The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

3 January 2006

"Degrees of Indifference"
or Why Historians Should Care About Railways
Prof Colin Divall
18 November 1996

Our meeting rooms were nearly full on 18 November to hear Prof Colin Divall give his views of the historian's role in interpreting the railways' impact on our social and economic development. He started by quoting from some reference books by well respected historians. The inaccuracies were obvious to anyone with a knowledge of railways. Yet these works have a significant influence on current policies, for example being used to provide lessons for the current round of railway privatisations. It is therefore essential that historians take great care to research and interpret the historical records.

Colin pointed to the significance of the pre-nationised railways. They were the largest companies of their time, not just as service and transport providers, but as manufacturers. They were ground-breakers in management practices, their representatives toured the world to ensure that they used the best possible techniques. However, they were not omnipotent and were as prone to make mistakes as we are today. Researching board and committee records provides insights into the decision making process. Colin finished by describing some of the recent "finds" in the Public Records Office, including reports on the possibility of introducing diesel multiple units during the 1930's.

During questioning, Colin said the Institute of Railway Studies aims to develop a large cadre of people who can do this research. He is developing courses leading up to formal certificates. and is currently working on a distance learning version which will be supplemented by summer schools - watch this space for details.

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