University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Making collaborative research … more collaborative!

In this blog, Dr Mike Esbester, senior lecturer in history at Portsmouth, discusses your chance to get involved in the research project he co-leads, looking at safety and accidents on British and Irish railways at the start of the 20th century. Mike’s research and teaching focus on the everyday, including ideas about mobility and accidents in modern Britain.  

One of the great aspects of the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project, which I co-lead with colleagues at the National Railway Museum in York (NRM) and the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (MRC), has been its collaborative nature. As well as working across institutions and professional boundaries (being led by an academic, a librarian and an archivist), the element that has been key to our success has been our volunteers.

We’re now working on records about railway worker accidents with teams of volunteers at the NRM, MRC and The National Archives. From a relatively small start about 18 months ago, we’ve been growing in size and coverage – our recent project extensions will expand our current dataset from about 4,500 individuals involved in accidents on Britain and Ireland’s railways between 1911 and 1923, to perhaps 70,000 between the 1870s and late 1930s. (You can read more about these developments on the project’s blog, here.)

Some of the volunteering has been done remotely, and some of it has been done in person, at the archives. In both cases, though, it has involved an enthusiastic and dedicated band of volunteers – a select few. Now, though, we’re delighted to be working with the UK’s largest family history publication, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, to take our project to a much wider audience – and to get them (and you!) involved in the research!

Every year WDYTYA?Magazine runs ‘Transcription Tuesday’: a single day, on which anyone and everyone is invited to help out nominated projects by transcribing records into an electronic format. In 2019 we’re thrilled to have been invited to be one of those projects – so on 5 February you can join in with the research: more detail on that here.

Our MRC partners have digitised a volume of trade union records produced by the wonderfully-titled Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) – a forerunner of today’s RMT Union. The volume covers legal cases between 1901 and 1905 in which the ASRS had an interest – including things like compensation for accidents, or inquiries into accidents.

We’re asking for help in making the contents of the volume more readily accessible. At the moment if you wanted to know what was in it, you’d need to go to the MRC in person, and search through it page by page (as there isn’t an index). We’re hoping that on Transcription Tuesday we can work through the whole volume and transcribe each of the 2,150 cases into an easily searchable spreadsheet.

There’s more detail here about what the day involves and what exactly we’re asking people to do (including our comprehensive guide!) – do go and have a look. The transcription itself is relatively quick and easy, and it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the past.

We’ve already transcribed the first page, and it has revealed a number of stories – some we’re detailing via our project Twitter feed (@RWLDproject) and some via blog posts on our website. One of these is William Mercer, a guard on a mineral train and a member of the York No. 1 branch of the ASRS. He was killed on 25 January 1901 in a mineral siding in York, knocked down by wagons. The volume shows us that the inquest was held on 28 January 1901, where Mercer’s interests were represented by J Bickerdike, the branch Secretary. At the inquest it was decided that Mercer’s death was accidental, a result of a misunderstanding in signalling. He left a widow and two children, who were awarded a payment of £248.17.2 (around £25,500 at today’s prices) in compensation. We also know from the volume that the ASRS pursued this claim with the assistance of Brumbie and Sons solicitors, at a cost of £3.10.6. Mercer might otherwise have evaded the historical record, but for this volume and his unfortunate death.

A posed accident prevention photo, taken at Doncaster in 1930. It was warning of the dangers of going between wagons – a frequent source of crush injuries. Courtesy: National Railway Museum

We’ve been really amazed by the support and enthusiasm we’ve had for this – particularly as it’s come from all sorts of people and groups, from enthusiastic individuals to huge organisations. The RMT Union has been helping out – really pleasing, as of course this volume is part of its past – and so have other players in the current industry, as well as academic, archivist and museums colleagues.

Some of the strongest support has come from family history and genealogical worlds. When we set the project up we knew that it was likely to be of great interest to them, as the data we’re using was virtually unknown but full of details about people and their work – and ultimately in a great many cases, their deaths. The willingness that family historians and genealogists have shown, not just to use the data we’re providing, but to help out producing more and to think critically about it, has been brilliant.

Indeed, one of the things we didn’t foresee when we started was the links that we’d build with these communities – and that other academics were also making similar moves. There are exciting developments afoot here, including in the next couple of weeks a preliminary discussion between all sorts of researchers about how we might better cooperate and work together – more on that in a future blog post, after the meeting!

For now, we’d warmly welcome you to join us on February 5 for Transcription Tuesday – let’s get that volume fully transcribed!

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