Menu Close

Volunteers’ Week 2: Volunteering with the Railway Work, Life & Death Project

In this post, the second in our series for Volunteers’ Week – the first is here – National Railway Museum volunteer Chris Heaton outlines why he volunteers with the project and what he gets out of it. Perhaps the greatest testament occurs at the start of the final paragraph, where Chris says he’d do it all over again: fabulous. It’s great to hear from our volunteers like this – without them the project wouldn’t happen. Thank you Chris!


Personally, there are a number of things I enjoy about the work we are doing on the Railway Work, Life & Death Project. First of all, there is the opportunity to bring together skills and knowledge gained over my working life in information management and latterly heritage management with a lifelong personal interest in transport and industrial history. Then there is the joy of discovery: I have learned a lot, especially about the history of railway lines and operations in parts of the country with which I have been less familiar in the past. In the process I have a growing list of topics I would like to follow up as a result.

Through the Project over the past eighteen months I have developed a growing appreciation of the range of jobs which went into operating and maintaining the railways from the late 19th and early 20th centuries through to the post-grouping era. Whilst the records focus on safety incidents and ways of preventing them, in describing what the people concerned were actually doing – and why, how and where they were doing it – the Project is building up a detailed picture of the jobs, trades and skills needed on a daily basis: the permanent way platelayers and linemen, the bridge painters, the goods porters and capstanmen, the shunt horse lads and rulleymen, as well as the more well-known footplate crews.

As a result, there was a lot of interest the Project at the recent ‘Family Tree Live’ exhibition at Alexandra Palace where we had a stand staffed jointly with the National Railway Museum and its Friends Group, of which I am also a member. Many of the interactions gave us the opportunity not only to show off the database but also to guide people more generally on the steps they can take to search for information on their railway worker ancestors and give them some initial signposting on what records exist – and where – for specific railway companies. Through those interactions I believe we were able to help a large number of people who approached us on the stand, beginning, ‘My grandfather / great-grandfather / great-great-grandfather worked on the railways…’ It was also a good opportunity to meet and to learn from other like-minded volunteers within the heritage volunteering community and to gain other contacts within this sector.

It is clear from positive feedback received already that the database will have significant and lasting value as an important additional resource for future researchers and, indeed, for anyone seeking detailed information on the history, development, operation and importance of railways, their infrastructure and their workers. It is using today’s technology to increase access to information, knowledge and understanding of an important part of our shared past

Would I do it again? Yes, definitely! Remote working obviously has its limits in terms of sharing with other team members but, on the other hand, it has given me an ideal opportunity to contribute in a flexible way and to gain satisfaction from that giving back. I hope that the Project will be able to move on to other record and report collections in future – and I would be keen to take part.


Chris Heaton

I was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire and spent my working life in local government management, including senior posts in Cambridgeshire responsible for libraries, archives and heritage services, cultural services, adult learning and community development.

Since retiring in 2012 I have been actively involved – picking up on lifelong interests – in voluntary work in the fields of heritage and transport history, taking part in a number of projects for the National Railway Museum and its South of England Friends Group, all connected with fund-raising, promotion and increasing access to information and archive resources through digitisation and developing online access. I am also a customer experience volunteer at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.


The next Volunteers’ Week blog post is here.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:Volunteers’ Week 3: Coming Across My Great Grandfather in an Accident Register for 1917 - Railway Work, Life & Death

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.