image Collections in Focus: Corps Birth Certificate

 1 October 2020 marks 78 years since the formation of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. To mark the occasion we’re exploring one of the most icon items in the Museum’s collection: a giant, carefully crafted birth certificate. This commemorative creation ingeniously records the Corps, Councils and famous figures that came together to form REME nearly 80 years ago, in the form of a period-typical birth certificate. The difference being, it’s for a Corps not a baby, and its over 120cm long.

2020-10-01 Corps Birth Certificate Small

The Corps birth certificate. From the Museum’s collection, A:1958.0116.

Created to celebrate the Corps’ formal ‘birthday’ on 1 October 1942, this humorous artefact is the work of a Corporal Wheatley. Wheatley was a draftsman in 3 Base Workshops, located in Palestine during the Second World War and later in Benghazi, Libya. The certificate measures four foot by two foot and, for many years, occupied a place of pride on the wall of the 3 Base Workshops Sergeants’ Mess bar The unit disbanded in December 1957 and afterwards the certificate was gifted to the REME Museum.

Where and when born: First October 1942 at War Office, Whitehall, London

Eagle eyed readers may spot evidence of a correction in the ‘When and where born’ box. This is because, for unknown reasons, Corporal Wheatley initially thought that the Corps was formed on 2 October and made amendments at a later date.

2020-10-01 Certificate Detail

Detail of the birth certificate. You can just see where ’1st’ has been pasted in on a separate slip of paper. It originally read ‘’2nd’.

Name, if any: Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers

Sex: Male

At the time this artefact was created, only men could join REME. It wouldn’t be until fifty years later that women could be full members of the Corps. However, many women served with REME unit in World War Two and after, though technically they wore the cap badge of special women’s regiments.

Names and Surname of Father: Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers

Names and Maiden Name of Mother: Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Army Service Corps

These reference the antecedent Corps, members of whom were transferred to REME en masse to tackle the huge range of tasks the new Corps had been assigned. Initially REME was organised on existing framework of the RAOC Engineering Branch. Transfers of technical units and tradesmen from the RE, RA and RASC strengthened numbers.

Signature, Description and Residence of Informant: The Lords of the Army Council, Whitehall, London

The Army Council was the highest administering body of the British Army until it was reformed as the Army Board in 1964. The Council instructed the committees that recommended REME’s formation – first the Beveridge and then the Sinclair-Weeks Committee – and issued the Army Council Instruction (ACI) that set out the new Corps’ responsibilities (ACI 1605 of 1942).

When registered: In Wartime to Create Greater Efficiency

This is a snappy summary of the rationale behind REME’s formation. On the outbreak of World War Two, Army equipment was maintained by various Corps. The increasing complexity and quantity of electrical and mechanical equipment put pressure on existing workshops and threatened operational readiness. The creation of REME centralised these functions and brought talented Craftsmen together to increase efficiency of repair.

Signature of Registrar: P J Grigg

Sir Percy James Grigg was Secretary of State for War from February 1942 to July 1945. Grigg was Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War from 1939, serving as Secretary to the Army Council so would have been well aware of REME’s gestation (to continue the metaphor!). It was his submission to King George VI’s Private Secretary in March 1942 that led to the Royal Warrant authorising the Corps’ creation.

2020-10-01 Grigg NPG Image

Sir (Percy) James Grigg by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, February 1934. From the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, NPG x4640. © National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Over the years, the birth certificate was loaned out to many an Officers’ Mess to decorate the walls and remind members of REME history. Over the years, minor deterioration occurred as the artefact was transported and displayed in a variety of military theatres. To rectify this damage and ensure future access by members of the Corps, the Museum applied for funding from the Association of Independent Museums in 2013. The grant funded conservation, cleaning, remounting and reframing as well as the creation of a full size, high quality facsimile. The copy could then travel the world while the original took pride of place in the new displays being designed for the Museum in Lyneham.

2020-10-01 Birth Certificate on Display

The certificate on display in a section of the Museum that covers the Corp’s foundation and first Director General, Major General Sir Eric Bertram Rowcroft KBE CB.

Soon after the new Museum opened in Wiltshire in 2017, the Corps celebrated its 75th birthday in style. At the Museum, celebrations included a huge cake, adorned with a reproduction of the birth certificate. Those who attended the festivities could enjoy a slice or too while listening to live music and touring the modern, interactive galleries.

2020-10-01 Birth Certificate Cake

The REME 75 birthday cake with birth certificate facsimile in icing on top.

Kim, Assistant Curator

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