The new home for the Hull's historic archives

PUBLISHED: 08:31 12 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:09 20 February 2013

A conservator at work

A conservator at work

Behind the scenes of Hull's new multi-million pound archive. Jo Haywood reports

Most of us have a box or two of memorabilia stashed away in our attic, but Hull History Centre has 28,000. Add them to its mind-boggling collection of books, volumes, document bundles, pamphlets, photographs, paintings and maps and you could span the Humber Bridge four times.

There is a staggering amount of material in the citys new archive, which brings together collections held by the City Archives, the Local Studies Library and the University of Hull for the first time under one roof in a purpose-built 9.8 million centre at the junction of Worship Street and Freetown Way.

The ground-breaking project between Hull City Council and the university the first partnership of its kind in the country was made possible by a generous 7.7 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This was the largest grant Hull had ever received and was the largest offered to any UK archive project.

Wed been talking about it for at least 10 years, said university archivist Judy Burg. But it wasnt until we got that money that we could actually put our plans into action.

The first action point was to create a new state-of-the-art building to house the collections with a striking glass walkway edged with beams shaped to look like rippling waves. Situated at the heart of the city alongside Hull New Theatre, the centre has transformed a dull, grey car park into an architectural gem surrounded by its own small but lush park.

Once that box was ticked, it was time to move on to the next, and some might argue even trickier stage: sorting, packing, labelling, cataloguing and transporting the three separate archives to their new home.

It took six months of unadulterated hard slog, but it wasnt without its lighter moments.
We found a large crate of 19th century letters, said David Smith of the Local Studies Library. And just last week we found a huge filing cabinet of photographs. Some people might think it would be a bit of a chore to sort through all that lot, but that couldnt be further from the truth. There is nothing more interesting than looking through someone elses letters.

His enthusiasm for his work he literally rubs his hand together with glee when talking about his latest finds is matched by that of Carol Tanner, a senior archivist with the former City Archives.

We have 25,500 fishing crew lists from 1894 to 1914, she said. Thats a massive amount of information covering a relatively short period of time. Its amazing when you think about it.
In fact, the whole place is amazing, from its airy, glass-encased reception, exhibition and refreshment space to its atmospherically-controlled storage area where 13km of shelves are kept at a constantly monitored 17 degrees and 55 per cent humidity.

Among the myriad boxes tucked away in its cool caverns are the citys borough archives, dating back to 1299; records relating to Hulls port and docks; papers reflecting the citys strong maritime history; records relating to local and national politics and pressure groups; maps, plans and newspapers; and more than 100,000 photographs and illustrations.

There are also impressive collections of papers, letters and books relating to notable individuals like 17th century poet Andrew Marvell, Philip Larkin (the contents of his bookcase have a row of shelves all to themselves), politician and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and airwoman Amy Johnson, including 286 of her hand-written letters.

Everything is under one roof for the first time, said Judy. It makes so much sense, we cant believe it hasnt been done before.

Following her, David and Carol around the maze of rooms over two floors that make up Hull History Centre, it soon becomes obvious that this is a meticulously researched building. Every room was built with a specific purpose in mind and each links fluidly with the next.

There is a delivery area large enough for a van full of historical goodies to reverse into; a lecture theatre with room for 120 delegates; roomy office space (weve never had our own desks and phones before); an information centre with 7,500 reference books, computers, WiFi and a flat screen TV showing films of Hull; a quiet study area; a cataloguing room; and a conservation room with three surreal looking vacuums that suck dust, debris and fumes out of the air.

There is also an isolation room, which sounds very high-tech and sci-fi but actually has a much more down-to-earth purpose.
We put new material in the isolation room to make sure its not full of paper-eating bugs or mould before putting it in with the main archive, said Carol. We had to get pest control in at the old city archive more than once. The last time we called them was for an infestation of furry bears.

No, not of the clawed, humongous, honey eating variety. These were of the creepy-crawly, wiggly, paper-eating kind.
But not everything makes it to the isolation room. The archive is constantly growing as people hand over their family papers, books and historical treasures for professional conservation, but that doesnt mean that there is room for everything.

We do say no to people sometimes, said Carol. We have to appraise everything and decide whats relevant and has a wider interest.
People often offer us old newspapers theyve found under carpets, said David, but we have to decline.
And old cheque book stubs too, added Carol. People are obsessed with those but they are of no interest to anyone else.

So, there is nothing at the new archive for cheque book stub fans, but there is plenty for anyone who is researching their family history or looking into the rich heritage of their home city. You just have to make your way through the glass doors and ask.

Part of the joy of working in a building like this is that its very open, said Judy. People walking past can look in and see what were up to. The archives were a bit of a closed book before and few people knew how to access them.

We want this to be a well-used building. We want people to come in and make use of the facilities we have here now and to appreciate the depth of history right on their doorstep.

For more information, opening times and event details, visit the Hull History Centre website at

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