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I love to #explorearchives

I can barely remember a time when archives were not central to my life. I’ve been a professional archivist since I was twenty two, and have researched and worked in record offices and archives on and off since I was ten years old. A thirst for knowledge about the people who lived in places before me saw me begging my parents to take me to the record office in the summer holidays. I was, to put it mildly, an unusual child.

To be an archivist is often considered unusual in itself. I’ve lost count of the dinner party/coffee shop/train carriage based conversations I’ve had where I’ve tried to explain what it is that I do. My side of the conversation often goes something like this…

“No, no. Not an anarchist. An archivist. I work with records. Yes, a bit like a historian. No, not usually dusty ones – we’re quite picky about keeping things clean.”

And yet, people are often entranced by the idea of making a career out looking after the history of the country. And it is entrancing. It’s fascinating. Wherever you look, whatever it is that you are interested in, there will be an archive that has something of use, relevance and/or interest to you. And so it should be. Archives matter. Archivists matter. Record keeping matters. What we do is important. Poor record keeping should be a matter of national concern. In recent years we’ve seen what happens when records aren’t kept, aren’t looked after, where record keeping is the lowest priority. And where archives are treasured, championed and well resourced, it isn’t just history which triumphs, but democracy.

This week is ‘Explore Your Archive’ week, spearheaded by The National Archives and the Archives & Records Association and championed by, amongst others, Kate Adie and Stephen McGann. There have been all sorts of things going on, virtually and in person, in record keeping organisations the country over. Keep an eye on the #explorearchives hashtag on Twitter, look out for our Thunderclap across social media and check out the Explore website

This message matters all year round. This week is a great opportunity to shout about what we do and why it matters, to draw attention to the value of archives to everyone. We have a number of significant anniversaries coming up in the next few weeks and months but it’s important to remember that archives are created by the present. It’s our responsibility to ensure that archives continue, adequately supported and appropriately recognised for their purpose, not just to record the past but to hold the present to account. So get out there, try your local archive or record office. Archives are friendly, welcoming, intriguing, inspiring places. Seize the opportunity to have an explore in one. It’ll be worth every second.

(Photograph shows Joseph & Stephen McGann, and was taken on a recent visit to The National Archives. It was great to introduce them to some more of our collections, and to discover some more for myself.)
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A call out: Hubert Victor Bennetto

Some of you may know that I run a Rainbow Guide unit. Rainbows are the younger sister to Brownie Guides, but easily give their older counterparts a run for their money in the noise and enthusiasm department. We meet in a church in the Hammersmith/Shepherds Bush borders and although we’ve met there for a couple of years now, it’s only been in the last couple of weeks that I’ve paid any attention to the stained glass.

One of the windows, to the left of the nave is dedicated to a Hubert Victor Bennetto. Hubert was in the Royal Flying Corps, an Air Mechanic 2nd Class in the 7th Sqdn to be precise and he died on active service on August 8th 1917. His War Grave is documented here. His father was a bank manager in Lewisham at the time of Hubert’s death and indeed his wife Ethel is listed as living in Hither Green at the time of his death. Tragically their only child, a daughter named Edith died six months after her father aged just four. Ethel must have been beyond pain. My heart goes out to her, though I know she is long dead. I am intrigued to know what lead to the window being dedicated in Hammersmith as although I know that Hubert was baptised there, his connections with the church appear to cease from that point, at least as far as the records are concerned.

The vicar (and I) would dearly like to make contact with any surviving relatives of Hubert’s though I have not so far managed to discovered any. He has no direct descendants, and although he had a sister, her descendants names aren’t quite as easy to trace as her maiden name and it is proving tricky. Any pointers or contacts would be very gratefully received. The 100th anniversary of his death is not so far away, and the church would welcome the opportunity to recognise the man behind this window properly.

History and television: thoughts on The Crimson Field

I’m going to start out by saying that I do love a “historical drama” (and I am using that term in the loosest possible sense). I am a complete sucker for them. Ask my husband, who rolls his eyes at my DVD collection. Pride & Prejudice (1996 or 2005, either works for me). Check. Heartbeat. Check. Downton Abbey. Check. Lilies. Check. Call the Midwife. Check. Many others. Check. Anything set in the past, I’ll give a go. On the other hand, I can honestly say I’ve never watched a soap (since the Archers doesn’t count, and secretly I think of them as distant family I tune in to catch up with because they’ve been such a constant in my life.)

So I anticipated The Crimson Field with interest. Serious writing talent behind it, interesting topic, and a period I’m doing a lot of research in at the moment albeit not in any depth. Great. And since TV watching now seems to result in accompanied tweeting, it was fascinating to see other people’s responses. So now that the series is over, with no clear indication as to whether it’s going to carry on, I’ve got a few thoughts on a couple of the issues raised in various places about it. I’m not going to review each episode, but here’s my two pen’th.

Accuracy. For some people this is a clincher. If you have researched extensively, made your career out of this area then I completely understand that inaccuracies in the programme are going to wind you up. Fair play. I scream at the telly when they show something implausible on WDYTYA? Misrepresentation of the average person’s research experience on national telly really winds me up. There’s a reason it’s known as WDYTYD?* amongst the archivists of my acquaintance… The difference, to my mind, is that The Crimson Field is a drama. Not a documentary. It’s a story. I’m sure the crew worked bloody hard to make sure they were as accurate as they could be, and feasibly the red colour on some of the costumes is wrong and yes, having a Nissan hut in shot was a bit of a cock up, but I don’t think having every single exact precise detail is as important as good drama. And it was good drama, in my opinion.

I read various commentaries lamenting that the nurses were portrayed as less than perfect specimens of women. Shock horror. Writer portrays characters as humans. The various guises of nurses who served in the First World War were incredible women. They were brave and I am in awe of them for going out there and doing something meaningful. But none of them were perfect. And whilst I doubt the combination of stories portrayed in The Crimson Field happened in quite those terms, I can’t believe that women didn’t go out to France to escape something in their past, didn’t come from unsavoury circumstances, didn’t sign up underage, didn’t fall in love with men they worked with even. Certainly soldiers did, so why not the women too? I’ve researched enough men who served in the First World War to know that. But here’s the thing again. It’s a story. Several stories. Figments of the very talented Sarah Phelps’ imagination. I mean, if we’re really being pedantic about accuracy, it’s time someone wrote about how filming it in Wiltshire (or wherever it was) makes it less meaningful as a drama because the Unit was supposed to be in France.

The other gripe that particularly caught my attention was in response to the BBC tweeting details of the book it says inspired the creation of the series. I don’t mean to be rude, but unless you are Sarah Phelps, you have no business declaring what did or didn’t inspire her. And if the BBC say it did, then they probably have that on good authority. Perhaps reading the story of a nurse in another hospital made her wonder what the experience would have been for British girls and women? If she’d adapted that particular book, no doubt there would be whinging about plagiarism. Whatever the circumstances, I’m sure Sarah Phelps doesn’t need me to defend her.

*What Do You Think You’re Doing? (In my searchroom…)

Remembrance.

It wasn’t until I moved away from the village I grew up in that I realised that other people didn’t do Remembrance Sunday like we did. Other people didn’t have maroons fired off the hill behind the Fire Station every November 11th morning. Other people didn’t have the police come and shut the road for a village length procession. Other people didn’t have the Silver Band march. It was something of a shock to realise this. In fact, one year during my postgrad days, I was so angry at what I perceived to be the total lack of recognition at the war memorial that I cried. Hot angry tears for wont of any proper ceremony. Wotton has a sizeable war memorial in the centre of the village, and a gilded, framed Roll of Honour in the town hall. We didn’t just commemorate the dead, we commemorated all the men who served. There was even a memorial outside the staff room at school, and a memorial history prize (which I’m pleased to say I won) – the Wellicome Memorial Prize no less. Commemoration of service in the First World War permeates the core of the village, to my mind.

It isn’t just that the names on these different lists were the same names as those in my classroom, though this goes some way to explaining it. It wasn’t just, as the 1990s and early 2000s wove their way through, that I too had friends and schoolmates serving the world over in the Armed Forces. We are very lucky that the War Memorial hasn’t had to be reopened since the end of the Second World War. The sense of loss pervades even into modern times because of the grossness of it. The scale and the hideousness. If that’s a word. On average, around 1 in 10 British men (of eligible age) served in the First World War. In Wotton, half of the men did. And only half came back. In five years, an eighth of the population was lost. One family sent five sons and two grandsons away to war. They got one of each back. A local man wrote an eloquent play, based on the letters that family received. I vividly remember sitting on the cold hard floor of the Green Room reading those letters. I was perhaps sixteen. Only a year or two younger than the brothers who had penned them some ninety years previously.

I did the sound for that play. But it gave me much more than I gave to it. I came away with a clear sense of the people in the history. In the midst of my A-Levels, and hating every single moment of modern history, I found the stories in the horror, the people in the madness. And it was both dreadful and brilliant. Mr Griffiths, my geography teacher, researched all the men on the war memorial. He wrote a book about them, told the story of each and every one. I in turn wrote my extended essay in the Upper Sixth about the impact on the village. And although I read Medieval Studies at university, and now work at the very forefront of the modern public records systems, my interest in the First World War, more specifically the people in the First World War, has never waned

I’m very lucky because I love my job. And on those days when I don’t love my job, I can console myself with the fact that I love where I work. I love what we do, and the people I work with are amongst the most splendid human beings I’ve ever been privileged to call colleagues. But what I love the most are the treasures which lurk amongst our holdings. And it isn’t necessarily the pretty things, the famous things, of which there are many and various. I think that when you’ve worked in archives for a long time, much as any profession where you’re surrounded by such a multitude of interesting things, you can begin to lose your sense of wonder. 

When I was on maternity leave last year, at home with our baby daughter, for the first six months or so, I couldn’t begin to contemplate leaving my blue eyed girl with someone else and going back to work. I knew I’d have to at some stage but for that time I’d put work well and truly to the back of my mind. In truth, by the time I’d been away from work for some eight months I was beginning to wonder how on earth I would find my way back in. It wasn’t that my love of archives had disappeared but it was certainly well buried. It was at this stage that I came across someone who wanted to know more about her family history, and seemed genuinely astounded by the basic details I was able to impart using my iPhone and some borrowed wifi. What to me seemed like the work of a few moments was to her beyond exciting.
I should reassure you that my subsequent research has expanded beyond the wonders of FreeBMD, but her emotional reaction to cold hard GRO indexes was something of a surprise to me. For me, fond of them as I’ve become vicariously, they are just names. Names with stories to tell, but still names. I didn’t know them. When I’m lucky, I come across photographs but for most of the names in the tree I’ll never know what they looked like. I’m digressing a bit, but I suppose my point is that we are very privileged to have the tools and skills to be able to access this sort of information with relative ease. (No pun intended.) For other people, new to archives and far less experienced in research, the ability to access this sort of information is thrilling, fascinating. But working alongside such people, it’s reminded me of something that had gone a little cold over the last few years working in archives, and it is that sense of wonder I mentioned earlier. I may feel a sense of satisfaction when I track down an elusive individual but I have stopped squeaking in excitement at a find. Perhaps that’s something I should be sadder about?

 

Pte. Edward Ford

And finally, I left off this one until last because, to be honest, I wasn’t much looking forward to researching a name as common as Edward Ford. But here we are. Sometimes life throws us a curve ball in the shape of terribly common names. I am in no way looking pointedly at two of my current family trees in progress.
Edward has, as I expected, been a little tricky to pin down. I looked up his number in Paul Nixon’s brilliant website which tells me that Edward enlisted at some point between 1898 and 1899. Indeed he is in military barracks in Aldershot in the 1901 census. By the 1911 census however, he’s (at least, I am as confident as I can be that it is indeed our Edward) with his big brother George on Millbank Street in Southampton where all the men of the family are working in the local foundry. Edward was awarded the Victory and British medals, and the 14 Star and Clasps. These latter two were applied for by his sister in law Annie in 1919 and the address given is still that of Millbank Street. I’m still working on his family, but there’ll be more.

Lance Corp. Arthur Ernest Rousell

Arthur Ernest Rousell was born in the summer of 1874 in West Wittering, Sussex. Slightly confusingly, he is listed as a resident of Catford, South London but enlisted in Sunderland, Co. Durham. He was a Lance Corporal when he was killed in action with the aforementioned men of the 1st. Hampshire Regt., and although he was awarded the Victory and British medals and the 1915 Star, his Medal Rolls Index Card notes that his medals were returned. [The annotation reads “medals returned 1743 KR 7998/adt] I also note from the same card that he had arrived in France on June 2nd 1915, so he survived barely six weeks at war.
Arthur was the youngest of at least ten children belonging to James Rousell and Charlotte Napper, born some 20 years after their marriage! In the 1911 Census, he is married with a son, though I deduce his son is more likely to be a stepson as their surnames are different. Once FreeBMD gets it’s act together, I’ll pursue details of his marriage(s) a little further. He lists his occupation as a domestic groom, and was a resident of Camberley.