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Family Tree Live – impressions of our project

Earlier this week we posted a blog summarising a few thoughts about the recent Family Tree Live event at Alexandra Palace. There was plenty we missed out – not least what some of the 3000 or so people who came through the doors thought about our project, and what our stand volunteers made of it all. This brief update gives a snapshot of some of these things, meaning we’ve got all sorts of different impressions of the project and the event.

We’re particularly keen to ensure the hard work of the stand volunteers is recognised, so it’s lovely to be able to include a few of their thoughts:

Chris Heaton, one of the National Railway Museum volunteer transcribers and a member of the Friends of the National Railway Museum, was in an excellent position to advise over both days of the show, as he is familiar (he might say too familiar!) with the hard work of doing the transcription. He writes:

The level of interest and the opportunity to engage with a large number of people made the two days a really rewarding experience.

 In addition to introducing the Railway Work, Life and Death Project, many of the interactions had a broader focus, enabling us to:

  • guide people on the steps they need to take to search for railway worker records and give them some initial signposting on what records exist – and where – for specific railway companies 
  • explain the structure of the railway industry, geographically and over time
  • provide background on the types of work carried out on the railways

Through those interactions I believe we were able to help a large number of people. The number of enquiries which began, ‘My grandfather / great-grandfather / great great grandfather’ also underlined the extent of employment in the railway industry in the Victorian era and the first half of the 20th century.


Peter Thorpe, NRM Library & Archive Assistant, has been connected with the project since its early days and has been a great champion of what we’re doing. He joined us on the stand on the Friday, having been on a 6.30am train from York:

I enjoyed the day, despite the early start! I was really impressed with how the stand was set up. A number of people commented on it, especially the way it was opened up and invited people to come in and talk, rather than us being behind a table. It also seemed to attract the attention of passing visitors as we had so much in the way of interesting images on the wall along with the film playing.

 What was interesting was unlike most genealogy events I’ve attended there was definitively a distinct interest in the working practices and health and safety aspects rather than just people being interested in their own family connections with the railways or how to research railway workers. Quite a number said “I didn’t realise it was so dangerous”.

 I think it was a really effective way of growing awareness of the project, with the side benefit of promoting the NRM archives and Search Engine more generally.


The stand in action on Saturday


Mel Draper, one of the Friends of the NRM committee members and long-time project supporter, added:

Our audience was keen to understand more about the work we were doing and the general role railways could have had on their ancestors lives. Initially, most visitors though “accident” meant a fatality. Once we showed the records of just how minor some of the injuries were, they quickly realised what a valuable source on information these records will be once they have been transcribed and are searchable. Not only will they describe the accidents and injuries their ancestors suffered, but also give more insight into where they were working and what their jobs were.

There was general confusion about just what some of the railway jobs mentioned on marriage certificates actually meant, especially terms such as “inspector”. As there were numerous forms of “inspector”, without knowing a bit more about the person’s background, it could be anything from someone inspecting tickets, to checking the quality of materials and equipment coming into and out of railway workshops.

Quite a few visitors had identified some fast and loose male ancestors with several families scattered around the country. A tip which seemed to be welcomed was to identify the location of the homes of the families and “join to dots” to see which of the various early railways connected them. It was a pretty good bet that the person had some connection with that railway and had some form of free, or low-cost, travel concessions, for example a member of the footplate crew or a guard.

William Huskisson, pre-accident.
With thanks to the Friends of the National Railway Museum.

We also had a lot of interest in our operating model of Rocket, which allowed us to tell the tale of William Huskisson and his demise under the wheels of the engine. With a subsequent death to an unofficial passenger on its tender, it showed how dangerous the early railways were.

Our visitors with ancestors who worked in the Irish railways and the British Empire in India were having more difficulty in finding out about staff records and work arrangements, although we pointed them to some of the general books on the railways in those countries and possible sources of information.

It was surprising how busy we were in comparison to some of the other exhibitors. Perhaps it shows just how important the railways were to our ancestors.


The brilliant thing is that these positive impressions were absolutely echoed by the visitors. Comments made in person were uniformly positive, and we were also gathering paper-based feedback, to help us tailor what we were offering and to show to others (potential funders!) the interest in the project and the topic. Just a few of the comments:

‘Many thanks: keep up the good work’

‘Extremely interesting, previously unaware of rate of fatalities’

‘Very knowledgeable and helpful’

‘Great help by volunteer on the stand’

‘Thanks so much for the Twitter feed – it’s fascinating!’ (follow us on @RWLDproject)


One of the questions asked how we might make the project more useful – the best answer was one we’re already tackling: ‘More records – keeping on going :-)’


There was also a great response over Twitter, only one of which we’ll mention here (thanks David Dobie!) as it’s a great note to end on. Having visited us on Friday he Tweeted: ‘If you are at Family Tree Live on Saturday, drop in and meet the guys at @RWLDproject for their fascinating work and sheer enthusiasm.’ That really sums up how everyone involved in the project has approached it, which is wonderful!


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