A Day At The National Archives

Very occasionally in Real Work I get to the end of the financial year with leave to burn. The ‘selling it back’ option is at such a piss-poor rate I might as well just take the time off. In this particularly circumstance, it was like finding a tenner down the sofa as I could have sworn I’d already taken all my leave when I was suddenly told I had to use up two whole days before the end of March. Yo!

So I decided to visit the National Archives and see just what Greenwich stuff there is secreted there that I could plunder at a later date.

First things first. Ignore the website when it says you don’t need a reader’s ticket. You do.

They actually don’t want people to visit the archives, however much they make the site look cuddly and open. They are utterly swamped with ladies of a certain age hoping to find their Great Uncle Albert who served in the war; they really don’t want anyone else turning up.

So the website goes on and on about how much archive material is online (and, admittedly there is a lot) and how there’s hardly any parking and it’s really out of the way etc. etc. (it’s about a five minute walk from Kew Gardens tube). It also says you only need a ticket if you want to look at original documents, and emphasises what a terrible palaver it is to obtain such an item so don’t even bother, okay. I was only going for a reccy and not bothered about ordering original documents to scrutinise, so I decided to forgo what seemed to be a really laborious procedure and not get a ticket.

What the website doesn’t tell you is that to even get into the map room on the second floor you need a ticket, whether you want to look at original documents or not.

Stupid Phantom as I am, I had taken the website at face value and was ever so politely stopped by a security guard and packed off (most apologetically, I suspect she gets it a lot) to the ticket room. I fished around in my cloak, under my tricorn and down my boots, but just couldn’t drag together the mountain of ID they require. Consequently, the entire second floor is still a mystery to me.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s right and proper they protect irreplaceable records, and I would have been only too happy to apply for a ticket and bring all the clobber needed. I just wish that they hadn’t been so busy telling people to do their research online that they’d failed to say a ticket was vital if you’re actually going to visit the place.

Instead, I contented myself with the first floor, which has much to enjoy. Dozens of computers, mainly occupied by the aforesaid genealogists, but if you look hard enough there are one or two that haven’t been jealously guarded with the proprietorial pencil and notebook.

It’s very geared-up for family history seekers. There are a lot of leaflets telling you how to find your relative if they were in X Squadron or worked in the tin industry; fewer telling you what stuff they actually hold.

Much of it’s catalogues; some good old-fashioned drawers of cards, some paper books, a declining number of microfiche stations, but most of it is online nowadays. There are various search mechanisms within the computer network, though of course, much like the British Library, you have to know what you’re looking for in the first place. If you don’t know (or at least suspect) a document exists before you go in, chances are you still won’t know when you come out, though there seem to be more helpful staff, actually there to assist searches rather than act as threshold guardians to the documents, than at the British Library, and they are far less disapproving of the public too. One might even say friendly.

What IS really good is the access to the fantastic British History Online which is only available in cut-down form if you don’t have a subscription elsewhere. At the Archives you can read it in full (if you have a spare ten years or so – it’s huge.)

You know, I think I need to go on a ‘how to go about researching stuff’ course. There’s clearly an art to finding your way around records and my usual approach of wandering around until I find something that interests me is clearly a bit hit-and-miss. My day at the Archives only told me what I knew already. I am a rank amateur.

Browsing is not the best way to approach the National Archives and since browsing is how I find out most of my favourite stuff, I decided to look on the bookshelves instead. Victorian telephone directories, street maps and record books promised rich rewards, and although the library is no way comprehensive, I spent most of the day in the London and Kent sections with old record books of Greenwich charities, Admiralty expense accounts and sundry Royal Assizes (and no, I’m still not quite sure what they are), using my patent ‘scattergun’ research technique.

You’re allowed to take in a notebook, pencil and a camera, as long as you don’t use a flash, and since photocopies are 20p a shot, I now have a lot of fuzzy photos of articles to squint at on the screen at home. My eyes are already cursing me for being so cheap.

It’s an interesting day out (there’s a nice cafe, a little museum that contains a copy of the Domesday Book and a mummified rat from the days when the archives weren’t so carefully looked after, and a shop that sells family history magazines and books about Hitler) and I’m glad I went. But I’d say that unless you’ve got something absolutely specific in mind, you’re best off with Greenwich Heritage Centre for local stuff.

5 Comments to “A Day At The National Archives”

  1. Dazza says:

    Thanks for the heads up on the ticket situation. I was thinking of spending some time over there looking into my ancestry but will consider taking out a sub online instead.
    I really must make a trip over to the Heritage Centre soon. I just need to book a couple of weeks off work…..LOL

  2. Old China says:

    I've been there once and did the same thing – turned up with no idea what to do next. I just haunted the archives for a few hours then went home.

    Doing a course would be a great help, especially as my parents keep nagging me to research our family history (East and SE London). I've pointed out to them I have a full time job and that they're both retired with plenty of time on their hands but apparently the responsibility is mine.

    Talking of jobs, I'm amazed you have one GP! I assumed you were an eccentric, wealthy (yet mysterious) lady of leisure. How do you find the time every day to research this blog?!?

  3. Edith says:

    I think its a horrid place – but better than when it was in Chancery Lane. I understand that a lot of the security is around stuff which was pinched when they first opened. However, it is difficult to get to from Greenwich – my chum from Berkhampstead could get there quicker than me – and to a certain extent it is geared up for a return visit within the next few days. I always find family historians very depressing and the assumption by staff that as an elderly woman your only interest is in your ancestors. However, with patience, you can graduate to tables with sensible people doing proper research – some of whom you might even get to know! They do let you use your lap top and even plug it in – some local archives wouldn't allow them to be used at all ("no equipment not inspected by our electrical safety department") and I was once thrown out of a well known local library because another reader didn't approve of computers… and its better than some of the county archives with their arcane sets of rules

  4. Wolfe says:

    It's dead easy to get a reader's ticket GP, you must have been having an off day…

    All you need is a document to prove your name and one to prove your address – eg passport or bank card and a utility bill. They even take your photo for you..

    A good way of getting into using the archive is to have a look on their website for some docs that look hopeful and then order them up for your visit. Then, when you arrive, you'll have a big stack of interesting originals to go through….

  5. shipwright's palace says:

    Have been going to what was the PRO now National Archives for ten years now. It has certainly got more automated and less personal now that so much stuff is catalogued on line but it is a mine of glories that is well worth the trip. getting there from Greenwich couldn't be much easier, train to waterloo 10 mins, fast train to Richmond 15mins and one stop to Kew on the underground 5 mins.%-10 min walk to the NA.
    As Wolfe said, check out the online catalogue, book docs in advance, a great day out and so much to discover.