The destruction by the Home Office of the landing cards which recorded Windrush Generation immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK is rightly causing a public outcry. For those unaware of the scandal, the term ‘Windrush’ applies to those arriving from the Caribbean between 1948 -1971 to fill Britain’s post-War labour shortages. It originates from the ship ‘MV Empire Windrush’, which set sail from a Jamaica in 1948. Carrying workers and their families it arrived at Tilbury Docks in July that year, the first such vessel to dock.
The Immigration Act of 1971 gave those who had already moved here indefinite leave to remain. In the Windrush cases, these landing cards provided people with proof of their date of arrival. For some this is the main/only evidence source. The destruction of these cards in 2010, combined with subsequent immigration changes, has had devastating consequences for some people who have lived and worked in the UK for decades. They are suffering needless anxiety and stress trying to prove they are not in the UK illegally. As a result, some have been denied access to jobs, public services including health, and have faced deportation.
Beyond this central human aspect, how does this impact on family history? Well, many family historians are horrified that documents so important for future researchers have been destroyed. There are calls to preserve all records which deal with people. Some say they should all be stored at The National Archives, possibly in a digitised form. Other suggestions include outsourcing, possibly to a commercial provider.
Human angle aside, to many the destruction of a potentially rich genealogical source beggars belief. Or does it? If only it was that straightforward.
The bottom line is government departments cannot keep everything. They never have. They never will. One has only to work in the environment to know just how much paperwork was generated in the past; and now we have moved onto the born-digital filing age it is arguable even more digital documents and emails are being stored electronically than paper was under the old regimes – but minus the previous rigorous systems.
Government is just the same as any other organisation, right down to a family level. Think within your own family over the generations. Documents and photographs have always been destroyed. Records we know must have existed have gone. How many missing parish chest or poor law records am I rueing the loss of? What happened to all those original family birth, marriage and death certificates that I have had to re-buy copies of? What about family photos? If not deteriorated and destroyed accidentally, they’ve probably been binned by those with no knowledge, appreciation or understanding the records may have for future generations. Decisions made at speed with space-saving at the forefront. You can’t keep everything. A home as much as a government office or off-site storage facility only has a finite amount of space. At some point a decision needs to be made about retention.
One positive about government records, there is a framework in place by which decisions around file destruction or retention and second review are made (although even here in recent years it is being made quicker and easier to destroy, with the implication that retaining a file for second review is a last resort). In the case of the landing cards, the system appears to have catastrophically failed. But for me the main losers aren’t us genealogists, as much as I regret that: it’s the human consequences for the living.
But sadly I can see how it has happened. Here’s my take.
Over the past 20+ years there has been the drive towards a paperless office. Office and storage space costs. And when there’s an office move, it inevitably results in less storage space, not more. Long gone are the rows of filing cabinets of the 1980s (and earlier) civil service office. It’s bin, bin, bin because we are paperless generation, cutting costs. Offsite storage facilities are under similar capacity pressure. Which is one reason why there is pressure to get rid of documents like the landing cards. And any document which isn’t neatly fileable, such as card indexes, handbooks or file slips, and the danger of destruction is higher when it comes to downsizing. There are not the same procedures in place as involved with an old pink file.
Another consequence of the moves towards digital filing systems is the appreciation of old paper files, card indexes etc., and the way these were managed for decades in the civil service, has been lost. This includes underestimating the value of old file slips detailing the status and whereabouts of files, including those now no longer retained in the office. One peculiar pleasure I get from visits to The National Archives is the filing methodology. Take the War Office WW1 files: it is the same system I learned as a new civil servant at the Ministry of Defence in the late 1980s. Happy days! But for a generation not familiar with, and lacking understanding of, the old civil service ways comes the increased risk of accidental destruction.
During the same 20+ period, the civil service has undergone a series of redundancy programmes. This, alongside natural wastage, has meant staff experienced with the files and their history have gone, and that sense of continuity has gone with them. Combined with destruction of office filing slips, it means in some cases knowledge of what old files still exist, where they are and what they contain is lost. Another risk: it means decisions are being made by those who lack the same in-depth understanding of what the records actually are, why they were created, how they interlink and what value they have. The ramifications of destruction are lost – and may not be realised until it is too late. Similarly what remains, possibly in archive storage, and any work-round strategies are similarly not known about or understood.
And herein lies another problem: staff reductions. Gone are the legions of clerical staff whose job included maintaining files. When decisions are made about staff numbers, the amount of time needed to undertake routine, but essential, tasks such as file maintenance is underestimated or ignored totally. This is because the final decisions are taken by senior management who possibly have never undertaken these ‘menial’ duties, so do not know what’s involved to do it properly. Neither have they had to scrat around identifying and recalling files and pulling out key documents from them – that’s the responsibility of more junior staff. Senior management making the staffing decisions therefore give these file-related maintenance duties a low priority. So fewer clerical staff pushes the job upwards to hard-pressed junior and middle managers. As a result it becomes a task to do when you have time – which is hardly ever.
And the born-digital files are suffering as much as old paper files. They still have to be maintained and reviewed. With the added complication that filing on them is even more an individual responsibility. It means (and senior management are particularly guilty here) that digital documents don’t get filed; or they are filed multiple times; or there is a general file dump when a mailbox is in danger of collapse – on a generic file, so not where the documents ought to be. Think of that for the future. But I digress.
So if space is such a premium, why doesn’t government digitise all the old paper files and indexes? Easy answer. Money. It’s a mammoth task. Unpicking, preparing, arranging and scanning row upon row of paper files, not to mention the card indexes and other specialised filing systems. There is insufficient staff to do it. No day-to-day work would get done. All time would be spent on the digitisation process. Temps cost money too, as does outsourcing the job. And in a time when the government imperative is to cut departmental running costs, this is a non-starter.
The other solution put forward is getting a commercial provider to do it. Or perhaps they could even have the documents, as happened with the Western Front Association who became custodians of the Great War soldier’s pension record cards and archives thus saving them from destruction by the Ministry of Defence. But this depends upon a reputable organisation wanting the documents and coming forward. And it relies on government departments informing these organisations about records of interest. It also depends on the sensitivity, and time period, of the documents. Think overzealous Data Protection issues/fears, 100 year rules and the like.
Bottom line. The cost of being caught out for destroying the landing cards is not as great as the long-term cost of retaining them. The Home Office have been caught out here. But then think of all the other destroyed files we know nothing about. Most of which we will hear nothing about. Someone has to make a judgement. And we have to accept sometimes it will be a wrong call – as is clearly the case with the Windrush debacle. But despite the imperfections, is it the best we can hope for?
And as I said at the outset, the government can’t and don’t keep everything. This is nothing new. There are oh so many examples (and I’m not going to mention the Irish censuses), some deliberate and others accidental. The Great War Soldier’s Pension Cards had a happy outcome.
However, back in 2014 when they faced calls for an inquiry into historical cases of paedophilia, it emerged in excess 100 Home Office files relevant to allegations of a child abuse network were either missing or had been destroyed.
The 1931 England and Wales census was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1942. The General Register Office civil servant who visited the debris determined that:
….it would be useless to attempt any sort of salvage operation; we are leaving the Office of Works to clear and dispose of the debris in any way they think desirable.
Hence the importance of the 1939 Register (especially with no 1941 Wartime census). Incidentally in 1950 there was a subsequent check to see if any 1931 census records had been saved from the conflagration and stored elsewhere.
First World War Representative Medical Records of Servicemen held at The National Archives under MH 106 are only a representative selection of Great War medical records. The rest of the collection is missing, believed destroyed before the Second World War. This is but one example of where only a sample selection of records have been kept.
And as for the problems of digital filing systems, don’t get me started. If you think there are problems now, this is like walk in the park compared to what we’re facing in 20 years time.