Britain's story told in 96 miles of files

Public documents span 10 centuries

January 31, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KEW, England -- This is where Britain gathers history and unwraps secrets, where 96 miles of files contain treasures such as Shakespeare's will, Queen Victoria's census return and the Domesday Book, a survey of England commissioned in the 11th century by William the Conqueror.

The Public Record Office is the nation's archive, filled with musty boxes, well-thumbed papers and carefully indexed documents that provide a historical trail stretching back centuries and touching lands once embedded in Britain's empire.

It's a place for eminent scholars and local historians, old soldiers and young students, many of whom peruse papers like relatives wandering through grandma's attic.

The Public Record Office shows that history is as relevant as today's headlines.

In fact, it even generates a few "scoops," when government papers are released 30 years or more after they were written. The records tumble out each Jan. 1, with other releases during the year, a documentary gold mine that enables journalists, historians and the general public to add to their understanding of past events.

Among this year's revelations was that during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with the full support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wanted to figure out a way to sideline Charles de Gaulle, then leader of the free-French opposition to Nazi Germany, operating in exile in England.

"He hates England and has left a trail of Anglophobia behind him everywhere," Churchill wrote of de Gaulle in a May 1943 telegram to senior British Cabinet officials.

Other historic tidbits unveiled in January centered on 1969, the year Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles erupted and the government of the day reacted by considering a number of options, including expelling the province from Britain.

It wasn't all doom and gloom in 1969, though. The Welsh secretary was concerned that Prince Charles was giving speeches that showed political sympathy with Welsh nationalists. The Cabinet minister wrote to then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson that a discreet "word to the Queen might help."

And then there was the "miniskirt project," as Wilson prodded his staff at Downing Street to find out about a government grant given to an academic to research miniskirts.

In past years, document declassifications uncovered such items as "Operation Foxley," an aborted British plan to kill Adolf Hitler; the view on author P. G. Wodehouse, who gave wartime broadcasts from Germany (a "silly ass," one British civil servant called him); and British intelligence reports on Germany's infamous World War I spy, Mata Hari.

"Archives are here for the research communities, but I interpret that to be very wide, to every man, woman and child over 5," says Sarah Tyacke, keeper of public records.

When it comes to handling archival material, the British aim to be perfectionists, overseeing papers like family heirlooms. The government zealously protects its right to control the records, keeping them out of view for decades under the so-called 30-year rule. More sensitive papers are held even longer, with census records shut for 100 years.

Once the records are out, they're available to all.

"Everyone knows by a certain date that material will come out, it will all be listed, and people can read it and come and see it," Tyacke says. "This drop-dead date is administratively effective. The stuff comes through on the dot, and everyone knows where they are."

The office states that it "holds records created or acquired by central government and the central courts of law from the 11th century to the present day." It serves as the national archive for England, Wales and the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland and Scotland have separate offices.

From lists of apprentices to lists of taxpayers, from war records to Colonial Office papers, there are documents, maps and photographs to excite the most dogged of historians.

There's a 1225 reissue of Magna Carta, a seal of Elizabeth I and the 1936 letter of abdication by King Edward VIII.

There are curios such as the document that transformed Reginald Kenneth Dwight to Elton Hercules John.

And there is a terse telegram from the SS Titanic.

The message was from wireless operator Jack Phillips, who went down with the ship, and it was received by the Russian ship Birma: "We are sinking fast passengers being put into boats."

A first-time visitor to the Public Record Office might be daunted by such a collection. Yet it is easy to find material.

People here try to fill document requests within 30 to 45 minutes, an astonishingly quick turnaround aided by a minitrain system, which ferries the papers from the storerooms to the reading rooms.

Some 230,000 people a year use the facilities, but the Public Record Office is determined to extend its reach, with ambitious plans for its Internet Web site. Officials anticipate 5 million or more "hits" annually in the next few years, especially with the release in 2002 of the 1901 census.

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