Tag Archives: The National Archives

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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30 year rule for historic records reduced to 20 years

I took this photograph myself when I went on a...

The National Archives in Kew (Image via Wikipedia)

The Ministry of Justice has announced that the current 30-year rule for historic official documents is to be reduced to 20 years.

Currently, official Government documents handed to the National Archives are closed for 30 years after they were produced. This means, for example, that documents relating to the Falklands War in 1982 are expected to become available in 2012. The exception, of course, is material that is judged to be too sensitive on national security grounds.

This is welcome news for historians, as it means that more historic records will be available for research much more quickly. According to the announcement on the ministry’s website, however, the process may take a while:

“To amend the Public Records Act to reduce the 30-year rule so that historical records are generally made available at The National Archives and other places of deposit after 20 years; this will be transitioned over a 10 year period at a rate of two years’ worth of records being transferred per year, with a view to commencing the process in 2013″

This still means however that documents relating to a whole host of events in the 1980’s will become available up to 10 years earlier than anticipated – the Falklands War, Thatcher‘s disputes with the Unions, Northern Ireland and the IRA, and possibly even documents relating to football hooliganism, Thatcher’s downfall and the first Gulf War. It has also been argued that the move will enhance transparency in Government, as ministers will only have to wait 20 years for their actions to come under scrutiny, rather than the present cushion of three decades.

Oliver Morley, Acting Chief Executive of The National Archives, said: ‘We look forward to working with government to implement these changes and will play a pivotal role in smoothing the transition for the records bodies involved.’

The move comes following a review of the 30 year rule in 2008. The 30 year rule has been increasingly redundant, as the Freedom of Information Act has made it possible for members of the public to request the opening up of material well before its 30 year closure has elapsed. This is particularly relevant with harmless and non-sensitive material that will help historians and family history enthusiasts alike.

I have also often thought that the 100 year limit on the national census returns is also excessive – might 50 years not be more sensible? I long for the day we can all access the little-known ‘wartime census’.

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UK-US Spy agreement revealed

The National Archives have today released into the public domain the text of a landmark agreement between the British and American intelligence communities. Agreed shortly after the end of the Second World War, the pact led to the sharing of information during the Cold War, an arrangement that is still in place today.

During the Second World War ad-hoc arrangements were in place regarding the sharing of intelligence, such as ULTRA intercepts. In March 1946 the UKUSA Agreement was signed. In later years the Agreement was extended to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The agreement has long been known about, but this is the first time that its existence has been acknowleged by either Government, and the first time that its exact has been released. The release follows separate Freedom of Information requests on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alongside documents relating to the agreement itself, the National Archives have also released examples of the kind of information that was shared. The newly-available documents are likely to be a gold-mine for Historians of Stalinist Russia. Intercepts shed light on private conversations and correspondence between Soviet citizens, military personnel, Party officials and religious leaders between 1946 and 1949.

The bulk of the intercepts focus on military issues, and give an important sense of the Soviet build up during the early years of the Cold War. There are reports of a “stormy meeting” taking place and one person says, ominously: “of the Moscow representatives nothing remains but a wet spot”. A Soviet Major says he can be “patient no longer”, as his son, who had been “foully killed”, was yet to receive justice. The war-readiness of the population is illustrated by an intercept which picks up a mother saying: “I am afraid of leaving the kids here. What about a war, all of a sudden?”

Intercepts also gleaned information about Political repression behind the Iron Curtain. Folksongs were banned on the grounds that they were “inartistic and trivial”. Songs such as “Why do you destroy me, you foolish woman”, were popular with the peasantry but not the authorities and were forbidden. The Kazakh Communist Party reported its local crime statistics to Moscow, crimes which included ‘anti-party activities’, ‘concealment of social origin’ and ‘desertion from the Soviet army’.

Reports also gave information about ordinary everyday life in Soviet Russia. Measures were taken to prevent infected grain reaching the food chain, and there were also reports of food shortages, diseases and plagues. One file reports a “widespread sickness” among all kinds of animals and reports that “vets are unable to cope”.

Stalin himself also featured in reports. In 1948 Patriarch Alexis, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that special prayers and singing will take place in all of Moscow’s churches for the “preservation and long-life of our state and its leader”. The files also contain personal messages addressed to Stalin.

During the immediate post-war period Russia was facing the dual challenges of reconstruction after the war and cementing her status as a world superpower. Reports described various problems in Agriculture, Industry and the Economy, for example. Agricultural workers in Kamchatka complain to Comrade Molotov that they have failed to receive living accommodation, cattle, seeds and fodder, four years after their resettlement in the region. The unsatisfactory progress being made at a gas construction site is blamed on “hooliganism” and low morale.

Given that these documents refer only to a three year period, hopefully in the future we can look forward to the release of a mass of material on Soviet Russia during the Cold War. This should shed a whole new light on our understanding of the Cold War.

To find out more about the Agreement and the Documents, click here

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The National Archives Labs

The National Archives have announced a new project, entitled National Archives Labs. The idea is to pilot new and innovative ways of accessing and sharing data. Visitors to the website are able to test prototypes of new projects and give feedback, which should help the future development of online resources.

The projects in Labs are not intended to be full, finished versions, but a means of showcasing and testing ideas. If, and when, they are given approval they will be refined and made accessible before they can be properly integrated into The National Archives’ main website.

Emma Bayne, programme manager, said: ‘Labs is the first step towards us opening up our records further, and providing new ways for you to access the vast collection of information we hold.’

UK History Photo Finder

This fascinating resource allows users to search and view digital images. The first series of photographs uploaded are the Dixon-Scott collection, a set of more than 14,000 images taken between the 1920’s and the 1940’s. You can search mainly by geographical location, and I managed to find some photographs of Portchester Castle and St Thomas Cathedral that I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully more images will be made available in time. Only one criticism of this section, I would like to see more information on how to obtain copies of the images, and the relevant copyright information.

Valuation Office Surey

This tool enables users to look up Valuation Office Survey maps of England and Wales from 1910 to 1915. The Catalogue contains nearly 50,000 maps, and provides a way of searching for a geographical location. A search leads to a modern day map of your chosen area, with a link to the catalogue code of your chosen section of map. Sadly my search for Portsmouth came up with no results for the city itself, only the surrounding areas. The link enables you to purchase a hard copy of the map. This is very much a catalogue project, as it helps you find data and enables you to access it, rather than making it readily available. It should be useful none the less.

Person search

I’m a bit perplexed by this. Apparently the idea of the new Person Search facility is to bring together a wide range of sources – including First World War records, Royal Navy records, criminal registers, law suits, wills and pension records – and make it possible to search for one particular name. However there are several places where you can already do this on The National Archives website, and maybe it would be more sensible to streamline these rather than create another facility.

In general, I applaud the concept of making more records more accessible to more people. And especially using digital media. However, with the looming cuts in public spending, sadly I expect that these kind of projects may be few and far between for the forseeable future.

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