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BerksFHS Berkshire Family Historian
December 2002

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2002 Contents

Family history at the Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum is a 'must visit' institution for the family historian. It was established in 1917 as both a memorial to those who had died and a centre where the First World War could be studied and remembered. From the beginning, it was used by people trying to find out what had happened to members of their families, and this function has continued and increased in recent years. Sarah Paterson of the Department of Printed Books at the Museum explains just what is available for researchers.

The twentieth century has been a century overshadowed by war, that has involved everybody. Consequently, the scope of the Imperial War Museum is greater than many people might imagine. Although it naturally has material relating to the Armed Forces, there is also considerable civilian coverage, for instance of the evacuation of children, women coping with shortages and danger, the internment of foreigners, munitions manufacture and conscientious objection. Though there is a concentration on the British and the Commonwealth, there is also material about the opposing forces and about what was happening in enemy-held countries.

The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth Road provides changing exhibitions and narrative displays on the two World Wars. HMS Belfast, a Second World War Cruiser anchored on the Thames, is an ideal place to visit for those seeking to find out about what life was like in the Royal Navy of this period. Wandering around Duxford, a former RAF base near Cambridge, will enable you to find out more about the Royal Air Force, and you can see vintage aircraft flying at the regular air shows held in the summer months. Other Imperial War Museum branches are the Cabinet War Rooms (Churchill’s wartime government headquarters in Whitehall), and Imperial War Museum North.

For some visitors, it may be enough to see these displays. But if you would like to take things further there are a number of different reference departments that are all open to the public by appointment. These are the Imperial War Museum Collections, which are based in the Museum at Lambeth Road or at the All Saints Annexe a few minutes’ walk away. You can do as much or as little research as you like, and there is no charge (except for copies). Staff are unable to do detailed research for you, but are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and will be able to offer advice.

There are seven different Collections: the Department of Art, Department of Documents, Department of Exhibits and Firearms, Film and Video Archive, Photograph Archive, Department of Printed Books and Sound Archive.

The Department of Printed Books is probably the best starting point for the family historian. This is a national reference library with a variety of materials ranging from song sheets to trench maps, and greetings cards to knitting patterns, as well as the books and periodicals you would expect. Although we have material that is rare, occasionally unique, one of our great strengths is that so many publications you sometimes have to visit several different libraries to see, are available under one roof.

Reading Room at the IW Museum

Reading Room at the Museum (courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

The Department of Printed Books does not have service records or official documentation - these are held either at the Public Record Office or the Ministry of Defence - but can advise on where to find these, and how to interpret what you find. The crucial piece of information is to know the unit(s) that an individual served with - in the service record, these usually appear as a list of numbers and abbreviations, and can appear confusing. The library has the unit histories and other sources that will enable you to find out where these units served and what they did. For those just beginning their research we have produced a number of family history notes covering the Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and prisoners of war. We also have information sheets on tracing American service personnel and the following women’s formations in the First World War: the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps and Voluntary Aid Detachments. Booklists may also prove helpful for those wishing to find out about various subjects ranging from the Imperial Camel Corps to the Women’s Land Army. Some of these are available on the Museum’s website at or copies can be requested directly from the department.


The Department also has a flourishing publications programme. A complete catalogue is available on request, or can be downloaded from the Museum’s website. There are four titles currently available in the Tracing Your Family History series: Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. These sell for £5.50 each, and have been produced in response to frequently asked questions. They aim to help those who are confused about the complicated structure, language and abbreviations of the Armed Forces, and as well as providing information, they include useful reading lists and addresses. The next books in the series will relate to the different women’s formations, to tie in with the Women in Uniform exhibition that will be held in Autumn 2003.

Debt of Honour

The Internet has revolutionised family history research. The Museum’s website provides more information about the different branches of the Museum as well as online exhibitions and links. There are many sites that enable you to appeal for information or to make contact with comrades who may have served with the person you are researching. Ironically it is those who died who are easiest to trace and the launch of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Debt of Honour database in November 1998 has had a tremendous impact on our enquiries. All the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission registers available on open shelves in our reading room, and these can also be helpful for the maps and plans they provide, as well as enabling you to see exactly who from the same unit died on the same day.

Part of a war diary

Part of the war diary for the Royal Berkshire Regiment at the Battle of Albert in 1916 (WO 95/1850) courtesy of the Public Record Office. Although war diaries are not held at the Imperial War Museum, more detailed accounts can often be found there in regimental, divisional and campaign histories as well as other sources.

‘Soldiers died in the Great War, 1914-19’, originally published in 80 volumes in 1921 with a separate listing for officers, and an official roll of honour for the Second World War Army dead (never published in conventional form) are now available in CD ROM form, and have made researching casualties much easier. These are available for consultation in our catalogue room.

Rolls of honour are one of the library’s great strengths. These are listings of those who died, and sometimes those who served as well. The amount of information varies - sometimes only brief details are given, but some publications include potted biographies as well as photographs. Most regiments and towns or villages produced these, but the range of listings varies from commercial organisations - banks and railway companies being especially well represented - to Scottish clans, churches and scout groups. There are many rolls of honour from public schools and universities, although these tend to concentrate on officers. There are listings for British residents of Chile who fought in the First World War and the British Community in the Argentine Republic who fought in the Second. ‘The National Roll of the Great War’, a publication produced in the early 1920s, lists those who served as well as those who died, and is frequently requested by those researching family members. Although the museum has all 14 volumes known to have been produced, it appears to have been published on a subscription basis, and only a very tiny fraction of possible names are included. The growth in war memorial indexes and transcripts and in family history as a leisure interest has resulted in new publications of this type being produced, and we are always keen to acquire these to add to the collection.

War Memorials project

Some of you may have contributed to the United Kingdom National Inventory of War Memorials project. This is attempting to list and record the condition of all war memorials in the country. Although initially it was decided not to record the names listed on all these memorials (because this would have been too enormous an undertaking) there are hopes that this will happen - and much supplementary information is already available in the Inventory office. [The Berkshire Family History Society has produced an index of names and memorials in the county]. The Museum database, containing over 45,000 memorials, was launched last November and can be consulted in our Reading Room.

The library contains regimental, ship and squadron histories, official histories, campaign histories and autobiographies. These are not just British, but relate to most nationalities. The Commonwealth holdings are especially strong; for example, we have a complete run of the ‘Indian Army List’ for the years between 1914 and 1947, a nominal roll for most of the original units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and a microfiche listing of members of the Australian Imperial Force in the First World War (including dates of death or repatriation to Australia). Although this is now also available on the Australian War Memorial website, it is useful to be able to consult this and the many Australian regimental histories we have.

One of the outstanding holdings of the Department of Printed Books is the journals collection. Although large numbers of national newspapers were destroyed by fire, there are many titles that will give you an excellent feel of what it was like to be in a particular place at a particular time. Regimental journals can be brilliant sources of information, especially if you are tracing a regular soldier. These feature births, marriages and deaths columns, and often contain details of postings and promotions. You will be able to chart movements from one location to another, including details of the journey, the state of the barracks, exercises and local events. If your ancestor was a keen sportsman or interested in amateur dramatics, he may be mentioned in the battalion sports or entertainment reports. Holdings of ‘The China Dragon: the Chronicle of the Royal Berkshire Regiment’ run from 1907 to 1914 when publication ceased, from 1919 to April 1921 (runs of some journals ceased during the inter-war period as the remit of the Imperial War Museum was only to cover the First World War - coverage was extended on the outbreak of the Second World War), and then from December 1940 to 1959. Visitors can conduct research in our Reading Room, which is located in the dome of the building. This was formerly the chapel of the Royal Bethlem Mental Hospital, more popularly known as ‘Bedlam’, and the Ten Commandants still grace the walls. Access involves a twisting staircase, and it is not ideal for those who have difficulty climbing stairs, though alternative accommodation can be arranged as long as prior notice is given. The Departments of Printed Books and Documents share the reading room and it is possible to consult both collections at the same time. Documents consist of personal papers, such as letters or diaries as well as retrospective unpublished memoirs, and these are invaluable for personal insight into different campaigns or situations. The department also has important materials for family historians in listings such as the Changi Civilian Internment Camp Register or the Milag Nord Register (a prison camp for merchant seamen at Westertimke in Germany).

All departments at the Museum are continually acquiring new items and it is therefore worth revisiting. There is a wide variety of material available at the Museum, some of it unique, but all of it easily accessible to everybody free of charge. All you need do is make an appointment, and contact numbers are given below. The Imperial War Museum offers itself as ‘part of your family’s history’ and holds a wide range of material that will provide a clear insight into the nature of personal experience in wartime.

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ

Open daily: 10.00am-6.00pm. Tel: 020 7416 5320 Fax: 020 7416 5374 Email:; website

Imperial War Museum Collections

Department of Printed Books

Reading Room is open by appointment Monday-Friday: 10.00am­5.00pm (and most Saturdays between the same hours, although this is a limited service). Tel: 020 7416 5342 Fax: 020 7416 5374 Email:

Department of Documents

Reading Room is open by appointment Monday-Friday: 10.00am­5.00pm (and most Saturdays between the same hours, although this is a limited service). Tel: 020 7416 5222 Fax: 020 7416 5374 Email:

Department of Art

Reading Room is open by appointment Monday-Friday: 10.00am­5.00pm. Tel: 020 7416 5211 Fax: 020 7416 5409 Email:

Department of Exhibits and Firearms

Visitors’ Room open by appointment Monday-Friday: 10.00am­5.00pm. Tel: 020 7416 5272 Fax: 020 7416 5374 Email:

Film and Video Archive

Visitors’ Room open by appointment Monday-Friday: 10.00am­5.00pm. Tel: 020 7416 5291 Fax: 020 7416 5299 Email:

Photograph Archive

Visitors’ Room open by appointment Monday-Friday: 10.00am­5.00pm. Tel: 020 7416 5333 Fax: 020 7416 5355 Email:

Sound Archive

Visitors’ Room open by appointment Monday-Friday: 10.00am­5.00pm. Tel: 020 7416 5363 Fax: 020 7416 5379 Email:

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created 10th December 2002