Carmarthenshire Archives: Farce or Greek Tragedy?

A warning: if you’re in search of a short and cheerful read, I suggest you leave this post now and click on something like Buzzfeed instead.

On the other hand, if you have a few minutes to spare to read a woeful tale of institutional failure, threatening access to – and the very existence of – some unique and irreplaceable heritage of national importance, then read on. And if, at the end of reading this, you feel as angry about the situation I’m about to describe as I do, then I’ll suggest a few things you can do to help.

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As many of you know, I’m originally from Carmarthenshire in west Wales, and over the years, I’ve made a great deal of use of its county record office. This has holdings that go well beyond the bounds of local history, and are of national or even wider importance. For example, there’s the Golden Grove Book, a priceless eighteenth century collection of early Welsh pedigrees. This was transferred to Carmarthen from the National Archives at Kew only a few years ago, on the basis that it was more appropriate for the local repository to hold it – a decision that now seems catastrophically misjudged in the light of what has transpired, as will become clear shortly. In my principal field of naval history, the record office holds a remarkable series of letters from ‘Jacky’ Fisher to Earl Cawdor when the latter was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1905; these cast considerable light on the origins of the ‘Dreadnought revolution’, and on Fisher’s larger than life personality. There are also important letters of Admiral Sir Robert Mansel from when he was commanding the Algiers expedition of 1620 – the first English naval deployment into the Mediterranean, and thus a key event in the country’s development into a global power. I made extensive use of the archives in two of my non-fiction books, Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales and Blood of the Kings: the Stuarts, the Ruthvens and the Gowrie Conspiracy. Indeed, the latter was inspired directly by discoveries I’d made in the Carmarthen record office, such as the only known written record of Lord Macaulay’s opinion about the conspiracy. For over fifteen years, I’ve been working on a history of the Ruthvens’ descendants, the Stepney baronets of Llanelli, and the vast majority of research material for this book is held in Carmarthen. I’ve written about 70,000 words of the first draft, and many people in west Wales have expressed a desire to see it in print as soon as possible – notably the team running Llanelly House, the recently reopened and remarkably impressive seat of the Stepneys.

But the book remains unfinished, and there’s a very real possibility that it might remain so. This is through no prevarication on my part; but to complete it, I need to get back into the archives at Carmarthen in order to finish the research for the final chapters, and about fifteen months ago, the record office closed indefinitely following the discovery of mould among the collections in its strongrooms. I won’t speculate on why this happened, or go into detail about what’s happened, or not happened, during those fifteen months; those interested in finding out should take a look at this excellent blog that casts a critical eye over the doings of the local authority. Some of us felt that the authority made a serious mistake some 16-18 years ago, when it moved the record office from its previous unsuitable premises; rather than investing then in a modern, purpose-built building, as many Welsh authorities have done in the last twenty years or so, it converted a former school housed in a rambling nineteenth century building, a solution that seemed even at the time to have a distinct odour of misplaced penny-pinching about it. Ironically, too, most of the original manuscript material held at the library in my home town of Llanelli – including a lot of the sources I need to consult in order to finish my book, and other gems such as some rare pro- and anti-Jacobite poetry – was transferred to Carmarthen record office a few years ago, on the grounds that it would be stored more safely there. 

But all of that is ancient history now: my concern is with the present situation, and with what might happen to this nationally important collection of archives in the future.

And that brings me to the body responsible for the record office, Carmarthenshire County Council.

Now, if one believes the Council’s critics, this is an institution characterised by North Korean levels of transparency, Qatari-style intolerance of criticism, and Zimbabwean standards of governmental competence. On the other hand, though, I don’t live in the area permanently (unlike many of the critics), although I still have many family members living in Carmarthenshire, whom I visit regularly, and am heavily involved with the work of the excellent Llanelli Community Heritage group. Therefore, I’d be the first to admit that I have relatively little direct experience of the Council’s wider work. Besides, as someone who spent some thirty years drumming into my students the old adage that there are always two sides to any case, I was very willing to be charitable and to give the Council the benefit of the doubt; which is partly why I’ve waited for fifteen months before raising the issue, in the optimistic (some will undoubtedly say ‘naive’) belief that ‘they’re bound to sort it out some time soon’.

In this spirit, I emailed the Council on Sunday 21 June to pose the following four questions:

  1. Is it possible to obtain access to individual named manuscripts, if sufficient notice is given?
  2. Is there a timescale for the resumption of full public access to the archive holdings of the county record office?
  3. I understand that the positions of County Archivist and Records Management Officer have been dispensed with. This causes me considerable concern, given how important such positions are to the care of the records and the provision of advice and support to historians. Are there plans for filling these posts?
  4. What are the council’s intentions with regard to providing a permanent replacement for the former county record office?

As there is now no dedicated email address for the county record office, or for any archives-related issue whatsoever, I sent my email to the general contact address provided on the Council’s website, with a request that it should be forwarded to ‘the individual or department with current responsibility for the manuscript collections held at Carmarthenshire County Record Office’. In the cases of the vast majority of institutions that I contact, such an email would, at the very least, receive an automated holding response indicating that the institution in question aims to respond to all communications within a given period of time.

Not so in Carmarthenshire.

Again, the vast majority of institutions that I contact, even those in such exemplars of openness as, say, Russia or Slovakia, actually deign to send one a response at some point.

Not so in Carmarthenshire; or at least, not in the fortnight that has now passed since I sent my email.

But it seems I’m not alone in this. On 27 June, I attended an excellent study day on the landed gentry of south-west Wales at the conference centre in the National Botanic Garden of Wales, a meeting organised by Bangor University’s new Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates. Inevitably, as many of the attendees came from the Carmarthenshire area, there was heated discussion about the closure of the record office; it emerged that two other delegates had written to the Council to express their concerns, but like me, neither had received the courtesy of even a holding reply. At least the Council is consistent: it seems that the Friends of the Archives have written to every single Carmarthenshire councillor individually, and have not received a single response. Not one, out of 74 Councillors. 

So the record office remains closed, with no access whatsoever being permitted to any of its ‘hard copy’ sources. There is not even a glimmer of an announcement of a timescale for the resumption of access. Moreover, it seems that none of the archives have yet been sent away for professional cleaning to begin, fifteen months after the problem was discovered. I also have it on very good authority that at least one depositor of a major collection is seriously considering withdrawing it from the record office, on the basis that the Council can no longer be trusted to care for it properly. If that becomes the case, and if other depositors follow suit, any eventual reopening of the office, somewhere or other (see below), perhaps several years down the road, will be largely academic; its holdings will have been decimated and dispersed, and the withdrawn collections will no longer be as readily accessible to the people of Carmarthenshire and beyond.

Ominously, too, the Council seems to be airbrushing its record office from history. The County Archivist has retired and has not been replaced, several months later. The record office’s Twitter account has disappeared. Even worse is the fact that the laughably misnamed new ‘archives’ page on the County Council new website doesn’t even mention the existence of a county record office, nor the existence of original manuscripts in the county’s care, nor any provision whatsoever for historians: it’s surely the only local authority in the United Kingdom which explicitly assumes that anyone who wants to access historically-related services is interested exclusively in genealogy, and that genealogical research services can be provided either online via commercial websites, or else on a ‘drop in basis’ in local libraries. Just as there are no snakes in Ireland, evidently there are no historians in Carmarthenshire either, at least as far as the County Council is concerned.

(Maybe there are no lawyers, too, as the old website’s statement that special arrangements could be made for those requiring access to mouldy documents for legal reasons has also disappeared; but the Council’s own heavy reliance on the legal profession in the recent past would argue otherwise.)

A cynic might conclude from all this that the County Council is attempting to get rid of its record office by stealth – fail to provide one for long enough due to a so-called ‘temporary’ crisis, see if anybody complains, and somehow hope to get away with it.

Alternatively, perhaps there’s an expectation that Carmarthenshire itself will soon cease to exist in any case, if the proposed local government mergers in Wales go ahead, in which case perhaps all the Carmarthenshire archives could be conveniently shipped off to the shiny new Pembrokeshire Record Office in Haverfordwest, assuming the latter has room (which, at present, it almost certainly doesn’t).

Alternatively again, there are very strong rumours to the effect that the Council is already exploring the option of sharing facilities with West Glamorgan Archives and/or the university archives in Swansea, which is outside both the current county and the putative amalgamated one that might be set up under the reorganisation.

Now, both of these potential replacement repositories would involve journey times by public transport of at least 90 minutes for people living in the east or west of Carmarthenshire respectively, and many parts of the county have significantly worse transport connections than that. For example, Google Maps informs me that it could take someone living in the extreme north-western corner of the county some 7 hours and 9 minutes to get to Swansea. Just in time to fit in a whole 51 minutes of worthwhile research, perhaps.

Well, Carmarthenshire can’t be allowed to get away with it. I’m no lawyer, but it would be very interesting to read any legal arguments defending it against the charge of being in breach of its statutory obligations under the Local Government Act 1972 and the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994, either currently with regard to the present ‘temporary’ crisis, or in the longer term if any of the worst case scenarios I’ve outlined above come to pass. Perhaps the Council genuinely believes that providing a page called ‘archives’ on its website, which is actually describing nothing of the sort, along with occasional drop-in sessions in libraries, means that it is somehow fulfilling its statutory obligation to provide an ‘archives service’; one wonders whether someone qualified to judge such matters might view things in quite the same way.

Regardless of legalities, I contend that the present situation is a disgrace on every possible level. It should be protested against by every available means, and as loudly as possible.

I’m not interested in assigning blame for how that situation came to be (although I’ve heard it said that the Council ignored repeated warnings about the conditions in the strongrooms). My sole concern is with the future of the priceless materials held in the county’s archives, and in ensuring that proper access to those materials resumes as quickly as possible.

So if this is going to be a battle, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s a battle that has to be fought.

On a purely selfish level, there’s my personal need for access to materials that are essential for the completion of a book that many Carmarthenshire people want to read, and that an important Carmarthenshire institution wants to have on sale. Then, more altruistically, there’s a need to ensure that other historians, both now and in the future, are able to have such access. There’s the philosophical, moral and legal point that these materials are a vital, priceless part of the heritage of Carmarthenshire, Wales, and Britain, and the Council has a duty to preserve them and enable – indeed, actively to promote – access to them. Finally, though, there’s the concern that Carmarthenshire could be the thin end of the wedge: perhaps the beancounters at other local authorities, keen to save money by cutting such peripheral trivia as archives, libraries, museums and other worthless cultural guff, are watching avidly to see if the County Council really does get away with it, so that they can follow suit.

From now on, then, I’m going to raise this subject loudly and often, publicise it as widely as possible, and I hope that fellow historians, authors, bloggers, and other interested parties will assist me in publicising it even more widely. I intend to write to the Keeper of Public Records and the Welsh government’s culture minister in the first instance, and to other relevant parties thereafter, and I know that several others who were present at the ISWE day are doing the same.

Unfortunately, several of the organisations best placed to campaign on this issue, notably the Friends of Carmarthenshire Archives and the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, have only a limited or non-existent presence online, and no presence whatsoever on social media. But if you support this cause, please use the hashtag #savecarmarthenarchives on social media, where I’ve just launched the account @savecarmarchive on Twitter and Save Carmarthenshire Archives on Facebook; please follow/like these, even if this cause doesn’t directly affect you, as expressions of moral support will send out a powerful message to the County Council.

Finally, if you’re in an organisation with members who have used, or might be likely to use, the archives, or who feel that the wider issues this case raises are important, please get your organisation’s officers to write to the relevant authorities, and publicise the issue on your own websites, social media accounts, etc.

Perhaps there is one glimmer of hope, though. Control of the Council changed hands very recently, and the incoming leader’s very first speech promised greater openness and included the line ‘We have in Carmarthenshire a distinctiveness in culture, language and heritage – these are precious, and ours to retain and nurture…’.  Fine, promising, and apposite words indeed.

Personally, though, I won’t hold my breath. Just as there are said to be no votes in defence, then so, perhaps, there are no votes in archives either, at least as far as councillors standing for re-election next year are concerned.

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I’ll leave you with the words of an adopted son of Carmarthenshire: The Reverend Eli Jenkins inky in his cool front parlour or poem-room tells only the truth in his Lifework – the Population, Main Industry, Shipping, History, Topography, Flora and Fauna of the town he worships in – the White Book of Llaregyb… 

Fortunately, Dylan Thomas’s archives didn’t end up in Carmarthenshire Record Office. Unfortunately, hundreds of ‘White Books of Llaregyb’ did; and there they lie, mouldy and inaccessible, but not forgotten by those of us who care for them.

25 Comments

  1. Huw Edwards says:

    I think a rather more public campaign is called for… my late father (a long-serving Dyfed councillor) would have been appalled at this situation.

    Like

    • Indeed, Huw – I think the FoI material is likely to trigger the next wave of publicity (assuming, of course, that they don’t try to find some excuse to stall it!). I’m also in contact with various individuals and groups about potential next steps, and expect it to become more public pretty soon.

      Like

  2. Maggie R says:

    I wrote to Carmarthenshire CC (including my local councillor) on 2 March 2014 to raise my concerns about the state of the county archives. My letter was acknowledged and I was informed that it had been forwarded to a named individual for a response. My councillor also replied and sent me a copy of an email that he had sent to another senior individual working for the Council.

    With scarcely controlled excitement I awaited the formal response from the Council. And waited. I sent them a reminder on 7 April 2014, to which they replied on 15 April. They attached a copy of a letter dated 17 March that they indicated they had sent to me. Confusingly, I had not previously seen this, so I wrote to them again on 23 April to clarify this point and respond to some of the other matters raised in the letter. I was particularly interested in the details of the work required and the timescales for its completion, which I hoped might give an indication of when the archives might re-open. I received a further reply on 30 April which outlined the work being done and the writer assured me that I would be informed of timescales “as soon as that information is available to us”. Some 15 months later I am still waiting to hear from them, including a response from that named individual from my first letter back in March 2014.

    I remain deeply concerned about the dismal state of the County Archive service and the lack of any information about its future. I think that the Council does not understand the value of its archives even in simple monetary terms, let alone cultural, historical or educational ones. Nor does it seem to recognise that opportunities for applications for funding from external bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund are being foregone, again to the detriment of the county and the service. I hope that I will be proved wrong . . . . . .

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    • Thanks, Maggie, for providing even more damning evidence of the council’s incompetence – and, frankly, its complete failure to observe even the most basic courtesies. I also agree that they seem to have no understanding whatsoever of what archives actually are, let alone of their importance.

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  3. J Neilson says:

    I used the Carmarthenshire Archives in the 1990s, but haven’t been there lately. I asked for the tithe map of the Capel Isaac area at one time. I was provided with an awful photocopy. When I asked for the apportionment so I was looked at as if I had 2 heads. They didn’t have them! How on earth can you study a tithe map without them? I think that was my last visit!

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  4. John Davies says:

    Below is my response to the article published in last week’s Carmarthen Journal:
    The County Council’s response to just criticism of their treatment of the county archives is particularly shoddy. Since at least the 1980s, councillors have trotted out the same trite response when asked about the archives…that the service is not in danger of being closed down. Maybe not…it is after all a statutory service. But the archives in its care – unique historical documents dating back several centuries – are in danger of being destroyed, by a patent lack of interest in preserving them. Apart from a paltry £39,000 spent to move the service from county hall in 1999, there has been no investment in the archive service for decades. Even after reports from The National Archives and CyMAL regarding the poor state of the environmental controls in the strong rooms, the council chose to do nothing. The three strong rooms at Parc Myrddin have domestic dehumidifiers installed – the sort that work in one’s kitchen. They are useless as a means to regulate the environment in archival strongrooms. Paper and parchment need carefully, scientifically proved, temperature and humidity ranges, outside of which mould can (and now has) grow. The present out-break was discovered in November 2013, not as stated ‘last year’. Without the correct environment it is only surprising that mould wasn’t discovered years earlier.
    Council leader Dole states that the mould infested documents have been cleaned and are in the ‘Vale of Glamorgan’…I assume this is a bit of poor journalism and that the cleaned documents are perhaps in Glamorgan Record Office. If so, are they available for researchers? And which archives have been moved there?
    As to Council leader’s ‘phase two’…what is that exactly apart from an opportunity to do nothing for a long time.
    With regard to the cultural services manager’s comments re moving the family history service to the libraries. Firstly, the family history service has never been the biggest part of the archive service. Family history is an archival sideline. Archivists’ main responsibility is to the preservation of the documents in their care for future generations. After securing material the archivist seeks to make those documents available for researchers. Most family history sources are available in electronic format, so transferring them to the library service can hardly be seen as a great leap. Though it could be seen as a form of asset-stripping of the archives service. And the real professionals with regard to family history are the three remaining staff members at the archives. (Incidentally, but importantly, CyMAL has stated on numerous occasions in the past that the Carmarthenshire Archive Service was barely viable as a service with five staff members…now it has three).
    However, what the County Council do not answer is Dr David Davies’s question, which I as well as others would like answered: when are original archival documents going to be made available again for researchers?

    Dr. John Davies

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  5. Caroline says:

    As a Church in Wales parish, we were given long instructions on how to keep our records, minutes, etc, with an eye for future researchers ie don’t glue printe minutes into a book! Recently our parish was subsumed in to a neighbouring parish and as Secretary of the Parochial Church Council, I was required to hand over the records to the Archdeacon to be taken to the Archives and I had assumed they meant the Carmarthenshire Archives. That was early this year – I am wondering, where they are now??

    Like

    • On the plus side, such a new acquisition should be safe from the mould problem. It’s possible that the papers would be at Glamorgan Archives with the material that’s already been cleaned, but it would be worth checking that with Carmarthenshire’s archivists (yes, they still have some!).

      Like

  6. Vivienne Kincaid says:

    Words almost fail me but I am working on that. I have used and donated to the Carmarthenshire archives and now have more items I would like to lodge there for future reference, but, in the light of the present circumstances I wish I had kept all. We are of our history of our land and of our ancestors… CCC are failing in their duty to care for this common wealth

    Like

    • Thanks, Vivienne, for such an important contribution. I, too, have a substantial amount of material that I’d planned to lodge with the archives one day – but that’s certainly not going to happen until I can be absolutely certain the current authorities can be trusted with them!

      Like

  7. Jo Walton says:

    As secretary of Friends of Carmarthenshire Archives, I too am deeply concerned about the present situation at the County Records Office. To date, I have received no correspondence from Councillors regarding the issue. The Friends are firmly behind any efforts to reopen the Record Office and to resolve the situation. Wide publicity about what’s going on (or not, in this case) is the way forward, I’m convinced.

    Like

    • Thanks, Jo. I intend to post a further update on Monday, and also spoke to a reporter from the Carmarthenshire Herald today, so the campaign continues to gather momentum – literally within the last few minutes, the Facebook page has clocked up its 750th ‘like’, and that’s in well under four days. The blog posts have apparently been viewed by people in Sierra Leone, Lithuania, Malta, Albania, Russia and the Philippines, as well as by literally hundreds in the US, Canada, Australia, etc!

      Like

  8. Susan Beckley says:

    Dr Davies,
    I have recently retired as Highland Council Archivist after a career spanning almost 40 years working in mainly local authority archive services across the UK. My first professional post was in the Carmarthenshire Record Office, 1974-1986, and I can honestly say that the richness of the extensive archive collections held at Carmarthen, surpassed by far any held by archive services in which I have been employed subsequently.
    During recent months I have been pleased to assist and advise the Friends of Carmarthenshire Archives in their efforts to support the Archive Service in its current difficulties, and to safeguard the future preservation of these significant collections within the historic ares to which they relate.

    Like

    • Thank you for your comments, Susan – I’ve used your book about the contents of the record office on many occasions. I couldn’t agree more about the richness of the Carmarthenshire archives, and am glad to be supporting the Friends in their efforts.

      Like

  9. John Davies says:

    Dr Davies – as you may know – I am in a similar situation re my book on the Cawdor estate. I cannot finish the final chapter without access to the primary sources held at the archives.
    As the recently retired county archivist for Carmarthenshire I can say the present situation has a long pre-history. The National Archives (and formerly the Public Record Office) have powers of inspection re local authority archives and do so on a five yearly basis. Each inspection since I worked in Carmarthen (as part of Dyfed County Council until 1996) condemned the chronic lack of investment in the archive service. Particularly, the dire conditions in which unique historical documents were kept was again and again commented upon. And after each report the County councils response was the same – no money. The service was moved to Parc Myrddin in 1999 – with the help of a grant of £117,000 from the HLF and a paltry £39,000 from the Council. While conditions were slightly better than at County Hall, most of the grant was spent making the public area comfortable – with minimal investment in environmental controls in the strong rooms. Continued TNA/CyMAL reports continued to emphasis the urgent need to address this situation…the Councils response: no money. And I may add – no interest.
    So the present situation is no surprise to me. It just makes me sad and angry that the record office at Carmarthen, which has some of the best archives of any repository in Wales, has been so wilfully neglected for so long, by such a philistine organisation.

    Like

    • Brilliant, John – thanks for absolutely first hand evidence of the causes of the present disastrous situation. Your frankness is much appreciated.

      Like

  10. RichardB says:

    Can I recommend you also approach Cymal. It played a significant role in ensuring that the Anglesey Archives were transformed by the creation of a brand new archive building. Here too the old building was not fit for purpose and the authority prevaricated for a long period until it became clear how dangerous the old building had become. It of course helped that for reasons unconnected with the Archives that the authority had been placed in special measures and Cymal and the National Assembly for Wales insisted that a new archive building be funded and established as an essential precondition before the authority could be taken out of special measures. The Councillors had no option than to approve the expenditure of £1.25 million and the new archive was up and running in about 12 months after that decision was taken.

    I would emphasise that the archive staff had performed heroically to maintain an archive in very difficult conditions and rose to the challenge to create the new one once the finance was made available. Coincidentally prior to my retirement I was closely involved in the discussions and planning as the representative for The National Archives based at Kew and the solution to purchase a pre existing new building on a trading estate and create a modern archive store within it was a highly effective and cost efficient solution. The building includes all the facilities one might wish for including a reading room, conservation centre etc and might well be a model that Carmarthenshire could adopt. You are right to consider approaching the Keeper of Public Records (who is also the Historical Manuscripts Commisioner) but Cymal as the lead strategic body for Welsh cultural institutions should already be aware of the problems you describe and it would do no harm to take this up with them as well as they are best placed to report to the National Assemby of Wales.

    Like

    • Thanks for the advice, Richard, I’ll certainly do that. I did some work in the new Anglesey Archives when I was researching Britannia’s Dragon, and found it very good in all respects.

      Like

  11. bhuws says:

    Hi David, a devastating critique if I might say so. There is a change of regime at County Hall which hopefully may auger a better attitude from the powers to be if enough pressure is applied right now. I will certainly do what I can regards lobbying and raising the issue locally. Congratulations on achieving the first response in 15 months and look forward to seeing it.
    Byron

    Like

  12. Laura McColm says:

    Put in a freedom of information request. I think it might cost a tenner, but they are legally obliged to respond

    Like

  13. Nicola daniels says:

    Carmarthenshire council do this “shutting by stealth” quite often, they shut something for a while for some spurious reason and then say there is no call for it and therefore they may as well close it! Current on going situation with one of our community libraries!

    Like

  14. Michael Steemson says:

    Hullo Mr Davies,
    Next time you contact any of the Carmarthenshire County councillors, you might like to let them know that this dismaying story has reached far off New Zealand where the strong archiving and recordkeeping community will be shocked at the thoughtless, callous apathy of Welshmen.
    Further, I and most Welsh descendants hereabouts have always been proud of our history and heritage. We thought all Welshmen were proud of them, too. How dreadful that around this land of my maternal grandmother and her fathers, we are so sadly mistaken.
    Michael Steemson.

    Like

    • Thank you Michael! Your sentiments are spot on, and your support is very welcome indeed. Fortunately, the power of the internet brought a response from the council within 6 hours of the blog and the new social media accounts going live – I hope to post details later. David

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