In 2011 a random sample of 2000 people in York were surveyed to find out what they knew about their city archive. It turned out that 39 percent of people didn’t know the archives existed, 82 percent didn’t know where the archives were, and of the 18 percent who thought they did know where the archives were, 11 percent were wrong.
You can’t blame them. Originally based at York Library, a building designed specifically for the archives by York architect Walter Brierly in the 1920s, the collection was moved in the 1980s to the York Art Gallery, where space was made in a converted wing, though it never felt like a real home – if you asked gallery staff for directions they’d tell you the archives were ‘round by the bins’, which was correct, but a bit dispiriting.
If you made it to the little door round by the bins, you’d find a tiny room with space for a few people. That room was used by visitors, volunteers and staff. There were also a few problems with storage: there were big windows letting light flood in, which is bad for an archive, security was poor, there was no climate control, and it was damp.
‘We also had problems with flooding in one of our basement stores,’ says Victoria Hoyle, who joined the team in 2010 and is now City Archivist. ‘Several times in between 2010 and 2012 we had to have people come and pump out water.’
For one of the most important archives in the country, that’s absurd. There was also a problem in not knowing what was in the archive, and where. There had been many attempts to get the material in order, but in Victoria’s words, ‘it had got out of hand’, with some documents being stored in bin bags and even whisky boxes.
‘It was a very mixed situation,’ explains Victoria, ‘Where some of the archives were well looked after and well known, and then behind them there was this whole world of unknown, unprocessed, unloved material.’
Chaos is the word she hesitantly uses to describe it. So a plan was formed, and in 2012 the archive was closed and it was decided the archive would move back to the library, where a new storage space would be built. While the building work took place the art gallery wanted its wing back, so the 300 cubic metres of records were put into 18 trucks, driven to Cheshire and stored in a salt mine (which also houses parts of the National Archives).
‘It’s still operating as a salt mine,’ says Victoria. ‘But it’s vast, deep underground, and they’ve got a proper fleet of vehicles. It’s like a little document city underground.’
While the archives enjoyed their underground holiday, about £2 million of construction took place at the old library building. The original 1920s parquet floor was repaired, heating was brought up to date, the roof was fixed, and the archive storage was built on top of an existing room. The new archive does not leak. It has climate control, security, fire protection and electronic shelving. There are also new public spaces, such as a reading room, local history library and study room, and the collection has also been exhaustively catalogued online.
‘There’s increasing demand for both access on site, so people can come and look at the stuff in person, and then there’s increasing demand for information on the internet,’ Victoria tells us, ‘Which means access to documents online and access to catalogues online. There definitely is a boom in that, and in awareness of what archives are and the potential they have for telling you about your personal past or the past of the place where you live.
‘I think interest has been raised exponentially by programmes like Who Do You Think You Are, so what we wanted was to have a one-stop shop for all that kind of information which is why we’ve got the archive and the local history library connected, so people who come for one thing can migrate across to the other if they need it.’
The archive isn’t just a playground for those researching their family tree however. Victoria describes the York Archives as one of the most important collections of civic records outside of London, because it details such a major city’s role throughout British history.
‘I would say the key treasure of the archive are the records that have been produced by the council,’ says Victoria. ‘I know that sounds dull, but it’s not dull, because York’s council dates back to the 13th century. We have all kinds of information about how the city was governed, so minutes of meetings, decisions taken, letters written, to tell us how York was acting and behaving in some of the most fascinating events in our history.
‘So, for example, during the late 15th century the council was embroiled in the politics of the War of the Roses and there is an enormous amount of information about the way the people of York felt and acted, and a letter in the wake of the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth talks about the grief of the city, the great heaviness of the city, at the death of a king they later call Blessed Prince.
‘I think those kinds of insights make the archive very powerful. There was also the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rising up of the northern nobles against Henry VIII, who subsequently visited York in 1541 to receive the apology of the aldermen and the council for having participated in this rebellion. There’s so much information about the preparation for the royal party and what happened when the royal party was here.
‘So although records might sound dry, it’s not just about collecting bins. It’s about how York behaves in that national context. We’ve also got records which relate to crime and punishment in the city, so for example, in the same year that the council wrote the letter regarding Richard III, they also wrote in the council minutes about a prostitute in York called Cherry Lips, who they’re expelling outside the city walls. As well as being about kings, it’s also about normal people living their lives.’
Poor Cherry Lips. The oldest document in the collection is a charter for the city, which dates from about 1155 and grants trading rights to merchants in the city. Then, in later centuries, there are records regarding York races, minutes of the York Lambretta Club and the Campaign for Real Ale, and correspondence from people such as William Etty, a 19th century painter who dedicated his life to male nudes, which should make interesting reading.
The archive staff are putting a lot of effort into pushing material such as this out into the public sphere, rather than waiting for the public to find it for themselves, which means if you follow them on Twitter, or look at their Pinterest board, or read the entries on their blog, you’ll find out about some of the most interesting stories in the city’s past.
‘It’s an opportunity for us to explain to people what we’re doing,’ says Victoria. ‘So as well as talking about our collections and the kind of archives that we have, it’s also an insight into how we work with them, and what our philosophies and approaches are to doing that work.’
Construction is finished now, and the archive is open to the public on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, while the local history library and family history room are open the same hours as the library itself (seven days a week). It’s worth a visit, and if you were among the 93 percent of people who didn’t know where the archives were, you do now. The good news is they’re no longer round by the bins.