The Story of the BRO

The Berkshire Record Office: how it all began

(Article written in 2008)

This year (2008) sees the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Berkshire Record Office. Today, BRO includes seven linear miles of shelving in a suite of purpose-built and environmentally controlled strongrooms, together with research space for up to 50 people, a multi-purpose function room for talks or exhibitions, and a bespoke conservation studio. But it wasn’t always like that, and the development of the BRO can be seen alongside the growth of family and local history research over the same period.

Our story begins nearly 70 years ago, just before the outbreak of World War Two.

Hitler intervenes, though not personally

By 1939, 20 English shire counties had established a County Record Office. Berkshire was not one of them. A few years previously the Clerk to Berkshire County Council, Mr Harold Neobard, had gained approval from the Master of the Rolls to store manorial records. Within three years around 500 documents had been deposited with the Council, in addition to the Quarter Sessions and other county records already they held.

A County Records Committee was constituted in the February, and met for the first time on 11 July 1939 at 2.30pm. It received a ‘confidential’ report from the Clerk, who reported that ‘I have been forced to the conclusion that the time has arrived when the Council should engage an archivist and set up a Muniment Room’. The Committee agreed to appoint an Archivist from 1 April 1940 on the salary of £250.

War, however, intervened, and no appointment was made. Documents continued to be collected though, notably in 1943 when the Poor Law Guardians’ records were transferred. The Committee next met on New Year’s Eve 1947, and agreed again to appoint an Archivist, although this time on a salary of £450. Felix Hull was duly recruited from Essex Record Office, and began work on 10 August 1948. It is this date that we are celebrating as the true start of BRO.

First things first

Felix’s first task was to take an inventory of his inherited collections. His office accommodation and a research area (‘Student’s Room’) were provided in the basement of the old Shire Hall in The Forbury, Reading. The first visitors would have found some similarities with today – no bags, no smoking, please sign the visitors book – but were required to give at least 3 days’ notice of wanting to visit, had to supply a reference from a JP or public body and could bring in pens if they wanted. The Office was open Monday to Friday, from 9.30am-1.00pm and then 2.15pm-5.00pm, and anyone engaged in business research (including family history work on behalf of others) had to pay 6s 8d per hour. Tracing a map would set you back a further shilling.

The first customers were a mix of academics and local antiquarians. Felix’s first searcher was Sir Henry Braund of Upton, who came in on 13 August 1948 to look at the Upton enclosure award. By the end of the year Felix had received 21 visitors. He held his first group visit to the Office in July 1949, when 35 members of the Reading Institute of Education came round to look at a display of Finchampstead and White Waltham records.

The first strongrooms were also in the basement of Shire Hall, and might better be described as vaults. Doors and windows were a source of worry, but they had been racked with Edwardian iron when built, and the size of those racks has influenced our box sizes to this day. Towards the end of 1951, the Record Office moved next door into the basement of the old Assize Courts (now part of Reading Crown Court). For the first time, the Record Office had a proper searchroom, with space for 12 visitors, and gained a further three vaults. By 1959 it had also gained a repair room, though it had no conservators on the staff. 

The Record Office had to operate side-by-side with Court business. One of the vaults was off the corridor which led to the cells, where prisoners were caged on the day they were awaiting trial. When the court was sitting, Record Office staff had to ring a bell to be let through into the vault to retrieve documents. If a prisoner was considered dangerous, the warders would refuse access, and searchers would have to be asked to come back to view their document another day. The searchroom door was also at the foot of the stairs leading to the cells, and it was not unknown for loved-ones to rush into the searchroom, intending to give a fond farewell to a prisoner before he was sent down.

It was a very different time, with different attitudes. When County Archivist Will Smith sought to increase the number of staff from four to five in 1964, he said ‘that since some of the work connected with the reception, storing, and production of records is heavy for females, there is urgent need for an additional male officer of junior rank’ and that ‘a junior appointee was envisaged’. He could later report that ‘no junior applicant (the youngest being aged 22, who was found to be unsuitable), the post has therefore been filled by a middle-aged man’.

She’s leaving home

By the time the first Berkshire Record Office shut its doors on 1 October 1980, it barely resembled the little office set up by Felix Hull over 30 years before. During its final year in the old Assize Courts it had received 2,553 visitors. Family and other leisure historians were beginning to swell the ranks, and letters of introduction had long since been abandoned. The opening hours were now 9.00am-5.30pm Monday-Wednesday, 9.00am-7.30pm on Thursday, and 9.00am-4.30pm on Friday (though a lunchtime closure remained from 1.00pm-2.15pm each day). BRO had gained more office space and a further vault too, and also taken on the Reading Borough archives at Tilehurst Library, and a further store in Minster Street. Altogether it controlled 2 miles of shelving. It had also seen its staffing increase from one to ten, with the first conservator having finally been appointed in 1972.

By the time that County Archivist Angela Green wrote her annual report in 1978, she concluded that it ‘has again been a year not without its problems, one of the greatest being the cramped accommodation in the offices, the searchroom and the strongrooms. The hope of improved quarters in the new building, however, draws nearer’.

That new building was the new Berkshire County Council headquarters, the Shire Hall at Shinfield Park. A new county headquarters had been planned since the 1960s, and the Shinfield Park site was chosen only after plans for new offices close to The Forbury were abandoned. The Record Office’s part in the move began on 5 December and carried on until 15 January. Almost inevitably, the accommodation wasn’t ready, and work continued to complete it beyond the re-opening of the new Office on 26 January 1981.

So Office one was no more, and Office two would be the BRO’s home for the next 20 years. The challenges of the first BRO had been to deal with rapid expansion – of collections, of storage, and of enquiries. These challenges would be magnified in the information explosion that was to come.

The Berkshire Record Office: how it all continued

This year (2008) sees the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Berkshire Record Office, the archives service for the Royal County. In this second part of BRO’s history, we look at the story of the Office between 1981 and today.

2-4-6-8 Motorway

In 1981, the Record Office moved with the rest of Berkshire County Council to the new Shire Hall at Shinfield Park, Reading, beside junction 11 of the M4. County Archivist Amanda Arrowsmith wrote that the new Office enjoyed ‘ample free car parking’ as well as the ‘Shire Hall restaurant open to visitors for meals and snacks’. More long-established searchers may remember both the restaurant and the mini-shop, the Shire Kabin. Opening hours were varied too – Monday morning openings were lost in favour of a new extended Thursday opening until 9pm.

The new Office enjoyed new fixtures and fittings, and much greater storage and research space. For the first time, all the staff and collections were together in one place. But this had come at a cost – neither the strongrooms, searchroom nor the offices had any windows. As Adam Green later commented, the Office had acquired ‘cleaner and more commodious premises in the bowels of the new Shire Hall…staff were not as pleased as documents at being entirely cut off from natural light’. The Office was also buried far away from the entrance to the building. Visitors could easily get lost, and Amanda encouraged them to ask for help if they did.

The lack of sight lines in the strongrooms also made some visitors feel uncomfortable. One member of the County Council’s legal team regularly reported sensing a green ghost in the smallest strongroom. Staff knew that the Ministry of Defence had occupied the site during World War Two, so it
was possible that previous inhabitants might have left a guest behind. But despite a certain reluctance to venture into the smallest strongroom alone, no one in BRO ever saw the ghost.

Significantly for BRO, after the move to Shire Hall it was also asked for the first time to run a Modern Records Centre, to manage the County’s current records. Readers might like to note that this innovation was supposed to kick-start the paperless office by making every department store its filing centrally. It was all very hi-tech for 1981: an electronic transport system called a Telelift was installed in parts of the building to deliver files and return them to the Records Centre, and the Council set up a microfilming unit to begin providing image copies of its records.

The 1980s

This period saw a huge growth in family history research at BRO. Significantly, all the Archdeaconry probate records, and Diocesan copies of tithe maps were transferred to the Office. It saw countywide parish inspections after the Parochial Registers and Records Measure, after which many parish registers were deposited in the Office. Not surprisingly, visitor numbers increased enormously, as many key resources for family historians were now all available under one roof.

BRO also began sustained work with the Berkshire Family History Society through the Overseers Project, which would result in editions of over 10,000 case papers from the old poor law in the county. Work on the project spanned 1992-2004. The Office also sought to become more of a family history centre for local people without Berkshire relatives, acquiring the GRO index on microfiche amongst other things. A decade later and many of these resources are now available on the internet.

Bye-bye BCC, and hello pastures new

The Office moved again during the Shire Hall years – from the back of the building to a space nearer the front. This new area housed the searchroom and staff offices, and two windows overlooking the bin store. It was separate from the strongrooms, and trolleys full of documents often moved back and forth gracefully amongst Council staff on their way to the shop.

Much of the second half of the 1990s was taken up with the local government reorganisation which saw Berkshire County Council abolished, and BRO start a new life as a joint service to the 6 Berkshire districts. Ten years on, it is easy to forget how disruptive this was. Many of the County Council’s own more recent records had to be transferred, one by one, to the new councils. Much of the Office’s staff time was invested in contributing to commemorative work or to changing systems for those of Reading Borough Council, who had agreed to take the new lead in managing the service. For visitors too, there was the disruption after 1 April 1998 when they found themselves visiting what was now the UK headquarters of Foster Wheeler, and no longer able to use the building as freely as before. But local government reorganisation also delivered a big present – the promise of a new BRO from the Berkshire districts. A site was chosen in 1998 in the grounds of Yeomanry House, Reading, once known as Castle Hill House and owned by the Jesse family. Work began on the £5m building in 1999.

As some readers may recall, the completion of the new Record Office was delayed. When the searchroom at Shire Hall finally had to be surrendered to Foster Wheeler on 24 March 2000, a temporary one was established at Battle Library in West Reading until removals could begin. The new Office finally opened to the public on 3 October 2000, and was officially opened by the Princess Royal on 28 February 2001. Despite its difficult genesis, the present BRO has received many favourable comments, and continues to impress new visitors with its light and roomy research space. 

This was also the time when external funding began to become available for more and more project work. The websites and date from this period, as the creation of online content was seen as an increasingly important part of archive work. External funding continues to benefit access – BRO has recently completed the first part of its Broadmoor Hospital project, and has just begun work to revise the Phillimore index to Archdeaconry probate material 1508-1652.

The last few years has seen a shift of use, as researchers increasingly seek out online resources as a first step in their work. Visitors to the first BRO in 1948 would recognise the layout of our searchroom, but not the information opportunities available to us. Our surroundings have changed too – from a room within a building to a standalone and purpose-built facility. Instead of prisoners or ghosts, we now share our site with wedding parties, proud parents and their babies, and the Berkshire Family History Society’s own Research Centre. We receive around 6,000 visitors each year, and have 7 miles of shelving in our strongrooms.

On 10 August 2008 we celebrated our 60th birthday, beginning our anniversary year. Today we are a joint service of Bracknell Forest, Reading, Slough, West Berkshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Wokingham councils. But our aim remains unchanged from 1948: to locate and preserve records relating to the county of Berkshire and its people, and to make them available for research to anyone who is interested in the county's past. We will carry this aim into the decades that come.

Mark Stevens, BRO
BRO annual reports
Berkshire Family Historian summer 1981

Since this article was written, the BRO became an Accredited Archive Service in 2017. Accreditation defines good practice and agreed standards for archive services across the UK and is led by the National Archives (TNA). Following a review in 2020, the panel 'commended the service's sustained effective work'. You can find out more about the Accreditation process on the National Archives website.