If you need a nationally important document, or matter of public record, chances are it's housed in a brutalist concrete fortress near Kew Bridge (or a salt mine in Cheshire, but let's not go there). Formerly based in Chancery Lane, when it was known as the Public Record Office, the archive in Kew started out as an extension and eventually became the main repository. Anyone can visit, and anyone over the age of 16 can get a Reader's Ticket, request a document and get their hands on it for research or scrutiny. I did just that yesterday, with ease, and grinned at least twice after unwrapping my goodies from the stack.
The National Archives almost overlook the Thames, thanks to a screen of trees, but are set in their own landscaped grounds which can be visited whatever. The two lakes in the grounds aren't just ornamental, they're part of an emergency drainage system designed to protect the building if the Thames ever floods, this perhaps not being the wisest location for a storehouse of irreplaceable paper. Swans and geese patrol the waterside, while I was amazed to see a heron preening on the handrail - easily the closest I've ever come to one of these mighty birds.
The building looks like a multi-storey car park up one end and a shopping mall at the other, and none the worse for that. If you like concrete you'll love the sleek stacked slabs, while a revolving door leads into a glass atrium which welcomes you unashamedly to the late 20th century. Conferences to the right, archive action to the left. A large well frequented cafeteria sprawls across much of the accessible ground floor, tastefully arrayed, and giving off an aroma of teacups and plated rice. There is a reason why it's busy, and necessary, which we'll come to in five paragraphs time.
As well as use the cafe, every visitor can browse the bookshop, which has a particularly good selection of genealogy and history titles, topped up with transport, architecture and maps. The other 100%-accessible room is the Keeper's Gallery, a museum area showcasing various key documents and a variety of temporary displays. I particularly liked the collections of pertinent anniversary-related ephemera, including maps showing the partition of India, admission tickets for pre-decriminalisation LGBT hideaways and registration certificates for 1960s toys like Lego and Action Man.
It's time to talk lockers. Nobody gets too deep within a document repository without surrendering their bags and coats, plus any other forbidden items. Pens are not allowed, nor pencils with erasers on the end, nor pencil sharpeners, nor (obviously) food or drink. That's why there's a locker room behind the foot of the stairs with space for 500+ sets of personal possessions, and joyfully there are no issues with old pound coins here because it's free. Anything you're taking further can go into a see-through plastic bag - again provided - and then you head upstairs.
Regular users know what they're doing and can get straight to work, whereas for newbies there's a "start here" desk where a member of staff will guide you gently through acquiring a Reader's Ticket. If you've any sense you'll have applied for this online before arriving, but if not you can apply for it at a terminal here. Part of the process involves sitting through a five minute video showing how old documents should be handled - deft manoeuvring of foam wedges is sometimes required. Then it's name, postcode, accept terms and conditions, done.
Whether you signed up in the building or elsewhere you'll need to visit the desk by the barriers to collect your barcoded card. Proof of identity and of address are required, which is where any millennial who's gone entirely paperless may get shafted. They also take a photo - I shaved specially before turning up - and within a minute your laminated Reader's Ticket is emerging from the machine. It's valid for three years, so I shall be stashing mine away somewhere safe for future visits.
With ticket in hand it's now possible to go back to the terminals and order up actual stuff to look at. The National Archives website has a 'Discovery' catalogue with descriptions of over 32 million records held either here or in archives across the country. Almost 10 million of these are available for download, so can be reviewed straight away, indeed without even venturing to Kew. Census data and army records form a substantial proportion of these. Up to 21 physical documents can be requested - no more than three at a time - and if they're in the building they'll be with you in under an hour. This is where the cafe comes in particularly useful.
Having picked my trio of records, I used the waiting time to do some family history research. Specifically I dug into The 1939 Register, a snapshot of the civilian population taken on 29 September 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. The entire 1931 Census was destroyed by fire, and the 1941 Census never took place, so this is the only national dataset over a two-decade period. Access to the digitised records normally costs, thanks to a deal with a private company, but from the terminals in the National Archives building you can view the whole lot for free (so long as the target of your search was born over 100 years ago, or is now dead).
I hunted down ten of my departed ancestors, plus my Dad (who appears on the register despite being very much alive). The most interesting column was for occupation, confirming that one grandfather was indeed a Postman Driver (Motor) and the other an Asbestos Cement Productive Worker Heavy Work. Both grandmothers were listed as having Unpaid Domestic Duties, while one of my great-grandfathers was a Brick Layer and parent to two Errand Boys and a Fish Rounds Man. What most surprised me was that my Mum had moved temporarily to the country with my gran, while her husband hung on in town as part of the Post Office ARP Decontamination Squad. I'd love to ask them more about that first month of wartime, but will alas never get the chance.
Once my requested documents were ready, I swiped through the gate to the reading room and found my stash waiting in a locker. One was an old book from 1881, tied up with ribbon to stop it falling apart, and another a folder containing an inspection report from 1907. I might blog about this at some point, but for now let me just say that when I opened up the wallet at the back and pulled out two Underground signalling diagrams, possibly not viewed in over a century, that's when I grinned.
I'd selected the third document on a whim, namely the London County Council (Bow Road Island, Poplar, No 6) Order 1936. Again I beamed as it turned out what I'd extracted was a compulsory purchase order for two of the slums facing Bow Church, both scheduled for demolition to make way for the LCC's new Bow Bridge estate. A stack of typed carbon letters revealed that one of the inhabitants had strongly protested to the Minister of Health via a solicitor, in response to which an official had scribbled a memo saying "write usual reply", and the usual reply was duly sent. A plaintive follow-up letter was also disregarded, and 11 "displaced members of the working classes" were eventually kicked out to "suitable accommodation" elsewhere.
Again the big prize was in a wallet at the back - a huge map showing the location of the two homes in context. I've been trying to track down the pre-war street pattern on the south side of Bow Church for years, and here it was in perfect administrative clarity; the Black Swan pub on the corner of Bromley High Street, a long-gone cinema, various courts and alleyways, a printing works, a furniture factory, two more pubs and no fewer than 16 narrow shops. I gawped for ages at the doomed buildings on the map, and took lots of photos, because you're actually allowed to do that so long as your flash isn't turned on. And then everything went back into the Ministry of Health manilla folder, labelled Do Not Destroy, Closed Until 1988.
The reading room at The National Archives seemed busy, especially with the retired, but also with younger folk diligently scribbling down snippets and students snapping with their cameraphones. The building houses a veritable treasure trove, from parchment to paperwork, each item fully accessible if anyone ever deems it worthy of digging out. I shall ponder and search more carefully before visiting again, rather than just picking out three documents with 'Bow' in the title, although I uncovered a heck of a lot during my first research safari and look forward to Kew-ing again.