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Trials and Tribulations of the RCHME Commissioners

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A guest post from the Permissions Controller for the digitisation of RCHME volumes:

As announced earlier in the year, the IHR is undertaking a project funded by English Heritage to digitise the 43 volumes produced by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England.(1) The volumes date from 1910 to 1985 and concern earthworks and ecclesiastical and secular buildings in England constructed prior to 1850. The team at IHR is making good progress in preparing the text and images for online publication and we expect the volumes will begin to go live towards the end of October. In the meantime I thought it would be interesting to post some observations on the difficulties faced by the men and women who carried out the original work on the print volumes.

Insights into the problems encountered by Commissioners over the years can be found in the prelims of the volumes. The prelims usually consist of a preface by the Chairman, the Royal Warrants, and the official report by the Commission to the reigning King or Queen. A frequent gripe, especially in the volumes published between the wars, is the lack of funds provided by the Treasury limiting, both the scope of the work and the speed at which it could be achieved. (2) I’m sure many civil servants today would empathise!

Perhaps some of the toughest challenges were presented by the First World War. Before war had even broken out, work on the Essex and London volumes was interrupted by the frequent arrests of Commissioners whose activities were deemed highly suspicious by the local constabulary and military police.(3) In the later years of the conflict staff from the Commission were seconded to the war effort. Some of these men and women received awards for their service on return, but some were killed in the line of duty. Others survived serious physical and mental trauma, but were not capable of returning to work for some years, if at all, due to the injuries they sustained.(4) Mr E. A. Rahbula lost his right arm in battle but taught himself to use his left arm in order to continue his work for the Commission as a draughtsman(5):

© English Heritage

Decades later, disaster struck with a fire in the Cambridge office of the Commission. This necessitated a repeat of many of the surveys which had already been carried out for Cambridgeshire – a reminder of the perils of research in the pre-digital age.(6) In 1970 a tragedy occurred during the preparation of the York volumes. One of the Commission’s Senior Investigators, Mr Jeffrey Radley F.S.A., was accidentally killed when part of the defences collapsed during an excavation.(7)

These events, all briefly sketched in the opening pages of the volumes, provide glimpses into the workings of the Commission over the course of the twentieth century.  Anyone using these volumes will be able to appreciate the herculean task of amassing so much information and preparing it for publication; I am that bit more appreciative now having read about the hardships faced by the people who were responsible for that task.

In the coming weeks we will post further updates on the project, including a piece on the illustrations which accompany the text.

Rachael Lazenby

(1) This post describes the scope of the volumes in more detail.
(2) See for example Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): An Inventory on the Historical Monuments in Herefordshire Volume I (London, 1931) p. xviii.
(3) Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): An Inventory on the Historical Monuments in Essex Volume I (London, 1916) p. xvii.
(4)  A full list of staff involvement in the war is provided in Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): An Inventory on the Historical Monuments in Essex Volume II (London, 1921) p. xxi-xxii.
(5)  Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): An Inventory on the Historical Monuments in the City of York Volume I (London, 1962) p. xxvii.
(6)  Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): An Inventory on the Historical Monuments in Dorset Volume I (London, 1952) p. xxx.
(7)  Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): An Inventory on the Historical Monuments in the City of York Volume II (London, 1972) p. xvii.