Carmarthenshire Archives (and more) Revisited
Regular readers will remember that, some eighteen months ago, this site built up quite a head of steam about the dire state of Carmarthenshire’s county archives. To cut a long story short, a serious outbreak of mould was discovered in the strongrooms, leading to the closure of the record office, the records becoming completely unavailable (initially because of our old friend elf ‘n’ safety, then because they had to go away for cleaning), and serious suggestions that the county’s archives would end up in a shared facility completely outside the county, e.g. in Swansea. Obviously, this had a huge impact on those who wanted to work on the archives; and one of those, a normally mild-mannered historian who’d been researching the fascinating and eccentric Stepney baronets of Llanelli for many years, but whose book about them was now completely stymied by the closure, decided to investigate further. Following a crash course in Freedom of Information requests and the like, a sorry saga emerged of a local authority that, over many years, had simply refused to spend money on maintaining the correct conditions in the strongrooms, which blatantly ignored warnings from the national regulator, and which then simply didn’t communicate on any meaningful level with any of the stakeholders in the record office once the inevitable crisis developed. This all eventually got picked up by the press, and strange to say, the council then did begin to engage with those whose persistent requests for answers had fallen on deaf ears, most notably the Friends of the Archives, and to work towards a new facility in the county. For those interested in tracing the entire affair, or who are otherwise in a particularly masochistic mood, go to this website’s search facility on the main menu, type in ‘Carmarthenshire Archives’, and then follow through the sequence of posts.
Since then, things have been relatively quiet. The County Council committed itself to spending over £2 million on a new records office in the centre of Carmarthen, and that should be going ahead over the course of the next year or two. Meanwhile, the irreplaceable documents themselves are being cleaned, albeit at a staggering cost which would not have been necessary if the council had invested a tiny fraction of it in properly maintaining the archives over the last fifteen years or so. When they’ve completed the process, the documents are going to Glamorgan Archives in Cardiff and the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University for temporary storage, and are being progressively made available once again for public access. For my part, I’ve been keeping my powder dry (and any further potential FoI requests, etc, on the back burner), giving the council the benefit of the doubt – and, if truth be told, my work schedule has militated against getting more actively involved.
Meanwhile, though, the wider heritage situation in Carmarthenshire has seen some dramatic changes. There’s also been considerable concern in recent years about – to give but two examples – the state of the county museum in the former bishop’s palace at Abergwili, and Parc Howard in Llanelli, where I spent many happy hours as a child. Abergwili is a marvellous museum, reflecting the county’s rich and remarkably varied history, and it’s in a historic building; William Laud, no less, lived there, as a did a later bishop, Lord George Murray, who invented the Admiralty shutter telegraph system used in the Napoleonic wars. (I wrote an article about him in the county’s outstanding local history journal, The Carmarthenshire Antiquary.) But chronic under-investment over many years, combined with under-staffing, led to serious issues with the fabric of the building, and questions over the future of the collection. Parc Howard, which was gifted to the people of Llanelli by my old ‘friends’ the Stepney family, contains the town’s museum, but for as long as I can remember, it’s been under-publicised (not even signposted from the main road) and consequently under-visited.
The conjunction of all these concerns led a like-minded group of individuals to come together to see if something could be done. These are people who have had many years’ experience of working or volunteering in various heritage sectors, plus the odd stray blogger-cum-mild-mannered-historian, and they organised a series of meetings open to all interested parties. Many representatives of local groups throughout Carmarthenshire came along, demonstrating a real depth of interest and concern, and to cut a long story short, out of this emerged the Carmarthenshire Heritage Group, a properly constituted ‘umbrella’ group which has been engaging with the council and trying to raise awareness. Toward the latter end, this group now has a Facebook page, which has ‘inherited’ the old one called ‘Save Carmarthenshire Archives’, which I ran, and I’d strongly urge anyone who’s interested or concerned to ‘like’ us there! (A new Twitter account will also come on stream soon.)
The good news is that there’s been some positive movement. At Abergwili, for example, substantial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund will see major work on the grounds to transform them as part of the exciting ‘Tywi Gateway’ project, and remedial work will also be carried out on the building. The council has also appointed a museums development manager, and seems at the moment to be bucking the nationwide trend of closures and rundowns. The future of Parc Howard, though, remains uncertain, following botched attempts to involve commercial organisations in developing it as a wedding venue, real concern about future access to the museum collection, and questions about how sensitive any developments at this much-loved site will be. Meanwhile, too, there remains uncertainty about other heritage sites in the county, not all the direct responsibility of the council, such as the former Gelli Aur mansion and country park in the Tywi valley.
As for the archives, while all might be well in the medium to long term, the short term situation remains unsatisfactory. Although I haven’t worked on the records that have become available after cleaning, I know someone who has; and according to this contact, accessing Carmarthenshire’s records can involve a fraught saga of contact details that don’t work, a lengthy journey to Glamorgan Record Office (which is well outside the centre of Cardiff, and thus very difficult to reach by public transport), and dealing with staff who, naturally, aren’t familiar with the Carmarthenshire materials. Admittedly, things might improve somewhat when more of the records are available in Swansea…but somehow, I can’t see myself completing the Stepney book any time soon (also in part, of course, because people keep signing me up to write fiction, and with the best will in the world, that pays rather better!)
To end, though, on a really upbeat note – I was astonished and delighted to learn that Llanelli library, where I basically self-taught myself my initial historical research skills, is in the top three of the entire country for loans made … At a time when libraries are being closed left right and centre, partly by local authorities using the specious grounds that ‘nobody uses them any more’ in order to cut costs, it’s pleasing to see that Llanelli is bucking the trend. Maybe one day, too, I’ll go in there and see some annoying bespectacled twelve year old demanding to see the latest edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships…and at that moment, I’ll know that my work here is done.
(NB all views expressed in this post are entirely personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the Carmarthenshire Heritage Group.)