This post is one of a series exploring how the same source might be approached in different ways by different types of researcher, so we can better understand each other and work together more easily. There’s an introduction to this, and the associated posts like this one, here.
How did we approach E Beaumont’s accident? Well, firstly there’s the ‘we’ – in this blog post, very much an ‘I’, as it was written by me, Mike. That’s quite important, as it shapes my approach and what – and who – I’m drawing from when I write.
I would say that for the project, I and the others involved work with a mixed audience in mind. That’s both a strength and a challenge. We know that people come to the project wanting a variety of things: railway history, family history, local history, labour history … And from a variety of positions: general railway interest, academic history, from within the current rail industry, and more. The beauty of the database is that it presents people with information, to which they can bring their own questions and research agenda. Blogging is rather different, as I often end up writing with a particular type of reader in mind, varying from post to post. However, hopefully there’s enough in each post to offer something to all comers.
For us, the worker, the accident and the railway side of things are central, via the accident record in question. It offers a way in to discussing the individual involved, putting them in context of the risks of their job. It also means we can see some of the working practices and attitudes found within the railway industry at the time. Making these more visible – and where necessary explaining some of the more arcane bits of railway working – is important. That means a lot of the research and writing needs to be focused on illuminating what’s in the database and showing you why we think it might be worth looking at.
That then shapes what we do. As in E Beaumont’s case, we have the relatively terse details in the official record. We try to add value to this by making some wider connections and explaining the details which are often included but not remarked upon – because at the time, they were natural and not remarkable, but have since become less clear to us. This remains focused on our area of expertise – accidents and railway working.
The sorts of questions I ask of the sources are very much shaped by my training and background, as an academic who started off with a general interest in the past and in railways. Contextualisation is important, as is trying to explain, analyse and interpret what is going on in the accident record. That includes considering how typical the case might be, and where it fits with wider social, cultural and political trends of the time.
I might also be interested in ideas of power, control and agency. As an academic my approaches can include the theoretical and more abstract. Some of these issues come out in the blog posts and their underlying research, but in ways I think will be accessible. This isn’t about ‘dumbing down’: the underlying ideas and content will be the same, but the length, presentation and tone will differ for the project work. The historiography (what other historians have written) will be missing, and we took a decision to be light-touch on references. Both of these were to give prime position to the individual and the accident.
I try to write from a more personal perspective, too, including my thoughts and opinions. This includes at times my emotional responses to particular cases, and writing in the first person.
Then there’s the matter of when it’s possible to do all of this. My input to the project is virtually all on my own time. Between the ‘day job’ and other commitments, that time is very limited. In practical terms, this means that research and writing is fitted in around the edges; blog posts are typically a Sunday night activity, meaning research time is limited. This pushes against detailed, broad-ranging research that brings together a wide variety of sources. Ideally I would do this – but practically it’s rarely possible (at least if I want to sleep!).
That said, I do try to make connections across sources where possible. I am privileged in that I have access to sources and people by virtue of my academic connections. My university affiliation, through Portsmouth, opens doors to sources (particularly digital). But it also channels me in the direction of more traditional academic sources – so I don’t have standard access to census material, or births, marriages and death certificates. Swings and roundabouts.
I’m also able to draw upon the nearly 20 years of research I’ve done into this broad area and allied topics. Typically that means I’m happy to make statements as I know they’re accurate – but for the project blog those statements won’t always be referenced. I’m also fortunate to have access to people – friends and colleagues at the project’s partner institutions, in the railway industry, and beyond. If I have a last minute question or need for an image, they’re generally super helpful.
So – hopefully this helps show some of the project workings and why my contributions look and feel the way they do. I won’t go so far as to say this is universal across the project, or that we’re a subset of historical research in the way that other contributors to this look at this single source are. But it might clarify what we can offer and our limitations.