Getting the most out of your first (or next) visit to the archives

Every day, new people visit archives across the country and around the world. Here’s some advice from ‘the other side of the desk’. Hopefully it will provide light-hearted reassurance that we’d love to see you, as well as help you to get the most out of your first visit, next visit, or repeat visit: I hope it will be one of a very many!

Come prepared

Most archives, local studies libraries and the like will have a web presence. This sounds really obvious, but have a look at the website before you visit. Find out how to get there and what to expect, as well as which records are deposited there. Most archives will have an online catalogue and perhaps separate lists of available parish registers and which form they’re in (eg microfilmed, digitised, bishops’ transcripts only), for example.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said that you don’t need an appointment and that it’s free to visit my local diocesan archives, but there are some exceptions. Do check your archive of interest, especially if it’s a private or small archive, which might need a letter of introduction or require you to make an appointment. It’s also worth checking whether documents are produced at all times that the archive is open: I once fell into a trap of visiting an archive on a Saturday when they didn’t produce anything that hadn’t been ordered by lunch-time the previous day – as you can imagine, it’d didn’t make for a good trip.

We love you to visit, but as I’m sure you’ll guess, the nature of our work means that there have to be some rules and regulations to ensure that future generations can have the same opportunities as you. Generally speaking you’ll be asked to put your coats and bags in a locker before entering the research area, so take a pound coin and some other change for the lock, just in case. If it’s your first visit and you don’t already have a reader’s ticket (often a ‘CARN’ card – a County Archive Research Network card) you’ll also need something that proves who you are and where you live. It’s worth checking what you need before arriving because different archives have different arrangements – you may even need to take a brief elearning course and go through a security procedure on arrival to make sure you’re aware of searchroom policies.

There are usually restrictions on what you can take into the area where documents are accessible. You’ll mostly need to limit yourself to your notes, your glasses, a magnifying glass and pencils. We’re not doing this to be difficult: the rules are there to protect the material. By all means enjoy a coffee and sticky bun before you start, but do it outside the searchroom and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards – there’ll often be a common room or other area available. Most of the time a camera is OK, but many places charge for a photography permit, so check before you start snapping. Please also be aware that not everything is suitable for photocopying (imagine our faces if we spot someone pushing the spine of a tightly bound medieval volume onto the glass). There may be other restrictions if something is still in copyright, or if, for example, a parish have denied copying rights to their parish registers. If in doubt, please ask.

Don’t expect white gloves – TV crews often bring these themselves because it’s what you expect to see on the telly – even though many (even most) archives now agree that they are not the best way to handle paper or parchment. Your archive’s staff will explain their policies and how to use the weights, book sofas and wedges available. Photographs are likely to be different, and you may well be given gloves to avoid damaging the surface of the print. Either way, please be kind to what you're looking at. Try not to lean on them, run your fingers underneath every line or do what my colleague calls ‘a Gary Lineker’ (who memorably licked his finger to rummage through documents).

Your archive might offer documents by a collection system – on the hour, half hour or something else. A lot of the time you can get a head start before you arrive by pre-ordering what you’d like to see, which brings us to...

Email or otherwise contact us in advance if the website doesn’t answer your questions, if the online catalogue wasn’t clear to you or if you’d like to pre-order something. It’s worth checking that the records you want are actually at the archive if you’re not sure. In some cases, records might still be at a local church, or subsumed into a company archive far from where they were originally created. This can save you some serious archive disappoint!

Have a research focus – help us to help you

We’re delighted to welcome visitors, and I really mean that. I am definitely an advocate of removing the unfriendly, dusty stereotype that some people hold when it comes to archives.

Still, a focus helps us both.

While we hear many fascinating stories, and often enjoy doing so, take a moment to put yourself in our shoes. Jumping around your family history branches and asking twenty questions about each one in quick succession makes it very difficult for both you and us to follow a clear line of enquiry, making your research time less efficient and making it harder for us to help you – we need to know what it is you want to find out, and in what order! We can advise the best place to start if you’re unsure, and often it’s working backwards from what you already know.

We’d definitely encourage you to bring you existing research, ideally organised in a way that’s easy for you to refer to when you need it. (This is a do as a say, not as I necessarily do, but generally speaking scraps of paper in a random order aren’t the most helpful...) This will help you order your thoughts and define questions before you arrive, so that you can ask for support searching for a specific event or person in an approximate time period. Think ‘Where was my great grandfather born, and who were his parents?’ rather than ‘Can you help me do my family history’? The second question is great, too – we’d love to help you where we can – but we’re likely to point you towards courses, events, reading material and useful websites to start with in this case, at least in the first instance, rather than being able to take you straight to a relevant record to answer a question. Which leads nicely to...

Investigate some background to genealogical research, especially If your visit is fleeting and you are travelling long distance

Check locally to see if your local archive can help you get started. Here in Norfolk there are workshops every month to sort out the basics: civil registration of birth, marriage and death and using the census. After that you can progress to a myriad of other sources through other workshops and talks, hands-on practice and borrowing from a big family history and local history library. Indulging in these sorts of activities will give you a great grounding in family history before you start, an opportunity to ask your questions in a small group of people, and allow you to meet others at the same stage in their research.

We love beginners, because a lot of us love what we do and want to enthuse you to get started. We hope that you’ll go on to become a regular visitor. Get involved with some background reading from our library, or do a course with us, and it will pay back dividends. You’ll know where to start, what the records mean, how they were created, and how to use them. You’ll also be comfortable using the searchroom, and it will save you falling into some of the common family history traps.

Having said that we love beginners (and we do, have I said it enough?!), if you’re visiting an archive a long way away, some prior knowledge before you arrive is especially important, particularly if you know you’ll have a very limited time in the searchroom or it’s not a country you’ve done research in. Learn what you can from home and your local archive and library, then work out what you want to research at another one before you arrive.  It can be fun to leave time afterwards to visit some of the places you found in your research, too.

I've met my fair share of researchers, sometimes visiting for only two hours from as far away as Australia, who weren't at all prepared. Hopefully they left happy with what they found, but it seems a shame to spend a finite amount of precious time learning the difference between a parish and a registration district which could have been done in advance, rather than using unique sources they couldn’t have accessed anywhere else. My best advice in this case? 1. Note the sources of your existing research (not just 'birth' but 'GRO birth index', 'note in baptism register at xxx', 'date of birth given on death certificate' etc). 2. Create some focussed research questions. 3. Use the long journey to read the relevant parts of Herber’s Ancestral Trails if you’re about to start researching in England! (Wonder if it's available as an ebook yet?).  

Ask us...

If you’re stuck, let us know.

Even if it’s that you’re not sure how to load a microfilm reader (most people don’t) we’d much rather show you than find you twenty minutes later, wrapped round and round with film and attached to your chair, the reader and the next door researcher! [Nb the latter is somewhat unlikely, microfilm is one of those things that's easy when you know how]. Sometimes even machines in the same search area load in different ways, and some of the whizzy reader-printers are initially bewildering without a guiding hand. It’s the same if your worry isn’t microfilm, but using a computer – we can point you to sources of help if you’re new to online research.

The searchroom staff are there to support and guide you, (not just to maintain security and ensure the long-term preservation of our resources). We can suggest new documents to look at to solve your enquiry, help you read words you’re stuck on, suggest what something might mean, or talk to you about how best to reproduce what you’re looking at. If we don’t know, we’ll try and find out, or point you in the direction of someone that can help.

Be realistic

Sometimes, engaging as they are, TV genealogy shows have a lot to answer for. The programme you watched probably involved six months or so of research, distilled into what you eventually saw, and one visit to the archive, even for a professional researcher, could not reveal all of the story.

There will be days where you make a succession of amazing discoveries in the searchroom, and others where you find one or two things but have trawled through many pages to little avail (interesting as they might be, smelling as lovely and old as they do, they might not be directly relevant).

It’s also important for me to say that we can’t do all your research for you. We can guide you, help you and answer your questions, but we can’t necessarily sit with you one-on-one for long periods of time (unless you’ve pre-booked a session or there’s another event on) because we have many customers to help in a typical day. If what you’re looking for is a someone to do your research, look for a local professional record searcher – some archives will have contact details to help you find them.

So, while we don’t have your family tree sitting ready under our desk (!), we will be delighted to direct you to useful material - perhaps some things you didn’t even know existed - and help you make your own uniquely personal and satisfying discoveries. For many of us, that’s why we do the job.

Happy researching!

"I hope it won't be so exciting as this": Sister Hayward's Great War Diary

Working on a project commemorating the Great War, I came across the incredible story of Sister Jessie Clementia Hayward, a nurse from Norfolk who survived the sinking of SS Transylvania in 1917. Sister Hayward was on her way to a hospital in Salonika with thousands of troops when a U Boat torpedoed the vessel. A copy of a diary entry at Norfolk Record Office, and her Service Record at the National Archives, help us to tell the following story...

Jessie Clementia Hayward was born in Hardley in 1883, the daughter of Edward Walter Hayward and Clementia Eliza (nee Goddard). She grew up at Hardley Hall Farm, near Loddon in Norfolk, just as her mother had done a generation earlier.

Jessie was probably youngest of six children. Marion Jane, the eldest (1876-1957), went on to become housekeeper when her mother Clementia died in 1892, leaving her father Edward with five children between 9 and 16. The other children were Ellen (1877-1914), Edward Nelson (1879-1938), Hylton Goddard (1880-1881) and Ada Goddard (1882-1958).

The censuses of 1891 and 1901 show Jessie at home with her family in Hardley. She later trained as a nurse at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and by 1911, we find her working as a Charge Nurse at the Workhouse on Woodbridge Road, Ipswich (part of which is now part of Ipswich Hospital).

At some point, Jessie was recruited to the Territorial Force Nursing Service which had been set up in 1909. As a sister organisation to Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, their role was to supplement the QAIMNS during national emergencies – all those recruited to the TFNS were already nurses in civilian life with a minimum of three years’ experience. The TFNS was renamed the Territorial Army Nursing Service in 1920.

Sister Hayward was called up on 10 August 1914. For two years she worked at the 1st Eastern General Hospital in Cambridge. During the Great War, the hospital was headquartered at Trinity College, growing into temporary buildings at Clare and King’s Colleges. According to (which also has some photographs), by the end of 1915, there were 1500 beds at the hospital. The Matron of the 1st Eastern was also Matron of Addenbrooke’s, where the archives of the hospital are still held.

With a year’s service under her belt, Jessie was noted as “conscientious, hard working and sympathetic. Not always firm enough in administration, but keeps a good tone in her ward”, the Commanding Officer described her as “very satisfactory”. A year later she was reported as “a refined woman who looks after the interest of her patients”. However, the Matron also noted that she lacked a “little self-confidence”. The Commanding Officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps stated simply “A capable sister”; a comment with which his colleagues concurred.

In February 1917 Jessie received a typhoid inoculation and was subsequently examined and found fit to “undertake nursing duties in a military hospital abroad in an Eastern climate”. Shortly thereafter she found herself on-route to Salonica, via France. A copy of a diary entry at Norfolk Record Office allows us to follow her adventures and we can join her at camp in Marseilles on Wednesday, May 2nd.

Jessie tells us that she was glad to be going to Salonika, but for the fact that the mail was not yet in. She was awake by 4am on the morning of Thursday May 3rd, and, along with 64 other nurses and Matron, said her farewells and left camp. By early afternoon, all were aboard the Transylvania and Jessie had made the acquaintance of the Steward (“a good sort”) and eaten a good meal. The life boat drill, which took place afterwards, was, apparently, “a farce as usual”. Jessie reports that 3500 Tommies were aboard and that Matron wore a new alpacca. During dinner, the ship started, while Jessie and five others are sitting with Matron (“some have honours thrust upon them”).

The Transylvania was a Cunard passenger liner. Having been completed just before the outbreak of war, she was taken over as a troopship on completion.  It seems Jessie thought the boat “lovely, beautiful berths, lovely eiderdown looks so nice”. A few of her companions were sea sick and took Mother Sills’ pills. The ship was accompanied by Japanese Destroyers for safety from U boats.

After dinner, the Sisters had a private rehearsal, with Matron, of what to do if torpedoed. “We walk to our life boat. I am to be in charge of our corridor. Life belts always to be worn (some grumble)”.

Next morning, Jessie met a Tommy in ‘her’ life boat. It turns out she had cared for him, Private Francis, in hospital in Cambridge. Later, “Sister Swinford and I choose chairs and get our work and books and settle for the morning. Our VADs come along and we all have a chat and everything seems so nice. At 10am Matron comes along and insists all life belts are to be worn continually. We obey.”

15 minutes later:

“A bang which those who heard will never forget...There is no panic, everyone goes to her allotted place, what white faces all around...we are to get in “Ladies First” how often I have read but never expected to hear that cry...Private Francis helps me in I immediately find my feet wet, but this a mere detail. Matron and 45 of us all pushed in, three Tommies, and then the boat is lowered. I really think this is the worst moment.”

There is no crew available and the Captain asks for volunteers, resulting in two coming down the ropes. One is Jack. “We shall never forget him. Only a lad of 17, but how brave and splendid he was throughout...[his] smiling face at the rudder, cheering us all and shouting our orders.”

“Our boat sets out and the men from the ship give three cheers! I cannot look back. The sea seems quite rough. The Sisters help with the oars, we are in sight of shore...I feel pretty fit at this stage...”You did not get me well at Cambridge for nothing, Sister Hayward.” It seemed strange to hear my own name...It seems a long way to shore. A second torpedo strikes our ship...the Transylvania seems to be going down...Many boats are now launched all around us. Why don’t they pick us up?”

“Our boat is filling with water, we start bailing out, but it seems so fruitless and the waves are so big...Another band and H M S Transylvania is no more...The sea seems alive, men clinging to oars, rafts and boats, they look sadly at our boat and we are sinking...I and all the Sisters think we shall sink with the boat. I wonder what they will think at home. A lot flashes through my mind...Each wave we think must be the last...I am washed out and find myself clinging to an oar and piece of rope. At first I felt very frightened and believe I was calling out. Francis is also washed out and I still find I am next to him. He said “Hold on Sister don’t be frightened”. All around we see boats. Will no one pick us up?”

“After a time I felt calmer, but my arms were aching and I felt I must give in...the waves so big, quite over my head, the salt water makes me feel so sick. I thought of home and all my dear ones...I could see and feel little now. A Cheer! From the distance it seemed and then someone said the destroyer was alongside. I thought my head was going to be knocked and it was a pity to be killed after all the “holding on”.”

Sister Hayward was rescued just before it “all went black”. She was given brandy and wine out of a bottle and a towel for warmth. It was not long until she was able to laugh and talk again and bask in the relief of survival. “Officers, Tommies and Sisters were all helping each other. It was a strange sight.” On reaching Savona, the Sisters went on deck, from where they could see a shoreline crowded with men rescued from the Transylvania and already delivered to shore. “What a reception we had...The Cheers! We felt quite heroines and had done nothing to deserve it...We must have looked weird, some wrapped in blankets, others in men’s coats and all with wet draggled hair (I saved two hairpins only).”

The Sisters were looked after by kind Japanese, Italian and English armed forces and civilians. They were eventually taken to a convent where they were treated very well and were “literally put to bed”. Despite worrying about getting pneumonia or pleurisy, Sister Hayward was relieved to find her ribs ached only due to bruising. There were tea parties hosted by women in Savona, and then, sadly, a mass funeral on Sunday 6th.

By Tuesday 9th, Jessie was back at the Nurses’ Camp in Marseilles, from whence she began the journey back to England on Sunday 14th. It was on the train that she wrote her diary “out of sheer ennui”. The nurses embarked on Tuesday 16th. “None of us slept very well and [we]clung to our life belts although the steward said they were not necessary!”

The diary transcript ends with ”Father and Min meet me on the door step. How lovely to be really home. I am very thankful. Go to bed and sleep well and that’s the end. I must try and write another diary if ever I get out to the East, but I hope it won’t be so exciting as this.”    

Ten crew, 29 army officers and 373 soldiers lost their lives. The Transylvania was discovered again on 8 October 2011, 630 metres down.

On 16 May 1917, Jessie sent a letter to her Matron reporting her arrival home to Hardley Hall, Loddon, a day before her diary would suggest. Just over a week later, a letter dated 27 May 1917, again to her Matron-in-Chief, confirms that she will “proceed to get my kit ready”. The only note in her record to indicate that anything amiss had happened during her first, thwarted, journey to Salonika is the statement in this letter that “I am still in possession of my TFNS badge as I was wearing it at the time of the catastrophe”.

Being fit for general service, she travelled back later that year, arriving in Salonika on 09 September 1917. She later served at the 41st General Hospital as a Home Sister. On demobilization in 1919, Jessie returned to her civil appointment – Health Visitor for East Suffolk County Council, a position which had been held open for her through the war. She received British War and Victory Medals (after the exchange of a few letters!) as well as the Territorial Force War Medal. By the gracious permission of Queen Alexandra, she was allowed to keep her TFNS badge due to completing more than four years approved War Service.

Sister Hayward resigned from nursing on 4 March 1936, and died in 1971 at the age of 87. She is buried at Hardley along with both of her parents and at least four siblings.


Service Record, National Archives: WO/399/11927

Diary, Norfolk Record Office: MC 2127/1, 441X7

Update on 2014-02-17 19:59 by Your Local History

A couple of additional sources for the above story:


1. Voice  recording of a survivor  on board the ship and he references the nurses on board . This is held by IWM


2. Also this link from the Great War Forum - a doctor's  description of the event