Over the last year I have watched helplessly as dozens of Mali’s most ancient monuments have been damaged or destroyed as Ansar Dine supporting militia have pushed further and further south from their strongholds on the edge of the Sahara Desert. So it was with more than a little relief that I watched the recent liberation of Timbuktu by French and West African forces. But that relief turned quickly to shock as news reports showed the liberating forces uncovering what appeared to be the deliberate destruction of some of the irreplaceable archives ancient and libraries of Timbuktu.
As I watched the news reports, I was taken back to my last visit to the great city…
The alleyway had been worn into a series of deep smooth sculpted ruts making it almost impossible to negotiate for the uninitiated without absolute concentration.
It is only in recent years that I have come to realise what has driven me to spend significant chunks of my adult life travelling, searching out archives and libraries across Africa, hunting down local historians and visiting small and remote museums. Whether I have been engaged in concrete research or not, I have always sought out manuscripts whether held in state archives or small family collections.
Over decades I have fed my fetish in the basements of multi-national corporations, in the stores of village churches and mosques, at battlefields, in goldmines and in the backrooms of small corner shops. And I have learned that history is important in Africa for all the reasons one might imagine – but perhaps more than anywhere else I have travelled, I have become aware of the past forming a vivid and palpable presence in people’s lives.
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Looking back over our blogs from the past year, there are many examples of how we are working hard at The National Archives to make our records as accessible as possible, whether it be through cataloguing
. This includes our advice service – you could have the most fantastic documents in the world, but they’re not much good if you can’t find them!
Live Chat is accessible through our website
Thanks largely to digitisation projects, our audience is now global and ever-expanding. In order to keep up with this, approximately a year ago we began trialling a new Live Chat service. This service is now part of our daily advice service from 11:00-15:00 GMT, allowing users anywhere in the world with access to the internet to connect with our advisers instantly.
As one of the ‘chatters’, Live Chat is one of the varied public duties I undertake each week. It is a great combination of the immediacy of a phonecall and the useful links that can be sent over email. It allows us to instantly point users to relevant parts of our website and know they are looking at the right page – a far cry from explaining step by step over the phone, or even by letter. Continue reading »
Wasn’t the recent discovery and identification of the remains of King Richard III in a Leicester car park absolutely riveting? I am not a medievalist (as will doubtless become clear during this blog post), nonetheless, Richard III was my way into the historian’s craft. As a schoolgirl I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time , where a detective, scenting propaganda in Shakespeare’s account of Richard, conducts an investigation into the murder of the Princes in the Tower from his hospital bed.
King Richard III by Unknown artist oil on panel, late 16th century (late 15th century) NPG 148 © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY NC ND)
This led me to read my first grown up history book, Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III. At 14, I was equally fascinated and daunted by the footnotes: PRO E/179 117/77; PRO C 65/114; ibid; op. cit… What did it all mean? Historians were obviously rarified beings who had, I assumed, privileged access to the documents behind all this paraphernalia. It was all very remote from my experience: I felt I would love to be a historian, solving the mysteries of the past, but it wasn’t something that people like me did. Eventually, I not only learnt to cite PRO references and know my op. cit.s from my ibids, I ended up actually working at the Public Record Office (as The National Archives then was). I still like the idea of history as a detective story, with the extra dimension of time; an investigation into cause and effect, weighing the evidence in context – my colleague Sean Cunningham, who has written a book on Richard III is very good on this point.
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Just a selection of the campaign badges held by the Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive (with thanks to Bishopsgate Institute for the image)
We’re now well into LGBT history month, celebrated by The National Archives and many other heritage organisations and communities across the country. It seems like a good moment to reflect on how LGBT archives appear in the historical record, without which LGBT history month couldn’t exist.
Older records can be really problematic for studying LGBT history, and seem almost to conspire to hide histories rather than to reveal. Where a community was of necessity trying to avoid the eye of the authorities, there’s relatively little in the official records, and when it does exist, it’s often a negative portrayal. Jenni’s blog earlier in the month outlined what The National Archives is trying to do about that, revealing hidden histories and bringing together information on LGBT records so that it is easier to find. Continue reading »
Watching old films is always a bit of hunt for buried treasure, particularly if you stray away from a narrow list of classics. But few of these treasure hunts turn as literal as what happens if we investigate the 1949 documentary ‘Daybreak in Udi’, an Oscar winner you’ve probably never heard of.
Dutch documentary filmmaker Bert Haanstra picks up his Oscar statuette. British director Terry Bishop doesn’t seem to have been so fortunate (Image: National Archives of the Netherlands, CC-BY-SA)
Shot in Nigeria by Britain’s Crown Film Unit, the film won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1950. This was the British Government’s fourth Oscar. During the Second World War, the Academy had saluted Roy Boulting, Harry Watt and Carol Reed’s work on Desert Victory, Target for Tonight and The True Glory (made with the US). These films were the award-winning tip of a wonderful iceberg: documentary films of extraordinary quality and significance, paid for by successive British taxpayers for the 20 years since the creation of the Empire Film Unit in 1929. There was nothing unusual about the international perception of Daybreak in Udi as an outstanding film. It was well understood that (whatever other mean stuff people might say about the British film industry) we knew how to make a documentary. In fact the only unique thing about Daybreak’s win was that it received an Oscar statuette, which had not happened during wartime.
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My colleague Linda and I have spent the last couple of weeks trying to sketch out the next few iterations of our machinery of government visualisations. We have, perhaps inevitably, come across some difficulties. As we were always aware, the changes in domestic departments over the years are difficult to represent in a simple way, without losing accuracy. Would it make more sense to show changes in a very basic way (health responsibilities go from Ministry of Health, to Department of Health and Social Security, to Department of Health, for example). Or does it make more sense to show individual functions of government, which would surely amount to hundreds of visualisations (i.e. childcare responsibilities, which did for a period lie with the DHSS)? It’s certainly been a little problematic, but nothing that can’t be solved. It’s not the end of the world.
Wolf Crater, Western Australia (INF 10/29/7)
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A bit of old Britain pamphlet front (ref: NRO 2674)
As part of my traineeship I’m creating an online exhibition at Northumberland Archives, showcasing items that reflect aspects of the maritime history of the area.
Though I was aware of some parts of this history, such as the region’s long association with the shipbuilding industry, I had little knowledge of other elements like ship breaking.
This pamphlet (see right) is from Hughes Bolckow & Co., battleship breakers based at Battleship Wharf, Blyth, Northumberland. The company bought in redundant ships and stripped and made furniture and other household goods from the fittings of the ships. It appears that the company had an extensive business and they sold directly from Blyth and from their London showrooms. Continue reading »
I was discussing the First World War with a friend and we were talking about what was important to us personally about the upcoming centenary. We agreed that, with so few people from the period still with us, that some stories may be lost forever. This struck a chord with me as I prepared to write my blog post.
Last year, I inherited the war medals of a Mr Brown, the father of my great-aunt Betty’s best friend, Jenny. Until I started my research all I knew about Mr Brown was his surname so I was curious to know more about the man whose medals I now owned. Mr Brown died in 1967 and his daughter Jenny died in 2002, leaving behind notes on her own research into her family history. Mr. Brown has no living descendants – his story could be lost – and I decided that this blog would be a good place to celebrate his life.
I’ve been researching Mr Brown for only a short while so I know there is still a lot more for me to discover, but I’d like to take this opportunity to share his story so far.
A young Mr Brown (far left) There is no information on the back of the photo but we assume that he is with his father, mother, sisters Jean and Peggy and older brother Adam.
Joseph Vincent Willie Brown was born on 15 March 1898 in San Vicente, Torello, Barcelona. He was the son of Adam Brown and Jeanie Paton who were originally from Paisley, Scotland. His father was employed by J&P Coats, the Paisley thread manufacturers who had factories worldwide. Mr Brown’s birth certificate gives his father’s occupation as a dyer and bleacher but, according to notes made by Jenny, he was a manager in the Torello factory.
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D-Day, 6 June 1944, the turning point of the Second World War, was a victory of arms, a heroic feat of military strategy and raw courage. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of skill: it was an astonishing feat of paperwork.
Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the invasion, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents, deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy. It was the most sophisticated and successful deception operation ever carried out, ensuring that Hitler kept an entire army awaiting a fake invasion, saving thousands of lives, and securing an Allied victory at the most critical juncture in the war.
The Double Cross system depended on a filing and archive system that was vast, complex and meticulous. It is not too much to say that without the extraordinary record-keeping system devised by the spy-runners, the great D-Day deception might have failed, and the history of the 20th century would have been very different.
The great British talent for keeping and maintaining records played a vital, but largely unacknowledged role in winning the Second World War. Most of the wartime files relating to the Double Cross deception, once top secret, have now been released to The National Archives. That material has formed the evidential basis for my last three books: Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat and Double Cross. Each of these books tells a story extracted from the wartime files. Indeed, without this huge trove of documents, these books could not have been written.
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