Historical Research using Archived Material

Today’s blog article is courtesy of Andy Lawrence, who studies HEMA with us in Glasgow, and who makes frequent research trips to museums, libraries and archives.

It is a common idea that “research” involves going to a dusty library and poring over old documents. However, so much information is available online, why might someone actually need to visit a library? What sort of research tasks can be accomplished by visiting a library, and how might one go about arranging this kind of research visit?

This short article relates to my experience of conducting research using various archives that have digitised documents to make them available on-line, and also how I have used reading rooms at archives and libraries where the information is currently only available offline, on paper.

Significant amounts of time may be saved by knowing before your visit what it is that you would like to find out, rather than searching randomly for information. Searches can then be filtered to try and find any documents or images that may be relevant. In my case, the purpose of the exercise was to try and find a date and location for a particular photograph. The photo in question is that of my great grandfather, Charles Lawrence, who was rumoured to have been photographed in Japan whilst he served in the Royal Navy in the late 19th century.

Charles Lawrence, who was rumoured to have been photographed in Japan whilst he served in the Royal Navy in the late 19th century.

Researching the naval career that may shed light on when the photo was taken was relatively easy, as the armed forces record keeping is detailed, comprehensive and available. Finding information about an individual’s life before or after military service is difficult, as generally the only sources are likely to be Parish registers (where limited information about birth, baptism, marriage and death may be found) and the National Census every 10 years. This information is available online for an annual fee, but may require many hours of diligent searching, a process aided by possessing some previous knowledge about your subject individual to ensure you are looking at the correct records.

Military records are held at the National Archive and are relatively easy to find, using just a name and date of birth for individual service records older than 80 years. These service records are in the public domain; theyhave been digitised and can be downloaded for a small fee. More recent individual service records require the researcher to have a strong and proven family connection. These are more expensive, as only the original hard copies exist and these need to be copied.

On receipt of Charles Lawrence’s service records, I was then able to start the research into the photo. A little knowledge about the naval uniform worn in the photo proved useful, as the detail of the uniform can be used to identify a smaller period of time. The various badges on the uniform show that he was a Petty Officer Second Class, with 2 good conduct badges. The date these were awarded is shown on his service record, along with the date of his promotion to Petty Officer First Class. This gave me a period of time during which the photo was taken, and also told me which ship he was serving on at the time. As a point of interest, the medal is from the Anglo-Ashanti war of 1873 -1874, during which war he was serving on HMS Druid, although he left this ship before the photo was taken.

The next step was to research the location of the ship he was on during the time period when the photo was taken. This was a bit harder, as records may not always exist in the form of ships’ books (which list all the crewmen) and ships’ logs. In this case, I was fortunate, as my search for HMS Champion at the National Archive website revealed that many documents relating to this ship exist both at Kew and also at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Although these documents had not been digitised, this can be done at the researcher’s request. This is not recommended, as it is very expensive, particularly if there are many documents that may not necessarily contain what the researcher is hoping to find. For me, a trip to London for a few days was necessary to read the documents that I found to exist by searching the National Archive catalogues, to take notes or photographs of relevant pages. It was also cheaper to go there in person than to request copies of unread documents. Access to documents in the reading room is easy to do, one just has to request the documents to be available to read on arrival at the National Archive, where one registers as a reader and is given a readers ticket allowing access to the reading rooms. The process and the required identity documents are detailed on the National Archive website.[1] Equipment to take digital images is provided, and the images are sent to you by e-mail. I cannot remember if there is a fee for this; if so, it is small.

My particular research was made easier by the discovery of the Captain’s letter books from HMS Champion for the time period in which I was interested, at the Caird Library within the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. These books contain carbon copies of all the service letters written by the Captain on any number of subjects such as the state of the world, the ship’s location, stores and provisions, the crew, etc., to the Admiralty, local Flag Officers, diplomats and Captains of other ships. The information in these letters has been so useful to my research that I have not yet read the ships’ books and other documents at the National Archive for HMS Champion, but I should view these early next year.

The information in the letter books was detailed enough to show that the photo was most likely taken in Yokohama, Japan, during two possible periods of time: either between 23rd February and 27th March 1886, or between 22nd April and 12th May 1886. The photo would have been taken on a glass negative plate, the processing of which would have taken a few days; the ship made no visits to other ports during this time in Japan, for sufficient time to allow for this processing.

All my research to date has been worthwhile, as I have been able to build up a comprehensive picture of Charles’ naval career from 1870 to 1893, and will expand upon this further at my next visit to the National Archive and the Caird Library. It is possible that a small book may be the end result of this project, from the notes and photos taken so far.

By searching online using relevant key-words at the National Library for Scotland in Edinburgh, I have also found other relevant documents, which I have read and copied, as well as old photos at the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, and other miscellaneous documents at Portsmouth Central library, in addition to on-line parish records, Kelly’s directories and the subscription website Ancestry.com, amongst many on-line resources too numerous to list.

In addition to suggesting a couple of possible time periods for the taking of the photo, my research has led to viewing of the figurehead, at the Maritime Museum, of the second ship Charles served on, HMS Seringapatam, and also going on board the fifth ship he served on between April 1879 and June 1882. That ship is HMS Gannet, which is preserved, and is being restored, as a nationally important ship at Chatham, Kent.

Whilst searching for information about the types of weapons Charles would have used as a seaman gunner, Henry Angelo’s name came up, hence my involvement with the Academy of Historical Arts to learn more about the type of training he would have received in the use of the cutlass, and, later, that he may possibly have instructed to others at HMS Excellent as a Petty Officer with the additional qualification as a Seaman Gunner 1st class. More bayonet classes please!


[1] http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/