Volunteer experiences

Our volunteers work on a variety of projects. Read about some of their experiences below.

Katrina Lidbetter

I was delighted to become a volunteer at the beginning of this year.  Upstairs in the Reading Rooms, I discovered how the wonderful work of The National Archives had made it possible for me, through the regimental war diaries, to follow the story of my father’s experiences in the Eighth Army. Having done this, I wanted to learn more. I joined the Friends (of The National Archives) and told them of my wider interest in the Second World War.

I was very fortunate that there was an opportunity for me to work as a volunteer on Project WO 416, cataloguing German prisoner of war records about the Allied troops they captured. So now on Tuesdays, instead of going upstairs, I go downstairs through the labyrinth to our special project room.

Under the patient guidance of my tutor, Kelly, I have learned to decipher a variety of different German record cards and log them onto a spreadsheet, so that when records that are currently closed can be released, they can be searched by family and historians.

Although I understand German, the handwritten cards with their military terminology and abbreviations would be impossible for a novice to understand: Kelly’s expert guidance and the reference sheets we have are crucial aids for our detective work. Accuracy and an eye for detail are vital, to ensure as far as possible that different cards are linked to the right person and correctly logged. Some cards have photographs: defiant or tired, they become real people, gazing at me from the past.

Sometimes their date and place of capture is recorded and this speaks volumes: a Seaforth Highlander captured in 1940 at St Valery must have been one of those brave band of heroes ordered to stay behind and hold the line against the Germans so that our troops could escape at Dunkirk. A soldier captured in North Africa in 1942 must have been fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the dust and heat of the desert. Behind each card or set of cards lies a story and I am proud to be part of the team of volunteers helping to preserve it for future generations.

Elizabeth Prior

Volunteering has enabled me to see behind the scenes of history and enjoy the company of fellow history fans. I began just over three years ago when I joined the team cataloguing the Carlton Papers (PRO 30/55) – a fascinating mix of the military, the personal and the mundane. From there it was a back in time to the 1630s, when I joined the cataloguers of the Privy Council registers covering the period of Charles l’s personal rule (PC 2), got to grips with 17th century secretary hand and discovered that micro-management is nothing new.

Currently I am a volunteer on two projects, State Papers Domestic George I (SP 35) and George II (SP 36) covering the years not dealt with in The National Archives’ Jacobite project undertaken to commemorate the respective anniversaries of the 1715 and 1745 Risings. The content of both SP 35 and SP 36 has been a surprise. State Papers suggested to me weighty matters of policy and not, as I have found, a whole range of subject matter from anonymous information about Jacobite plots against the King and government to petitions for the grant of Letters Patent for inventions.

There have been several high spots: in SP 35 a document signed by Sir Isaac Newton and in SP 36 coming across a letter from John Cleland explaining how he came to write Fanny Hill. My only regret is not volunteering sooner.

Harry Amador

My name is Harry. I volunteered for the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project for my Duke of Edinburgh Award. I am 14 years old.

In school I studied the causes of the First World War. I have a brilliant teacher, but the total grimness of the war was hard to appreciate. Working on the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project, I transcribed the records of a group of boys born in 1898 and 1899, who joined HMS Invincible in 1916 as B2Cs (Boys Second Class). They were 17 or 18 years old – the same age as sixth-formers at school. A few transferred to HMS Queen Mary, and perished when she sank on 31 May 1916 in the Battle of Jutland. That really made me think!

Another particularly sad story about a boy named Albert Mauger will stay with me. Albert’s life was cut short at the age 16, just two years older than I am now. He went down with HMS Vanguard on 9 July 1917 at Scapa Flow. I did a little bit of research and learned that out of 845 men on board at the time, all but two perished. A series of magazine explosions after the engagement had caused the ship to sink almost instantaneously.

I cannot imagine what Albert’s last moments were like. I was surprised that so few of these boys, who joined as B2Cs, rose above the rank of PO (petty officer); there wasn’t much upward mobility from the ranks into the officer class. People’s handwriting was different in those days. It was neater and more elaborate, but often difficult to read. I discovered men working at strange jobs: wire drawers and panel beaters; butchers’ boys and blacksmiths. Tattoos were as popular then as now. Many men had flags and ladies tattooed; the flags may have evidenced their patriotism and the ladies were perhaps for girlfriends left behind.

I was really excited to find one man who served on a Dreadnought. I was interested to see older men conscripted as Ordinary Seamen in 1916 ‘for the duration of hostilities’; most of them were demobilised by late 1918.

I am very grateful to have been accepted to volunteer on the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project. It has given me a much more vivid understanding of life during the First World War.