Historic archives

For some the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 has been a curse, impacting their lives dramatically, but for historians it hasn’t been all bad news. The closure of archives was initially a devastating development, and for those trying to pursue specific projects it has stopped them cold in their tracks. Extra time for reflection is, however, always welcome and the decision of some archives and databases to make more of their digital content available for free has opened up some opportunities. The chance to free wheel and browse digital content, instead of having to focus laser-like on the files that are needed for a specific project, has offered the chance to look into some dark and neglected archival corners and to unearth forgotten stories. Being guided by the material, in this case the material which has been made available digitally, like a miner exploring a seam of precious minerals, can raise interesting issues and stories at the national level as well as the local (Devon and Cornwall) level.


Here is a case in point which arose as I examined some digital National Archives files around the theme of naval discipline (you can’t beat a good court martial for a bit of drama). 

Richard Carr was dismissed from the Navy in 1931 following trouble in the fleet arising from cuts to Royal Navy pay and conditions as a result of the impact of the Great Depression. His service record, and census data, revealed a less than auspicious start in life. He’d been born in Newcastle on 8 January 1901, the first born son of an industrial worker. By 1911 he had three siblings and on 31 June 1918 he entered the Royal Navy as a ‘Boy, 2nd Class’ on the training cruiser HMS Powerful at Devonport. Life for ‘Boys’ was difficult and the discipline strict. 

Carr’s career in the Royal Navy was solid, if unspectacular, rising to the rank of Leading Seaman by 1931 on the cruiser HMS Norfolk. His conduct overall was classed as very good by his senior officers, before he was caught up in the disturbances (effectively a strike) and dismissed from the service along with a number of other perceived trouble makers. Some of those dismissed at the same time as Carr went on to become career troublemakers, but not Carr.

Indeed, by 1939 he was back working in Devonport Dockyard as a civilian, married to Violet and living at 3 York Street. The lockdown hour a day ‘exercise period’ was used on one occasion to visit York Street, and to establish that the family home was no longer there (although the old pub on the corner was).

Image below: York Street, 2020

The fact that Carr was back in government employ, unlike some of his more troublesome colleagues from 1931, raises issues as to whether he was unfortunate to have been dismissed following the Invergordon protests. But what added a real note of tragedy to this personal story was the loss in 1944 of Richard and Violet’s only son Ronald. Searching for data on Richard Carr on Ancestry.com revealed that as an 18 year old airmen in the RAF Ronald Carr had been killed on 25 April when an Avro Anson twin-engined aircraft working with No.10 Radio School was lost off the coast of Wexford, Ireland (three other airmen were killed at the same time).

Twitter and various RAF forums, with people equally eager to indulge in a little history in the midst of lockdown, soon revealed that the aircraft, seemingly lost, flew over the coast of neutral Ireland in violation of their neutrality mid-afternoon on 25 April. As it wandered back out to sea at around 2.35pm the aircraft suddenly dived into the sea near the Tuskar Rock off the coast of Wexford. The Irish fishing boat Lake of Shadows went to the crash site and the motor lifeboat Marion Thompson was also dispatched from Rosslare. The crew of the Lake of Shadows recovered one body from the sea which was later transferred to the Marion Thompson. That was the body of Ronald Carr.

His body was subsequently taken across the border into Northern Ireland, as part of the Irish Republic’s ‘constructive’ neutrality that saw great assistance rendered to the Allied cause which went well beyond the strictest legal definitions and spirit of “neutrality”: The tragic case of a young man from the West Country illuminating an aspect of Anglo-Irish relations in the middle of the Second World War. He was subsequently buried in the graveyard at St Wenna’s, Morval in Cornwall: The partial lifting of lockdown later facilitating a visit to the grave on which are written the words in grief of a mother and father whose son had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country:

‘Our Darling Only Son
God Forgive the Silent Tear
The Wish That He Were Here
Mum & Dad’
I laid a fallen flower from a nearby Rhododendron on his grave as I contemplated the sad fate of a young man killed at age 18, and his grieving parents.

RR Carr Grave

Quite why he is buried in Morval, and is recorded on the village memorial, has not been revealed by the records available under lockdown. The very helpful churchwarden and his wife at St Wenna’s hope that the church archive might yet reveal whether he worked on the estate or what other connection he might have had to this quiet corner of South East Cornwall.

Digital freewheeling in the lockdown archives has taken me from Royal Navy discipline in the 1930s, through to a Devon-Cornwall family tragedy that shines a light on wartime Anglo-Irish relations.

I have gone from international networking on social media to limited visits available under changing lockdown regulations. And ultimately it will, once lockdown is fully over, take me back to the National Archives to investigate the repatriation of the body and to St Wenna’s to see if local church records can explain why the only son of Richard and Violet Carr lies at rest beneath the soil of Cornwall.

This piece was originally published on the Devon and Cornwall Record Society’s Facebook page.