As a Postgraduate Researcher, I was pretty excited to work with primary material and uncover the many secrets they hold, but also, use those secrets to enrich my research! From a young age, I was watching documentaries where archivists and Historians spent hours in the archives and, literally, made history. So, when I started my PhD, it’s safe to say I couldn’t wait to get into an archive and start digging, and Reading’s proximity to The National Archives (TNA) in London was an added bonus! I started volunteering at the Prize Papers Project in February 2023, and I couldn’t be happier with how things turned out. In this piece, I will walk you through a day in my life, as a volunteer in the Prize Papers Project at The National Archives.
The day, usually, starts quite early; I wake up at 7:30 am, grab a quick breakfast and I’m off to the station to catch the train to Richmond. I try to be at TNA before 10 am, but, since I live in Reading and the commute might easily be affected, that’s not always possible. Thankfully, the team is very understanding! On the train, I often check on my Excel document what papers I’ll go through during the day (each of us is assigned a box containing numerous papers from various ships) and enjoy the Berkshire countryside with some music. Once in Richmond, I hop on the Overground to Kew (just one stop), and from there TNA is only a short walk.
The day truly starts once I’ve checked my backpack and my coat in the cloakroom, grabbed my laptop and headed downstairs, where most of us work! A quick chat with the other volunteers is, always, in order, before I go through my box. At the moment, we’re working on papers of ships taken as prizes, during the American Revolution. Our job is to read all the material, regarding a specific ship, and catalogue the key information on an Excel document. We look for the ship’s name, the number of guns she was carrying, the composition of her cargo and her crew, from which port she departed and towards which destination, who was her captain (or master), whether she was a private vessel or a ship of war, and, finally, where she was taken and by who. Most of these are inside the deposition documents, produced during the adjudication of the captured vessel, at several High Courts of Admiralty (the ones I’ve been looking into come from New York). Reading through a deposition document is one of my favourite, because we get an insight on how this process was carried out, not to mention that we’re reading a 200+ year old handwriting (which, to be honest, has its challenges)!
After two or three ship’s files are done, I go upstairs to the café, as it is time for lunch. TNA has an amazing café, located just beyond the entrance, where one can enjoy their lunch and have a cup of coffee, while chatting with the numerous other researchers who spend their day at the archives. Personally, I prefer to relax, and I try to find a table with an outside view, so I can eat and gaze at the swans outside (yes, there are swans!). Just before I get back to work, I tend to check the giftshop and the occasional exhibition, as there is always great stuff to see!
Back in the office and to more ship’s files! Apart from the deposition documents, useful information can be found in the ship’s papers, where one can found her passport (issued by the French Admiralty or the American Congress), her crew logs, in which the exact number of seamen present at the time of departure is stated, as well as personal papers, such as official and unofficial correspondence. Depending on the identity of the captured vessel, these can vary from correspondence between the Admiralty and the colonies, to personal letters. For example, it is rarer for an American privateer to carry any personal papers, than it is for a French one. Another thing that fascinates me is the fact that most of those ships, have changed hands several times, between the British and the French. This is to be expected, as the American Revolution was the third major conflict that Britain and France fought against one another in 30 years! Still, it shows the importance of these vessels and how dangerous life was aboard one.
Once we have gone through everything inside a ship’s file, it is paramount to double check the data we collected, to see if they’re legitimate. The main way to do this is a simple online search, or within one of the printed catalogues of British ships, that exist in the library downstairs. It is also important to double check the details of a ship and see if there are any inaccuracies, between the deposition documents and her passport. When everything checks out and we are satisfied with the results, we put the information in the Excel spreadsheet and we’re good to go!
When 5 pm rolls around, I start to make my way back to Reading. Travel time is around an hour, so I get my music ready for the ride! I hope I was able to paint a clear picture of what a day volunteering at TNA looks like! The Prize Papers Project is an amazing initiative, and being a part of it is really gratifying. As an aspiring historian of the Atlantic World, I get access to unseen material, which can be extremely helpful for my own research, while simultaneously contributing to the digitization of an entirely new archival collection.
Christos Giannatos is a PhD History Student at the University of Reading, specialising in Imperial Control and Colonial Government in the British and French Atlantic.
All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.