It’s been some months since I updated this blog, mainly due to lack of time but partly due to the shock of what happened after I submitted my Freedom of Information request to the National Archives (see my post 2 January).
As promised, the FOI request was processed within twenty days and I received the exciting news that the Home Office had agreed to release the document. The next step was to pay the £8.40 fee for a ‘page check’, so that a member of staff could view it and send me an estimate of copying costs. At £1.10 per page copied this is a useful precautionary step. As the helpful man at the live chat service had warned me ‘our record copying team cannot search within files for pages that may or may not be relevant. Your options are either to have the whole file copied, or to specify the exact page numbers you want copying.’
When the page check result came through some days later, giving an estimated copying cost of around £250, I realized that my only option was to travel to the National Archives in person. I could then search through the file myself for the pages that referred to my grandfather.
I arranged to meet my cousins at the Archives and, having pre-registered for our reader’s cards online, it was a quick procedure to have our mugshots made into cards and then to be allowed past security into the reading room. I had pre-ordered the de-classified file and, sure enough, it was awaiting our collection at the reserve desk. But this is where things began to diverge from our expectations. Instead of being allowed to take the file to the reading desk I had pre-booked, we were shown into an empty, locked room. After issuing us with a few instructions regarding care and security, the assistant advised us that she would be locking us in the room and we should ring the bell when we wished to leave. We looked up to see ceiling cameras pointing at us and realized we were going to have to be on our best behaviour in terms of handling the file.
Sure enough, it was an inch-thick file, which itself contained half a dozen sub-files, and to our delight it had a deliciously ‘secret service’ look about it: yellowing, fastened with treasury tags and with spidery handwriting and official stamps all over it. We had prepared ourselves for disappointment, expecting that only a couple of pages would be about our grandfather, and these probably more or less the same as the naturalization certificate we had already obtained. But to our astonishment, when we opened the main folder, we found that every single sub-folder had ‘Samuel Grasse’ written on it. The entire thing was about him!
Needless to say, we spent the entire day reading and photographing the contents until we were so worn out that we realized we would have to make a return journey on another day to continue our work. As the day wore on, a few other people were allowed into the room to look at various other documents and, although we tried to be quiet and considerate, I fear that our excitement at what we were reading made us rather a disruptive presence in the room. Gathered around our own large table, we each took a file to read through, but one revelation after another about my grandfather’s life led to hours of excited whispers of ‘Look at this!’ and ‘Can you believe it?’ until one fellow researcher, who had been observing us from the next table, began to ask us about what we were looking at. His research interests were around the Russian Jewish influx of the early twentieth century. He made a note of our grandfather’s name for future reference.
This is where it becomes difficult to continue this blog because, from knowing so little about my grandfather a few months ago, his life in Britain has been revealed in some detail by these documents. It now becomes a question of ‘Where to start?’, and I can see this research eventually developing into an entire book. Over the coming days and weeks I will explain in full what we found in the Home Office files. The only thing I will say for now, since the first question on my friends’ lips is ‘Was he a spy?’ is that he wasn’t a spy! The rest will have to wait until the next post, which I promise will be very soon……hopefully, an incentive to register as a follower to this blog!