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Who has headed the Borthwick over the years?

Since 1953 there have been four Borthwick Directors (the title is now Keeper of Archives). There has been great continuity - all our 'bosses' served first under their predecessors.

Canon J.S. Purvis (1953-1963)

Canon J.S. Purvis

Rev. J.S. Purvis was the first Director of the Borthwick Institute 1953 – 1963.

Purvis's scholarly direction and his use of documents in teaching developed the distinctive character of the Borthwick.

Rev. J.S. Purvis had been appointed Diocesan Archivist by the Archbishop of York in 1939, and he found the York Diocesan Archive (then stored in what is now the location of York Minster shop), dirty and disorganised.

He did much fundamental work, sorting and arranging the archive and arranging for it to be sent to safe locations during the Second World War.

The York Diocesan Archive, 1939

"The conditions of storage left very much to be desired; in general, files were roughly bound up in brown paper, and many documents were rolled, crushed or folded into bundles, and thrust much too closely together on the shelves; a large number suffered damage, either from damp or from nearness to the heat of the pipes which warmed the Strong Rooms in winter, or from the rough folding or the constriction of the strings with which they were tied; all suffered severely from dirt, the accumulation of a thick coat of fine black dust."

Rev J.S. Purvis

Purvis taught on the York Academic Development Committee's archive summer schools from 1949 onwards and became a member of the Academic Development Committee. He played a significant role in the founding of the Borthwick by alerting Oliver Sheldon to the existence of the legacy of William Borthwick (like Purvis, a Bridlington man).  

Canon Purvis was a great scholar and a man of many parts: historian, archivist, writer, inspiring teacher and priest. He was a First World War poet, and his poem 'High Wood', written under the pseudonym 'Philip Johnstone', was first published in The Nation in 1917

He was a gifted artist. Among his surviving watercolours are pictures of St Anthony's Hall as well as sketches of lecturers and teachers at the York Archive Summer Schools.

Purvis produced a large number of scholarly publications on history and archives and he wrote the first modern script for the York Mystery Plays when they were revived for the first York Festival of 1951.

He was awarded the OBE in 1958 for services to historical scholarship.


Mrs Norah K.M. Gurney (1963-1974)

In 1963, Norah Gurney became 'Archivist in Charge'; in 1971 she became Borthwick Director.

She had come to the Borthwick in 1956 as assistant archivist (the third to serve under Canon Purvis).

Under Mrs Gurney the Borthwick further developed its links with the wider archive profession and it became a highly regarded record office.

She died of cancer in 1974, aged only 52.

Dr (later Professor) David M. Smith (1974-2000)

David Smith came to the Borthwick as assistant archivist in 1970 and from 1972 was senior assistant archivist.

In 1974 he became Director.

David Smith contributed much to maintaining and increasing the reputation of the Borthwick as a specialist ecclesiastical resource.

He reorganised and reclassified the York Diocesan Archive in a new and more up to date functional format.

He published the Borthwick's first Guide to the Archive Collections (1973).

He stood down as Director in 2000 and retired in 2003.

Mr Christopher C. Webb (2000-2019)

Chris Webb became Acting Director in 2000, and in 2005 adopted the new title of Keeper of Archives.

He first came to the Borthwick in 1980 to the newly created post of searchroom archivist, later on becoming senior archivist.

He was appointed with a professional archive qualification at a time when this was still unusual for the Borthwick.

From the beginning, he contributed much to making the Borthwick more responsive and user friendly to a wider audience.

Since 2000, he has guided the Borthwick through the immense challenges of a Heritage Lottery Fund bid, a move to the centre of the University campus and a new positioning as part of the University's Information Directorate.

Chris Webb retired in April 2019.