historical archival research

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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.



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.    

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.

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.

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.