Gone Fishing? working in the National Archives

Most of the material for this research project is stored in the National Archives in London. As a social scientist, this foray into archives was new to me. Most of my work in the past has involved the usual social science methods of interviews and focus groups and quite a lot of documentary research, using both paper and online documents. So how is working in archives different? The National Archives is a busy place, with a reading room full of people working quietly. On each desk there are two or three intriguing files. Readers take notes by hand or on laptops or take photos of potentially useful documents. Many of the readers are older people and people from overseas, searching for their ancestors, looking up old war records and military lists. Records from the First World War are very popular in this anniversary year. Others are researchers like me, beavering away with our obscure research projects. During my most recent visit the man at the desk beside me was reading a file marked ‘most secret’ in red ink. What could that be about? Other people’s research sometimes seems more exciting than mine but occasionally I come across something equally secret.

Cover of PIN 8/106

Cover of PIN 8/106

In amongst some dusty civil services records from 1942 was a file marked ‘Confidential. To be circulate under sealed cover’. It did not concern the top secret activities of spies during the Second World War, but the proposed arrangements for checking up on claimants of sickness benefits.  More on that in another post.

On my most recent trip to the archives I found a huge civil service file relating to appeals against refusals of ‘Housewives Non-contributory Invalidity Pension’ – a mouthful I know, but a fascinating benefit from the 1970s which I’ll write about another time. This file contained mountains of paperwork relating to appeals and will provide important information to me about how this benefit worked and the debates that mattered at the time. But the item that struck me was a handwritten note from one civil servant to another, reassuring him that the there would be no delay in getting the final decision on a forthcoming appeal:

‘’For the record, when speaking to the Chief commissioner this morning he told me that he hopes the decision of the Tribunal will issue within a week or at most a fortnight of the hearing. He wants to commence a two week fishing holiday (fly) before the middle of September!’

[in PIN 35/4911]

It’s nice to know that the decision would be made quickly but was this man’s fishing holiday more important than the thousands of women whose benefit would be affected by the Tribunal decision? These insights into the fundamental differences in the daily lives of the benefits claimants and the legal decision makers are not new but for me they bring home the reality of the papers I’m looking at. This is what Robinson* has described as the ‘physicality of archives’ – which somehow cannot be obtained from digital versions – the sense that actually seeing and touching the paper written or typed on 50 or a 100 years ago gives a closer connection to the past than a digital version can. Robinson is talking about the experience of historians and I suspect that for many historians the use of archives is a rite of passage which involves experiencing this physicality – as for sociologists or anthropologists it is the first face to face interview, drafting of a questionnaire or ethnographic encounter which provides this rite of passage – I am a social scientist of the present who uses historical material to try and understand social problems. I don’t think this physicality makes archives more factual or more reliable than any other data that social scientists rely on but they add a sense of reality.

*Robinson, E. (2010)’Touching the void: Affective history and the impossible’, in Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 14: p.503–520.

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