From the Domesday Book to the latest tweets from Downing Street at The National Archives at Kew

PUBLISHED: 14:03 07 November 2016

The National Archives is a treasure-trove of ancient documents (Photo The National Archives)

The National Archives is a treasure-trove of ancient documents (Photo The National Archives)

The National Archives

From hairy books to medieval rats and doodles of dragons, The National Archives at Kew, near Richmond, is certainly full of surprises. Claire Saul gets a peek behind the scenes

A corridor of files at The National Archives (Photo The National Archives)A corridor of files at The National Archives (Photo The National Archives)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2016

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Tucked away inside The National Archives at Kew, I’m peering not at a dusty old tome but at the rather rancid-looking remains of two medieval rats. It’s just one of many surprises I will encounter today at this modern-day treasure trove of ancient documents. Home to more than 11 million records, spanning over a thousand years of history, they encompass everything from the Domesday Book of 1086 through to the will of author Jane Austen and one of the last telegrams sent from RMS Titanic to the latest tweets from Downing Street.

The official public archive of the UK government, this extraordinary collection was actually assembled only surprisingly recently. Created over a three-year period from 2003, The National Archives was the result of the amalgamation of four government bodies concerned with information management: the Public Record Office; the Office of Public Sector Information; the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts; and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. As well as preserving all these documents for generations to come, the idea was also to make them as accessible and available as possible.

As such, you may well have visited the building in Kew’s leafy Bessant Drive to further your own family history research. Many will also have been captivated by anniversaries of historic events such as the First World War and taken a look at some of the associated materials in the online collection. However, most will not appreciate that the ‘records’ can also be realised in other ways, including maps, items of clothing, accessories, drawings and, evidently, a few rogue rodents too.

Paper view

One person who knows more about all of this than most is Dr Sean Cunningham, head of medieval records at The National Archives. We are meeting today to explore some choice items illustrating the diversity of the collection – starting, appropriately enough, with a large map of Richmond and the surrounding area, dating from the early 17th century. A missing corner does nothing to diminish the beauty of its bright colours and the details of what was then a parish consisting largely of parkland. Drawn on sheepskin parchment, the map is also notable for featuring one of the earliest representations of Richmond Palace – formerly Sheen Palace – a favourite residence of the medieval kings.

“This document came from what was then the office belonging to the auditors of land revenue, and it maps out the land in the area that has been surrendered to the crown,” says Dr Cunningham. “It details everything from water courses, turnpike roads, gates and windmills, to the larger woodlands and cultivated areas, plus the river plain, which would have been much more liable to flooding back then. Lots of maps started to be drawn up during the 16th century showing boundaries, mainly due to legal suits between people over land and debts.”

The next item is something quite different altogether. A large, patchy brown book, which appears to be covered in fur, immediately turns back the clock a further 300 years.

“Written in Latin, this is a household account of Edward II from 1318, detailing how he was receiving and spending money in his palaces, including Sheen, so there are sections on alms, food and so on,” explains Dr Cunningham. “It is a mine of information on life at court and beyond, but this is especially interesting because of its binding – normally they’d have scraped away 
the cow or goat hair but this one still has all of its fur on it, which makes it pretty unique. Inside, the pages are made of sheepskin. Before 1800, 
records created for long-term storage would mostly be on skin – paper was used mainly for the subsidiary documents or rough copies.”

Bad hair day

Unlikely though it seems, hair and archive material are not an unusual combination here. Dr Cunningham cites locks of human hair held in the archives that were used as evidence in historic court cases. In addition, horsehair was often woven to make rough sacks for the storage of bundles of documents and to make protective purses for seals. It is also not uncommon to find feather quill pens stuffed into the spines of old books, or even tree leaves pressed tightly inside documents or wedged into bindings. So it’s fair to say that this is a veritable treasure trove of archival items!

This makes it all the more frustrating that, over the centuries, the care of historic records has been rather hit and miss, to say the least. Indeed, until the 1838 Public Record Office Act, there wasn’t really any concept of ‘public records’ at all, as Dr Cunningham goes on to explain.

“With the act, all these records were brought together in one place, London’s Chancery Lane, and that was when it became evident just how bad previous storage conditions had been,” he says. “One of the worst places was the former Royal Mews, where the National Gallery is now; there was a lot of material stored there in chests but because of the conditions it had turned into a sort of soup, with the occasional seal floating on the surface. Some containers have been found to contain drowned rats, some with their teeth still stuck in the parchment.”

Which brings us neatly to the next ‘reveal’ – the bones of the two medieval rats presented alongside some damaged documents dating from the reign of Edward I. Back then, around 1280, many crown documents were kept in the chapter house at Westminster Abbey, stacked in bundles on the floor or kept in sacks. The multiple seals suggest that the fragments of documents, welded together over time by moisture into one hardened lump, are records of payments made by different individuals to the crown. The rats have been stored carefully alongside them in eternal shame.

Today, wherever possible, scientists at The National Archives apply modern techniques for the rescue or repair of items or to preserve them from decaying any further. Items are stored at the ideal temperature of 14° – as they are at the cavernous (but blessedly moisture-free) Winsford Rock Salt Mine, in Cheshire, where additional archive material is kept, alongside that belonging to police forces, hospitals and other large organisations.

Back in the rather more modern confines of Kew, of all the historic riches here, it’s a rather more spontaneous form of art that is currently exciting Dr Cunningham the most.

“My favourite item at the moment is a treasury account book from the end of Henry VII’s reign, in 1508,” he says. “Amongst all the financial details, I found that the clerk had made several, really quite sophisticated drawings of capital letters and he has also sketched dragons, heraldic badges, castles and more. I love finding the unexpected, or a key piece of information relating to what I am researching, or something that makes a difference to a historical story.”

Tracing trees

The ambitions of most visitors to The National Archives, however, are rather more humble, searching for a piece of information about an ancestor serving in the forces or the Merchant Navy, or perhaps someone involved in a court case or even transported. Popular genealogy-based television programmes have inspired many more people to investigate the lives of their forebears – and commemorations such as military centenaries can also lead to a spike in visitor numbers and online investigations, with researchers keen to learn more.

“People quite often want to know the context of individuals’ lives, so they work through items such as maps and regimental war diaries to discover what their ancestors were actually doing, rather than simply that they were just in the army,” says Dr Cunningham. “We like to try and encourage people to go beyond the first record if they want to fully understand and to realise the possibility of reconstructing their grandfather’s life, for example.”

It is truly amazing how many records there are available here to help us understand our history, be it of national or personal significance. Have a look and you’ll be surprised at what you find. Just watch out for the rats…

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On the paper trail

The most famous items held at The National Archives at Kew relate to some of the most significant events in our nation’s history and some of its most recognisable personalities. Here, we bring you just a few of them…

• One of the most important items in the collection is William the Conqueror’s great survey of English land, the Domesday Book, which at 900 years old is the earliest surviving public record.

• Last year’s 800th anniversary threw the spotlight on the Magna Carta – and, at The National Archives, they hold the final version of this charter, issued one decade later than the original in 1225.

• In this 400th anniversary year of the death of William Shakespeare, the world’s most famous playwright has been very much in the spotlight. Held at Kew, his will is signed three times – remarkable given that only six known examples of his signature exist today.

• The signatures on Guy Fawkes’ two written confessions are a grim indication of his state during and after torture; the first very weak and shaky and the second, after eight days of recovery, rather more steady.

• From the next century, the 1739 indictment of one John Palmer – rather better known as Dick Turpin – accuses him of stealing a black mare and a foal. His plea was rejected and Palmer was hanged at York.

• In Jane Austen’s will of April 1817, written less than three months before her death, she leaves almost everything to her beloved elder sister Cassandra. Unfortunately, as the document was not witnessed, two of Jane’s long-standing friends were subsequently required to swear in a written statement that they could verify the signature was hers.

• From more recent times, the telegram sent from the RMS Titanic in the early hours of April 15, 1912, chillingly reads: ‘We have struck iceberg, sinking fast…’

• Finally, a letter dated December 10, 1936, announces Edward VIII’s “…irrevocable determination to renounce the Throne for Myself and for My descendants.”

View these items and more online at nationalarchives.gov.uk/museum

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Need to know...

The National Archives, Bessant Drive, Kew TW9 4DU. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 9am-5pm (7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays). The building is free to enter and there is no need to book. For more details, call 0208 876 3444 or visit nationalarchives.gov.uk

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