Sunday 4 November 2012

Nurses' records and The National Archives

     A year ago this month The National Archives put online the entire WO399 series of service records of women who served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service during the Great War - just under 16,000 files. Before they were online I used to visit TNA and photograph files I wanted to look at, or more often I’d choose just a random selection of files to see what was in them.  I learnt early on that in each one, however short , there was likely to be gem – a form, a memo, a personal letter – something that added to the overall picture of the nursing services.  So much was lost during the Blitz and each tiny bit of information makes the overall picture clearer.  I’ve just had a count up and have nearly six hundred files or parts of files that I’ve photographed in the past.  By going through the images and adding together the tiny bits of knowledge contained within, it’s been possible to find out more about the background and training of the nurses; their Boer War service; medical boards and sick leave; their worries and complaints; their lives before the Army and their lives afterwards; how long they lived, how much pension they received, where and when they died.  Only by the accumulative detail contained within many files has it been possible for me to gain the knowledge that I have now – and that is merely a drop in the ocean.

     Now these records are online, each one can be accessed and downloaded from home for a fee - £3.36 at present.  Some are brief, but many are much longer, running to more than two hundred pages, so quite good value for money if you just want one, or perhaps two files.  This is great for the family history researcher who has found a nurse in their tree. But it seems to be a bit of a disaster for the serious researcher – for those doing studies or writing books on certain aspects of women’s service.  Although it’s possible to view an unlimited number of files online in the reading rooms at Kew, it’s not cost effective or practical to copy every page, or even a small selection of the miscellaneous items which make these documents so interesting and important. In fact, you can read, but you can no longer touch.  You can make notes, but if you want a copy of a file you have to wander off home again and download it.  For a fee.  If you’re looking at one specific area, let’s say medical boards, or training hospitals, or areas of overseas service, you might need to go home and pay for a dozen files, or even fifty – files that you’ve already looked at once after making the long trek to Kew. So at a stroke, these files have been made both accessible and inaccessible, convenient and inconvenient, depending on what you want out of them.  In one way I can accept that it’s progress but is definitely a large step back in many respects.  I just feel very privileged that I've had the opportunity over the past few years to collect so many of these records together on my hard drive and now have the freedom to find and extract the little gems.

     Here's one of those items that I just happened to come across.  It's part of a list of belongings made in 1933 following the death of a serving member of QAIMNS.  What a lot is says about the life of these women between the wars and a good example of what might never be found today in the sterile surroundings of the reading room and the inability to browse and photograph original documents at will.