Do you know what’s inside The Hold in Ipswich?

Kelly McGibney, The Hold's commercial officer

Kelly McGibney, The Hold's commercial officer - Credit: Charlotte Bond

One of the best ways to spend a hot summer’s day is to take a stroll along Ipswich’s Waterfront. Dotted with restaurants and bars galore, it’s a great little spot to sit and watch the world go by. 

But if you head a little bit further on, just across from where the University of Suffolk is, you will find The Hold. 

It's the county’s official archive, and is home to over 900 years’ worth of Suffolk history and heritage. 

The Hold in Ipswich

The Hold in Ipswich - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Officially opened in 2020, a lot of people have heard the name, myself included, but don’t know what exactly it is – or what’s inside.  

That’s why I decided to check it out for myself and embark upon a tour with commercial officer, Kelly McGibney.  

But firstly, what exactly is an archive, and how does it differ from a museum? 

“Essentially, in the way a museum collects objects and artefacts, we collect historical records. We have records and maps, and people often bequeath a lot of personal letters and documents of interest to the archives. It’s really broad how we record and preserve history,” Kelly explains. 

Kelly McGibney, The Hold's commercial officer

Kelly McGibney, The Hold's commercial officer - Credit: Charlotte Bond

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Physical pieces aside, The Hold also houses oral history. These are recordings of people talking about their lives, often providing in-depth and unique personal information that often can’t be found anywhere else. 

As you walk in, there are various oral history recordings on offer, including local resident Dorothy Flatman recalling what life was like growing up near Ipswich docks, or John Field’s memories of the docks and its regeneration. For any fans of maritime history, there’s even recordings of Suffolk fishing songs and sea shanties. 

As you continue to make your way through The Hold, you can’t help but notice the towering charcoal display that adorns the walls. Reaching all the way up to the sky-high ceilings, I ask what these are. 

“These are massive drawings from local artist Valerie Irwin, who sat and drew charcoal drawings of the construction of the waterfront that took place in the 1970s,” Kelly explains.  

“The originals are in the archive, and these are a great example of contemporary Suffolk history.” 

Replicas of Valerie Irwin's charcoal drawings

Replicas of Valerie Irwin's charcoal drawings - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Every bit of wall has been put to use, helping showcase the county’s history throughout the years. There’s even television screens on the wall, with historical videos rolling on repeat.  

Work on The Hold began in 2018 and it was finally opened to the public in October 2020. Constructed by R.G Carter, it was built to replace the former record office on Gatacre Road. It is also houses two seminar rooms, public search rooms, a small café, a retail and exhibition area, document strong rooms and back offices.  

It is supported by various heritage organisations across Suffolk, and has received money from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

“It’s paid for by the people, for the people. And there’s a range of people who use it – from academics, to those who are working on their own family research. During the pandemic, we found a lot of people were at home working on their own family history.” 

Unbeknownst to many, The Hold houses just under 100 types of records within its expansive archives. Listed alphabetically on the wall outside – if you need it, chances are it’s within those four walls. 

Whatever you need - chances are The Hold has it

Whatever you need - chances are The Hold has it - Credit: Danielle Lett

From agreements, brass rubbings and coroner reports, right the way through to letters, sketchbooks, and xylonite – The Hold has it all.  

“It’s totally open to the public – that's the beauty of it,” adds Kelly. 

One of her favourite record types is manorial records, as she explains. “These may sound boring. But they’re 600 years’ worth records and gossip from various villages across the county, such as ‘this person stole my cow’, or ‘this person is sleeping with my wife’. It’s fascinating to learn about those personal lives, and this year we’re hoping to put on a couple of events exploring them. You’d assume it’s dry but it’s really not – it’s like a soap opera.” 

As we make our way inside the archives – dubbed The John Blatchly Local Studies Library – I’m astounded at how much history is packed inside.  

There are rows upon rows of bookshelves, carefully preserved and kept in top condition. As I thumb through them, I can’t believe how far back some of them go.  

The archives within The Hold

The archives within The Hold - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Business directories from decades ago; poor law, workhouse and orphanage records; and even marriage licences from the mid-16th century.  

“Everything is carefully managed – we use the Dewey Decimal System, so it’s all methodically organised,” she says.  

But how does get a records office get hold of such a wealth of historical information? 

Over the years, official documents are kept and deposited in the archives, but often local businesses and even families have their own records, maps, and documents which they will kindly donate.  

“People often give us long term loans and leases. It’s still theirs, but we take care of it as we have the means the ability to do so. It’s a great partnership, and helps ensure that we preserve history. This then helps us build a much richer picture of what life was like throughout Suffolk.” 

Kelly and the rest of the team are also keen to break down the barriers often associated with heritage research. 

An array of books, maps, and other records on display at The Hold

An array of books, maps, and other records on display at The Hold - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“Heritage in general has an issue with diversity, and people feeling like it’s not for them or that they’re not welcome. But you don’t need a degree to get involved - it’s open to everyone.  

“We’ve also realised we don’t have the records for certain disenfranchised groups, so we want to start engaging with them. We want to start having those conversations so people can trust us with their history.  

“For instance, we recently had an exhibition about LGBTQ+ history, and it was absolutely eye-opening to me as an ally as I wasn’t aware of the intricacies surrounding LGBTQ+ history. People were involved in the community and would’ve been organisers but a lot of the time, when they died, their families would’ve binned all of their stuff as they would’ve been deemed as shameful. I had no idea that was an issue, but we want to learn.” 

With this in mind, The Hold is keen to document history as it happens, with some of the archive’s most recent additions being only a couple of years old. 

“We have contemporary Black Lives Matter displays in the archives. We treat every object with the same amount of care and diligence. We don’t prioritise anything – it's all equally precious to us.” 

As we continue to make our way through, I’m shown what I believe to be the oldest historical record on display in The Hold – a royal charter from King Henry I, dating all the way back to 1119.  

Some records go back nearly 900 years

Some records go back nearly 900 years - Credit: Charlotte Bond

“If you look at the handwriting, it’s a completely different language. We actually have a couple of palaeography courses coming up, because if you’re super into history and looking at old documents, it can be hard to decipher. So we’ll be giving out tips and tricks to help make it easier,” Kelly says.  

But, the question on everyone’s lips, how on earth do they keep everything in such pristine and tip-top condition?  

I had assumed that visitors needed to handle documents with white gloves, like I’ve seen before on TV, but that’s actually not the case.  

“Anything super delicate that would require gloves we just wouldn’t have out exposed to the elements,” she says.  

Instead, The Hold has been carefully designed with preservation and conservation in mind – and is home to three temperature-controlled strong rooms. 

Inside one of the three strongrooms

Inside one of the three strongrooms - Credit: Charlotte Bond

These house some of the oldest and most precious artefacts – and every aspect is considered to ensure storage is as secure as possible.  

“Members of the public don’t actually come down here. If you need something down here, you need to make an appointment where one of our team will find it for you, piece it together and you come and collect it. And when you’re done, we’ll put it back in its place. 

“We’re very conscious of how precious everything is - that’s why everything is carefully considered. We store documents in industry-grade boxes which protect against flood. Even the staples are rust-proof.” 

And if in an emergency the sprinklers go off, the boxes and shelves are designed to withstand a certain amount of water.  

“We want to futureproof everything, so it can be enjoyed for generations to come.” 

Everything is arranged according to the Dewey Decimal System

Everything is arranged according to the Dewey Decimal System - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Kelly takes me up to the next floor, which houses the digitisation and conservation rooms.  

The digitisation room is where certain pieces such as documents and maps are scanned and uploaded to The Hold’s system, so it can be viewed multiple times online. This means the artefact itself is handled less frequently, lessening any potential wear and tear.  

And next door is the conservation room. As we walk in, head of conservation Dominic Wall is hard at work with one of his staff members, restoring old animal parchment maps to their former glory.  

They’re cleaning and flattening them so they can be taken next door and digitised. Using a variety of tools including erasers, magnets, and vapour, it’s a fascinating process to watch unfold. I could honestly spend hours watching on and learning more. 

Conservator Dominic Wall restoring old maps

Conservator Dominic Wall restoring old maps - Credit: Charlotte Bond

As our tour draws to a close, we round things off with a quick look at the current exhibition on display. 

Entitled ‘Women Don’t Do Such Things’, it pays homage to some of the county’s greatest pioneers, activists and game-changers. It’s filled with information, photos, illustrations and moving images, showcasing some incredible women and the feats. Just some of the women on display include author and artist Mary Matild Betham, Margaret Catchpole, Elizabeth Cobbold, Rosetta Weekes, and the women’s land army.  

Exhibitions change around three to four times a year, and are organised by exhibition and interpretation officer Emily Shepperson.  

The next exhibit, ‘Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels’, will open on Friday July 15, and is a touring exhibition from the British Library that showcases some of literatures favourite rebellious characters from children’s books. Think Matilda, Tracy Beaker, and Pippi Longstocking. 

In the meantime, if you fancy getting involved with local heritage, The Hold is embarking upon a new project that anyone can contribute to - regardless of historical expertise.  

To help commemorate the Platinum Jubilee, people are invited to contribute any souvenirs they have from the event – including photographs, postcards, programmes, invitations, and leaflets from local events.  

If there’s one thing my trip has taught me, it’s that history is for everyone, and it’s so easy to immerse yourself in the joys of heritage.  

History is all around us, and you too can be part of it.  

To find out more about how you can access The Hold, and any upcoming events and exhibitions, visit suffolkarchives.co.uk