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Friday, 26 February 2010

Looking for Albinus

One of the joys of studying History is that sometimes I don't know something. The fact that I am ignorant of a topic or of an aspect of my work, is what spurs me on to shed light on the missing links. However, unfortunately for me I am one of those historians who does not like leave a stone unturned. OK you may say that that is what a historian is supposed to do, to search every archive or documentary source for information on a particular topic, yet most historians don't have the capacity to search everything. Yet while I accept the limitations on historical research, I do sometimes push it, holding the fervent belief that the information I'm, missing must be somewhere. Its like the time I went to the Dorset record office to look at three inconsequential files. They were mildly interesting, but even before I had bought the ticket to go to Dorchester, I knew that they probably wouldn't add much. You see it was that one little hope that one line may have been important. I was proved right, there was nothing, what a waste of time. The truth is I can spend inordinate amounts of time looking for information that in reality I may not, or do not, need, becuase I am petrified that I may miss something small. This leads me onto Albinus Martin.

In my research at the National Archives the general area of research is the London and South Western Railway's (L&SWR) management between 1864 and 1914. However on April 22nd (and yes book it in your diary) I present my first ever paper at History Lab, the Institute of Historical Research's Postgraduate Seminar. The title is 'Managing the 'Royal Road': The Development and Failings of Managerial Structure on the London and South Western Railway 1836-1900.' Therefore I have had to do more research on the early period of the company's history.

We are generally under the impression the General Manager or Chief Executive were mainly an invention of the later Victorian railway companies. Yet on the 8th August 1845 the L&SWR's Resident Engineer, Albinus Martin, was appointed by the Board to take charge of the 'whole concern' of the L&SWR. WHAT!!! This made him, if not in name, the first General Manager of the L&SWR, and probably one of the earliest examples in the industry. Special lad! On reading this my brain did its irritating little habit of thinking that there must be masses of files somewhere; correspondence, letters, diaries must have survived, he must of left SOMETHING. I'll get this out of the way now, he didn't. The man died and left literally nothing. He is a historical enigma. But before I knew this fact, my compulsion to look under every stone kicked in!

First of there was the problem of the name. In Williams' three volume history of the L&SWR he names Martin, frustratingly, Albino, rather than Albinus. Secondly the documents that I looked at, including the source above, only refer to him as simply as 'Mr Martin. So therefore I went looking for more information on him, and the only thing that came up was Wikipedia, which didn't say anything. Therefore frustrated by my lack of information I searched every combination of 'Martin' and 'London and south western' that I could in Google. Google is a sobering experience when having to trawl through all the tosh! How can an estate agent have a reference to the L&SWR on its website? Don't ask me, but there it is, extending my research! After 2, or was it 3 hours, and much pounding of the keyboard, I finally came up with a biography of an 'Albinus Martin' on, which had his obituary from the journal of the Institute of Civil Engineers. Huzzah, eureka!

Now the engine was running, I could act! Next I placed a notice in the South Western Circle newsletter for any information. I got a nice letter (and it is nice to recieve an actual written letter) from a Circle member detailing Martin's life before and after working for the L&SWR. Lovely as the letter was, it only embellished a little more that which was in the ICE's obituary. So I was still nowhere. I then went back to Google and searched the correct name...after surprisingly less tosh, I found something about some signals he invented, but nothing that would really help me. Then I used the 19th Century on-line newspaper and journal archives to see if there was anything. Again after a day of searching every combination of 'London and south western' and 'Albinus Martin,' no new information came to the fore. Therefore with no archive of letters, very little information and no new leads, I hit a dead end...I'm still here after wasting what must be at least two working days.

The problem, in 'looking for Albinus,' was that I spent so much time searching for information that I failed to realise that I had all the material I needed for my work from within the company files. Therefore if there is a lesson I should learn it is that I occasionally shouldn't get carried away with flights of fancy and letting my work be led by just my curiosity about a subject or personality.

Some months after, while out for a run, I was listening lecture about Richard Trevithick's demonstrations of the first steam train in 1808. In it the lecturer said that one of his sources of evidence was a book from the 1850s. In it one Albinus Martin gave a recollection of the event having been a witness. The lecturer then said, "now I can't find much information of Albinus Martin." 'Well,' I thought, 'you're not the only one,' and kept on running...

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