High Sheriff of West Sussex reveals how West Sussex Record Office is recording our Covid-19 journey

High Sheriff of West Sussex Dr Tim Fooks, in his weekly briefing, visits the West Sussex Record Office and learns about its important work to create an archive of our county’s journey through the Covid-19 pandemic and sees some of its remarkable and priceless treasures.

As has been so well-documented in our local newspapers, the Covid-19 crisis has impacted every one of us and every element of our communities. Almost none of us have experienced anything like this before and only the world wars have eclipsed the enormity of its effect on our society.

What we are going through today is therefore tomorrow’s history. History is about the way events have shaped the lives of people but it can be told in the future only if its stories are preserved today.

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Since March this year, therefore, Wendy Walker, the county archivist, and her team of specialists have been creating an archive of our county’s journey through the pandemic.

The High Sheriff, Dr Tim Fooks, visiting West Sussex Record Office. Picture: West Sussex Record Office

Even this article will be added to the remarkable record they are collecting. All of it will be sorted, categorised and preserved so that, in time, it may be studied and the extraordinary ways in which we coped and cared for each other can be remembered.

During my recent visit, Wendy introduced me to many of her excellent team. The specialist archivists, who can preserve delicate documents, photographs and films, the receptionists and search room staff who welcome visitors and help them to find the information they are searching for, and those who organise the dedicated team of supporters and volunteers who support the Record Office.

I was shown the deeply moving record of the people’s response to the Shoreham Airshow disaster, the beautiful diaries and paintings of Ralph Ellis from the First World War and the often witty records of the Guinea Pig club – the airmen who underwent ground-breaking plastic surgery at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead in the 1940s.

As High Sheriff, the Horsham Police Occurrence Book from the 1890s was of particular interest, with its reports of drink-driving when in charge of a horse and cart, and an unusual accident involving a balloon.

The Sussex Declaration, one of only two contemporary ceremonial manuscripts of the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence on parchment in the world. Picture: West Sussex Record Office

In 1895, Mr Neil Campbell, a self-styled ‘aeronaut’, tried to parachute from a balloon into a meadow near Albion Road. Unfortunately, the balloon collided with the rooftops of some houses and Mr Campbell was thrown from the balloon and suffered a number of serious injuries. The record does not report the precise comments of the attending police officer.

However, one of the greatest treasures that I was shown is of great relevance to those who have just been participating in the 59th presidential election. For it is one of only two contemporary ceremonial manuscripts of the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence on parchment in the world.

This document was produced in the 1780s and it has become known as the Sussex Declaration and may have been first brought over to Sussex about 200 years ago.

It has been held in the Record Office since 1956 and it tells of a close trans-Atlantic link between West Sussex and the USA which continues to this day.

A table full of archive treasures. Picture: West Sussex Record Office

Indeed, in 2019, it was displayed at 10 Downing Street during the presidential state visit to the UK before being returned for safe keeping to Chichester.

From my visit, it was abundantly clear that Wendy and her team at the Record Office play a crucial part in the life of our county by helping us to remain in contact with our past so that we can learn and gain wisdom and strength from it for tomorrow. It is a place of wonder, do spend time there.

For more information, visit the West Sussex Record Office web page.

A message from the Editor, Gary Shipton:

A selection of The Guinea Pig club magazines. Picture: West Sussex Record Office

In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news, I am asking you to please purchase a copy of our newspapers.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspapers.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.

Stay safe, and best wishes.