Family Tree Live – sharing information!

UPDATE: We’ve now added a new post, capturing some of the thoughts of our stand visitors & volunteers – read it here!


On Friday and Saturday of last week, we took the project to the Family Tree Live show at Alexandra Palace – and it went really well!

The stand in action on Saturday

We wanted to get word out to family historians and genealogists about the project – something we’ve been doing in print and electronically, but it’s always nicer in person. Making sure that people know about us and our resources is crucial, as we want them and you to make use of our database and other sources.

We set up on Thursday afternoon – and had plenty to do: pop-up banners, posters, electronic resources, leaflets from all of our project partners and the institutions we’re working with – and courtesy of the Friends of the National Railway Museum, a working model of Rocket (complete with William Huskisson – pre-accident, thankfully). Alexandra Palace was a fantastic venue – not least because at one point it had its own railway station – and there was a real sense of anticipation amongst all the stands busy preparing and having a sneaky advance preview of the other exhibitors.

Alexandra Palace station, Great Northern Railway, c.1913.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps

Doors opened at 9.30am on the Friday morning, and there was a steady stream of people in, visiting the stands – including ours. Over the two days we had barely a moment to sit down, a great sign of the interest in the project. The film of railway accidents and railway work, provided by the BFI, attracted attention, as did the array of posters and information on display, which really gave a flavour of what railway work was like in the past and the scale and impact of staff accidents.

Peter Thorpe (white jumper), Chris Heaton (green jumper) and Mel Draper (engine driver’s cap on!) in action on Friday.

We spoke to a huge range of people, including some former railway workers, reflecting just how many families have railway ancestors. It was very satisfying to be able to help people in all sorts of ways, from advice about where to find general staff records to searching our database and more detailed discussion about railway work and accidents. One of the many brilliant things was that – as we’d hoped – this was a two-way process: people sought us out to share their family stories and to offer details of accidents to the railway workers in their families. We’re hugely grateful for that.

We handed out lots of our project information sheets and data visualisation sheets, so hopefully now people have being checking what we have to offer from the comfort of their own homes. And it was fun to be on the route of the children’s detective trail, as we had a number of children stop at the stand to find out more about some of the railway dogs which collected money for workers who’d had accidents and their dependents.

In addition, we ran 3 sessions as part of the workshop programme, helping people find out more about railway work and railway accident records. They seemed to go well, and it was another way we were able to talk in more depth with people who might benefit from using our resources. What was really appreciated was participants’ willingness to share details of their railway ancestors – often tying in very well with the comments we were making.

It wasn’t all work, though. We were able to explore the other stands, making some useful contacts and finding out plenty that was new to us. I managed to meet up with friends from Twitter’s ‘Ancestry Hour’ in one of the organised ‘Tweet Ups’ and around and about (you know who you are!), as well as finally meeting some people I’d only spoken with until this point. That sense of community was a lovely feeling, something very warming.

Plus we’ve received what could – if it works out – be a really significant offer of help, via one of those Twitter friends. So, keep fingers crossed!

It was a really rewarding experience: there was a great sense of satisfaction at being able to help people and offer potential avenues for their research. You could see it in their faces as they left us – plus they told us so! Quite a few people also helped by completing a short feedback slip, so we’re going to go over them to see what more we can do to work with the family history and genealogical community.

Brilliantly, we’ve also got a lot of follow ups to do now – as well as the things we said we’d get to people, we’ve had a number of offers of help. This is one of the fantastic things we’ve found before with the family history & genealogy community (not least in Transcription Tuesday) – there’s a great willingness to help out. So, we’re delighted that we’ve had a number of people asking if they can do some transcription, and some offers of guest blog posts for the website. Look out for these in the future!

Crucially none of this would have been possible without help and support from a number of sources. Firstly, Sarah, Helen and the team at Family Tree Live were extremely useful, including in making our attendance financially viable. The University of Portsmouth’s technical support (thanks Mark, Tom and Scott!) and financial contribution, part of my recent sabbatical, made sure we had a good display. But more than that, the stand volunteers meant we were able to offer a friendly and knowledgeable face and to help as many people as we did. So, a hearty thanks to Mel Draper, Chris Heaton, George Rutter, and Peter Thorpe.

Some of our volunteers, in a brief moment of calm (L-R): George Rutter, Mel Draper & Chris Heaton.

It feels particularly fitting that over the course of the two days, we had volunteers from all 3 of our current project extensions at the stand: Chris H (NRM), Chris J (MRC) and Rosemary L (TNA). Chris J was giving a talk on the Saturday, and I’m pleased to say she reports it went well! We’d also like to thank all of the Twitter friends and supporters who helped spread the word about us and said nice things (for not even a payment!). Just one example of that – Andrew Martin gave us a lovely write up in his review of the Friday: tha

Now that the dust is settling we’re preparing for THE Genealogy Show at the NEC in June – see you there!


A sad post-script to the Saturday: mid-way through the afternoon, our Rocket model malfunctioned and failed to stop just ahead of Huskisson (where it usually does) – so he ended up being knocked down again! Fortunately on this occasion no lasting damage and he’s up and about again.

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

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