Monday, 2 June 2014

The National Archives

Kew, Richmond 
 TW9 4DU
Tuesday  May 27th  2014

This was an opportunistic rather than planned visit – Jo was away walking in France and Mary doing her half-term duty, so a very wet bank Holiday Tuesday found Linda (and Roger) finally accessing some papers from the Forties requested back in January. The file – a bit of family history – was listed in the catalogue but as ‘Closed until 2048’ which piqued our curiosity so we made a Freedom of Information request.  This took several weeks and a bit of money finally to give us access to a very thin Home Office file with a certain amount of redacted detail...

Essentially we were doing what many of the Archives’ other visitors were also intent on – researching some family history, I mean. All I can say is that, having obtained a readers ticket (free and valid for 3 years), booked a desk and got the file, everyone else’s cardboard box or folder looked more interesting than mine.
Keeping Reading Room silent is not one of my talents so we escaped to the café and excellent shop and the Keepers Gallery, which could easily take up to an hour of your time. Basically it showcases some of the TNA’s star exhibits and also explains the range of material for which they are responsible plus a history of the archive itself.  

 TNA are very mindful of being accessible to as wide an audience as possible so the keeper’s gallery is careful to display items to interest women as well as more recent arrivals in the UK (by this I mean more recent than the early record keeping of rolls and charters etc kept in Westminster Abbey’s Chapter House and the Tower of London) ‘parchment to podcast’ as they put it. The records were formalized as the Public Records office in 1857, and they moved out to Kew, taking on the Historical Manuscripts Commission also and the now defunct HMSO,  to this excellent purpose built and landscaped building in 1977, and it’s wearing well.

The displays show some of their treasures –
Maps and diagrams – a contemporary plan of Stalag Luft III from which the ‘Great Escape’ was  planned and executed, with more interestingly a photograph of the memorial to those escapees shot by the Germans. More photos and biographies are given of 4 spies; four men four women. They have a ‘cipher wheel’ from Elizabeth I’s reign though of course codes are much older than that. 
More relevant to what’s happening today was a copy of the document signed by Edward Heath in 1972/3 to mark the UK’s entry into the European Community that after this week’s European elections  looks at its most fragile? Similarly the Scots' defeat of the English at Bannockburn in 1314 is another anniversary with contemporary relevance.
Interestingly the horses lost in the Battle are all listed (compensation for contributing horse-owners you understand) whereas 12 million African slaves transported between 1500 and 1869 remain largely anonymous.

The whole approach to counting and accounting (‘Tallies to Taxes’ ) is also documented with tally sticks on display( the two halves need to ‘tally’) and a reminder that Exchequer took its name from the chequered /cloth also used for calculations…counters on squares.

The collection contains a wealth of maps and plans – pictorial, aerial and historical and the excellent shop will sell you reproductions of the early Ordnance Survey   versions. Photos also form part of the collection and interestingly items, other than text, which have copyright such as textile, which was a neat link back to our trip of earlier in the month to the fashion & Textile Museum.

Their most famous/precious item is the Domesday Book; the original was not on display nor was the interactive programme alert so if you want to know more, click  here

With the steady interest in family history/ service records and above all the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 the Archive itself will be busy fielding amateur and professional historians.

I am not sure the Keeper’s Gallery is a destination in its own right, but as part of the whole experience of visiting TNA, or if you are in the area…it is well worth looking at to see the original documents  which form part of the nation’s and your own history.    

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