11 December 2023
Discover the records that history almost forgot: half a million documents, stored in thousands of boxes, penned in 19 languages – the Prize Papers. Below are two clips of an interview with Prize Papers Project lead and Head of the Legal Records Team at The National Archives, Kew, Amanda Bevan. Interview by Helen Tovey
The newest of the Prize Papers dates from 1815. Two centuries later an international research project is investigating this world-class collection of half a million documents spanning the long 18th century, piecing together a fascinating chapter of European, even World, history. From letters that have never been opened, to snippets of silk from the 1700s and - even a coffee bean - there is a lot to explore among the Prize Papers.
What are the Prize Papers?
Below is the recording of a conversation with Amanda Bevan, in which she outlines what the 'Prize Papers' are, and the work of the 'Prize Papers Project'.
How did the Prize Papers survive?
In this further clip, see below, Amanda Bevan explains how the Prize Papers managed to survive the passage of time, and outlines the sequence of events that ultimately led to an international team of historians and archivists coming together to work on the Prize Papers Project.
What do the Prize Papers comprise?
Among 500,000 documents, originally stored in 4,088 boxes and penned in 19 languages are:
- 160,000 undelivered letters
- Ships papers and bills
- Fabric, glass beads, locks of hair, scraps of silk, a quill, sheet music, playing cards – and even a coffee bean!
How did this extraordinary collection come into being?
Through the long 18th century Britain was at war with Europe for approximately half of those years, explains Amanda Bevan. Today warfare tends to be viewed as a land-based activity, but in centuries past the sea was where much of the conflict took place. Amanda: “During the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812, the British alone captured almost 20,000 ships across the world.” It is from these captured ships that the collection of papers were taken.
Amanda clarified further: The remit on capturing a ‘prize’ (a ship) was to gather documentary evidence that could be used in a court of law to prove that the ship was an enemy vessel. As such every scrap of paper available was gathered in the haul, to enable the greatest body of evidence to be provided to the lawyers.
That was the value of the documents at the time; today their value to historians is immense – revealing the minutiae of life, work and warfare through the worlds of our ancestors for almost two centuries, 1652-1817.
Where were the cases tried?
In Britain the cases were tried at Doctors’ Commons – a court that many family historians may be familiar with, as it was here that wills were presented (prior to the establishment of the Principal Probate Registry of Wills and Administrations from 1858). However on other days of the week, High Court of Admiralty in London sat at Doctors’ Commons and the prize papers cases were heard.
Further cases were heard in the British Vice-Admiralty courts in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean – to judge the legality of the captures. It is worth remembering too, that similarly British vessels – as many as 35,000 in fact - were themselves captured and cases held in the courts of enemy lands.
How did the papers survive the passage of time?
The material, now held at The National Archives, Kew, in the High Court of Admiralty department (HCA 30, 32 and 45) comprises that taken from 35,000 ships during 14 periods of war between 1651 and 1817. While originally stored at Doctors’ Commons, the collection of documents was subsequently transferred to the Tower of London (the Records Tower formerly being a repository for public records), before moving to the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, and then, in the 1990s, being finally moved to their current home at Kew.
Despite the considerable space required to store the thousands of boxes they excited little interest over the decades.
Work to index the papers was begun in the 1930s, interrupted by war - the revival of the project in the 1950s being arrested by the death of the project lead. Gradually, through the 1970s, interest was shown by those interested in French-Canadian history, and subsequently by Dutch historians. Amanda Bevan, Head of the Legal Records Team at the National Archives, has been working on a project to catalogue the Prize Papers for the past decade, and it was at the 2014 conference, “All At Sea”, held at Kew and attended by maritime historians from across the globe, that the current focus on the Prize Papers was begun and wheels set in motion for a project of international consequence: the German-British Prize Papers Project.
About the Prize Papers Project
The prize papers include collections held in numerous disparate archives across the globe – and as the project progresses it is encouraging archives to review their holdings, with the consequence that further prize papers are coming to light. Prize papers’ leading light, historian Professor Dagmar Freist was extremely keen that the project should have an international focus, and in 2018 successfully secured 20-years’ funding from the Academies Programme of the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. On completion, the project will include 3.5 million digitised pages.
The value of this project, as Amanda Bevan explains, is that “The cases uploaded today serve as an excellent point of entry into the historical period, as well as the global systematic capturing of merchant ships.”
Prior to 2018, when searching TNA's catalogue the details typically found would simply be the name of the ship and name of the captain. The work of the Prize Papers Project team since 2018 is dramatically overhauling this situation however. Painstakingly research is being undertaken at The National Archives, Kew to work out the capture history for each vessel. Detailed cataloguing, letter by letter is taking place at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg. And of course, as the documents are unpacked and repacked in suitable archival materials to ensure their survival long into the future, that collection of 4,088 boxes gets ever larger.
Would you like to get involved?
The Prize Papers Project team has some current opportunities for skilled volunteers, able to work on site at The National Archives, Kew, and skilled in reading 18th century handwriting. To register an interest, please email [email protected], with Prize Papers at Kew in the subject line. There may be some opportunity for online volunteering in the future: if you are interested in this, please put Prize Papers Online in the subject line.
How to explore the Prize Papers Project
Find out more via the Prize Papers Project portal: https://www.prizepapers.de/
Amanda Bevan recommends exploration of the case studies, in particular the Franciscus of Hamburg: https://www.prizepapers.de/stories/case-studies/case-study-french-prizes/case-study-neutral-ships/the-franciscus
Funders of the Prize Papers Project - Academies Programme of the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, funded by the German state and the federal state of Lower Saxony: https://portal.prizepapers.de/index/
Key archives – The National Archives, Kew, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk and the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg https://uol.de/en/news/prizepapers
The Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Lower Saxony of which the Prize Papers Project is a part.
For information about the records of the High Court of Admiralty and colonial Vice-Admiralty Courts: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C142
Interview by Helen Tovey, 30 November 2023.