Strongrooms past and present

Hello and welcome to a slightly delayed post due to the Bank Holiday weekend. One of the fun parts of having a blog, is looking at the statistics to see where people are coming from to visit the site. So far I’ve had over 2000 hits from 21 countries on every continent apart from Antarctica which is pretty cool.

Now the blog has been up a while I’m starting to get more generic searches bringing people in. This is really exciting as it means the blog has a wider relevance and usefulness than just this project. This week I’ve had several hits from people who searched Google for something to do with “strongrooms” and found me! So, here we are with some further info on everyone’s favourite bit of the archive.

Why have strongrooms?

Yet again we have to go back to the big two, Preservation and Access. Archives are always under threat from:

  • Fire
  • Water
  • Theft
  • Pests such as insects and mice
  • Pollutants
  • UV light
  • Incorrect humidity and temperature

A strongroom is one of the ways we try to protect against them – a designated secure place with controlled access.

Though the threats may be the same, solutions vary depending on resources, purpose and technology. I’m clearly not intending to write a monograph on the development of the strongroom but here are couple that I’ve spent time in personally, dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.

Brasenose College Muniment Room

As Oxford colleges historically relied on landed estates for income, they accumulated a lot of property paperwork. Unlike today where deeds are registered, the physical bundles of parchment recording centuries-worth of sequential transactions were the legal proof of ownership. They had to be kept safe and easily to hand (preservation and access!) and often this was done in a purpose built muniment room.

Brasenose College Oxford
Image source: MykReeve,

The one in Brasenose College is on the top floor of the square tower over the main entrance. It’s built in stone, which is good fire protection, and has tiny windows and one access staircase which helps prevent against theft. When it was built the surrounding buildings were lower, so it would have stood very tall. The most precious records, such as the college’s  founding charter, would have been kept even more  secure in a muniment chest. I don’t have a picture of the Brasenose one, but it was built by carpenters inside the room itself and so is too big to fit down the narrow spiral staircase (visible as the rounded corner on the left of the tower) – a great anti-theft measure!

These sturdy oak muniment chests often had more than one lock so that several keyholders had to open it at the same time, in order to stop any one individual embezzling funds! Here is a dramatic example from The National Archives, which is covered in iron, was used by the Chancery, and dates from the 14th century.

14th century muniment chest for storing archives
Image source: The National Archives, Wikipedia Commons

The Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster

On a much larger scale is the Victoria tower, at Parliament. The Houses of Parliament (technically the Palace of Westminster) were built in the 1840s-1870s  to replace the Old Palace which was destroyed in the fire of 1834. Some of the oldest parts of the building survived, but much was lost forever including the original records of the House of Commons. Ironically, the fire itself was started by workmen burning old tally sticks – financial records made of bits of wood.

The Victoria Tower, home to the Parliamentary Archives
Images source: Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons

When the new Palace was built the architects were specifically instructed to include some kind of fireproof repository to keep the records safe in future. Their answer was the Victoria tower. More famous for being the Queen’s entrance to the Palace (you’ll see her pass under the archway during state opening), it actually contains 12 floors of archive strongrooms including an extra-secure one for Acts of Parliament.

There is a brilliant interactive tour on the Parliamentary archives website  that I really recommend. The sprial staircase that goes up the inside of the Tower was  supplemented with a small lift in the twentieth century.

City of York Archives  

Jumping forward to the present day, new archive strongrooms are not typically built in towers, but are housed in a mixture of purpose built or repurposed buildings.  Our current strongrooms fall into the latter category, being formed in the twentieth century from part of the nineteenth century Art Gallery building. You’ve already seen the basement in a previous post, so today I’ll introduce you to strongroom 1. Obviously I can’t describe all the  security measures, as that would be counter-productive, but I can show you around.

Archive corridor mosiac from former Art School

In the corridor outside we have a mosaic tile floor – left over from when the space was used as an art school. Archive corridors should always have smooth level floors (not thick carpet) so you can wheel trolleys piled high with records along them quickly and safely.

Here’s one of the secure metal doors with an additional security grille, protection against theft and fire.

Metal strongroom door and security gate

 Inside, here is the central aisle which you’ve no doubt seen before on this blog and our main website:

Archive strongroom

Looking a little more closely we can see that strongroom one is not ideal protection against all the threats in my list, as it has windows which let light in during the daytime.

Windows in archive strongroom

There’s also a slight problem to do with our largest plan, one of the ones that will be catalogued in the course of this project.

Archive strongroom 1 with large plan
Our largest plan, propped up in the corner. It’s a good thing we inherited high ceilings from the Art School!

 It was moved into the strongroom alright, but subsequently a lift shaft for the art gallery has been built to the left  between it and the door, and to get it out we will have to lift it over the all the shelving under the window in the previous photo. I will definitely be on hand with my camera when we attempt that manoeuvre in the Spring!

So there we have a couple of archive strongrooms past and present. I’ve run out of space for today so I’ll do a post on up to date purpose-built archives another time so you can see how the same threats to the preservation of documents are being mitigated in new and increasingly energy efficient ways in the 21st century.

5 thoughts on “Strongrooms past and present

  1. Four years at Brasenose, I had no idea that after Principals’ Collections I could have popped upstairs for a bit of sneaky theft! Though if ever there’s grounds for getting kicked out…

    1. I wish I could remember the layout better, it’s been a few years since I was there but you could probably find more info in the quincentenary book. Oxbridge colleges have some amazing archives and keep then in a bizarre range of places – I’ve even heard of some being stored in a tunnel!

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