historical archival research

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.

I just had to comment on the conference that I attended at the University of Leicester’s College Court centre in the Clarendon Park area of the city on the 19 of May. The centre used to be a halls of residence but has been wonderfully converted into a series of meeting rooms with an airy dining hall and a bar on the ground floor. Fortunately the weather was good so we could all enjoy the courtyard outside after a very appetising lunch. It was a great pleasure to meet a wide range of people from universities located largely in the Midlands.

There were a range of speakers in the morning session that explored the possibilities for post-doctoral study including para-academic careers. The latter was particularly interesting for me as I have combined my time as a research associate and an independent archival researcher. Perhaps the most salient point for those about to graduate was that it is unlikely that all will be able to enter lecturing owing to the fact that they are more in number than posts available. Nonetheless, it was highlighted that a number of universities were adopting partnerships with corporations that were yielding a greater number of opportunities for collaboration. The afternoon session split to discuss a range of more practical problems in gaining a foothold in the post-doctoral world.

From the organisational point of view there are no complaints here. Perhaps the only problem during the day were a number talking as the main speakers undertook their duties. As one would expect with a new centre, all of the visual aids were high quality. It was equally good because as the conference was in Leicester and I could walk home in the spring sunshine.

Talking about the Trent

I tweeted last weekend before and after I spoke at the Nottinghamshire Local History Association annual general meeting to thank those that invited me to speak and those that listened to me. Philip Riden spoke expertly before me about the wider aims of the project and, after lunch, Dr Wendy Freer brought the working conditions for those on the river to life. Finally, Les Reid of the Newark Heritage Barge took the audience through the history of his floating heritage centre; one of the last working Trent barges named ‘Leicester Trader’.

Some weeks ahead at the National Archives in Kew

There is no substitute for the anticipation of researching on some new projects at the National Archives. It is my pleasure to finally catch up with the zeitgeist of research and examine records from the First World War. Elsewhere, I will be indulging my passion for migration history from Eastern Europe. But first I have to submerse myself in a large series of colonial records from Asia.

Packing has begun in earnest; data sticks, my magnifying glass, charged battery and eye drops. Another important item is my oyster card that will permit me to glide more cheaply from my base in Richmond to Kew, I hope. On Wednesday, it will take me further into the interior, as I visit close friends in Notting Hill. No doubt I will cast my mind back to the carnival in the very same streets last August. According to the weather, I will also be bringing  the sun with me again.





Talk at the Newark Heritage Barge

Last Saturday it was my pleasure to give a presentation to a meeting of the Friends of Newark Heritage Barge aboard their floating meeting place, the Leicester Trader. The content was derived from research material recently gleaned from the National Waterways Archive at Ellesmere Port.

What excites me about these meetings is that the expertise of those in attendance – many of whom have spent their professional and personal lives on the river – tease out an extra-dimension in the material. On this occasion it was a diary of a voyage of a steam launch across the canal network in the 1890s that nearly attracted as much attention as the fine lunch provided.

As I have been travelling widely around the country this winter, it was impossible to ignore the flooding. The level of water against the Leicester Trader certainly appeared higher than normal as I stood with a few others to be photographed for an article due to appear in the Newark Advertiser.

National Waterways Archive in Ellesmere Port

It was very pleasant to return to the National Waterways archive at the National Boat Museum in Ellesmere Port. For those that have not had the chance to visit the museum it provides an opportunity for you to see the boats in their natural environment among some working locks. Volunteers play an important role and many were working on a plethora on different areas. As usual I took a quite a considerable amount of space on tables in the main reading room with all of the documents that I had pre-ordered. My picture was taken with the mountain of records, which, I was told, would be featuring on their blog. It would be prudent, then, to thank Linda Barley and all the other staff and volunteers for having me for the week.

Research material examined varied greatly. During the first day a number of old adverts from carrying companies caught my eye because of the quite wonderful designs on many of the covers. Thumbing through some thick manila envelopes I came across the mortgage certificates for a number of vessels that were working prominently on the river after the First World War.

It was then time to get stuck into some of enormous ledgers owned by a number of carrying companies that were operating on the River Trent. Along the side of the ledger one could see the highly detailed marbled patterns of red, blue and green that allowed one to see if any pages had been torn out. The thick maroon leather spines left their potent dye on the white covering upon my copy stand. It was apt in this case to compare the cover with their contents as they will provide enthusiasts of the River Trent valuable insights into the local businesses interacting with the larger companies that were overseeing the carriage of materials in the immediate post-war years.

Even this researcher has to comment that the trip north provided me with an opportunity to go back to Parkgates for fish and chips with a memorable view through the low-lying mist over the marshes to my native Wales. During  in a long overdue visit to Chester I noticed that the hot topic of conversation locally were the vastly improved visitor figures since the cathedral stopped charging for admission. Alas, as I arrived in the evening, I did not have the chance to look inside nor walk the famous city walls. The centre was busy enough for a Tuesday evening though.



It has been an exceptionally busy period over the last few months as the momentum of the Trade and the Trent project grows and grows. There were some 10,000 digital images taken after thoroughly rewarding research trips to the archives in Ellesmere Port, Leicestershire County Record Office and the Nottingham City Library. From these images we are preparing to create a new list of the vessels using the River Trent for over 100 years from an intricate system developed to ascertain the condition and carrying capabilities of each craft. To do this has meant the use of advanced optical recognition software to scrape over 7,000 entries from primary sources.  This researcher had truly forgotten how nice good old fashioned eye-drops are to counter those blurry eyes from all that cut, copy and pasting…


Nonetheless, an early seasonal gift was the Connected Communities conference held at the impressive campus centre at my old stomping ground De Montfort University in early December. The airy halls on the third-floor allowed the conference to occupy an expansive space to sit as well as mingle among the exhibits. This was particularly evident throughout those periods when the fine refreshments were put out to the horror of those delegates hoping to save themselves for festivities later on in the month.


Mr Philip Riden oversaw the first session of the conference and was kept busy. It seemed to me that every speaker could have been easily exceeded their allocation of fifteen minutes. What was most pleasing was the mixture of those talking about individual projects as well as others tackling the dynamics of inter-relations between academic institutions and community groups. Regarding the latter, I was thrilled to witness Hes Kapur voicing that the association between the University of Nottingham with the Newark Heritage Barge is one where the reciprocal exchange of information is beneficial to both parties’ long-term aims.


Most striking are the digital developments that are transforming the way in which people are presenting history to wider audiences. Easily the best visually impressive demonstration was the showcase from a group of undergraduate students from De Montfort University that have named themselves Pudding Lane Productions. Why you ask? Because these fine individuals have re-created a historically accurate digital representation of London in 1666 using technology from the engine of a software programme that is designed to make video-games. The engine allowed the students to transpose the map of a certain section of London surrounding Pudding Lane beyond the level of individual buildings to include details such as bunting and barrels on the streets. Superb.


Mobile technology also opens doors for historians to reach out to the local community. Two applications were demonstrated that allowed people to conduct their own history tours. The first, based in Wolverhampton, took advantage of global positioning software in locating the blue-badge heritage signs in the West Midlands. More close to home was the application designed to permit users a Roman overview of modern Leicester city centre. As you can imagine the flexibility of these applications for the public makes them highly desirable for many projects to develop.