The staff and volunteers at Northamptonshire Archive Service have recently just completed a project making rare World War One Military Tribunal Papers available to a wider audience.
These are records that should not have survived, because everyone wanted to forget this side of the war. However, by an unknown quirk of fate they have survived, and are a window on a period of British history. The records tell the story of not only the steely hand of the state reaching into people’s homes and workplaces, going against many British values, but also the human side of limiting this. They offer a glimpse into ordinary Northamptonshire life that census returns can never offer.
The Military Service Act was brought in January 1916 which saw the introduction of conscription for the first time to Britain. To begin with, it applied to single men and childless widowers aged 18-41; however, by May 1916 it was extended to married men. In May 1918 the conscription age was raised to 51. Conscription was brought in because after over a year of war the army needed more men to fight the war than they could get from those volunteering. However, there could be exemptions based on:
- Hardship because of personal, business or domestic circumstances
- Conscientious Objectors
- In training for important work
If someone felt they should be exempt from Military Service they could apply to the Local Tribunal based at the Urban and District Council level. If a person was not happy with the Tribunal’s decision (i.e., they would have to join the armed forces), they could make a final appeal to the Northamptonshire County Appeals Tribunal. No records have survived for the Local Tribunals of Northamptonshire, but, for the County Appeals Northamptonshire Archives has 11,200 case files. These are a unique and very large set of records that are not often found in other archives. Due to the sensitive issues that surrounded compulsory military service during and after the First World War only a small minority of the tribunal papers survive. In the years that followed the end of the war the Government issued instructions to the Local Government Boards that all tribunal material should be destroyed, except for a sample for Middlesex (which are stored at The National Archives) and Lothian and Pebbles (stored at the National Scottish Archives), plus the odd unauthorised survival around the country. However, due to unknown reasons the 11,200 case files for the Northamptonshire County Appeals have survived.
The Tribunal papers as an historic source
As records of the relationship between the individual and the state, the Tribunal documents present researchers with opportunities to place small specific details from the lives of Northamptonshire individuals within a wider socio-economic and political context.
Relatively few of the records deal with conscientious objection, but personal attitudes and motivation can be glimpsed ‘between the lines’ of the formal procedural records of each man’s presentation of his case. If exemption was claimed on medical grounds, then the Tribunal papers offer rare evidence about the health of an individual. In turn, poor health was often related to a man’s material circumstances and those of his family; usually, a sense of ‘hard times’ in the early 20th century has to be inferred from such standard sources as census returns, but the Tribunal records make explicit the pressures of, for example, supporting an aged, widowed parent as well as a sickly child while working for factory-hand wages.
The fact that most exemption cases were contested on occupational grounds has left a wealth of evidence relating to Northamptonshire’s economic life. The footwear industry features prominently, together with agriculture; details of how particular boot and shoe businesses or farms operated may be found, which otherwise would be unavailable. Even rarer is the insight offered by the records into tradesmen – butchers, bakers, and grocers – as the authorities sought to balance the demands of the local economy with the national war effort.
A man’s views, his health, his family or his work were no longer his own affair in a society committed to total war. The same dominative wartime state that set up the Tribunal system also ordered its records to be destroyed after the end of the conflict: Northamptonshire researchers – whether they are exploring family history, the history of a town or village or broader social, political or economic themes – can be grateful that in the case of this county and its surviving Tribunal documents, the growing influence of the 20th century state did not reach all the way down.
Volunteer Project to index collection
Volunteers have a long association with Northamptonshire Archives to help to make 800 years of Northamptonshire’s incredible history accessible. We have volunteers from different backgrounds and ages. However, the qualities they all possess are a passion for history and attention to detail. They are our ambassadors and without them, indexing projects such as this could not be completed.
Since 2013 a team of 8 dedicated volunteers have gone through all the case files to create an index of all the men who appeared before the County’s Appeals Tribunal. The index provides information on the box number, appeal number, name, age, residence, occupation, reason for appeal, outcome, date of decision, and additional information on the final decision.
The project has taken over 2 years to complete. In total volunteers recorded over 20,000 separate appeals, but this does include repeat appeals for the same men.
Volunteer Angela Malin talks about her experience working on the project:
“Why do I volunteer? Good question – because I really enjoy history and heritage especially on a local level.
The Appeals give an often overlooked insight in the how families were affected, both financially and personally, by the ever increasing need for more men to fight. The project has given me a greater awareness of what it must have been like for my great-grandmother to see four of her sons, including my grandfather, go off to war; fortunately, they all returned.
Volunteering is being part of a team, we all help each other, we socialise, we learn. It’s fun!”
Making the Index available on Find My Past.
In the current climate of cutbacks and financial constraints within local government, Archives have to find ways to maximise income without limiting access to the collections. Northamptonshire Archives have employed a full time Commercial Project Manager, Carenza Black, to help develop income generating opportunities. She talks about working with the website ‘Find my Past’:
“The Tribunal papers are an amazing resource, and are of huge interest to people all over the world. We needed a way to make them available to as wide an audience as possible, and, of course, I had an eye on the commercial value of those records.
In this instance, Find My Past was the answer to both of those questions. We simply do not have the ability, or world wide audience, that a company like Find My Past can provide, so doing the same thing via our website was not an option. The Archive gets paid a small fee each time the records are accessed – not a vast amount, but those pennies add up over months and years.
The way we had recorded the information from the Tribunal papers was exactly how Find My Past needed them, which is something we will be bearing in mind for future projects. This meant that it was a quick and easy process to get the index online.
Find My Past publicised the launch of the index, and we posted it to our Facebook page. The response appears to be very positive, with enquiries coming to us for access and research into the files.
The Tribunals index is a perfect example of how making money for the Archives can work hand in hand with making the collections more widely available. Without Find My Past very few people would even know about the index and finding your family member’s records would be far more difficult.”