Tag Archives: national archives

Ancestry or Find My Past? A dilemma

For a while I have been pondering subscribing to one of the online family history websites. By far the most prominent are Ancestry and Find my Past. I’ve found myself doing more and more social history, which uses things such as the censuses and registers. And of course, both websites also have military records that are quite useful.

My problem is, which one to go for. Each has some records that the other does not have.

Find my Past has all of the censuses from 1841 to 1911, Merchant Navy crewlists and Seamans records, some miscellaneous occupational records, Parish Registers from 1538 to 2005, Birth Marriage and Death indexes from 1837 onwards, divorce indexes, some probates and wills, and some travel and migration records, such as East India Company records, Passenger lists and Registers of Passport applications.

It is in the military area that I am most interested. FMP has armed forces births, marriages and deaths 1796-2005; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; British Army Service Records 1760-1915; De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1918; DCM Citations 1914-1920; Irish Great War Records; National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918; Naval Casualties 1914-1919; New Zealand WW1 Soldiers; RA Honours 1939-46; RA MM’s 1916-93; RM Medal Roll 1914-1920; RN Division 1914-19; RN Officers 1914-20; Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19; WW2 POW’s; and the Waterloo Medal Roll of 1815.

Ancestry has all of the censuses, plus some foreign; and even some electoral rolls and slave registers; the usual BMD Registers, plus Parish Registers; British wills and probate and some foreign too; an extensive range of Passenger Lists and alien entry books. In terms of the military, Ancestry has British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1920; British Army Medal Index Cards 1914-1920; British Army Pension Records 1914-1920; ‘Soldiers Died'; Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls 1793-1949; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; WW1 Silver War Badge Records; POW’s 1939-45; Navy Lists 1908 and 1914; De Ruvigny’s R of H; DCM Citations and RN Division Records.

How the hell am I, as a WW1 historian, supposed to choose between the two of them? Whichever website I subscribe to, I am missing out on something vital on the other. If I join FMP I get RN Officers 1914-1920, and the RM Medal Roll; but if I join Ancestry I get Medal Index Cards and Silver Badge Records.

I have a feeling that this dichotomy in record digitisation is caused by the National Archives policy. Lacking the resources to digitise things themselves – they tend to charge by the item, in any case – TNA outsource each particular project to the highest bidder, either FMP or Ancestry. As a result, records are scattered between the two. As a result commercial interests are seriously hampering historical research.

Has anyone else in the field had this problem?

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‘More than a Name’ at the Royal Marines Museum

English: The Yomper Statue at the Royal Marine...

Image via Wikipedia

The famous ‘Yomper’ statue on Southsea Seafront is a memorial to the average, un-named Royal Marine. As iconic a monument as it is, it is perhaps symbolic of our understanding of military history – we worship the Regiment, and medal winners and famous battles, but do we actually know anything much about the men themselves? Now, thanks to a new exhibition at the Royal Marines Museum, members of the public can find out about the stories behind these remarkable men.

Yesterday I went and had a look round ‘more than a name’, the new exhibition at the Royal Marines Museum in Portsmouth. I think its a very snappy name, and it describes the concept very well. As the Museum’s Archivist and Librarian Matthew Little explained, the idea is to try and dig beyond the names of former Royal Marines, and look at their stories. And their are some fascinating stories too. A Royal Marine aviator, A WW2 DCM and MM, and stories of commandos and ship service. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a display of kitbags, uniforms and other Royal Marine memorabilia. What I really like is that it is completely open – not behind glass – and you can actually smell them. I’m sure that displays such as this look so much better than behind glass, and not only that, but the openness is a metaphor for better public access. Obviously given my background in researching ordinary servicemen, I found the exhibition very interesting and right up my street.

The Heritage Lottery Fund are notoriously cagey about funding capital projects that do not have any visible impact for the taxpaying visitor.The aims of this project are very much about access – both by showing the history of individuals who have served as Royal Marines, and improving the Museum’s archives to aid access. Encouragingly, the Exhbition has promoted many visitors to donate items to the Museum’s collection. As Matt explained, many visitors tend to assume that their ancestor’s documents are not of any interest, as they ‘didn’t do much’. But that’s exactly the point, we want to know exactly what the average bootneck was up to. If you put together the experiences of hundreds of these men, you can paint a pretty interesting picture. And who knows what objects unsuspecting people have got lurking in their attics?

Matt also showed me around the Museum’s archives, which is not something that many military museums are as open about! The Museum holds a wealth of documents – mainly consisting of official documents that are not held at the National Archives, such as course records and maps. The museum also have a large number of large scale technical drawings of Landing Craft, which although might be pretty mundane to many of us, to modelmakers they are gold dust. Matt also explained that the Archives are very organic, as current serving Marines are encouraged to donate items, and to record their experiences for posterity. An example which might seem pretty run of the mill is that of combat boots. In the Falklands British boots were so bad that men went down with Trench Foot. This led to an improvement in boots soon after, but then when British forces deployed to Oman for exercises in 2001 Desert boots melted. Those are the official versions, but what do the men on the ground, the men who wore them, have to say about it?

Projects such as this do represent a seismic shift for military museums. Traditionally regimental shrines, they are having to change their approaches, in a climate of budget cuts to the military. Not only that, but museums have changed in recent years, and visitors are more demanding about what they seek to do in their spare time. Putting a bunch of objects in a display case with some rudimentary labels might have been sufficient twenty years ago, but in 2012 we have to do more. And I applaud the Royal Marines Museum for their work. I can remember visiting years ago when the museum as focussed very much on the generals, the great and the good, battles, ships and drawers full of medals, but not much in terms of everyday service, and ‘real’ people. Whereas now, I think the museum incorporates the best of both worlds.

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2nd Portsmouth Pals Battalion War Diary located!

For a long time I had been labouring under the misaprehension that only a select few WW1 war diaries had been made available for download via The National Archives Documents Online service. In such a manner I had downloaded a copy of the 1st Hampshire’s War Diary some time ago, and not long ago I posted up a summary of their activities from Le Cateau in August 1914 until the beginning of 1918. It’s a thread that I’m sure I will pick up again some time in the future.

But thanks to browsing on the Grear War Forum, I have discovered that more War Diaries are available than I had originally thought. It works like this – for many Battalions, in particular territorial or hostilities only, the Battalion diaries have been grouped by brigade, hence by a cursory glance, it appears that it is only the Brigade HQ War Diary that is available. But, and here’s the golden bit, they are actually consolidated – so in reality you get four for the price of one!

Of course I have a very keen interest in the Portsmouth Pals, as I will be carrying out a lot of research into their formation, their membership, their battles and their losses. Sadly the war diary for the 1st Portsmouth Pals (14th Hampshires) is not available, and will necessitate a trip to Kew, but that of the 2nd Portsmouth Pals (15th Hampshires) is.

I’ve downloaded a couple of hundred page PDF’s, and although I have only had a quick flick through, it seems like it is unusually detailed for a war diary. Not necessarily in terms of grid references, maps or operational matters, but it does seem to give an unusually high amount of attention to other ranks rather than just officers. Of course this will be priceless for finding out about when Private X died, or when Sergeant Z won his Military Medal.

Let the transcribing begin!

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

The National Archives: Day Three

Last day at National Archives in Kew. I’ve managed to look at everything I wanted to, and more besides.

I started off with looking at the Operational Record Books for 10 and 35 Squadrons RAF while Sergeant Francis Compton was serving with them. The ORB’s for each Squadron list what missions the Squadron flew on each night, which crews went, and what happened to them – what aircraft they were flying, when they took off, what bombload they carried, what they saw on the target, when they dropped their bombs, if they were engaged by any enemy aircraft, flak or searchlights, and if any damage was experienced. I don’t want to pre-empt what I’m going to write, but Francis Compton had a short but eventful flying career.

I managed to copy some very interesting documents about V Force, a clandestine guerilla force fighting in Burma. Major Maurice Budd won a Military Cross. I found the minutes of a conference, chaired by Bill Slim, the commander of the 14th Army in Burma, about the organisation of V Force. I also have copies of documents that show the war establishment of V Force – how many men and officers, and in particular they show how V Force was a mixed British and Indian unit, with some Indian officers commanding white troops, and british soldiers serving alongside Burmese and Indian men. Theres also a very useful official history document about the activities of V Force, written shortly after the war, with a view to learning lessons – possibly fearing a war against communists in the jungles of the Far East.

Finally, I discovered that Captain Bernard Brown, the Medical Officer who won a Military Cross in North Africa with an armoured unit in 1942. I originally thought that he then went to serve at a Base Hospital in Egypt, and from there back to serve as a Medical Officer with the 1st Royal Welch Regiment, where he was killed in early 1945. Not only have I found out that he died in his sleep of natural causes, for some unknown reason he left the 1st Royal Welch in September 1944, went to serve with the 1/7th Battalion of the Queens Regiment for less than a week – why, their war diary does not say, and it doesn’t say where he went to. Very strange indeed.

So all in all, a very interesting and useful trip. I’ve got plenty of information now to write some sample chapters – I’m thinking about CPO Reg Ellingworth, Major Robert Easton and Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan. I’ve also got lots of useful stuff about Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, Major Maurice Budd, and Sergeant Francis Compton. There will probably be a few more trips to Kew before I’ve finished writing the book, but I’ve got enough now to get started on a few sample chapters, and the basis for a few more.

I do fear about the future for the National Archives, however. Since I’ve been going there they have already closed on Mondays and cut their opening hours on other days. Their digitisation programme for putting documents online has also been drastrically curtailed, with only third parties like Ancestry and FindMyPast making records available on the web. And with the current Government’s philistine and ideological desire to slash public spending at any price, who knows what draconian measures might happen?

Despite its penchant for Political Correctness, I’ve got a real soft spot for Kew. Even though it tends to put on talks about things like ‘the history of reducing the Carbon footprint of bisexual ethnic minorities’, I think its such an amazing place and an amazing resource. I know a lot of  ‘serious researchers’ sniffed when they moved the Family Research Centre to Kew, but I think it works – theres something very refreshing about professors and historians rubbing shoulders with Mrs Jones studying her family tree – the two should go together.

Now, off to start transcribing some 300+ digital images of documents!

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The National Archives: Day Two

Another hectic day in the National Archives at Kew. After my wise words about being prepared etc yesterday, I somehow managed to sleep in a little bit later than I planned… but didn’t lose too much time thankfully.

I’ve managed to look at the war diaries for all of the units that Robert Easton was with – the 1/6th Lancashire Fusiliers from 1939 until 1941, and then the 109th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps (Lancs. Fus.) until they were disbanded in 1942, and then with the 142nd Regiment Royal Armoured Corps in North Africa and Italy until he was killed in September 1944. A regular officer, he was posted to the 1/6th Lancs Fusiliers early in the war. A territorial battalion, most of the officers – including the C.O. – were part-time soldiers. So as Adjutant and a regular soldier, Easton would have been the backbone of the Battalion. I’ve also found out that he was mentioned in despatches for Dunkirk, which I hadn’t previously known. I’ve also got details for all of the courses that he went on, especially during the Battalion’s conversion to armour in 1941.

I found a real gem in Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan’s original leather-bound pilot’s log book. Only a small number of these remain, so it was a great find. It lists every flight he took in RAF service, from training in Tiger Moths up to flying Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain in 1940, and also his instructors and commanders comments on his progress and abilities. I now know how many flying hours he had, and in what types. Sadly, his log book simply finishes on 3 August, with no clue as to what happened after that. Neither does 56 Squadron’s Operations Record Book shed much light, other than that he was posted to the Parachute Practice Unit at Ringway, Manchester.

I found time to take a look at some war diaries related to Captain Bernard Brown, the Medical Officer who died serving with the 1st Royal Welsh in Italy in February 1945. As soon as I flicked through the diary, I was perplexed… they had gone to the rear to rest in early February. Brown even went to Rome on leave for a week. All became clear, however, when the war diary recorded that Brown died in his sleep on the night of 24-25 February – it seems that he died of natural causes. There is of course something tragically ironic about a decorated Medical Officer, and a qualified surgeon, dying of natural causes in his sleep.

I also took a look at some documents related to Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey. I’ve found damage reports for when his ship – HMS Lively – was shelled in the Mediterranean in 1942, and then from when it was sunk off Tobruk later in the same year. I also found a document recommending officers and ratings for awards after HMS Lively was sunk – including some very detailed descriptions of what happened, how the ship sank, and the circumstances in which Hussey went down with her.

Finally, I had a look at a few documents about Major Maurice Budd, who won a Military Cross in Burma in 1945 with V Force, a special forces unit. I found a document containing the minutes of a conference, chaired by General Bill Slim, about the role V Force was to play in the war in Burma, and how it was to be constituted – how many men – Indian and English – and how the unit was to be structured.

All in all a very succesfull day – apart from dropping Fl. Lt. Coghlan’s log book while queuing up for the photocopier, and getting a crick in my neck looking at the microfilm reader – why do they scan documents onto film, and then set them up landscape instead of portrait? And why dont the microfilm readers have a rotate option? Even the one in Portsmouth Central Library does!

So far I haven’t found anything truly earth-shattering, but plenty of useful material none the less – it all goes towards building up the bigger picture. Last day tomorrow, then back to reality!

Tomorrow: More about Captain Bernard Brown and Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey, plus (hopefully) Wing Commander John Buchanan and more.

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National Archives: Day One

The National Archives, Kew 3

The National Archives (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m at the National Archives in London for a few days doing some research for my Portsmouth’s Second World War Heroes book project. The NA is such an enigma (inside a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, to quote WSC!) that I thought it might be interesting to write a short diary of each day and what I get up to.

I’ve been to TNA plenty of times, right back to when I was a keen undergraduate at uni, happy to ignore the ‘you dont have to do original research’ pleadings of the ever-so-adventurous tutors. Ever since then, any excuse I can think of I find a way to look at Documents at Kew. Odd days up to Kew are pretty un-economical and time-consuming, especially by train. What I try and do nowadays is get some time off work, stay over somewhere and make a few days of it. That way you can get there for opening time, and leave at closing time.

Today I’ve been looking at documents related to Chief Petty Officer Reg Ellingworth GC, the mine warfare rating who was killed in September 1941. I didn’t find anything directly related to Ellingworth, but I did find plenty of background material relating to Parachute Mines – a minute from Winston Churchill, reports about the threat that they posed, and a detailed list of every Parachute Mine that landed in Britain in 1940, and a similar list for the London area for the whole of the war. I also found some useful photographs of the kind of mine that killed Ellingworth.

I got that over and done with quicker than expected, so I managed to get a look at some documents relating to Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, who was killed serving in an Armoured Regiment in Italy in 1944. He turns out to have been an even more formidable soldier than I thought – he saw action in 1940 when his Battalion went to France just before the German attack, and were constantly in action until they were evacuated. Easton played a crucial role keeping the Battalion together as Adjutant, and he was awarded the MBE. Then, after being converted to a tank Battalion, in late 1943 Easton transferred to 142nd Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, acting as second in command, then serving as a Squadron Commander, and finally permanent second in command when he died of wounds in September 1944. He certainly saw plenty of action.

Part of the knack of TNA is making the best use of your time. If you can, order documents in advance – you can order up to 6, so they will be there waiting for you to start work on straight away. As it takes up to 40 minutes for documents to arrive in the reading room, try and juggle ordering documents so you’re not left twiddling your thumbs at any point. And always go with a big long list of documents you want to look at, so if you get through them quicker than you expect, you can get more in. I’ve started taking a digital camera with me to take pictures of documents, so I can look at them when I get home – its certainly easier than scribbling everything down by hand. The only problem is, I’ve found, that if you dont get the resolution right, or if its wartime economy paper with typewriter ink, you dont get a very clear image. Its also heavy on batteries, and memory – so I’ve got my laptop to decant pictures to.

TNA is a nice place to spend time even if you’re not studying seriously – theres a great Cafe, coffee bar, shop and museum. Its diversity week there this week, and at lunchtime they had an actor dressed up in ‘negro slave’ garb, giving a performance as a freed slave. A bit PC, but very interesting – why not extend it further, and have Churchill, or Nelson? Its also fun for people watching – from the tweed wearing, old-school tie traditional historians, to the ‘sunday driver’ family historians and the academics and professionals, and not forgetting the UFO hunters, you get all sorts at TNA.

Tomorrow: More on Easton, and hopefully some stuff about Flight Lieutenant John Coghlan and some other Portsmouth Heroes.

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Researching First World War Soldiers

Vis en Artois British Cemetery and Memorial, F...

Vis en Artois Cemetery and Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve now entered over 2,000 names into my database of Portsmouth men killed serving in the Second World War. So far this covers 4 panels of the War Memorial in Guildhall Square, and these are only the men who fought with the Army. I have one more panel of Army names to enter and analyse. And then its on to the Navy, who have about the same number of names again!

The process goes like this – look up the names on the War Memorial (handily transcribed  by Tim Backhouse on Memorials in Portsmouth), enter the names onto my Access Database, then search for them on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Of course, when you start with just initials for forenames, its quite difficult – especially if all you have is ‘A. Smith’, which there are hundreds of – it would take days searching through that to find the right person. Fortunately, quite a few of the names on the CGWG have their house number, road name and area listed – which makes it much easier to find the right person – if you’re looking through a list of 20 or so names, its heartening to find one listed as ‘…Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw’, cos odds are you’ve found your man. But when there are 4 or 5 names, and none of them have any details, its so frustrating – its got to be one of them, surely? But sometimes the sheer number of names can be daunting.

Its going to take some serious research to track down the several hundred men who are remaining elusive – but by using Street Directories, Register Office Records, the 1901 and 1911 Census, and electoral registers, it should be possible to slowly but surely fill out the gaps.

Another problem can be when you enter the name into the CWGC and NOTHING comes up – they must have been a real person, surely? Otherwise why would their names have been put forward for the memorial? The only thing I can suggest is that mistakes were made in compiling the names for the memorial, or perhaps people had different given names – someone registed officially as Harry James, for example, might have been known as Jim, and thus entered on the Memorial as J., and not H.J… it takes a bit of imagination to ferret these things out.

Another difference with researching First World War soldiers, is that it is much harder to trace details of any medals that they won. With the Second World War, more often and not you can find their award listed in the London Gazette. But for the First World War there are just so many, its like trawling through a haystack. You have to use some cunning, such as typing in a mans service number in the search, rather than their name. The problem there, of course, is that prior to 1920ish the Army didnt have an Army-wide numbering system, so if you’re looking for a Military Medal awarded to Private Jones 14532, there might be scores of 14532’s in the Army. Also, whereas many Second World War medal citations have been made available online on the National Archives website, the only information we have for First World War soldiers are their medal cards – relatively spartan in detail.

But on the flipside, one other source we have readily available for the Western Front are the War Diaries. Select War Diaries have been made available on The National Archives, such as the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, which I have been serialising on Daly History for the past few months. Although these rarely mention individual soldiers – especially not other ranks – they do give you the wider picture of what was hapenning day to day. If you know that someone died on a particular day, you can look up what was happening – if they were in the front line undergoing heavy shelling, maybe the man was killed that way. Or if there was a raid and he is listed on a memorial to the missing, he might have been killed in no mans land. Alternatively, if he died somewhere away from where the Battalion was, or on a day when they were not in action, he probably died of wounds or illness in a hospital behind the lines.

Another useful source is the National Roll, a publication produced after the war, the lists not only men who died, but other men who survived. Its not comprehensive – men or their families put their details forward, meaning that only a percentage of men are listed – but none the less, for the men who are included, it is a gold mine of information. Most entries tell you when a man joined the Army, and whether he was a regular, mobilised with the territorial force, volunteered in 1914, attested under the Derby Scheme, or was conscripted. This fact on its own builds up a veritable social history of the manpower situation. Some men have more information than others – most entries tell us where a man fought, if he was wounded, or if he won medals. Some tell very interesting stories – such as the Hampshire Regiment soldier who was captured at Kut, fell ill with Dysentry and fell out of the march to captivity and was left to die on the side of the road; the Sergeant killed in a Grenade accident at a training school in the New Forest; or the Sapper serving with Grave Registration unit after the war who drowned in a Canal. Without these details, they would just be names. But with their stories, we are so much closer to knowing who they were and what they went through.

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Filed under Army, Remembrance, western front, World War One