Tuesday 17 March 2015

Naval Nurses - The Problems with the Records

Royal Naval Hospital, Granton [IWM Q18930]

     With an increasing number of records being made available online, it's now possible to find service records for almost every First World War soldier, sailor and female worker as long as they've survived both the Blitz and the rather random 'weeding' process of previous decades. In addition to soldiers' service records which can be found on genealogy sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past, The National Archives have digitised and made available a whole range of records relating to personnel who served in the First World War and it's been made easy to search for individuals and to download any available record for a fee.

     However, one exception are the records of members of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service who served between 1894 and 1929, the majority being records of nurses with wartime service. These records are held on individual pages of large ledgers and I have to admit they were originally created in a rather slapdash manner, often a single record ranging over several pages in different volumes, squeezed into tiny gaps and with different women appearing on a single page. The Royal Navy were certainly keen on economising on paper.  In total, there are records for 244 members of the regular QARNNS, and another 394 for members of the wartime Reserve.  So not an enormous number, but it seems that The National Archives have decided not to make these available as single records and I can only assume that's because it's simply too much time and trouble for too little eventual financial return. Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service is doomed to stay firmly shut in the cupboard.

     So in answer to the question of how you negotiate the records to find out about great-aunt Gertie's daring deeds, I have to say it's only with the greatest difficulty.  When I asked a question on Twitter recently about the possibility individual records being made available, I was told 'Hello, thanks for your query - the nursing service register is available to download here:

Nursing Service Register, Royal Navy

Unfortunately, whoever's in charge of the Twitter feed at TNA isn't familiar with the records as that link only gets you to a small portion of the whole.  If you click on the link you'll notice that even this small part adds up to a download of more than 500Mb and your chances of finding Aunt Gertie are pretty slim as in addition there are another eight files available which you haven't been told about. There is another way if you search hard enough, and this TNA guide leads you on to the full range:

Looking for records of a Royal Navy Nurse?

     Before you start, note the warning on the page 'Please be aware that these are very large files and only suitable for download on a fast and unlimited broadband connection.'  That's OK though because we've all got one of those these days, haven't we?  Having attempted the downloads, failed, contacted TNA for help on a couple of occasions and grown a few more grey hairs, you're now the proud possessor of eleven very large .pdf documents totalling just under 2 gigabytes in size, but whereabouts is Auntie Gertie?

     There are rather rough indexes to the volumes, so you can browse through the pages of each one to see if you can find her, but the problems are not nearly over.  Some women have entries on as many as five different pages, covering three different .pdf downloads and I would bet my week's supply of doughnuts that there are no more than a handful of nurses who might be considered easy to find. I would challenge members of TNA's staff who are familiar with records in general to find Gertie among that lot without going off sick with stress; the general public are in a far worse position.

Note that Phoebe Gill's record started on a previous page, and is then continued in another volume of the register - a total of three different pages over two volumes [ADM104/163/1/folio 48] *

     Downloading 2Gb of data to find a couple of pages on Aunt Gertie is simply not practical, and anyway it just doesn't work in practice.  So wouldn't it be helpful if TNA could at least produce an index giving the volume and page references for each woman thus reducing the downloads needed to the minimum?  It would be even better if they could split the .pdfs into single pages and make each woman's pages available online as a single download. Sitting here in my little back room I've managed to create an index of individuals without much difficulty and I can whip off the pages I need using the simplest online tools - it's really not that hard!

     I asked again at yesterday's 'webinar' if there were any plans to index or digitise these records and was told that there was nothing in the foreseeable future. As far as TNA are concerned, Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service is destined to stay firmly locked in that cupboard.

* Image fee paid to TNA for online use of documents