Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Heading to Number 10

When I am in meetings my mobile is switched off and like so many, I pick up messages later on.  This is just what I did the other week. However you can imagine my surprise to receive a message from the office of Number 10 Downing Street – not one I have had before! It was a request to West Sussex County Council to take our copy of the Declaration of Independence to display during the State Visit of the President of the USA to Number 10 on Tuesday.

Now I have to admit I have had some interesting requests as Leader of West Sussex County Council but this one tops them all. This Declaration of Independence is a verified copy of the original document. We think it arrived on our shores in the late 18th or first half of the 19th century and was held by the 3rd Duke of Richmond and Gordon, who was known as ‘Radical Duke’ because of his support for the Americans during the Revolution. As far as we know it has been in West Sussex since then and now forms part of the county’s history.
As a copy, the Sussex Declaration, as it is known, has a few differences from the original. Firstly, it is written on sheepskin and not on the superior quality of calfskin.  Secondly all the signatories are written out by name on our document rather than their actual signatures.  It is exquisitely handwritten using quill and ink and it is obvious much time and effort must have been put into preparing the parchment. Whether there were copies made for each signatory we will never know, but one thing we do know is this is the only copy to be found and verified.

This very special document is safely stored in our Record Office where it has been since the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until April 2017, the full significance of the document was revealed by Harvard University. Detailed scientific tests were carried out and the results analysed by conservation scientists at the British Library, the Library of Congress and the University of York including multi-spectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence, and DNA testing. Imaging revealed a date beneath an erasure on the document. The date reads either “July 4, 178” or “July 4, 179”. It is impossible to say whether there was originally a fourth digit in the year, but it certainly is a long time ago.

As you can imagine this is not a document that you can just roll up, tuck under your arm and nip up to Number 10. So there have been quite a few phone calls between the council and Number 10 to make arrangements, not only to transport this treasured document but also to agree how best it is displayed. Due to its age it is very delicate and of course ink fades easily so we have had to make painstaking plans to transport the document as well as display it when it is in No 10.
Fortunately there are now so many historians and conservators who are aware of the document and its significance, who have been very willing assist. So we are very grateful to Chris Woods of the National Conservation Service for helping us and to Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust for the loan of a specially-designed exhibition case, previously used to display the Magna Carta. There is a need for specialist transport too as the document must be stored at a set temperature at all times. Of course this is costly, but just to reassure you that Number 10 is paying for all the costs associated with the loan.

It has been a huge privilege to be involved in this project and I feel a mixture of pride and awe at the historical importance of the document. West Sussex Record Office is the guardian of the county’s history and we are very fortunate to have not only a fantastic history but also considerable records giving such a valuable insight into life in West Sussex over the centuries.

To be able to put on display the only other known ceremonial manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence -  a document owned by West Sussex County Council -  at Number 10 for the 42nd President’s visit, is quite momentous.

There are quite a few plans for additional research work around this document. Last year we received a grant from The Andrew W Mellon Foundation in New York, a first for any county Record Office in the UK to receive such a grant from this trust, of $100,000 dollars around £74,000. Plans are already underway to use that grant for our Transatlantic Ties Project which we will be revealing more about later this year.

2026 will be the 250th anniversary of American Independence and we are looking at what part our copy of the Declaration could play. So it’s exciting times ahead.

I am thrilled the historical significance of the Sussex Declaration is being recognised in the Presidential State Visit, however, I for one will be very happy when it returns to its home in the Record Office in Chichester.