Di Drummond

Tracing your railway ancestors: a guide for family historians.
Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2010. 272pp.

An e-mail was received from someone in Suffolk who suggested that KPJ should cast his critical eyes over this book which is fortunately in the book collection of the Norfolk County Library possibly because of it being the location of the Marie Celeste of railway towns: Melton Constable (during the summer timetable that excellent local bus company which does not know what to call itself, but has at least one bus painted in M&GNJR livery, has had a bus leaving Cromer in the late afternoon with its electronic destination set at Melton Constable: possibly they depart from thence in golden ochre.

According to the man in Suffolk the book has errors on "every page". Certainly there are many, but more seriously it is probable that the author has failed to produce a really helpful book by writing what is in effect a general railway history (which abounds in errors) followed by a section on ancestor tracing where it is suspected that there is a lack of real guidance. For instance, she makes much of the career in "engine driving", but fails to observe that census records note "engine driver" as the occupation for those who drove stationary engines. Many "railway workers" were employed on what railway enthusiats call industrial railways, especially those associated with mining.

The index suffers from being very badly constructed: "books as sources" followed by fifteen page references is not helpful. As space has been strictly limited why does John Major (a minor prime minister) justify an entry? Several headings are excessively long: for instance it takes three lines for the entry of Holy Trinity Church (the resting place of George Stephenson). The descendents of George Stephenson could walk into any library and find a wealth of information on the shelves or via the Internet on their illustrious ancestor. The problem lies with those named Smith, Jones or even Cameron.

The author, possibly in her zeal to allocate some share of the history to female employees, utterly fails to show the influence of railway employment overseas both within the Empire and Colonial Administrations, and in a large number of countries where railways were owned or administered by Bristish companies. This greatly increases the number of "railway ancestors". She also fails to note patents as a source of information and the possibility of online accesss to the major engineering institutions. Like many historians she fails to grasp the significance of mechanical engineers in the running of railways and the vast range of activities covered by the former railway companies from sea captains to chamber maids in hotels.

The author successfuly captures the combination of long hours coupled with a low intensity of work which characterised much railway employment, especially on rural railways, but even main line freight working could involve long periods of stationary "activity". Accidents were part of the job and in some occupations death was a major hazard especially in shunting. Sadly, the index does not assist in locating these gems.

There is plenty of evidence to show that the author does not completely understand the railway industry. On page 38 there is a table which compares journey times in 1843, 1887 and 2008. 1843 was too early: the East Coast route was incomplete and Cambridge could not be reached from London. And why were journeys from Craven Arms to Carmarthen, London Liverpool Street to Croydon and Brentwood to Stratford included (in anticipation of the Olympics perhaps?). Furthermore, by 2008 Cambridge could be reached in less than an hour from King's Cross, not the 1 hour, 31 minutes shown in the table. On page 42 there is some sloppy writing:

The 'City of Truro' achieved a speed of 100 miles an hour. Other railways followed suit. By 1910 some of the fastest expresses were getting to Edinburgh and Glasgow in ten hours.

This might imply that 100 miles an hour running rapidly became common place. The Anglo-Scottish expresses were limited by agreement to 8¼ hours by the 1895 Agreement. During World War I the schedules became nearly ten hours. This book is aimed at the everyday reader: such inaccurate sweeping statements are not helpful. On the following page it is asserted that "steam, gas or electric heating" of trains was usual: steam heating was the norm except on the Southern Electric. This is followed by the amazing statement that "electric lighting was not common until after the Second World War". This would only be true for a few suburban and rural services: gas lighting had disappeared from the main expresses long before. On page 46 it is implied that the coal for the Royal Navy was conveyed to the "extreme north of Scotland". To return to page 43 the word "Pullman" failed to be attached to the 'Southern Belle' (Pullman staff were employed by the Pullman Car Co.). And "sixty companies running shipping lines"? On page 49 the LNER is credited with refurbishing Leeds station (it was the LMS). On the same page it mentions that 5 per cent of Britain's railway lines were electrified, but it fails to thoroughly qualify this by noting the rarity of this form of traction outside of the Southern Railway and London Transport. The last-named system fails to get mentioned and there are further perils where motormen worked on both trains and trams.

In the latter part of the book there are many references to online sources. By the nature of this resource many may be out-of-date. Surely it is time for publishers to establish a website in association with books of this type.

17 August 2010