Portrait of an archivist

Alison Kenney, Archivist at the City of Westminster Archives CentreProfile of Alison Kenney, Archivist

How long have you been an archivist?
I’ve worked for Westminster City Archives for 31 years – after doing a history degree, a year’s work experience and an archive diploma/MA.
You may think 31 years is a long time, but I’ll never beat my father’s record of 51 years in the same office!

What do you like best about it?
The variety – there’s never a dull moment! We acquire, sort, list and conserve archives so that we can use them for enquiries, exhibitions, talks and tours. I really enjoy using my knowledge of the collections to find information for local residents with problems. I remember once helping a very nice old gent with a flooded basement  in Pimlico, who was then able to prove to Thames Water that the River Tyburn did indeed flow under his house, using the Geological Survey maps I found for him.

Liberty ‘Dress and Decoration’ catalogue, 1905, page 27. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Liberty ‘Dress and Decoration’ catalogue, 1905. Image property of Westminster City Archives

What are your favourite items in the collection?
I really love the catalogues of Arts and Crafts costume, furniture and metalwork from Liberty’s, the famous West End store – they are so beautiful!
I also like the lovely 19th century watercolours of Westminster scenes by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd – he always includes a little family group and dog in the foreground for interest.
And as a life-long architecture fanatic, I love the late Victorian photographs by Bedford Lemere of the grand mansions in Mayfair, many of which are long since gone.

What interesting stories have you unearthed in the archives?
There are plenty of fascinating stories about people’s lives in the 18th century settlement examination books of St Martin-in-the-Fields Parish.  They contain interviews with poor people applying for financial help. Some of them even include heart-rending notes pinned to the clothing of babies abandoned by their mothers before the Foundling Hospital was established. One of our volunteers discovered the amazing story of a soldier’s wife who brought back six orphaned children from the Seven Years’ War in Europe to be looked after in London in 1760.

What’s the most curious item you’ve ever found?
It has to be the bizarre print of the Java sparrows who performed in a show in New Bond Street in the 1820s. Their owners claimed they were proficient in seven languages and could do card tricks!

Advert for Java sparrows on New Bond Street, 1820s. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Advert for Java sparrows on New Bond Street, 1820s. Image property of Westminster City Archives

What’s been your most surprising discovery?
Seeing the great seal of Elizabeth I on a deed in the Grosvenor Estate archives. It shows the queen in a spectacular dress with a lace ruff at the neck just like the ones in the famous portraits.

What’s the oldest document in the archives?
It’s a grant from Henry III to Westminster Abbey of rights to hold a market in Tothill Fields, Westminster, in 1256. It’s written in ink on parchment (sheepskin) and has most of its original green wax seal showing the king on the throne holding a sword.

Exterior view of the Archives Centre

Westminster Archives Centre

What are your concerns for the future of archives?
The fact that the 1256 document survives in the correct environment in the Archives Centre makes me wonder if any of the records we are producing now will last as long, especially as so many have been created on computers. I think the 19th century will be the best recorded century in London’s history because minutes of meetings were carefully written in bound volumes, not like the files of loose papers we get today.

What qualities do you think the archivist can bring to society?
Perspective! – we view everything that happens now against a backdrop of centuries of history. But we’re also always thinking of the future and the legacy we’re leaving to future generations. I think archivists can bring a fair degree of impartiality to the decisions about which records to keep and which to destroy. Basically, good record keeping is essential for a democratic society. You’ve only to think of the despotic regimes throughout the world, which destroy government records to deny citizens their rights, or else invade their privacy by recording every minute detail of their lives, to see just how important an issue this is.Explore Your Archive 2013


2 responses to “Portrait of an archivist

  1. In a few paragraphs I’ve been given an excellent idea of the important issues in being an archivist and the diversitiy and significance of the Westminster City Archive. A thoroughly enjoyable read.


  2. Pingback: Blessed by a visit from Brian | Books & the City

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