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Emotion in the archive

When we started the project, we knew we’d be finding details which took us down to the individuals involved in the accidents. We’d long known the top-level figures: the hundreds who died each year and tens of thousands who were injured. Those numbers were almost too large to grasp, to feel a personal connection with. But the individual … well, that was always going to pose new challenges, as well as offer new possibilities. It has the potential to be very powerful, and to bring home the true cost of occupational accidents on the railways – something easily overlooked in the total figures. This is something which has become only too real for a great many of us in our current lives, under Covid-19, as this recent piece in the Guardian makes clear.

We’d considered the potentially troubling aspects of looking at these cases when we sought – and received – positive ethical opinion on the project design. At the very least, if anyone involved was upset by what they’d uncovered they were to pause and consider if or when they wished to continue. On a few occasions the volunteers have told us that they’ve done exactly this – typically when a case involved a young worker.

I wondered if I might have become hardened to the stories of personal suffering or wider familial hardship. The distance from the event and the people somehow kept it separate. And for the most part so far (though this will change) we’ve had mostly the ‘official’ side of the story, and only relatively rarely encountered either the worker’s voice directly or the familial impact of an accident.

Yet whilst doing some research recently I found a case that broke through the barrier. A 16 year old killed at the same station where his father was working. So far, sadly, so unsurprising, and I could cope with that. But included in that file was a letter from the father, on black surround card, seeking acknowledgement of the fact that his son’s loss ‘has been a terrible blow both to myself and wife’. Perhaps it was the understated and muted recognition of grief. Perhaps it was the fact that the compensation that was granted was paid into the railway company bank – this being a railway family, it was no surprise that they should have held their money with the firm. And that was it. Definitely time for a pause.

These were events of nearly 100 years ago, but the personal impact – seeing the grief, even if only for a moment – was there. I know that all of the people we find in the accidents were individuals, with families and communities. But even so, I’d created an emotional barrier – possibly to enable me to continue with the work. That barrier isn’t complete – and necessarily so. The reminder of the personal nature of these accidents is hugely important. I’ve no doubt there will be other ‘break through’ moments as the project continues – and whilst I don’t look forward to them, they are vital.

Are we, as volunteers, archivists and researchers, sufficiently protected and sufficiently protecting ourselves, against ‘vicarious trauma’ that might be produced by some of the accounts we find? It’s hard to say. This is something that’s come up for us before, including at the Gerald Aylmer seminar in March and here. Empathy is crucial if we’re to understand the humanity and the human costs of railway work. But it also leaves us open. Just because we’ve thought about the possibilities (so far as we might anticipate them), put steps in place to manage them and received a favourable ethical opinion, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be affected. Recognising when to pause, or stop, is clearly important – if not always easily done.

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