Voyages of Discovery in the Archives

Posted on by Cameron Hill.

By Geoff Naldrett, BECC Archives Placement Student

Geoff in Gibraltar during his Royal Navy career

As a mature student with a failing memory, not suited to three hour ‘memory test’ exams, I opted for a placement module during the final year of my BA(Hons) History degree at UWE. What a good decision that was – albeit for the wrong reasons! 

Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I negotiated the possibility of achieving my 120 hours (stipulated requirement for a placement module) working at Bristol Archives, and was very happy when the possibility became a reality.

So far, I have completed eighty-four hours in six-hour stints, working every Monday since the end of September. In that time, I have completed the cataloguing of three photographic collections held by the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection.

The first collection of photographs, the Curme collection (ref. 2018/004) contained several albums which depicted the life of a British engineer working on the installation of the railway network in Sudan during the 1920s and 30s. Alf Curme, his wife Josephine, and later their new daughter Joan, seemed to live a very typical ‘emigre’ of the Empire existence: pith helmets, parasols and tea on the lawn, all in the baking heat of Sudan. Alf would travel the country, often as the track was laid out right in front of the train in the middle of the desert, whilst maintaining a typically British family home with prams and dolls houses in the garden for Joan.

The second collection, the Angell collection (ref. 2002/m255) was very suited to my background of 30 years’ service in the Royal Navy. 

Dockyard and warships at Simon’s Town, South Africa, 1860s (ref. 2002/255/1/1/21)

This photographic record surrounded the life and naval service of Frederick William Angell, an officer in the Royal Indian Marines, and later the Royal Indian Navy. Images of ships, some identified and some not, led to some interesting internet research in an attempt to establish ‘which ship, where’? Images taken on shore were also fascinating for their geographical and developmental aspects; Simonstown at the turn of the 20th century with just a few buildings hugging the shore line and a ‘high street’ which had more in common with a town from an American Western film, are amazing photographs.

The third, and most recent collection to be catalogued (ref. 2018/003), is a collection of photographs and other items of memorabilia once belonging to Maxwell Ray – a Bar Steward on the ‘Empress of Britain’, a Canadian Pacific passenger liner – before and during the Second World War. This collection of images is truly global, as the ship plied her trade taking passengers on luxurious cruises around the world.


Postcard sent from Maxwell Ray on board ship to his sister Barbara (ref. 2018/003/1/1/14

However, this story does not have a happy ending, as Maxwell died when the ‘Empress’ became one of the largest merchant vessels to be sunk by enemy action during the entire war. In late 1940 she was first attacked by aircraft and disabled and then, while under tow, she was sunk by a U-Boat torpedo.


Ironically, only four months earlier he had written home to his family on the south coast of England expressing concern for them being in harm’s way from the Luftwaffe.


All three collections have proved to be immensely interesting in their own way. They have not only played to my strengths of naval knowledge and ship recognition, but by some quirky twist of fate they have also all included photographs of places like Gibraltar, Naples and Hong Kong that I have visited and lived in during my military service.

Onwards and upwards – next box please!

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