An Introduction to the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre (2006)

A guide by the former Borough Archivist, Stephen Dixon

Some of the information below may be out of date.
Please consult the Medway Archives Centre website in conjunction with this.

An Introduction to the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre (2006)

A guide by the former Borough Archivist, Stephen Dixon

Some of the information below may be out of date. Please consult the Medway Archives Centre website in conjunction with this.

This page is printer-friendly.


Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre (MALSC) is the archives and local studies service for the Medway Council unitary authority, which elsewhere corresponds to a county record office and county local studies library.

We hold the local government records for the Medway area, records of outside organisations including schools, landed estates, charities, businesses, statutory companies, nonconformist churches and some central government records or Public Records for the Medway area. We also hold the parish church and parish council records for the north west of Kent.

Our principal archives finding aid CityArk ( ) was published online in 1999 and was the earliest detailed piece level database published online. CityArk was unique as a local government web site for several years on the National Archives “other archives on the web” referral page.

CityArk offers advanced text retrieval and in a parallel imagebase thousands of images of original records, especially parish registers constituting the Medway Ancestors project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and completed in late 2005.

Conventional manual finding aids are available in the searchroom.

Collecting policy and the Character of the Area

Medway Council has formally approved a collecting policy for the archive service in line with the Standard for Record Repositories published by The National Archives (TNA), as a step towards meeting TNA approval under the Standard, as follows:

The geographical jurisdiction of the archives service shall, in all respects, conform to the Local Authority area and the Rochester Archdeaconry area (for Parish Records) (Parochial Registers and Records Measure (1978)) the latter area as defined at 1st September 1993. The collections subject to acquisition policy shall be the historical and modern records of the parent Authority and records of private and local origination or historical value.

This is accompanied by a statement of objectives:

The purpose of the archives service is to preserve the historical and modern records of the parent Local Authority (Local Government Act 1972 (Pt. IX S.224)) and other records of private and local origination or value (Local Government (Records) Act 1962) for the purpose of enabling comprehensive public research into the written heritage of the Local Authority area, also to serve Local Authority staff and Members in the transaction of Local Authority business.

The effect of collecting local government records and records of outside organisations since 1987 has been to shape the documentary heritage of the Medway Towns and surrounding area; staff are most aware of their responsibility in this regard.

In shaping the archives of the Medway Towns, and to a certain extent the north west of Kent, the Borough Archivist has had regard for the unique character of the area. The Medway Towns are defined by the River Medway, Watling Street and to a considerable extent the River Thames, into which the local government boundary extends at least half way, giving the present administrative area a boundary with Essex as well as Administrative Kent. An historic naval dockyard established in the 16th Century, cement manufacture, engineering, brickmaking, seed crushing have all shaped the area, as have the trade with London, the East Coast, Europe and the Baltic region.

To this day few of our archival or local studies collections are silent on the social and economic aspects of our heritage or the social and built landscapes that inspired Dickens. Parish poor relief records, poor law union and workhouse records, photographs and building plans are examples.

Local Studies Collections

Complementing our archival collections are local studies collections formerly housed at Rochester, Chatham, Strood and Gillingham libraries. These collections were transferred in 1993 (from 1990 in the case of Gillingham Library) and comprise printed books and journals relating to the Medway area and Kent topography, the Dickens Collection (novels by and biographies of Charles Dickens who lived in Chatham as a boy and in later life at Gad’s Hill, Higham), the Naval Collection of printed books, cuttings and photographs pertaining to the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, Royal Marines and Chatham Dockyard, microfiche indexes including the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and General Register Office (GRO) index to births, marriages and deaths, Medway Towns newspapers (mainly microfilm), family history CD-ROMs, Ordnance Survey maps and other printed maps.

Manuscripts transferred from Gillingham Library probably include those once held at the short-lived Gillingham Borough Museum in Woodlands Road, which closed in 1958. Most of the museum’s collections were given to other museums or auctioned but many of the manuscript items are now in our archival collections to which they have been gradually added.

The local studies stock is largely on open access in the public searchroom and is available without formality with the exception of microfilm and microfiche sources for which an advance booking is recommended.

Research facilities

Our online research facility is available world-wide to everyone with internet access. For those wishing to visit, our public searchroom can accommodate four document users, one map user, four local studies users, eight microfilm users and six fiche users concurrently. We also have six public computer workstations offering internet access, Microsoft Office Suite and genealogy CD-ROMs and one dedicated archives database workstation. Visiting internet users must sign our internet access agreement forms and prove their identity.

We offer photocopying (with limitations for photocopying original documents), microfilm and fiche printouts and permit self-service digital photography by prior arrangement for a fee. Power points are available for laptop users.

The searchroom is also used as our exhibition and talk area and at any one time we are either showcasing our own collections or hosting a visiting exhibition mounted by an outside organisation. We pride ourselves on a friendly and helpful atmosphere and have recently entered into an agreement with the Medway Branch of the Kent Family History Society for their members to offer voluntary guidance to first-time family historians on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.


Negotiations for the establishment of a new local government archive service and repository in the Medway Towns were entered into by Rochester City Council and Kent County Council in 1969.

The amalgamation of Rochester City Council, Chatham Borough Council and Strood Rural District Council and the inauguration of the new Medway authority (eventually known as Rochester upon Medway City Council) in 1974 and the resulting hiatus caused in record keeping arrangements gave renewed impetus to these discussions. Discussions intensified after the centralising of council offices in the period 1984 to1988, stimulated by the need to centralise, store and house the accumulation of voluminous records from the former council offices at Frindsbury Hill, Strood, Maidstone Road, Rochester and Chatham Town Hall under one roof.

By 1990 interim archive stores comprised the attic of Eastgate House, the Guildhall Museum annexe and Riverside No.1, Chatham. Much credit for these interim arrangements which ensured the survival of the area’s local government record is due to Michael Moad, long time museum curator and, until 1987, city archivist.

Difficulties were increasingly experienced in continuing to deliver an ad hoc archive service to researchers from the student room of the Guildhall Museum in Rochester and members and senior officers of the local authority and Kent County Council (KCC) recognised the value of enabling proper public access to archives in the Medway Towns.

Retaining the records in question in the Medway Towns rather than transferring them to Kent Archives Office was more acceptable to the local authority, while KCC saw logistical advantages in transferring their Medway related collections. In the late 1980s therefore the Public Record Office and KCC (archives authority for Kent under the Local Government (Records) Act 1962), advised the local authority on arrangements for establishing a new repository and service. The new archive service began as a purely internal one in 1987 when the first professional archivist, Helen Ford, was appointed. Stephen Dixon was appointed in February 1990 and the service was launched in April 1990 by Dr. Michael Turnbull, Bishop of Rochester in the company of Michael Roper, Keeper of Public Records. A formal legal agreement was signed by the city council and KCC in June that year.

Under the agreement, three staff comprising an archivist, senior archives assistant and archives assistant were placed on the KCC payroll (the cost of their salaries being recharged to the city council) and these reported to both the county archivist and the city council’s museum curator. The city council was solely responsible for accommodating, funding and equipping the service during the period of operation of the agreement, 1990 to 1998.

Archival collections of Medway origin were accordingly transferred from County Hall between August 1989 and 1993. These included parish records, the Rochester Cathedral records, records of charities, statutory companies, Public Records and family and estate papers, thus enabling the new service to offer a full local government archive service. Since 1990, many further collections have been received direct from local depositors, including council departments.

In 1993 under a tenancy at will arrangement, the local studies collections and staff of KCC’s local library service were co-located with archives using the first floor area vacated by the Medway Housing Authority in a much improved and enlarged searchroom. The service was renamed Rochester upon Medway Studies Centre and so it remained until 1998 when the service became Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre following the creation of the new unitary authority.

Management and staffing

In 1998 the nominal management of the service passed from KCC to Medway Council, an archives authority in its own right under the Local Government (Records) Act 1962 and Local Government Act 1992. The budget for the new service was a continuation of the former city council’s with the exception of funding for building plan repair which though intended by the city council to be phased over ten years was halted by the new authority in 2000.

The staff now comprise the Borough Archivist, Senior Archives and Local Studies Assistant, Archives Assistant, Archives and Local Studies Officer, Local Studies Librarian (as a job share) and Local Studies Assistant; there are also several casual staff.

The Archival Collections

The archive stock totals two shelf miles or 8000 boxes. Collections are accessible via either piece level electronic and manual finding aids or summary collection descriptions, compiled electronically and manually at the accession stage.

Records intended for permanent preservation together with some local government modern records (i.e. records with a limited lifespan) are kept at the Civic Centre in Strood but in 2005 a modern records store was opened in Chatham for modern records only. With some exceptions these latter records are subject to destruction after the expiry of their retention periods.

The Civic Centre archives strongroom is protected by an intruder system, smoke detectors, fire suppression system and air conditioning. A CIPFA report of the mid 1990s indicated that we were one of only three local government record offices in England and Wales outside London whose archives were entirely protected to the level of the principal BS5454 requirements.

Our core holdings are the records of our predecessor local government authorities, namely Rochester City Council, whose earliest records date from 1227, Chatham Borough Council, Strood RDC, Gillingham Borough Council, Hoo RDC, Rochester upon Medway City Council, Kent County Council (local departments pre1998) and Medway Council. Several of these authorities were preceded in their day by other public bodies whose records have been passed down to us including burial boards, Rochester Highway Board, Hoo Highway Board, Chatham Local Board of Health and Gillingham Urban District Council.

Records of statutory companies comprise the Medway Conservancy Board and Medway Navigation Company. Records of Charities include Hawkins’ Hospital, Chatham, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Rochester, Watts’ Charity, Rochester, WEA South East and Foord Almshouses, Rochester.

Business records include Winget of Strood and Blaw Knox of Rochester, engineers; Dove Phillips and Pett of Rochester and Strood, mineral water manufacturers; Best, Hulkes and Budden and Biggs, brewers; Rogers, Stevens and Chance, chartered surveyors, brewery agents and valuers of licensed property; Chatham and Colonial Insurance, London and Chatham.

Regarding church and nonconformist records we hold the parish records for Rochester Archdeaconry area plus Burham and Wouldham and the records of Rochester Cathedral. Nonconformist records include the Methodist Church Medway Towns Circuit, Chatham Memorial Synagogue, the Chatham Unitarian church and the Presbyterian Church, Clover Street, Chatham.

The treasure among our collections is the Textus Roffensis, a MS book containing inter alia Anglo-Saxon laws and charters compiled by a monk of Rochester Priory in about 1123 from many older documents or exemplars many of which no longer survive. The book is of international importance especially in the English speaking world and contains the earliest record of the English language and the earliest English laws recorded in about 604. The laws are the first to be recorded in a vernacular. The book contains the earliest recorded English placenames, one of the earliest recorded uses of Arabic numerals in England, the foundation charters of Rochester Cathedral (also of 604), an earlier record of Kent parishes than the Domesday Book and the Institutes of King Henry I upon which the barons based Magna Carta. The book was written in the Jutish dialect of English and is thus the earliest documentary evidence of the distinctively English identity of the ancient county of Kent.

Medway Archives is therefore home to a manuscript of crucial importance in defining the character and identity of Kent and English constitutional systems worldwide.

Also of interest among the cathedral archives is the Lambeth Exchange, by which Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury exchanged the manor of Lambeth for Rochester Priory’s manor of Darenth in 1197. This is the origin of the modern Lambeth Palace as the official residence and office of the archbishop of Canterbury. This charter is one of about 1000 medieval charters in the cathedral archives.

Our family and estate collections include the records of the Earls of Darnley of Cobham Hall and the Best family of Chatham and Boxley. The Darnley archive contains correspondence of the Earl of Clarendon, material relevant to the development of the game of cricket and the oldest surviving admission ticket to the British Museum.

The Best collection is of wider interest because in the 1730s Sarah Best, daughter of Thomas Best, married Edward Vernon of Nacton, Suffolk. The resulting correspondence between Vernon and his wife and in-laws record Vernon’s contribution to naval history. In 1739 as an admiral, Edward Vernon (whose nickname Old Grog inspired the slang term for the naval rum ration which he invented) commanded the fleet in the West Indies where he fought the War of Jenkins’ Ear. His detailed correspondence in which he describes his life at sea and the conduct of the war is preserved in the Best collection.

Friends of Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre

The membership of the Friends of Medway Archives (FOMA) is world-wide and has the following aims: to preserve Medway heritage, to support and promote the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre, and to advance the education of the public in the history of the Medway area and its people. The Inaugural Annual General Meeting of FOMA took place on 6th April 2006 when the organisation became an Excepted Charity, approved by the Inland Revenue under its Constitution.

Copyright © . Friends of Medway Archives.

Copyright © . Friends of Medway Archives.
Excepted Charity: XR92894.
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