Creating History in a World of Stories, by Kathryn Rose

By Kathryn Rose
Head of Content, British Online Archives

Every morning when you wake, millions of people are waking, washing and preparing to start their days. Billions of histories are all circulating around each other every day, impacting upon each other, most without even knowing it. That person on the bus, they either caught or didn’t catch the lift with that senior manager due to your decision on whether to let them disembark ahead of you. To know every personal history, every fragment of an event we impact on, would be impossible and unprocessable. Every established history is a tapestry of these lived stories; woven by others, yet limited by the range of them which it is possible for the weavers of lived stories to see. 

If you could only weave the most relevant lived stories together for yourself, you could create a history for yourself; a history for people like yourself. You could find some of the lived stories right here, we have aided their passage on to the internet and they can be studied right now. To see the stories for yourself, it’s just a matter of knowing how to look. If you’d like to join me then we can uncover our first story: let’s start with escape, or in this case, evading capture. 

Nestled within British Online Archives’ ‘World Wars’ Series, there are hundreds of lived stories of the saboteurs who undermined Axis war efforts in a manner that was often explosive! These lived stories combine to form ‘Secrecy, Sabotage, and Aiding the Resistance: How Anglo-American Cooperation Shaped World War II’. Let us begin with the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the USA, by examining ‘a research report on the America First Committee and its opposition to America joining the war’ created in 1941. British operatives in the United States needed to study the USA in order to uncover how to convince them to join the war. One of the barriers to the U.S.A. joining the war was the America First Committee. 

The British intelligence services were very interested in the America First Committee and wrote profiles of each of these committee members. In one British Intelligence report ‘Hill, as Hamilton FISH’s Secretary, was [allegedly] able to order a “House of Representatives” lorry to pick up twenty bags [of franked envelopes containing anti-British and anti-administration propaganda,] but the driver delivered them to FISH’s office by mistake instead of to the storeroom. FISH’s girl secretary (in the pay of HILL) got excited, kept eight bags and sent the the other twelve to the “America First” office in Washington, whereupon our source suggested the “America First[“] office should be raided. This was done by the Federal Marshal and the bags were recovered and delivered to the Grand Jury’ [sic].

This story was uncovered by searching ‘a research report on the America First Committee and its opposition to America joining the war, 1941’, a report scanned from records held by the National Archives (UK), for the word ‘enemy’. This record and Image 38 within it, from archival file number HS 8/54, can now enhance our understanding of the relationship between the UK and the USA, and we are the first to see it.

We can also be the first to see a very different war story, if we head to the ‘BBC Listener Research Department reports, 1937-c.1950’. There we can learn what the British people were listening to while the bombs were falling and British operatives were monitoring the activities of America First in November 1941. The recording of radio listener statistics at such a time might seem frivolous, unless you had just read about the lengths the British Intelligence Services went to in order to monitor the propaganda of America First, public engagement was very important.

A quick glance at the Series page leads to the ‘British Broadcasting Corporation, 1927-2002’, and the ‘BBC Listener Research Department reports, 1937-c.1950’. Then a quick detour to the ‘Volumes and Documents’ area reveals ‘Audience research special reports’. There we can see many reports on listener behaviour that could provide stories, but few written with the purpose of telling their author’s stories of what listener behaviour means. The Volume level text on the website tells us that these rare reports have been written with specific themes in mind, and the 4th image of the 1941 report confirms that the government was concerned about the public’s listening habits in relation to the war, during 1941.

The survey found at image 4, in the 1941 Document, is upon ‘Listening to Enemy Broadcasts’. 1,250 Honorary Correspondents responded to the question of ‘have you any evidence that over the last month or two people have been listening more to enemy broadcasts in English?’ In their responses ‘about one in ten correspondents had found some evidence of listening to broadcasts by Lord Haw-Haw, and the majority of them suggested that this was only occasional listening’. As they faced into 1941, it was found that ‘Haw Haw seems to have been superseded by a broadcast from an Englishman who has a fine command of bad language’. This is a rare recorded instance of a reporter helping the war effort through foul language and cursing for his country, however unintentionally.

Going a little further afield, to ‘Colonial Africa in official statistics’ and the contents page at the front of the 1921 Blue Book of statistics for Tanzania, enables us to find a story with a rather different tone. As ‘Councils and Assemblies’ unveil the experience of Tanzanian democracy, alongside the creation of the ‘Political Franchise’ under colonial rule. ‘Wages and Cost of Living’ tell the story of living conditions, especially when paired with ‘Charitable and Literary Institutions’. ‘Meteorological Observations’ tell us whether the rains came, while ‘Production and Natural Resources’ tell us whether the rain brought food or firewood. 

Let’s go to ‘Councils and Assemblies’ on page 37, to see what we can learn of the native people and their agency. The contents page is on img 3, and the text has single pages, so I skip to image 40. At first glance we have a list of laws, but the story is within those laws, it starts with patterns revealing a government’s priorities. On the 15th February, 6 notices were sent out to the local population, these notices are a lot more frequent than usual and local people don’t usually see this many in a month. The government is marking its legal authority upon its citizens’ legal system: ‘High Court Registries Rules’, ‘Service of Foreign Process Rules’, ‘Foreign Tribunal Evidence Rules’, ‘Service of Process (Neighbouring Territory) Rules…’ Why would a colonial government feel the need to assert itself so? 

Using a right-click to click on ‘Back to Tanzania (Tanganyika), 1921-1948’ and open it in a new tab, we can see at the Volume level that Tanzania had just been colonised. It has been given to the British under the Treaty of Versailles and has only recently been placed under their control. Now the story emerges: Tanzanians in what was then Tanganyika were governed by a German army that would go on to lose the Great War. As their colonial rulers lost, there would have been a period of uncertainty; how could they be certain, their future was being negotiated by foreign powers at the treaty of Versailles. Then, in 1921, the British Government were claiming their territory and putting their stamp upon the legal system. 

We skip tabs back to Img 40, and there is the missing piece; there is a timeline of British colonial rulers being appointed to the Executive Council. Citizens may well have seen or heard about Alfred Claude Hollis, C.M.G., C.B.E. being appointed Chief Secretary to the Government, alongside him came the Treasurer, and the Principal Medical Officer. These men would make the laws in February 1921, no others are listed as having joined the Executive Council until at least March. ‘Political Franchise – NIL’, ‘There is no Legislative Council or Assembly in Tanganyika Territory’. 

A foreign government has sent its first governmental officers to claim Tanganyika after the period of uncertainty and its citizens have no voice, but the legal system is being claimed by these 6 notices. Not only this, but the ‘East Africa Fugitive Offenders Order-in-Council’ has been passed on the same day; for which crimes will fugitive offenders be forced back to face justice under the system that has just been changed? The 15th February 1921 is a significant day for the citizens of Tanganyika, and its significance is laid-out in 1 image of a page combined with the one volume description for context.

When there are multiple collections on a subject, this makes it possible for a story to be explored from different angles and for more detailed lived stories to be established. ‘Colonial Africa in Official Statistics’ has revealed that the 15th February 1921 was a day when the British Colonial Government made their mark on Tanzanian law. Colonial Law in Africa enables us to follow this story further, though other stories like those upon living conditions might be followed through Annual Departmental Reports. It saves time if we skip straight to the country for this search; if go to the third menu down, then select ‘Volumes & Documents’, it’s easy to find ‘Tanzania (Tanganyika)’ and dive into 1920-1921.

The first page of this Gazette is a proclamation that ‘Former Enemy Aliens’ must leave, unless given permission to stay, in the ‘Occupied Territory of German East Africa’. These Gazettes are enabling us to see a little further back into the uncertain time when Tanganyika was still an occupied German territory. This was a time when getting the last members of the defeated colonial power out of the country was a key priority. Under clause 3 of the 2nd ‘Proclamation’ on the 2nd page, the Administrator had the right to deport anyone that he deemed it ‘conducive to the public good’. This power was absolute and it was held in the hands of an Administrator from a new foreign ruler. 

There is a great deal more to read upon the first days of British Colonial Rule in Tanganyika but we’re uncovering the story of the 15th February 1921, so I search for February. Then narrow the search down using quotation marks to “February 1921”. The 4th search result reveals that Sir Horace Archer Byatt only placed A. C. Hollis in the role of Deputy Governor and Commander-in-Chief 3 days before these notices were published. Image 155 reveals more than who was in charge, it also explains why there was a desire to make so many changes to law in Tanganyika; a desire for change was issued from British Crown ‘at the Court at Buckingham Palace, the 3rd day of December 1920’. This change was ‘by reason of the contiguity [proximity] of the Colony of Kenya and of the said territories and the frequent intercommunication between them it seems expedient to His Majesty and conducive to the better administration of justice therein’.

With the new accounts in this collection, it is possible to flesh-out the story a little further: On the 15th February 1921, the new Gazette delivered more legal changes than usual, under a new (temporary) governor. These changes came after a period of uncertainty, following the previous colonisers’ defeat and exile, and at a time when dissenting natives could be exiled by the governor. There would now be greater legal alignment across borders as the citizens of Kenya and Tanganyika were considered to be in frequent contact. It is not clear if people from Tanganyika would know that this was the reason. With this new evidence it becomes apparent that the sudden changes to the legal system of Tanganyika, while they were assertions of authority, were actually a result of expediency. The priority being making it easier to administer cross-border justice. We have learned this from 6 images and one volume-level introduction.

Justice is a core theme for the Paris Peace Conference collection, justice for the winners, justice for the losers, and for those left in a war which is still ongoing. As this is one of the newest collections, the stories start with choosing ‘Primary Resources’, and going to ‘Collections’, where all of the collections on this online archive are arranged from newest to oldest. The highlights for this collection reveal that it contains the story of Germany’s disarmament, a division of the Middle East which is yet to be resolved, and the formation of the League of Nations. Yet this exploration is not about uncovering the known stories, it is about finding unknown lived stories for ourselves, so let’s go to the last Volume in the collection and see which stories Sir Arthur Balfour will share with us, on a voyage from ‘Japan to Russia’ in 1919.

By simply going 3 images into this document, I have uncovered 3 stories in one. One is a report from British representative, Sir Arthur Balfour, to Lord Curzon of the British Government (the contents page is located in image 11 of the first Balfour Document, as this Document contains the start of the book). In his story, Balfour describes the difficulty he faces in deciding what to do with Shantung in China. He states that the Chinese claim is based upon their right to claim the surrender of all German rights in the leased territory. Balfour’s and the British problem is that Japan is also pursuing a claim to this territory, having ejected Germany from it prior to the German surrender. Japan’s representatives state that they are willing to hand-over Shantung, but it must first be handed-over to them as they took it from Germany. In this matter, Balfour weighs both claims and expresses sympathies with Japan in this case. 

The second story in this report is that of China, China who fought alongside the allies and might reasonably expect to be rewarded once German colonial lands were divided between the victors. The treaty Japan proposed gave the British cause for alarm (img 4), and the assurances that were given to the British would look a little different to those who might be about to come under their rule. Balfour states that one factor which weighed against China was the retirement of their chief negotiator (img 7), but this would mean that being less experienced resulted in their getting a worse deal and this could look like taking advantage of them. Meanwhile, China argued that the treaty with Japan of 1915, a treaty that is now blocking their path to claiming Shantung, was ‘extorted by threats and inflicted upon them serious wrong’ (img 5). 

Of course this leaves Japan, Japan has sided with the victors and was promised Shantung if their side won. The Chinese did not help them to eject the German forces from Shantung, and they are volunteering to give a large amount of their possession to China in order to ensure Chinese sovereignty is respected. This is one construction of history derived from those 3 lived stories, but it is not the only one and there are more details to find. Lived stories like this will stay hidden inside ‘No. 703’ dated ‘May 8th, 1919’, currently located in ‘ADD MS 49751 (ff. 200-347)’ at the British Library, or here on this website, unless they are found by an adventurous scholar who will unpick the threads as we have done today, and weave them into their own new histories.

The lived stories we have just uncovered are tiny fragments of the Documents they are located in, and these are small portions of the Volumes, and the collections, that hold them. There are thousands of stories waiting to be found and to change the shape of the histories we have been shown, and these are just a tiny proportion of the lived stories hidden in archives and repositories in the UK, and the World. Whatever you do next, your lived story will go on to encounter the many other lived stories out there, as you come to the end of this piece and commence creating your own fragment of the historical events which are happening right now. The question is whether you will choose to create a history.