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Another ‘busman’s holiday’ – the Mills Archive visit to the Berkshire Record Office

In December, you may remember that we were visited by staff at the Berkshire Record Office. Recently, we made a return visit to BRO.

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I wrote about BRO’s previous visit here.

BRO is in a modern purpose built archive on the outskirts of Reading Town Centre. It stands in the grounds of Yeomanry House, which houses the Reading Register Office. Also on the same site is the Berkshire Family History Research Centre. So for anyone researching Berkshire and its environs, all resources are close at hand. 

Ivone Turnbull, Senior Archivist, met us and took us on a tour of the building. We began in the Search Room which is spacious and furnished with bookable computers to access digitised records, microfilm readers and large tables for reading original documents. All the plan chests are grouped together under a large flat surface. This is used for unrolling their largest documents including a local parish map that is 12 feet long. There is also a small open access library of local history books and transcribed records. 

Next on our tour was one of their six huge strong rooms which taken altogether apparently provide about 7 miles of storage. The room bore a similarity to our archive stores at the Mills Archive, though on a much larger scale: boxes, folders, bound volumes, ledgers, rolled maps and plans and drawers where items are stored flat. 

Ivone had laid out a small display of items from their archives. An album of 19th century prisoner mugshots at Reading Gaol first caught our eye. This collection is one of their most recent acquisitions. We asked why the prisoners had their hands showing on the photographs. Apparently it was to show identifying marks, injuries and amputations. A curious item was the Wanted poster for Agatha Christie who lived locally and disappeared for eleven days in 1926. The poster described the clothes she was wearing in detail with the notable exception of a coat, even though she went missing on a December night. Of great interest were photographs of Watlington House and a coloured plan of land belonging to Reading Borough in the parish of Reading St Giles, 1722/3. This included the area around Watlington House.  It was interesting to see the outline of the original garden laid out in four quadrants (as it has now been restored) and the orchard that once stood on our site plus another piece of land called Mr Watlington’s Wharf.

Above: D/EX1392/1 Plan of land belonging to Reading Borough in the parish of Reading St Giles, 1722/3 – this shows Watlington House, the current home of the Mills Archive.

Then we moved onto the Documents Reception room where collections arrive and are initially sorted before being sent for preservation and cataloguing. The highlight of our visit was to the Conservation and Preservation area where we met the conservation team. There was so much to see and we had many questions regarding the basic conservation of particular items in the Mills Archive. It was suggested that we arranged to come on a Conservation and Preservation training day to learn more. We ended our very interesting afternoon with refreshments and were able to look at some of the reference library books and pamphlets they hold which visitors can request in the main Search Room.