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Open Features: Don't Forget The E-mails

...There is a kind of miracle for me in holding a piece of paper that someone wrote on centuries ago, to read their thoughts and discover through their eyes, the times they experienced...

Mary Pilfold-Allan relishes a lecture on Sir Frank Whittle, the pioneering designer of the jet engine.

An invitation to a lecture about the life and works of Sir Frank Whittle did not immediately seem my ‘bag’ but having written endless short biographies on engineers and several forms of ‘ologists’ in the days when I accepted commissions for any type of writing to put bread on the table, I went along. You never know when you might need to know! It was riveting; my knowledge of the workings of the jet engine and the man who made it possible, went up a hundred percent.

Professor Robert Evans, Professor Emeritus, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of British Columbia delivered the lecture. He had met Frank Whittle and been inspired by him during student days at Cambridge. When he recently had the opportunity to spend time in the Archives at Churchill College, his research choice rather naturally fell on the pioneer of jet engineering.

The Churchill Archives was established in 1973 through the generosity of a number of celebrated American citizens and funding streams. Within it, as the name suggests, are over 3,000 boxes of Sir Winston Churchill’s letters and documents, a treasure trove that gives an insight into the statesman’s personal life as well as his powerful wartime speeches. Among the items are his rather sad, but at the same time brave, letters home to his mother when he was first sent away to school as a very young boy. They portray the young Winston as desperately lonely and perhaps it was this tough time that made him the steadfast man he became. His school reports are also there and give hope to those who do not show immediate signs of being a genius!

Of course the wartime content is fascinating but for me the person behind the public persona proves the truly interesting aspect. This was emphasised some years ago when my son was doing his history exam and decided to tackle Churchill for one of his modules. We were lucky enough to meet Mary Soames, Churchill’s youngest daughter at a social event and she painted a verbal picture of her father that bore no resemblance to the Bulldog image often portrayed.

But the point of my ramble is that the Archives also house to the papers of Margaret Thatcher and a number of significant politicians and people in the public eye. For anyone researching into the history of the 20th century, a valuable place to trawl. Where else for instance, would you find a Prime Minister’s handbag and the flag rescued from The Falklands under the same roof as Sir Frank Whittle’s diagrams and calculations?

I often think as a nation we take our heritage for granted. We are used to visiting historic buildings, to seeing Blue Plaques on walls and even expect that our traditional days and State occasions will be organised and carried out with military precision; due pomp and ceremony. It is easy to forget or fail to appreciate that our system of preserving letters and documents is second to none, from the excellence of the National Archives at Kew, the British Library in London and collections like the Churchill Archives, to the magnificent efforts made by our county records offices. They, and many others throughout the country, work hard to store the details that will add colour as well as fact to our history. We have long been a nation of hoarders, and thank goodness for that.

There is a kind of miracle for me in holding a piece of paper that someone wrote on centuries ago, to read their thoughts and discover through their eyes, the times they experienced. What we should never forget is that it took someone to make a decision to hold on to that letter or record and not, as all too frequently happens, discard it as irrelevant and cast it to the flames.

During the lecture on Sir Frank Whittle I was struck by the number of young engineering students who had foregone their evening visit to the bar to sit in and hear about someone they can only know from the history of the jet engine. I so hope Frank Whittle’s life and work inspired them as it had done Robert Evans, and in years to come, when maybe they are working on some revolutionary new piece of technology, they will think a while before discarding their jottings, although now I dare say for jottings also add text messages and emails….?


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