The “Hit-and-Miss” of Research at the Royal Archives

By Tom Murray, King’s Undergraduate Research Fellow, King’s College London


I undertook my King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship (KURF) in the summer after my final year at KCL. Indeed, my first trip to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle for KURF took place just days after receiving my degree results, including my dissertation grade. As such, it was at Waterloo Station, awaiting the 8:58 to Windsor & Eton Riverside, that I confessed to Dr Angel O’Donnell – with whom I was working for KURF and who had also supervised my dissertation – that I hadn’t actually visited any archives whilst researching my dissertation. Thus my first archival experience was in fact to be at the Royal Archives, as part of the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP), over the course of six days in July 2017.

Round Tower at Windsor Castle

This had evidently been taken into account upon my arrival in Windsor. Before I was allowed document access, I was given a brief induction by archivist Oliver Walton, which was both helpful and humorous – “Sometimes you just have to plough through a large pile of documents… sometimes there are better things to do than plough through a large pile of documents”. It is thanks to Oliver that I’ll forever – and no doubt invaluably – remember what a fonds is. I was also required to sign a series of Royal Archive regulations; ensuring that I did not intend to damage the documents. Initially, the Archives’ usually stringent security measures seemed somewhat excessive – a security pass was required to enter the Castle complex itself, which had to be shown twice to then gain access to the Archive, around which it was necessary to be escorted by a member of staff. However, it soon became clear that this was one of the prices to be paid for access to documents from the Royal Collection, and inside a working royal residence at that. The process of requesting documents itself was smooth and efficient, while the intimate reading room lent itself to a proper sense of consequence, given the owner – ‘The Queen’! – and contents of the documents in the Archive.

Dr O’Donnell had requested an eclectic selection of documents for me to read through and summarise, all of which had relevance to various strands of his own research. The first collection was ‘Secret Service accounts, 1779-1782’ (GEO/MAIN/17355-17367), detailing the quarterly expenses of the secret service during the latter half of the American Revolutionary War. Somewhat dauntingly, I was informed that I was the first person ever to examine these documents for research purposes. Dr O’Donnell had mentioned certain things to look out for; some of which, like British covert support for Corsican separatists like Pasquale Paoli (1725–1807) – ironically also emulated by American Patriots – were plainly listed as being in receipt of generous pensions. Other names needed little introduction: a ‘Dr Johnson’ (of dictionary fame) was likewise in receipt of a pension for his pro-government writings, while George III’s long-suffering and often reluctant Prime Minister, Lord North, was due an enormous sum from the Secret Service. Perhaps most excitingly for Dr O’Donnell, whose current research is on the ‘politics of paper’ in early America, was an indication that the New York-based newspaper printer James Rivington had received compensation for his Loyalist activities during the American Revolution. This opportunity to be the first to examine the Secret Service accounts was surely a highlight of my time at the Royal Archives, and will hopefully contribute to Dr O’Donnell’s future work.

I next changed location from the Archive reading room to the beautiful Royal Library, where I was presented with a book from the mid-nineteenth century made up of the selected correspondence of John Jay – Founding Father and first Chief Justice of the United States – from 1776–94 (Royal Library, 1047551). As an Americanist myself, this was a real treat for me, and while Dr O’Donnell had singled out the correspondence regarding Jay’s 1795 Treaty between the U.S. and Britain for my examination, I indulged my historical interest by looking over every document in the collection. Especially given my archival inexperience, this was exceptionally exciting: reading over the handwritten letters of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Lafayette, among others, is certainly not the worst way I’ve spent a Friday afternoon. A number of the letters related to the Jay Treaty, including a fascinating letter from Washington outlining his frustrations with British interference on the American frontier, and correspondence between Jay and British Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville, which indicated a genuine warmth between the two negotiators, and demonstrated the workings of the relationship between the nascent United States and Georgian Britain. As with the Secret Service accounts, this should hopefully contribute to the GPP efforts to aid understanding of the ‘Global Georgians’, as well as a forthcoming ‘The Two Georges’ exhibition about the relationship between Washington and George III.

I lastly examined the papers of Nathaniel Kent (GEO/ADD/15/356-429), an agriculturalist involved in the organisation and improvement of George III’s gardens at Windsor between 1791–1810. Again, Dr O’Donnell had highlighted some things to look out for, which he hoped would be relevant to his research: the use of mills and papermaking, building repairs, animal/wheat breeds, and the use of machinery. Unfortunately, it was the Kent Papers that proved one of Oliver’s aforementioned ‘Facts of Life for Archival Research’ – “Sometimes a file has nothing relevant in it at all, despite all outward appearances. This is normal.” Indeed, try as I might, the Kent Papers contained very little of what Dr O’Donnell and I had anticipated, largely outlining the accounts and expenses of the royal farms at Windsor with little detail. Beyond an insight into an intriguing episode in which certain workmen seem to have been accused of stealing beans from the royal farm, the Kent Papers bore little fruit, either in terms of research or historical interest. Still, such seemingly unproductive work is useful in reducing Dr O’Donnell’s workload, as well as clarifying the exact contents of the Kent Papers for the GPP.

Visiting the Royal Archives was a highlight of my KURF experience and an introduction into archival research that was both fascinating and unique. The ‘hit-and-miss’ nature of archival research was immediately clear to me, as was the potential for exciting discoveries, especially within unexamined documents such as the Secret Service accounts. It was also a pleasure to work within and contribute to the Georgian Papers Programme and its effort to examine and digitise the Archive’s 350,000 pages of documents. I hope to return to the Royal Archives soon for my own research.

Reflections on Transcribing the Georgian Papers

By Tom Murray, King’s Undergraduate Research Fellow, King’s College London


I was introduced to transcription as part of the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP), and as such my transcribing experience is decidedly Georgian. Having transcribed a number of documents for the GPP, however, the value of transcription for historians has become manifest. Admittedly, there remains nothing quite like engaging first-hand with primary sources – which for the vast majority of history, and certainly for the Georgian period, means written or printed documents. Having said this, however, there is definite value, both practical and otherwise, in transcription and transcribed sources. The process itself is relatively simple, though collectively represents a heroic effort on the part of the GPP with the eventual aim of digitising the Royal Archives’ extensive collections from the reigns of the Hanoverian monarchs. My transcription contributions were a number of essays written by George III, including ‘Some short notes concerning the Education of a Prince’ – intended for his son, the future George IV – and ‘Lectures on Modern History’, musing on the benefits that come of studying history; something I can certainly get behind.

Essay on the German Empire’s governance by George III (RA GEO/ADD/32/481). Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Never having known a world in which the Internet was not integrated into every aspect of modern life, I initially found the practice of reading handwritten documents bemusing. This was reflected in some preliminary difficulty in reading handwriting itself – once I became familiar with George’s style of writing, however, this became less of a problem. More disconcerting was his habit of making complex additions to and deletions from his essays, often in erratic handwriting reminiscent of exam answers I’ve written myself. Thankfully, it was clear that the GPP had foreseen this – I had been provided with an extensive transcription manual with guidelines for how best to transcribe the many quirks thrown up within Georgian writings, from aforementioned deletions and additions to marginalia and doodles. These guidelines were especially useful, providing an invaluable manual for transcribers as well as ensuring that GPP transcriptions and all their complexities are recorded in a uniform way, much to the relief of future researchers.

A secondary challenge I encountered in transcription was another product of my own twenty-first century, digital upbringing. Much to my initial dismay, George III lacked the benefit of spell-check when writing his essays, and thus his spelling, grammar and punctuation were often not as I – or anyone else writing in 2017 – might anticipate. Given that the very first instruction within the GPP transcription manual reads “Type What You See: Transcribe the document exactly as written”, I was therefore required to hold my syntactic nose and accept that when George wrote about the “pedantick applications of Colleges and Schools” or apologised for “how odly soever it may sound”, this was exactly what he meant. This took some adjustment: even in transcribing those quotes onto this blog post my own instinct – and spell-check function – attempted to alter George’s original spelling. However, once these initial challenges had been overcome, the transcription process proved rewarding and enjoyable – as well as surprisingly accessible. As a recent graduate, I was pleased to discover that, aided by the GPP manual, I was able to contribute to the programme’s transcription efforts with just my laptop, Microsoft Word, and a few hours of work. The ease and relative brevity with which the transcription project can be added to – depending, naturally, on the length and complexity of the documents themselves – surely bodes well for the project as a whole, as well as the prospect of encouraging individual contributions to the GPP like mine.

There is clearly real value in transcribing the Royal Archives’ Georgian documents that makes any challenges to the transcriber worthwhile. Following the success of a similar project to transcribe and digitise the papers of Queen Victoria, the process of transcribing the Georgian papers with a view to their digitisation seems a natural step. This would of course provide some relief to future historians, who will be able to benefit from digital access to the Royal Archive collection via the internet, not unlike my own use of the venerable Founders Online digital archive in researching for my undergraduate dissertation. Likewise, the capacity to search within a digital database, as opposed to trawling through original documents, will aid researchers in their specific pursuits. Democratising access to the Georgian papers in this way will allow historians across the world to employ them in their research, facilitating new and exciting contributions to the field of eighteenth-century and Georgian studies without requiring a visit to the Royal Archives at Windsor, as impressive an experience as I know that to be. This, surely, is the long-term objective of the Georgian Papers Programme, of which transcription forms a crucial, fruitful cornerstone.

Sharing Research: GPP Fellows Ann Little & David Hancock

By Dr Angel Luke O’Donnell, Academic Liaison for the Georgian Papers Programme, and Teaching Fellow in North American History, King’s College London.


On 17 July 2017, Windsor Castle hosted the fourth GPP coffee morning. This was the first coffee morning that Windsor has hosted and it was a great chance to share the work on the programme with new colleagues in the Royal Archives and the Royal Library. Two fellows from the William & Mary College and of Early American History and Culture scheme, Ann Little (Colorado State University) and David Hancock (University of Michigan) joined us for the session. We also heard talks by Prof Arthur Burns, King’s College London, and Roberta Giubilini and Rachel Krier, both from the Royal Archives.

The session began with a welcome from Oliver Walton and a short round of introductions. Thereafter, Arthur Burns, Academic Director, shared his experience of writing research grants in the UK environment. Arthur explained that over the course of his career the development of research outputs other than books, and especially digital products such as database, is becoming an increasing priority for funding bodies. As such, the development of GPP digital outputs will have important implications for academic colleagues over the coming years.

High-waisted dancing dress from 1809. Source: The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett.

Ann Little gave us a fascinating overview of how clothing has shaped women’s torsos from the Elizabethan period to the early nineteenth century. The ideal female figure changed from a flat triangular shape, in which women’s breasts were flattened and the waist cinched in, to an Empire waist in the nineteenth century that accentuated the bosom. Ann’s research focuses on the political significance of fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century, and in particular the politics of the new exposure of European and Euro-American women’s breasts in the high-waisted fashionable gowns of the time. Europeans and colonial North Americans were accustomed to seeing women’s breasts depicted in the print culture of the eighteenth century (and presumably in person in North America), but those women were overwhelmingly Native American, African, or enslaved African-Americans, not free, white women. Ann is asking: why did the Empire waist appear when it appeared, and why did it disappear, and what does this say about the aftermath of the age of revolution and the possibility for women’s citizenship?

By the time that we met for the coffee morning, Ann had only been in the archives for a week. However, during that time, she had been working through the papers associated with George III’s daughters. Unfortunately, the six young women hardly commented at all about the dramatic shift in women’s fashion from triangular stays to the Empire waistline. Therefore, after Ann’s presentation we had an interesting discussion about where to find additional sources about this striking change in the shape of women’s torso. One suggestion was to use the portraiture of the Royal Collections, most of which has detailed provenance records, so Ann would be able to trace the development over time. Ann also looked at material in the Royal Library for prints and drawings of new dresses. Ann’s presentation prompted a fascinating discussion of how to overcome a perennial problem in research when historical correspondents are not forthcoming in the way that a researcher expected.

David Hancock presented next. Like Ann, David had not yet had the opportunity to explore the archives, and in fact, the coffee morning was the first day that David had been in Windsor. David’s project is a biography of the Earl of Shelburne, and so he gave us an overview of Shelburne’s life by talking us through various collections in Bowood House and the British Library. As in the June coffee morning, it was great to hear about how the Windsor material fitted into the broader environment of historical documents. Shelburne had a storied career. He served as aide-de-camp to George III before becoming an MP and rising to Prime Minister, overseeing the initial stages of the peace talks to end the American War for Independence. It was particularly interesting to hear about Shelburne’s intellectual and social coteries. Shelburne had a huge library of books and often allowed leading intellectuals of the day to use his collections. He also kept up correspondence with members of the Scottish Enlightenment such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Dugald Stewart. David’s work in the Royal Archives was only in the preliminary stages, but David was confident that because the Windsor material had been less inaccessible before GPP, then his time as a fellow would allow him to explore relatively novel documentary sources, potentially providing new insights into the life of Shelburne.

After David, we heard from Rachel Krier who presented a fascinating history of the Windsor collections themselves. She discussed the role of the former Royal Librarian and Archivist John Fortescue. Between 1927 and 1928, Fortescue published six volumes of the correspondence of King George III covering the period 1760 to 1783. Rachel has been cataloguing the King’s correspondence for GPP, and in her assessment, Fortescue has been treated harshly by posterity. Critics often blamed Fortescue for the poor quality of his edited collection. In part, the academic Lewis Namier helped form the negative perception of Fortescue by publishing Additions and Corrections to Sir John Fortescue’s Edition of the Correspondence of King George the Third, a rather dyspeptic book of errata that identified many of the mistakes in Fortescue’s work. Rachel is still working through the collection, but suggests that people should be kinder to the efforts of Fortescue.

After Rachel, we heard from Roberta Giubilini. Roberta, who is currently cataloguing the papers of William IV, told us about the king’s steward James William Daniel. She argued Daniel’s papers should be included in William’s collection because they reveal William’s keen interest in agriculture and new technologies. Daniel’s collection would expand our understanding of William beyond his role in the navy to encompass new passions. Roberta is currently working on a longer piece describing Daniel’s papers and setting out her argument in more detail, but it was great to see more cataloguing work.

In the main, we heard from works-in-progress during the session. One of the best advantages of discussing a work at an early stage is that you can see the more experimental elements at work, which in turn can help with gaining a clearer insight into the design of a project.