Arnside Street War Office Record Centre 1934-1940 (plus Percy House Schools 1919-1933)

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How Army Service records were arranged before the 1940 Arnside fire is a topic of debate amongst people interested in the structure and arrangement of surviving WW1 Army service records. Much of the interest comes from the huge gaps in the historical and genealogical record that were left by the destruction of roughly 80% of the service records held at the War Office record store at Arnside Street (The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Records Destroyed At Arnside Street (list). p.6). The use of extracts from service records of those who received war pensions (in National Archives WO 363), medal records and other sources to try and fill the gap is well known to anyone who has seriously tried to research a WW1 member of the British Army without the help of a surviving service record.

The following is adapted from some of my posts on the Great War Forum, emails (including information not previously published) and new research (more research on the documents/work of Isleworth/Arnside can be found here):

Army Council Instructions for the safe storage of documents to prevent total loss from a fire

Ironically the British Army/War Office was fully aware of the danger of keeping all records of service together (AB 358s and attestations etc.) in one building when it came to Army Record Offices and this is reflected in Army Council Instructions from 1916 and 1924. By the time of the move to Arnside in 1934, War Office use of the Arnside building ignored the good practice set out in the A.C.I.s of not keeping all of the service related documents together in one building. A mixture of the need for economy (for the strains placed on War Office accommodation between the Wars by the huge number of Great War records of all types click here) and the fact that the records were mostly documents of ex-servicemen needed for legal, pension and historical purposes rather than maintaining serving personnel or for potentially calling out reservists in wartime probably meant that the War Office did not feel the need to compromise on economy by dividing the records between separate buildings, The use of huts for Boer War records in the square next to Arnside (discussed below) was probably a wartime expedient and Arnside apart from its large and vulnerable roof structure did at least meet the requirement of storage of almost all of its records in a permanent building.

17. [Editor’s note: of 1924] Storage of Documents in Record Offices.

1. As a precaution against the destruction by fire of documents kept at record offices all records not required for frequent reference, should be stored in permanent buildings, where possible, and not in permanent hutments.

2. Arrangements should be made for Army Books 358 and the Index Cards of Army Reservists (A.Fs. W 5089 and 5090) to be stored at night apart from the attestations, so that in the event of the attestations being destroyed by fire, the Books and Index Cards would be available for the preparation of substituted documents.

3. A.C.I. 349 of 1916 is hereby cancelled.

1/Gen. No./3177 (A.G.8c).’

From The National Archives (TNA) WO 293/15 War Office: Army Council: Instructions.

349. [Editor’s note: of 1916] Storage of documents in Records Offices.

1. As a precaution against the destruction by fire of documents kept at the record offices the older records of all regiments should be stored in permanent buildings, where possible, and not in temporary hutments.

2. Where it is necessary to move certain sections of a record office into huts, only the documents required for frequent reference should be taken away from the permanent building.

3. It may also be found possible to keep the original and duplicate documents in separate buildings or rooms, in order to avoid the complete destruction of the documents of one unit.

35/Infantry/849 (A.G.1).’

From The National Archives (TNA) WO 293/4 War Office: Army Council: Instructions.

The Percy House Schools, Isleworth 1919-1933

Between 1919-1933 the Percy House Schools Isleworth were the main site for the collection of records from the various British Army Expeditionary Forces and from 1922 it became home to an increasing number of WW1 British Army service records (see Background to R. (Records) 1922-1940 below). The Army Council Instruction noting that the remaining pre-9th August 1920 British Army Service Records of men who had been discharged before that date and whose records were still held by Army Record Offices would be passed to R.Records at Isleworth follows (A.C.I. 555/1926):

‘555. Transfer of documents of Soldiers discharged prior to the introduction of the new system of Army Numbers.

All inquiries regarding soldiers discharged prior to 9th August 1920 (except Household Cavalry, Foot Guards, Army Educational Corps, Royal Army Pay Corps and Military Provost Staff Corps), will, in future be addressed to the Under-Secretary of State (“R” Records) The War Office, Percy House Schools, Isleworth, Middlesex.

60/Records/157 (A.G. 8B).’

From The National Archives (TNA) WO 293/17 War Office: Army Council: Instructions. The instruction was issued on the week ending 15th December 1926.

That the transfer of service records included those of pre-War soldiers is confirmed by a letter sent to R. (Records) from Canterbury Army Record Office in 1929, dealing with a man from the 1st Royal Dragoons, described as Pte (not Trooper) 4440 Edward Charles Gadenne who had been discharged from the Army in 1904. J.R. Nelson, at the time head of R. (Records) told Mrs Gadenne that the Army records revealed no new information on his whereabout since his discharge. Gadenne also appears to have a duplicate attestation preserved from the records of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

A 1908 plan of the Percy House School buildings can be seen at the London Metropolitan Archive (LMA): Title: Plan of Workhouse, Schools and Infirmary, Isleworth Reference: BG/B/231. As we do not have a plan of the buildings in War Office use it is not possible to work out from the 1908 plans how the War Office used them for storage. The nature of the buildings at the Percy House Schools, much of which was distributed over three floors, would have made it less than ideal accommodation for many tons of paper records, although there was likely to have been considerably more storage space than later available at Arnside Street. The two main accommodation wings of the main school buildings on their own (it is likely that other buildings were also used for storage, but these seem to be likely candidates for where the records were stored) would probably over three floors have provided approximately 30,000 square feet of floor space for shelving.

Mention is made the Air Estimates for 1933 (published 1932) of R (Records) at Isleworth, but annoyingly can only be seen in snippet view:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=u6gMAQAAIAAJ&q=isleworth+records+disposal&dq=isleworth+records+disposal&hl=en&sa=X&ei=D9imVJ_SG8LP7QaLmICYDg&ved=0CCwQ6AEwATgK

The instruction confirming that the records had been moved from the Percy House Schools to Arnside Street (A.C.I. 37/1934) simply stated that:

’37. Transfer of the Records Section of the War Office from Isleworth to Walworth.

The Records Section of the War Office has been transferred from Isleworth to Walworth, and all enquiries regarding soldiers discharged prior to 9th August, 1920 (except Household Cavalry), Foot Guards and A.E.C. [Editor’s note: Army Education Corps] will, in future, be addressed to the Under-Secretary of State, The War Office, Records Section, Arnside Street, Walworth, S.E. 17.

1/Buildings/1542 (R.Records)’

From The National Archives (TNA) WO 293/21 War Office: Army Council: Instructions. The instruction was issued on the 7th February 1934.

A rough chronology for the use by the War Office of the Percy House buildings as a hospital (1915-1918) and taking back by the end of 1933 by the hospital authorities of the hospital and the Percy House buildings, including the School (although the chronology is not accurate for the use of the school buildings as a Record Store by the War Office) can be found here: http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/percyhouse.html

A standard letter on a service file asking for replacement copies of Character and Discharge certificates handily has a stamp from a War Office Walworth date stamp giving the date ’10 Jan 1934′ , allowing us to push back the date of the move to Walworth from Isleworth a whole month from the date of the A.C.I. quoted above. The letter and stamp can be found in the file of M/374547 Private Anthony Haulton R.A.S.C.

Background to the work of R. (Records) 1922-1940

It is possible via the ‘War Office List and Administrative Directory’ from 1920 to 1940 to track the development of R. (Records) and transfers of records to what was to become the Arnside Office.

R. (Records) began as the Disposal of Records Section (a part of the War Office C2 Division) and was in existence by 1920. In November 1920 it moved from C2 to briefly become part of C3 Division. The former Disposal of Records Section became part of a subdivision of C3 (C3 B), one of C3 B subdivision’s roles being the running and organisation of the War Office Registry. By 1922 it was no longer part of C3 and was known as R. (Records). In the War Office List for 1922 the R. (Records) entry comes immediately after the entry for R., the War Office Registry.

The original home for R. (Records) (which was based at Arnside in 1940) was at the Percy House Schools, Isleworth.

R. (Records) emerged from C2 Disposal of Records Section as there were efficiencies to be gained from the centralisation of large bodies of war related records. With the need to reduce the amount of storage space/clerks required in Army Record Offices and the end of many of the Great War created Corps such as the M.G.C. , centralisation of the records of the demobilised members of the Wartime Army with those of the disbanded Corps would help reduce the demands on the Record Offices. There was also a drive to amalgamate Record and Pay Offices, with the hope that efficiencies in the amount of space used and clerks employed could be found by housing the two functions together. For an example of this see the following response to a Parliamentary question from 1925 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1925/mar/04/royal-army-service-corps-clerks-pay#S5CV0181P0_19250304_HOC_273

 

The War Office List first mentions R. (Records) in 1922.

Other evidence comes from newspapers such as the Western Morning News and Mercury, for Wednesday September 27, 1922 shows how Isleworth became the new home for the WW1 Service and other older records (quotes from this point forward are italicised to make the text stand out):

‘War Volunteer Force Records

The records referring to the Volunteer Force which was raised during the late war have been transferred from the Infantry Record Office, Hounslow, to the Disposal of Records branch of the War-office, Percy House Schools, Isleworth, Middlesex, where correspondence regarding them should be sent.’

Similarly for the Corps such as the M.G.C. and Labour Corps which were disbanded in the years before 1923 newspapers provide further evidence for transfer of service files from the record offices to Isleworth:

‘It is announced by the War Office that the Labour Corps Record Office at Nottingham will be closed down on October 1. All documents and records will be transferred to the disposal of Records Branch of the War Office, Percy House Schools, Isleworth, Middlesex.’

From The Evening News, Tuesday, September 19; 1922.

To understand the functions of the R (Records) branch of the War Office it is best to start by looking at its functions as listed briefly in the 1922 and subsequent War Office Lists:

‘Disposal of documents, &c., that have accrued since July 1914 in Units, Formations, &c., of the British Army, both at home and abroad.

All correspondence and enquiries relating to or arising out of such documents sent to the War Office for retention. Duplication of War Diaries. Questions regarding the disposal of War Office documents, except registered files.

All questions affecting Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.’

By 1923 we can see the impact beginning of the WW1 and earlier records coming in from the Army Record Offices. The entry is as above with the last sentence changed to:

‘All questions affecting Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, Labour Corps and Machine Gun Corps.’

Plus the addition of the sentence ‘All inquiries in connection with casualties of the Great War.’

In 1924 the following sentences are added to the description:

‘All inquiries relating to South African Irregular Forces, Prisoner of War Information Bureau, Irish Command Office, G.H.Q. British Forces in Turkey, and casualties of the Great War.

Custody of original Army Forms B. 199A (Record of Service of Officers) when no longer maintained.

Confidential Reports and Records of Service of non-regular Officers, with the exception of Officers of the Territorial Army.’

1925 adds the note to the last sentence above that ‘also officers who served in past centuries [Enquiries relating to serving officers should be referred to the M.S. branch concerned.)

1926 adds the ‘Women’s Forage Corps’ to the list of disbanded corps, but more crucially also notes that:

‘Miscellaneous Records (e.g. enquiries respecting old maps and plans, location of units, casualties, formation and disbandment of regiments), including all enquiries that necessitate reference to the Public Record Office, and also enquiries regarding soldiers who have been non-effective for 15 years or more.’

The R. (Records) section was now advertising its responsibility for soldiers’ records before 1911. In 1927 it now takes full responsibility for:

‘All enquiries regarding soldiers who became non-effective prior to the introduction of Army Numbers (8th August, 1920).’

1928 adds ‘Enquiries regarding dates of soldiers’ marriages and dates of birth of soldiers’ children’ and the Corps of Military Accountants to the disbanded Corp list.

In 1929 the following Corp are added: Almeric Paget Massage Corps, British West Indies Regiment, West Indian Regiment and Anglo-Indian Force’. Plus ‘Replies to applications for addresses of non-effective officers and nurses’.

1930 defines when R. (Records) ceases to be responsible for casualty enquiries:

‘Enquiries relating to officers which occurred on or after 11th November, 1920, are dealt with by A.G.4 ( c) (see page 100); enquiries relating to casualties to soldiers which occurred on or after 8th August, 1920 are dealt with by Record Offices.’

The British Army of the Rhine’s records were also with R. (Records) from 1930.

By 1930 the selection of records that would by 1936 be located at Arnside (for newspapers mentioning the Arnside Record Office in 1936 and 1938 see http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=221706&p=2197538) had been assembled (with the exception of the Slavo-British Legion, added in 1938 and some papers deposited between 1938 to 1940). The full list of papers destroyed in 1940, including some from WW2 can be found here http://tinyurl.com/no4qo5s

My transcription of the 1939 War Office List R. (Records) entry can be found by clicking here.

From 1927 onwards the War Office List stopped giving the address of R. (Records). However it is mentioned in the Stonyhurst War Record, published in 1927 http://tinyurl.com/njwhcyu

and there is for example the following mention of R. (Records) being based at Isleworth in 1932 here: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=u6gMAQAAIAAJ&q=isleworth+records+disposal&dq=isleworth+records+disposal&hl=en&sa=X&ei=D9imVJ_SG8LP7QaLmICYDg&ved=0CCwQ6AEwATgK

The mention is in the Air Estimates for 1933 (published 1932), but annoyingly can only be seen in snippet view.

Percy House Schools and Arnside Street: Documentary Evidence for R. (Records) work with WW1 Service Records

For a brief description and examples of documents used by R (Records) in its work with the WW1 service records please click here.

The Merrow Street Store, the building that became War Office Records Arnside Street

Merrow Street Store was built in 1915 as an Army Forms store. It was in use in 1919 alongside another War Office Forms store in the New Kent Road as can be seen from the 1919 A.C.I. 241/1919:

‘241 Army Forms and Books returned to Store.

In order that all Army Forms and Books which are returned by units, &c., to the Secretary, War Office, Army Forms Depot, Merrow, Walworth, S.E., may be duly noted in accordance with the requirements of the cost accounting system, it is essential that full details be given as to the quantities, &c., of all Army Forms and Books returned.

In future, therefore, a list of the contents, with the name of the unit, &c., will be included in all packages, cases, &c., of Army Forms and Books so returned to store, and a duplicate list will be forwarded on the same day to –

The Secretary,
War Office,
Army Forms Depot,
No. 1, The Paragon,
New Kent Road, S.E.1.

26/4001 (C. 2).’

From The National Archives (TNA) WO 293/10 War Office: Army Council: Instructions. The instruction was issued in April 1919.

By 1921 the Merrow Street Depot was being used to store tools for the Ministry of Works (the reference is from a snippet/search only version of The Parliamentary Debates: The Official Report: Fifth Series: Volume 145 (1921) p. 127?).

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2Z1GAQAAMAAJ&q=%22merrow+street%22&dq=%22merrow+street%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj48re5y_nZAhUKM8AKHWXdAKIQ6AEISTAH

Arnside Street 1934-1940 and the Arnside Fire

In 1934 the Merrow Street Depot took over the role of War Office Records Centre from the bigger Percy House Schools, with a new name focused on the Arnside Street side of the building.

For the reference to the plans of Merrow Street/Arnside Street to which I refer below see The National Archives (TNA) WORK 13/672 Merrow Street. Army forms store. Erection. Holloway Brothers, Ltd. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C2135001

The single storey building was slightly bigger than the London Fire Brigade 1940 estimate of 200ft x 100ft (which really just applies to the central rectangular block of the warehouse proper).

The following figures come from Hampden Gordon (1935) The War Office. Putnam: London. pp. 273-274 (except where stated):

  • At the end of the war there were 10 million registered War Office files, 6.5 million had been weeded by 1935.
  • At Arnside in 1935 R (Records) had: 1,900 tons of records, 15 miles of shelving, 2/3 of the space was taken up by records WW1 soldiers and an average of 1500 enquiries related to service in WW1 plus 400 miscellaneous enquiries (some related to pre-WW1 service) per week.
  • There were 15 miles of shelving at Arnside. With one mile equalling 5,280ft , 15 miles = 79,200 feet of shelving.
  • Using the London Fire Brigade estimate of the size of the building gives an area of 26,000 square feet for Arnside (the building on the plan is not entirely symmetrical and the L.F.B. calculation is a reasonable estimate of the building’s size). This indicates at least three tiers of shelving at Arnside to fit in the 15 miles of shelving discussed by Hampden Gordon.
  • There were roughly 40 clerks employed in R (Records) (see The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/4203 WAR OFFICE: General (Code 1(A)): Organisation of Ministers or Departments which may be formed on the outbreak of war: Civilian Estabs of the War Office. H.C. Perott War Office to Col. C.W.G. Walker Treasury (15 July 1938)).

Huts used for storage at Arnside Street at the time of the fire

A reference to some of the records at the Arnside Record Office being stored in huts in the Square (albeit Boer War records) can be found below by clicking the link,  it gives a further clue as to the separation of the records before the fire in 1940. This information comes from information taken from theses on the Boer War and refers at the end of the piece to the information coming from the Transvaal Archives Department (now part of the National Archives of South Africa). Any South African experts out there that could look up the reference? Here is the link from Google Booksearch:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=b8gKAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=war+office+arnside+street&source=bl&ots=OAZyLghvW5&sig=MEN45u1DkwrRADaYvpP_7IoitXs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=x9mZVNHJI8H-UKz6g6gL&ved=0CDEQ6AEwBDge#v=onepage&q=war%20office%20arnside%20street&f=false

A.Wessels (ed) (2010): A Century of Postgraduate Anglo Boer War Studies: Master’s and Doctoral Studies Completed at Universities in South Africa, in English-speaking Countries and on the European Continent 1908-2008, South Africa: Bloemfontein pp. 28-29

The search terms I used within the book are Arnside Street Walworth.

A map of Walworth close to the time of the fire (1938) can be found here: http://maps.southwark.gov.uk/connect/southwark.jsp?mapcfg=Historical_Selection&tooltip=Hist_tips

Then click on 1938, put Arnside Street into the search box and click on one of the address options that becomes available. You will then need to zoom back and you get a good view of Arnside Steet and what must be the square.

Local Defence Volunteers Arnside Street

There was a branch of the Local Defence Volunteers (later Home Guard) based at Arnside, a civil servant called Frank Bryant’s certificate of enrolment (he worked in R. Records) dated 22nd June is shown on p. 9 of David Carroll (1999) The Home Guard, Sutton: London. The caption under the picture mentions that alongside other colleagues who were in the LDV that his duties included coming out with his rifle when the siren sounded to help guard the Arnside building and its important contents.

Elsewhere in the same book Mr Bryant is shown in a picture from 1941 of his Cheltenham Home Guard Unit (p. 42) where he had been evacuated with the War Office.

The proposed move to Wales before the Fire

On 24 July 1940 an R. (Records) official told an official of the PRO that:

‘Mr. C. Fountain, War Office (R.Records) called today [at the PRO]…As the R.Records branch is expecting to be evacuated to Wales very shortly, it was hoped that by making this preliminary enquiry, the possible transfer to P.R.O. [Editor’s note: of some documents including for example the Map of Gibraltar later mentioned in the list of documents lost in the Fire, see below for the file reference and Confidential Officers’ Reports 1870-79]… could be expedited.’

From The National Archives (TNA) PRO 1/378 War Office Proposed Transfer of Miscellaneous Papers, 1940.

The staff and records in the custody of the Arnside Record Office (R.Records) were scheduled (or so the official believed) for evacuation from London. If this had taken place (it is not noted when the proposed move would take place) the WW1 Army service records might have survived as a more or less complete set.

The following helps explain Mr Fountain’s comment about evacuation to Wales, revealing the scheme for evacuating parts of the War Office and other Civil Service/Government offices to locations outside London (including Droitwich, where the remains of R (Records) had moved by January 1942, see here):

http://burlingtonandbeyond.co.uk/wp/part-1/

The Arnside Fire

According to the list put together from a member of R.Records’ memory two days after the fire most of the records were in Rooms 1 and 7 (he did not include a list of the intelligence files from Room 3 as he had ‘little to do with that room’) (see The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/21769 Records Destroyed at Arnside Street: Records Destroyed At Arnside Street (list). Note dated 10 September 1940).

From the construction plans of the building you can see a warehouse with windows in the clerestory and extensive skylights to allow a well lit working environment. The basic structure of the walls is brick built with a small amount of office accommodation. The roof is a series of pitch roofs (tile, asphalt, lead and felt covered), based on wooden truss structures in turn supported on brick pillars). When built the central warehouse looks to have been designed to be one large open space with hints (other than the then small office and staff accommodation) of bays and two rooms at one end, it is possible that it was later further divided and I presume that the intelligence files would have been in a more physically secure (very large safe? if they were still felt to be sensitive, it would depend on the period covered by these records?) part of the store. In the roof there were a number of louvre vents to keep the building well ventilated.

In terms of height there was 14 feet [Editor’s note: a rough estimate based on the plan] between the floor and the top of the clerestorey (the beginning of the roofline), so it is unlikely that records/racks would be stacked beyond this height even under the centre of the pitched roofs.

Arnside was thus a good place to store and handle paper except in the event of a big fire. To fit in the records it was meant to accommodate plus R. (Records) staff, even with further weeding of the records over time, would have been a very tight squeeze. The construction, materials and ventilation would mean that the oil bomb (Flammenbombe) which hit the roof would have enveloped it in fire, igniting the roof timbers and felt below the tiles, plus melting the lead and asphalt. The ventilation and skylights would have meant some of the ignition agent would have got instantly through to the papers before the roof itself collapsed. The ventilation would also have assisted the speed and growth of the fire. That anything survives would have been down to random, roof or wall collapses which would have helped protect some files (water damage and subsequent rot was as discussed in related PRO files a cause of the loss of some of the surviving papers). Other documents were partially burnt/convected out of the building as it burnt (see Carter, L.J. (undated) Walworth in the War. Southwark Local History Library, the 18 year old Carter was an eyewitness to the destruction in the Walworth area on the night of the 7/8 September 1940 and he states the Arnside incendiary device was an oil bomb). Carter also confirms that the Fire Brigade was unable to access water at a vital time to deal with the fire (Ibid). A document in the Southwark Local History Centre confirms that the papers from the Record Office continued to smoulder for days (Metropolitan Borough of Southwark, Local History Library, Incident Register 1940-1943, p. 22).

It is possible that wooden racking was used to shelve the records at Arnside as in 1955 when discussing the move of the War Office Records Centre from Droitwich to Hayes it was stated that there was a ‘…very considerable quantity of wood racking…(The National Archives (TNA) WO 32/15644 War Office Records Centre Droitwich: move to Hayes, Middlesex. W.G. Thomas War Office to J.H. Collingridge PRO (8 July 1955)), which was used to shelve records (for the R. (Records) move to Droitwich in late 1941/early 1942 click here). If similar racking had been used at Arnside Street in September 1940 it would have added more fuel to the Fire.

London Fire Brigade Records of the Arnside Fire

Documents at the London Metropolitan Archives can reveal a little more about the fire at the Arnside Record Office via an entry in file ‘LCC/FB/WAR/02/005 ‘Original reports on incidents due to enemy action’. The following is taken from my transcription, the original can be found in the LMA.

An entry in this file on a ‘Report of Air Raid Occurrence’ from station 82, in F District reveals that the London Fire Brigade were called out at 01.25 in the early morning of 8th September 1940 and that the Arnside warehouse was one of a series of buildings burning due to incendiaries in that area of the Walworth Road (Arnside Street is next to the Walworth Road). Arnside is described as being a single floor building estimated to be ‘200 x 130 feet’, with the contents subject to ‘severe’ damage from the fire. The building is said to have collapsed. When this happened is not specified, but depending on the way the building collapsed (roof/walls etc.) it would have had an impact on the fire and the survival of the records. It is also not mentioned how internally the building was divided, that is whether it was divided by internal walls or the exact method by which the documents were stored. One possibility would be in boxes as with the Guards’ records, but how they were stacked/shelved is not known (beyond the fact that there were clearly arranged by regiment or corps, surviving records are either referred to by numbers of documents or weight in tonnes). The water and fire damage to many of the records presumably indicates that the records were retrieved post raid from the rubble of the collapsed building.

The description from the LMA file fits in with the 1938 map available here (Click on the link and then click on the button on the right hand side of the screen that says 1938):

http://maps.southwark.gov.uk/connect/southwark.jsp?mapcfg=Historical_Selection&x=532518&y=177977&z=10

A PRO official (now the National Archives), wrote in response to a War Office letter about the losses from the fire

I am bound to add that whenever I visited Arnside Street I pointed out the danger of fire. That, however, in no way lessens my sympathy with you, and also with Nelson  who looked after your archives for many years with skill and devotion [Editor’s note: John Reginald Nelson M.B.E, effectively head of R.Records (including its predecessors) 1920- 1937 (he was put in charge of the main War Office Registry by 1939), was loaned by the Public Record Office for war work with the War Office in February 1915 (War Office List 1939 p. 190), helping organise the War Office telegraph system (for example see War Office List 1919 p. 72) and with the end of the War he was permanently transferred to the War Office in March 1920 Ibid. p. 23]’.

From The National Archives (TNA) PRO 1/387 War Office. Report of fire at repository in Arnside Street, Walworth. Deputy Keeper PRO (?) to G.W. Lambert War Office (29 October 1940)

A War Office official (G.W. Lambert) in a letter dated 25 October 1940 and to whom the PRO letter above was written in response stated that of all the material stored at Arnside that ‘…of some 1,400 tons of documents only approximately 300 tons will be saved.’

Ibid: G.W. Lambert War Office to The Master of the Rolls (25 October 1940)

The comment on record from a PRO official just after the fire that Arnside was very vulnerable to fire and that he had told the War Office this, was stating a problem that had been understood by the War Office before the fire in terms of the need to remove the staff and records away from an area of London very likely to be bombed.  The War Office had R. (Records) and its holdings on an evacuation list before the Arnside Fire, but their removal to the West Country was clearly not a priority . The WW1 service related records which made up the bulk of the records at Arnside were scheduled for eventual destruction, all except the precious AB358s (plus A.B. 216s and A.B. 359, for more detail on A.B. 358 plus these other permanent records of service see here) and presumably records of Officers’ services such as A.F.B 199 which were all intended to be permanently preserved (for the 1923 War Office Schedule, setting out the guidelines for destruction and preservation, click here), at sometime in the future reaching the Public Record Office.

The Arnside records were also a victim of post WW1 austerity, with the records first taken from the Army Record Offices to Isleworth as part of War Office efforts to facilitate the reduction of Record/Pay Office staff and accommodation. They were then in late 1933/early 1934 moved from the Percy House Schools (Isleworth) to Arnside when the Percy House Schools had to be returned to Middlesex County Council. Arnside and the other War Office file/record store recorded at Marshalsea Road (Marshelsea Road in Southwark, see here for the reference to a building at this location used as a record repository) were conveniently close to the War Office but very vulnerable in terms of the anticipated bombing of London.

The problem of water damaged records

A comment by a PRO official in a draft circular on the problem of ensuring the safety of documents in wartime put together in 1942, summarises the problems faced in preserving records that had survived fire but like many of those from Arnside were badly water damaged ( the comments wer possibly influenced by any PRO help given to preserving the surviving Arnside documents):

Salvage

It is not the province of this Memorandum to deal with the methods employed for preserving and making legible charred or carbonized paper; but experience has confirmed that in the case of a building not totally destroyed by a conflagration which has been extinguished in the ordinary way, the effects of water on the documents contained in it are often much worse than those of fire: because of the subsequent developments of mildew and fermentation. It is also considered that the essential thing in such cases is speed in the adoption of necessary measures and that with a little preliminary instruction in methods to be employed or avoided unskilled persons may be trusted with such work…’

The National Archives (TNA) PRO 1/490 Memorandum on the special precautions considered or adopted for the protection of archives from war risk: Draft Memorandum on Special Precautions considered or adopted for the Protection of Records from War Risks. (1942).

 

Postscript: Droitwich and saving the ‘Burnt Records’/the problem of whether to accept the return to the War Office of Soldiers’ Documents held on Ministry of Pensions Files (1940-1945)

For an investigation into the attitudes shown by R.(Records) and War Office officials towards the surviving records from Arnside (the so-called ‘Burnt Records), together with their reluctance in Wartime to accept the return of replacement Soldiers’ Documents from the Ministry of Pensions please click here.

 

Army  Record Offices

A link to a list of Regional Record Offices during WW1 can be found here from a 1918 book ‘War Pensions and Allowances’ by J.M. Hogge, M.P. and T.H. Garside (Hodder and Stoughton) showing the Army Regional Record Offices in 1918 and the groups of regiments which they served. I have extracted the relevant pages which can be downloaded here: – https://drive.google…iew?usp=sharing

The full book can be found here: https://archive.org/…sallow00hoggric

The number of Army Record and Pay Offices was reduced through amalgamations and closures in the 1920s and early 1930s.

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