Archival adventures in London

A slightly embarrassing confession: before my supervisor mentioned it, the need to travel overseas to do archival work had barely occurred to me. This might sound quite surprising coming from a PhD student in a history department, but in the historical work I have previously done I’ve used sources accessible online or in widely available books – for example, UK Hansard. My current research has led me to sources that are not available by digital means, and so in September of this year I went to London to visit the National Archives of the UK and the British Library to view them.
This is my first year of postgraduate study and I am working on the intellectual history of free trade and liberalism in Britain in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. I came to this from an undergraduate major in political science, and now working in a history department has been eye-opening for me in many ways. I have been playing catch-up with stacks of classic works of history, learning to ask new questions about my subjects, and thinking carefully about the nature of the work I am doing. Learning about archival research and doing it myself has been one of the most unusual experiences of my study so far.
This was my first research trip and a relatively quick one – I had four weeks to photograph as much as I could to bring back home to study and write about here. I was working mainly in the archive of a UK government body called the Board of Trade, located at the National Archives. I found certain information about the contents of this archive online, such as the names of its different sections and documents that comprise these, but I had no indication as to what it was all going to be like physically. This uncertainty made me very thoughtful about how the materiality of research materials and processes can shape the kind of work I am able to produce. What if the documents I wanted to see were extremely lengthy or difficult to manage? I would need to spend a long time copying each one and this would necessarily limit the amount of material I could collect in the time I had. If the documents were very short and light on details, however, I might need to seriously rethink aspects of my topic and expand or change the range of sources I planned to use.
I was concerned about making sure my time in London was productive and ended up becoming a bit anxious as a result of not having a clear idea of the nature of my archive. To help sort out my concerns I made a plan that would serve in a range of scenarios, setting out a core collection of documents that I especially wanted to see, as well as a larger range of things of interest. I kept firmly in mind that this was my very first research trip and that I needed to find a balance between being ambitious and realistic.
A particular challenge was deciding how I would gather all my research materials and how to store them securely. I knew I would most likely be taking thousands of photographs and wanted to have them organised in a way that would make them easily accessible for ease of use by my future self. I went with the programme Evernote, which can be used across multiple devices and would allow me to organise my photos very neatly. I have found it an extremely useful tool for taking photos and organising materials, but I would have benefitted from some deeper investigation into how it works. My tablet’s internal memory eventually came close to full capacity and I discovered that Evernote would not work if I shifted the application to my external memory card. This seems unusual for a programme that is quite clearly designed to store things – eating up internal memory is a nuisance and something I could only “solve” by resorting to using my phone to take photos for the last few days of my trip. I was also caught out by Evernote’s upload limit, and ended up needing to pay for a premium subscription to expand my upload allowance. Despite these setbacks (extremely stressful at the time!) Evernote worked quite well and, importantly, enabled me to store my photos online as well as in my devices’ memory to greatly reduce the chance of anything being lost permanently.
Difficulties aside, it was very exciting to actually be in London and feel a sense of being in the history I am writing. The archives presented many intriguing and funny moments: unfolding huge ornate petitions from groups of silk makers, holding letters handwritten by such prominent figures as Robert Peel, reading a note from one distinguished politician to another asking to catch up for a gossip session. I enjoyed even such simple things as feeling different kinds of paper and admiring beautiful handwriting. Spending long days on my feet was not always fun, but sheer fascination with everything I looked through made it easy.
I could have visited other archives, including some outside London, on this trip, but decided to stay focused on the Board of Trade as the point of connection between many of the people I am interested in and a curious institution in its own right. After just my first week looking over these materials, I began to see many interesting associations between individuals and details of their roles in or adjacent to the Board, and to free trade debates. I realised that I will gain so much more from visiting other archives on another trip when I have a more generous amount of time to spend and a clearer idea of what precisely I would be looking at. Documents like personal correspondence will be so much more meaningful to me once I have better general knowledge of the webs of connected people and institutions in my period of interest.
This research trip was a steep learning curve for me. I got a lot of “new things” out of the way, and I know that walking into an unfamiliar archive will seem much less daunting now. Figuring out how to manage my sometimes erratic attention span is an ongoing issue, as is management of adequate coffee-and-cake breaks. I am very much looking forward to my next trip, and until then I have thousands of pages of meeting minutes to keep me occupied.



Something special at 67 Fleet Street. I found this address on a letterhead of the Anti-Corn Law League in the archives, and then went to find the actual location a few days later. One of the advantages of actually being in London!


First page of the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty, a significant trade agreement made in 1860 between Britain and France. At the National Archives, FO 93/33/68A.


Some of the beautiful handwriting I admired


Lovely afternoon at the National Archives, Kew


Swan family I saw every day at the National Archives