On a sweltering hot day in the glorious summer I have found a cool place to sit with the very knowledgeable Helen Evans who is an Archive and Local Studies Assistant at Pembrokeshire Archives and Local Studies,Haverfordwest.
Originally the archives were held at the Castle. Local Studies used to be in the old Haverfordwest Library. In 2013 both collections were merged to create Pembrokeshire Archives and Local Studies.
“This is a largely irreplaceable collection of historical documents dating as far back as 1272. It needs to be stored as safely as possible so it isn’t lost for future generations.” Helen tells me.
I am curious to know what that ancient document pertains to.
“That is the particulars of a house sale. We also have parchments from the borough council of the day, dating back to 1290, and letters that are fascinating snippets of history. We have letters from Oliver Cromwell instructing the Borough Council to Blow up the Castle, and their response, which is to plead poverty. They say they cannot afford to do so. There is also a wealth of other material that may not be so old, but has great value and interest for us all.”
I expect you have a wide range of documents here.
“Apart from letters, we have a lot of solicitors documents, sales, leases etc. Some of the older, bigger families of the county have donated their records . We have maps and books , school records, chapel records and W.I. records. We have a very good collection of newspapers on micro film and paper. Some of our material is very rare and some very delicate, but it is all available in some form for anyone with an interest in History.”
Anyone? Who might come to the Archive?
“ We have people from all over the world come and see us. People from Australia, are quite usual. They come to research their ancestors who were transported from Wales in the 18th Century, or have other historical connections with the county. We have visitors from New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada and we recently had a researcher from Belgium looking at Flemish connections with the area.”
It’s not only academics then?
“ We do have enquiries from writers and historians of course, but we do have a lot of regulars for whom the research is a hobby. Anyone can get in touch to find out about family history, more about where they live, or the history of a building. We often have people come and look at newspapers from their youth. They reminisce and share stories. It can also be very moving to see something like the handwriting of a long gone relative, or a photograph. ”
Helen tells me that about the person who had got into a disagreement with a friend concerning a murder that had shocked the whole community in the late 1940’s. He was delighted when he looked up the original news item at the Archive and found his memory was correct. He had sat for ages reminiscing about the past.
I can see the benefit of the records for people with dementia.
“ Yes, we have worked with a number of groups here, who are either people with dementia or people working with them. We also work with school children. As we have many school records we are able to show them items from their schools and they can make comparisons with how things are now.”
I imagine you have to be very careful to keep all of this material safe and in good repair.
Helen agrees and explains that there have to be rules to make sure the materials are not lost or damaged in some way. “ This is a very friendly place. It’s not dry and unwelcoming but people do have to agree to a few simple conditions. We ever eat or drink in the Repository or Research room. Spills could be catastrophic. People can only use pencil to make notes. Imagine accidentally writing over a piece of sixteenth century vellum in your ball point pen? And people must leave bags in the lockers. People appreciate what we have here and no one wants to see priceless items go missing or becoming damaged.”
I wonder what happens when things are damaged, because that must happen just with age, and surely some items arrive in less than pristine condition.
Helen agrees and goes off to find Margaret Brooks who is the Trainee Conservator at the Archive.
Margaret who has worked at the Archive since 2013 is enthusiastic about her work. She is originally from America which, she says makes her very respectful about history.
“ My work is about preservation and repair, she tells me, Everything that comes in is checked and we ensure it is in the best possible condition.”
Along with a small dedicated team of volunteers, Margaret works with seals and parchment , maps and plans. She repairs book bindings and carefully cleans materials that may have been neglected before they arrived here.
“ The high humidity of Pembrokeshire means that much of what arrives here has some damage. We have strict environmental controls here and know how to keep everything clean and free from dust. The work is never-ending but it is amazing work.”
What are you working on at the moment?
“ Well amongst other things, the cleaning of some black and white glass plate images of Skokholm. We want to make them more accessible as the only way they can be viewed now is with a projector. We are also working on some proposed plans of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s for a railway that was never built. The plans have some water damage.”
It is painstaking, meticulous work but I have no sense that the team who work here are stuffy or unwelcoming. Much of their time is taken up in supporting people to find the information they are seeking. On days that they are not open to the public, the team are busy answering telephone enquiries and ensuring everything is in the best condition it can be for this and future generations to enjoy, and it’s free of charge for most of it’s services.
Opening hours for the Pembrokeshire Archives are:
Wednesday 10 -8.00
Thursday and Friday : 10 – 5.00
Saturday 10 -3.00
Telephone: 01437 775456
E mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: Prendergast, Haverfordwest, Pembrokshire, SA61 2PE
Helen also manages a fascinating Facebook page: Pembrokeshire Archives.
Want a chance to have a tour of the Archive and to see an exhibition of materials? Come along to the Pembrokeshire Archives and Local Studies building on July 23rd or July 24th between 10 and 3.
Tours start at 10.30, 11.30. and 1.30
You can also book a free computer based session to get your historical research started, or if you are already hooked, to help you move things along.
Do you have a project or interest that might lead you to use the Archives? We would love to follow your story…