On Funding, Heroism and Family History

There’s never a dull moment for us, but the last couple of weeks have been particularly busy. On top of the usual things, we’ve submitted a funding application and spoken at 2 conferences. This blog post will round up some of the key points!

The funding application first. It went to the British Academy, and if successful will have some huge benefits. What was fantastic about the process was that we sought opinions and ideas from the communities who are interested in our work – and received some really helpful input which directly shaped what we want to do. First and foremost, then, is a huge vote of thanks to everyone who helped us with the bid – colleagues at the National Railway Museum, Modern Records Centre, The National Archives and the University of Portsmouth, as well as friends of the project who gave informal support or who responded to our requests for help: thank you!

So, we’ve built into the bid resources to create a user-submission tool, allowing you to add details of railway worker accidents to our database. We know there’s demand for this (see this poll on Twitter, or the comments below from the U3A conference), and it’ll be an excellent way of capturing accidents that have evaded the formal record and/or gaining an impression of the family and personal impacts of the accidents.

We’ve also asked for the resources to develop a mapping tool. This would make it easier for you to find cases by location, and to access the relevant entries about those cases. There would be a travelling exhibition covering the UK and Ireland and public talks. And we’ve built in opportunities for hands-on co-creation sessions, at which anyone who was interested would be able to come in to the venue, see original objects and help develop research questions for the project. We just have to get the money now!

The panel ‘title page’, as seen by Tom Bailey.

In mid-September I took part in the excellent ‘The Hero and Heroism’ conference, at Leeds Beckett University, organised as part of the ‘Forged by Fire’ project (and for whom we have a guest blog post just out). It was a fascinating two days, exploring what we have meant by ‘hero’ and heroism over the past 200 or so years. For those on Twitter, our conference thread is here – I tried to capture as much as possible but it’s always a race, whilst still staying sufficiently alert to be able to get involved in the discussion.

Particularly heartening was the range of topics and subjects considered by speakers, really opening up the area, with plenty of focus on everyday heroisms and who is – and isn’t – included in the historic record. Our project had put a panel together, contextualising railway heroisms, with Oli Betts from the NRM looking at how engine drivers had been constructed as heroes and Ann-Marie Foster from Queen’s University Belfast discussing how ideas of heroism were dependent upon context by contrasting mining deaths, deaths at Quintinshill and deaths at the front in the First World War. My paper looked at the ways in which railway staff were and weren’t remembered as heroes, largely dependent upon who was being rescued and how. It was a great opportunity to thank project volunteers in public, and in the post-panel questions there was interest in the methodology we’re using.

The forgotten worker, by Tom Bailey

The conference was also a model of wider engagement beyond the academic world, with an illustrator, Tom Bailey, sketching the content/ topic of papers as they were delivered, and a hands-on first aid session with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue. I’d been first aid trained a long time ago, but it’s lapsed, so it was good to get a refresher (and a very frank one at times!), plus I now know where my nearest AED is at work – just in case. (I think I caused a colleague to have kittens, though when she took the call asking where to find it … it was quickly stressed that it wasn’t because it was needed!) Our thanks to all those involved, especially the organisers (Shane Ewen, Aaron Andrews, Jonathan Reinarz and Rebecca Wynter).


And on Saturday just gone, I took part in the U3A Family History Conference, organised by the Buxton and District U3A group. This was a great opportunity to spread the word about the project and to discuss how academics, family historians and others engage with each other. I also live tweeted the day, with the thread here.

There were 3 other presenters, looking at graveyards (absolutely fascinating stuff from Susan Buckham), migration (from Doreen Hopwood; a topic close to my heart as it involved plenty of mobility and railways) and mill workers (Adele Emm and yes, accidents did appear!). Our presentation looked at railway records and family history, but with a focus on the project work and what we might learn from accident records. A straw poll at the start of my talk confirmed what I’d expected – that there were a lot of people in the room with railway ancestors, several of whom had had an accident whilst at work (the ancestors, not those in the room!).

The talk seemed to go well, especially judging by the number of people who wanted to talk further afterwards (didn’t make it more than a few paces from where I was for the 30 mins of break following my slot!). What was amazing was the number of people who wanted to share the details they’d discovered about their ancestors’ accidents – including one lady, Rosie, who came prepared with printed copies of the coroner’s inquest into a fatality from 1880 to share with the project and another, Ann, offering details of the several accidents her grandfather had been involved in. Amazing stuff and truly appreciated – and again confirming the interest in the project and the willingness to get involved by submitting accidents to us. We helped out with some general railway record queries, too.

There’s still work to do, however. I’d started off by making some comments about ‘Historians Collaborate’ – and by asking how those present felt they were seen by academic historians. Sadly it was a fairly negative response. Despite the best efforts of those of us in the academic world who want to make connections, it seems like there’s a lingering perception that the often excellent work of family historians isn’t suitable for academic consideration. In keeping with the project ethos I tried to knock this idea on the head and certainly to treat the family historians with respect (as they do excellent research) – and I think the audience were grateful for being taken ‘seriously.’ It was a tiring day (for the best possible reasons), but so worthwhile – and my thanks to the organisers and helpers on the day, particularly Ian Taylor, Carole Williams and John Rawson.


Now this is all done, it’s nearly back to business as usual – there’s another event coming up next week, in the rail industry, to prepare for, and a blog post that’s coming together about collaboration across disciplines/ approaches – more on that soon (hopefully!).

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  1. Thoughts on collaboration: the start of a manifesto? - Railway Work, Life & Death - September 24, 2019

    […] Saturday, as I arrived home from the U3A Family History Conference, I spotted a discussion on Twitter that was sad to read. Else Churchill, genealogist at the Society […]

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