I joined Friends House Library in January 2020 as Project Archivist. Over the next 2 years I will be working on a Wellcome Trust Funded project to catalogue the World War Two archives of Friends Ambulance Unit (1939-47) and Friends Relief Service (1943-48) to make them more accessible to researchers.
Through this blog I’ll be giving updates about the project’s progress, as well as sharing stories about interesting records I discover along the way.
I decided that the first collection to be tackled should be the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) archives, as it is smaller in size and more straightforward to catalogue. It comprises 47 boxes of material dating from 1938 to 1989. The material is in various formats: files of correspondence, reports and minutes, (some packed too tightly into their original, now unsuitable, 1940s boxes), personnel records, Convoy and Section records from areas of operation (particularly good for China), newspaper clippings, accounting records, drafts of chapters for the official history of FAU, camp diaries, journals, newsletters, bulletins, pamphlets, photographs and films.
Above is a snaphot of some items to show the range of material within the collection: documents in a variety of languages, printed items, photographs, personnel records etc.
The first weeks were spent getting to know the collection by undertaking a brief box listing, paying attention to the condition of the material for conservation planning. Fortunately, the collection seems to be in pretty good condition apart from the fragility of some of the wartime stationery used in the correspondence files and one or two volumes which need more than just basic conservation treatment. The box listing also allowed me to pick up on some files which have privacy/data protection issues, which will be given more consideration later.
The box listing has given me an overall view of the archives and some good pointers to how to approach its cataloguing. A general picture of the various functional bodies within the FAU has emerged, and thanks to some traces of the original filing systems, it has been fairly easy to spot how the record series were originally kept and what functions of the FAU these records reflect. Reading through the Accessions folder for this collection, the old handlists, and a few documents in the FAU files, a clear picture emerged of how the archive was formed from multiple deposits of records between 1947 and 2014.
Luckily for us, the men and women of the FAU had decided even before the war had ended to write a history of the Unit as a record of its achievements and its contribution to the Quaker ideal of pacifism in action. This published official history of the FAU written by A.Tegla Davies, Friends Ambulance Unit – the story of the FAU in the Second World War 1939-1946 (published in 1947) is very readable and includes much detail which is useful in helping me understand the FAU’s organisation and administration.
The next step was to read through all the series of minutes of the FAU’s governing body – its Council, Trustees and of its major Committees – Executive, Staff Meeting, Finance, Publicity and Advisory which contain a wealth of information on the evolution of the FAU’s administration and some snippets of information which were unknown, for example that the FAU attempted to find someone to act a records-keeper-cum archivist, but the Executive Committee sadly reported that ‘no suitable person could be discovered for the position of Archivist’ among its members. [FAU Executive Committee Minutes, 2 Oct 1945 Minute 3571].
All the information gathered from these initial tasks has been written up into a file of notes on the provenance, custodial history and administrative history which will lay the groundwork for the top-level catalogue entries when the cataloguing stage begins.
Having completed these initial tasks of taking intellectual control of the FAU archives, I feel confident that the next stage of careful arrangement of the collection can soon go ahead.
My first impressions of the collection, following the box listing and background reading, was of admiration for the courage and commitment of this group of men and women putting their pacifism into action, doing all they could to relieve the suffering of soldiers and refugees alike in the worst war zones imaginable.
I was struck by what a democratic body the FAU was and how its members constantly strove to organise themselves in the most simple and efficient way to undertake their tasks of medical, ambulance, transport, relief and rehabilitation work, often in the most primitive and physically challenging conditions at home in the Blitz of 1940-41 and then further afield in the war zones.
From an archivist’s perspective, it has been a pleasure to find the administrative history of the FAU so well-documented. I noted with interest how important the documentation and reporting of their work was to the FAU, in the constant and detailed correspondence, official and personal, between overseas Sections and Headquarters.
When the FAU focused on the winding-up of the war-time Unit, its Executive Committee considered what method should be adopted for sorting Unit records and preserving those of permanent value.
It was agreed ‘Basic’ files should be compiled by areas, containing records which should be preserved. The selection should be undertaken by a member with intimate knowledge of each area. Other papers should be destroyed forthwith. An immediate start should be made with areas in which the Unit’s work has been closed and which has been covered by the Unit’s Historian. [FAU Executive Committee Minutes, 4 March 1946, p 142]
In the final days of the organisation, the following report appeared in the Unit’s last information bulletin:
At Gordon Square [FAU headquarters in London] there has been much desperate activity to ensure that we leave everything neat and tidy by 30th June, when the Last Trump is due to sound. Operation Huddle involves the closing of the… Ladbroke Grove and Onslow Gardens… hostels, the cessation of the Chronicle, Information and Transport offices, and the amalgamation of Overseas and Personnel with Welfare. The fires have been constantly alight with discarded files – the scandal at Bab-el-louk [FAU HQ in Cairo], the small talk at Rome [HQ in Italy], memories of Whitechapel [London hospital and relief work in the Blitz] and Kutsing [China Convoy HQ] and Vlotho [HQ in Germany] – all have perished in the flames, all save a modest four crates containing basic records for posterity. When the smoke cleared away, we could make out the infant phoenix of FAU Post-War Service, which will continue to occupy 4 Gordon Square. [Fortnightly Information No. 226, 26 June 1946, p. 3]
That need for rapid and ruthless clearing out of files explains some gaps in the records.
The project’s progress was interrupted in March, when Friends House and the Library had to close because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Working from home has presented new challenges. More research, planning and writing have to take the place of working with the physical records until we can get back to the Library. I’m looking forward to beginning the sorting and arrangement of the FAU archives and returning the files to their original order as far as is possible.
For more information on when the Library will reopen, check our website: https://www.quaker.org.uk/resources/library/visit-the-library