35,000 records from The National Archives!

Previous blog posts have already discussed the 2 project extensions in place at the National Railway Museum, here and here. But that’s not all we’ve been working on. With the support of The National Archives, we’re delighted that we’ll be able to include railway company records in a new extension to our work!

This is a really significant addition – and represents a big commitment by The National Archives, for which we’re tremendously grateful. Working with them, we’ll be able to increase the range of sources and information available through our database and website. At the moment our database draws on the records produced by the Railway Inspectors, the state officials who investigated around 3% of all worker accidents. We cover 1911-15, though with the project extension currently underway at the NRM we’ll be going up to 1939.

The National Archives extension will bring in those worker accident records produced by the railway companies. The private railway companies’ records ended up being preserved in the state archive because they came under BR when they were nationalised in the late 1940s – luckily for us, as otherwise they might not have been saved.

Barry Railway accident register – sample page from 1912. This is one of the volumes to be included in the work (Rail 23/57).
Courtesy The National Archives of the UK.

As regular readers will know, the railway industry – and particularly the companies – were meticulous record keepers. This included worker accidents; partly it was a legal requirement for the companies to keep good records (and they were the basis of the returns of numbers which the companies made to the Railway Inspectors), and partly it was good practice, to try to work out what had happened. So, although only around 3% of worker accidents were investigated by the state Inspectors, the railway companies routinely investigated accidents internally. How open or transparent these investigations were remains to be seen, but where the records survive they give us an insight into some – though by no means all – of the remaining 97% of cases which fell outside the state investigations/ record, as well as a different perspective on some of the 3% of cases which were formally investigated. This is a great chance to link different records and really expand the value of the data publicly available on railway worker accidents.

And the best part? Just like with our current project work, it’ll all be available free, from our website!

This is something we’ve been discussing with The National Archives for a while, including going through all of their clearance processes and getting a favourable ethical opinion, so we’re really pleased that this is now underway. They’ve been tremendously supportive and helpful, including Chris Heather, the Transport Records Specialist, who we’ve been discussing our project with since the planning stages. This is all helped, no doubt, by Chris’ existing work in this area, detailed in his blog post here.

Once again, we can sing the praises of the generous and interested volunteers who have come forward to get involved. A team is currently being assembled, with the first recruits already in place and having started, and more to come. This work is a little different to the work carried out by the NRM’s volunteers, who were remotely based – those involved with The National Archives work will be meeting on site at Kew and handling the original volumes (always exciting!). We’re hoping that they’ll build a real sense of community, as well as get excited by the records and the work; some have an existing interest or background in railway history, but for others this is the first time they’ll have run across the industry. For all, we suspect, it’ll be the first time they’ve taken an in-depth look at worker accidents. Having seen both the work of the NRM volunteers, and the detailed research that some of them went on to do around the records they were handling, we’re hopeful that The National Archives volunteers will be similarly inspired.

We’re going to be helping out where we can with this, including providing a training session and background support as needed. In addition, as these volunteers are based on-site, we’re hoping to push the idea of co-production more strongly, via conversations with the volunteers. We have tried this, remotely, with the NRM volunteers, but it’s not easy to do at a distance. We’re keen to see if face-to-face discussion will allow everyone to exchange ideas and come up with new research questions that we each wouldn’t have thought of if we were doing this by ourselves. Exciting times!

The volunteers will be completing a spreadsheet, effectively the same as the one filled by the NRM volunteers, so that the records are as comparable and as searchable as possible. Not all of the details will be common across the different records, but it will be possible to find the same individuals where they appear in different sources, including getting new details not found in one or the other of the sources on its own. As with the existing database, the new entries will give as full detail as possible on the individuals concerned (according to what was provided at the time), as well as the accident – though this doesn’t always feature in the record in great detail. This won’t be a full transcription, but an extremely good summary; the original records will remain accessible at Kew for those who want to consult the original.

The new records will cover a number of railway companies, representing virtually all of the known company accident record books held at The National Archives. Covering from the later 1890s through to c.1930, this will bring in records from:

Barry Railway

Brecon & Merthyr Tydfill Junction Railway

Cambrian Railways

Cardiff Railway

Great Eastern Railway

Great Western Railway

Maryport & Carlisle Railway

Rhondda & Swansea Bay Railway

Rhymney Railway

Taff Vale Railway

Vale of Glamorgan Railway

This is an enormous project, as you can imagine – we’re not entirely sure, but think it should bring in around 35,000 more cases! This will take time, so we’ve allowed 2 years for the work, though hopefully it might be done sooner. Watch this space!

In the meantime, all that remains is to thank The National Archives and the volunteers – it couldn’t be done without them. They’re doing great work and this project, and you all, will really benefit as a result.

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