Over the Top in Leicestershire

In the first of two blogs kindly written by the staff at Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office, Robin Jenkins shares their experience and knowledge in making the best of a challenging situation.

In Leicestershire we are pleased to play a part in the local commemoration of the First World War. From the start it has been an opportunity we have embraced…

It is a familiar story. We are all under threat. Funding is down, staff numbers have been cut and while document production has risen, actual numbers of visitors have fallen. The response is obvious – we must reduce our outreach, eliminate peripheral activity and concentrate on the essentials. Stick to the core work. In short, it is a time for retrenchment……or is it?

No! Now is the time to fight back. To be more active than ever. To promote services rather than abandon them and perhaps even to expand into those areas given up by others. After all, interest in our heritage has never been stronger and we are in a battle for survival. Our work is of vital importance – but if we do not say so, why should we expect anyone else to?

So what did we at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland do? Well, our allotted space here is too little for the full story – but here is one area of response.

We decided to capitalize on the centenary of the Great War. We knew there was public and media interest and we were assured that there would be (moral) support from our local authority paymasters. There was some existing skill and enthusiasm amongst the staff and we already had good archival resources to exploit and promote. We were sure too that this ‘event’ would last a good five or six years (as the war lasted until 1919) so any modest investment of time or money would be well spent and easily justified.

We began with a training programme for the staff and launched an appeal to create a local ‘Great War Archive’. The appeal brought in a few items but, more importantly, it put us into the local World War One game. If a club needed a speaker, or local radio a comment, they might well come to us. We also devised our own ‘logo’, so that we could establish a brand for the commemoration.

On 28th June 2014 we really went over the top. We didn’t wait for the centenary of declaration of war in August (though we had an event for that too). Instead, we held an open day at which we were able to re-enact the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on its exact centenary, almost to the minute. It was our best open day yet; beginning with a suffragette outrage and continuing with a good mix of traditional elements (tours of the building and talks) and new (enlistment in our 1914-style Citizens Defence League – including new recruit photograph – and live wartime music).

Archduke assassination

Staff in their Open Day costumes (and with the Archduke’s borrowed six-seater touring car)

Otherwise, it was a bad time for us in Leicestershire. The depth of the economic crisis had just come home to us and we were all worried for the future of the service and our jobs. With the Open Day and assassination re-enactment, however, we had an even more pressing worry to occupy our minds and found that the staff had never been more united – in achieving a common purpose. We learned a valuable lesson; when all seems dark and hopeless, plan a major event!

Our searchroom a hub of archival research.

Encouraged by the success of the Open Day, we began to think what else we could do to put archives on the local Great War map. Our next step was to create a trench system at the rear of the Record Office. Luckily a low-level pathway lent itself to the creation of a passable trench; not capable of stopping a bullet, of course, but superb as the back-drop for visits from local schools. In only its second year, our ‘Christmas in the Trench’ event, featuring fireworks, rum and trench cake, a modest band, and carols (some sung in German) has become a keenly anticipated feature of the local calendar alongside late night shopping and Santa’s grotto.

It is all good fun but it is also a deadly serious business – part fight for survival and part promotion of endangered services. I would also say that it is a priceless investment in the future. On the centenary of the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt in March 1915, we played host to seventy children from a local primary school. They researched real local men who died that day, toured our strong rooms and spent an hour in our trench, ‘firing’ a trench mortar ‘stonk’ by map reference, sending messages, and acting as stretcher bearers.


The mortar-party shouting “Bang!”

Finally, we brought everyone together in the car park for a full-scale recreation of the 1915 attack, complete with whistle and machine-gun  fire (actually a rattle), in which every child wore the name of a real soldier, colour coded to show his fate in the attack. Those ‘killed in action’ or ‘wounded’ dropped to the ground when the machine-gunners opened fire, showing how devastating the attack had been.

The day concluded with a moment of silent remembrance. That minute was one of the most thoughtful I’ve experienced. What is more, those children returned to school tired but thrilled from their day at the Record Office – and if only one off them went home with the news that archives can be fun, we triumphed!

In Part 2, Jenny Moran provides welcome advice to new professionals making a start in their fledgling careers and how best to maximize their potential.  


Since writing the above post, The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland has been short-listed for the ARA Record Keeping Service of the Year Award, largely as a result of the work detailed here. To find out more, and to read about the other short-listed candidates and their supporting statements, go to the Archives and Records Association website at http://www.archives.org.uk/ara-in-action/news/630-ara-excellence-awards-2016.html

To vote, go to: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/ara_awards2016




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