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.