End of an era for the county archivist

When Richard Childs retired as county archivist for West Sussex on July 8 '“ through redundancy '“ a little bit of history was made in the county.

Saturday, 16th July 2011, 5:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:20 pm

For with his departure has also gone the historic title of ‘county archivist’.

Richard has been only the fourth county archivist to serve in this post since the West Sussex Record Office was opened in 1946 when Bernard Campbell-Cooke set up the repository in the basement of County Hall, Chichester.

From this modest subterranean beginning the Record Office has come a long way, firstly expanding under Francis Steer into the grander Wren House – now called John Edes House.

Through sheer force of personality, Dr Steer expanded the work and reputation of the Record Office to national importance.

From 1969 his successor, Patricia Gill, built on his work by making the service much more widely available to the public and by setting up one of the first record office education services in the country.

Mrs Gill’s most important work for the future well-being of the Record Office was planning the move into purpose-built accommodation in Orchard Street, Chichester – at its core its state-of-the-art climatically-controlled strong rooms for the storage of its precious cargo of treasures dating back 1,200 years to the Saxon period.

Richard Childs took over as county archivist in 1993 and has overseen continued expansion, including the development of the film and video archive – now known as Screen Archive South East; the building-up of the work of volunteers – there are currently about 100; and the widening of the Record Office’s outreach programme.

Educational outreach work has encouraged valuable community work such as the parish map-making project involving over 2,000 West Sussex volunteers.

Such was its success that from West Sussex the idea of community map-making has been taken into Europe and other far-away places.

In California, the West Sussex atlas of parish maps is used as a university textbook and one American scholar of cartography has described it as the most beautiful collection of maps he has ever seen.

With its work for students, scholars and family historians worldwide, the Record Office functions as a local resource with a global remit.

It is probably true to say the West Sussex Record Office reaches further across the world than any other WSCC service.

As a former county secretary, Michael Holdsworth once remarked the Record Office punches well above its weight.

Only recently the National Archives rated West Sussex among the top ten record offices in England and Wales.

This is surely one of the jewels of the crown in the county council’s assets.

Richard Childs has overseen much to be proud of.

And yet all this has been achieved against tremendous odds, for Richard has been battling with cuts to his budget for years.

He has seen 50 per cent of his senior staff depleted when one of his assistant county archivists was made redundant and his deputy county archivist and then his education officer weren’t replaced on their retirement.

Additionally he lost his assistant conservator and his personal assistant and several clerical/administrative posts.

The elimination of all these posts has put an intolerable burden on the remaining staff.

On top of all this, the building so carefully designed by Mrs Gill has now been commandeered by WSCC because the authority is about to give up its lease on Greyfriars in North Street, Chichester.

The West Sussex coroner and staff are to be relocated to the Record Office, as will staff from the local registration service who will be occupying space being cut out of the Record Office’s classroom.

The classroom, designed by Mrs Gill for meetings, presentations and workshops, will soon be cut in half to the serious detriment of the outreach work of the Record Office.

And so the removal of the title ‘county archivist’ is just one more blow aimed at this exceptional service. Richard’s successor is left with the bland, awkward and colourless title of ‘lead manager – archives’; this so the grading and level of the post fits neatly into new management structures being implemented throughout West Sussex County Council.

The traditional title clearly identifies the role of the chief archivist within the county.

It has been a title with dignity and tradition behind it, of values and traditions associated with the heritage and history of the whole of West Sussex.

From all its external publicity, it is clear WSCC takes pride in serving the county by promoting its identity.

There would be no better way of symbolising this than by restoring this distinguished and meaningful title.

But problems apart, we are indebted to Richard Childs for all he has achieved in holding the work of the West Sussex Record Office together and wish him well in all his future activities.

Kim Leslie

West Sussex Record Office Education Officer, 1970-2007, Sea Drive, Felpham