History of the Norfolk Record Office

The Norwich Public Library was the forerunner to the Norfolk Record Office (NRO).

This was run by the City of Norwich, but it had accepted deposits and donations of records relating to the whole of Norfolk since at least the 1930s. These included documents collected by the Norfolk Record Society.

Those manuscripts which would not fit into the library’s only strongroom were stored in boxes on the tops of shelves holding the book-stock, or in the basement where there was not enough space to stand upright.

The library also administered the city’s records stored in the muniment (document) room of Norwich Castle.

A new home and growing service

A move to the newly-built Norwich Central Library began in 1962 and a major change in status came on 1 January 1963, with the foundation of a joint Norfolk and Norwich Record Office.

The new post of city and county archivist was taken by Jean Kennedy, who in 1955 had become the first archivist with a diploma in archive administration to be appointed in Norfolk.

Miss Kennedy had only been able to influence the later stages of planning the new library building, but crucially she ensured that the accommodation for the record office formed a single unit.

The documents from the old library moved into the new building’s basement strongroom, along with records transferred from the castle and the offices of Norfolk County Council.

The record office was administered by the City of Norwich and jointly funded by the city and county councils.

Their respective contributions were determined by the proportion of records relating to each, with the caveat that all the manuscripts taken in by the library before 1963 were regarded as belonging to Norwich. This agreement was extended to include the Borough of Great Yarmouth in 1969.

In the same period, the record office achieved recognition as the diocesan record office for Norwich. It also negotiated an agreement with the Dean and Chapter of Norwich for the administration of the cathedral archives, paving the way for their transfer to the record office in 1975.

The local government reorganisation of 1974 saw the administration of the Norfolk Record Office (as it had become) move from the city to the county council. The membership of the joint records committee was extended to include representatives of all the district councils.

The NRO gained some additional strongroom accommodation at the city’s old Shirehall and a separate microform searchroom was opened there in 1991.

The library fire and creation of The Archive Centre

The Central Library was devastated by fire on 1 August 1994, but the Shirehall searchroom remained open. It provided the focus for a curtailed public service throughout the period of recovery from the disaster, including two major moves.

The records rescued from the library’s basement strongroom were transferred to a temporary store within 10 days of the fire. They were moved a year later to adapted premises at Gildengate House, where the NRO re-opened.

During this time a plan was being discussed and formed for a new Norfolk Record Office and East Anglian Studies Centre, which was to be based at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The county council and UEA put in a joint bid for Heritage Lottery funding for this project at the end of January 1997, but it was rejected later that year.

In the meantime, Jean Kennedy retired as the first county archivist of Norfolk at the end of March 1997 and was replaced by John Alban.

In October 1998 a new joint bid for Heritage Lottery support was submitted and in December 2000 a grant of up to £4,186,000 was awarded. This was towards the construction and fitting out of a new Archive Centre adjacent to County Hall in Norwich.

This opened to the public in November 2003 and it was officially opened by the Queen on 5 February 2004.

An archive for the 21st century

Since opening, The Archive Centre has received many accolades and has been described as one of the most modern archive buildings in Europe. Its facilities have enabled the NRO to develop services, including programmes of exhibitions, education and outreach, both within The Archive Centre and across Norfolk.

The NRO is rated as a four-star (the highest level) archive service under The National Archives' (TNA) self-assessment programme.

It also holds the status of being a TNA-approved repository under its inspection regime and is designated as a place of deposit for tithe and manorial documents as well as public records.

In 2005, the NRO became the first county record office to have all its collections designated as being of outstanding importance by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (now Arts Council England). 

Dr Alban retired in March 2013. The current county archivist, Gary Tuson, took up the post in August that same year.

Further reading

  • John Alban: Norfolk Record Office and East Anglian Film Archive Lottery Success, The Newsletter of the Society of Archivists, cxxxix (February 2001), 4
  • John Alban: The Archive Centre at Norwich opens for Business, ARC. Archives, Records Management and Conservation, clxix (September 2003), 20-1
  • John Alban: Norfolk's new Archive Centre opened by the Queen, ARC. Archives, Records Management and Conservation, clxxvi (April 2004), 5-6
  • Mark Hingley: Avoiding Disaster at the Norfolk Record Office: a Retrospective view, Journal of the Society of Archivists, xvii, no. 1 (April 1996), 23-6
  • Jean Kennedy: Local Archives of Great Britain, XXX. The Norfolk and Norwich Record Office, Archives, the Journal of the British Records Association, viii (1967-8), 63-9
  • Jean Kennedy: Norfolk Record Office Fire: an Initial Report, Journal of the Society of Archivists, xvi, no.1 (Spring 1995), 3-6
  • Christopher Kitching, Archive Buildings in the United Kingdom, 1993-2005 (Stroud, 2007)