The “Hit-and-Miss” of Research at the Royal Archives
By Tom Murray, King’s Undergraduate Research Fellow, King’s College London
I undertook my King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship (KURF) in the summer after my final year at KCL. Indeed, my first trip to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle for KURF took place just days after receiving my degree results, including my dissertation grade. As such, it was at Waterloo Station, awaiting the 8:58 to Windsor & Eton Riverside, that I confessed to Dr Angel O’Donnell – with whom I was working for KURF and who had also supervised my dissertation – that I hadn’t actually visited any archives whilst researching my dissertation. Thus my first archival experience was in fact to be at the Royal Archives, as part of the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP), over the course of six days in July 2017.
This had evidently been taken into account upon my arrival in Windsor. Before I was allowed document access, I was given a brief induction by archivist Oliver Walton, which was both helpful and humorous – “Sometimes you just have to plough through a large pile of documents… sometimes there are better things to do than plough through a large pile of documents”. It is thanks to Oliver that I’ll forever – and no doubt invaluably – remember what a fonds is. I was also required to sign a series of Royal Archive regulations; ensuring that I did not intend to damage the documents. Initially, the Archives’ usually stringent security measures seemed somewhat excessive – a security pass was required to enter the Castle complex itself, which had to be shown twice to then gain access to the Archive, around which it was necessary to be escorted by a member of staff. However, it soon became clear that this was one of the prices to be paid for access to documents from the Royal Collection, and inside a working royal residence at that. The process of requesting documents itself was smooth and efficient, while the intimate reading room lent itself to a proper sense of consequence, given the owner – ‘The Queen’! – and contents of the documents in the Archive.
Dr O’Donnell had requested an eclectic selection of documents for me to read through and summarise, all of which had relevance to various strands of his own research. The first collection was ‘Secret Service accounts, 1779-1782’ (GEO/MAIN/17355-17367), detailing the quarterly expenses of the secret service during the latter half of the American Revolutionary War. Somewhat dauntingly, I was informed that I was the first person ever to examine these documents for research purposes. Dr O’Donnell had mentioned certain things to look out for; some of which, like British covert support for Corsican separatists like Pasquale Paoli (1725–1807) – ironically also emulated by American Patriots – were plainly listed as being in receipt of generous pensions. Other names needed little introduction: a ‘Dr Johnson’ (of dictionary fame) was likewise in receipt of a pension for his pro-government writings, while George III’s long-suffering and often reluctant Prime Minister, Lord North, was due an enormous sum from the Secret Service. Perhaps most excitingly for Dr O’Donnell, whose current research is on the ‘politics of paper’ in early America, was an indication that the New York-based newspaper printer James Rivington had received compensation for his Loyalist activities during the American Revolution. This opportunity to be the first to examine the Secret Service accounts was surely a highlight of my time at the Royal Archives, and will hopefully contribute to Dr O’Donnell’s future work.
I next changed location from the Archive reading room to the beautiful Royal Library, where I was presented with a book from the mid-nineteenth century made up of the selected correspondence of John Jay – Founding Father and first Chief Justice of the United States – from 1776–94 (Royal Library, 1047551). As an Americanist myself, this was a real treat for me, and while Dr O’Donnell had singled out the correspondence regarding Jay’s 1795 Treaty between the U.S. and Britain for my examination, I indulged my historical interest by looking over every document in the collection. Especially given my archival inexperience, this was exceptionally exciting: reading over the handwritten letters of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Lafayette, among others, is certainly not the worst way I’ve spent a Friday afternoon. A number of the letters related to the Jay Treaty, including a fascinating letter from Washington outlining his frustrations with British interference on the American frontier, and correspondence between Jay and British Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville, which indicated a genuine warmth between the two negotiators, and demonstrated the workings of the relationship between the nascent United States and Georgian Britain. As with the Secret Service accounts, this should hopefully contribute to the GPP efforts to aid understanding of the ‘Global Georgians’, as well as a forthcoming ‘The Two Georges’ exhibition about the relationship between Washington and George III.
I lastly examined the papers of Nathaniel Kent (GEO/ADD/15/356-429), an agriculturalist involved in the organisation and improvement of George III’s gardens at Windsor between 1791–1810. Again, Dr O’Donnell had highlighted some things to look out for, which he hoped would be relevant to his research: the use of mills and papermaking, building repairs, animal/wheat breeds, and the use of machinery. Unfortunately, it was the Kent Papers that proved one of Oliver’s aforementioned ‘Facts of Life for Archival Research’ – “Sometimes a file has nothing relevant in it at all, despite all outward appearances. This is normal.” Indeed, try as I might, the Kent Papers contained very little of what Dr O’Donnell and I had anticipated, largely outlining the accounts and expenses of the royal farms at Windsor with little detail. Beyond an insight into an intriguing episode in which certain workmen seem to have been accused of stealing beans from the royal farm, the Kent Papers bore little fruit, either in terms of research or historical interest. Still, such seemingly unproductive work is useful in reducing Dr O’Donnell’s workload, as well as clarifying the exact contents of the Kent Papers for the GPP.
Visiting the Royal Archives was a highlight of my KURF experience and an introduction into archival research that was both fascinating and unique. The ‘hit-and-miss’ nature of archival research was immediately clear to me, as was the potential for exciting discoveries, especially within unexamined documents such as the Secret Service accounts. It was also a pleasure to work within and contribute to the Georgian Papers Programme and its effort to examine and digitise the Archive’s 350,000 pages of documents. I hope to return to the Royal Archives soon for my own research.
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