As some of you may know I am one of a number of people in East Kent working to save something of the Harbour Station at Folkestone. This was the route through which many millions of men embarked for the Western Front.
Please find attached a photo of the canteen in the Harbour Station. You can see the granite of the harbour wall on the right of the picture. This canteen was free for soldiers, sailors and the Red Cross.
If you look carefully at the photo you can just see a book on the table. This is one of the vistors books that were signed by many of the men who benefited from the canteen. Remarkably, these visitors books have come to light in the East Kent Archives at Whitfield in Dover where they were catalogued many years ago, but where they have not so far come to the wider attention of Great War historians.
According to the index at the Archives "This canteen was staffed by local volunteers and amongst the most devoted were the Misses Margaret Ann and Florence Augusta Jeffery". Both sisters were awarded the OBE, the Queen Elisabeth Medal (Belgium) and the Medal of Gratitude (France)
I had a close look at the visitors' books yesterday and was blown away by what I found.
These 8 volumes start on 9 June 1915 and finish on 29 October 1919. Totalling 3,518 pages, they cover 1,604 days of the Great War. A conservative estimate, based on 12 names per page is a staggering 42,000 names. Many pages have 13 or more names so the actual total is probably somewhat higher.
The books are a wonderful roll call of those who passed through this spot in the Great War and include men and women from all over the British Empire. A number of men from the French, Belgian and Serbian armies are also included. Date of visit, rank, name and corps or unit are almost always included. A few men have also written their regimental number. This is a fantastic resource for people researching individual units. It would be particularly useful for those people researching an ancestor with definitive proof of when they passed through this particular spot. This is particularly true for the many men whose service records do not survive in The National Archives.
Many famous people of the day left a record of their passage. Politicians include: Andrew Bonar Law, Lord Derby (Under Secretary of State for War), David Lloyd George, William Hughes (PM of Australia) and Winston Churchill. Representatives of the Royal Families of Belgium, Rumania, Spain and Serbia are to be found as is the occasional writer such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Senior soldiers and sailors include General Sir William Robertson, General Sir Henry Wilson and Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. A number of VC winners are also included.
The index goes on to say "The albums were carefully bound after the war and were finally presented to the Borough of Folkestone in 1920 in order to provide a permanent reminder of all the serving men and women who used the Harbour during 1914 to 1919."
In many years of researching the Great War I have not had the privilege of looking at such an unknown and almost forgotten source that is not already known to fellow researchers. I thought I would flag this up so that others are aware and can hopefully get in to see the books.
I have had strong interest in running a short story on this from some of the genealogical mags as well as the local press. There should be something in the next WFA bulletin.
The books really do deserve to be digitised and indexed properly. One issue that does need to be resolved is that they do not allow cameras in the Archive. I need to negotiate with the Head Archivist in order to take any photos.
I will have to go away and think about the way forward, but would of course be grateful for any thoughts.