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Wednesday, December 7, 2022
A perspective of the main entrance to The National Archives at Kew. Photo Credit: The National Archives

Your journey into black history starts at Kew

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We’re almost at the end of Black History Month already, but black history doesn’t end on 31 October each year. As the nights get longer, this is the perfect time to explore your own family’s history or find out more about an individual or group that interests you.

The place to start your investigations is The National Archives (TNA), in Kew, south-west London. It’s located in an office-like building set among attractive gardens next to the River Thames. But don’t be fooled: most of TNA’s 12 million documents are stored on miles of shelving deep below ground. What you see next to the duck pond is just the tip of a vast iceberg of information!

Using the archive is free (though you need a reader’s ticket) and many of the more popular documents have been digitised and are freely available online. But where do you start? Luckily, there’s a very good catalogue, which links to other archives as well, and a number of guides and blogs will help you through the paper maze. The staff are really helpful too.

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A good place to begin is an 8-minute video introduction to TNA’s black history collections. It points out that although these are official records, they often contain the stories, experiences and complaints of ordinary people – in colonial reports, police reports, petitions and personal statements.

It can be exciting to discover that your ancestors left their mark in some old document. That’s especially likely if they were merchant seamen, people who served in the armed forces or on the railways, or travellers who arrived on ships. It’s the TNA’s collection of passenger lists that tells us who reached Britain on HMT Empire Windrush, and its predecessors SS Ormonde and SS Almanzora.

To find out how to start your journey into black history, visit TNA’s website: nationalarchive.gov.uk. Additional black history resources to check out include:

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