Out of the ashes

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In 1955, Richard Hayward and Brenda Osborne "published" the results of their research into the history of their Stentiford family by sending copies of the document they compiled to various members of the family. I remember a crowded room at the house of my great aunt, packed with Stentiford descendents listening with great interest to what Richard had to tell us, and indeed, what the two researchers had discovered was amazing for those times.

Today, we sit in other crowded rooms in libraries and research centres, in record offices or family history societies and take it for granted that just about every other person is researching their ancestry. One of the most popular programmes on  TV is Who do you think you are? with  audience figures running into millions - we all take time off from our relentless combing of the internet to watch that.  Fifty years ago, when Richard and Brenda did their research, it was almost unheard of to try to create a history for a family that was neither rich nor blue-blooded. They had to visit every single church that cropped up and get permission to see the parish registers and pay a fee if they wanted to copy information. There was no access to census information, no IGI (with all its Devon imperfections), no access in England to records in Newfoundland or Australia, Canada or the States, no clubs or societies to turn to for help or advice, and perhaps even more importantly, there was a feeling that anyone who wasted their time in doing such a pointless task was not quite all there - who on earth would want to know what a bunch of farm labourers did in the past?

So compiling their lengthy and detailed document was quite an achievement and Richard and Brenda pushed the limits of what was available to them in the 1950s. Not everyone who visits Exeter's West Country Studies Library or the formerly adjacent Devon Record Office to do  research may know that they are using a reconstructed building built inside the surviving walls of the original library:

 

"On the night of 3-4 May 1942 during Exeter's most destructive air raid, the Public Library in Castle Street was hit by incendiary bombs and gutted. The fire reached the outer door of the muniment room and destroyed it, but, although the lock on the inner door was fused, the massive teak door withstood the blaze and the collection of manuscripts inside was unharmed. Some manuscripts prepared for evacuation were lost as was every printed book in the building, a total of 93,000 volumes."

 

It was not until 22 October 1965, 23 years after its destruction by bombing and 10 years after Richard and Brenda concluded their research, that Exeter had a library or a Record Office again - no wonder Professor W. G. Hoskins, Devon's great historian, wrote in 1960:

 

"Today the city library, burnt out nearly twenty years ago, is still a shambles. The failure to rebuild it is the greatest disgrace in the post-war history of the city. It is clear that books are not considered to be important in modern Exeter. How vastly different from our Victorian forebears when they founded the Free Library in 1869! Somewhere between 1860 and now, Exeter ceased to be a cultured city."

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  Last modified:
24/02/2006