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.