The National Archives – full of national treasures, and a national treasure itself. The Friends of The National Archives is a registered charity and voluntary organisation, dedicated to supporting the role played by The National Archives in the preservation and utilisation of the nation’s records, in a relationship stretching back over 26 years.
The Friends organisation was set up in 1988, at the then Public Record Office, and launched at a conference celebrating 150 years of the archives. The founding objectives, that remain our guiding principles today, are to educate the public in the knowledge of public and other records, and to promote and assist the work of The National Archives through fundraising and practical support.
Over the last 26 years the Friends have provided vital assistance to numerous projects, through our volunteers and financial support, enabling records of all kinds and classes to be conserved, preserved, catalogued, calendared, indexed, and made accessible. We have part-funded conferences, seminars and other events at Kew. Many thousands of pounds and hours have been devoted to many projects over the years ranging from PROB 12 – Index to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills and administrations, to those recently completed: MH 47- Central Military Service Tribunal and Middlesex Appeal Tribunal during WWI and HO 250 – Civil Defence Gallantry Awards during WWII.
My association with the Friends began in 2010 when I joined and soon after volunteered to become the magazine editor. The early days of my editorship came with many challenges and a very steep learning curve. Not only did I have to commission articles but also design and compile the magazine too. There were some interesting experiences with suddenly becoming a novice designer and compiler whilst coping with the complexities of publishing software. The score line often felt like ‘enthusiasm’: 10, ‘skill and ability’: 2! The good news is that two years ago we appointed a professional compiler and designer – much to my great relief. I can now concentrate on editorial matters and showcase aspects of the collections in Magna, our magazine that is published three times a year.
With no previous editorial experience you might wonder what on earth I was doing putting myself in such a situation. The answer is simple – I am an historian at heart and spent many hours in the reading room researching for my doctorate in railway studies. I enjoy the quiet ambience of the archives and the easy access to so much history. Joining the Friends provided the ideal opportunity to do my bit to help and support The National Archives and as editor I was able to become more involved behind the scenes. It is a fascinating role sharing the interests and historical enthusiasm of the records specialists – from railway records to Board of Trade documents and the photographic and map collections; from the Battle of Towton in 1461 to the Asian Ugandan crisis in 1972, and everything in between. The same is true of the specialists that look after the collections and the remarkable research undertaken and techniques deployed to maintain the integrity of the ageing records. I have learnt much and it has been a privilege to get so close to history and the knowledge of all the specialists.
Another enjoyable aspect for me is the setting and the abundant wildlife in Pocket Park. Either meeting the grey heron on the way in, or the mute swans on the way out, there is always something different of interest to see and experience – the hustle and bustle of the new arrivals in the spring or the quiet bleakness of a cold winter’s day.
I noted that The National Archives is a national treasure, not so much for the richness and value of the records that it holds but also because of what is yet to be discovered in the thousand years of history that span the collections. A thought always comes to mind every time I arrive at the front door. One of my favourite quotes comes from the Oxford History of the British Empire in the preface to volume five. Robin Winks notes that history is minimally about three things: what happened in the past; what people think happened in the past; and what historians say happened in the past. I can never quite get to grips with the amount of material stored, the kilometres of shelving and crucially – the extent of cataloguing yet to be done. There remains so much work to fully ‘unlock’ the entire history of the eclectic collections. In doing so it will very likely change our understanding of some historical events – a fascinating prospect indeed. The Friends will be there is help make that happen in whatever way we can.
The membership has begun to grow quite rapidly over the last few years and as we approach our AGM in June we are very close to reaching 1000 members – a milestone indeed. Our members come from far and wide; whilst the majority are predominantly from London and the south-east of the UK, some who are also members of staff, we have members as far away as North America and Australia. We now have a higher profile, use promotional posters and have regular recruiting sessions opposite the Keeper’s Gallery. A team, fondly referred to as the Press Gang, have been busy explaining our role and signing new members. Helping out with recruiting at ‘front of house’ has been a very interesting experience. It is amazing the diversity of subjects being researched and it is very apparent that there is a considerable reservoir of knowledge and expertise on many record series within the membership. We have joined The National Archives Online Community and set up a railways studies group to enable the depth of knowledge in the records to be shared more widely. I am sure other interest groups will follow in due course.
The Friends have a very positive two-way relationship with many departments at The National Archives. Our resources may be modest but we receive valuable support and assistance to help us fulfil our role. If you would like to join us, please print and complete this membership form, and send it back to us. The more Friends there are, the more effective we can be in supporting The National Archives and being its best ‘Friend’ in every sense.