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Newsletter no. 6 from our Archive and Research team at the Museum.

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Research and archive newsletter

The ways of the line: a monograph on excavators

This new purchase for the library collection, published in 1858 and written by Anna Rebecca Tregelles, is a record of her dealings and relations with railway constructors (otherwise known as navvies) and their wives and families. The book reflects the religious stand-point of the author, who was given financial assistance by several Christian societies, and covers such themes as society’s dislike and distrust of the navvy; their education and levels of literacy; alcohol and abstinence; what it was like to live as a navvy's wife and the corresponding effect on family life. She includes at the end of the volume snippets of letters and communication she received from them.

The picture above is a portrait by the author of a navvy she befriended called Salisbury. Salisbury, a notorious drunkard, under Anna's tutelage becomes a teetotaller and a star pupil, making significant strides at writing within three months of learning. He is held up as an example throughout the narrative of what 'can be done' with navvies given sufficient care and attention. Also on the picture is Salisbury's dog 'Snap'. Navvies frequently had pet dogs who would stand guard all day protecting their masters' food and top-coats from being stolen, either by other navvies or passing tramps. As a consequence they were usually very fond of their canine friends. Another insight into navvy life in the picture can be seen by looking at Salisbury's hair. Railway navvies wore their hair long to let it be known to all that they had not recently been in prison (hair would be cut short in prison, presumably as a way of controlling lice). Salisbury's hair is quite short, especially when compared with the hair of fellow navvies drawn on the book's title page, so is perhaps indicative of a colourful past?

This book is very important as the 'navvy voice' has rarely survived history for reasons of illiteracy and lack of leisure time, or through being largely men of Action not Words. In fact, the only other first-hand source material we have on navvies are pictorial works showing them at work constructing railway lines. This book therefore has the potential to fill in some knowledge gaps and to learn about the development of railways from their perspective, albeit through the mouth-piece of another.

For those of you interested in learning more about railway navvies, our railway archive conference this year has a talk on the working life of the railway navvy. See below for further information.

Researchers' Night

This year York is hosting Yornight, part of the Europe-wide Researchers' Night event on Friday 26 September. The NRM is taking part with Rail Search, giving exclusive after-hours access to the museum and a special chance to see the NRM's research programme and collections up close and personal. Rail Search will present a series of short talks and displays by curators and researchers in the unique setting of the NRM's Great Hall. Discover the unsung role of ambulance trains in World War 1, the Victorian fascination with illustrations of railway tunnels, and why an Edwardian model railway has a crucial 21st century safety role. Hear the stories behind all manner of railway objects, from uniform buttons to railway carriages, become a railway research detective, and find out how research brings the collections to life and shows why railways and their past matter today.

The event runs from 6pm to 8pm on 26 September. The cafe will be open and parking is free to those attending.

Making the Connection: railway records for family history conference

There are still a few tickets available for this year's railway archive conference, which will be supported by family history specialists Your Fair Ladies. The conference takes place in our Evening Star Theatre on Saturday 27 September 2014, and aims to guide people through the material which can be found in archives and records whilst scene-setting British railways' rich history. Expert speakers will set railways as a context for past lives, look at the history of the railway industry, reveal the true nature of mass leisure travel by rail in the late 19th century and reveal the hidden lives of railway navvies. Speakers include academic historians, specialist staff from the National Railway Museum and experienced genealogists. With practical elements during the day this will be a fascinating event.

Tickets cost £35 (£30 to FNRM members)

Literary outpourings: Great Western magazine - a miscellany of fact and fiction

The library collection has a near complete collection of railway staff magazines that are very well used as a resource for both family and social historians. They contain articles on railway company policy and procedures, with details and illustrations of the staff, interests and events of railway life. We have just added to this resource by purchasing a very rare set of an early Great Western magazine. This magazine started life in 1862 and was run as a self-supporting enterprise by an editorial team of GWR employees.

"The Conductors are indebted to the Magazine for many new friendships, many intimacies, which well repay their trouble and risk; if the work were to expire to-morrow it would have done an infinite deal of good in bringing together many heretofore strangers, and in calling forth powers hardly known even by their owners." --'To our readers' vol. 1.

The editiorial team fell from five to three making the publication untenable for the existing staff in 1864. Although only twenty-four issues were produced, the quality of writing and variety of content ensured that the publication was well received by employees and its patrons - the GWR directors. As a staff magazine 'protype' it differs quite substantially from other staff magazines in the collection. In later examples railway company officials understood the importance of using the staff magazine as an official communication tool, sharing staff achievements, interests and contributing to the culture of solidarity and loyalty that was actively promoted among railway companies. In this early publication, some of these aims are covered in the monthly round-up: 'The month on the rail' and, occasionally in articles of a railway bent, but, primarily, this magazine contains serialised fiction, poetry and historical articles all written by railway employees, although not necessarily by Great Western.

Whilst railway information has been somewhat sidelined, this publication still has a lot to say about railway employees themselves: about their tastes, interests and desire for betterment, both for themselves as individuals and for their place of work. Read the publication in Search Engine and discover its joys for yourself.

Volunteers needed for First World War project

As part of our plans to commemorate the First World War, we are looking for volunteers to help us enhance our list of railwaymen who died in the First World War. Volunteers will use the NRM archives to add new information, references to photographs and personal stories to our list. We are also looking for stories about railwaymen who served in the First World War to feed into our exhibition in 2016. Volunteers would need to be available one day a week (preferably Monday) for a minimum of three months.

Background: Suitcase with railway luggage labels