A national treasure

Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood and Julie Walters have earned their place in the nation’s hearts and I’m a fan of them all. A different kind of national treasure resides at Kew in Surrey in the shape of The National Archives (TNA), the principal repository of historical documents of government, and many other records besides. From the neat umbrella-drying devices that meet you as you step in the building to the immense online catalogue and easy document-ordering system, not to mention the records themselves, the place is a delight for visiting researchers. The atmosphere is mostly calm with careful study and occasionally vibrant with discovery.

In the field of house history there are many delights at TNA. One of my favourites is the field books of the Valuation Office survey which was undertaken in 1910 in preparation for a land tax that never got off the ground. Inspectors toured the country valuing buildings and land, and recorded their findings in field books and on maps. Apart from sale particulars, there are few other sources that can provide such detailed information about the rooms of a house, and the language used is far balder – ‘bathroom, cheap bath’ for example. Some even include plans showing the layout of buildings within the property’s curtilage which can be very enlightening.

Another useful resource for rural properties is the National Farm surveys conducted during the Second World War. The surveyors pulled no punches in telling it like it was: ‘The farm is in a deplorable condition … anthills, briars, bracken and thistles have been left unchecked’ , ‘Hobby farmer … inadequate machinery … shortage of labour’ and so on.

Wills, military awards, business records, maps and court proceedings have all yielded fascinating stories about the people who owned or lived in properties I have researched. A trip to Kew is almost always rewarded with the discovery of these unique, but local, treasures.

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