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Volunteers’ Week 1: Volunteer voices!

1-7 June is the UK’s Volunteers’ Week – a celebration of the hard work and amazing achievements of people giving up their time freely to help others. As we’re fortunate to have lots of wonderful volunteers contributing to our project, we wanted to make sure their efforts were recognised publicly – including by saying a huge THANK YOU to them all.

We couldn’t make this project work without our volunteers, so the database that’s now available and all of the data coming out in the future is a testament to the volunteers’ time and energy. From recent graduates to retirees, former railway workers to family historians, from the UK to Australia, we’re lucky to have a diverse range of people interested in and getting involved with the project. They all bring different, but crucial, skills which make their work possible; what unites them all, however, is the great interest in the research and enthusiasm for the project.

What has been really lovely is that we’ve seen – as we’d hoped – that this has been a two-way process, meaning all parties benefit, as demonstrated in some of the comments from the volunteers which we reproduce below. Some of the volunteers have been researching the individuals who had accidents, as well as transcribing records; they volunteers are also coming up with questions we hadn’t considered, so they’re feeding into the project’s evolution and driving this research area forward more generally.

We’ll be putting up a new blog post every day this week, reflecting the things project volunteers are doing and the various ways they’ve shaped our work – so be sure to come back each day for more!

For today’s blog post, we wanted to put the volunteers at the centre of things. There’s no better way of finding out what our volunteers are doing and what they think of the work. So, in the rest of today’s post there won’t be much from us. Instead we’d asked volunteers’ if they were willing to share some thoughts about volunteering with the project – and this is what they said …


National Railway Museum team:

A team of around 16 remote volunteers, they were responsible for transcribing the original run of c.3,900 accidents investigated by state inspectors and covering 1911-15. Such was their enthusiasm and desire to continue when this was completed that they asked to do more! They polished off the second tranche of data covering around 500 Great Eastern Railway employees, 1913-23 and are now working on the interwar state inspectors’ reports.


Philip James:

My reason for volunteering is partly to pursue my passion for railways and partly to help me feel useful. I finished work more than seven years ago, sooner than I expected or intended, and like to feel that I can still make a contribution to something worthwhile. If I can use skills or knowledge I have acquired, then so much the better. I have volunteered for tasks that I suspect many people might be reluctant to do as they involve detail and complexity or may be difficult to do thus adding to my sense of purpose.

I had hoped that at some point in my working life I would be able to work directly for the railways in a position that would utilise my IT and project management skills. That was not to be so my work as a volunteer addresses that omission to some degree. I am also part of a generation where the long hours live to work culture was almost a ‘right of passage’, a measure of self worth and something to aspire to. Retirement provides an easier lifestyle and like many others, I now wonder how I found time for work. That said the desire to contribute and be useful remains.


Arthur Moore:

This is the first time I have volunteered for anything and I find it a great project as I can do it from home when I have time.  I have always been interested in railways and I have learnt a lot both about the rules of railway operation and how the practice on the ground differed.  Clearly pressure of work often caused the railwaymen to cut corners, sometimes for decades before the result was a bad accident.  Others were caused by a momentary lapse in concentration, or, one suspects, unrecognised problems, such as poor eyesight or hearing.

Arthur has contributed a blog, available here, about one of the cases he found whilst transcribing, of a worker going out around his loco whilst it was moving – with perhaps predictable repurcussions.


In addition, Chris Heaton has put together a dedicated blog post, which will go live tomorrow, discussing volunteering with the project – both by transcribing data and by getting involved at a public event.



Modern Records Centre team:

A team of 4 volunteers, some of whom work remotely and some on site at the MRC, they started in January 2019 and are powering through records produced by one of the major railway trades unions, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (after 1913; now known as the RMT). We’re still working on making the data so far transcribed available publicly; overall, the data contains thousands of cases from the late 1870s to our 1930 end point.


Cheryl Hunnisett:

I have been transcribing voluntarily for about 4 years; church registers, poll books, etc.  I have benefited hugely from others’ work in making genealogical resources freely available online and have enjoyed doing my bit. I was intrigued when I heard about this new task – to make the records within the ASRS annual reports accessible to researchers by transcribing the personal events contained in them, and thought I would like to try a different kind of transcribing and be in at the beginning!

And now I’m hooked.  I’ve only transcribed one year’s worth of records so far and transcribing the “events” is quite straightforward and often very sad as it deals with deaths and accidents but what has fascinated me is the human stories behind the records.  Finding out who these people were and what happened to them and their families is encouraged by the project and adds a huge dimension to the work, which is immensely satisfying.

In addition, reading around the records in the report brings to life the world in which these railwaymen worked; in 1889 the meeting reports show that the idea of a 10 hour working day was a daunting but worthy target and the 8 hour day proposed by the TUC was a far off dream, the Society was not co-ordinating their efforts to improve working conditions and members were sometimes sacked when raising the topic with their employers, and men worked into their seventies until they lost all ability. The committee dealt with claims sympathetically, sometimes bending but not breaking the rules, they invested their funds into railway stock and meticulously recorded how much money “Help” the orphan funds fund-raising dog had brought in.  

I’m looking forward to see what the 1890 book brings!


Colin Sharp:

I have had a general interest in railways throughout my life (mainly the steam era – age related?) and over the past 30/35 years I have pursued Family History as a major hobby. I was attracted to this project as it extended/linked these two interests through the Social History context of the project.

My project experience so far is limited to Fatal Compensation Payment tables, and Board of Trade enquiries. I was immediately struck by the vast volume of the former – in 1915 alone there were 179 payments for fatalities.  Hopefully as time went on these reduced as safety issues took on more prominence led, to some degree, by the Board of Trade [the state inspectors] examination of accidents. In this context it is concerning to note the lackadaisical attitude towards rules and procedures displayed by some workers, putting themselves at extreme risk. The reasons will be varied, from personal pride in keeping to tight time schedules to perceived pressure to ‘get the job done’ as quickly as possible. No doubt industrial psychologists have studied this phenomenon in human behaviour in all its guises.  I read of a case recently, said to be the first case of a railway worker fatality in the last five years, so clearly there has been major impact due to present day H & S prominence in all procedures. Contrary to this there has been another case recently where a driver continued his journey despite the successive failure of three safety/communication devices, leading ultimately to signal staff being unable to have any contact with him; so, still some way to go.

My interest in railways probably started as a 10/11 year old, when I lived close to a station and shunting siding, with a resident shunting engine. On several occasions I was allowed onto the footplate by the driver and given tuition in moving the regulator bar to move forward and reverse thereby shunting the coal wagons. I wonder how many rules the driver broke in allowing this!!   I don’t imagine I told my mother!


Chris Jolliffe:

I’ve found that I am becoming more and more curious about the human stories behind the data. I want to find out what happened to these people and their families after the accident.

Chris has contributed a blog post, available here, researching what happened to the family of one railway worker after he suffered a fatal accident.



The National Archives team:

We’re working with The National Archives, with a team of around 8 volunteers who visit Kew regularly to go through the accident record books produced by the railway companies. We’re expecting this to add around 30,000 records to the project over the coming years. Project champion and Transport Records Specialist for TNA, Chris Heather, has just written this blog post for TNA’ website, about some of the things the volunteers have uncovered.


Alison Lowe:

I enjoy working on the railway accidents project as it gives a detailed snapshot of life and work for a community at a time when records for ordinary people are pretty scarce. There’s much more information to be found beyond the accident information including family circumstances, how medical professionals approach the injuries, as well as the increasing support of trade unions for the workers. I’ve also enjoyed discussing the findings with my fellow volunteers and of course having access to the physical records is always very rewarding.



I joined the Railway Worker Accidents project after being made redundant and deciding to take time before making a decision on what to do next.  I decided to do more voluntary work and someone I know recommended the project. 

Transcribing the records helps provide me with an insight into small aspects of life in the early 1900s, making me appreciate the medical enhancements which have been made in the last 100 years.  What would be a minor medical problem now, could cause serious problems then, with extended periods off work and no free medical treatment. In addition, as I am transcribing records for the Cambrian Railway I know a number of the places named, which makes the project more interesting.


Jackie Isard:

  • Learned a lot about the working conditions of railwaymen at the time.
  • Astonished at the untidiness of the working environment causing slips, trips and tumbles from casually left pieces of coal, wood, iron etc.
  • Interesting to read of workers income and how this seemed to increase considerably in and around WW1.  Also noted the seeming pay discrepancies between workers.  I had always come to understand the Railway Driver was the king of the bunch but left with the impression that it wasn’t so – at least in terms of pay.
  • [Cambrian Railways] My knowledge of Welsh towns and their spelling is now greatly enhanced! Maybe some day I will take a few train journeys in those parts of the region…
  • I was jolted, and took a needed break after encountering a 14 year old apprentice mortally set alight when his clothes ignited when using contaminated waste to clean the engine


Andrew Munro:

I regard it as a great privilege to have the opportunity to work as part of this innovative initiative illuminating the tremendous contribution made to this country at the beginning of the twentieth century by the brave railway workers who worked tirelessly in the face of the most profound dangers and hardships. My research of ‘The Railway Accident Registers’ reveals the fascinating extent to which the railway companies in Wales were directly liable for accidents incurred by dock workers in the conveyance of goods. This is an area that has never been researched before, thus raising new, intriguing questions for researchers regarding the influence that these companies held and exercised over the docks and ports of Wales during this period.


Rosemary Leonard:

What I find most enjoyable is the unexpected.

So far I have been covering accidents in the same place over seven years (Cardiff Docks as they were owned by The Cardiff Railway Company). Because of the location, many accidents are not what one would expect to see in a Railway Accident Register. Among the unexpected are:-

  1. Four accidents involving cans of condensed milk!
  2. More scalds were caused by boiling tea than any one piece of machinery or apparatus.  These included accidents to boilermen and firemen.

 I’ve learnt that during 1914-1921 condensed milk was a popular consumable and secondly accidents happened during breaks (not only ones involving tea) when perhaps the workers’ guards were down.

Rosemary has written a guest blog post which will be appearing on Monday, so be sure to check for it then!



Transcription Tuesday:

Last but not least, our most recent initiative – in conjunction with Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine – was ‘Transcription Tuesday.’ For one day only volunteers from across the world transcribed a volume of legal cases, mostly relating to accidents, produced by the ASRS. They were so successful that this was finished by early afternoon, so we had to find some further records to keep people going. In the end around 3,800 cases were transcribed in full – we’re currently tidying up the data before releasing it publicly. There’s more on the event in this blog post.

Here we feature a few comments provided by Transcription Tuesday volunteers.


Helen Thomas (Perth, Australia):

This was a really meaningful project to be involved with. It was good to play a part in transcribing such important information about the lives of ordinary working people, the dangers they faced and what happened if they were injured or killed.  One reason I got involved was that my own great-great-grandfather was a railway worker who was killed by a train in South Wales in 1899 and this was a way to acknowledge him.


Gordon Dudman:

As a life-long railwayman, I have always been fascinated by the stories and tales told by older generations of times gone by. So much so that I have given a couple of talks to local history groups about the development of the railways in their particular area. What has made these talks more engaging is to use the National Archives to search for some of these long-lost characters. A considerable number of early Station Masters can best be described as “crooks”; some, like Charles Bond of Eastbourne misappropriated almost £2k in 1870!

Much more detail can be added to these early characters when accident reports and Trade Union Records can be accessed. These then allow you, the opportunity of tracking down such things as local newspaper reports which tend to give much more detail (sometimes quite gruesome) often highlighting names and address of family. By making these records available I know I am helping others to get so much more out of their own family history research.

I helped in the transcription of the records of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants on Transcription Tuesday; again this helped me understand so much more about the role of the early trade union movement as well as making records assessable to so many more.


Hazel McGee (Clandon, Guildford; @hazelmcgee):

I have enjoyed doing this today, and will be happy to look at some more pages in the future, at least until the weather clears up and the garden starts to take all my time. Thanks for organising it!



I had such a fantastic time doing transcription Tuesday. As a Temple and Family History Consultant for Family Search, we organised an evening at church with our youth members on Tuesday and they all took part.


Deanna Glasson:

I thoroughly enjoyed transcribing on Tuesday – and am thrilled that the volume was completed. Global team work works!


Ann Maria Brooks:

I’m delighted that the goal was achieved and that I can be of help when needed. As I mentioned in my recent e-mail, I have been researching my family tree for more years than I care to mention and I find old documents fascinating and educational and yesterday was a treat.



So – all told, hopefully these comments and experiences give an impression of some of the reasons why volunteers have got involved with the project, what they have been doing, and what they have taken away from it. It’s been really gratifying to receive these comments, particularly given the effort they’ve all put in. Our thanks to everyone named here for their contributions to make this post possible – and to all the volunteers who are labouring away behind the scenes to bring us all some valuable insight into railway work and accidents in the past.


The next Volunteers’ Week blog post is here.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback:Volunteers' Week 2: Volunteering with the Railway Work, Life & Death Project - Railway Work, Life & Death

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