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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Digitising Records - Thoughts on Ancestry's New Digital Archive of Railway Staff Records

Within the last week there was an important development for genealogists and railway historians. It is something that I have been waiting for some time, even if I never knew whether it would come. On Wednesday I became aware through one of my followers on Twitter that The National Archives and had made available on-line vast swathes of 19th and early 20th century staff records from Britain’s major railway companies.

My first thought was ‘oh crap.’ As some of my long-time readers will be aware, part of my PhD focuses on the lives of the London and South Western Railway's (L&SWR) managers and I have done extensive research on the company's staff records. Indeed, I spent many long hours photographing 3000+ L&SWR clerks' staff records held by the archive. As such, you can understand my initial frustration that the digitised records did not appear two years ago, as it would have saved me monumental amounts of effort. However, on reflection this was more annoying than anything else and there are massive benefits for my work as now I can access with ease all the records I hadn’t photographed.

The records cover the staff of seven railway companies that existed before 1st January 1923, and three of the ‘Big Four’ companies that existed after it. They are as follows:-

Pre-1922 Railway Companies

Great Western

London and North Western

London and South Western

London, Brighton and South Coast

London Chatham and Dover

Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire (Great Central from 1899)


Post-1922 Railway Companies

Great Western

London and North Eastern

London, Midland and Scottish

Furthermore, what has been digitised is more than just individuals’ employment histories, and also included, where available, are accident books, books of disciplinary action and pension details.

Therefore, for historians, as opposed to genealogists, this opens up a number of research opportunities from the comfort of their home. Social historians can investigate labour relations, women's employment, accident rates, poverty, railway employees’ backgrounds and ages of appointment. Business historians can also get data on internal labour markets, pay scales, discipline, company hierarchies, promotional trees and the companies’ management class. Furthermore, because the companies served different parts of the country, regional variations in all these subject areas can be drawn out.

However, this isn’t to say that everything to do with the records is rosy for the historian. As with all things on Ancestry, my feeling is that its search engine is geared to genealogists. I understand why this is so. After all, it is a website for genealogists and it is predominantly their subscriptions that pay for records to be digitised.

Nevertheless, the ‘family history’ perspective doesn’t make it easy for individuals wanting to use the records for historical research that is non-genealogical. On the positive side, I can search for employees by region, date of entry into service, birth date and by railway company. Yet, there are some annoying things that the search engine won’t allow. Apart from a few individuals, I cannot search for all employees that worked at a particular site, for example Hampton Court Station. Furthermore, I cannot search the database it by gender (which can be done on the rest of the Ancestry site) and nor can I have listed all the individuals that worked in a particular position, for example porters. Therefore, if Ancestry had the time or the money to add these features to the search engine it would be useful.

Additionally, I think there is scope for the database to be expanded. In the back of David T. Hawkins’ Railway Ancestors there is a list of the railway companies whose staff records survive in The National Archives. Thus, it seems that vast numbers of records were not included in the digitisation project. A couple of large companies that existed before 1923 did not have their records digitised, such as the North Eastern and Taff Vale Railways. Additionally, some smaller companies, such as the Somerset and Dorset and Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railways, were also left out. Records from companies that were absorbed in larger ones were also omitted, for example the London and Birmingham and Whiteness and Furness Junction Railways. Lastly, some records survive from the Southern Railway.

I presume the the staff records from these and other companies were left out because there aren’t great numbers of them. Indeed, from some railways only one volume of staff details survive (it should also be pointed out that for some companies no records remain). Nevertheless, to expand the project to all these surviving files would be of immense value to historians.

Of course, I am now getting into wish-list territory. I do appreciate that to improve the search engine and to add all surviving railway company staff records would be a massive task that ultimately may not be remunerative. The reality is that I have no cause whatsoever for complaint. I have available to me now something that I never thought I would, a searchable database of all surviving L&SWR staff records. For that I am immensely grateful. Overall, it is a significant achievement on the part of The National Archives and all involved should be proud.

I will, however, try to get the most from this new resource. Thus, to show its value I will be using it to inform my next few blog posts.

You can see's railway staff record search page HERE.

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