Holkham Archives fit for the 21st century

May 23, 2023 | Treasure tales and archive snippets | 6 minute read

Everyone knows that the Holkham Estate is extensive. However, what is not so clearly known is the historical record, the archive, that documents this great estate is equally extensive. A very conservative estimate would suggest that there are more than 100,000 documents that record the various transactions and business decisions made by the Coke family, and later Earls of Leicester, as well as their personal papers and administrative papers of the estate and Hall. The earliest documents date from the 13th century and the latest are from 2023. Over the last few years, it was becoming very clear that the existing storage space in the Hall, a series of small-connected rooms, was inadequate and the stacks of boxes on every surface needed could not be a permanent solution.

In Spring 2020, it was agreed that the archive needed to be refurbished. The partition walls and wooden shelving would be removed, and new metal shelving that could make better use of the space installed. However, all plans were shelved (pardon the pun) with the arrival of the pandemic.

Roll forward 18 months and the project started to take shape. A new layout was agreed, shelving ordered, and tradesmen booked. All that remained now was to empty the archive.

Preparing for the move was a mammoth task and took much planning and careful consideration – not everything could be moved easily: some items needed to be boxed or wrapped up, and then every box needed to be clearly labelled. Before anything was moved, each box was given a colour-coded sticker categorising the type of record (deeds, accounts, household, estate, etc.) so that their eventual return to the archive and placement on the new shelving would be relatively easy!

Archive boxes are designed to offer protection to the volumes and papers they contain. They don’t readily fit into normal office relocation crates though and if they do, they tend to be extremely heavy to then move. Instead, thousands of boxes, crates, tins, and bundles were moved by foot down forty stairs to various locations in the Hall by the housemen.

Due to the very physical nature of the work, it took a few weeks to empty the archive which was combined with the preparations for Holkham at Christmas 2021. Work on the refurbishment started in early 2022 and access to the archive was completely out of action for eleven months.

As soon as the old layout had been removed it was very apparent that the new one-room store would have a much greater capacity. The walls were repaired and painted, new flooring laid, heating replaced, and new lighting installed in readiness for the new powder-coated steel shelving. At the same time, the old kitchenette was being transformed into an additional store, the bathroom remodelled to make a breakout space and the archive office decorated and for the first time carpeted.

The shelving arrived (flat-pack style) on a wet Friday morning in March. Weighing in at a little over two tonnes, the housemen brought it up to the archive. Once the store was nearing completion, the laborious task of constructing the shelving could start – thank you to the Hall Manager and members of his team! The siting of it had to be exact to the plans as the additional height meant it needed to fit with the lighting.

By early July, volumes and boxes were beginning to move back to the archive office and new stores. I was able to work in parallel with the housemen: they would retrieve the material and bring it to the archive then I was able to then put it in order on the shelves. As everything was taken out in an ad hoc basis, it came back in a fairly random order too. However, the coloured stickers were brilliant as I was able to group boxes together and make order out of what could easily have become chaos!

By the autumn, everything that had been taken out had been returned and was shelved first into broad categories and then arranged into the final order. There was even room for the records that had been in the archive office to now be stored more securely, and there’s expansion room for further accessions in the forthcoming decades!

The two stores were added to the environmental monitoring system used across the hall. Although there is no air conditioning in the stores, the monitoring suggests that both rooms are stable and are reassuringly within recommended ranges for temperature and humidity.

The archive office was reconfigured to make best use of the space and natural light. Key history and research books and finding aids were unpacked. My first group visit was booked for just before Christmas with a display of some of the ‘treasures’ of the collection as well as showing the new stores to the Holkham Estate Trustees and Directors.

2023 has seen further group visits, reopening of the archive to academics and professional researchers, being able to use the records to answer lots of enquiries, and to continue cataloguing the amazing collections.

Lucy Purvis


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