Digital v Physical Archives: a Personal Account, Part 2

In Part 1 I discussed my use of archives while researching my family history, describing how digital archives were the catalyst for my research in various archives in Britain and Ireland spanning several years.  With ten years’ archival research behind me, I decided to study for a history degree.  Those years were invaluable to me, as I headed into the archives within weeks of starting my first semester as a 40-year-old.

I visited the National Archives (TNA) in the autumn of 2010 to examine the files kept on the Profumo affair and Stephen Ward, who went on trial in 1963 for living off the immoral earnings of Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies.  Stephen Ward, a friend of both women, was a society osteopath who was present at the first meeting of Cabinet Minister for War, John Profumo and Christine Keeler, a night-club dancer and model.  The Profumo affair, which fatally weakened Harold Macmillan’s government, erupted when it became public knowledge that Keeler was having an affair with Profumo at the same time as her liaison with a Russian diplomat.  At the height of the Cold War there was legitimate concern over secrets being shared in the bedroom, whether secrets were shared or not, married Profumo lied to fellow MPs in the House of Commons, and was forced to resign when the truth became public.

The archived documents include letters to the judge presiding over Stephen Ward’s trial from reporters anxious to get a seat at the most anticipated criminal trial of the year.  However experienced I believed I was, I needed to make the archive work for me, it had to provide me with quality information.  I had to scrutinise every item in the folder, especially those stamped ‘TOP SECRET’ from 10 Downing Street, such as one from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan stating that there was no security breach.  I had to analyse each document: why was it written? Who was it written by?  Does it demonstrate bias?  Why was it ‘TOP SECRET’?  Why was it archived?  All those questions were new to me.  Previously, I had to copy data from census records, and note birth, marriage and death information and research retrospectively to uncover the previous generation.  With my academic research I had to learn to analyse a document, not just retell a narrative, read between the lines and discover what the document does not say.

My Profumo research did not end at the TNA.  I used Kingston University’s archives to examine chapters of rare books in their collections.  Coincidentally there was also an exhibition of Christine Keeler’s life in central London, displaying a private collection of all things Keeler and Profumo.  I justified this trip by judging that it may help towards my essay or my (dreaded) presentation.  A day out in the late autumn sun?  I was beginning to love student life!

The Profumo Affair took me to view items in three very different archives; TNA, Kingston University’s and a personal archive, exhibited.  My next project sat me right back down in front of a computer.  I was researching Phoolan Devi, the Indian MP whose life was depicted in the film Bandit Queen.  My aim was to assess the extent to which she was a hero or villain.  With limited online primary sources available, I turned to digitised English language Indian newspapers to hopefully provide a more balanced view, (political persuasion depending), as opposed to her autobiography, which, as expected, was heavily biased in her favour.  Young Phoolan Devi was an outlaw, who was raised in poverty and found freedom from child marriage with a band of dacoits (bandits) in the ravines of Utter Pradesh.  She was a folk hero to the lower-caste villagers for meting out vigilante justice, yet to the authorities she was a criminal.  Once captured, she was held without trial for 11 years.  She suffered a forced hysterectomy while imprisoned, yet, once released, illiterate, ill-educated and female, she defied the caste social construction and entered politics to fight for gender equality and an end to child marriage.

I chose to write a paper on Phoolan Devi because she was an underdog, a fighter, who had risen from a impoverished childhood and with teenage and young adult years fraught with violence.  She was flawed, but she entered politics to change the future for the lower-castes like herself.  I argued that it was her formative years, suffering domestic abuse from her parents and much older husband and then as a fugitive living in an environment where violence and criminality was the norm, that normalised a destructive way of life.  Her only education in her younger years was violence and she had to fight for everything she ever had, including her own autonomy.  By analysing Phoolan Devi’s impact in the context of her culture, rather than a western paradigm, she can then be viewed as hero and not as a villain.

brighton pavilion
Brighton Pavilion

From digitised foreign newspapers, my sources then slanted very much towards the visual.  I headed to Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, looking for inspiration for my bad aspects of capitalism essay, stopping at the gift shop to buy three books I deemed essential for my work.  From the north-west, I then headed to the south coast to visit Brighton Pavilion; King George IV’s Mughal inspired Palace, buying the guidebook as a necessity for my bibliography.  This has become a feature of my public history jaunts; I cannot leave a museum or historic building without buying the guidebook.  The wet January Sunday was brightened up considerably with the opulence of the Pavilion.  Whilst obviously not a paper document to evaluate and read between the lines, visiting it helped offer substance to my written descriptions of this iconic building which began as a ‘superior farmhouse’.  The Marine Pavilion, as it became known, epitomised the fickle and fashionable nature of George IV, firstly, by being redesigned in the neo-classical style by Henry Holland at the end of the eighteenth century, and secondly, with the en vogue chinoiserie interior and the bold minarets of John Nash’s Brighton Pavilion as it is known today.  It was as if George IV had brought the empire to him.

brighton pavilion 2
Brighton Pavilion

I took advantage of more digitised primary sources when I entered my second academic year.  It was becoming second nature to find a primary source to enrich as many discussions as possible.  I used The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online for my essay on infanticide, using examples of eighteenth century women who were charged using the 1624 Jacobean statute, the Act to Prevent the Murdering of Bastard Children, which specifically outlawed newborn child murder and the concealment of a stillbirth.  One defense strategy was to prove that the pregnancy had not been concealed; another was the intent to nurture the child.  Without preparation for the baby, including even the barest layette, bereaved mothers could face the death penalty.  In a culture where sex outside of marriage was sinful and inside marriage was for procreation only, the Act was sometimes viewed as a morality code, a deterrent, preventing fornication rather than protecting life.  The digitised collection of the Old Bailey is valuable resource and I would revisit it the following year, but I still had some more digital repositories to discover.

I came across the fabulously diverse collections of the digitised archives of the library of Harvard University while searching the internet for criminal broadsides and pamphlets.  I used The Times Online archive for my presentation on how contemporary newspapers reported the Jack the Ripper murders – not my choice of topic, but I was thrilled with the allocation nonetheless, as I have an enduring interest in historic crime.  It also gave me the perfect excuse to search other nineteenth century newspapers such as The Illustrated Police News and to go on a Jack the Ripper walk in London’s Whitechapel.  My research on the frontline reporters of WWI was mainly completed at Colindale, the British Library’s newspaper archive, before the site closed.  I used their microfilm and digitised collections.  I was pre-warned that the building was cold, so to take a cardigan.  I had not thought to take a spare pair of glasses with me and had managed to take my specs with only one lens in, yet I persevered and continued my study of war reporting – I must have looked quite odd if someone had looked closely at me!

My final year of undergraduate study saw me enter a temporary facility in Liverpool to research the Royal Liverpool Children’s Infirmary’s, Registers of Nurses.  I was working for a module, adding archival data regarding nurses in late Victorian and Edwardian England onto a spreadsheet that would hopefully develop into a prosopographical nursing history database.  I couldn’t resist further research to add depth to my end of module report.  However, some information was distinctly irrelevant to their nursing role and illuminates more the societal attitudes of the day.  One nurse, Gertrude Rigby, was noted to have ‘short hair’,  whilst Gwendoline Jenkins was, ‘very homesick, very Welsh and not at all a success’!  Furthermore, there were also some alarming inclusions in the registers with several nurses being accused of being ‘unkind to the children’, with one nurse putting a ‘hot water bottle on a baby’s hand’.  The nursing registers were exciting as once again I was reading the original document rather than reading via a microfilm reader or a digitised version on a computer screen.

wellcom library
Studying at the Wellcome Library

Further themes in my final year saw me visit Surrey archives, the Wellcome Collection, the British Library and the London Metropolitan Archives.  I enjoyed the thrill of the chase, hunting down pertinent information and relished starting my dissertation, which was to be a study of poisoning crimes tried at the Old Bailey during the nineteenth century.  I used The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online to identify the criminal administration of poison and quantitatively assessed poisoners, the poisons they used, the charges brought against perpetrators, the sentences meted out in judgement and asked the question: ‘The Female Poisoner: a Gender or Class Specific Crime in Nineteenth Century London?’  My sources included contemporary newspapers (various online sources), The Lancet (the Wellcome Collection), broadsides (thank you Harvard, you stopped me citing Murderpedia) and noted that before the Act to Regulate the Sale of Arsenic in 1851 there were 17 cases of arsenical criminal poisoning in the nineteenth century tried at the Old Bailey, and only three after the Act.  Strychnine was only seen in use after the 1851 arsenic Act, demonstrating the would-be poisoner could switch easily to another poison for his or her murderous intentions.

As my academic adventures drew to their natural conclusion after three years, I had to decide whether to commit to the further study of a Master’s course.  My enjoyment in the research and investigation element of academia swayed my decision and I looked forward to a further year’s academic research.  My relationship with the archives was such a positive one that I did not want to end what had been an incredibly swift three years.  Even while writing my undergraduate dissertation, I had visited Surrey Archives and was planning my Master’s thesis.  Having covered the nineteenth century, I wanted to write on a theme relevant to the eighteenth century and I had discovered the very registers to examine.  My personal account of my academic use of primary sources, digitised and non-digitised, has, like with Part 1, led me to review my previous work and it has again been a joy to revisit some of my favourite themes, to verify sources in case my memory of a topic failed and leaves me itching to get back into the archives.

Ward snip
Excerpt from ‘Was Stephen Ward an MI5 Agent?’
phoolan snip
Excerpt from ‘Phoolan Devi – Human Rights Heroine’
infantacide snip
Excerpt from ‘Account for the Relatively Low Conviction Rate in Cases of Newborn Child Murder in England’
poison snip 2
Excerpt from ‘The Female Poisoner: a Gender or Class-Specific Crime in Nineteenth Century London?’
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