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Bringing archives back to life

By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam

Archives can be peculiar places. Each comes with its own personal variety of watchful archivists, identification requirements, seating regulations and occasionally (for those who’ve tried to enter the almost impenetrable fortress that is the Bodleian) oaths to swear. They sometimes seem like sacred historical spaces (Cathedral archives often literally are) where only the enlightened, the blessed, the chosen brothers and sisters of history speaking “shibboleth” may enter. They are, of course, anything but. Despite the grumbling academics trying to expel anyone but themselves from the British Library and presumably from anywhere they deem “their territory”, those documents labelled “Public Records” are, as the name suggests, publicly owned and publicly accessible. The 1958 Public Records Act even specifically requires the provision of ‘reasonable facilities … available to the public for inspecting and obtaining’ historical records.

But despite knowing all this, it’s still easy to become frustrated with the amateur historian while, with limited time and resources, trying to gather the vital pieces of evidence for so-called professional history. I certainly felt that on a visit to Birmingham’s recently re-opened archive and heritage service this summer. Trying to blank out the nattering family historians and flicking through a late eighteenth century Birmingham businesswoman’s diary, I was getting increasingly frustrated at the “useless” document before me. Hoping for some insights into this long dead woman’s business activities and left only with page after page of descriptions of afternoon tea, conversations of little consequence, and illness after illness, my mood was not aided by the loud Australian man who had just arrived. I was about ready to give up on a seemingly wasted trip when I heard his booming voice requesting documents from his time at “Middlemore homes”.

John Throgmorton Middlemore opened his home in 1872 with the intention of providing a better life to the children he saw on the streets of Birmingham. Between 1873 and 1955 when the home finally closed, thousands of poor children (who had either been abandoned or been forcibly separated from their parents, not always for the right reasons) were held there until they were forcibly emigrated to Canada, Australia or elsewhere in the Empire, providing “white labour” and “healthy living”. Many children were told that their parents had died whilst most parents never knew what had become of their children. Once they arrived on the other side of the world, they were stripped of their belongings and their identity. Many faced abuse and hardship when they arrived in their new homes with boys often just being trained for farm work. Middlemore stated that the children were deported not ‘because they are poor, but to save them from their bad companions’, hoping that life in the colonies would lead to discipline and moral behaviour. Reports of children barely ten years old being beaten with belts or sticks are thus common, with one survivor claiming his new “father” had ‘nearly flogged me to death’ leading to a life long stutter. In contrast with current practices of child-protection that try to keep a child in touch with their cultural and personal identity, the deportees essentially had their childhood and personhood stolen from them. Archives may give them some of it back.

Thanks to the open and available nature of archives, this anonymous Australian man (who must have been in his 80s), having met the niece he never knew he had earlier that day, was able to read about his own childhood, who he was, who his family had been, and even (apparently for the first time) to see a picture of himself as a child. Reminded that every apparently innocuous entry was the chronicle of a life, the diary in front of me ceased to be “useless”. Becoming desensitised to this obvious reality is an occupational hazard as a historian when dealing with copious amounts of records. It also served to remind me of one of the principal purposes of history: to give us place. From the high-stakes research of rediscovering one’s own childhood to the more recreational family history that now occupies so many people (including after this event, myself) the work of historical research helps us to understand who we are and how we came to be here. Sometimes it’s the job of historians to distil the vast quantity of material into a story of a nation or a people – but the work of amateur historians taking a personal voyage into their own past seems equally, if not more, worthwhile.

Photo Credit: The National Archives (UK)

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