National Archives in Kew - UFOs, family trees and Britain's history
PUBLISHED: 14:05 14 January 2014 | UPDATED: 14:05 14 January 2014
From the Domesday Book to Titanic's passenger list and even previously secret files on UFO sightings, the National Archives in Kew is a veritable treasure trove of the nation's most important documents and an essential port of call for those tracing their family trees. DEBBIE WARD pays a visit
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2010
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. Tel: 0208 876 3444.
Entry is free.
Sitting in the reading room at the National Archives in Kew, I can hardly contain my excitement. Before me is a government file that is marked with red stamps saying Secret and Closed until 2009. It’s a real thrill to know that I’m one of the first few people in more than a quarter of a century to peek inside.
Every month, classified files such as this, which may have lain dormant for up to 30 years, are released by the National Archives to the public first to the press, who trawl them for stories, and then a day later for general consumption.
Millions of documents
The formerly secret files are among 11 million documents held at the site that have been created and collected by central government and the courts of law. Spanning over 1,000 years, they include everything from the Domesday Book to census records for England and Wales and Titanic’s passenger list and they are all accessible to the public.
“I’d accept the view that the National Archives is a bit of a hidden gem, particularly locally,” says the director of customer and business development, Oliver Morley. “But we are probably the biggest archive in the world in terms of delivering documents to people online and on-site.”
Those who use this vast resource generally form a 50:50 split between academics and members of the public researching their family history.
Though many would still be surprised by the wealth of information that is tucked away between quiet Kew streets, awareness has been rising, with Ian Hislop, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Irons and Davina McCall, among other celebrities, tracing their family trees for TV programmes like the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? “The interest there seems to be just growing and growing,” adds Morley.
Around the archives reading room, helpful leaflets explain how to find records on everything from First World War naval awards to Women’s Land Army recruits and apprenticeships served between 1710 and 1811, plus much, much more. There are also staff on hand to offer assistance.
“What we don’t do is provide you with a Who Do You Think You Are? service,” says Morley. “But if people are having trouble finding a particular record we will help them; explain where to find it and how best to use the records that are here.
“We are in a nice environment and you have access to computer terminals so you can do your family research online as well as have access to actual documents.”
Indeed, the archives building is no dusty vault; it’s a modern facility in an attractive riverside location and even has a cafe, bookshop and small museum.
Behind the scenes, precious documents are stored in flood and fire-proof boxes in temperature and humidity-controlled rooms. There are also miles of digital tape, containing modern-day web records that can be retrieved by robots, plus photographs, X-rays and even the occasional object used as evidence in court. “We don’t get stolen cars or anything, though!” laughs Morley.
However, this treasure trove of information hasn’t always been so professionally kept. Originally, the country’s most important documents followed the monarch around in horse-drawn carriages. They were later kept at various draughty locations including Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London before finally coming to Kew in 1977.
Testament to the shortcomings of previous storage is a mummified mouse that sits in the archives museum. This unfortunate creature was discovered pressed between important parchments in the 19th century.
Other artefacts in the museum include a chest that held tickets for a national lottery to finance William III’s war against France and a record of MI5 surveillance of the writer George Orwell who was suspected of Communist leanings and observed to be dressed in a Bohemian manner.
The star of the show, however, is the Domesday Book, bound in sheep and calfskin and painstakingly decorated with illuminated letters. At around 1,000 years old, this is Britain’s earliest surviving public record.
Surrey, of course, was featured in the Domesday Book, but there are plenty of other types of archive that may be of interest locally, too.
“We have a large amount of mapping that will show people from Surrey their local villages and towns and how they were historically,” explains Morley. “Also, you can see where your family members were in 1911, for example, and even who was living in your house.
“Interestingly, with the archives dating back so far, treasures that have lain at Kew for years are still coming to light. The 21st copy of the American Declaration of Independence, of which only 250 were ever made, is a recent discovery, while academics are studying for the first time correspondence relating to Dutch slaves. There are all sorts of really poignant letters in there,” Morley says.
He believes that cabinet minutes, rich in the day-to-day detail of government, are among the most undervalued documents. “You can see Winston Churchill’s written his comments all over them, for instance. It’s a beautiful resource,” he adds.
Meanwhile, back in the reading room, where I’m studying the newly-released cabinet minutes, I learn about everything from the tariff on Danish luncheon meat to Fidel Castro’s proposition for the UK to trade arms with Cuba. Other records issued alongside include the file on Peter Ivan Lake, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre for training the French Resistance in preparation for D-Day, only to be curtly ordered from the country by General de Gaulle.
I also view the newly-released 1975 file on the so-called Balcombe Street Bombers, which contains a list of potential targets drawn up by the IRA cell among them several Surrey locations including the rifle ranges of Bushy and Richmond Parks, sewage works in Norbiton and Farnham Royal Nurseries. The list was sent by the police to Harold Wilson on the night of its discovery and bears the then-prime ministers note of reply in red ink.
The older government files ooze character. There is elegant handwriting, quaint references to queer fellows and undesirable women and colourful description of people and events quite at odds with today’s corporate speak. Even without a project to research, it’s well worth dipping into these evocative time capsules.
Lost in space
One set of National Archives documents certainly never short of attention are the government files that collate reports of UFO sightings, the first of which were made public last year.
“Demand is so high for them when they’re released, we have to bring on extra server capacity,” says Morley. “Part of our work is to be open with the public about these issues. There are so many myths that have arisen.
“Among the documents already revealed is a 1980 letter from two embarrassed police constables in Woking, who reported mysterious lights on Horsell Common, which, they were painfully aware, was the opening setting for HG Wells War of the Worlds.”
This year looks set to be particularly newsworthy. Not only are there more UFO files to come but the first cabinet documents from the Thatcher years have just been released, too.
However, the National Archives role isn’t only about helping historians. It has recently enabled the University of Sunderland to study the temperature and ice coverage recorded in ships logs from a 19th century expedition to the North Pole. This information will form part of a European project to chart climate change, so, in fact, old records from Kew could be informing ways to help our future, too.
National Archives - Need to know
• The National Archives was previously known as the Public Records Office.
• As the national archives of the United Kingdom, they preserve key public records once they are no longer needed for the day-to-day business of government.
• Among the documents are medieval tax, military and MI5 records, the 1901 and 1911 censuses and lists of asylum inmates, convicts transported to Australia, slave owners and railway workers. There are also maps, posters, photographs and X-rays.
• The National Archives does not hold or issue copies of birth, marriage or death certificates. Visit the Directgov website to order these certificates.
• Over ten million documents a year are viewed by the public online as well as about 100,000 in person.
• Less frequently requested records are kept in a Cheshire salt mine where the dry air and constant temperature suit document storage.
• At 11.30am every day, the archives hold a drop-in session, introducing visitors who are new to Kew to the wonders within the walls.
• There is also a monthly calendar of free talks, most of which are available afterwards as podcasts, as well as tours.
• Newly released records are usually free online for a month then downloadable afterwards for a small fee.
For more information, visit www.nationalarchives.gov.uk