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All About That (Railway) Place

At the moment, there’s a really interesting event going on – called ‘All About That Place.’ It marks the 10th anniversary of the Society for One-Place Studies, the organisation to bring together people interested in studying particular locations. What’s particularly nice about All About That Place is that it’s been run by a number of groups, in collaboration – the Society of Genealogists, the British Association for Local History and of course the Society for One-Place Studies. As you can guess, we’re fans of the collaborative approach, and have worked with and been supported by all of these organisations!

All About That Place started on 22 September (last Friday) and runs until 1 October (Sunday). It brings together a huge range of 10-minute talks, resources and activities, to help people take practical steps to do a bit of researching into their place or area. We’re delighted to have contributed a talk to the event, thinking about where the railway might fit into places, and of course where workers and their accidents fit. (The talk ‘airs’ at 6pm tonight (Monday 25 September) for any who are interested!)

Putting the talk together came at a very interesting time for us. It coincided with another two events we were talking at. Firstly we were involved in organising and speaking at an event in Crewe, on 14 September – ‘Crewe: Your Railway, Your Family.’ It was part of the Heritage Open Days week. The final event was the British Association for Local History’s ‘Local History Live’, on 16 September. These three events were a real spur for us to think much more about local history and the importance of place in our project work. This was something that had always been on our radar (including in some of these blog posts), but hadn’t perhaps received the attention of, say, family history.

So – what is in our project for local or place-based historians? Well … plenty! It’s worth mentioning briefly here, but obviously we’d encourage you to explore the free project database and see first-hand what’s on offer. And we’d definitely love to see you using the project and its resources in your own research. Please tell us if you do, and what you’re finding – it’s important to us to hear from you!

Clearly the accidents featured in the project database happened at particular places. At the moment of writing (September 2023) the database includes around 50,000 cases. For a great many of these – thousands, certainly, possibly more – we have place-based detail about the accident location. Sometimes those locations are better known than others – the larger cities for example, or ‘classic’ railway locations that correspond to places that exist independently of the railway connection.

Sometimes, though, the locations are more railway-specific – junctions, engine sheds, goods sheds, along the tracks, for example. They might not exist in the mental geography of people less familiar with the railway network. This makes it more difficult to ‘find’ some locations, and a bit of railway-specific knowledge (or help!) comes in useful.

Ideally one day we’d like to place all of the cases we can onto a network map. That would give us a really interesting visual depiction of the clustering of accidents in particular places and locations. It would be hugely revealing, and would allow those less familiar with railway history a good ‘way in’ to the project dataset. Watch this space on that idea – it’s on the long list, as soon as time, technical expertise and money allow …

So far we’ve been thinking of place in a very physical sense: a space on the railway system which it is possible to pinpoint on a map. However, another interesting aspect that’s coming out of the project database is the idea of social space. We see this particularly in the trade union records recently added to the database. Many of the records of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants/ National Union of Railwaymen (ASRS/ NUR – now the RMT Union) do include details of where accidents to members happened. This is place in the more traditional sense.

However, all the ASRS/NUR records include details of which Union branch the relevant member belonged to. Very often these coincide with physical places, of course – though not always. They all represent a social means of organising people – coming together as a branch to protect their interests.

Typically a Union member would join the local branch at the place at which they started with the railway. Some locations were too small to warrant their own branch, so the worker might join the branch at the nearest ‘big’ location. Some locations were sufficiently large to have multiple branches – Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull & Nottingham all had at least 7 branches, for example. And members would, over time move between locations. Sometimes they would transfer Union branch accordingly, but sometimes they might still remain a part of their original branch. All of this makes the idea of place – physical and social – more complex in our database: but also more interesting!

It’s also worth reflecting on some other things that occurred whilst we were putting together our contributions to these three local history and place-based events recently. They all illustrate the value and importance of physically being at the places and locations we’re exploring.

At the Crewe event, we were lucky to have a presentation by Margaret Roberts, of the Family History Society of Cheshire. We designed the project presentation in tandem with her. We gave a bit of an overview of railway staff safety and accidents in Crewe. Margaret followed by looking in more detail at the lives of several of the people featured in the project database. She explored how family history methods can help us to find out more about the people involved in accidents – as she put it, giving the workers and their families a voice again. She’s writing her research up as blog posts, the first of which is available here, looking at 15-year old Frank Nixon’s accident in 1923.

In relation to one of the family names she mentioned – Lightfoot – one of the members of the audience grew up living next door to the Lightfoot family. It is amazing to think it’s still possible to find living connections to the men, women and children in our database. We had other stories, too – the woman whose father had been a painter at Crewe Works, for example, and who had subsequently suffered from ill-health, particularly in relation to his lungs. The couple who had come along with the documents relating to their railwayman Great Great Grandfather and his time on the railways in the UK and Argentina. We have this whenever we speak at or about a particular location – and it’s wonderful. People are engaged with and invested in their local and family histories.

This much became clear as I recorded some ‘on location’ footage for the talk for the BALH Local History Live event. I was filming in two locations, Petersfield and Portsmouth, and the same thing happened each time. People were curious about what I was doing, so I was able to tell them and to explain a little more about one aspect of their local history. In Portsmouth I was filming in a quiet residential street, focusing on a house to which a postcard about ASRS railway orphans had been sent. One of the inhabitants of the street wanted to know more, so I was able to show the postcard and talk them through the life of someone who’d lived a few doors away, 100 or so years previously.

Similarly in Petersfield, I was filming outside the house in which the mother of a boy in the Woking railway orphanage had lived. I saw the owners arriving home, so went to explain what I was doing and make sure they were happy with it. To do so I wanted to share with them the postcards sent to and from that house over 100 years before. They were surprised to hear the story, certainly – but also interested and grateful to learn more about those who came before them in the house.

I also filmed outside Petersfield signal box (in a publicly-accessible and safe location). As he came off-duty, one of the signallers stopped to ask what I’d been doing, as he’d seen me at work. I explained, recounting the story of the signalman Arthur Churchill, who’d worked in that same box around 90 years ago. I could show him the postcard the young Arthur had sent his mother 100 years earlier. The connection with a past generation of the workforce was tangible, and touching – not least in the context of the coming closure of Petersfield signal box and the transfer of signalling control to the Rail Operating Centre at Basingstoke in the next year or so. There was a strong sense of craft pride – and a feeling that the status of the job was changing with the new form of operation.

On another occasion recently I was talking with station staff at Portsmouth and Southsea station – the duty manager and the local RMT Health and Safety Rep. We discussed the project, and some work we’re planning at the moment to focus more on some of the cases local to the Portsmouth area. They were deeply interested, and we’re following up how to involve them (and potentially other current staff in the area) in this. Again, the sense of connection with both the job and the place was crucial. The local matters.

Finally, as we wrote this blog, we received an email from the Great Grandson of Francis Huish, a driver we discussed in this blog post on Senghenydd. We wrote that post to try to focus more on the local history in our database, so it was an integral part of the thinking we’ve been doing about the topic. It was therefore particularly touching to receive the email – and to be offered the chance not only to meet, but also to be shown around Senghenydd and Abertridwr. What an amazing intersection between local, family and railway histories – and the future opportunity to see the places we’ve discussed. We’ll definitely be taking this offer up!

Clearly, then, we’re finding that seeing and getting a feel for a place is important. It brings new dimensions and engagements that we might otherwise have missed. We can – sometimes, depending on what remains – appreciate the local circumstances and arrangements more clearly. But there’s also an emotional engagement with and attachment to place. Appreciating that in others has helped develop it in us. This is perhaps less tangible than some other forms of research, and may be harder to put a ‘value’ on – but valuable it is. We’re going to be applying these place-based insights as far as we can in the future.

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