A desert island from my shelf

Desert Island by ronsaunders47

Desert Island (by Flickr user ronsaunders47 - CC-BY-SA)

When you work in an archive, a certain amount of shelving is, of course, unavoidable, and as a word, I always feel ‘shelving’ has quite a pleasant ring to it. But while it’s euphonious, it’s not positive in every context. It can imply something interrupted, put to one side, and it’s just life that this is what happens, in a world of competing priorities, to some projects that seemed like good ideas at the time.

A few years ago now, we planned a series of short podcasts, each focusing on individual documents and performed by a mixture of The National Archives’ staff and researchers. I named these, with a stunning lack of originality, Desert Island Documents, and we produced a few examples of what the series would be like. Somehow other projects intervened and things never quite got any further than that. Searching for a topic for this post I thought I would dust off one of these ‘never aired’ pilots for your consideration.

In this episode, one of my favourites of the tests, Dr Leslie Boatwright, a senior and exceptionally learned member of the Friends of the National Archives, describes her discovery of a document detailing the trial of a medieval footballing vicar. Listening again, I do have some niggles with this podcast: I recorded the actor reading the translation of the document before I recorded Leslie so some of the pronunciations of names don’t match up so well but I think the format stands up acceptably. Judge for yourself if we should have persevered. If you’re really keen I might post a couple more.

Football-vicar by nationalarchivesuk

As well as Leslie, you can hear two other voices on the podcast, both professional actors. The main one is Andrew Ashmore whose company of actors works with us to run actor-led workshops for the students who visit the Archives in term-time. Most of these sessions are run by my education colleagues, but some lucky students get to work with medieval peasants, Great War soldiers or anti-slavery campaigners.

I’m also sometimes lucky enough to work alongside actors as part of my role. Our online resources for schools include audio transcripts of as many sources as we can possibly manage. Not so much for technical accessibility purposes (every document we put online has a machine readable transcript with it anyway) but more for the purpose of bringing the text to life. The audio version suits students with lower literacy levels and allows teachers more flexibility in how they use the resources. Some documents are more inclined to be read aloud than others – our actors sometimes struggle with the tortuous sentence structure of civil servant-ese. But many are great fun to listen to and record and whether it’s Victorians complaining about the drains or schoolgirl typists thinking of Stalingrad, they bring a hint of the voices of the creators of our documents back to life.

The second voice, the smooth, nicely-spoken announcer, is Gary Thorpe, whose warm tones you may recognise from The National Archives podcast series. These podcasts don’t give Gary the chance to express his full range but you can hear his Henry V in an episode of our Past Masters podcast series (at about 5:10). He is a trained actor, but the theatre’s loss is our licensing department’s gain and I’m just grateful that he’s happy to dust off his thesping every now and again, as are one or two other colleagues with similar skills when occasion demands. They say there’s no business like showbusiness but since everyone makes their own media now, I beg to differ!


  1. Patricia Weiss says:

    This story of people wanting to play football in the 1400s in the United Kingdom is very amusing and beautifully recorded. The squabble between the Vicar and the farmer is told in such a way that you feel as though you were there when you listen.

  2. Some truly choice posts on this website , saved to fav.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We will not be able to respond to personal family history research questions on the blog.
See our moderation policy for more details.