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Explore your Archive week – making invisible archives visible?

This is our last post for Explore your Archive week (see the previous post here) – next week we’ll be returning to our usual weekly post, typically discussing a case from the project spreadsheet: do keep checking. In the meantime, we wanted to pose a challenge to our readers, to help us find railway worker accident materials that are currently hidden from view.

On Wednesday we mentioned The National Archives’ ‘Discovery’ search tool – invaluable in finding out much of what is held in formal archives across the UK. However, there are also a couple of rather grey areas which might escape our attention, and it’s these that we want to focus on.

Firstly, there is material which might not be found in ‘Discovery’ or other formal lists of archives’ holdings. Sometimes this is because whilst the material is found in a formal archive, it hasn’t yet been catalogued, and so the institutions simply don’t know what they’ve got. If this should be the case for your archive, please let us know – it’ll be a great help planning future stages of the project and we might be able to help.

Sometimes material has escaped official cataloguing because it’s held by a group or body that might not be tied into the national networks of archives and archivists, but which is nonetheless held in locations that have all the characteristics of archives. These might be a lot smaller than the national or regional records offices, might be volunteer-led, or might have a much smaller remit and focus – but they are no less the valuable for it. There are a large number of groups interested in many different aspects of railway history, some of which have, over the years, amassed large collections of archival material. Examples of these might include the Great Western Trust (at Didcot), the Historical Model Railway Society (at Butterley) or the London and North Western Railway Society.

Secondly there are the individuals who have gathered collections of materials, whether by design or chance. Whether or not you’d call these ‘archives’ is debateable, of course, but they can be sources of vast amounts of archival material relating to our railway (accident) past. Some people have inherited items relating to an ancestor’s accident – things like compensation documents, newspaper accounts or (perhaps most prized) personal testimony. And some people have sought material out. Railways were prolific producers of documentation, so items regularly come up at auction or for sale online – including, of course, railway accident reports and associated paperwork. Sometimes this might be a single sheet relating, say, an eye-witness account. Sometimes it might be an entire accident report book or a first aid record book, amounting to a hundred or more cases.

When it’s held by individuals, finding out what material exists and where it is now is virtually impossible, and discoveries really amount to chance, persistent searching or knowing the right people – or some combination of the three. One of the things we want to do in the next stages of this project is to introduce a function for you to upload railway worker accident documents you might have access to. For now, we’d be keen to hear from you if you’ve got items relating to railway worker accidents (particularly any personal accounts produced by those involved) – please send us an email (!

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