Kew re-visited

The National Archives

Image by Simon Clayson via Flickr

I’m at the National Archives in Kew for a few days last-minute research for my forthcoming book ‘Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes’.

I’ve been going to Kew since 2004, when I was working on my undergraduate dissertation. Since then I’ve been back there working on Magazine articles, family history, journal articles and just random self-interest stuff. I’ve looked at Admiralty, War Office, Ministry of Defence, Air Ministry, Board of Trade, Treasury, Foreign Office and other Documents. Theres something pretty enigmatic about anywhere where you can walk in and choose from 11 million records and order one of them to read – many written in the vary hand of luminaries like Winston Churchill, Nelson or Monty.

Kew is an enigma all of its own. Its always had a nasty case of change-itis, and its obviously an insitutional thing. In the time I’ve been going there the registration desk has moved at least four times, the first floor help desk has been revamped three times, the restaurant about three times, the museum once, as well as the cyber cafe. Most Archives and Libraries could only dream about being able to change things so often. Whilst improvement is no doubt a good thing when its genuine, you can’t help but think that a lot of the changes at Kew are classic cases of ‘Emperors new clothes in a governmental setting’. And why oh why do they insist on having such a politically correct menu? The restaurant used to to great roasts, Lasagnes… food like that. Today, however, the most palatable thing I could find was Morrocan spicy meatballs and spaghettti. Which has played havoc with my stomach!

My first visit to Kew was to a rather sedate government archive repository, attended by professional researchers and the more serious family history enthusiasts. But since the Family Records Office at Islington closed and was merged with Kew, the TNA has become a mecca for family historians. Even more so with programmes like Who do you think you are?. Whilst I think its great that so many people are interested in history of any kind, it must be frustrating for the staff at Kew. From what I’ve seen more people seem to turn up at Kew without a clue than those who do. And then of course there are those who think they can just turn up and someone else will do all the donkey work for them… A lot of friends and family have mentioned going to Kew, but its the kind of place where you need to know exactly what you’re looking for before you go. And thanks to their online catalogue and research guides, its pretty easy to do so.

So wh0’s been getting the Kew treatment today? None other than Wing Commander John Buchanan, Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy and the Venables Brothers – all of whose places in history should now be that much more in context thanks to the relevant RAF Operational records. Tomorrow I plan to finish off with Buchanan’s time leading a Squadron during the Siege of Malta, and then looking at Sapper Ernest Bailey and Operation Freshman, War Office casualties on the SS Portsdown, the Royal Navy’s policy on the sending of Boy Seamen to sea after the Royal Oak Disaster, and the Royal Marines Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Kew re-visited

  1. John Erickson

    Glad to hear you’re nearing completion. I’m looking forward to the results – hey, for this book, I’ll crack open my piggy bank! :D
    As usual, if there’s anything I can do on this end, gimme a yell. Otherwise, I’ll just keep sending you those positive waves. ;)

  2. x

    I am mightily impressed you went to Kew for your undergrad’ dissertation.

    In my first week or so at Keele had to stand up in front of a load of snotty teenagers and tell them how I used the computerised library catalogue to get books out of the library. The thoughts of any of them even knowing about Kew stretches incredulity to point deep to point that even Hawking couldn’t comprehend it.

    My NextStep advisor has advised me not to go back to uni'; she thinks it wasn’t a positive experience for me!!!!

  3. James Daly

    I understand what you’re saying x. During my degree course we were told categorically that we did not have to do any original research. I’m quite glad now that I ignored their ‘advice’ – it might have made my work harder back then but I learnt a hell of a lot that I’m putting to good use now.

  4. x

    Somebody I “know” on another forum read history at Birmingham (he is three or four years younger than you) coined the phrase “sacred canon of secondary sources” which makes me laugh every time I read it/say it/think it.

    I remember the dean gave us all a talk in our first week and told us to be intellectually brave. I took that as distinct advice not to be intellectually brave. One of the reasons why the shine went off the course for me was because I felt I had to tone down my writing. When doing formal academic work my writing reflects my reading matter so my work reads like a hybrid of a legal text book and a Pen & Sword book. I don’t like drawing attention to myself so I cut down on what I term colour and texture which left me on the whole dissatisfied with my work. I will furnish you with a couple of examples. In an essay a wrote title “Was Partition Inevitable?” I decided not to include a quote “Punjabis and Bengalis are as a different as Finns and Greeks” even though it illustrated my point wonderfully. And in my conclusion I wanted to say something like “Indeed today there are Muslims in Hindustan than there are in the rump Pakistan.” but thought it sounded pompous.

    • James Daly

      I was very reserved in my writing as an undergraduate. I guess that’s down to experience. I would lay out all the evidence but not go on and really hammer the point home. With maturity and experience I’ve got more conviction though. If you’ve done your research properly there’s nothing to worry about.

      • x

        One of things I found depressing about uni’ was it seemed belief mattered over facts. Better to argue for something than to know something.

        Once in IR I sat through a presentation the content of which was the same statement said over and over and over again. There wasn’t much depth to the argument at all. But this was seen as a very good presentation. The next one the chap read from his script, mumbled a bit, but developed an argument. No marks for style perhaps but I know as an adult which of the pair of teens I would have employed.

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