A day at the archives… The National Archives at Kew (UK)

Llewella Chapman, University of East Anglia

7 November 2017


Following Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel’s excellent blog on visiting the German National Archive (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin, I thought that I would write about my personal experience of visiting the National Archives at Kew. As a PhD student and a film historian, I have visited a small number of UK-based archives beyond the National Archives to conduct my research, including the BBC Written Archives Centre, the British Film Institute, Film Finances, the Stanley Kubrick Archive (University of the Arts, London) and the Consumer Culture Collection held in Southampton Solent University’s Mountbatten Library. The National Archives is one of my favourites so far. As stated by Sue Harper in her blog entitled ‘The Boundaries of Genre: History, Impendence and Flow’: ‘I am one of those sad creatures whose happiest hours have been spent in the National Archives’.

I first encountered the National Archives in 2016, which I admit was something of a fortuitous accident on my part. As part of conducting research for my PhD, which focusses on the historic relationship between Hampton Court Palace (where I used to work as a State Apartment Warder) and the film and television industries, I intended to visit the British Film Institute based on London’s Southbank while my fiancé visited the National Archives. It turned out that the BFI was closed on that particular day, so I joined my fiancé for a date at the National Archives.

After having had a quick browse on the archive catalogue ‘Discovery’, which I feel is excellently designed and very accessible, I discovered that the National Archives holds documents on the filming and photography policy relating to Hampton Court Palace (for anyone who is interested, these files are part of the Office/Ministry of Works department), and so off I went in search of discovering papers that might assist in my PhD research. I did not leave disappointed – it is where I received my first ‘eureka-in-the-archives’ moment, and this is a feeling that I will never forget!

The National Archives (originally the Public Records Office, and if I’m honest, I lament the change of its name) is, as its website explains, ‘the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents’. It is based near Kew Retail Park, and is accessible either by train, bus or car. If you are arriving by train, from London you can either take the District tube line to Kew Gardens, or take a train to Kew Bridge from either London Waterloo or Woking via Hounslow and Staines. By bus, you can take the R68 from Hampton Court via Richmond which terminates just outside the archive itself. This is the route that I usually take, and I find that there something very satisfying about travelling on the entire route for £1.50 using an Oyster Card.

  

Views on the R68 bus route

Further details as to how to access the National Archives can be found here: [How to find us]. The National Archives is open between Tuesdays and Saturdays, and is open from 9 a.m. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it closes at 5 p.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays 7 p.m.

On arrival, don’t be deterred by the appearance of the building (which I have anecdotally heard described as looking like ‘a large municipal carpark’)! The building, in my view, may not be particularly pretty in terms of design; but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for me the beauty of the National Archives lies in the treasure offered within it, and not by the shell in which the documents are held.

You will need a reader’s ticket to view original documents within the National Archives reading rooms, and you can either register for this online within six weeks of your intended visit, or you can register for a reader’s ticket on the day of your visit. Further details can be found here: [reader’s ticket]. Personally, I recommend ordering your reader’s ticket online as you can order up to 12 documents in advance of your visit (provided you include your email address), and it saves time on entering the archive. When you arrive, whether you have ordered your reader’s ticket in advance or want to register on the day, you will be directed to the ‘reader registration area’, where staff will take a photograph of you for your reader’s ticket before issuing it to you. You will also need to place your belongings in a locker before entering the Document Reading Room, and the National Archives provides a handy list of what you are allowed to take in: [What can I take in to the reading rooms?]. Once you have swiped your reader’s card through the barrier to enter the Document Reading Room, then the fun can begin!

Unlike the fight for the elusive ‘locker key number one’ as reported by Tobias and Roel on visiting the Bundesarchiv, there is no such fight, as far as I am aware, for this at the National Archives. This may be because it is broken (at time of writing). I would suggest, however, that instead there is more a melée over the tables based in the Document Reading Rooms. This is combatted by the ability to pre-order documents and to be able to request seats at certain tables. You can pre-order documents and book which table you would like to sit at here: [advance order form]. I like to sit at table 44 or 46 in the ‘Quiet Zone’ as here you can get a lovely view from the window. As well as the ‘Quiet Zone’, there is also a ‘Main Zone’ and a ‘Group Zone’, which is useful for people working as part of a team on research projects so that they can discuss documents. If you don’t mind where you sit, then you can just turn up on the day and you will be automatically assigned a seat at random.

Study areas in the Document Reading Room: Green = Quiet Zone, Blue = Main Zone, Orange = Group Zone

Once the documents you have ordered arrive (this can take around 45 minutes if you order them on the day) they are placed in a cubby hole, which is numbered and lettered in relation to the seat you have been assigned.

 

Usefully, you can take out and replace files as and when you wish in case you want to review them later. The National Archives allows photography (without flash) in the reading rooms; you can either bring your own device (camera or mobile phone), and you can also choose to sit at a table specially designated for this purpose which include camera stands. Alternatively, you can use the ‘Self Service Copying’ space with cameras provided. You can either print copies of your documents out on the day (at a small charge), or alternatively email them to yourself, which is free of charge. The staff are brilliant – they have always been really helpful when I needed to ask them something, and most especially when I had to be locked in a special room to view sensitive papers held in a particular file (though that is a story for another time)!

One of my favourite files is WORK 19/1129: ‘Official attitude to photography and film crews within the Palace and grounds, 1919-1935’, which greatly assisted my PhD thesis in terms of understanding the historic policy in relation to allowing the production of film at Hampton Court Palace. In this file, there is some wonderful, and very humorous, correspondence between the Office of Works, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and London Film Productions in relation to The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) in response to a request from the production company to film parts of it around Hampton Court.

The gist of the correspondence is that Sir Henry David St Leger Brooke Selwyn Cunynghame (known as David), production manager for The Private Life of Henry VIII, wrote to the Office of Works in May 1933 to obtain their permission to film at Hampton Court.

The Office of Works allowed permission to London Film Productions on the provision that filming would be conducted before 9 a.m. so as not to disturb residents and visitors at the Palace. Cunynghame was disappointed by this response, and attempted in several ways to be allowed permission to film during the day at the site. These included getting his father, Sir Percy Cunynghame, to approach Samuel Hoare at the India Office. When this proved unsuccessful, Cunynghame then appealed through his mother’s friend, Bertha Dawkins, to Sir Clive Wigram, Private Secretary to the Sovereign. The Office of Works were not particularly impressed by Cunynghame’s approach regarding this matter, as can be understood from the correspondence between Wigram and Sir Patrick Duff, Permanent Secretary at the Office of Works in relation to this matter:

What Mr. Cunynghame wants… is permission to photograph all day at Hampton Court Palace so as to get through the work in the very shortest possible time. This would save his Company expense, and, as he very reasonably observes, the fewer the visits which the Company paid the less trouble they would give. This might be alright if Mr. Cunynghame were the only pebble on the beach: but the fact is that we have other applications from film companies, and if one company is allowed to work at Hampton Court at any hour of the day one would have to give the same concession to anyone else who asked for it. [i]

Duff also expressed his concern about the possible disturbance which might be caused to residents and visitors if filming were to be allowed during the day: ‘I know that if I were paying a visit to Hampton Court Palace and found the place full of film people rehearsing and “shots”, as they call it, being taken, I should feel that the dignity and beauty of the place was destroyed’. Wigram concurred, responding succinctly:

Thank you for your letter regarding Mr. Cunynghame. He is, as I was afraid, a tiresome fellow and I will answer him on the lines you suggest. [ii]

Due to the refusal from the Office of Works and the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, The Private Life of Henry VIII was not filmed at the site except for the film’s opening shot of Hampton Court’s archway, and instead was filmed on location at Hatfield House and in studio at the British and Dominions Imperial Studios at Elstree. It was the discovery of this file which afforded me my first ‘eureka-in-the-archives’ moment!

Once I leave the National Archives at closing time, I like to pay a visit to the local establishment, The Tap on the Line, which is set on the platform of Kew Gardens Station:

This lovely pub is a great place to have a chat with colleagues about the research you’ve accomplished, or if you are a lone researcher, sit and unwind after a productive day trawling through documents. After reading this blog, if you happen to see me frequenting this pub after a spending time at the National Archives, do come over and say hello – mine’s a gin and tonic! Chin chin.


[i] TNA WORK 19/1129: Duff to Wigram, 14 June 1933.

[ii] TNA WORK 19/1129: Wigram to Duff, 15 June 1933.


Llewella Chapman is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral research focuses on the use of film and television in the UK heritage industry with particular reference to the representation of Henry VIII and Hampton Court Palace. She has published on fashion and lifestyle as promoted in the James Bond films, and is currently under contract with I. B. Tauris to write a monograph entitled Fashioning James Bond: Costume, Gender and Identity in the World of 007. Her research interests include British cinema and television history, fashion, costume and gender, and hanging around a variety of archives and nearby bars.


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