The railways of Britain are probably some of the most studied organisations in the history of the world, with tens of thousands of enthusiasts nationwide researching and writing about them each year. These enthusiasts have been invaluable in advancing our knowledge of Britain’s railways and their operations, and have shed light on many areas of railway history that have previously been unknown. Indeed, my own work has been immeasurably enhanced by the London and South Western Railway’s study group, the South Western Circle, whose membership has provided me with documents, articles and pieces of research. In fact, such has been their contribution to my work that they get a big credit in the introduction to my PhD. But the Circle is only one part of a network of study groups across the country that research individual companies and lines. However, within this community there is an approaching problem.
It cannot escape anyone in the enthusiast world that a lot of these groups’ members are in their senior years and new members are in short supply. Subsequently, I predict this will have an effect on the level of research these groups undertake, the number of meetings they will hold and the dialogue they engage in with academic railway historians. But what concerns me most is the fact that many of these groups may start to fold, creating very dangerous situation. A look at the document catalogue of the London and North Western Railway Society lists the original documents it has in its possession on an immense 134 pages. This equates to approximately 2500 individual items related to the L&NWR, more than is held by the National Archives at Kew. If the group were to fold or was unable to maintain such a collection what would happen to these items? Additionally, if a member of the society who holds a large private collection of documents died, where would they end up? Ultimately, I can’t give you an answer because there isn’t a plan in place for the future.
I believe that we cannot simply allow groups to fail before any action is taken. Structures have to be put in place in the next 10 years to make sure the documents that these groups hold will be preserved. Nothing drastic needs to be done now, and we don’t need to move at a rapid pace because this problem itself won’t materialise rapidly either. But, there needs to be a concerted effort by the study group community to protect what they have so that all these archives are not deposited in a nearby skip.
So, how could the study group community begin to undertake such a task? I believe that the only way that this can be done is through the creation of an umbrella body that would be responsible for the monitoring and registering of the nation’s railway study groups. This group would, therefore, act as a basis for the cataloguing of all records that the different groups and their members hold, and facilitating, if and when a group folds, the transferral of the archival material to the jurisdiction of a central body that can take care of them. Subsequently, it may arrange for the documents to be deposited in a county or national archive (i.e. The National Archives or the National Railway Museum Archives).
However, such a group may also lead to a standardisation of the rules regarding how external individuals could access the documents that are held, the procedures that societies could follow to take over the custody of documents when an individual passes, and the rates they charge for access to their archives. Furthermore, like the railway clearing house in the 19th century helped coordinate aspects of the industry beyond its initial remit, this umbrella body may also lead to greater unity between organisations, standardisation of membership rates and act as an advocacy body for the study of the railways. It may even, dare I say it, set up its own archive to preserve the nation’s railway history .
Overall, I feel so strongly that something needs to be done in the future that I may, after my PhD, pursue this issue. Furthermore, if you, dear reader, are a member of a company study group and feel this is an issue, please pass this post onto other members so they can start thinking about it. We need to do something, lest railway archives pass into the midst of time…or into a skip.