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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Archives, Artefacts, Amateurs and Academics - A Conference Report

The Conference Centre's 'Sunken Lounge'
To say that my time in Derby on Friday and Saturday was stimulating is a bit of an understatement. For those who don't follow my Twitter feed, on Friday and Saturday I attended the Archives, Artefacts, Amateurs and Academics workshop in Derby, jointly run by the Historical Model Railway Society and Business Archives Council. Firstly, I will hand over to Keith Harcourt, HMRS Academic Liaison Officer and conference co-organiser, who has very kindly provided me with this interesting summary on the origins, purpose and work of the HMRS:


The Historical Model Railway Society was founded in 1950 by historians and modellers concerned at the crude railway models on sale at that time. They set out to collect an archive of original drawings, photographs, working and public timetables plus other ephemera and historically accurate models as well having for reference The George Dow Library of railway books. The Drawings Collection holds over 160,000 historic drawings many of which have been of use in preservation work on Heritage Railways and in a vindication of the original purposes of the Society have been used by Bachmann in their making of current model trains. The photographic collection currently has 47,233 image listed on the website, but that is but the tip of the iceberg.

Significantly each year they also provide small, but often crucial, grants to a few PhD and Masters students who are working on the railways of the British Isles.

Their mission statement is interesting; it notes that the Historical Model Railway Society is an educational charity whose objectives are the study and recording of information concerning railways of the British Isles and the construction, operation, preservation and public exhibition of models depicting those railways.”[1] Simmons and Biddle[2] note that : “ The HMRS is the senior such society in Britain. The interests of individual members are cared for by stewards, each of whom specialises in a railway company or subject, and who act as a clearing house for information between members.” From my experience the Society has a refreshing attitude to railway history believing that it starts from today and trying to reflect that in their collections.

In 2005 the Society, having fund raised amongst its members for many years, opened its purpose built Museum and Study Centre on the Midland Railway at its Swanwick Junction Museum Site. The building is to full museum standards and a description of it, with directions can be found here: At present the Centre only opens one day per week and on special Midland Railway open days, but as Margaret Garratt, the Secretary of the Society says, “If only we had more volunteers we could do so much more. More people to help would mean that we could open more often and, while the work of cataloguing has to be carefully done, we can teach people how we do it and so speed up the work.”

As the HMRS holds the entire Metropolitan Cammell Engineering Drawing collection as well as the Derby Works Collection (held on behalf of Derby Museums) and many private collections, some of the drawings are of foreign locomotives and rolling stock built in Britain and whilst these are not the prime purpose of the collection, they are carefully archived and listed too. Because the Society has an Academic Liaison Officer who gives papers at international conferences on transport and history of technology topics he is sometimes approached by people from other countries whose locomotives and rolling stock were built in the British Isles. The Society, via links to the Manchester Locomotive Society and the Newcomen Society, made through a delegate to this workshop, has recently been able to help Dr Tatsuhiko Suga, Executive Director of the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation locate the original drawings for Japan Railway Locomotive Number 1, built at the Vulcan Foundry in 1871, and the HMRS are now scouring the HMRS archives for drawings of the four carriages shipped with it which may well have been built by Metropolitan Cammell.


The conference brought together forty-four individuals from a range of organisations that all had one thing in common; they were interested in railways in one shape or another. For example, the meeting was attended by members of the Great Eastern Railway Society, The Railway and Canal Historical Society and The London and North Eastern Railway Society, to name but a few. Furthermore, various individuals from archival institutions attended, such as the National Archives, the Ballast Trust, The National Railway Museum and the Midland Collection Trust. Lastly there were academics such as Terry Gourvish, Kevin Tennent and little old me.

The goal of the workshop was, as the Business Archives Council's Website states, to:

'...prompt an awareness of what these various groups are doing, and to start a dialogue between the enthusiast and academic which may lead to co-operation in preserving and using collections, and furthering our understanding of the past and its relevance to the future.'

I not only believe that the workshop was successful was in starting this dialogue, but the ball has started rolling on something very important.

Perhaps the only high speed point indoors. Craig King, MD of TQ Catalis, (in Orange Jacket) explains to delegates how it works.
Friday started at 2.30 with fascinating tour by Craig King of TQ Catalis, who provide training for signalling engineers in the conference centre. Indeed, where we were staying, The Derby Conference Centre, was originally Britain's first purpose-built training centre for railway staff, and was opened in 1938 by the London Midland and Scottish Railway. Designed by William H. Hamlyn, the art-deco building is now Grade II listed.

Being shown round the TQ Catalis training centre
On the first evening, the keynote speech was given by Professor Peter Stone OBE from the University of Newcastle. Professor Stone does not have any links with railways, but rather is an archaeologist. However, he brought with him considerable experience from a long career building links between academics and amateur organisations. He highlighted that when working towards a goal, individuals from many different interest groups can possess knowledge which, while generated for different purposes, may enrich each other's outlooks. Indeed, the dangers of one group or another taking a dominant role when trying to reach an objective were also underlined, as this may produce outcomes that others are dissatisfied with. This was a perfect start to the workshop, as a tone was set of the need for cooperation and collegial working between all those using and attempting to preserve railway archives.

Dr. Roy Edwards, Tim Proctor, Keith Harcourt and Prof. Peter Stone
Dr. Roy Edwards Speaking
We were then treated to a talk by Tim Proctor who is curator of the National Railway Museum's archive. Tim talked about the way the archive operates, the challenges it faces given its restricted funding, and how it cooperates with organisations and volunteers to help catalogue and manage its collections. Furthermore, he highlighted that some people do not realise that the National Railway Museum's archive exists, and I felt that this was an important point. The question that stuck in my mind was how we disseminate knowledge among those interested in railways, historians from all relevant fields, and the general public, that railway archives exist? I think Tim also was responsible for the biggest laugh of the workshop, pointing out one plan in the NRM's archive from the Wolverton Railway Works for a combined folding writing desk and lavatory.

The only negative point about the Derby Conference Centre was that I had to leave. The food we received that evening was exemplary, the d├ęcor was lovely and the bar comfortable. Therefore, with some delegates overcoming a few drinks from the night before, everyone rose early to catch the coach to Historical Model Railway Society's study centre, located in the grounds of the Midland Railway Centre at Butterley.

After much inspection of the HMRS's model railways at the centre, which were, to say the least, impressive, four more talks were given. The first was by Dr. Valerie Johnson from The National Archives, who talked on the nature of archives. She posited a number of questions, for example what is an archive? Who decides what is important? Can documents be objects? Can objects be documents? Indeed, items of interest that one group may find unimportant, may be vital to another. Therefore, this is where interested communities that have great knowledge of a subject can be useful in shaping what archives hold and how they are treated. Towards the end of her talk, Valerie mentioned a project that TNA had completed cataloguing all 7,328 railway accidents between 1853 and 1975. I had no idea about this project, and neither did a lot of people present. This emphasised another key issue for the workshop. How can researchers and archives holding railway material build links to understand better what each other is doing?
Kevin Tennent and I entering the HMRS Study Center

Following this, Kiara King discussed the work of The Ballast Trust. For those of you who were not aware, the Ballast Trust is an organisations set up in 1987 by William Lind to assist with the rescue, sorting and cataloguing of business archives, particularly technical records, such as shipbuilding, railway and engineering plans, drawings and photographs. This talk highlighted how the trust used volunteers and interns to catalogue the archives they received. Furthermore, Kiara talked on how she had developed procedures for the processing of the collections that flowed through the Trust's hands, as well as the use of social media, such as Flikr and a blog to raise awareness of its work.
Inside the HMRS Study Centre

Paul Garratt speaking to the delegates
Ivor Lewis, deputy-chair of the HMRS, then talked about the challenges faced in archiving documentation created by modern businesses. Almost all are in digital format, with many firms considering these the masters. Therefore, their preservation is a huge issue, especially as the role of 'secretary' within organisations has disappeared and individuals are now expected to manage their own files. According to Ivor, when computers first arrive on the scene, twenty to thirty years ago, document preservation was not greatly considered and the loss of records was seen by some as natural. Currently, while more people are becoming interested in preserving digital records, concerns regarding the histories of companies being lost through the 'delete' button remain. Indeed, in the railway context these concerns will apply to what Train Operating Companies will or will not preserve. He finished by suggesting that currently the archiving of digital records is up to well meaning and enthusiastic employees pursuing the issue.

Our time at the study centre was finished with a talk by Paul Garratt, the Drawing Archivist there. He described how the drawings came to be at the centre, what state they were when they arrived and how they were then sorted and catalogued. Once again, the discussion mentioned how the HMRS had to work with groups to accurately identify what items are within the collection. Furthermore, he also posited questions regarding the future of the collection, for example how the study centre might archive rolling stock plans generated by Computer Aided Design.

Princess Margaret Rose
We then broke for lunch and I headed over to the Princess Royal Class Locomotive Trust and Museum, which is also on the site. A number of delegates were taken round by the curator, Kate Watts, and we were shown the Trust's museum and workshop. The presence of the trust complements Midland Railway centre perfectly, and it is lovely to see steam locomotives up close.

Delegates being shown around the Midland Railway Study Centre
Derby and the Silk Mill Museum was where the second half of the day was held. Unfortunately, this clearly fascinating museum was mothballed by Derby City Council in April 2011 to save money. This is especially sad as the building was the world's first factory, having been established in 1717. Nevertheless, delegates were lucky enough to have a look around the first floor and we were then given a tour round the Midland Railway Study Centre, which is housed within. Its archive holds a highly impressive collection of Midland Railway documents, more than The National Archives. Consequently, it is a hugely valuable resource for those researching the railway. As part of the tour, we were also given access to the study centre's repository. As many of you are aware, I have an obsession with railway rule books (and I am always open to receiving digitised copies) and immediately on entering I went looking for them. I think torment is the correct word. I opened a cabinet and there, right before me, were boxes of rule and instruction books. I had to be dragged away.

Rodger Shelly, Principal Keeper of Derby Silk Museum speaking
The afternoon's lectures commenced with Roger Shelley, Principal Keeper of the museum, giving us a fascinating talk on what was held within the museum's collection and how it was managed. Given the museum's closure, he mentioned new initiatives to keep the museum engaging with the community. Indeed, it had recently it had improved over 300 Wikipedia articles relating to items within its collection and Derby's history. The case of the Silk Mill Museum posed some interesting questions to the audience about archival organisations' public engagement and how, when faced with financial restrictions, documents and artefacts can be made accessible the public. Furthermore, at the forefront of my mind were concerns as to how cash-strapped archives may treat families and individuals that come to them wishing to deposit collections of railway documents when their resources are limited.

This topic was touched on by the next speaker, John Miles. John is Chairman of  the Midland Collection Trust, which supervises a collection of 39,000 Midland Railway documents and artefacts which constitute the majority of those held in the Midland Railway Study Centre. These were formerly owned by Roy Burrows, and John spoke very informatively on how the trust to manage the collection was established, how it had been catalogued, and how it is currently maintained. John's most interesting anecdote was that in the gallery of Midland Railway items on the Trust's website, the most looked at were the chamber pots from the company's hotels. Ultimately, this talk focussed the audience's mind on the fact that many collections of railway items are in the hands of private collectors. Indeed, as many who have read some of my earlier posts will know, this is a matter that concerns me greatly. What happens to these collections when their owners pass on? How can we be sure they will be saved when their families, through no fault of their own, have no knowledge of their value? Lastly, how do we disseminate amongst the general public knowledge of where collections of railway artefacts and documents can be deposited?
Grahame Boyes of the Railway and Canal Historical Society Speaking

Grahame Boyes and Keith Fenwick from the Railway and Canal Historical Society then demonstrated the 'Transport Archive Register' (formerly the Tracking Railway Archives Project). This is a database of where archival material from railways and canals is stored around the country, and was begun in the early 2000s to complement other archival databases, such as the now defunct Access 2 Archives and the National Register of Archives. Researchers can search the database by railway or canal company, subject, industry, county, country or people, and then will be provided a link to the relevant web page. I was struck by the fact that if the railway community are going to come together to preserve and promote railway archives, then tools such as this, which are added to by the community, are going to be vital. We need hubs whereby information on railway archives can be found and pooled. Indeed, this may take the form of a website, yet there also may be a need for a central organising committee that can marshal such efforts.

The last talk of the day was given by Joan Unwin, archivist at the Company of Cultlers in Hallamshire. This company was established in 1624 to maintain the quality of Sheffield manufactured cutlery and steel products. She spoke of one particular accession into its archive of 1400 razors and the issues surrounding this, including the evident safety concerns regarding the storage of these potentially dangerous items. While donations of paper archives are trouble enough for archivists, the talk highlighted the what problems there are when archives take into stock physical items. In the context of railways this is potentially a huge problem, given that they were, and are, producers of items of all sorts. Indeed, the talk challenged the audience to think about what railway archives actually need to acquire, and whether every physical item needs to be kept.
Roy Edwards and Keith Harcourt leading the round-table.

The workshop ended with a round-table discussion where many of the ideas and questions highlighted in the two days were thrown around. While nothing concrete was decided on there and then, I think we have started a very large ball rolling. I am certain that in the next coming months the energy and enthusiasm that the speakers and delegates showed towards railway archives will produce many new ideas and initiatives to aid their promotion, use and preservation. 

I am looking forward to playing a large part in this and working with the many of the new friends I have made this weekend. Indeed, there is much work to be done; for myself, and a whole community of amateurs and academics who love the railways. I want to finish off by saying a big thank you to the two organisers of the workshop, Keith Harcourt and Roy Edwards, for putting on such a wonderful event - it was truly fantastic and at the end of Saturday night, I was not happy to be leaving! 

Many thanks to Keith Harcourt for many of the photos.


[1] The Executive of the HMRS. Carried on page 2 of every copy of the Society’s Journal.
[2] Simmons, J. & Biddle, G The Oxford Companion to Railway History. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1997) Page 205)


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