The Whitton Church Records - A Rescue Mission

One of the crucial roles of the Record Office is the conservation of historic records to preserve them for future generations.  Sometimes, we encounter a real ‘conservation crisis’ as was the case recently with the stolen Whitton Church Records.

Church Records are important – especially for people researching their family history, who can find their ancestors’ baptisms, marriages and burials recorded in the Parish Registers.  The ‘parish chest’ can also contain interesting material about the lives of people living in or visiting the parish.  Usually, historic Church Records are kept in the Record Office, with the parish retaining just ‘active’ registers from recent years.

On the night of 30th December 2017, around 40 years’ worth of Parish Registers and valuable silverware were stolen from St Mary’s and St Botolph’s church in Whitton.  News of the theft was a huge blow to the community - this was not the first attempt to steal the safe and its contents.  There is also the worrying possibility that stolen Parish Registers can be used in identity theft and fraud.

Fortunately, the registers were recovered!  They had suffered water damage and were initially taken to Ipswich Museum where they were packed into polythene bags and frozen. They were then transferred to the Ipswich branch of the Record Office on 16th January. 

Freezing prevents decay while items are assessed, and treatment planned.  Freezing also allows the treatment of items in manageable amounts; untreated items can be held in the freezer without decaying for as long as necessary. 

To dry, items need to be thawed and prepared; in this case, different drying techniques were tried to see which worked best. Techniques of unrestricted ventilation, interleaving pages with dry material and then restraining under a press or in vacuum storage bags, and localised use of a hair dryer(!) were all used, often on the same items. 

Drying and pressing the items flat was one of the main rescue tasks. It can take a surprising amount of time to dry items in ambient, unheated conditions and so after work on specific areas or setting up the material for drying, items must be left to see how they progress and then checked later. 

The next step was repairing the damage; from relining bindings and reinforcing paper hinges to repairing cracked adhesive – our talented Conservator, Dominic Wall, used a range of techniques to make sure each damaged item received sympathetic treatment, with the minimal intervention possible.

A very relieved Parish Priest is collecting the repaired material (they have a wedding coming up which means the marriage register is needed!); some of the older material will now be deposited at the Record Office for long term preservation and access.  

The Record Office is now rescuing the registers for Brundish Parish, following the theft of their safe too.

HistoryCarly Frances