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'The Keep' saves East Sussex archive from exile

By Nick Tarver
BBC Sussex

Two boys from Telscombe pictured in 1904
Interest in family history has greatly increased in Sussex

It will be the new state-of-the-art home for much of East Sussex's history, including rare 900-year-old royal letters and Edwardian photographs.

But the new historical resource centre, or 'The Keep', due to be built at Woollards Field near Falmer, has also saved the county from the possibility of losing its public archives.

The current East Sussex Record Office at The Maltings, in Lewes, holds letters sent by Henry I in 1101, maps dating back centuries and detailed public records helping visitors trace their family history.

But in 2006 The National Archive inspected the office - where records have been stored for the last 60 years - and described it as "not fit for purpose".

A CGI image of The Keep
The Keep will be the most 'sustainable archive building in the country'

The damning verdict meant the public records could have been taken out of the county and moved to a newer archive - possibly even in Hull or Cumbria - while East Sussex County Council footed the bill for their upkeep.

The threat gave the project to build a new archive fresh impetus, with planning permission being granted in December 2010.

It is expected contracts will be signed in April and building work due to start this summer.

The Keep will store records from the county council, Brighton and Hove City Council and the Special Collections of the University of Sussex.

The purpose built nature of the building will be brilliant and we're relishing the day when we can start moving in
Colin Excell

It will also include the headquarters and library of the Sussex Family History Group.

Wendy Walker, programme manager for The Keep, said archives have to meet strict atmospheric tests for the storing of paper, parchment and electronic records.

"The records could have been taken away and we would've had to pay for them to be kept," she said.

"There's a new archive open in Hull and one in Cumbria, so there's a chance they could have gone there.

"We would stay in The Maltings with the non-public records and they would deteriorate rapidly.

"Obviously that was a key driver to get it built, but that being said, building an archive to specifications is not cheap. It's something you only do once and therefore you need to get it right."

The project is expected to cost £19 million in total, with £12 million being footed by East Sussex County Council and the rest by the other partners.

A letter from Henry I to the Abbot of Battle Abbey
This letter from Henry I granted key legal powers to the Abbot of Battle Abbey

It will house over six miles of archive in the temperature-controlled repository block, with space to grow until 2032, storing written records, maps, plans, films, photographs, prints and drawings.

According to Mrs Walker it will be the "most sustainable archive building in the country".

A biomass boiler fed by wood chips will heat The Keep, rainwater will be harvested, while solar panels will help provide electricity and hot water.

And with public interest in family history having greatly increased following the BBC One programme Who Do You Think You Are?, Mrs Walker hopes The Keep will be a "one stop shop" for historical research.

Colin Excell, chairman of the Sussex Family History Group, which has 4,500 members worldwide, said he was overjoyed when the group was approached about being based there.

"The purpose built nature of the building will be brilliant and we're relishing the day when we can start moving in," he said.

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