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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
The pictures that reveal UK's hidden history
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

For the first time the complex and sometimes harrowing history of immigration to the UK is being told, through rarely seen photographs, official documents, maps and personal papers. And it's all online.

Slaves rescued from a slave vessel trading illegally off the African coast

It's strange to think that a photograph that captures so much suffering can be a rare historical treasure.

This picture was taken by a Royal Navy officer and early photography enthusiast in 1869, shortly after his patrol ship had intercepted a slave vessel bound from west Africa to the Americas.

Three decades after Britain itself abolished slavery, it captures the full horrors of what happened to those taken from Africa to man the plantations of the Americas.

We don't know what happened to the people photographed, and this picture is one of a few known to exist anywhere in the world. But its hitherto hidden existence deep in the National Archives makes it a symbol for the UK's piecemeal documenting of its own history of immigration and minority communities.

Now that history is neither hidden nor purely in the minds of specialist academics. Thanks to 2m of National Lottery funding, it is very much in the hands of the general public.

Four years ago, the National Archives and a number of smaller organisations decided to meet an explosion in demand from minority communities wanting to research their own families and histories in the UK. The Moving Here website launched this week is the product.

For main ethnic groups

The site is no simple history portal. Moving Here is an online tapestry of modern Britain which draws together the resources of 30 national and local institutions.

Above, another shot of the rescued slaves on board the Royal Navy ship

It includes 150,000 images and digitised documents charting the stories of Britain's four main immigrant communities: the Irish, central European Jews, south Asian immigrants and those from the Caribbean.

The collection would take an ordinary member of the public months or years to collate if it were not in one single online archive.

Moving Here started by thinking about what people wanted to research, says Sara Wajid of the National Archives.

Instead of writing about events such as the 1948 arrival of the Empire Windrush - the cruise ship that brought West Indians to Britain in 1948 - it put all the names of the passengers online.

"This kind of research tool makes a real difference to ordinary people looking into the history of their communities," says Ms Wajid.

"You longer have to turn up at the National Archives at Kew Gardens not knowing what documents you are looking for."

War-time admissions

In the case of the slave records, Moving Here's team has identified some 1,600 ledgers recording the names of thousands of individuals.

Anna Freud's entrance papers
Immigration records: Anna Freud's entrance papers
Only a fraction of these are online but they hope these alone will prompt further research into the what they have discovered.

Other sources more relevant to other communities include records of Irish migrant workers, India Office papers and admittance papers for Jews who fled the Nazis.

It is in the latter category that a visitor to the website will find the papers of Anna Freud, daughter of the great Sigmund and founder of child psychoanalysis who got out of Austria before it was too late.

But Moving Here's collections also include thousands of local records, such as local community papers and photographs extending right up to the present day.

Sarah Jillings of London's Jewish Museum says Moving Here transforms how specialist museums present their collections.

South London
From the archive: Gee Bernard and daughter Carol in south London
One of the Jewish Museum's most treasured sources is Percy Levy's Book of Life. Mr Levy (1892 - 1964) collated albums of his family's experiences - everything from wedding invitations through to a piece of barbed wire from the Western Front where he served in World War I.

His legacy is an incredible record of Jewish life in 20th Century Britain - yet without Moving Here and the internet only one page of it could be seen at a time.

"Digitising archives in this way really opens up research and history," says Sarah Jillings.

"Social history collections like this demonstrate shared experiences between different immigrant communities which may not realise that they have so much in common."

In many respects, the site represents a radical concept as it makes historians of anyone who is interested.

It not only places materials in the hands of the public, it encourages them to add their own stories.

Irish men queuing for work
Irish men queuing for work in London, around 1900
This "cultural capital", as Sara Wajid describes it, can change the way people perceive their own history.

The most famous project of this type is the online record of New Jersey's Ellis Island which lists the millions of immigrants to America between 1892 and 1954.

"This is not exactly the equivalent because our records and history are different," says Ms Wajid.

"But we believe that Moving Here's presentation of immigration and family history could take off in a similar way."

In the absence of a national museum of immigration, this may prove to be the next best thing.

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