Surrey History Centre in Woking

Celebrating its 10th birthday this year, Surrey History Centre in Woking is home to an amazing archive of documents that trace Surrey's entire history. MATTHEW WILLIAMS went along to discover more about this extraordinary place

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2008  


Anyone reading their morning newspapers recently may have noticed a story claiming the heritage of the all-American game of baseball for Surrey. The source of this revelation was none other than Woking's Surrey History Centre, who were responsible for validating the diaries of William Bray, in which the once county historian of Surrey mentions playing the game in Guildford in 1755. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Inside this extraordinary place, you will find nearly six miles of strongroom shelving, packed full with records spanning everything from a parchment deed dating to the reign of Henry II, in the 12th century, to the hair and teeth that a distant relative of Napoleon Bonaparte sent to a housekeeper at Claremont! The centre also happens to be celebrating its tenth birthday this year, which is the main reason I am standing beneath a tapestry depicting Surrey's history through the ages, meeting centre manager Julian Pooley and archivist Di Stiff on a cold wet morning. "We get requests from as far away as Fiji," says Julian, taking us off to sunnier climes. "Usually, just e-mails but quite often these are followed up with personal visits. We get a lot of Australians and Americans, who are just visiting the country and want to learn more about their family who emigrated from here." Who do you think you are? It's not just Surrey ex-pats, however, that SHC helps to trace their family roots. The centre recently had the BBC along filming for the series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which researchers delve back into the lives of a famous personality's ancestry. "Unfortunately, though, we're sworn to secrecy!" says Julian. "All we can say is that we will be appearing in a future series. We've helped them out before actually, for example, with actor John Hurt's appearance on the programme. What impressed me about it all was that the person they were researching really has no idea until they are presented with the information. It's an incredibly intense investigation of somebody's background; no wonder they get emotional." The show has proved such a hit that SHC now runs regular workshops throughout Surrey's libraries based on the same premise. Family trees are a big draw but local property history also turns out to be one of the key areas of interest from the average visitor. "In some cases, it can add value to a property, particularly if someone famous has lived there," says Di Stiff. "But in most instances, people are just following up an interest in local history or looking to get a sense of place. "Sometimes, the odd little quirks of a home can be solved by finding out its past use. A family might wonder why their house has got such a disproportionate fireplace in one room. Looking back through the records, they may discover that their family home was once the village bakery." When it opened in 1998, SHC was provided with space for 20 years' growth and they are well on course for that, receiving records from all over: historic Surrey families and estates, law courts and even hospitals. It was one such load in the Nineties that made it very clear a centralised point of reference was needed for the county's records. Surrey's mental hospitals were closing at a rapid rate and archivists were receiving lorry loads of records every week. At the time, the department was fragmented all over the county, which made it quite a challenge to accrue all the records that were passed on. "We were at Kingston in County Hall; Guildford Muniment Room, next to the museum; we had a processing centre in an old 19th century school in Ewell, which was lovely; the local studies library in Guildford; and there was a small cellar behind the gymnasium at Guildford College," explains Julian. "That last one in particular was most alarming. You'd be going down there moving all these boxes around and you'd have this work-out music beating in the background from the gym." Through the looking glass Archiving, preservation and research are now all brought together under one Woking roof. Among other records, SHC holds the Lewis Carroll archives - the Alice in Wonderland author is buried in Guildford; the Loseley Manuscripts - the archive of the 500 years of the More-Molyneux family at Loseley Park; and the Gertrude Jekyll collection - original works by the famous garden designer. The list is endless and thorough. All of these records are held in the centre's strongrooms, which before visiting I half expected to be reminiscent of Harry Potter's vault at Gringotts, buried deep beneath the earth and half way to Australia by now. So, it's something of a surprise that they are just your average back room. Well, I say your average back room, but what I really mean is a temperature controlled, 20ft high shelved - rows of which move at just the crank of an arm - back room, packed full of some of Surrey's most valuable historical records. It's an impressive sight to say the least and one that belies the centre's front of house (the searchroom), which is more comfortable library than nerve centre of county history. Visitors are often surprised that they can handle the actual historic documents and it is this sense of touching history that really gives people a thrill. For Julian, it is an excitement that he still experiences now. "One day, I found a letter from William Bray - we hold the archives of Bray and he is someone I have published work about - where he is saying to a friend in London: 'If you've got any pictures of Surrey, I'd love to add them to my collection'," says Julian. "So, I ran back here to look at the catalogues but there was no reference to this collection of illustrations. I was a little disappointed and you tend to assume that they must not have survived... "Just recently, though, I was talking to the family and they mentioned that they'd been having a sort-out and didn't know what to do with the pile of pictures they had just found... It turned out to be William's picture library," he says, as thrilled today as he was on their first discovery. "These were not just engravings but original sketches and watercolours from some of the greatest antiquarian artists of the day. They include this fantastic panorama of Dorking in about 1790. A friend of mine recognised the work as by an artist he was researching and so all of a sudden from this unknown sketch, with no annotation at all, we knew who collected it and who drew it. That's exciting." It's at this point that I'm fortunate enough to be shown a few of the images that make up Bray's collection. Instantly, the likes of Priory Park, Reigate; Esher Park (now Claremont); Oatlands, Weybridge; and, of course, the famous Dorking picture transport me back a couple hundred years. It's incredible seeing such fragile sketches of these views, many of which are already so vividly imprinted in my psyche. Strangely enough, it is Bray and his diaries that lead us on to the baseball discovery. Anyone for baseball? "This new Bray diary came to light, discovered in somebody's shed in Surrey," says Julian. "A local historian called Tricia St John Barry noticed that on Easter Monday in 1755, Bray 'went to Miss Geale's to play at Base Ball'. "Meanwhile, over in the States, Major League Baseball had just made a documented film history of the game. When they were originally putting the piece together, this lady saw a report on the telly that mentioned the earliest recording of the game was in 1798. She thought, 'no it isn't, I've got a record upstairs that says otherwise'. So she phoned the BBC, who contacted the American producers, who Googled William Bray and found us. So unexpected and it literally was uncovered in a tattered garden shed." And then, earlier this year, BBC's Newsnight told the story of 50 women identified as typhoid carriers who were locked up for life in Long Grove sanatorium in Epsom from 1907 until the early Nineties. Julian has been working closely with the Newsnight team to attempt to piece together the truth of what is a fascinating story. "It's extraordinary how much interest came out of that - it's the human element to the story," says Julian. "Just after the programme came out, I had a chap from Canada e-mail. He had been looking into the disappearance of his cousin in 1920 - the family had been told she had run away. He was dismayed to find out that she had been one of the women at Long Grove and he wanted to know the whys and wherefores. "We managed to get him access to his family records and it rounded off something that had worried him for a long time. Perhaps it wasn't the ending that was hoped for, but the closure on the issue really meant something to him. It happens time and time again: families wanting to know the full story. "If the families come forward, we can look deeper into the issue because a lot of these records are restricted. It's something that I want to help get to the bottom of. What was actually wrong with these ladies and why were they at the asylum? The angle that the BBC gave was that they were in the unit because they had typhoid. Yeah, that's true. But, a lot of them were in the hospital because they were mentally ill in the first place and that didn't quite come out." And on that note, it's time for Julian to field another call from Newsnight, Di to return to archiving the county's history and me to make my way back to Woking train station - my head brimming with the stories of Surrey's past.

Surrey History Centre, 130 Goldsworth Road, Woking, Surrey GU21 6ND Telephone: 01483 518737


Surrey History Centre in numbers

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>> It has received more than 50,000 inquiries in the last decade from members of the public in Surrey, the UK and the rest of the world >> Over 90,000 people have visited its searchroom - more than the total capacity of Wembley Arena >> On nearly six miles of shelving, it preserves millions of documents including records spanning four centuries of the history of the Surrey regiments, which occupy 45m of shelving >> In order to preserve the records in the main strongroom, the temperature is kept at a steady, and chilly, 13 to 16 degrees >> It was officially opened in 1998 by the Prince of Wales, who particularly loved its exhibition of drawings and watercolours by the great garden designer Gertrude Jekyll >> Its oldest document is a parchment deed dating to the reign of Henry II in the 12th century