This article, written in March 1997, reflects on 40 years of research at Warwickshire County Record Office. The author, Revd. Dr. Anthony Upton, and his wife have each continued their research since and published a number of works. These include Knowle Collegiate Church and Remember Walter Cook, and most recently articles written for Warwickshire History, the journal of the Warwickshire Local History Society.
In the beginning…
It all began with my paternal grandmother who used to take me to visit Knowle Church whenever I stayed with her in the 1930s. Later during the Blitz we would go shopping in Birmingham. I vividly remember the wrecked ceiling and burnt rafters, the floors littered with debris and that pungent smell peculiar to a bombed-out building when Granny and I visited St. Philip’s Cathedral soon after it had been damaged in an air raid. However, my interest in local history really emerged when, in 1944, my father took me to Lichfield Cathedral. I was entranced. That very moment I decided that I must write a history of Knowle Church.
A full ten years passed before I discovered the record office. I cycled to Warwick and entered the premises where Anthony Wood reigned as County Archivist. My recollections are very hazy but I do remember that the little room was very cramped, with perhaps a couple of desks. Most of my research was confined to printed books because I had no expertise in documents older than the early 19th century.
In due course, the record office moved to more spacious accommodation in Shire Hall. It seemed quite adequate at the time, and a huge new map table had been provided. It enabled me to spread out the Knowle Tithe Award map! More often than not, I was the only visitor in those days.
‘A haven of erudition and tranquility’
The office seemed a haven of tranquillity in those dates. There was a burgeoning card-index system but definitely no micro-readers. The family history bug had not set in, and in any case most parish registers were still held in church chests, where they were quite inaccessible to the majority. Scholars were interested in the registers for demographic analysis, and more often than not it was not possible to handle the original documents.
After some years travelling, I returned to Warwickshire in 1983. I had inherited, ex officio, a substantial number of precious archives. Having settled in, one of the first things I did was to renew my acquaintance with the record office and to invite them to take custody of a haul of about 150 registers and papers. Monica Ory drove out to collect them and they are now catalogued and safely stored for posterity.
With retirement, it looks as though I shall continue to enjoy many more happy hours at the record office. My wife, Penny, is also keenly interested in local history and is now embarking upon research for her PhD, so I have no doubt that she will also become a frequent visitor. Meanwhile, my own research into the history of Foleshill continues apace, and I hope that one day it will see the light.
Forty years is a pinprick on the canvas of history, but it is an enormous chunk of a human’s life. In establishments such as our record office, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic meet. Historians with varied interests and abilities arrive to savour the moment when they find a visual affinity with folk who have passed this way before. Today’s researchers, however, will eventually become part of that past that we are ourselves investigating. The record office staff are the enablers who serve as our link with the past and provide our hope for the future of local history research. Without that commitment, the lives of all of us who are enthralled by the past would be diminished, since we are what we are only because of what we have been.
During my own personal journey of investigation, Warwickshire County Record Office has been a significant ‘station-stop’, and I give humble and hearty thanks for the signal help and encouragement that I have received from members of the staff during that 40 year excursion ticket into the past.
This is an edited and abridged version of an article originally published in the Friends of the Warwickshire County Record Office Newsletter, March 1997, and is reproduced with their permission.