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The intellectual home for military historians worldwide

The National Archives, Kew, England
By Kate Epstein
Ohio State University

The National Archives (TNA) of the United Kingdom, formerly known as the Public Record Office, are located in Kew, England, approximately a 30-minute tube ride from central London.  TNA is approximately a five-minute walk from the tube station in Kew.  TNA holds the records of the UK government; Wales, Scotland, and Ireland maintain their own national archives.  Records at TNA are organized by government department (ADM for Admiralty, CAB for Cabinet, etc.) and then a series of hierarchical numbers.

TNA maintains a well-organized system of finding aids in hard copy.  You can also search the catalogue online in advance of your visit (or while you are there).  In contrast to the American national archives, the TNA online catalogue (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/SEARCH/quick_search.aspx) accurately reflects the organization of the holdings.  I found the catalogue difficult to navigate at first, but very helpful once I got the hang of it.  You can search by a number of methods—keywords, dates, record group, etc.  Once you pull up a record group, you can see where it fits into the hierarchy by clicking “Browse from here.”

The first thing to do when you arrive at TNA is to obtain a reader’s ticket, for which you will need to bring various photo identification (acceptable forms are listed here: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/readers-ticket.htm).  The process takes about 10 minutes.  Once you have your reader’s ticket, you will be able to order documents and access the reading rooms to view them.  You do not need a reader’s ticket to access the finding aids room or to search the online catalogue.

TNA contains two reading rooms.  The third-floor reading room is for older manuscripts.  In the second-floor reading room, you will have a small but adequate desk with two power outlets.  Laptops and digital photography (without flash) are permitted.  The reading room contains several sturdy tripods for digital cameras, though I believe you can also bring your own tripod.  TNA provides several self-serve xerox machines or will copy documents for you.

TNA contains a reasonably priced public-access café on the ground floor, as well as a bookshop and several public-access desktop computers with free internet access.  TNA offers free wi-fi, but I found it difficult to connect.

Researchers are permitted to carry items into the reading rooms only in clear plastic bags, which are available for free in the locker room.  The lockers are large enough to contain a backpack and a coat; you will need a £1 coin, which you get back at the end of each day, to operate a locker.  I believe that there is also an area where you can hang and lock coats.

Thanks to competition for researchers’ money, decent lodging in Kew can be found for as little as £125/week.  A list of accommodations can be found here: http://www.kewaccommodation.com/.  A couple (more expensive) options on this list are full B&Bs, but most are rooms in family homes, in which the family lives on the first and second floors, while the third floor contains two bedrooms and a bathroom which are rented out to lodgers.  I have stayed in a couple of them and, for what it’s worth, found the accommodations simple but clean and pleasant—certainly nicer than a hostel.  The places I stayed at allowed me to use the family’s internet access for free, and they either gave me my own little kitchenette or allowed me to use the family’s.  They were also a mere 200 yards from TNA.  If you are visiting in the summer-time, you may wish to check whether the house has air-conditioning.

For food, the cheapest option is probably to stock up at the Marks and Spencer grocery store about 300 yards from the PRO.  (Incidentally, the same mall that contains the Marks and Spencer also contains a Boots pharmacy.)  There are several small cafés (including a Starbucks) in the center of town, next to the tube station, though as I recall they tend to close around 7 in the evening.  A Tesco Express near the tube station stays open later.  Researchers seem to congregate at a pub called The Railway next to the tube station, and there are several other pubs nearby.  There is also a laundromat, a post office, and several ATMs near the tube station.

One last tip: Kew is located fairly close to Heathrow airport, so if you are flying in/out of Heathrow and plan to visit several archives during your stay, it makes sense to put TNA first or last on your list.

(Summer 2010)