This week I have been back in the National Archives in London, working my way through case files for appeals against refusals of sickness benefits from the 1950s. These case files are the main source of data for my research and have provided me with valuable insights into the decision making process for sickness benefits across the twentieth century. The files from the 1950s show me how the post-war national insurance scheme was beginning to define the important concept of incapacity for work. Most of the cases that I am looking at from the 1950s were published and can be found (with some difficulty) in libraries but the archive copies include all the background papers relating to the case, sometimes including letters from claimants, notes from doctors and the off-the-record opinions of the civil servants dealing with the cases. The cases include people who have been considered capable of work and often discuss alternative work that people might have been able to do.
A lost novelist?
Yesterday I came across a man who was claiming sickness benefits in the 1950s. The Ministry of National Insurance thought he was fit for ’light clerical work’. The claimant argued that he had tried various things and been unable to do them, including writing a novel. This set me thinking ‘I wonder if he ever wrote that novel? Maybe he became famous?’. Since I had his name I thought I’d just have a quick internet search and see if his name popped up anywhere in the second hand book websites. Sadly it didn’t. What would I have done with that information if he had? I’ve made a commitment to keep the people in the case files anonymous so I would have just kept the information to myself. But I like to think that maybe he did write that novel after all and maybe published it under a pen-name. Or maybe he had to find more mundane work after his benefit was stopped and didn’t have the energy left to write the novel in his spare time.
Doodles in the archives
And today I found a file with doodles on it. Pencil drawings. The creations of some bored civil servant perhaps. Maybe, like the novelist, this civil servant went on to become a famous artist? Probably not since they weren’t very good. In the mean time what was she or he doing doodling on a copy of an important legal document? Fortunately, perhaps for the perpetrator, it is not possible to put a name to these great works of art.
All of these things remind me of the pleasures of archive research. As well as adding information that just can’t be found in the published material, they add these personal touches that show that the cases concerned real people, with lives and futures. They also remind me that the people dealing with the paperwork were human too.