Our most recent project was our most ambitious. The Centre for the Historical Record (CHR) teamed up with the British Red Cross (BRC) to produce a database of 250,000 volunteers who worked for the BRC during the First World War. It was a massive undertaking, involving the transcription of nearly 250,000 double-sided 5×3 index cards, which held information on individuals who signed up to help with the war effort, providing a wide range of services from nursing and ambulance driving in the theatre of war, to knitting socks and blankets back at home. The work was being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
THE HLF funding is worth £40,000 to the University and was provided to enable the digitisation of information relating to the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which include names, locations, types of work undertaken and the number of hours dedicated. The CHR's role was to create a database of this fascinating collection. The BRC came to us because of our reputation for carrying out similar projects for other organisations (such as Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and King's College Archive), and our commitment to making historical records accessible to as wide an audience as possible, with no pay-wall barriers. As with our other digitising projects, this project also relied on the contributions of volunteer transcribers, working mainly online, to produce the database. Our existing team of local volunteers, who have worked with us on projects over the last ten years or so, worked on the project, but in order to meet targets we had to increase our volunteer community more than 10 fold and over 400 volunteers (some of located overseas) signed up to the project.
We started the transcription process in July 2014, using a great website specially designed for the job by our long-term web consultant Oliver Cope, working with the CHR team and BRC archivist. Our target is to complete 300 cards a week to meet the project deadline of December 2015.
The database was released in weekly updates via the British Red Cross website, and provided amazing insight into the contribution of non-combatants to the British war effort. As a large proportion of volunteers were women it particularly revealed the significant contribution women made to the war effort both at home and in the field of battle. The collection contains details of some famous VADs, such as Vera Brittain, novelist and poet, Naomi Mitchison and most famous of all, Agatha Christie. But of more importance arguably, is the detail it revealed of the contributions of less famous VADs; ordinary citizens who just wanted to make their contribution to the war effort.