Closure of Brighton History Centre

On Saturday 30 March 2013, Brighton History Centre closed its doors to the public for the last time. It was a sad day – for staff and customers – but it also marked a turning point, a time to look to the future. Our task for the coming months is to prepare and pack the collections for their move to The Keep, which is due to open towards the end of this year.

The History Centre opened ten years ago, but its glorious location has been in use as a library and reading room – and a place of learning and reflection – for much longer. It seems appropriate, then, to spend a few moments looking back at this chapter in the building’s history, before advancing into a brave new world.

An early view of the reference library, which later became the History Centre
An early view of the reference library, which later became the History Centre

We’ve written in previous blogs about the basic chronology, when parts of the royal stables first became a public library, art gallery and museum, and about its later enlargement and remodelling.  In this post, we’re less concerned with simple timelines than with capturing the spirit of the place – as far as possible using material from our own archives.

First glimpse: an article called Some Memories of Brighton, 1897-1914, written by Alfred Cecil Piper. At his father’s instigation, Piper joined the staff of Brighton Library in 1897, aged 14. He hadn’t specifically chosen this field but, as he noted wryly, ‘in those days, children had to obey their parents.’ One of six junior assistants, his working day began at 9am and ended at 10pm, with two hours for lunch, one hour for tea and one afternoon off per week; that’s a lot of hours for a 14-year-old.

Piper describes the appointment of Brighton’s first trained librarian, John Minto, who arrived in 1902, just as the reference library was moving into the first-floor room later occupied by the History Centre. Although he was director of the museum, art gallery and library, the impression given is that books were Minto’s first love; he is said to have painstakingly reclassified the whole library ‘almost single-handed, as none of the staff was qualified to help until he had trained them.’

Minto was followed by Henry D Roberts, a key figure in the history of the Royal Pavilion estate. In his historical account of the library, museum and art gallery, published in 1908, Roberts also paid tribute to Minto, who ‘reduced a chaotic collection of books to the splendidly classified library which Brighton is now fortunate enough to possess.’

Advert for a talk given at the library by museum curator Herbert Toms
Advert for a talk given at the library by museum curator Herbert Toms

Roberts himself was a different sort of man and, according to Piper, ‘was more interested in the Art Galleries than in the library’. It’s certainly true that he organised some ground-breaking exhibitions of modern art in the early years of the 20th century, but he was ambitious for the library too. Services introduced during his years at the helm included visits for schools and other local groups, and a series of talks and lectures, some of them given by the influential archaeologist and curator Herbert Toms, who worked at Brighton Museum from 1897 to 1939. We take these things for granted today but 100 years ago, they were real innovations.

The library’s annual report for 1910 refers to a fine ‘Sussex collection’, underlining the importance of local material to the library and museum. Writing several decades later, former librarian Eileen Hollingdale explains that, ‘Right from its foundation, the library has always collected local history and as a result we have the richest collection in the county. We collect books, pamphlets, maps, prints, photographs, newspapers and periodicals.’ She also mentions Jimmy’s Cards, a unique index started by James Ambrose Feist, another former staff member. Many a question has been answered after a rummage through Jimmy’s Cards, and we are happy to say that this treasure trove of information will be moving with us to The Keep.

Much of our time at the History Centre was spent dealing with enquiries, and we were surprised to learn that a telephone enquiry service was set up as early as 1911. Few people would have had a phone at that time, which suggests a willingness on the library’s part to embrace new technology. Henry Roberts would no doubt have thoroughly approved of our use of email and social media, not to mention this blog, as a way of reaching out to people.

The questions we were asked ranged from the very specific or personal – Who lived in this house? Where did my ancestor die? When was this church built? – to the more general or esoteric. We have been quizzed about buildings and institutions that are long gone, about people who have shaped our city, for better or worse, and about hundreds of other subjects, from theatres, railways, trams and tourism to local politics, slum clearances, smugglers and suffragettes. The ongoing digitisation of our records has made it easier to pull different resources together – a newspaper article here, an obscure pamphlet there, perhaps a photograph, a biographical cutting, and a school magazine, too. The research has been an education in itself, and we have all learnt so much in the process.

The architecture of the Royal Pavilion estate has in the past been described as ‘in itself quite a museum’, and the History Centre’s physical environment did in some ways come to define it. But the building, however beautiful, was never the whole story. We believe that the collections will continue to inspire and educate, entertain and inform, in a very different setting.

Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre

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