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Recording union history: the MRC at 50

This year, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (MRC) celebrates its 50th anniversary. Established in 1973, it has specialised in records of trades unions and employers’ organisations, along with material relating to pressure groups and transport. For our project, this has meant that records relating to the railway trades unions are particularly important. We were therefore delighted that the MRC joined the project as a partner. We have been working together to bring into the project database records from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) – now the RMT.

Hopefully it will only be necessary to state – rather than convince anyone of – the necessity of preserving records relating to our past. They allow us to access events and people that might otherwise be forgotten. This is absolutely crucial to our project’s ethos. Records of trades unions and other predominantly working-class organisations suffer particularly from the likelihood of being discarded or lost.

We’ve seen the massive value that the ASRS/NUR records are bringing to the project – and hopefully regular readers of this blog and researchers using our database will have done, too. The records help us to understand more about the nature of railway work and workplace accidents and ill-health in the later 19th century and into the 20th. They show how the Union supported its members and how the working-classes supported each other.

Of the c.23,000 trade union cases we brought into the project database in the release earlier this year, so far we’ve been able to blog about a few in more detail (available here). The sheer volume of information and numbers of people in the Union records can be hard to comprehend. This is even the more so when we say that we have around another 20 years’ worth of records to bring into the project database in the future.

Taking just one case from the Union records currently in the database gives us an applied example of the people who feature, and the impacts of their accidents. London and North Western Railway (LNWR) brakesman TW Hickson features in a number of the different sub-sets of the Union records. When combined with other contemporary records it’s possible to start to build a picture of his accident – and how it might have affected his family.

Thomas William Hickson was born in Cheshire in 1866. In 1881 he was a domestic servant on a farm, but by 1891 he had joined the LNWR. By this time he had married Alice, and they had two children, Thomas and Samuel. They lived in Monks Coppenhall – location for the LNWR’s Crewe works and, by this time, part of the Borough of Crewe. He joined the ASRS in 1897, including making a voluntary contribution to the Union’s Orphan Fund – something he was, sadly, going to come to need.

Two staged photographs from a 1920s accident prevention booklet, showing a shunter stepping over the rails in safety, and another with his foot trapped in points in front of an oncoming train.
Stated accident prevention photograph, showing a similar issue to that of Thomas Hickson – a foot, stuck in the track by a pair of points.

On 4 April 1900 Hickson was killed at work at Crewe. Precise details of the accident weren’t clear – no-one witnessed it. A report in the Manchester Courier suggested that he got his foot caught in the rails and wasn’t able to get out of the way of a train that hit him.

Thomas appears in the Union records in three places. On 10 April, the ASRS made a £5 (around £575 now) payment from its Death Fund to Thomas’s family. This was a standard payment, made whenever a Union member died, regardless of the manner of their death. We presume it was to help cover the immediate and ongoing costs – rent, funeral expenses, and so on.

The ASRS also represented Thomas’s interests – and those of his dependents – in securing a compensation payment through the 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act. In the course of this, the record reveals that Thomas was shunting when the accident occurred, and that the jury recommended that the LNWR provided better lighting at the accident location. His family were awarded £261.8.5 from the LNWR – around £30,000 today.

Thomas’s name appears twice in the Orphan Fund records. The Orphan Fund provided a weekly financial contribution to the upkeep of any children under the age of 14. The initial entry, from April, notes that Thomas had 4 children under 14; in total they received a weekly payment from the Union of 5/6 per week (around £31 now). However, in August his second entry notes that 5 children are being supported, to the tune of 6/- per week (about £34 now). Sadly, other records confirm that Thomas’s wife, Alice, was pregnant at the time of his death, giving birth at some point after he died.

This must, of course, have been a particularly difficult time for Alice: the loss of her husband, pregnant and with a young family. On the 1901 Census she appears as a widow, along with her children, John (10), Alice (7), Harry (3), and the newly-born Elsie (under 1 year old). How she coped is hard to know, and equally hard to imagine. We know from the 1911 Census that she had remarried – to William Barnes, a boiler-maker, likely at the LNWR Works in Crewe. Samuel, one of Alice and Thomas’s elder children, was living with them (presumably as he was out of work), as were Harry and Elsie. The other children lived elsewhere, being over 14 and able to work.

So, between the Union records in the project and other sources, we have more of an insight into the working and family life of one person. Scale this up by the thousands and we have a huge opportunity to understand the daily realities of life in one of the biggest workplaces of its time.

All of this is possible because of the collaboration with the MRC, so of course, to all involved at the MRC, our thanks. At the institutional level we’d like to acknowledge Helen Ford, James King and Charlotte Berry. But this doesn’t just happen with top-level support – vital though that is. In our case, the detail happens thanks to the volunteers at the MRC, and beyond, who have transcribed the records. The MRC team – Chris, Cheryl, Stephen, Colin and Peter – have done incredible work over several years, to make this database possible. We owe them a huge debt of thanks. It’s also great that this has helped to bring volunteering into the MRC in ways that it hadn’t previously done.

On Wednesday of this week the MRC is hosting a symposium to mark its 50th anniversary. We’re delighted to be contributing, by discussing the project – and giving the volunteers’ perspective (courtesy of Cheryl) and the academic perspective (from me!). We’re also doing something else in our 15 minute slot. It was important to reflect where the project records have come from – the Union. To that end, we’ve been able to build on the work we’ve already been doing with the RMT, as the successor Union to the ASRS/ NUR. We’ve found ready audience inside the RMT for the project’s work. That’s been really heartening. The support we’ve been given is amazing.

In terms of Wednesday’s symposium, Alex Gordon, RMT President, will be contributing to the session. These records aren’t just the past. They’re clearly still important to the Union, and relevant. That our project has been able to bring them forward and ensure they’re better known and understood is very important. Thankfully we were talking with people like Alex – and he isn’t alone – who are receptive to and understand the value of the past. In this way we’re all trying to build a better future – and the MRC is playing a vital part in that.

So: here’s to the MRC, the records it safeguards – and the next 50 years!

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