The National Archives at Kew - Your First Visit

by David Birch


For those who would like to make their first visit The National Archives at Kew (referred to as TNA), the following is a step-by-step guide as to what to do.


It is best to do some research before you visit, to avoid using up your time there searching the catalogue. The Archive’s website,, provides a number of ways to search the CATALOG and obtain a list of document reference numbers.

Documents are organized by Class and Piece Numbers, the combination of which forms the document reference number. Aviation-related documents are primarily found in the AVIA (Aviation), AIR (Air Force), DSIR (Scientific Research), SUPP (Supply) and FO (Foreign Office) Classes. Piece Numbers are a series of digits within each class that identify groups of related documents or unique documents (for example AVIA 38/865).

Some documents have been scanned and can be downloaded for a price (most aviation-related documents haven’t been scanned). However, you can put in a request, via the website, for a document to be scanned and sent to you.

So, now you have a fistful of document references, and you are on your way to London.

Getting there:

It is likely that your journey to TNA will commence from central London. Take the Underground (the term Metro is not used) to KEW GARDENS station on the District Line (green line on the map – pick up a free map at the ticket office). If you are going to make a number of trips to TNA, or if you are going to spend some time sight-seeing in , then get an Oyster Card from the ticket office at the station and load it with pre-paid fares – say, seven to ten pounds a day. The journeys are slightly cheaper by this method and it means that you do not have to keep buying tickets.

Consult the Underground system map. You might not be at a station on the District Line, so note that you need to change trains where the line you are on intersects the District Line, and follow the signs. Note that the train that you require on the District Line travels in the west direction to Richmond. Richmond is shown on the front of the train above the driver’s cab – do not board a train that does not display Richmond. To enter the system you have to place your Oyster Card on the touch-pad to open the gateway leading to the platforms. Note that there is a small screen next the touch-pad that tells you how much money is remaining on the card. You have to use the card at the end of the journey, and you will see that the amount remaining has reduced by the cost of the journey – prices are higher at the ‘rush hours’ (be prepared to emulate a sardine!). If you need to add more money to the card you can do this at a ticket office, or if it is not manned, at a machine (instructions tell you how to do this). An Oyster Card is for one person only – two people travelling together means two cards. Changing lines during your journey does not affect the price – you use your Oyster Card when entering the system and leaving at your destination.

At Kew Gardens station touch the Oyster Card on the pad and leave the station. (As an aside, leaving the station on its opposite side will take you to Kew Botanical Gardens). Across the way is a road and a few yards down it is Burlington Avenue. There is a sign on the corner directing you to the National Archives. You will probably find that other people are going there – it is a well-trodden path. Turn into Burlington Avenue and walk down to the crossroads. Cross over to Ruskin Avenue and the Archive building is straight ahead, looking a little like a wartime concrete fortification. The walk will take about seven minutes. See the map at the end of this guide (follow the red dots). On your return to the station take the underpass to put you on the eastbound platform back to London.

If you travel there by car, parking is free at the time of writing but spaces are limited, so an early arrival is recommended.


At the Archives:

You enter into an area that has an information desk, and a room for Internet access. Turn left into the area that has the restaurant and café on your left, and the bookshop and lockers/cloakroom on the right. Leave any bags and coats in the locker room; they are not allowed in the Reading Room, which is where you will be looking at the documents. Also not allowed in the Reading Room are pens and erasers – use pencils without an eraser. Apart from coat-hangers there are lockable compartments – you retain the key and there is no charge.

After leaving the lockers climb the stairs two floors. Here you will find the office that issues Readers’ Cards. You must have means of identification that says you are who you say you are – a passport is OK, but they prefer a second identification that has your name and address on it – a utility bill will suffice. This takes a few minutes only. You are now ready to begin your research. Go downstairs to first floor and enter Research and Enquiry Room. If you have already made a note of the items that you want to see then turn left as you enter the room and swipe your card to enter the Reading Room area. Anything you are carrying might be inspected, likewise when you leave (unlike at NARA> the inspectors do not tote a side-arm!) If you have not made a note of what to see then the previously-mention red books in the Research & Enquiry Room will have to be consulted. To save time just ask one the people at the Help Desk to show you the ropes – they are very helpful and very knowledgeable. The Research & Enquiry Room is also where family history research is undertaken and also where the microfilms are kept – it might be that what you are looking for is on a microfilm. If you do use the microfilms then get instruction at the Help Desk.


Ordering documents:

You are now in the Reading Room where you will see row of terminal screens as you walk in. Occupy one, swipe your card and the screen will welcome you by your name. Click on ORDER DOCUMENTS (the Catalogue is also accessible from this screen). If this is the first time that day that you have done this (and it will be), it will allocate you a seat. If you are not satisfied with its choice you can choose you own preference – it tells you how to. If you are going to take photographs then a place near a window might be better, but the light is good throughout the room. Normal-voice talking is not allowed but you can communicate quietly in the reading area. The reading area has around 200 seats.

Having been allocated seat it will take you to the order screen. In the space provided type in the PIECE NUMBER of the document you want to see. You can order three documents at a time. To make certain that you are ordering what you want click DESCRIPTION to see the document’s title; if OK then click ENTER and order another. Unlike the US archives you can keep ordering documents all day (up to three on order/in hand). When you have finished with one take it to the returns desk and then order another document. Keep doing this if you have a lot of documents to see; it will save time. Depending how busy they are it will take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes for a document to arrive. When it does it is placed in a compartment that has your seat number on its door (see picture). If the document you have ordered is large then it will be sent to the room above – big volumes and maps are seen here – and you will be told.


If you are returning the next day and you have not seen, or finished with all of the documents that you have ordered, then go to the screen and click on the instruction to save what you have – return it to the compartment and it will be retained there ready for you to pick up first thing next morning, or at another day. This will also reserve the seat that you have been using.


Recording Information:

There are a number of ways in which you can record information.

The age-old method of writing it down – in pencil, no erasers, no pens (they will be confiscated), and no scanners.

Photocopy – there is an area where this can be done for you for a small cost. Once very popular this is the least-used method nowadays.

Digital camera – now the most popular. There are many camera stands, all near the windows, where you can attach your camera, instead of shooting hand-held. Flash photography not allowed. Each table has a power point to enable you to recharge batteries or run a laptop or whatever.

Laptop - very common. Some researchers who take many images download their camera cards into a laptop; others type straight into the laptop.
Note: If you are from America or the Continent you will require an adaptor to take you from your pattern of plug to the UK three-pin pattern. You might also require a transformer – UK is 220 volts.

Image to Hardcopy or Email - The latest method has replaced the do-it-yourself photocopies. There are camera stands that have the Archive’s own cameras fixed to them. With these you can take a picture of your page and either print it out on paper or send it to your Email address. The image you take is transferred to a screen for you to manipulate, should you need to before printing or sending. If you want a print it will cost 20 pence, and to pay for this – it will not work unless it has read your Readers Card and sees the amount loaded on to it – there is a facility at hand that accepts money and puts its value on your card. The printed results seen by the writer are not very good.
If you want to send the images to your own email address, or any other email address, you must first register the address, then you can go ahead. Ask at the Help Desk. This facility is free.


Other points:

The above photograph shows the Reading Room. There are six places to each table, each with a plug-in power point. The camera stands can be seen near the windows.

In the Research & Enquiry Room there is an excellent library holding books on many subjects. The bookshop sells books on all subjects – many are concerned with the World Wars.

If, at the end of your visit, you would like a record of the documents you have booked out, then a printout can be obtained; you will need money loaded onto your Readers Card.

Opening hours are: Closed Sunday and Monday. Tuesday and Thursday 09.00 to 19.00. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 09.00 to 17.00. The building opens at 08.30, as does the café and the restaurant for breakfasts. The restaurant re-opens from 12.00 to 14.30 for lunches. There are a few days in the year when it is closed; consult the website before making plans.

The smoking area (covered) is outside the main entrance hall, opposite side of entry door. If you wish to stay in the local area during your time there, there are guesthouses, etc. nearby.


©2013, David Birch