University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Playing Ally Pally!

In this blog, Mike Esbester, Senior Lecturer in History at Portsmouth, updates us on recent progress on the Railway Work, Life & Death project, including a new project partner, international collaboration, engagement with audiences beyond the academic – and on taking the project to out to a huge new venue.

Alexandra Palace is an iconic venue – and not somewhere I’d envisaged taking a history research project: yet at the end of the month, that’s exactly where I’ll be with the Railway Work, Life & Death project!

We’ll be exhibiting at the Family Tree Live show, a huge family history fair taking place on 26 and 27 April this year. Family historians and genealogists have been a key component of our project from the outset, both in terms of envisaged audience and as co-producers, so reaching large numbers of people via events like this fulfils some of our major objectives.

With thousands of people expected to attend, this will be an excellent means of spreading the word about what we do, how people can use our resources, and how they can get involved. We’re also hoping that we’ll be able to gather some more feedback on the project and how we can make it even more useful to this audience. Most importantly, we’re hoping that we’ll be able to make connections with people who have relatives in our database, so that we can contribute to their understanding of their relatives’ cases and so that we can learn more about the wider impact that accidents had on railway workers.

Image author’s own

So what will we be doing at the show? On the stand we’ll have our project resources to demonstrate, archive film of railway work to show, reproductions of primary sources to show and work with, as well as our project information sheet and infographic for people to take away. I’ll be leading a number of small group workshops across both days of the event, giving people a more structured introduction to the project area and some hands-on time with the sources. And we’re taking part in the kids’ detective trail, with some engaging material about railway dogs – dogs which collected money to support widows and orphans left behind after railway staff were killed at work. So, we should have something for everyone!

We’ve put together a short video with a little bit more detail (though be warned: awkward on-screen appearance from me!):

As our project is dependent on the hard work of volunteers, we’re immensely grateful for their efforts – especially those who will be coming along to help staff our stand at Family Tree Live. I’m really thrilled that people are willing to be involved in all aspects of what we’re doing, and can think of no better way to represent the project than the presence of a number of the volunteers.

We’re expecting this to be a great occasion, meeting new people, helping them with their research and contributing to our work, and spreading awareness of our resources: work, certainly, but fun and enjoyable, too. What’s even nicer is we’re going to be able to meet up in person with some of the contacts, supporters and indeed friends we’ve made on Twitter. Twitter has been an immensely valuable tool for our project, so it’ll be lovely to put faces to names.

Taking the project to Family Tree Live is just one of the developments in the project over the past months, many of which have resulted from the sabbatical I was awarded by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and which happened in the second half of last year. The sabbatical gave me the time to put the day-to-day project administration on a better footing, as well as extend the scope of what we’re doing.

As well as submitting and revising the first project publication, we’ve brought a new collaborator into the project, alongside the University and the National Railway Museum: the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick (MRC). The MRC holds an amazing repository of trades union records – including those of one of the major railway trade unions, the wonderfully-titled Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants/ National Union of Railwaymen (now the RMT). We’re working with them to bring in records of accidents to trade union members, from the 1870s to 1930, via a wonderful team of volunteers. We’ve had several co-production sessions with them, to fully involve them in the research process, with some great results so far. There’s more on the extension here.

One of the related outcomes of the sabbatical and the relationship with the MRC was our involvement in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine’s ‘Transcription Tuesday’ event in February. We made available a volume of early 20th century trade union legal cases, mostly involving accidents, and asked people across the world to join in on a single day and transcribe the records – which they did, in droves. The volume we’d originally set up was completed by mid-afternoon on 5 February, and we were able to release a second set of records. All told, around 3,800 new cases were transcribed by volunteers from around the world – a fantastic contribution and a real demonstration of the power of crowd-sourcing. Once again, we owe a debt of gratitude to all the hard work of volunteers. There’s more on Transcription Tuesday here.

Out of all of this – and particularly the work with family historians and genealogists – there’s been another direction that is looking promising. This is also something that started as a conversation on Twitter, another demonstration of the power and virtues of social media. For some time a number of academics – Tanya Evans, Laura King, Julia Laite, Nick Barratt and others – have been thinking about, working with and advocating for greater academic engagement with family history: and vice versa. That message hasn’t been one-sided, as family historians and genealogists have also been attuned to the potential that greater cooperation can bring. In recent months we’ve had a scoping meeting, involving archivists, family historians, genealogists and academics, to work out how we might better facilitate working together. This is set to develop, with more to come soon – watch this space. For now, some of the initial areas of interest can be found on Twitter under #HistoriansCollaborate. It’s been great to be a part of these founding conversations and I and the project are looking forward to contributing as we develop this movement.

For more on the Railway Work, Life & Death project, see our website (www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk) and follow us on Twitter (@RWLDproject).

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