In the UK, May is Local and Community History Month – a means of highlighting the importance of local history and the importance of community engagement with the past. This means it’s close to the project’s heart on two grounds.
Firstly, the significance of place – without people and place, the railways and their workforces served no purpose. Secondly, the sense of collaboration in research. Our project – we hope – enables you to find out more about railway staff, their work and their accidents, but also to add to your research. And likewise, we benefit when we hear from you, about how your research fits into what we’re doing.
So, before we go any further, we’d appeal to all local and community historians out there who might be reading this, and who might have used – or be yet to use – our project and its resources. We would love to know how you’re using what we do in your research. We’re also keen to have you ‘review’ us, giving the local or community historian’s perspective on the project and our database. What potential do you see it offering? What more could we do to enhance that? Please drop us a line – we’d love to hear from you; email is best – railwayworkeraccidents[at]gmail.com: thank you!
As to our perspective on this, at the most obvious level, place is essential to the accident records and our database. It shows the railway in thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of locations across Britain and Ireland. Many of these places are recognisable to all – the big towns and cities down to the villages, from Aberdeen and Abergavenny, to Yeovil and Ystrad Mynach.
In some cases, though, we encounter railway geographies – places which weren’t accessible to the public, or which didn’t have an independent existence outside the railway. These are things goods sheds and signal boxes, or junctions which marked diverging tracks and routes. They might have had little or no significance to anyone outside the railway workforce.
And in our newest dataset, around 25,000 cases from the ASRS/ NUR trade union, we find another form of railway geography – or more accurately, labour geography. It often maps onto ‘real’ geography (in the sense of places that are known) – via the trade union branches that existed. These branches brought together groups of men, and latterly women, who shared jobs, beliefs and interests. They connected different locations with each other, via imagined communities.
What’s particularly important and useful about the trade union dataset is that it gives us insight into people’s experiences after an accident, ill-health or old age, via the support the Union offered its members. This didn’t just affect the railway workers, of course, but also their families – often seen in the dependents who were left behind after a fatality. We can really start to put railway work in a much broader context.
Across the different datasets in our database, we therefore see people and places linked. Not only that, but given the extending period we’re covering – now c.1889-1939 – we can see linkages over time, too. Via their accidents, it’s possible to see how railway communities fared in particular locations.
We hope that these preliminary thoughts for Local and Community History Month will inspire your thinking – and we’ll return to some of these themes in future posts.