AS local government reorganisation once again occupies public debate, members of Christchurch History Society can observe with calm detachment that the town has seen it all before.
“It’s nothing new,” says the society’s chairman Richard Randerson. “Bournemouth has been after Christchurch before, but Christchurch was here a long time before that muddy little stream to the west of us decided it needed a conurbation.”
Likewise, the on-going discussions about the erosion and protection of Mudeford Spit only replay those that have gone before.
“There have been times when the Spit extended as far as Highcliffe Castle and we have records that show borough engineers wrestling with problems for decades. There’s a great deal to learn from studying what has gone before.”
Constituted in its current form in 1989 with the encouragement of the county’s library services to help look after the Druitt Collection of archives, which has since been transferred to Dorset History Centre, Christchurch History Society can trace its roots back to the early part of the 20th century.
Its collections consist of some 16,000 items, most of which have been donated, ranging from title deeds and documents to photographs, artwork and ephemera – there’s even a chip wrapper from the 1930s!
Everything is catalogued and stored in the Porch Room at Christchurch Priory and operated as an open archive available to anyone to view by appointment.
“We get requests from all over the world,” says Richard. “In the last five months alone we have had enquiries from Sweden, Australia and the United States, as well as from all over the United Kingdom. Interestingly, we get far fewer requests from people who live in Christchurch than we do from those outside the area.
Research is undertaken freely with a minimum donation suggested of £15 to cover storage and IT costs. Sometimes working with mere scraps of background details, requests are dealt with by the society’s members, all volunteers, who mine the collections for useful material.
At the heart of the archive is an index of more than 153,200 names that have appeared in the Christchurch Times.
Painstakingly transcribed by members it lists the people from Christchurch and the surrounding villages who featured in the paper from its first publication in 1855 until 1938. The society holds limited microfilm copies of the Christchurch Times from 1858 to 1860 and every copy from 1861 to 1918 when it first ceased publication, as well as from its reappearance in 1925 to 1983 when it again ceased publication.
“The project is on-going and we’ll be working through the 1940s and of course now that the Christchurch Times has reappeared we’ll be adding to the index from the new publication.”
With an active membership – around 100 of its 250-plus members attend the evening lecture meetings that run from September to June at Christchurch Junior School – the society also organises guided walks and visits. It publishes a quarterly journal as well as a number of books and booklets.
“Members undertake their own research and submit articles to the newsletter on a range of local subjects, but because of the cataloguing project we haven’t been able to add to the list of other publications for a year or so.
“I believe we are a valuable resource to the whole community. I’m biased of course, but Christchurch has a fascinating history and our website attracts people from all over the world to the town.”
All images used courtesy of Christchurch History Society. To find out more visit historychristchurch.org.uk