Monday, 29 November 2010

Mystery researcher: British Library's Africa and Asia Room

I've been a regular at the British Library for many years. I even a had a readers's ticket when it was still based in the British Museum. But until now I haven't used the Indian Office collections, but a client recently asked to see whether there were any files about an Indian politician active at the time of Partition.
Like the rest of the St Pancras site the room is sumptuously furnished, with book cases around the walls full of reference works and catalogues. Not much infomation is yet online (although there is some stuff on Access to Archives A2A). It is quiet with a separate area for microfilm readers and a security guard on the door checking tickets on the way in and bags on the way out.
It was reasonably busy when I was there with a mixture of academics, professional researchers and family historians. The staff were extraordinarily patient with all enquirers and very helpful, particularly with the convoluted and bizarrly arranged ordering system. Files and books take about an hour to 70 minutes to arrive,

Room: 8; staff: 10; resources 7; ordering 2

Friday, 5 November 2010

Mystery researcher: National Army Museum

Years ago I went to the National Army Museum when I was researching my PhD thesis. It was real ordeal getting a reader's ticket then I was patronised by the staff on the desk. Of course I didn't find anything, but even now I remember the trip as one of the worst experiences of my career as a researcher.

Fortunately matters are now totally different. To start with there is a new reading room - the Templar Stidy Centre - which was comfortable and well laid out. It is in the basement and there is a lift if you need it..

The staff was knowledgeable and helpful (and offered a great tip about what to look for) and not very interested in my reader's ticket. I spent three hours there and there was a number of visitors - a couple of people listening to their collection of oral history tapes, somebody researching their family tree and lady who brought in a badge she wanted identified. The duty archivist tried to identify it and when he couldn't called down a curator to help. I fear this would not have been even considered in the old days.

My only grumble was the online catalogue which not yet on the NAM's website and isn't terribly powerful or user friendly. That said it came up with some excellent leads.

Room 8; staff 8; ease of access 8; catalogues 5

A perfect set

It's never happened to me before, but I've just found a complete set of records for a soldier, that is an entry in the 1901 and 1911 censuses, service records and Medal Index Card. What's more the National Army Museum has his autobiography and some photographs (ref ARC 2002-03-171). The lucky man was 8434 Private Fred Wilkinson, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment). His typewritten memoir was written when he was 75 in 1963. His spelling was erratic and sometimes it can be difficult to work out what he is describing.. He was born into extreme poverty in Woodchurch in Kent one of thirteen childrenl his father was the local rat-catcher and his mother a midwife, although it is unlikely that she had any training.
After minimal schooling, Fred became a labourer. He claims he joined up and saw service in South Africa at the end of the Boer War, but I could find no reference to this. What is certain that aged 15 he got a local girl into trouble, and tried to enlist in the Grenadier Guards but was a quarter-inch under the height requirement. Fortunately the girl's father pointed out that she had had lots of men and it was uncertain who the father actually was (it would be fascinating to find out whether sought help from the local poor law).
Instead aged 18 he joined his local regiment the Buffs. He claims to have reached the rank of Sergeant Major, but his service record suggests otherwise. Fred certainly became a corporal, but returned to the ranks at his own request. The battalion served in Hong Kong, Singapore, India before returning to France in the early months of WW1 Later he was in Egypt and Salonika. He was discharged in 1919 and spent the rest of his life as a labourer and mole catcher (to clear a blockage, he suggests, tying a treacle can to a mole and put him down the drain).
Fred was certainly one of the lads and there are several stories about his drinking exploits and the times he got into trouble with the authorities. His service record suggests he was courtmartialled several times. But unusually for the period he was no racist - he had a Chinese girlfriend in Hong Kong for several years.. Even so the focus of his world was the battalion and his friends.
In 1918 he married Edith Gill. We don't find out very much about her, which is a pity because from her photos she seems to have a real twinkle in her eye.
Fred eventually died in 1975 aged 87.
Unfortunately the couple did not seem to have any children a real shame because these documents are a unique portrayal of somebody who has been forgotten by history. I bet though he would be tickled pink by how much we can find out about him.

Friday, 15 October 2010

A communist at sea

While researching my new book on tracing naval ancestors for Pen & Sword I came across the curious story of Len Wincott. Able Seaman Wincott was one of the leaders of the Invergordon Mutiny which took place in September 1931 which took place as a protest against a proposed cut of a quarter in sailors' wages by the Admiralty as part of the government's austerity progamme as the result of the economic depression. The sailors' protest so shook the stock market that it forced the Pound off the Gold Standard. Despite the Navy's promise 24 men, including Wincott, were identified as ringleaders and dismissed from the Navy ("gone out" to use the technical phrase).
Wincott eventually published his autobiography "Invergordon Mutineer" (Weindenfeld & Nicolson, 1974) which makes interesting reading. Born in 1907 in poverty in Leicester he joins the Navy in 1923 after time at the training centre for boys at Shotley. The Navy gave him security, even if the pay was not much and the prospects in the peacetime RN fairly minimal  Wincott seems to have been more articulate than his fellow matelots. His service record at The National Archives (piece ADM 188/861) runs to the end of 1929 and shows a model seaman.  But his life would change overnight when he gets caught in protests about the proposed cut in pay. According to his memoirs he was one of the key leaders, but this may have been an exaggeration.
After his dismissal he became involved with the Communist Party speaking at meetings up and down Britain. The CP may have given him the same feeling of belonging as the Navy had. There are three MI5 files on him at TNA (KV 2/508-510) which show that he was being followed, and his mail intercepted. There are also detailed accounts of speeches he made, which make dull reading today. There were are also several reports from informers whose names have been blanked out in the files. With perhaps of hint of what was to come Wincott mentions that he was aware of being followed and his letters being read and names one of the informers as being a disaffected shipmate Terry Gentry. His account matches notes from one of the interviews in the file, so Wincott was probably right about the snitch.
For all the surveillance MI5 failed to spot that Wincott left Britain in 1934 for good as it turned out. He went to Leningrad to run the Anglo-American section of the International Seamen's Club. Wincott may have taken the post to be with his first wife Mary Copeland an American journalist who lived in Moscow - or perhaps the Russians were increasingly worried that he might prove to be an embarrassment to them. Apart from a visit to England in 1974 Wincott spent the rest of  his life in the Soviet Union. He survived the Siege of Leningrad and ten years in the Gulags where he met and married his fourth wife. Wincott finally died in Moscow in 1983. His ashes were scattered over Devonport Harbour..
Len Wincott has a rather hostile entry written by John Horsfield in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There is also an interesting obituary in The Times for 22 January 1983.  Francis Beckett takes a more sympathetic approach when he describes Wincott's time in the Soviet Union in Stalin's British Victims (Sutton, 2004). Clearly another interesting footnore in history 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Soldiers' documents 1760-1913

If you have an ancestor who was an other rank (ordinary soldier) in the British Army before 1913 then you need to check out this new resource from Findmypast. They have completed digitising the soldiers' papers in series WO 97 at The National Archives (TNA). These are records for men who survived army service and received a pension: there are no records for men who died in the service or deserted. You can read more in my Tracing Your Army Ancestors' book from Pen & Sword (buy it at
Any way I have been playing with the new resource which can be checked out here. It is pretty good. I do like FMP's clear layout (despite the distracting ads) . The index seems good and the quality of the images is excellent.
My only gripe is that in the indexing the only practical modifier is place and date of birth, which you may well not know, so you could waste precious units in downloading records which are no use to you.. It would have been better to include regiment as modifier, which users are likely to know. To an extent you can over come this, at least for men who left before 1854, by typing in your man's name into TNA catalogue and in the series box add WO 97. Years ago the Friends of the Public Record Office, as they were then, indexed these records in some detail and results were added to the catalogue.
It costs 5 units to download a transcript and 30 units for the document itself. The other thing you need to do is to press the clear button before each new search, otherwise the search engine may get confused.
Over the years I have researched several of the men who appear in here: Pte Fred Grover (48th Foot) who fought in the Crimea and whose life is memorably told in George Bourne's Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer, Richard Cavendish, a Gentleman-Ranker (and supposedly the illegitimate son of the King of Prussia) who abandoned a promising career in the Queens Hussars to become a workhouse master, and Benjamin Harris of the Rifle Brigade who left a fascinate set of memoirs behind which was the inspiration of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels.  

Blogs I like: Bradford University Library Special Collections

I've become very partial to history and archive related blogs. Many contain excellent and thought provoking material which really deserves a wider audience, such as the one posted by Alison Cullingford of Bradford University Library's Special Collections. At present there are a lot of references to JB Priestley's wartime broadcasts, but there is much more besides:

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Library of the month: London Library

Founded in 1841 the London Library is the world's largest private library, with something like a million volumes on the shelves all of which can be borrowed by members. After all the library was established by Thomas Carlyle when he was banned from borrowing books from the British Museum. I joined about ten years when the place was comfortably shabby. In recent years the Library has been transformed as the result of a multi-million pound rebuilding project, which has seen expansion into a building at the back and a revamp of the public area. The new bits resemble some achingly hip boutique hotel you might read about in the Sunday supplements, but the old stacks largely remain unchanged since they were erected in the 1890s (you still might get a slight electric shock when you pull one of the light switches). One of the great joys of the place is the unique cataloguing system, particularly in "Science and Miscellaneous" with shelfmarks for topics as varied as "S.Dreams" and "S.Devil etc". It works very well, although it can be hard to find books in some of the larger shelfmarks, such as "H. European War 1". There are some nice reading areas - I particularly like the Lightwell reading room in the basement, which seems particularly popular with balding young men finishing off their first bestseller. You would expect the place to be a major site for celeb spotting, but most authors are fairly anonymous looking even if they are household names, although I have spotted Alan Bennett and Edna O'Brien taking out books, and a friend of mine once saw Peter Mandelson. All in all the London LIbrary is a great place and I have spent many happy hours there. Find out more at   

Films of history

One of the best free websites for historians is run by British Pathe at This is where you can see all of the newsreels made by the company between 1897 and 1970. As well as the great events of history - coronations, wars, and Miss World - there is a huge number of films relating to minor happenings and the lives of ordinary people, such as this clip of a darts match in 1938 at And you can download items for personal use. I've used clips in talks about pubs of the 1930s. It is also brilliantly indexed often with interesting notes provided by the film archivists and indexers. But now the company wants local historians and anybody with an interest in the past to add more information or make corrections if they spot something wrong. - perhaps you recognise one of the darts players. So why not give it a go. If you see something which needs correcting email

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Fragrant Weed

If you are interested in social history then you probably have got a few subjects that rings a bell every time you come across them., Especially if you come across a quote or a story out of context. One of mine is smoking: about which I would really like to write a social history. I was reminded of this while reading Roy & Lesley Adkin's excellent Jack Tar: life in Nelson's Navy (Little, Brown, 2008) as part of my background reading for a book of tracing Royal Naval ancestors I'm writing for Pen & Sword . They devote a few pages to tobacco, which was then generally chewed rather than smoked on board. But some seamen were devoted to their pipes, while others smoked rum-soaked tobacco in periques or pricks, basically a foot long cigar.
When I was doing my PhD on charities of the First World War, the tobacco habit had become ingrained among soldiers of all ranks. Despite some slight official concern that smoking affected the men's health, tobacco was encouraged for it calmed nerves and reduced the appetite. As a result it is rare to find a group photo of soldiers without the majority of men having a cigarette in their hands. By far the most popular comfort provided by war charities was cigarettes and tobacco: smokes as they were generally called.  The largest newspaper appeal was the Weekly Despatch Tobacco Fund which had collected £100,000 by the middle of 1916. Tens of millions of cigarettes were sent to the front.  The Comforts Fund of the 1st London Regiment alone sent 189,000 packets of cigarettes during the war.
Within days of the declaration of war letters were appearing in The Times appealing for smokes for the troops.  One reader Septimus Bright appealed "to private persons and firms for pouches and other smokers requisites, new and old, among them old pipes which every woman is anxious to clear out of the caches of her menfolk." But so far as I can, tell few people did.  
And perhaps ironically a proportion of the men who became addicted to smoking in the Great War developed lung cancer in the 1950s. These were the men whose wrecked lungs and breathing led scientists to realise how bad smoking actually was. They had survived the trenches but were now felled by something which had once given them strength and pleasure.

Strawberry Hill House

Yesterday morning I went on a press preview trip to Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham. The house was built by the Georgian aesthete and writer Horace Walpole between 1747 and his death in 1797 (think Stephen Fry plus britches). Its history until very recently has not been a happy one. In 1990s it was placed on the list of the world's most endangered buildings but a trust was established a few years ago and has raised £9m - mainly from the Lottery and the World Monuments Fund - to restore the house to how it looked at the end of the 18th century. It is still very much work in progress. Only part of the house will be reopened on 2 October, but what will be accessible will be stunning. Strawberry Hill was virtually the first building to be built in a Gothic style since medieval times and had a profound influence on 19th century architecture. There's quite a lot of references to his family's rather grand genealogy (his father had been Prime Minister) - indeed he once called it "The castle I am building for my ancestors".  Unfortunately there is nothing about the servants who kept the place running. The house was designed in part at least a tourist attraction. Visitors - known to Walpole as his "customers" - would be shown around by the housekeeper who would expect a large tip for her troubles. This was not unusual at other country houses at the time. And it is nice to think that you do the same thing today. You join a group which departs at set times when the House is open. Details at