By Ben Townsend.
The reading rooms of the National Archives at Kew present a curious sight on any given afternoon. Imagine a care home for the massively over-educated and terminally under-employed, and you will have a fitting conception of many of the inhabitants. The emblematic animal of the archives, and their notional spirit animal, is the swan, and a beautiful family of swans skim the ponds of the Kew forecourt. It is a not-inapt metaphor for the operation of the archives: the staff are all apparent grace and dignity, but beneath the surface, there is frenetic action, powering the perpetual cycle of documents from readers to storage and back again.
There are not many swans amongst the readers. A broad sweep of the detritus of the reading rooms might harvest a few spirit sloths who have carried their slippers from home, plenty of dishevelled wombats apparently unacquainted with a barber, and the occasional neophyte as startled giraffe, swivelling its neck in nervous wonder. Spending a lot of time in this atmosphere one begins to feel at home among this often vague, but also minutely focused motley herd. You unthinkingly adopt their quiet padding lope to the return counter, and their lolloping shuffle of anticipation taking them to the arrived document pigeon holes. From there, it’s a short step to master the thousand-yard stare at the coffee counter down in the lobby, as one struggles to drag the mind back from mortgage rolls of the 15th century to deal with the mundane choices of various caffeine-based cups.
I spent enough time amongst these people to feel at home when researching my latest book there. It involved thumbing many tens, even hundreds of thousands of document and folio pages, and while doing so, one becomes aware of other subterraneana lurking under the surface of the documents themselves. My particular haunt was the labyrinthine military bureaucracy and associated government apparatus of the early 19th century. Handling the correspondence between the lugubrious assistant second secretary to the deputy-assistant-adjutant-general at Horse Guards and his wizened counterpart at the Clothing Board in Great George Street can be a fairly dry experience, but after a while one comes to recognise their handwriting, and know their idioms of speech, and you begin to feel at home in their company. After joining the family of bureaucrats in their everyday procedures, and feeling them come to life again while thumbing through their letters, it’s just a few steps further to imagining you are part of that family. When you listen to their long lost voices asking after the health of the housekeeper’s cat, you wonder why on earth they would let a cat into a room used for storing textiles. Imagine the hair everywhere! One can sympathise with the custodian of the pattern-room who battles rheumatism and the cat with equal stoicism.
There are frustrations amongst the papers too, to balance these homely pleasures. In correspondence concerning the pattern room (a storage place for sealed patterns of military uniform), one is all too frequently brought up short by the constant references along the lines of, ‘see pattern item attached’. This starts to become something of a litany to lost wonders, as the pattern was always attached to the original correspondence, and not included in the letter-book. When one is concentrated on the subject of these elusive patterns, to be always brought up short and reminded of their absence, is to exist in a state of perpetual disappointment. But there are exceptions. Sometimes after a long day reading letter-books recording the ingoing and outgoing correspondence of the pattern office, one turns the thousandth page and is confronted by a splash of glorious colour. Some marvellous new clerk has failed to remove the pattern item or drawing and file it properly, and it survives, as fresh as the day it was deposited. Below are two examples of these survivals, calculated to raise the spirits of even the most jaded wombat of the reading room.
These two samples of uniform lace illustrate the lace worn by the buglers of the 71st Regiment in 1819 and 1820. The practice of buglers wearing reversed colours had fallen out of favour by 1811, and they were to be distinguished by a different lace to that of the other ranks instead. This was a utilitarian alteration, intended to prevent the disproportionate targeting by the enemy of buglers, who were a vital part of the command and control hierarchy, owing to their role in transmitting orders.
This expertly rendered coloured drawing of the new 1812 pattern infantry cap plate pre-empts the issue of the infantry clothing warrant of that year, indicating that The First, or Royal Scots, Regiment had followed the advice of the clothing board of 1811 and prepared their issue of the new model caps in advance.
Further examples of these fortunate survivals are recorded in the author’s two new volumes on the regulation material of the British army, Regulating Fashion, Fashioning Regulation.
The first volume can be ordered from our website here.