I recently completed a BA in Art History where archives and local libraries were an integral part of my academic exploration and research. With a keen interest in material culture, understanding communities and the field of archives, I volunteered at Thames Festival Trust for the Islanders Project. I visited Newham Archives once a week for a month to explore the rich history of Silvertown and North Woolwich. This was an opportunity to gain an insight into the lives of communities, industrial institutions, companies, events and recreational places associated with the area.
Under the guidance of archivist Jess and Islanders project manager James, I gained valuable skills like microfilm research, boxing & cataloguing, digitisation and groupwork.
The calm atmosphere of the library helped me embrace and delve deep into the wonderfully preserved documents, images, maps, newspapers and objects.
I scavenged through these archives to collect insight on the docks, Tate & Lyle Factory, local characters, parks, ships and Second World War impact on the area. I especially enjoyed reading about the local community in newspapers, looking at images and stories of people, accounts of fairs and festivals, which so wonderfully formed the cultural essence of industrial Silvertown and North Woolwich.
Working at the Newham Archives for the Islanders Project reinforced my motivation to pursue a career in the Museum and Archive field. I felt a deep sense of connection with the communities I was reading about and it left me wanting to learn more about the rich history of London boroughs. This project allowed me to highlight these stories and acknowledge the sense of community which prevailed not only in the nineteenth century but is also reflected in contemporary Newham. I discovered the possibilities of working within archives, why it’s important to preserve these pieces of history and the impact it can have on the present by bringing people together.
Taking part in The Islanders Project was a very eye-opening experience in many ways. I got to interview people who lived very interesting lives and had made an impact on the North Woolwich and Silvertown area. I also got to take part in archival sessions at Stratford Library. I learnt how to use a digital microfilm scanner – a machine used to project the images on positive film reel. I looked through newspapers from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Although quite a tedious task, it was very interesting and even amusing looking at some of the news stories of the day. For example, the proprietor of the North Woolwich Pleasure Gardens was an avid hot air balloonist. I also learnt how to digitise old photographs and how to catalogue items.
The best part of this project, aside from the interviews, was looking at logbooks from schools native to the area. On the outside, the books were very old and crumbly, but the information inside really fascinated me. I looked through major dates in British history such as the world wars and how the schools prepared for evacuation and air raids. You learn about these events in school but holding a historical object and looking at how normal people reacted to such distressing events made history feel a lot more tangible.
At the time of being involved in The Islanders project, I was coming to the end of my last year at university having studied BA History. As part of the project, we volunteered at Newham Archives which allowed me to finally put the skills I’ve learnt as a historian to use. I particularly enjoyed using the microfilm readers to discover pieces of precious information which had previously been overlooked. However, working with microfilm required a lot of patience as one film contains hundreds of articles, of which only one might be useful to you. Having said that though, the feeling of finding a relevant article after hours of work is incredible. Before volunteering at the archive, I did not fully appreciate the patience being a historian requires, and now I do.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of helping out at the archives, was being able to see and feel real history.
Holding books, photographs and maps from as early as the 1880s reminded of my love for history.
My time at the archive cemented my passion for history as I was finally able to apply my degree practically. As part of the programme, we also helped catalogue medical documents for the archive which was a fascinating experience. We helped organise boxes full of primary material for later archiving which gave us a taste of the work archivists do. Flicking through the authentic documents, knowing someone decades ago had written this is a feeling like no other for a history lover.
When I began researching in the Newham Archives for The Islanders I had never worked in an archive before. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was looking forward to the experience. However, once we began working in the archives, I soon realised I loved getting to look through all the material and learn more about the history of Silvertown and North Woolwich, which was the focus of our research.
Working in the archive was fascinating. I was amazed by the amount of material there was available to look through, from photos and newspapers, to maps and school logbooks. There were photos of places and events such as the docks, the Silvertown Explosion, and the Ferry Festival. We looked through them and scanned them to create digital copies. We also looked through old newspapers using microfilm readers, which I had never used before. Some of the oldest newspapers I looked through dated back to the 1880s.
I found reports about the first Tate and Lyle staff excursion, docker’s strikes and Tate and Lyle cricket matches.
Looking through the school logbooks gave a fascinating insight into daily life, such as needlework inspections and teachers running late because of trains breaking down, to major historical events like WWII air raids. Through this research I learned about the rich and varied history of Silvertown and North Woolwich.
On arrival, Jess the Archivist was able to show us a wide variety of materials from the collections, from school logbooks to photographs, microfilms, letters and even a docker’s uniform from the early 1900s! These were fascinating to look at, since they represented a number of different periods of the borough’s varied and rich history.
The visits to Newham Archives have formed one of the highlights of my year so far.
One of the most important things that I have taken away from the archive sessions is a greater appreciation for the amount of planning and preparation that is required for a fruitful visit. The sheer volume of archival material available was slightly overwhelming at first, and it brought home the necessity of going into archive visits with clear objectives and a thorough plan of action.
Something else I have learnt is that it always takes longer than one would think to get through material- I often found myself spending much more time than I had expected to go through fairly small amounts of information. An example of this was when I was looking at newspapers from the late 19th century. These were very dense with small print, which, coupled with using a microfilm reader, made them difficult and a little time-consuming to get through. However, I soon learned to recognise the general structure of these newspapers, so I could more easily locate the relevant information, which helped me get through them faster.
I am very grateful to James and the Thames Festival Trust, Jess and Newham Archives for such a rewarding, enjoyable and inspiring experience, and I am looking forward to undertaking more archival work in the future.
I approached the Islanders project due to a desire to do something, anything, related to my passion in history beyond the classroom. University education felt monotonous at times due to pandemic restrictions. As a first-year history student, I read a lot of secondary research materials. I wanted to peel back the layers of historical research, to observe the role of archives in the making of history.
The opportunity to train and practice oral history, which was unfamiliar to me, was also appealing. I also aimed to engage deeply with the heritage of a local community in London. The goals were definitely met, with guidance generously provided at each step of the way by James and Jess.
There were challenges along the way, but they were truly valuable lessons.
I was a stammering, anxious interviewer during the first oral history interview. There was a pressure to make the interviewee comfortable, but also to actively listen and craft relevant questions. I felt the need to be more expressive since non-verbal communication was stunted by the virtual platform. With that, I was more prepared by the next interview. Learning more about the interviewee’s background, making sure questions flow seamlessly from one to the next, providing brief feedback to assure the interviewee of their helpfulness – the approach gained much clarity with experience. Research in the archives needed more persistence than I expected.
One week I found a lot of interesting material from the microfilms, but the next week I found minimal information even after looking through months and months of newspapers. However, every time something interesting appeared, it was exciting again. Log books illustrated local elementary schools disrupted by wider issues such as war, disease and economic hardship. It was an emphatic experience.
Learning about historical events after the facts were processed by textbooks or essays is vastly different from flipping through the contemporary evidence myself. The fear of death, the resilience and pride from working in a demanding environment, the bittersweet experience of growing up… I was moved by how residents of North Woolwich and Silvertown from the late 19th to 20th century lived their lives so fully.
My time at the Newham archives has been both an insightful and exciting journey. This experience for me has been something completely new, except for the odd school history trip here and there where we had been shown a quick glance of a dusty room with gigantic shelfs, I had never stepped foot in an archive! I wasn’t sure what to expect so I decided to go in with an open mind, ready for anything.
On the first day after some short introductions we got stuck straight in, not only learning how to operate the equipment (which I’m not sure I completely got the hang of) but how and why the particular items were preserved that way. For example, old newspapers are uploaded onto rolls of film that can be viewed and magnified on a computer screen. Being able to read old newspapers from the 19th century was not only a great opportunity to gain valuable information for our project but also gave a glance into Victorian society and culture.
My favourite activity was being able to go through boxes of photographs and learning how to scan them.
We also learnt a lot about the organisation and process of cataloguing physical items and photographs and how confusing it can be if it’s not done properly! Apart from gathering information for the project, I think the most important thing I took away from this experience is how important and essential archive work is and how often it can be overlooked. After all, without a safe and organised place to store artefacts and information so much history and the stories of communities would disappear!
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