could be worked out. The problem was that refuse vehicles were arriving regularly to discharge their loads and so increase the size of the tip. At that time, earth was bulldozed over the deposited refuse producing a flat landscape without any landmarks that could help pinpoint the position of the boxes of documents. By a careful analysis of the amount brought in day-by-day it was possible to work back to an approximate location for the deposited records. Once this was done trial pits were dug with the help of mechanical diggers loaned through the generosity of Mr G Farwell of Sway. And it must be recorded that the men who worked these invaluable machines were as keen for success as the amateur historians.

Eventually, to the sheer joy of all those involved, the evening of Friday, 2 May saw the first set of soaking, stained and stinking documents come to light after being underground for more than a month. Those present on this occasion were: Ken and Pam Donaldson, the late Jim Bursey, Allen White of Christchurch, Arthur Lloyd, Peggy and Jude James and David Stagg. Working in deep pits and wet, stinking household refuse was an extremely unpleasant experience for all involved but the concern and enthusiasm of those volunteers engaged in the task overcame all obstacles. Soon, as the various papers and bound volumes were recovered, helpers at the pit edges began to carefully place them in large plastic bags. Many were wringing wet and sadly it could be seen that the ink had been completely or partially washed from many individual documents.

Hampshire Record Office was notified and the County Archivist’s staff took responsibility for drying, fumigating, cleaning and restoring the documents. But before this could be done the diggers wanted to ensure that as many records as possible were exhumed from their watery grave. Meanwhile, I had written to John Vernon Taylor, the recently appointed Bishop of Winchester, concerning the inexcusable loss of the Lymington parish records. In his reply, dated 28 April, 1975, the Bishop stated that he shared the ‘real sense of horror at the destruction of the records’ and went on to say that in his forthcoming visitations he would ensure that both the clergy and the churchwardens were made aware of their responsibilities for the care of records in their charge. He concluded by saying ‘Few people seem to realise the responsibility we have for generations to come’.

It was in part a response to events in Lymington that the General Synod of the Church of England at its meeting on 14 November, 1975, carried the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, requiring parishes ‘either to provide a means for the safe keeping of registers and records, or to deposit them at the diocesan registry’.

Several more digs took place and further documents were found at Efford. The words of a local reporter who came to interview me and my wife Peggy a few days after the documents were recovered summarised the situation: “Mr James, who, with his wife, Peggy, spent much of the weekend drying out hundreds of the documents at their home, said he was surprised at their state, and added: ‘l think the results will be very favourable’
He stated that about 90 per cent were in good to very good condition and quite legible, although some were torn. Of the remaining 10 per cent, about half were almost completely legible, but some had pieces torn out, and some of the wording had soaked away. The remainder were fragmented and had been very badly soaked. Those recovered include about 100 apprenticeship indentures of the late 18th and early 19th century, settlement and removal orders, vote papers following the Reform Act of 1832, and a number concerning Lymington’s first poor House.The documents recovered will eventually be kept at Hampshire County Record Office in Winchester.”

Western Gazette, 9 May, 1975.

It is with great satisfaction to record that these valuable and extensive parochial records were soon 
deposited at Hampshire Record Office and are now safely kept, properly catalogued and available to 
researchers.
Based on an article by Jude James in the Hampshire Archives Trust Newsletter Spring 1995.

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