Peter Foden

Unlocking the Codes of the Past

My Story – Keeper of the Keys

I turned the key twice in the lock and pushed the door open, to be met by the old familiar smell of paper, leather, parchment, and dust. My dream job, Keeper of the Secret Rooms. Opening the blinds, beams of sunlight lit up gilt inscriptions on the spines of red-brown ledgers, glazed panel doors left ajar for air circulation, and hundreds of blue foolscap box files with the same meticulous handwriting on each label. An atmosphere dense with history. And yet the best days were when a researcher visited (strictly by prior appointment and the owner’s blessing). Archives only really come alive when you start a conversation.

Belvoir Castle, where I was the Duke of Rutland's Archivist for ten years

The first archive I ever worked in had a very different smell. For a start it was newly built, when the 1978 Parochial Registers and Records Measure of the Church of England and broadcasting of Alex Haley’s Roots kick-started an expansion of local archives, aiding a new boom in democratised family history. The vast bulk of the garnered archives of Barrow-in-Furness had come from ‘The Shipyard’, and so the overwhelming smell was of oiled linen dyeline prints. But all the regular kinds of documents sheltered beneath and beyond these long shiny blue rolls. My first volunteer task was a mini-mountain of black plastic sacks. They had come from the Town Hall basement (or was it the tower?). Every folded paper was black with soot, and I felt like a coal miner or archaeologist as I dug through the layers and learned the story of a Victorian reservoir, Corporation versus Contractors as the project inevitably ran over time and over budget. What happened to all that paper? It probably needed weeding, but that wasn’t my brief (if I had been paid, it would have been ‘beyond my pay grade’). But it did its job, getting me hooked into archives.

Me talking to Phil Spencer for his C4 programme about Belvoir Castle

Between Barrow (1980) and Belvoir (2020), I was (variously serially or concurrently) a student, archivist, museum curator, honorary university tutor, Freedom of Information consultant, and historical researcher. Now living near Usk in South Wales, I’m still learning, still teaching, and still researching in archives. I hope that what I have learned over the years might help other people with their historical research.

Catherine Bailey had just finished her 'True Gothic Mystery' of 'The Secret Rooms' when I was first handed the keys in 2009.

Some of the books that mention me in their Acknowledgments, either as archivist or transcriber