historical archival research

Dr Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Newark WaterfrontOver the last three years it has been my pleasure to have been working at the University of Nottingham with the Newark Heritage Barge CIO as part of the Connected Communities programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) on the project ‘Trade and Traffic on the River Trent c1850’. Dynamic work of the Newark Heritage Barge, and historians at the University of Nottingham, developed interest in researching the River Trent in more detail. For those that do not know much about the Newark Heritage Barge then you can visit the site by clicking this link here.

It was clear when I first visited Newark a few years ago for the project that there were already groups of people active in the community that were passionate about preserving the heritage of their local waterways.

Dr Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Newark Waterfront

It had not always been so. Their determination to create interest stemmed from a period of stagnation. If one visits Newark it becomes immediately clear that the River Trent largely defines more than the name the town. A number of attractive bars, restaurants and modern flats either side of the castle are converted from former vessels or premises used to store and sell the goods carried on the river.

It was therefore apt that the sun shone brightly on these lovely buildings on the 27 June 2015 when the waterways heritage day took place to showcase current research and projects. The day itself was started with a morning hosted by Wendy Freer who is an expert on the life of people living and working on Britain’s waterways during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Philip Riden, who steers the project, took to the podium first to share his expertise on the history of the waterways in the East of England before 1600. His talk delivered an excellent backdrop for the audience to appreciate the extent to which these have contributed to the historical development of the region. Rob Wheeler then took the helm to guide us around the rivers and canals surrounding Lincolnshire from the start of the early modern period.

r Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Crane for Leicester Trader

When in the water, Newark Heritage Barge can be many things at different times: a meeting point for boat enthusiasts, a floating centre for education and waterways heritage museum. This rather intriguing characteristic was not missed by the department of design at De Montfort University you can view through this link here. Rosemarie Fitton and Nicky Harding from the department explained how they directed a project whereby students submitted designs that the barge might utilise in the future. I do not think I was alone in relishing the prospect of some of the incredible designs becoming reality.

Robin Stonebridge from the Chesterfield Canal Trust then spoke about their impressive project to build Dawn Rose a cuckoo boat. This type of craft is unique to the Chesterfield Canal and was different because of the fact it used a sail to navigate up the River Trent to Torksey. Perhaps the most striking fact was that Dawn Rose was made only using hand tools as would have been available at the time similar craft were built. You can click a link to find out more information here.

After a light lunch – and many thanks to Margaret – there followed a heritage walk on the river bank to the dry dock where the Newark Heritage Barge, named Leicester Trader, is undergoing repairs. The walk itself has been designed by the Newark Heritage Barge and takes in the stretch of the river predominantly in the centre of Newark, past the castle and town lock, up towards the old Trent Navigation Company building which has recently been converted into a licensed premises.

Dr Hywel Maslen independent researcher image of Les Reid

Leicester Trader is currently out of water having some significant repairs. For those not in-the-know, a boat has to undergo an inspection every 7 years for safety and insurance reasons. I was immediately struck at how big she looks out of the water. Skipper of the Leicester Trader, Les Reid, then took us through the process in detail.

It remains to me to thank everybody that attended and, of course, cross my fingers that such interest can be maintained once Leicester Trader returns to the River Trent. I am sure any of you that are reading this blog and are interested can get in touch with me here, at the University of Nottingham or the Newark Heritage Barge directly. After several years of the project there are hopes that it can continue. I shall, of course, keep you informed of any progress here.

It is not often that I stray from talking about things other than archive research on this blog. However, over the last few months there have been a number of personal connections to the terrible effects of the earthquake in Nepal.

I thought it might be not too out of place to mention that there are numerous wonderful charities and organisations that are working to help those affected by the tragedy. One of these is the International Disaster Volunteers who are working with a number of communities in areas that have been struck hard by this quite staggering natural disaster.

Two of my personal friends are working for the organisation and I thought it would be a nice thing if I put a link on this blog so that people can see their work and, hopefully, make a contribution to it. Andy and Emma – I hope your work goes well.


There has been little respite in discussions in recent years regarding the proficiency of the English language that immigrants should possess or attain, as well as the consequences for the United Kingdom should large numbers of immigrants fail to learn the language. Politicians have been at the forefront of the debate that has continued into the current period of General Election campaigning in 2015.

In the last few weeks, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, used an audience in Heswall to stress new immigrants must speak English. He also advocates legislating to ensure all workers in the National Health Service have a sufficient proficiency in the English language. The United Kingdom Independence Party leader, Nigel Farrage, has suggested that immigrants are discouraged from learning English, in part, because official documents are printed in several languages. Owing to growing concerns, the Conservative Minister, Nicky Morgan, has recently called for an inquiry into the impact of immigration on schools where large numbers of pupils speak no English. She also reportedly told the Chief Inspector of the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), Sir Michael Wilshaw, that it was not helpful for him to warn schools regarding the ‘influx’ of immigrants.

This debate has been of great interest to me because of my research that I published into the instruction of the English language to immigrants following the Second World War. In 1947, under Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, a contract-labour scheme was launched to recruit workers from the inmates of Allied refugee camps in occupied Europe. The European Voluntary Worker (EVW) programme brought 100,000 people to the UK, with the majority being from countries that were being occupied by the Soviet Union, as well as Italy and Yugoslavia.

Many only tend to know that the programme imposed strict conditions on the immigrant workers which contractually tied them to government work contracts for a period of three-years. Volunteers were limited to a number of industries and prevented from changing jobs without official permission. The punishment for failing to comply with these conditions was deportation back to the challenging conditions in Allied refugee camps.

Yet the EVW programme heralded a new approach in state-sponsored immigration where a great deal was done to prevent social tension. A volunteer could only take a job if there was no British worker available. They were accommodated in state hostels to reduce tension in the local housing market. Pioneering techniques in propaganda and a favourable press campaign explained to the public why foreign workers were essential to the economy and the process of reconstruction. Social clubs were established in the government hostels,  and contacts with civic society were pursued across the country to help the foreign workers settle.

Teaching English was seen by the state as an important aspect of the programme that would help the volunteer workers to integrate into society. Classes started as soon as they arrived into one of the reception camps and continued throughout the duration of the programme. The government used a number of methods of instruction recommended by experts, with local education authorities, employers and civil society all having an input.

Although I might have missed it, there does not appear to have been any media interest in using the EVW programme in a historical context when reporting about the background of the involvement of the state in English language instruction to immigrants so I thought a brief footnote on this blog might be of interest. This also comes as a surprise to me because the themes of European migration, austerity and generally rising immigration were pertinent in 1947 as they are in 2015. True, the programme had merits and flaws which I discuss in my book. The current discussion on the issue is one I continue to follow with the focus on those efforts to ensure that greater consideration is given to pursuing an enlightened and balanced course for those effected.













Archival Researcher Website Update

Over the last few weeks I have taken a break from the archives to work on a website update my and consolidate several projects by undertaking some research organisation and analysis. As we researchers all know, the analysis has been to done before getting too much material through archival digital photography.

My website has had a few different pages added to the research services section on the top bar on the welcome to archival researcher page. Many of my clients have provided some feedback that searching for the type of research that they wanted to explore often involved making several different enquiries into a search engine such as google. I have updated my site so that the different research services that my clients said they were searching for are represented.

For those thinking of maintaining their own website, I use the WordPress system. It comes well recommended by this researcher. It is relatively easy to use and gives a clean finish to the pages. A word to the wise, however, it can take a little more time than you would expect to update a web page. It has become increasingly more common for people to access a website through a smartphone rather than a desktop or laptop. This means that one has to check all formats whilst updating. Sadly, what looks good on one device does not look so good on another.

The new pages offering different services are historical researcher, independent researcher, archival digital photography, military historian and research organisation and analysis. It is so important for me to acknowledge what the current trends are for those seeking to appoint a researcher and save people some frustration clicking on link after link after link by making my way up those search engine rankings. Nonetheless, it is still going to be some task to jump up the ratings on different search engines with terms such as “historical researcher”. My mind is made up to be patient.

It remains for me to say that I hope you find the new site easy to navigate. Please contact me if you would any more information on how I can help you with your new case, project or enquiry. I shall be waiting for you with great anticipation and enthusiasm, as always.


Researching in London

It is around ten years since I began researching in London regularly to conduct historical research at the different libraries and archives. My first few times at the National Archives were the most challenging as I got firmly to grips with the catalogue.

This time was precious because I had to travel to – or commute across – London. It remains for me to publically thank those friends that could put me up. All of this was in time taken from annual leave from my full-time career that I longed to leave for one that involved historical research.

At the time I remember working to improve the time it took to get to London. Car, coach and train have all since been fully evaluated.

There is no doubt that I would use the train more if I had a firm idea of when I needed to travel. Alas, I never really know when I will be researching in the capital so it proves difficult to obtain those more economical tickets.

One can still get some work done on the coach. However, I often find that unless you get the seat next to the fire escape that has a wide aisle it is difficult to get my laptop lid fully open. The biggest drawback is the additional time from central London out to the National Archives in Kew.

Despite not having any time to do any work on the way there,  the car does let me leave when I have finished and get me home a little faster on some occasions. On others, the traffic defeats you and there is nothing you can do.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough was starting to use a laptop to make notes rather than a pencil. This might sound strange. Ten years ago laptops were, however, rather more expensive than a desktop, and did rather less. Plus the keyboards were smaller and I have wide fingers.

The other bonus has to be the camera system at the archive that allows you to take photographs that you can then download afterwards. It was good when digital cameras began to get better at storing many pictures as needed at times. Nonetheless, I sometimes felt worried that my data card might fail or that perhaps I would lose my bag and therefore all my work. With the archive system this worry was taken away. The big plus is that one can spend the time in the archive just talking photos when you know the files are the ones you want.






Sounds of the Cultural Quarter Update

The winter period has seen me busy in the archives as usual. People have really been motivated to follow up the history of the First World War since the anniversary had been highlighted in the media.

Over the last few weeks I have been helping with getting copyright of the sounds that I collected so that the project team can get an app together. This had been interesting because the it seems clear that there are certain sounds that have really fitted well with the aims of the project.

When I have heard more about how the app works I shall keep you all informed of course. I don’t know what they have in mind on how it will work. I do know that the Roman app for Leicester included a tour around some of the most important sites in the city which would be great for the Cultural Quarter too I think.

In the meantime, I must return to my research duties which are thankfully indoors. Over the coming weeks I shall be on my travels throughout the United Kingdom. Having just returned from the National Archives in London,  it is working closer to home for the coming week at Leicestershire Record Office in Wigston.

Then, however, I am making my first visit to the National Gas Archives in Warrington. This should be a fantastic opportunity to expand my knowledge in an aspect of British industrial heritage that I have not had a great deal of experience with.

The topic of gas was coincidently brought up at a dinner party recently. A friend works in the industry and said that it was likely that over the coming years we would see a gradual reduction in the use of the gas towers. My mind was instantly drawn to the backdrop to many sporting events where you could see the gas towers grow throughout the duration of a game. This, it seems, might be something of a thing of the past. That said, they are not the most beautiful things but certainly quite ingenious in the way they work I hope you will agree.


The Sounds of the Cultural Quarter in Leicester

Over the last few months I have been gathering some recordings for the Sounds of the Cultural Quarter project which is exploring the hidden post-industrial history of the area. It was brought to my attention by my former colleague Colin Hyde from the East Midlands Oral History Archive which is attached to the University of Leicester.

The Affective Digital Histories series will hold an exhibition, launch event and some apps in the near future of all the recordings they have collected of people’s work, home and leisure environments.

For me this meant being poised with my digital recorder for a few weeks to make some recordings of the area I live in. A first port of call was the hair salon Hair@1RD at 42-44 Rutland Street where proprietor Robin Dignall kindly let me record him and his staff at work. On the street I captured music at the summer festival and the ambience of chattering people using the Curve Theatre. In my flat I recorded the gate of Alexandra House closing among many other household noises.

It gave me much pleasure contacting some old friends from my days as a nightclub DJ to get some recordings from the Dielectric and Junction 21 venues during the 1990s. A big thank you to those that also helped me track them down which proved to be more difficult than I thought. Now there are hopefully going to be some snippets of hardcore and house music to add to the many other contributions that will all go to show that there has always been culture of one kind or another in the Cultural Quarter in Leicester.



In 2013 I was very pleased to be selected as a Research Associate at the department of History at the University of Nottingham on a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board ‘Trade and Traffic on the Trent c. 1850-1970′.  Working under Richard Gaunt and Philip Riden, my duties were to visit the archival sources at the National Archives and the National Waterways Museum Archives at Ellesmere Port. While I was rather familiar at working at the National Archives, it was my first foray to the Wirral for research. My contract ended with the project in April 2014 and with nearly six-months passed – and the change of the seasons – I thought it apt to reflect on the year past.

As many of you will know the archive at the National Waterways Museum has recently centralised material on British waterways from a number archives across the United Kingdom. The consequence for the staff has been to merge all the different collections and it is very evident that they are adapting well to the task. Every day one can see the staff working diligently whilst directing a network of enthusiastic volunteers who are helping enrich the descriptions of documents and photographs in the catalogue.

Researching at the National Waterways Museum is not only refreshing because of the surroundings but because the visitors and archivists work in the same space. This creates a lively environment where expertise and passion for transport history oozes into the atmosphere. It is common to share all the breaks together as the archive closes and we all retreat to the museum café. Over the months that I was visiting the archive it became clear to me that there is a strong community ethos at Ellesmere Port that I found a warm welcome within. I would like to thank all the staff and volunteers for their help and friendship.

Most importantly was that the primary source research material at the archive was far richer than I anticipated. Every era that was being investigated had great variation of material in great quantities. In fact it may take several years to fully go through all the material collected. There were well over 10,000 photographs taken for the research team to analyse and disseminate. Because I was there so long they reported on my research activities on their website: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/news-and-views/blog/curious-canal-objects/a-busy-start-to-2014

Thankfully this future task will be one that will be enriched with the help of our community partners the Newark Heritage Barge CIO. Along the whole course of the project it has been my pleasure to have worked with them because of the wealth of knowledge on their subject which is second to none. The research frequently needed their input to be more fully understood through several group meetings on their barge in Newark. Yet they were also impressed with the material that we were able to find on the subject of the waterways in the East Midlands.

Collaboration was one of the factors that I was most looking forward to as a research associate because my doctoral and private work I had conducted was largely on my own. As I look back over this year it will be one of my fondest memories that I will take me. Those that I worked and researched with have led me to new destinations and broadened my mental horizons. But I don’t think this will be contained to this year alone.



As an independent archival researcher working in the United Kingdom it is quite exciting when the surroundings in which we work change. I have been visiting the research facilities at the Imperial War Museum over the last decade. The first time that I had the pleasure of researching there was during my doctorate on the role of the British military authorities in dealing with refugee crisis that was presented to the Allies during the occupation of Europe following World War Two. There was an amazing array of primary sources at my disposal. First, I accessed some written diaries of officers and units that dealt with the refugees in the early stages of contact to see how the initial phase of controlling movement and providing emergency assistance was carried out. Next I listened intently to the oral history recordings of those involved in the more shadowy world that emerged in Italy regarding the way in which many suspected or guilty of assisting the Axis cause were masquerading as refugees in camps to try and evade justice for their actions during the war. All of this was in the top of the museum in a wonderful library under the turret one can see from the entrance. Finally, I was rather interested in the ways refugees were portrayed in the media of the time which led me to the annex to view those wonderful black and white newsreels.

Since then I have got rather used to those surroundings but things have changed. The IWM has had a re-fit as many of you will know. Plush shop, café and red toilets are not the only additions. A new research room located on the upper floors is rather lovely too. It has a small locker area outside before one enters a crisp and light room. There are around four clean white benches that stretch across beside a clinical bookshelf packed with volumes of military history. Some things have not altered, however, namely efficient staff delivering the files that I needed. On a more solemn note, the material I view here is often very moving. In my view, war is a subject that I research to seek to understand more fully because it is probably the most extreme form of human activity. Clients usually seek my services to find out what experiences their ancestors went through that led them to act so radically differently from before they left for active service. Silence between many service personnel and their loved ones regarding what occurred is a common occurrence that curiosity often pursues to break. Given the impetus behind my work, these new conditions at the research room provide an apt setting for me to focus.    

A number of interesting projects recently

Over the last few months I have been undertaking a number of interesting projects and working at the National Archives and elsewhere. As you might expect there has been much interest in matters relating to World War One from far afield. It has been particularly moving reading the personal correspondence of soldiers that lost their lives which have been archived. Researching the post-war settlement has proved very challenging owing to the amount of material that one has had to go through. Most recently I have been researching aspects of the diminishing role of Britain in the commonwealth.