Behind the ever-developing theories and methods for working with archives, there are two central tenets that archivists can pretty much agree on: access and preservation.

This cataloguing project is targeted primarily at access, but as the rain fell and the river levels rose in York over the weekend, our attention switched back to preservation as we checked the basement in one of our strongrooms for flood water coming through the floor.

Water has always been a threat to records in York. The York civic records were once kept in St William’s chapel on Ouse Bridge (not the current bridge, or the one before, but the one before that), but by the late nineteenth century had ended up in the Guildhall. A strongroom was provided for them, but unfortunately it was in the basement by the river. In the introduction to his catalogue of 1909, deputy town clerk William Giles wrote:

 “They had been there but a very short time when the flood occurred which inundated the basement of the building and saturated the greater portion of the records, doing considerable damage to them.”

In October 1892, the river Ouse rose over 16 feet above its normal level, flooding many more streets, businesses and houses than was usual.

However, he noted that the damage actually went back much further than that particular flood as:

 “Some…were gradually mouldering away…and it was but a question of time when they would have fallen to pieces and [been] lost altogether.”

But good things can come from bad; if it hadn’t been for the 1892 flood Giles might never have spotted the poor condition of the records, secured expert advice and conservation and then written his list so that the City of York knew what it had and had a duty to protect. His catalogue only covers a part of the collection, but was written (in his spare time!) because preservation and access were important to him.

Catalogue of the charters, house books, freeman’s rolls, chamberlains’ etc accounts and other books, deeds, and old documents belonging to the corporation of York together with report on their renovation, compiled by William Giles, Deputy Town Clerk, [1909, City of York Corporation]
Whilst parchment and paper can be surprisingly robust, it’s still amazing the events records have endured, and that anything has come down to us at all! From wars and plagues, to fires and floods, what we survives today is what people before us preserved (accidentally or on purpose), and what archive repositories make accessible in the present, add to, and then pass on to the future.

Happily, we didn’t get flooded this weekend, but even if we had found a few puddles, the historical records will be fine as they are stored away from the basement (which is chiefly used for temporary storage of non-archival material). However, it is obviously not an ideal situation! So, work is underway on the Gateway to History project, a major bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund asking for around £1.5 million to help bring access and preservation at the archives up to 21st century standards. You can find out how it is going on the website, or sign up for occasional project newsletters by mailing gatewaytohistory@york.gov.uk with the subject line “Please add me to your mailing list”.

5 thoughts on “Floodwatch

  1. Another interesting posting. Love the embelishment with relevant photos. Bumped into Joy at Xplore and she said to stick my head in at Exhibition buildings to say hello, but unfortunately I had too tight a schedule that day – maybe another day? Are you there all the time?

  2. I was born and lived in York from 1928, until I was in my 40s then went off overseas and returned some years later, finally leaving again in my 70s to live in the USA following the death of my husband.
    I was so lucky as a child to roam the streets freely, wander round the walls to go to the library. visit York Market in the centre of York then on Saturdays.
    I played on Knavesmire, on Scarcroft too, the swings there were in constant use when school was out. We queud t get on. We made many a hole too outside the school gates and played marbles with our lovely glass marbles. Rowntrees Park was a favourite too, it had an aviary then I remember. plus the waterfall down the side of the way in from Bishopthorpe road side. I let go of my sister pushchair and she went off down the hill and ended up under water near the bridge to my horror. Mr Bell the park keeper rescued her thank goodness, loaned me his daughters push chair and clothes and kept ours until I returned theirs and the clothes.
    We swam in the river too near Ouse Bridge oftenin trouble if found out.
    I loved to go down Stonegate and up the allley ways. Your feet clanged and echod of the walls as you went
    I remember a gas light outside no. 5 Moss Street, and seeing the long pole appear outisde my bedroom window as the man lit the lamp which made my room light too.
    The old grille in the ground outside the old church down church street, as it turned into railway street, where an old woman was supposed ot have sat down and begged fo alms.
    York had so much to offer to children then and I spent we spent hours
    at the weekends wandering around.
    Characters like Charlie Thornton the vocal pressman with his newspaper round. Ron Buckle with his bakery in Micklegate and on the Mount.
    Almgills with their sweet and tobacconis shops on Blossom Street,
    Priscilla at “Coxs where we ot home made icecream. she had a loud and cheerful greeting always. Percy Watson with his Chemist shop on the corner of ‘Queen Street. Dr. Macpherson with his sleek Jaguar type car.
    I worked for him at 14 years old as a receptionist 9am to 7.30pm at night plus sat. am
    It was a family area then dad and mum knew everyone.
    Kitch as my dad was called stood outside Forselius often and would chat to everyone between his work times. every taxi driver knew Kitch !
    Pubs had their clientele, there werent so many youngsters drinking then, mainly the more mature customer who wanted a quiet evening out to chat to friends.
    Young people went to the Albany, coop, and the De Grey room dances each weekend and danced awaya to live groups or records.
    The forces in the war years brought much business to them and many a a marriage resulted.

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