Using Online Archives: Part 1

Our second year students taking the Dissertation Research Skills module were given an assignment to write a 500-word blog post that would serve as a  how-to guide for using a particular online archive or library catalogue. With the students’ permission, we’ll share some of the best posts here. This one is by Joseph, who has written on “How to find primary sources related to homosexuality in the nineteenth century in the National Archives.

Photo by C M on Unsplash

How to find primary sources related to homosexuality in the nineteenth century in the National Archives.

The National Archives holds over a thousand years of history, from the Doomsday Book of 1086 right up to ministerial documents of Margaret Thatcher’s government from the 1980’s. Unfortunately, the archive is only open Tuesday to Friday to those who have booked and pre-ordered a maximum of nine documents.

Homosexuality was illegal until 1967, meaning the documents are primarily criminal records. Although this provides awareness to government interaction within society, female homosexuality was not technically criminalised, therefore it is far more difficult to find sources relating to lesbianism. Despite this, the National Archives compared to criminal archives, such as the Old Bailey, is far more beneficial as they provide links to other websites or archives that either hold the requested resource or will offer better information.

In order to find successful results about homosexuality in the nineteenth century, you will need to:

  • Open Discovery, a database that provides the records collated from over 2,500 archives, which ensures a maximum range of findings.
  • Select the ‘Advanced Search’ for more tailored results. By providing the options to use key words or phrases, words to avoid and references within the documents the results are relevant and coherent for the topic.
  • The ‘Find Words’ option will provide a possibly overwhelming number of results. When searching for sources truncation can be used to find variations of a root word by means of an asterisk i.e. homosexual* will show results for homosexuals as well as homosexuality. Truncation is therefore efficient in both finding relevant results and saving time.
  • To refine your search even more, use the ‘Any of these words’ option. This allows you to search for possible synonyms or more historically accurate terminology, for example, when searching for homosexuality in the nineteenth century, words such as ‘invert’, ‘sodomite’ or ‘deviant’ would provide more results as these were more commonly used, especially for criminal records.
  • In the date section, tick ‘1800-1899’.
  • Select whether you want records held by the National Archives themselves, other archives or both but bear in mind that not all results are digitised so research is restricted to when you may see them in person.
  • Now begin the search.

An alternative method is searching through ‘tags’, a key word or phrase used to classify a primary resource. Searching for tags that are labelled as ‘lgbt’ provide 61 results of what other researchers have labelled. These would then need to be filtered to show results from 1800-1899.

The search results are highly felonious in nature, which demonstrates the types of records you can expect. For instance, reference HO 17/80/29 describes the trial of William Robinson, who was sentenced to death for the accusation of homosexuality. This tells us a lot about the social situation and the process in which gay men were dealt with in regards to the law. Contrastingly, HO 44/20/30 speaks of reducing the punishment for homosexuality from execution to a fine. Interestingly, this source was written seven years prior to the first which tells us that despite attempts to remove the death penalty, anti-homosexual sentiment prevailed. Finally, while HO 44/20/30 can only be ordered in advance (since its not been digitised), HO 17/80/29 is available from ‘Findmypast’, a linked genealogy site that provides criminal records. Here, shows a good example of the National Archives using another source to help expand research.

Bibliography

Find my Past, ‘England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935’, Find my Past

 <https://search.findmypast.co.uk/search-world-records/england-and-wales-crime-prisons-and-punishment-1770-1935 > [last accessed 20 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘Discovery’, The National Archives <https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/>[last accessed 15 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘HO 17/80/29’, The National Archives <http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C16286162 >[last accessed 19 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘HO 44/20/30’, The National Archives <http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C6926409> [last accessed 19 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘Home’, The National Archives <https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/>[last accessed 19 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘records with the tag ‘lgbt’’, The National Archives <http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/tagdetails/c1d7d4ed-17c8-4760-b2d6-f992790d0efc >[last accessed 19 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘Sexuality and gender identity history’, The National Archives<https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/gay-lesbian-history/>[last accessed 15 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘Tags’, The National Archives <http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/tags/index>[last accessed 19 October 2020]

The National Archives, ‘Your Search Results’, The National Archives <https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/r?_ep=homosexual%2A&_dss=range&_ro=any&_p=1800&_st=adv>[last accessed 19 October 2020]

The Old Bailey, ‘Home’, The Old Bailey<https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/> [last accessed 19 October 2020]

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