How I Started...

How I Started – Peter Foden

Peter Foden

  • Archivist to His Grace the Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle
  • Hon Teaching Fellow, CAIS, Dundee University
  • Associate Tutor, Department of Information Studies, UCL
  • Genealogist & Palaeographer, trading as Peter Foden Consultancy Limited

That’s not my historic CV, by the way, but what I am doing right now. It’s almost a job for every day of the week, isn’t it? Throw in (for good measure) short spells as a Business Archivist, City Archivist, Records Manager, and Freedom of Information Consultant, and you might either say I’ve “done it all” or that I am “Jack of All Trades” rather than “Master of Archive Administration” (which is what it says on my certificate from Liverpool University).

Pretending to programme: meeting Delegation of Chinese Archivists at Liverpool University, 1986

I’ve started more than once.

Archivist Brett Harrison was an early mentor, as he swept up the neglected archives of Furness into a new Record Office behind Barrow Reference Library. The unique pot-pourri of Vickers-Armstrong warship blueprints and solicitors’ parchment (with a hint of fumigating Thymol) was infused throughout the building by the BS5454 air conditioning, and drew me in. Watching Roots, Centennial, and Michael Wood’s The Anglo-Saxons on TV, and the Schools Council History Project which my school pioneered, had got me hooked on the idea of encountering people of the past first-hand through their written and material traces. First degree in Anglo-Saxon and History, Masters in Archive Administration, Assistant Archivist job in the Shropshire County Archives; so far, so conventional.

Also conventional was my pact with my wife when we married that whoever got a job first, we’d move there. I won. Lincoln’s Inn was hiring its first ever Archivist, only for a year, but on the strength of it we moved to Northolt and I was a daily commuter on the Central Line. That experience told me that I thrived on starting something new, and that there was something special about an archive that was organic within an institution: not collected, transferred, purchased, or discarded and rescued, but treasured – and used – in-house.

So moving on at the end of my contract to another Institution that had recently decided to recruit an Archivist was a natural progression. OUP (Oxford University Press) had just closed its Printing House, and needed a curator of industrial artefacts rescued from dissolution (as well as of archives and antiques, and, some said, “conscience”). Persuasion and pragmatism respectively overcame and accommodated the initially inadequate budget and we opened the new Museum in 1992. It was a proud achievement, jointly with Martin Andrews of Reading University’s Department of Typography, through which I learned about communication, teamwork and project management.

Pretending to print in the OUP Museum, 1996 (with Sue Shaw at the launch of ‘Operation Hannibal’,

Any empire-building ambitions I had were (rightly but gallingly) thwarted. But funds were found to hire gap-year students to collect, list, and shunt archives around the Walton Street building site until they finally came to rest in our new repository. We also paid Typography Students from Reading University to design museum and travelling exhibitions. Again, I learned something new about myself, that I enjoy mentoring and encouraging young professionals. Several of those students are now very successful archivists themselves (you know who you are!).

Dr Philip Morgan of Keele University gave me a break 25 years ago. (Conservators stop reading here) I was photocopying fourteenth-century manorial accounts for his course at Keele’s renowned Mediaeval Latin and Palaeography Summer School. As Philip had a “following” his course was doubly oversubscribed, and he generously asked me if I would co-tutor. The next year, I prepared and taught my own course, on mediaeval construction records, and teaching has been a strand in my career ever since. I am now pleased to find myself in the wonderful Elizabeth Danbury’s footsteps teaching Reading & Interpretation at UCL.

When you are an organisation’s first and only archivist (as I have been four times), you’ve got to be its records manager too. Understanding records lifecycle is essential, even if your role is calendaring thirteenth-century charters or helping readers in the searchroom decipher Elizabethan Secretary hand, giving you a feel for both the accident and policy of archival survival. So I am pleased to have done a stint as a proper Records Manager in a proper business: OUP may be a business-academic chimera, but no one can deny that Boots is the real thing. My Liverpool fellow-student Katey Logan kindly recruited me to Boots HQ in Nottingham when I needed to shorten my commute in readiness for an SOS call from my wife for the birth of our third child. A Stately Home like Belvoir Castle is very much a family business, which the archive supports. Dare I say that I was head-hunted into this “Downton-esque” world, in which connections still matter? It’s always good to remember your Benefactors, and this time mine were Dr Dorothy Johnston, then Keeper of MSS at Nottingham University, and Dr David Crook.

Pretending to research
Pretending to research Garden History at Belvoir. Some of the anecdotes I discovered have now been published in Capability Brown and Belvoir: Discovering a Lost Landscape by the Duchess of Rutland and Jane Pruden (

“Acts of God” can take careers that were better planned than mine in unexpected directions. I don’t write this flippantly, because I do believe things happen for a purpose. My career break, as a house-husband caring for our profoundly disabled daughter, gave me the chance of a new start that had to be part time and freelance. It sometimes seems precarious, but a variety of work keeps coming, and it’s not just genealogy.

And here’s the conventional “sting in the tail”. My latest reinvention picks up a stray thread of the old Liverpool Archive course, the history of English Land Law. A quarter century on, this arcane knowledge, which lawyers have all forgotten, and only archivists of a certain age remember, was called forth on 13th October 2013 by the botched parliamentary draftsmanship of the Land Registration Act (2002). As a consequence there’s a demand for research to demystify and constrain claims of manorial rights, chancel repair liabilities, and other hangovers of history – my newest research specialism. So, my advice is, keep all your University notes, and keep learning, because you never know when the most obscure knowledge & skills will come in handy.


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  1. David Wynn

    Hi Peter, It has been nice to keep up to date with your career moves, and congratulations on such a thoughtful piece. I remember your time at OUP and enjoyed our cooperation. Rights benefited from your appointment enormously – as did the whole of OUP even though it may not have realised it. I have been retired 9 years now and have enjoyed my post OUP life, but with many fond memories of the place. Still in Abingdon with a burgeoning family (seven grandchildren).

    Very best wishes to you and your family.

    David Wynn

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