This site is only being updated in part now. Existing full posts will still remain, but for new blogs and more information on me, please see my new website HERE

Saturday, 5 February 2011

We Need to Act Now to Save Railway Archives

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.


  1. wouldn't the natural repository be the National Railway Museum, or the National Archive; though an umbrella organisationwould seem the logical progression.

  2. David,
    There are afraid a number of problems with organising Umbrella organisations, such as is suggested.
    For many years I was chairman of the Railway Librarians Association, which succumbed because all its memebers were too busy to act as officers. It has been succeed by

    1) TRAP.
    Tracking Railway Archives Project:
    which was responsible for getting Railway archive material indexed into A2A (PROs' Access to Archive Project)
    This has now ceased to be a stand alone organisation but became a specialist group within the Railway Canal Historical Society (RCHS), again to minimise adminstrative overheads.
    There is an E-mail group:

    2) Following winding up of the RLA, I continue to own an E-mail group: (Railway Librarians & Archivists (instead of R.L.Association).

    When one of the RCTS Library regulars forward me details of your blog, I passed on the address to the RLA group and have had many useful constructive comments from our Railway Society Librarians/Archivists, which are relevant as to what is being done already.

    David you would be welcome to join our E-mail group, where you would be able to read these messages in the archive section.

    To join send an E-mail to:
    copy to me at

    mention this blog in the contents and we would be happy for you to contribute to what is normally a very quiet E-mail group.
    Terry Silcock
    RCTS Librarian

  3. David - this is an issue which has crossed our minds at the Cumbrian Railways Association. We are fortunate in that our archives are held in a County Record Office.
    As a charity we are obliged, at the insistence of the charity commission, to have our Constitution declare that should the CRA fold then its assets should pass to another charity. But at the moment we are unable to think of such a charity who shares our objectives and who would show the same care and respect for these assets.
    Also by insisting on a charity, by definition it would exclude the NRM or National Archive - and would they want this stuff anyway? After all its primarily material that was seen as not needed by the railway companies and often by local records offices etc.
    Another matter - the National Archive does not hold Scottish records.

    Something I think is immediately a concern is that most stud groups are unable to deposit their archives in a suitable archive environment - most local record offices will not touch items from 'out of county'. As a result the archive is held wherever can be found - I've seen such archives held in a building rife with damp, in a modern building with an unclad metal roof despite temperature control, and in various factory or office spaces.

    So you have hit upon a big problem for the future!

    Les Gilpin
    Cumbrian Railways Association

  4. The NRM is part of the NMSI, which is an "exempt" charity i.e. regulated by its sponsor Government department rather than by the charity commission. Therefore it should be possible to transfer archive and other collection assets from a group registered as a charity to the NRM.

    But obviously best to talk to the team at York first!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...