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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Repeating 'facts' Frequently does not make them 'History' - Potential Errors in Railway Historical Writing

Anyone who has ever read my post footnotes will not have failed to notice that in the course of writing them that there are some books that I use regularly, for example the Oxford Encyclopaedia of British Railway History. This is principally as I don’t have the time to research every subject that I write about. Yet, when writing posts I will always attempt to find in 19th century newspapers and journals, which are increasingly available on-line, to add some contemporaneous commentary on the different subjects. I also, if possible try and find some academic research or use some of my own work if relevant. This is because I have a very real concern about the books I use to write my blog.

Railway literature can be split into three different categories. Firstly, there are the ‘books with pictures,’ which have very little detail and simply exist for the pure pleasure of looking at the photographs of trains. Secondly, there are narrative histories, which may focus on a particular line, company or locomotive designer. Indeed, R.A. Williams’ three part history of the London and South Western Railway simply recounts what happened, when it happened. There isn’t any reference to the railway’s political, social, cultural or technical environment, nor is there detailed analysis. Personally, for me, these narrative histories are exceedingly dull.

Lastly, and leaving aside academic work that is done, there are the analytical railway histories for the general reader. Recently, we have seen Christian Wolmar write a number of books of this ilk, notably Fire and Steam. However, Christian follows in a fine tradition of individuals who have written about railways in a way whereby anyone who was interested in history, rather than railways, can enjoy the topic. Indeed, the most notable author was the late, great, Jack Simmons. However, I do sometimes have to ask questions of the facts found in this class of authors’ texts.

One of the accepted facts of the early British railway history was that military men dominated the management of the railway companies. This is a 'truth' that has been reprinted again and again, and those analytical histories of the railways have, presumably because the authors used earlier books, repeated it very frequently. Yet, this accepted fact is simply not true. In four blog posts in April (Found here, here, here and here) I showed by using three directories of railway officials from 1841, 1847 and 1848 that less than 4% of early railway managers had military titles. Thus, the supposed truth, so frequently repeated, was destroyed.

But naturally, this got me thinking. In my blog posts I frequently use facts that I see repeated in more than one railway history book. But what if those facts’ have only become accepted because they have been repeatedly regurgitated in the railway historiography?

For example, recently I found the origin of one highly repeated fact (the details which escape me now) in a Victorian history of the railway industry. Yet, the Victorian book itself was far from academic, was more anecdotal than those that had used its information and on other areas of detail I found it simply to be wrong. Furthermore, the opinions, books and letters of authors, for example Dickens and Trollope, have been used many times to describe aspects of railway travel. Indeed, I myself have used these author’s opinions before. But surely these authors had higher standards than the average traveller and this was reflected in their opinions. (Note: If I have to use Mugby Junction one more time I may scream).

Indeed, it has become clear to me that Dickens harboured resentment for station refreshment rooms after having had a bad experience in the 1850s. Now, that isn’t to say there were not bad refreshment rooms, but the narrative on the subject has been shaped by his, and others,’ negative opinions of them. However, no one asks about the good refreshment rooms. Neither do the query the fact that most criticisms of them comes from before 1870, with little being found after this date. Why doesn’t that fact ever get a mention?

Overall, my point is that in the railway literature there are facts which, despite being false, have been regurgitated so often that they have become established as ‘truth’ because no one has questioned them. For this reason, individuals writing railway history articles or books must be careful when repeating things found in other books. Indeed, until more serious and in-depth research has been done on the 19th century railway, the validity of many established 'facts' will simply not be known.


  1. Excellent post! Deals with an important aspect of all academic writing, not limited to just railway history.

  2. Agree with Edward. I find it essential to check any secondary source against as many primary documents as I can find.

  3. Good thinking, of course this is what Les Hannah has been doing over the last few years for business history in general.

    On the refreshment rooms, we should probably bear in mind that for the average public they might well have been the first experience of fast food. Tolerance levels to poor quality were probably quite high, and this is probably the case for many other aspects of rail travel.


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