J D Davies

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.