I enjoy my Friday mornings volunteering at the Record Office, where I used to work. I find it relaxing in the search room with its atmosphere of hushed but busy studiousness. The glass walls frame a tranquil garden with wisteria and cherry and the occasional cat amongst the hebes, overlooked by the serene Mother and Child statue on the lawn.
It is a privilege for me to have been given the task of doing some tidying to the catalogue of the treasure trove that is The Royal Green Jackets collection (general reference 170A12W). The regiment and its antecedents had a base in Winchester and travelled to all parts of the empire leaving a wide variety of documents giving views on world history from the 18th century to present times.
Much of the work is routine and repetitive which I find soothing and therapeutic. Between the lulls you can be suddenly absorbed into another time and place. I think that most people find a certain thrill in handling a document that gives you special contact with the past. I felt this particularly when trying to penetrate the appalling handwriting of Sir William Norcott’s Crimean War diaries. I don’t think you can get much closer to these past moments than by, in this case, holding the small volume and going with him as it did, through the cold and cholera and other privations of the Crimea.
Norcott was something of an artist and the scene-setting is enhanced by his sketches, which include a rough portrait of Florence Nightingale during his stay at Scutari hospital, and a quite moving drawing of him grieving for his horse, Inky Boy, killed at the Battle of Alma. And, to give you goosebumps, some enclosed shreds of Inky Boy’s mane! (170A12W/D/2004/4)
More recently I was touched by a letter from Private Richard Hunt to his father (170A12W/D/4225). Set in the larger historical context of the Anglo-Sikh wars, which he also comments on, is a story of very personal problems:
“I did not tell you wether it was a black or a white woman that I was married to so now I tell you that she is a black one but she did not live long for just one month after us was married she was put to bed of a fine little boy and she died in child bed…”
It is its atmospheric attractions, the feeling of doing something useful (I hope!), and the prospect of encountering more documentary jewels that keeps drawing me back to the Record Office. How many thousands more stories, I wonder, are there in the strong rooms, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered? Roll on next Friday!
Steve Hynard, volunteer