I’ve just got back from a wasted day at the National Archives in Kew. I set off this morning, full of hope that, with three very different cases to investigate in three very different sets of records, and a carefully planned strategy for each one, my chances of success were good. Instead, here I am, back home in the middle of the afternoon, and my hands are empty. Not one document image to pass on to my clients. Not one discovery that might result in the breaking down of any brick walls.
I suppose we’ve all had days like this; whatever our line of research, we’re almost inevitably going to have days where nothing quite works out. Despite the meticulous planning of the past few days – the list of sources diligently researched, the appropriate documents identified, the advanced orders placed – today was one of those days. The records failed to bear fruit. Nothing. Not even the sniff of a lead.
So, as I said, a wasted day.
But was it really? Well, of course it wasn’t. Take a step back and you soon realise that days like this are all part of the process of becoming a better researcher and that, in any form of historical investigation, negative outcomes can be just as important as positive ones.
I now know that the person who appears in the records of the Kings German Legion (KGL) with a similar name to that of the person I was looking for is not the person I’m researching. I know that the Privy Council’s Plantation Books don’t cover the area that my client and I were hoping they would and I reminded myself of the unfortunate truth that the records of the Assize courts rarely add anything to the details found in contemporary nineteenth century newspaper reports.
But that’s only a part of it. I may not have found what I was hoping to find but, in the process, I gained a better understanding of the records that I was using; I know more about how to access them, what they look like and what sort of information they might provide – all useful material to store away for future research projects.
And while they may not have told me anything about the people I was researching, that doesn’t mean that they told me nothing. In one of the Plantation Books, I found a map of Port Royal, Jamaica, dating from 1801 and showing the Palisadoes forming the southern ‘wall’ of Kingston Harbour – now the site of Norman Manley International Airport.
In another book in the same series, I found a lengthy legal document relating to the will of the wonderfully-named Bezaleel Hodge of the Island of Tortola (the largest of the British Virgin Islands) and the complicated inheritance of two of his granddaughters, Sarah Purcell and Ruth George (née Hodge).
I found a (presumably Jewish) man named Moses Levy serving in the Kings German Legion during the Napoleonic Wars. Subsequent research reveals that Moses had been born in Hanover around 1782, and that he served with the KGL for over ten years between 1805 and 1816, attaining the rank of Corporal in 1810.
In a register of In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, I stumbled upon a list of ‘Nurses’ – female nurses – covering the years 1795 to 1811. Mary Dixon, for example, appears under the date 27 July 1803 (presumably the date that she was admitted to the hospital). A date of death is given in the register (19 November 1815) which ties in with an entry in the Chelsea Hospital burial register, recording the burial of Mary Dixon, Nurse of the Infirmary, aged 65, on 24 November 1815.
I found references to a number of men of the KGL being ‘blown up’ during the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812 and another reference to one of their former comrades in arms (Charles Knierim, a native of Hanover) being shot for desertion ‘by sentence of General Court Martial’ on 1 March. The General Orders – Spain and Portugal (1812) indicate that no fewer than 18 men were tried and sentenced to death at the same General Court Martial.
Seventeen years later, the six men sentenced to death at the Suffolk 1829 Summer Assizes were more fortunate than their Napoleonic predecessors. William Viall, Thomas Wright, Benjamin Whymark, Henry Perry, Thomas Sparks and William Pool all had their death sentences commuted to the lesser sentence of transportation to Australia for life. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to empathise with the convicts and to think about the uncertain future that they faced. It’s also very tempting to look them up in the transportation records to see how they fared on the other side of the world…
So, my day was anything but wasted. Far from it. It was full of stories; stories about real people who lived and died many years ago. The records may ostensibly relate to the British Isles but I learned about people who lived their lives in the Caribbean; about people who came from Germany, served in a British (German!) regiment and died in the Iberian Peninsula, and about people from Suffolk who ended their lives in Australia. The documents that we use in our research breathe life back into these people and the stories that they have to tell are endlessly fascinating. And when you look at it that way, it’s fair to say that not a minute spent looking through them can ever really be considered wasted.
© Dave Annal, Lifelines Research, 30 January 2018
 The National Archives (TNA): PC 5/15 f.194r
 TNA: PC 5/14 ff.272r-277r
 TNA: WO 25/3203 f.324
 TNA: WO 122/5
 TNA: WO 23/134
 London Metropolitan Archives (LMA): DL/T/7/3 p.21
 TNA: WO 25/2279
 TNA: ASSI 33/11 & ASSI 94/2052