My first book has only been on the shelves for a matter of days, but I guess its never too early to start thinking about lessons learnt, and how I might be able to do things differently next time around.
So far, everyone who has read the book has seemed to really enjoy reading the individual stories that I was able to tell. For some of the casualties I researched, especially officers and medal winners, there certainly was a lot of information out there. But the interesting thing is, for, say, a Private who was died of illness and didn’t win a medal, its next to impossible to find out much about him. As a result, I virtually had to write about what I could, based on the sources that were available.
One of the big differences between researching World War Two dead and World War One dead is the vastly different amount of information available. For Second World War Dead, the CWGC only tells us what area somebody came from. And not in all cases either. By contrast, for the Great War, for many we not only have the area that they came from, but also their street name and even house number. This enables us to build a unique picture of Portsmouth, that would impossible for the Second World War.
But the information does not end there. For sailors and Royal Marines, we can obtain their service records. Even though to download a few thousand of them would cost me megabucks, the National Archive’s search entries give us a date and place of birth for sailors. For Royal Marines, we can see their date of birth, but also their date of enlistment. Hence for sailors we can chart immigration into Portsmouth from elsewhere, which could lead to some groundbreaking research.
Also, we have a wealth of information available from the censuses of 1901 and 1911. Already, these have helped me to gain an insight into casualties previous careers, their households, their neighbourhoods, and their families. Something that is impossible for the period 1939-1945. And this gets me thinking : while there is a dearth of information about individuals, such as medal citations, there is a treasure trove of sources available for broader social history.
Maybe it would be interesting to look at Portsmouth in 1914, through the historical microscope that the Great War provides us with? Nobody has really looked at the late victorian and Edwardian working class communities of Portsmouth – these, inevitably, are the communities from which the vast majority of war dead came. Lets think about an area such as Landport. Straddling the Dockyard, it was home to thousands of sailors and Dockyard workers. If ever a community was a Navy community, it was somewhere like Landport. Using the CWGC entries and the census, it should be possible to look at a multitude of facets of life – occupations, families, leisure, recreation, housing, and even sanitation and healthcare. How many naval pensioners resided in the area? How many worked in the Dockyard? How many pubs were there? What were the levels of crime like?
There is an interesting element to the Landport story. Inspired by the den of iniquity for which the area was infamous, in 1885 an Anglo-Catholic Priest, Father Robert Dolling, set up a mission in Landport, funded by Winchester College. For ten years he ministered in the area, leading to the opening of the church of St Agathas in 1895. Shortly after Dolling resigned, when the Bishop of Winchester refused to sanction Dolling’s preference for what were virtually Catholic worship rites. The year after his resignation Dolling published Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum, based on his experiences in Landport. I haven’t read it, but I’m hoping that it will be one of those rare, invaluable social investigations, a la Charles Booth in the Victorian period, and Mass Observation in World War Two.
- Portsmouth’s WW1 Sailors – some thoughts and findings (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)