This week’s post is a one of two halves. We’re starting with a request – hopefully you can help!
We’re really keen to hear from anyone currently working in the rail industry and who has an ancestor in our database. This is particularly the case if you’re a member of the RMT Union, given the recent update to our database came from records produced by the RMT’s predecessor unions, the ASRS and NUR.
It would be wonderful to find those connections between past and present, especially if they give you more information about your family and professional history. We also know from past experience that family members are able to share a much more rounded view of their ancestors, giving personal insight into the official records. What’s been really special for us, as a project, has been how willing people have been not just to share those insights with us, but also to write them up for the project blog, sharing them with a much wider audience. One of the reasons for that, we’ve been told, is that authors have wanted other people to know about their family members, to make better known someone who might not otherwise have been noticed in formal histories.
The rail industry has long been one in which children follow parents – not for nothing is the idea of the ‘Railway Family’ strong. Sometimes this is metaphorical, of course – that strong sense of community that exists between colleagues who aren’t actually related; but sometimes it is very literal. And that’s what we’re hoping you’ll be able to share with us.
If you can help, please get in touch via our project email (railwayworkeraccidents[at]gmail[dot]com) or via the comment function on this page (all comments are moderated before appearing publicly, and no contact details are shared). Thanks in advance!
Launching the trade union data
Before we can make that connection between past and present, we needed to launch the new dataset – which we did last month, with the support and help of the RMT. We’re grateful for this, as they’ve really engaged with the project and what we’re trying to do. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given health and safety has always been core to the railway trade union movement. However, it is pleasing, as there’s always the danger that work like ours, which is looking at the past, can be seen as too far removed from the present to be worth time and attention. However, the fact that we’re seeing lots of the same issues coming up in the project work, about the period before 1939, as are still around today, shows the importance of understanding the past.
The launch took place at Unity House, RMT head office, on 27 March 2023 (more in the RMT’s press release). We were able to take a number of the project volunteers and representatives from the University of Portsmouth, the Modern Records Centre (MRC) and the National Railway Museum (NRM). Hosted by Alex Gordon, RMT President, we were met by a large number of RMT representatives, including Sarah Friday and Jonathan Havard (H&S Officers), members of the National Executive Committee and the National H&S Committee, and the General Secretary, Mick Lynch. They were all really interested in the project and the new data – not least as it is a part of their history – and how we might work together to use the project’s work to change things for the better today.
What was particularly welcome was that in discussing the project and the data, all of us present were able to contribute, drawing on the work we’ve been doing. It was really important to us to be able to get beyond a hierarchy and ensure that all voices were heard. A few of the comments included those of Cheryl (MRC volunteer), who noted that the records were ‘a hidden gem which I hope I have had my part in making available to anyone who wants to check if their family members were affected by a bad accident or death of the wage earner. I have been very impressed to see the long term support provided by the Union to families at a time when there was no other help.’
Chris (NRM volunteer coordinator) summed up what the project offers volunteers, including
- the opportunity to continue pursuing a lifelong personal interest in transport and industrial history;
- the joy of discovery: I have learned a lot, especially about the history of railway lines and operations in parts of the country with which I have been less familiar in the past;
- similarly, I have gained a growing appreciation of the range of jobs which went into operating and maintaining the railways from the late 19th and early 20th centuries through to the post-grouping era. Whilst the records focus on safety incidents and ways of preventing them, in describing what the people concerned were actually doing – and why, how and where they were doing it – the Project is building up a detailed picture of the jobs, trades and skills needed on a daily basis: the permanent way platelayers and linemen, the bridge painters, the goods porters and capstanmen, the shunt horse lads and rulleymen, as well as the more well-known footplate crews;
- the satisfaction – from positive feedback received already – that the database will have significant and lasting value as an important additional resource for researching railways, their infrastructure and their workers.
From the MRC’s perspective, co-lead James mentioned the importance of making the details contained within the records more easily available. This makes research more straightforward – and aids MRC staff with enquiries. And Karen, NRM co-lead, discussed how the project and this data release will feed into the Museum’s work:
As a museum telling the story of the nation’s railway history, this project is key to helping us move the narrative in different and often overlooked directions. There are big plans afoot at the Museum – we in the midst of a complete site overhaul – we will have new spaces and new interpretation across the site. This dataset, made richer with the inclusion of Union record information, will allow for the interrogation of individual work journeys and macro employment trends, giving us enhanced opportunity for research and collections interpretation, in our new and redisplayed Museum spaces.
So, a wide range of aspects!
And what of the response to the new data? We’re delighted that it’s been very positive. The first week alone saw over 7,600 views of the project website, and nearly 1,200 downloads of the database. Visitors came from all continents bar South America.
Rather more important than these numerical indicators has been the feedback we’ve had. We’ve already had people getting in touch to say that they’ve found ancestors in the new data. What’s even better is that many of them will be writing guest blog posts for us (we’re always open to these – more here!). We really appreciate this, as it helps us to understand the individuals in a much wider context, including that of their family and the impact the accident had on them.
Amongst the comments people have offered us, we’d like to highlight just three:
‘An amazing resource … I found the number of deaths from influenza in the 18-19 pandemic very moving.’ – Michael
‘If you have railway ancestors this is a definitely a resource to check out’ – Shropshire Family History Society
‘Just took a look through it: what an amazing piece of work to make available. My family worked at Horwich Loco works right back to it being built. Searching on that as a location put so many names and stories on the risks I was told about. Thank you for doing this.’ – Ray
Perhaps the most unexpected response came from Steven Henman. He saw one of our Tweets about the data release, and one case within it – that of Elizabeth Calladine. He was intrigued as she died locally to him. He did some further research, including visiting her grave. We’re really grateful to Steven for this small act of remembrance, which he’s written about here. If our project can bring the people found in the database to our attention and ensure they’re remembered, then that’s a huge thing.
If you find someone or something in the database that is of particular interest to you, please let us know. We’re especially keen to hear from you if you’re in the rail industry today and find an ancestor in the database. Please feel free to email us on railwayworkeraccidents[at]gmail[dot]com