To celebrate my fiftieth birthday, my sister Sam took me to the National Archives in Kew, a place I have been meaning to go to for about twenty years and yet have never actually got to.
We arrived early, and parked easily in the (free) car park and made our way around to the building past water features and windy cracking slate pathways. The building is modern and huge, and there isn't much guidance on the surface to tell you where to go.
We arrived upstairs in the open reading room, complete with bags and coats, before realising that we should have left these in lockers downstairs. I tipped out the stuff I had with me and Sam kindly went down to the lockers, while I queued for a reader's ticket. Unfortunately, the system was down that day and so there was an announcement that temporary day tickets only were to be issued, and not permanent tickets. As I had wanted mine to be able to save online searches etc, I decided not to continue queuing, and got on with the research.
The open reading room is vast, with many screens and microfilm readers, bookcases with indexes and series of books, filing drawers, cabinets. There is information around in the form of short leaflets, but things are not well explained. There are a number of very friendly and helpful people around, but we found the quality of the information was quite variable.
I was looking for information about my ancestor John Dickins, whose dates were around 1772-1848, and who served in various regiments between about 1798 and 1827, when he retired. I asked a nice young man, who found me a leaflet on looking up your ancestor in an informal index. I looked: he wasn't there. I'd caught on to using the leaflets however, and selected one on researching your ancestor in the army, which told me to find the indexes for WO 25 and WO 76, both of which I had noted before leaving for Kew.
I searched them thoroughly, but found that there was frustratingly always nothing for the combination of time and place and regiment that I wanted. There would be information before 1798 or after 1827, or a big gap where the 90th Regiment should have been, jumping from 89th to 91st. It was very frustrating!
Eventually I found a leaflet for looking up the discharge and pension details of your ancestor, and we found a microfilm reader and looked at the microfilm. The list went from Deuchars to Dixon with no Dickins in between.
We did confirm the major details of his career by looking at the printed Army Lists for the years he served, and I did learn a lot about the way things are organised, but it seemed like precious little progress for what had felt like such an important visit.
One thing I learned that I shall certainly use, is that access to wills is free in the open reading room at Kew. I had paid £3.50 a shot a couple of years ago to look up total stranger's wills, since one couldn't see until one had paid whether the will was of use or not. In future I will pile up the queries and then spend a day at Kew looking them up online there for free.
Even though it was frustrating, I enjoyed the time at the archives, and hope to return sooner than the 20 years it took to get around to it the first time! I have so much I need to do there....