I have only been a volunteer for a few weeks, but I am already convinced that Milton Keynes Museum is an idyllic place to work. Sat in my ivory tower, poring over the intimate details of stubbed toes, lacerated fingers, and traumatic orchitis (yes, really), I am kept company by the unique soundscape of the museum. The rumble of excitement as the museum opens and children pile into the Victorian Garden below my window, the mellow oompahs and chiming melodies emanating from the music room a few rooms away from my own. I punctuate this soundtrack with a few interjections of my own whenever I encounter something particularly interesting, or, more often, when I need help.
This soundtrack accompanies me as I continue my work listing the accident record books of Wolverton Railway Works. Each of the books has been attended to and ordered by an unknown person, meaning that they’re roughly kept in chronological order, with the dates each book was in use written on a label on the front. The books themselves, dating from the late nineteenth century onwards, are quite fragile, with very thin pages, and disintegrating leather bindings. So someone has gone to great lengths to wrap each book in tissue paper. This is a mixed blessing. As we’ve all experienced, there’s a thrill to unwrapping an item in order to find out precisely what’s inside. But while these tissue paper parcels might have me thinking romantic and faintly idiotic thoughts like “making a present out of the past…”, in reality, it’s really annoying. I’m not sure how much protection this paper is giving since the books are kept in sturdy boxes. The tape used to secure the paper has sometimes been stuck to the books themselves, meaning I inevitably cause slight damage just trying to get at the books’ contents. I work in fear of those tiny ripping noises that accompany the unwrapping, especially as the pages themselves are tracing-paper thin.
Once inside, the books are as far removed from my expectations of accident record books as could be. My own experience of accident record books normally involves illegible biro scrawls in a notebook from Poundland. But these books are, well, beautiful. Marbled covers, faded with age. Maroon leather bindings. Careful cursive lettering. It is clear that huge care went into creating these record books, not just in their appearance, but in the level of detail recorded: the number of hours someone was on duty before they were injured, what equipment they were supplied with, what lighting conditions there were. Was this detail essential for Wolverton Works to protect themselves against potential lawsuits and compensation claims? But if the books were purely functional, why make them beautiful? And despite their flimsy pages, it feels like these books were meant to last.
As I continue listing the books, more questions than answers emerge. So far I’ve only covered about 30 years’ worth of books (38 records in total), so perhaps more will become clear as I go along. With each book consisting of 1000 pages, there’s certainly a lot of information to be unearthed.