Roy Frank Hunnisett, (1928 – 2009)

Roy joined Sussex Record Society in 1952 and was not only its senior member but also one of the most distinguished historians to have served it both as senior editor of volumes and as literary director. Born and brought up in Bexhill, and bearing a Sussex surname, he was firmly rooted in the County, and listed the study of it as one of his recreations in Who’s Who. He moved on to academic distinction at New College, Oxford, before embarking on an outstanding career at the Public Record Office. Although his work took him away from it, his loyalty to Sussex remained unfailing, and his involvement in its history developed steadily. Even when beginning post graduate research he took care to consult Louis Salzman, not only then the doyen of Sussex studies but also the Society’s founder member and its principal activist for three quarters of a century.

The award of the Amy Mary Preston Read Scholarship enabled him to begin work on his Oxford doctorate, a study of the origins of the office of the coroner. An essay based on his thesis earned him the prestigious Alexander Medal of the Royal Historic Society and the thesis itself resulted in two monographs. The Medieval Coroners’ Rolls (1960) and The Medieval Coroner (1961). Those books established him as the unchallenged authority on his subject, and the re-issue of the latter in paperback 47 years later testifies to its definitive status.

His 35-year career at the Public Record Office, where he was appointed an Assistant Keeper in 1953, culminated as keeper in charge at Chancery Lane. His work there was centred on the publication of a formidable series of medieval and early modern legal records, and has been described as one of the major achievements of the PRO in the last three decades of the twentieth century. He distilled his expertise in this field into two publications: Indexing for Editors (1972) and Editing Records for Publication (1977), both of which still serve as bibles for everyone involved in record editing.

His active involvement with Sussex Record Society began in the early 1980s, when he undertook his edition of Sussex Coroners’ Inquests 1485-1558 (SRS Vol. 74, 1985). There is a certain irony in the fact that with this volume Roy, who remained avowedly traditional and adhered to his established principles, brought the Society into the computer age by arranging his text to be digitally formatted into our publication style. In 1992 he allowed himself to be enlisted as a member of Council. Perhaps some of us felt a little nervous of conducting our deliberations under the eye of an acknowledged guru of record publication, but we need not have worried because his contributions were always positive, good humoured and kind and helped us to achieve a previously unattained clarity and consistency.

In 2003, at an age few men would be looking for new burdens, he agreed to become a Literary Director. It was a happy coincidence that the next volume to appear was Timothy McCann’s Sussex Cricket in the Eighteenth Century (SRS, Vol. 88,2004). It was ideal that the following title should be his own East Sussex Coroners’ Records 1688-1838 (SRS, Vol.89, 2005). And it was particularly appropriate that he was then able to oversee his wife Janet’s edition of The Durford Cartulary (SRS, Vol.90, 2006).

While those volumes, in their different ways, reflected his own interests, he showed that he was willing to take on a completely different range of subject matter. We marvelled at the vast amount of editorial work he contributed to Annabelle Hughes’s Sussex Clergy Inventories 1600-1750 (SRS, Vol.91, 2009), adding to comprehensive house-editing the unrewarding but vital task of producing the index. Even after his so called ‘retirement’ from the post of Literary Director he has still left us a major legacy. As Richard Saville will testify, he undertook a detailed and thorough analysis of the text of the forthcoming Letters of John Collier of Hastings, 1731-1746, which has provided invaluable guidelines for its preparation for the press.

Despite the vast publication programme which his professional career demanded, Roy continued to publish extensively from his own research and interest throughout his life. Sussex and coroners remained at the core of his work from the very first article. Between 1955 and 1988 Sussex provided the basis for four full scale volumes and twelve articles. The four volumes published by the SRS and the PRO have provided editions of virtually all surviving coroners’ records for the whole county from 1485 to 1688 and for East Sussex up to 1838. The office of coroner provided the theme for many of his articles in Sussex Archaeological Collections and Sussex Notes and Queries. On a lighter, if slightly macabre note he could take great pleasure in combining his interests in Sussex, cricket and coroners, as exemplified by articles in SNQ in 1966 and 1967 which drew on the records of the deaths by misadventure of those playing the game. (It should perhaps be recorded here that he played for his school, college and later for the Parkhurst Club on Bexhill Down, and that as a useful slow bowler he earned the nickname ‘creeping paralysis’.)

His extensive publications beyond Sussex included editions of coroners’ records for Bedfordshire, Nottinghamshire and Wiltshire. Coroners and medieval legal records also provided material for a steady stream of articles and reviews which he produced throughout his career.

A dedication to meticulous scholarship combined with the study of coroners might suggest a rather severe personality, but Roy quickly dispelled any such preconceptions. He did not take himself too seriously and rather enjoyed a slightly detached stance, watching with some amusement the fads and fashions of modern administration. We always enjoyed pub lunches after SRS Council meetings which were enlivened by his anecdotes, wit and entertaining but unmalicious gossip.

We have so much to remember him by and to thank him for: his unremitting work on our behalf, his scholarly standards, his clarity of thought and expression, his kindly and tolerant guidance and equally the enjoyment of his company. He leaves a gap which we cannot hope to fill, but also a legacy of accomplishment and friendship which we will look back on with continuing gratitude.

Peter Wilkinson

I am grateful to Janet Hunnisett, Michael Roper, Duncan Chalmers and David Crook for their generous provision of the information in this obituary.