There’s something glorious about old advertising: their dated language, their occasionally inappropriate gender stereotyping, their excitement at things we take completely for granted. Perhaps more than other documents they can make us feel that “[t]he past is a foreign country” (L. P. Hartley). Looking through the Wolverton Railway Works collection at Milton Keynes Museum, I found an excellent selection of adverts from the Second World War. Here are a few from ‘Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management: the Journal of the Industrial Welfare Society’ (1944). This single magazine contains no fewer than four adverts for moisturising creams—the accident record books of the Works show that industrial dermatitis was a huge problem.
Don’t worry, I’m not trapped in the grip of an existential crisis (at least, no more than usual). But as I’m listing accident record books at Milton Keynes Museum, identifying dates and creators and getting distracted by obscure treatments, I often find myself thinking: “what am I doing this for?” (And no, the correct answer is not, “my boss told me to”.) Perhaps it’s more relevant to ask, “who am I doing this for?” It’s a useful question to keep in mind, because the more I am aware of my audience, the more I can ensure I’m recording useful information. Of course, at this early stage of the archiving process, the details I’m recording will likely not be seen by the general public until the collection is properly catalogued. But it’s hard to avoid wondering what these records might eventually be used for. Greater minds than mine have much more to say on the “point” of archiving, so I will simply try to identify some potential uses of this particular collection—the accident record books of Wolverton Works.
History of Wolverton Works
The first point is probably the most obvious. These books were vital documents in the running of Wolverton Works, updated on a daily basis. What insights can they give us to the Works themselves? Much of their usefulness will depend on what other records are available. There may well be much more detailed information about staffing and departments elsewhere. However, taking the record books in isolation, they communicate a range of information including who worked there, for how long, and even their salaries. We can see how First Aid functioned at the Works, and perhaps gain an insight into how the Works as a whole functioned. There are also clues to the way the Works changed over time: in 1923 ownership changed from London and North Western Railway to the London Midland and Scottish Railway. This is accompanied by a change in the way accidents are recorded—a coincidence or a change in procedure?
Knowing how captivated I am by the names in these books, I can imagine how amazing a resource this would be for someone researching their family history. In the books used between the 1880s and 1920s, there are indices by surname for each book, meaning that detailed research needn’t even be that time-consuming. I’ve already stated elsewhere how these books are as much about people as they are about accidents. There’s a great deal of practical information here, including the names and ages of workers, where they worked, how long they’d worked there, what their salary was, sometimes where they lived. But there are also personal stories—who was the victim of some horseplay on the shop floor, who was temporarily employed as a munitions worker during the First World War. There are some touching details, like the person in 1944 who suffered from “D.A.H” (I’m guessing disordered action of the heart). They’re worried about their husband, who is a prisoner in Japan.
Women and the Works
This topic has fascinated me since I started, and more details are revealed each week. Each book is a little insight into women’s history: which job roles women were allowed to do, and in particular, how this changed during the world wars.
In the early record books, women were infrequently listed. Men were listed just by surname, but women were recorded as Miss/Mrs plus surname. This changes in 1941/42, as finally “sex” is listed alongside name (the women are still listed as Miss/Mrs). In the course of just a few years, women go from being listed a few times per book to multiple times on each page. Suddenly women at the works are no longer anomalies, but are playing intrinsic roles. This is surely indicative of more widespread changes in attitudes to the jobs women were able to do.
History of Medicine
Most of the information in these books is of course not just about railways, or people, but about the risks they faced, the accidents that inevitably occurred, and the way these were treated. It seems that nearly every malady or accident you could think of is listed in here, and these tell stories in themselves. Lead poisoning seemed a particular risk. You can tell what time of year it is just by whether there are more wasp stings or chills. You can study the various treatments offered, and even how these change over time. Warm olive oil for earache is an extremely common one, and who knew brandy was the way to combat an “attack of malaria”?
Looking at the accident record books over a long period of time, from the 1880s to the 1940s, there are a number of changes, which must be symptomatic of changes in management, ownership, or legislation. Between the 1880s and 1920s, a huge amount of detail is recorded for each accident, including lighting conditions, how long the person injured had been on duty, and a judgement on whether the incident was “accidental”. After the 1920s, far less information is recorded, and the type of incidents also changes—there are far more common maladies, like earache, toothache, and nausea, in addition to the lacerations and fractures one would expect from industrial accidents. The incidents listed become more what you might expect from a school matron than a railway works. In fact, from the 1940s, there are separate record books for illnesses and accidents. Is this because there were more dedicated medical staff on site? Changes to the medical benefits offered to employees? At this point the books start being called “Ambulance Room Records”—was there an actual ambulance on site? Ambulance trips themselves are infrequently mentioned in the record books. You can see that we’re in a bit of a catch-22 situation here—these accident record books can help us understand medical history, but you also need a basic understanding in order to interpret the books.
Anyone looking at these records will bring something new. One of my favourite uses of archives is as an inspiration for the visual art, like this incredible work on archives and landscape by Jeremy Bubb. Who knows what these personal histories concealed inside marbled book covers could inspire. I find it amazing that such specific records, even with no other context, can illuminate so much. What will the documents we take so much for granted today, the signing in books, the receipts, the post-it notes, tell future archivists about our lives?
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.