Exploring London’s archives

Volunteer Debbie Scott takes us on a tour of London’s many archives, including LSE, Museum of London, Britsh Library, London Met Archives, Bishopsgate and Tower Hamlets Local Archives.

I’m familiar with using the Tower Hamlets archive from researching my family history, so I know the procedures. I like the way it is laid out, providing easy access to directories and microfiche, although I always have to be reminded about how to use the machines. It is always well staffed, and the librarians are helpful. Doing this project I learnt some extra tips from them, such as how to select a map and how to identify the district number on Ancestry. I was also advised that Find My Past is better for searching specific streets, which I did at the British Library. Again, I have membership but had never ordered books before, so I took the opportunity to read some books which are hard to find,  and consult others which are too expensive to buy. In the 70 minute wait for the books, I accessed  Times Digital and British Newspapers Online to confirm facts and for some juicy snippets! It’s all a bit baffling but help is available.

I joined the LSE but was disappointed as I couldn’t find the books I needed. They should have been on the open shelves but some were not available or misplaced. I had to return to the Librarian on bottom floor, but even she couldn’t find them.

The best experience was viewing original material.

I wanted to view original court records at the London Metropolitan Archives, which I have also visited before but this was the first time I’d enquired beforehand. The librarian  sent me the catalogue numbers and I made an  impromptu visit, confident I could pop in. ..but my membership had expired. Luckily, I looked trustworthy  and they renewed it. I made a materials request then spent 20 minutes dawdling in the exhibition. The tatty originals were handed to me in the archive room, separated from the public area.  Although it was fascinating  to handle them they didn’t yield up any new clues. I was hoping to find addresses. I was tempted to photograph the scrawled pages but it would have cost me £5.

Having researched Adelaide Knight, I was keen to see the original Canning Town WSPU minutes held at the Museum of London. I arranged a visit via email and although the archivist couldn’t be there, she made sure the relevant material was available on the day I visited. I was met at the front desk and taken through a warren of corridors to the archive library . Left alone with the CT minutes book and a scrap book of cuttings, letters, summonses etc, I was in heaven. Though not thoroughly indexed, the scrap book was a gold mine! Originals from J Sbarboro and M Baldock plus letters concerning the Cavendish sq incident they were involved in. I filled in a photo permission form and snapped away, then got absorbed in a  brilliant letter by Kitty Marion, whom I determined to researcher  further. The CT minutes (1906-7)provided a picture of the change in nature of meetings: from formal, to planning trips, to tailing off. There was no record of the departure of A.K. but there was an insight into the mutual support of the local organisations and how they promoted meetings and the women’s cause. I photographed some pages that showed the feistiness of the women , some as evidence and some that made me laugh. I hope to go back and spend more time interrogating its treasures and I’m looking forward to delving again into Bishopsgate Institute’s basement as the tour was so wacky.

Newham Archive visit

Volunteer Debbie Scott went exploring in Newham Archives to uncover East London suffragette stories. This is how she got on.

I sent an email in advance explaining that I was researching local suffragettes and asking the best time to come. Despite being informed it was open from 10.30, I got there at 12.30 and was told, very nicely, that they were closing in half an hour. However, I was impressed to see that the librarian had got out some record books for me and some display material about the Lawrence family that she guessed might be of interest. It was. I was surprised to find that the Pethick-Lawrences had local family connections (Edwin Durning Lawrence) which may explain why they had sympathy with Sylvia’s campaign. The assistant archivist, Jennie, helpfully accessed Ancestry for me on her computer so we could trace the family’s roots back to Shoreditch.

I returned in the afternoon to search the record books: great hulking volumes of the Poor Law Guardians minutes, which didn’t yield the info I was looking for. So Emily, a volunteer, helped interrogate the online catalogue to find some other useful links and books. Of course, Plaistow was a village in Essex one hundred years ago and I discovered that the Kelly’s directories were far less useful than those for London boroughs, being jam-packed with all the eastern home counties.

So we resorted to the Electoral Registers, which are on microfiche here. Jenny selected the relevant one but, being a mine of local info, could also tell me that 32 Romford Road, where the WSPU met, was the Old Dispensary or the building next to it.

I was really impressed by how the staff were keen to help me but, as they were also helping the other users, and the system is a bit oblique, I had to wait until they were available to show me where resources were kept. I also expected that there would be a folder of material (clippings etc) on the local suffragettes but there wasn’t one, although there was, happily, a display outside the archive room on notable local women.