A walk through British history: Metro visits The National Archives


A walk through British history: Metro visits The National Archives
The server room at the National Archives in London (Picture: The National Archives)

From the outside, it is an unremarkable building that could easily be mistaken for an office block or business estate.

But beyond its drab exterior, a sprawling concrete complex in a pretty corner of west London is teeming with stories of Britain’s past, a vast repository of material that is often referred to as ‘the nation’s memory’.

With 11m government and public records dating back more than 1,000 years, the National Archives in Kew is an Aladdin’s Cave for professional historians and amateurs researching their family history alike.

In an age of technological revolution, record keeping for posterity might seem like a concept that belongs to a different time. But as information becomes increasingly ephemeral thanks to the internet and social media, it feels more crucial than ever to have somewhere to keep the materials that define an age – from parchment to paper to tweets.

Britain’s official history is stored in about 200km of shelving, with roughly 1km of records added each year. Records selected for permanent preservation are sent on by government departments once they are about 30 years old.

Mark Dunton, principal records specialist at the National Archives, said: ‘We hold the records from the running of the government from the Domesday Book up to the 1980s.’

The National Archives was formed between 2003 and 2006 when four government bodies, including the Public Record Office, joined together under one roof.

The Kew headquarters houses an array of monumental documents dating back to the Domesday Book – the great survey finished in 1086, William Shakespeare’s will and Guy Fawkes’s confession to more modern records including the last telegram from the Titanic and top secret MI5 files from the First and Second World Wars. So it is little wonder that ‘very rigorous’ security procedures are in place.

‘They are invaluable really, priceless really. You couldn’t put an Antiques Roadshow style quote on the Domesday book,’ said Dunton.

Not all of the records cover grave matters of state or major events. Census documents provide a more prosaic but crucial opportunity for individuals to conduct family research – the reason for the majority of visits to Kew.

The National Archives is also home to some of the more unusual correspondence received by state bodies, such as enquiries from all over the world about whether Sherlock Holmes is real to scores of UFO reports made to the Ministry of Defence.

But as we inspect telegrams and handwritten memos to understand the events that intrigued and affected our ancestors, the National Archives has begun work to store electronic records for future generations.

Earlier this month, it announced that it will archive social media feeds of government departments for the first time – it already receives a number of documents in electronic form. While a salt mine in Cheshire provides an alternative site for storing physical records, the proliferation of electronic communication by official bodies poses different challenges.

More than three billion items published online by the government, including web pages and documents, have been archived since 2003, and the addition of official Twitter and YouTube platforms has increased the size of the task.

Dunton said: ‘We now cover a range from parchment to pixels. We have to look now at how digital records are stored and we archive government websites. Previously, they always communicated by paper.’

His colleague, Nancy Bell, head of collection care, believes that in 30 years’ time the lion’s share of the records received will be in electronic form.

But as well as keeping track of Twitter and storing millions of pieces of paper, the National Archives is also home to myriad objects. Among the items on show for Metro’s visit were:

• A mummified rat saved by a teenage Henry Cole, who would later be known for helping organise the Great Exhibition, when he started work with British government records. He kept the rat as evidence of the poor condition of what became known as the Public Record Office.

• A blood-smeared postcard written by someone claiming to be Jack the Ripper which was forwarded to Scotland Yard by a news agency in September 1888.

• A 100-year-old lemon which was part of the evidence used to convict German spy Carl Friedrich Muller, who was executed in the Tower of London during the First World War. The lemon juice was used as ‘invisible ink’ to write messages in between the lines in correspondence sent back to Germany.

• A fake Adolf Hitler passport created by the Special Operations Executive as part of their work during the Second World War.

Preserving the items that constitute Britain’s history is more complex than saving tweets or boxing up huge piles of paper. Experts use highly technical methods to ensure records are maintained for as long as possible.

‘The National Archives is more than just masses of paper files placed on row upon row of shelving,’ said Bell. ‘The day to day work involves intricate and delicate cleaning of fine parchment of some of the oldest documents in history, such as the Domesday Book and ornate gold seals from the Tudor period.

‘It also takes care of many more unusual records, such as photographs and posters, large historical maps, cloth samples and even plastics, all of which require detailed precision and research into the best techniques to preserve these different materials.’

Records are kept in ‘stable environmental conditions’, with more than 10.5m data readings collected from sensors in the repositories.

‘We analyse this data in great detail so we can calibrate the temperature and relative humidity throughout the year,’ said Bell.

One of the perks for staff is getting a sneak preview of correspondence sent and received by some of history’s most famous figures, such as Margaret Thatcher.

‘It’s such a thrill to be looking at Prime Ministers’ own handwriting,’ said Dunton. ‘You can tell what sort of mood the PM is in. You feel connected with the person.’

But as technology allows the world to exchange and source information at increasingly frenetic speed, what is the National Archives’ unique selling point; why does it still matter?

‘What we have got here are the raw materials of the nation’s history,’ said Dunton. ‘You can see the different forces that shaped history and the different events. There are thousands of thousands of stories waiting to be discovered.’

28 May 2014 | 6:00 am – Source: metro.co.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.