Tucked away in a leafy west London street is a vast repository of dossiers on everyone from Jack the Ripper and Nazi spies to Princess Diana and Kirsty MacColl‘s dad. And most of them are yours for the reading. Time Out sifts through the National Archives.
The best way to hide something is to make it look uninteresting. You come upon Kew’s National Archives building rather suddenly if you arrive by tube. Having set off from the station down a series of genteel streets, you’re directed down a cul-de-sac where the cherry blossom comes to an abrupt end and you pass through metal gates into a municipally impressive space with gardens, a lake and a building that looks like a brutalist car park (built in 1977) welded to a glass-fronted dot-com office (expanded in the ’90s).
Once inside, you have your ID checked and your possessions decanted into a plastic bag (to prevent you making off with documents or smuggling in pens), then you’re free to order up anything you like from 1,000 years of public records.
This is where you’ll find the files on Oliver Green, a Soviet spy between 1936 and 1953, who met the agents he was running on buses or in a shooting gallery on Tottenham Court Road. Then there’s Wilhelm Morz, the only German spy operating in Britain during WWII, who was never caught. His file lists the Regent Street bars he’d visited, in case he reappeared in any of them. There’s a dossier on Rev Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury, who was watched by the security services for three decades until 1947 because of communist sympathies. That file contains everything from the names of his dinner guests to a note that the people of Canterbury were ‘prepared to accept him in the same spirit as those living opposite a gas works or a sewage farm accept the smell’. Centuries of espionage ends up right here.
And it’s not just spy records stored here: you can order up anything from the vaults, whether it’s your great grandad’s Boer War record or a plan of the sewers in Lagos, Nigeria (the heaviest document in the archive). ‘The point about the National Archives is that it’s hands-on,’ says Stuart Brennan, the cheery Australian press officer who greets me when I arrive. ‘Everybody can come here and actually hold these documents.'
Handles (above) that turn to reveal shelves (below)
Part of the fascination of a visit lies in the fact that – while the records are all meticulously catalogued by title – an individual file might not get read from one century to the next, so no one can tell you exactly what’s inside. Any number of fascinating secrets may be filed away somewhere among these 100 miles of shelving. Wandering along the endless corridors – which you can, if you join one of the weekend guided tours – you can’t help wondering if this was where they stashed the Ark of the Covenant at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. However, some genuinely creepy files are in almost constant use: recently two rival groups of researchers were trying to get DNA samples from the Jack the Ripper letters, for example. The only conclusion they came to was that the stamps were licked by a woman.
‘One of our researchers was going through an old court file,’ says Brennan, ‘and the murder weapon fell out into her lap. They’ve even found mummified rats. They’ve been there so many years, they’ve become a file in themselves with a file reference and everything.’ So anyone could come here and call up a mummified rat? He gives me a funny look. ‘Well, yes. If they wanted to.’
Since the Freedom of Information Act came into force in January last year, the 30-year rule that kept most files closed has been rarely upheld when tested. There are only two reasons for a FOI request to be denied: when national security would be compromised or people’s privacy encroached. A record will only be made public if someone demands that its status is reviewed, but it’s not easy to stumble across a truly juicy government secret. William Spencer, who works at Kew advising academics and amateurs alike, calls it the ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ principle.
The National archives on Rushkin Avenue, Kew
‘If you ask the right questions, you’ll get the answers,’ he says. ‘But you have to know which question to ask in the first place. Personally, I’m a “don’t know, wants to know” type, so I tend to just keep asking. With a lot of the more modern material, you find that if one government department’s file is closed, another department’s might be open. If you’re researching a criminal case, say, the police file might be closed, but you can call up something from the Home Office records.’
Somewhere in these vast depositories, there may be sensational files on the deaths of Princess Diana or David Kelly, but those are the ones that are unlikely to be opened in the near future. Much of what has been released under the Freedom of Information Act is of interest only as a footnote to history, such as the files kept on innocent (if dleft-leaning) civilians during the paranoia of the Cold War. Like the radical Muslim clerics under surveillance right now, the subjects of the files would never know that they were being watched. It is a matter of public record, for instance, that on March 31 1954, Ewan MacColl – folk singer, dramatist, communist and father of Kirsty – was drunk, because he was seen out celebrating with members of his socialist theatre group.
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