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 ...