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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2003
Berkshire Family Historian
March 2003

Family history at the National Army Museum
Peter B. Boyden

Regimental museums can be of great assistance to family historians as they can provide vital information on the regiments themselves and the campaigns they fought in along with photographs and medals won by the soldiers themselves. If you know that your ancestor served with one of the regiments then a visit to their museum is always worthwhile. Few, however, visit the National Army Museum in London and Peter B. Boyden, Assistant Director (Collections) at the Museum, describes why a visit can reveal some surprises.

The National Army Museum opened its new home in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, in November 1971, when the widespread interest in family history, which is such a feature of contemporary life, was first beginning to make its presence felt in Britain. Having begun life at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the Museum received its Royal Charter in 1960 and thanks to the generosity of many private donors was able to open in its purpose-built London home eleven years later. On the face of it the Museum is not an obvious hunting ground for family historians, given that it holds no records relating to the Army careers of individual soldiers, which are to be found in the Public Record Office. There is a chance the pay hook of great-great-uncle Fred may have been given to the Museum Archives, but in general the Museum cannot help directly with enquiries about individual other ranks. The success rate for information about commissioned officers is higher, chiefly because details about them is available in printed sources such as Army Lists, regimental histories and other publications. In addition, for those researching officers of the East India Company armies, and the successor Indian Army, the Museum owns the card index of biographical data on them compiled by Major Vernon Hodson. For most people researching ancestors who served in the British Army the National Army Museum is able to be of little direct help, but this does not stop many family historians finding visits to the Museum of enormous benefit, chiefly because its collections and facilities enable researchers to put into context the information which they have obtained from documents in the Public Record Office.


An important source of this background data is the Museum’s collections. Following the obligations set out in its Royal Charter, the Museum collects and preserves items relating to the land forces of the British Crown. They include items which range in size from buttons to railway locomotives, manufactured in all possible materials from paper to steel. Uniforms, badges, medals, firearms, swords and other weapons, items of kit and all the paraphernalia used by soldiers through the ages figure largely in the Museum’s collections, but so too do handicrafts made by prisoners of war, examples of soldiers’ embroidery, letters, diaries, sketches, mess silver, and a host of other things which were either made or used by soldiers. A wealth of illustrative material — oil paintings, watercolours, prints and photographs —depict not only individuals, but also record the experience of soldiers on campaign, in barracks and when relaxing off-duty whereever in the world British troops have served. These items, particularly the three-dimensional ones, feature in the Museum’s galleries, which are arranged in a chronological sequence from Agincourt to the present day and illustrate the circumstances in which soldiers lived, and the nature of their uniform and weapons.

In addition the National Army Museum has extensive study collections of books, archives, photographs and works of art on paper, which may be consulted in the Reading Room. Access is only by Reader’s Ticket, which must be applied for in advance of a visit; application forms maybe obtained from the Department of Printed Books. Although there is always the chance that family historians find direct references to the individuals they are researching, in common with the museum displays, these sources are usually of the greatest help in providing background information about soldiers’ lives. For example, having ascertained from the Public Record Office details of the regiment, where and when an ancestor served, the resources of the National Army Museum Reading Room will provide further information about these events and places, including, in all probability, pictorial representations of at least some of them.


To bring the collections, and indeed the history of the Army, further to life the National Army Museum holds a series of monthly Special Events Weekends which explore specific aspects of Army life. Using a mixture of speakers, costumed interpreters, live performers, children’s workshops and other activities, the 1879 Zulu War, the Horse in War, Desert Warfare, and the Victorian Soldier’s Christmas (to name but a few) are showcased and interpreted for visitors of all ages. A feature of some of these weekends is the opportunity to try on original and replica items of clothing and to handle and feel the weight of pieces of equipment, something which gives fresh insights into the military lives of past generations which no amount of documentation can provide. A weekly programme of lunchtime talks explores themes linked to the subject of Special Events weekends, and in addition the Museum periodically holds conferences and study days on aspects of British military history. Some of these are specifically aimed at family historians, and include practical guidance on searching archival sources, while also including costumed interpreters to discuss the uniform and equipment of soldiers of the Victorian period, and the First World War. Information on forthcoming events are contained in a ‘What’s on’ leaflet, updated very month. This brief article has obtained the ways in which the National Army Museum caters for the needs of family historians, and will hopefully encourage some readers to pay it a visit. Details of opening hours (admission is free) and other information for visitors can be obtained from the website www.national-army­ and is also available in hard copy by post from the National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HT.

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created 30th May 2003