The burial ground of our history

Robert Winder's Notebook
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The Independent Culture
The Stationery Office (formerly HMSO) in south London must be one of the least lovely buildings in the country. An angular and anonymous concrete-and-glass box, it stands sulkily on the Nine Elms Road, a windswept and grimy industrial park link road a few yards south of the Thames in Vauxhall. It is a busy place, a regular paper factory, turning out daily publications of parliamentary proceedings and other official publications, but it is a long way from being at the glitzy end of London publishing. They do not throw bubbly riverside launch parties for The Consumer Credit Regulations. The dull municipal lobby is not buzzing with celebrity authors waiting to sign copies of their long-awaited Public Telecommunications System Designation Order or The Children's Traffic Club in Scotland.

The spacious main hall is indeed a production line; urgent bundles of official reports slide along a conveyor belt around the perimeter. But hidden at the back stands a remarkable paper mountain stuffed with historic treasures. We can clone sheep and put buggies on Mars, but some of the world's best secrets are still gathering dust in attics and back rooms; and here at the Stationery Office, which for three centuries has been dropping its papers into boxes and piling them up in a heap, lies one of the richest unexplored attics in the country. The collection holds more than 10,000 cartons of official documents from the past; most of them never before opened. But now they have been inspected and sieved for stories, and the first fruits of the labour have appeared this week in a smart set of Stationery Office books called "Uncovered Editions".

The books consist entirely of original documents: official reports and letters. They are not narrated by any modern historical consciousness. As a result, we approach the Titanic, the Boer War, the two world wars, the Nuremberg trials and the murders of Rillington Place with an immediacy that would be impossible to contrive. Nor are all the stories well known. One concerns a diplomatic spat about the Egyptian servants of one Wilfrid Blunt, who turned back some fox-hunting army officers who had followed the scent on to Blunt's land. Another concerns a fin-de-siecle miscarriage of justice over a man called Adolphus Beck, who was convicted and sentenced twice for crimes he had had nothing to do with.

The man responsible for all this beavering is Tim Coates, a former managing director of Waterstone's. A casualty of the corporate shift of emphasis that followed WH Smith's acquisition of Waterstone's (his ambition to open a branch in Prague, inspired by his friendship with the Czech novelist Ivan Klima, was surprisingly not hailed as a brainwave by WH Smith), he has made an energetic shift from boardroom to storeroom. For the last nine months he has sat in a small room at the Stationery Office, working his way through the historic archive. "We've only scratched the surface so far," he says. "We must have opened six or seven hundred boxes; there's thousands we haven't even looked at yet."

Like all the best explorers, he entered the enterprise by accident. He was organising the effects of his wife's late father, a commodore, and came upon an eloquent pamphlet about the origins of the Second World War. It was written by Sir Neville Henderson, the British Ambassador in Berlin, in September 1939, and is now the frontispiece of the relevant book, Dealing with Adolf Hitler. Coates happened to mention his discovery to a friend at the Stationery Office from his Waterstone's days, and learnt that there were millions of such documents stashed away in boxes, unread. He began to shuffle his way into the archive, and soon found a filed copy of Henderson's report.

"It was a red-letter moment," he recalls. "Suddenly you began to see the scale of what was here. People had been dropping papers into these boxes for 300 years. They're all on file in the British Museum, of course, but there you need to know what you're looking for. The joy of this is that you rummage through, never knowing what you're going to pull out next."

To prove his point, he indicates the pile of cartons in his room and suggests that I might like to do a spot of rummaging myself. I pick out one marked "1850", and slit open the cardboard flaps. Immediately my fingers are coated with black, sooty Victorian dust. I can taste it on my tongue, this acrid black sediment of the air breathed by Tennyson and Dickens, Darwin and Wellington. Gently, I begin to lift out the documents. Some have been folded in half and jammed down the side, but otherwise they are in good shape.

What do we have here? A report on marriages in Ireland by the Registrar- General, and papers regarding the creation of representative assemblies in the Cape of Good Hope and Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania). Financial audits of the Poor Laws, with harrowing references to "lunatic and fatuous paupers", and balance sheets from the Turnpike Trusts, which operated the tolls on Britain's roads. An agreement with the King of Belgium about postage rates. A strange account of an outbreak of piracy in the Aegean, during which a British ship were attacked by some rascally Ionian liberationists (who were, of course, soundly flogged for their pains). Most of the events seem marvellously remote, but some of the stories could have happened yesterday. One set of papers, for instance, details the "fatal affray at Dolly Brae" in Ireland, where violence flared between Orange marchers and Catholic rebels, and youths were arrested with "quantities of powder and ball" in their pockets. Coates whips it out of my hand and puts it into his in-tray. Who knows - it may appear as a book one day.

My favourite find is a report on Sepulture - a rare word by any standards. An earnest discussion of the aesthetics of burial-grounds, it is nothing less than a manifesto for one of those grave Victorian arts that have become so embedded in our lives that we barely think of them as products of a particular time and place. But in 1850 there was a grave crisis; there had been a bad cholera epidemic in the previous year - 16,000 people had died in London alone - and the overcrowded burial sites were noxious. The report begins with a scientific analysis of the effects of decomposition on the human corpse - coolly appraising "the fatal results of emanations from the dead". And it concludes by recommending, on both scientific and moral grounds, the development of "country" graveyards even in cities. Vegetation, the report argues, would absorb and disperse the toxic emissions, but, more than that, it would create a seemly atmosphere of stately calm.

"There is a harmony and appropriateness in a country cemetery," it says, summing up, "with its evergreens and trees, its silent and secluded paths, and its broad expanse of greensward intermingled with graves. There is in every human heart a chord capable of being touched by the twofold influence of natural beauty and the solemnities of the tomb."

One can hardly imagine a burial-ground inspector today expressing himself in so poetic and earnest a manner. Imagine the howling on the opposition benches if Jack Straw were to pull a stunt like that in the House of Commons. "The level of literacy back then was quite amazing," says Coates. "Simply the way that people wrote - it can be really moving. When I found Francis Younghusband's account of the invasion of Tibet in 1904 - and that's amazing in itself; I mean, who outside of historians knows that we invaded Tibet? - I was so struck by the level of the writing, his truthfulness."

Another of his cherished discoveries is the report of Lieutenant-General George White, who commanded the besieged British Army at Ladysmith during the Boer War. "He was so accident-prone," says Coates. "Everything went wrong. He cooked up a clever plan to send a train round the railway line to crash into the Boers' steam engine, but the Boers expected this, and removed some track."

Coates is clearly an addict, opening the boxes, turning the pages of history, and washing his hands to get the grime off. He has dealt with book sales on the executive level. Now he seems happy to be elbow-deep in dust down at the business end of the book trade, chipping away at this rich seam of words. Take the money, or open the box? It's an old question. For Coates, his hands itching to get his hands on a fresh carton, there is only one possible answer.

`Uncovered Editions', TSO publishing, pounds 6.99 each