History doesn’t stop: save the Croydon Local Studies Archive

By - Friday 11th January, 2013

Paul Sowan, an archivist and librarian with the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society, whose research is incorporated into the Local Studies Archive, explains the library’s importance in preserving and adding to local knowledge

Over the last 50 years I have, as a member and officer of the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society, devoted thousands of hours and spent many hundreds of pounds on researching, recording, and publishing Croydon’s history, and I have made much of this available through the Local Studies & Archives Service. Croydon’s Local Studies & Archives Service (LSA) is an invaluable resource for the outreach work conducted by the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society (CNHSS), among others, taking Croydon’s history into local groups including church groups, residents’ associations and schools, through guided walks, talks, magazine articles and so forth. Because Croydon established a public library service almost immediately upon becoming a County Borough in c.1889, its collections are far larger and more important than those of other outer London boroughs.

A monument of Archbishop John Whitgift, sitting outside the Local Studies Archive

The LSA collection is a dynamic, living and growing record of Croydon’s past and ongoing history.  History doesn’t stop — it’s being created around us at every moment.  The LSA holds original documents dating from 1291 to this week, and the collection continues to grow as local newspaper cuttings, residents’ associations’ newsletters, church magazines, school magazines, and so on are acquired and catalogued by staff, formal volunteers, and informal volunteers such as myself.

As volunteers, members of the public have contributed thousands of hours of time to the maintenance and expansion of the LSA collection.  ‘Public engagement’ is far older than David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’!  I am currently cataloguing several thousand 19th and 20th century photographs of Croydon (on loan to the LSA from the CNHSS), while members of the CNHSS and the Bourne Society come in every Wednesday to work on the recently received archive of the Byrons, Lords of the Manor of Coulsdon.

Several members of these societies have personally deposited items such as historic photographs, railway engineering drawings, and other original documents on indefinite loan.  This continues a centuries-long tradition of individual contributions by leading Croydon citizens (including many local businessmen and councillors) on the understanding that the donated items would be made available — and remain available — to the public.  Very little of the LSA material is available online, and very little of it has been published.  Even the published material isn’t necessarily easily available elsewhere; Croydon holds numerous publications which are not in the British Library, the UK ‘library of last resort’.

Local knowledge is lost when staff members leave.  The present Borough Archivist, Chris Bennett (who previously worked for the National Archives at Kew), has invaluable local knowledge and experience acquired over his decade at the LSA that would be impossible to replace at short notice — you can’t just go out and hire another one of him.

If Croydon Council dispenses with the services of three professional LSA staff to save £105,000 a year, it seems likely that the collection will share the fate of the Croydon Art Collection — hidden behind locked doors and unavailable for public appreciation. And it’s worth pointing out that the LSA collections survived and remained publicly accessible throughout both World Wars!

Click here to read about why the Croydon Citizen supports the Local Studies Archive, and why you should too!

Paul Sowan

Paul Sowan

Paul Sowan is an archivist and librarian with the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society. For the last 50 years he has researched, recorded, and published much of Croydon’s history, through the Croydon Local Studies & Archives Service, Croydon and East Surrey’s leading archaeology and local history societies, and various other local associations.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/clairecandyfloss Claire Cook

    Trying too find the name of the school my dad went to in st james road was mixed enfant. School in 1937 in croydon got photo but no name.

    • http://www.earth.li/~kake/ Kake

      Hi Claire — I’ll be at the local studies library tomorrow so will look up 1937 schools and see what was on St James Road then. If you could email me the photo (kake@earth.li) that might help too. You could also try asking on the Bygone Croydon Facebook page.

    • http://www.earth.li/~kake/ Kake

      OK, the only school I can find on St James’s Road in 1937 is St Michael’s & All Angels. The headmistress in that year was Miss L Fonceca. The school was just after the junction with Windmill Road, on the north side of the road. It might have been where Baitus Subhan Mosque (photo) is now.