Monday, 2 July 2018

Once upon a time in America

Our West Sussex County Records Office is set back on Orchard Street, Chichester. It is a building you may have driven past many times but its fa├žade belies the wonderful historic treasures carefully stored away for safe keeping; the repository for todays and yesterday’s history.

West Sussex County is blessed to be steeped in history. The Romans landed here, some at Fishbourne, King Canute in Bosham, the estates of Norfolk and Goodwood, Georgian Chichester to East Grinstead and everything in between there is a long history. And thankfully much of that history is recorded for posterity with many records of times past and not so long ago.

Some that fascinate me include the Archie Mckindoe Guinea Pig Club records detailing ground-breaking medical techniques which were the for runner of plastic surgery today tucked away in our Records Office.  

Even more recently some will recall the Shoreham Memorial digital archive set up three years ago following the tragedy at the Shoreham Airshow to preserve and honour the many messages of remembrance that were left. This one of the first archive of its kind in the country and now we are helping others to look at how they can do the same.

Photos, registers, parish maps, diaries, are just a few of the examples of items handed over to our Records Office over the years to be held for posterity.

Many people visit the Records Office whether undertaking their family history, viewing old maps and plans etc. As well as other requests from institutions undertaking a special research project, which is what happened when a request came in from Harvard University via the prestigious British Library when they were trying to trace a document relating to the Declaration of Independence that was approved by the Continental congress on the 4th July 1776.

The Declaration of Independence  detailed why the congress (made up at that time of 13 British Colonies – although 12 states vote for independence and New York abstained) had resolved that these United Colonies ought to be free Independent states. It was momentous as it was birth of the USA and Independence Day is celebrated every year on the 4th July.

Since 1952 the original parchment Declaration of Independence document has resided in the National Archives exhibition hall in Washington DC. But  a copy of this Declaration has been residing in our County Records office for a few decades too!

The document is written not on calf’s parchment but on the slightly inferior sheep’s parchment although slightly faded the declaration is beautifully handwritten with all the signatory names listed but not the signatures.

It is hard to explain the huge sense of history when I was so privileged to view the document. It is an exquisite piece of history which must have been painstakingly written not under modern light but by daylight and candlelight using a quill and ink. Hard to imagine how long it took, I wonder what the scriber thought as he wrote away.  

Harvard University have run assessments on this document and have confirmed its authenticity as an original prepared at the time  of the Declaration – a copy – but what a copy!

Carefully stored away it remains at our Records Office a gem of a treasure in a house of treasures – West Sussex County Council’s Records Office.
So as we approach the 4th July happy Independence Day from here in Sussex across the pond to America.

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