Dr Oliver Bast (back row) and students at the National Archives. Image courtesy of Dr Bast.
On the morning of Friday 11th March, ten of us taking the Level 3 History course ‘Oil Wars? Armed Conflict, War and Foreign Power Intervention in the Persian Gulf (1898-1991)’ took a field trip to London. We were accompanied by our course leader, Dr Oliver Bast who had arranged the trip for us comprising of a visit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) followed by a visit to the National Archives in Kew. The trip was designed to support our course, giving us an opportunity to see how the analytical skills we have learnt on the course are put into practice in real life by research analysts and diplomats alike. It also served as a great opportunity to gain insight into different civil service career possibilities, be it in different roles of the FCO or as a specialist at the National Archives.
After catching an early train from Manchester Piccadilly to Euston, and then the tube to Charing cross, we took a short walk down Whitehall and past Downing Street in the morning sunshine to arrive at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Once we had signed in and passed through security, we were ushered into a grand meeting room where we were welcomed by Dr Stuart Horsman, Principal Research analyst on Iran and Head of the FCO’s Middle East & North Africa Research Group. Dr Horsman told us about his role, which involves making sure that ministers and diplomats are properly briefed and that they have the expert knowledge needed to effectively make and carry out foreign policy. He explained that while the Foreign Office will also look to university academics for their expertise, an in-house research analyst’s job is often a little more fast-paced, involving answering specific questions quickly and providing in-depth analysis on a tight schedule. We were then joined by Alex Pinfield, one of Dr Horsman’s colleagues from the diplomatic service, who also told us about his job and what it involved, including postings at embassies in the Middle East and elsewhere as well as service at the department in London. It was highly interesting to hear these civil servants talking about their experiences, as well as to find out about their backgrounds and their routes into the FCO during the lively Q&A session.
Later, another of Dr Horsman’s colleagues very kindly gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the impressive building where the FCO is based, which is full of quirks and steeped in history. We learnt that the building had been through a few different incarnations and that was the work of a few different feuding architects. A lot of the furniture and fittings featured the logo of the East India Company (including some of the chairs we had been sitting on) as they were migrated from the Company’s headquarters after it was liquidated and replaced by the government-run India Office. The India Office itself was eventually absorbed into the Commonwealth Office and then combined with the Foreign Office to form the FCO as it exists today. We admired the very ornate room that was once the office of the Secretary of State for India with its two separate entrances (it’s now occupied by one of the FCO’s ministers), marvelled at the India Office Council Chamber with its original furniture, were shown the opulent Durbar Court, as well as the Grand Staircase, which is flanked by huge murals that were completed by Sigismud Goetze during and after World War I. One of these murals is dedicated to the Peace Settlements and the inception of the League of Nations and is inhabited by what are, mainly female, allegorical figures representing different states, especially Britain and the US and also e.g. a ‘saved’ and grateful Belgium but in the far right corner we also spotted a rather realistically looking Amir Faisal – the Hashemite Prince seems to have been perceived as an allegory in his real-life existence… The tour provided us with an interesting ‘behind the scenes’ look at a building, which is normally closed to the public but has been the centre of British foreign policy for well over a hundred years. The combination of talking to a research analyst and a career diplomat and having a look at the FCO itself was a great opportunity to see both how and where historians, analysts and diplomats get involved with informing and implementing UK foreign policy.
After a pleasant stroll and lunch in a sunny St James’ Park, we then headed to Kew to visit the National Archives. Once inside, we had a look around on the archival database to get a better understanding of the catalogue and search engine. We discovered this can be tricky to use at first, however there are plenty of friendly staff on hand for guidance. Signing up is also easy; all you need is two forms of identification, so some of us sorted out their reader cards. After this introduction we were greeted by Dr Juliette Desplat, Principal Records Specialist and Head of the Modern Overseas Team and Records Department who ushered us beyond the barrier into the Talks Room. There Dr Desplat spoke about the history of the archives going back to the Middle Ages and then explained how the modern archives were organised and the tedious task of sorting through heaps of sources ranging from Hitler’s fake passport to Sir Henry Cole’s Rat! Dr Desplat then went on to providing some tips and tricks as well as concrete advice for researching the history of the Modern Middle East in the National Archives. This was followed with advice concerning general dos and don’ts of archival research. The National Archives are the official archive and publisher for the UK government and guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents. The collection is one of the largest in the world, containing over 11 million historical government and public records, including paper and parchment, digital records and websites, photographs, posters, maps, drawings and paintings. We were all taken aback by the superb level of organisation involved and to hear that heaps of documents and sources were yet to be discovered and put in the catalogue. There was once more a lively Q&A. All in all, it was a great opportunity and a must-see for every historian.
On behalf of the group, we would like to thank Dr Bast for organising this trip and express our gratitude to the department for contributing to our travel cost from the Course Unit Enhancement Fund.
Ana Carvallo-Phillips, 3rd Year BA (Hons) History
Kathryn Hughes, 3rd Year BA (Hons) Politics and Modern History
Stanley Johnson, 4th Year BA (Hons) Modern Middle Eastern History & Arabic