The Lancashire Evening Post, Wednesday, 15th May 2002
What Marian Roberts doesn't know about the history of the city of Preston isn't worth knowing.
To hear Marian Roberts talk is fascinating. Names, addresses, relationships ... it all comes tumbling forth without a second's hesitation. But it isn't her own family history that she recollects, but the minutiae of life in Preston 150 or more years ago.

For Marian Roberts is the uncrowned queen of this Lancashire, city. Over the last 20 years this tiny, but sprightly octogenarian, with a razor sharp mind, has researched the history, life and times of Proud Preston. She has rooted out long lost housing deeds, traced birth, marriage and death certificates after poring through dusty tomes in records offices, made links between people, families, houses, businesses until what she doesn't know about Preston frankly isn't really worth bothering with.

Her knowledge is such that she is frequently called upon by the Harris Museum to act as a kind of living reference library, filling in the gaps of stories they want to tell or exhibitions they wish to mount. She is Preston born and bred and has a wealth of stories about the town she grew up in. She started her research as a way of keeping herself going after the death of her beloved husband Louis in 1980.

She took a course in palaeography, the study and under-standing of ancient writing, and poured herself into the Preston's past via, to begin with, Winckley Square, which had fascinated her since being a girl. Marian Roberts
Marian was born in the now long gone Bloomfield Street, moving with her family aged five to Castle Chambers, home of the Refuge Assurance Company, across the way from the Harris Museum. Her mother was caretaker for the assurance company and the family lived in a flat in the building, Marian said: "We saw everything from up there. If there was anything very special going on, parades or visiting dignitaries, we could see it all. The Toulmins (the then owners of the Lancashire Evening Post) used to beg us to let them look out of the window because it offered the best view. That is where my love affair with the museum started." Marian lived there until she got married in 1949. She met Louis at County Hall where they both worked. Marian was a clerical assistant. After his death, she retired and began to pursue her interest in local history, starting with Winckley Square and giving talks to local societies. "It was just something to do at first, take my mind off things," she said. "It was a sort of therapy."

She joined the Friends of the Harris Museum and was working as a volunteer guide, when Frank Carpenter, then the keeper of social history at the museum, knowing her interest in Winckley Square and the Addison family who featured prominently in its history, pointed her in the direction of five Morrison's carrier bags. "In those bags," he said, "are the Addison papers. You're very welcome to read them and if you could catalogue them I'd be very grateful." She didn't need asking twice and the results of her research are now housed in the county records office.

In the late 80s Marian published a book, now sadly out of print but available in the library, called The Story of Winckley Square which detailed the lives of the people who made the square tick. A decade later, hearing that numbers 13-17 Winckley Street, home of Napthen, Houghton, Craven Solicitors was to be redeveloped, she was concerned that papers relating to the Cross family of Redscar Estate, which she knew were housed there, should be properly catalogued and stored.

She was invited by the company to take a look around and was thrilled when she discovered a walk-in safe which contained metal deed boxes. They smelled foul, she said, but imagine her excitement when she realised they were home to the original archive and conveyancing for Winckley Square, Ribblesdale Place and Garden Street.

Sadly the very oldest documents were badly damaged with damp and mould and she barely dared touch them. In fact after the documents had been sent to the records office for testing and storage she was alarmed to get a phone call telling her to see a doctor immediately because the documents had been damaged by rat urine. Luckily she came to no harm.

Preston is Marian's life, but she has just bade farewell to her home town (she confesses she'd rather think of it as a proud industrial town than a newly created city) and the Watling Street Road house she has lived in since she married. At 82, she has moved, with her sister, to Wymondham near Norwich, close to her niece. Before she left she had to pack up boxes of research -10 destined for the records office, three for the reference library and seven, plus her computer, for the special collections at the university library. "It belongs in Preston," she said. She'll be sorely missed. She has received official farewell gifts and good wishes from the Harris, and the Friends of the Phil and the Mayor, which quite overwhelmed her. There were tears when she shut the front door for the last time and headed for Norwich. But she's already discovered a terrace of Georgian houses on the Newmarket road with cottages behind them which is just crying out to have-its history researched.

Norwich Library... prepare to have your archives examined with a fine toothcomb!

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© The Lancashire Evening Post, May 2002