Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Cornish antiquities

A recent short holiday in west Cornwall offered plenty of opportunities to indulge an interest - even if it is only a passing interest as in my case - in antiquarian matters. Prehistoric field systems, quoits, cairns, man-made mounds, humps and bumps; there's an abundance of these things here, and many of them were visited, and no doubt measured, drawn and noted by the eighteenth-century Cornish antiquary and clergyman William Borlase (1696-1772). His name featured several times in our guidebooks, and it rang bells with me and with good reason: I drafted the entry for Borlase in the Historical Manuscripts Commission's Papers of British Antiquaries and Historians, the twelfth in the much-lamented HMC's guides to sources for British history. In many ways Borlase could probably stand as the very type of an eighteenth-century antiquary: a clergyman living in a remote part of the country with time on his hands, intensely curious about the past (it seems to have either been that and/or natural history with these sorts) and possibly starved of intellectual companionship.

As with so many eighteenth-century antiquaries Borlase's papers are now dispersed (and many more were no doubt lost), but rereading the HMC's guide I flatter myself that I did a tolerable job in summarising his literary remains in six short paragraphs. Aside from the simple - and impressive - fact of the mere survival of the papers, there is, of course, the question of how useful such material actually might be in a wider sense. Some might dismiss scholars such as Borlase as lacking modern rigour and hopelessly mistaken in their conclusions, but I think that the case for the usefulness of their papers can be made; sites may have changed and artefacts been lost that Borlase preserved in descriptive notes, sketches and measurements. And when it comes to very remote antiquity about which we really know very little perhaps the speculations of an eighteenth-century clergymen have as much validity as the modern archaeologist.   

Sunday, 21 October 2012

'The Titantic Maid'

A recurring feature of family history is surely 'Titanic Maid' syndrome: by which I mean the family legend, recounted in all sincerity, of the relative who travelled on the Titanic and perished along with so many others on the fateful night. It makes for a great story, except that further enquiry reveals that there is no truth in it all ... No one has ever taken the time to examine the facts, such as they can be established, and so the yarn is wheeled out over time and unwittingly recycled. I actually had a beneficiary recount this very story whilst working on a case for Title Research, and in various guises the syndrome recurs so frequently that it seems to me almost to constitute an urban myth; some folklorist should certainly be collecting and studying this material. Needless to say that in the case I mention the 'maid' in question turned out to be alive in 1916 and - I couldn't resist looking - she did not even appear to feature on the Titanic's passenger list(s).

Another variation popped up in a recent case: the surname - Peto; the story - the Petos were of Mediterranean origin, and true to the passionate nature of the peoples of that region the particular individual under consideration was described as highly-strung, capricious and wilful. Another fine story, except that further enquiry established that the ancestor in question - one Priscilla Peto - was born in Bermondsey. Now maybe Priscilla was indeed a handful, and there is no doubt that Peto is an unusual sounding surname; maybe somewhere there is even a grain of truth in the story, but if so it must pre-date Priscilla's birth in 1864; but even in the early nineteenth century the Peto family seem to have originated from Wallingford in Berkshire - not known for its olive oil and wine, as far as I know.

I don't doubt the sincerity with which these stories are told, but it is interesting to speculate why this phenomenon occurs. Perhaps people need something to distinguish their family, by endowing them with some unusual attributes or attaching them to some famous/infamous event. The latter certainly offers a frisson, as anyone who has ever discovered that a relative died on the Somme, for example, will confirm.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Queen Mary University of London Archives

As well as rummaging around at The National Archives and other record repositories in London, I have a part-time job working with the Queen Mary University of London Academic Services team at Mile End Library. The job is varied, and involves some work in the archives section of the Library. The archives at Queen Mary are burgeoning under the energetic leadership of my colleague Lorraine Screene, and there are a number of very significant collections (for example the recently digitized diaries of Constance Maynard, mistress of Westfield College, and the records of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers), among which must surely be counted the extensive personal papers of Lord Hennessy, Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary. I have been working on this collection under Lorraine’s direction for the past couple of months, the ultimate aim being to produce a box list of the papers that will facilitate access (the collection is currently unsorted which makes that difficult) and assist in the complicated process of full cataloguing.

The collection includes material from Lord Hennessy’s previous career as a journalist, as well more recent papers he has created as an historian and broadcaster, and in fact it can be difficult to spot the boundary between the two careers, the one having emerged so naturally from the other. What is abundantly clear though is just how rich the papers are: so far I have come across correspondence with politicians, civil servants and government insiders; working notes and memos; draft newspaper articles; and historical research notes and lecture papers. Even the necessarily cursory analysis involved in producing a box list has confirmed that future historians of, for example, Suez and the evolution – many would say the decay – of cabinet government will find much of value here.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Boy soldiers

A recent commission reminded me that we are fast approaching the centenary of the outbreak of WW1. I was contacted by a researcher who had identified a series of files in the papers of the Liberal activist Violet Markham, but she was unable to visit the archives department of the London School of Economics and Political Science in person. I have used the archives at the LSE in the past - most notably for my own research when I looked at the personal account book of an anonymous Trinidad sugar planter (ref. COLL MISC 266) - so I felt that I would be in familiar surroundings.

It was not actually Violet Markham's own papers that I was to look at, but rather some correspondence of her brother, the mine owner and Liberal MP Sir Arthur Basil Markham (1866-1916); the two were very close, which probably accounts for the presence of his archives in hers (and it seems likely that this group of papers actually constitutes the bulk of his archival remains). In 1915 Sir Arthur had become involved in exposing - and trying to rectify - the scandal of underage boys being allowed, in some cases encouraged, to join the Army. Although I am unfamiliar with the historiography, I gather that the subject of boy soldiers in WW1 has been studied in some depth. What emerged from this particular set of correspondence surprised me: no pity of war here but the sheer bloody irritation felt by some at being saddled with people who were, to put it bluntly, of no practical use in wartime. The bulk of the most relevant file (MARKHAM 22/24) consists of letters from one George C. Curnock,  honourable secretary of an organisation called simply 'National Service'.The tone of some of Curnock's comments is stinging ('useless under-age boys', 'worthless article', 'a danger to the Army', etc.), but Markham himself should be absolved of any callousness as the few copies of his replies that he retained are lacking in vitriol. A passing comment from Markham suggests that once he went public with his concerns he received many letters from parents who were worried about their sons, but I am unsure if Markham actually intervened to spirit anyone away from the front. I suspect not: after all, what could he have actually done? Unfortunately, it appears that Sir Arthur did not retain this correspondence from anguished parents or document his own response.

One final point: it seems that the Wandsworth Regulars raised by the mayor of Wandsworth, and a similar regiment raised by the mayor of Bermondsey (perhaps in competition) were particularly infamous when it came to underage soliders (Curnock referred to the Wandsworth body as 'that notorious boy regiment'); has anyone looked at this in detail I wonder.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

An under-used resource?

I was recently contacted by a client in America who asked me to look into a family story that one of her forebears - from Malta - had fought and died for the British in the Boer War. I was flattered to be asked but had to explain that I have no particular expertise when it comes to military records; this did not seem to bother her unduly and she asked me to proceed and see what I could find. Preliminary research - more necessary than ever in this case - suggested that extracting anything at all about an individual's participation in the Boer War from the records at Kew would be difficult, but a cursory search of TNA's library catalogue threw me a lifeline. It transpired that the library had copies of the following excellent books, both of which were of obvious significance but completely unknown to me:
  • Alexander M. Palmer, The Boer War Casualty Roll 1899-1902 (Perth, 1999)
  • Steve Watt, In Memoriam: Roll of Honour Imperial Forces Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (Natal, 2000)
As it turned out I did not find the man in question (a number of explanations for his absence suggest themselves), but the point I wish to make is that TNA's library is a rich - but I would argue under-used - resource that can be called on to orientate initial enquiries or breathe new life into an investigation that is in danger of meandering. I say under-used because I am always struck by how few people I see tapping its resources (even allowing for the fact that it is rather tucked away on the first floor at TNA). The probable reason is straightforward enough, I think: many people visit TNA to experience the incomparable thrill of discovering and handling archival material that contains information unavailable elsewhere; that is, of course, perfectly understandable, but focusing so squarely on the records themselves can mean that people pass quickly by a fantastic collection of published finding aids and catalogues, and other works of great practical use. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

A catch-up

This blog has been silent for a while, although it has not been for a want of things on which to comment. A two-week holiday in Lesvos was preceded by a session at the Edgar Wallace (one of central London's finest) in Essex Street with Dr Ian Mortimer. Ian had emailed me after we spoke briefly at his talk at Waterstone's a few months back, and we had arranged to meet up when he was next in London. Together with Alex Ritchie, another old friend from HMC days, we had a fine night of it, topped off from my point of view by Ian putting a handsome tribute to my own research skills on his blog here (see entry for 1 May); a pity I don't have Ian's writing abilities, but there it is ...

So, two weeks in the Lesvos sun avoiding hordes of largely morose twitchers who, one must assume, had just missed some brief and rare flyover (I'd have thought that lesser kestrels, red-backed shrikes all over the place, ditto turtle doves, an osprey and squacco herons would have been pretty good going, especially when set against Britain's own impoverished avifauna, but apparently not so to judge from the scowls and long faces). And then home to find a clutch of enquiries waiting for me.

I hope that I treat all of the enquiries I receive with the same respect, but some heavyweight academic emails really caught my eye this time: one related to a couple of Irish catholics - so-called 'Wild Geese', presumably - gadding about in Spain in the late eighteenth century; the key question was whether or not reference to them could be found in the early Foreign Office records. The answer to that must remain ... maybe, because despite sampling a wide variety of correspondence and papers from some 21 of the most likely looking volumes and finding no mention of these men, the fact remains that there is still a mountain of documents that could be looked at if time permitted. What I did come across was actually of considerable interest, although not, sadly, for my client: without having time to dwell on the contents for too long, I noted papers from the British consuls at Cadiz, Carthagena and Ferrol documenting arcane trade issues raised by indignant merchants; detailed reports from the British ambassadors and diplomats of political jockeying among the nobles of the Spanish Court (conceivably of some use to Spanish historians of the period); reference to the activities in Spain of the other European powers; and extensive intelligence relating to the Spanish Army and Navy. All of that, but, much to my frustration, very seldom any mention of people outside the charmed circle of high politics. These diplomat sorts should have got out a bit more.

And what else? Well briefly, in connection with various commissions I have looked at workhouse records at the London Metropolitan Archives, Royal Navy logbooks at The National Archives, rolls of honour documenting the dead of the Boer War; that, and proofread a book on the recent history of Taiwan. It has been a busy time, hence the silence ...

Monday, 30 April 2012

Act of heroism

Recent research commissions have meant that I have been spending a fair bit of time at The National Archives. I have turned up plenty of fascinating material - fascinating for me as well as my clients - but a brief comment in one document stands out above all others, and I think it worthy of transcription here:

'I would like to place on record the fine behaviour of Deck Boy Triggs. This boy was only sixteen years old, and was making his first trip to sea. When the lifeboat capsized, Triggs, who could not swim, clutched A.B. Chalcraft, for support. When he found he was pulling this man beneath the water, he deliberately released his hold and was drowned. His unselfish action undoubtedly saved Chalcroft's [sic] life, but at the sacrifice of his own.'

I am not sure if I can, or even should, try to articulate a response to this brief but immensely powerful statement, and so I have decided to try and establish who this boy was and whether there are any family members alive today: I think that if they don't already know about this they might like to hear about the bravery with which their relative faced death in the North Atlantic 60 years and more ago. Initial enquiry suggests that this boy was one Alfred George Triggs, a son of Herbert and Ellen Triggs of Brentford, West London. It will take further research to confirm this and sketch out a rudimentary family tree, but this is a project that I will return to when time permits and update this blog if I find anything further.

So it looks as if I was right about this. The name of A(lfred) G(eorge) Triggs appears on the great monument at Tower Hill to the men of the Merchant Navy who died at sea during the two world wars. No further details about Alfred or his family are recorded on the monument itself, of course, but I'll see what I can do to add some more information in the coming weeks.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The National Archives

I am pleased to say that I have recently been added to the list of independent researchers that is maintained by The National Archives. It took some doing: I submitted an application form and examples of my research work, and had a rigorous (but friendly) interview. Upshot is that my name has been added to the lists of specialist researchers who cover the following areas:

Foreign, Colonial and Dominions Office records
General Genealogy
General Research
Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and Mercantile Marine Records
Royal Air Force Genealogy, Biography and Operation Records
Royal Naval Operations Records

No bad thing.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift Hundred

John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift Hundred remain largely absent from the collective historical memory of this country; and when the man and his movement do figure it is usually as historical comedic material worthy of the pen of P. G. Wodehouse. Judge Smith, genial co-founder of Van der Graaf Generator, feels this to be an injustice of sorts, and based on the sizeable number of people shoehorned into the room above the Wheatsheaf pub in Rathbone Place to hear him talk on the subject, he is not alone. Judge was speaking to the Sohemian Society, although I am not entirely clear about the precise connection between Hargrave and Soho. Judge offered a succinct history of the KK and its leader, and supplemented his talk with some astounding visuals.

No one should deny that there is much that is comic about this; wearing smocks and stomping about Epping Forest could never be anything other than funny, but there is something else of substance here. To start with Hargrave: he seemed to me to be a familiar figure in some ways - it would be quite wrong to dismiss him as a minor 30s demagogue in an already crowded field, but I have to say that he did seem convinced of the rightness of his cause and was not afraid to use a formidable personality to get his own way. Thus a recognisable personality type, and, on the face of it, a fairly straightforward task to incorporate him into the historical record. Not so the movement he led; it seems to resist the usual analysis, especially in the Green Shirts phase - was it a movement of the Left or the Right? Or both? Judge suggested that among historians the matter was contentious, and I can quite believe it. I personally also detected elements of that long tradition of English pastoralism which persists to this day: think of the Diggers, Thomas Spence and his plans for land reform, William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement; you might even include the astounding punk band Crass with their commitment to communal living and deep attachment to the land and self-sufficiency.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Dr Ian Mortimer and some Krautrock

Of personal note was attending a recent talk at Waterstone's in Picadilly by Dr Ian Mortimer, the prolific historian and author. Dr Mortimer spoke about his new book, The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, with characteristic fluency and brio, and I believe that a good evening was had by all. His assured performance and command of his subject was no surprise to me: back in the late 1990s I shared an office with Ian when we worked at the Historical Manuscripts Commission in Quality Court. I think back to those days with great fondness; I don't think a day went by without the pair of us vigorously testing our ideas about history, its meanings, sources, the pleasure of research and writing. Ian was always going to do well; allied to a fertile mind (I read several draft chapters from works that have since appeared in print) was that crucial element that is so often lacking in many would-be authors - an iron determination to succeed in his chosen sphere. A generous man Ian, as well; I remember one impromptu gathering at his place in Stoke Newington where he knocked together a fine meal for eight or nine of his HMC colleagues - it must have set him back a small fortune, but he didn't bat an eyelid. All this, and he's a big fan of Krautrock and Can in particular! I'll always be grateful to him for lending me his copy of Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler; a fine read - why isn't it in print?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Bank of England Archives

Most historians and researchers that I know always find their first visit to an archival repository an interesting experience. Contrary to the usual descriptions in the media (presumably there must be some statute that requires journalists always to use the words 'dusty' and 'archives' in the same sentence) the majority of archival collections are housed in clean and very carefully maintained conditions, but most repositories do seem to have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. A recent research commission took me to the Bank of England archives for the first time, and I felt a keen sense of anticipation about the whole thing. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street did not disappoint, although I was surprised by the discreet entrance; a small and unassuming door and lobby rather than the dramatic Grand Central Station-type glory that I had fixed in my mind.

I am unable to comment on the research I was undertaking because of commercial confidentiality, but suffice it to say that I found the material tantalising rather than revelatory: a series of clues, hints and casual allusions unwittingly left by long-dead correspondents who rather thoughtlessly did not have me personally in mind when writing. There are many differences between the working papers of a business or organisation and the personal papers of an individual, but a key distinction, it seems to me, is the fact that however comprehensive they might be, the former can only ever constitute recorded fragments of a greater commercial process, the nature of which the creators of the records did not need to explain because so much would have been implicitly understood by all those involved. Thus it is that rather than the revealing personal letter or intimate diary that reveals much of the inner mind at a certain point, we are left with documents that are full of cryptic comments, obscure commercial phraseology and baffling columns of figures: only the initiate can really extract the full meaning and infer the importance or otherwise of this stuff; to the rest of us it is hard going to say the least. I also got the sense of incomplete documentary survival (some incredibly rich and full files in places, inexplicably sparse in others), although I don't mean to suggest some sinister plot on behalf of the Bank to deprive the historian of the raw materials of his art. Historians are always apt to grouse about records that deliberately haven't been kept or have been lost, without stopping to think that some papers really are just too routine in nature to retain for ever. And who among the armies of clerks working for the Bank of England in the twentieth century were drudging away with the future writing of history in mind? I'd say that, as with their modern counterparts now, they were more concerned with surviving the essential futility of white-collar work.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Britain at Work: Voices from the Workplace 1945-1995

I went along to Congress House last week for the launch of this new online resource, and had an interesting evening of it. I must have passed this building hundreds of times over the years, but I had never set foot inside until now. And I can't say that I felt the weight of history as I stepped through the doors; indeed I was struck by the mundanity of the interior (and it really should be forcibly pointed out to the concierge that reading the Daily Mail anywhere, but in this building of all places, should be a capital offence ...)

The backdrop to the lectern featured some astonishing pictures, and various speakers kept us entertained during the launch. Professor Mary Davis offered a particularly peppery view of things: the post-war consensus never existed outside the political elite (which included union leaders) apparently, and the warped genius of the Thatcher governments was not that they dismantled union power - obviously they didn't manage that in the way that is so often claimed - but the way that they curbed any room the unions had to manoeuvre effectively by using piecemeal legislation. Not for the Tories in the 1980s the single, and possibly doomed, attempt to contain the unions using one overarching and cumbersome law. No, the trick was to emasculate the unions step by determined step, until at the end of it all there was nowhere left to turn. Brendan Barber looked suitably wistful at that point. Professor Davis also took great delight in pointing out that the wesbite is not just celebratory: it's a warts 'n' all job, and the unions had plenty of ugly warts that needed treatment - 'union beauty pageants indeed!' snorted Professor D. in disgust.

But two pictures stuck in my mind: one featured the great Ricky Tomlinson from his days as a builder, and the other was of a multi-racial group of striking seamen; it looked to date from the 60s, and looking at the determined faces on show I thought how even back then we were on the right track. It's just a shame that we never quite seem to arrive.      

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Recent research

It's been a busy few months, with plenty of research work and editing to be getting on with. Much of my time has been spent down at TNA, where I have been immersed in the mysteries of ADM 12, which contains the so-called Index and Digest volumes that should, in theory, provide access to documents contained in ADM 1 and elsewhere. The contents of at least some of the I&D volumes are, however, quite baffling; indeed, even the staff at TNA have been confounded by some of the cryptic references I have turned up. Why the Admiralty chose to instigate such an impenetrable system can only be a matter for speculation; one eminent historian I spoke to at the reception to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History mischievously suggested that 'talent' in the nineteenth century preferred the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office to the backwaters of the Admiralty, and the record-keeping system of which I complained was one manifestation of that dearth of adminstrative ability. I'm not sure about that, but whilst not expecting any government department to organise its records with the covenience of future historians in mind, surely they could have come up with something more usable.

Also of interest was some work I did for a scholar in Australia who was interested in an obscure article from The Spectator that dwelt on the fate of two Aborigines who were executed in Western Australia in the early 1840s; there is evidence of a miscarriage of justice, a gentle euphemism for state murder if ever there was one. It took some time, but I'm pleased to say that I eventually found the relevant piece. Curious to relate, given that magazine's general temper today, the author was highly sympathetic to the plight of the victims.