Within the museum, there is a cellar. Within the cellar, there is a cupboard. Within the cupboard there are many boxes. Within these boxes there are books. And within these books? Well, within these books are listed the accidents that occurred at Wolverton Railway Works from the late 19th century onwards. Yep, Accident Record Books. Anti-climactic? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. I have no special interest in railways, beyond a long-held love of The Railway Children. I have no particular knowledge of accidents or their records (although I am insufferably proud I recently trained in First Aid). I certainly didn’t expect then, that within a few hours spent with these books, I’d be addicted. The thing is, these books aren’t just about railways, or accidents. They’re about people. Everything about these books, from the different hands painstakingly or hurriedly writing in the pages, to the accounts of the accidents themselves, tell stories about people.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been entrusted with listing these books, in the hope that Milton Keynes Museum can gain a better understanding of what their archive holds. This basically entails me going through each accident record book to figure out when it was in use, what details are included in its pages, and giving it a reference number. I also have to be aware of who created them, which for the most part, at the moment, is the London and North Western Railway Company.
I’ve been interested in working in archives for a long time, but this is my first real taste. Thanks to the patience of the Museum’s Archivist, I’ve already learned a huge amount. This includes really basic things, like the need to support pages when you’re turning them, or how to use a book sofa to protect the book’s spine. From my experience cataloguing medieval manuscripts as part of my Masters degree I already knew wearing white gloves (unless you’re working with photographs or need to protect yourself from dirt) was a useless fantasy perpetuated by the media. But I didn’t know that archivists had an ideal pencil. It’s a 2B—dark enough to see, soft enough to erase without leaving a mark. There’s a lot to think about, but this at least is easy for me to remember, thanks to my childhood obsession with a rhyme by Spike Milligan:
Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
I’ll draw a sketch of thee.
What kind of pencil shall I use?
2B or not 2B?
I also have to be reigned back on my enthusiasm when it comes to bits of paper. Coming across a crumpled bit of paper tucked between the leaves, I cautiously unfolded it, and found it was covered in scrawlings of various numbers. What could it be? Vital statistics about the lives or limbs lost at the works? A code concealing railway secrets? It was a bookmark, and I was gently dissuaded from creating a separate record for it.
Through these books, I’ve seen 30 years of history from a unique perspective. I find myself lingering over the pages in search of particular names, or trying to decipher faded ink to figure out exactly what happened in a certain incident. I’m already getting attached to various characters who crop up more often than others. I never particularly understood the craze for genealogy, but now I’m totally hooked—and these people aren’t even my family.
Part Two of Adventures in Archives: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper
For more information about Milton Keynes Museum, please visit their website.