Shouting louder

Our new Widening Participation and Outreach Officer reflects on her first few weeks in the role.

It is with great pleasure that I have started in the role of Widening Participation and Outreach Officer at the Modern Record Centre. My role is to promote and encourage interest in the truly fascinating collections held at the Centre. After a few weeks browsing the holdings it is clear to me that this is going to be far from a tough sell. I have been stunned by the richness of the collections and the wide range of topics documented. As well as the material on the shelves there are also the myriad research projects the Centre has and continues to be involved in. Archives are quiet places but we need to shout more loudly about this true wealth of information and activity. This has never been truer than in the lead up to Coventry 2021 as the region prepares to celebrate its rich culture and identity.

Improving access to archives has always been an area of interest to me. After graduating as an Archivist in 2010 one of my first roles was working on the Find and Connect Project which sought to help children who had experienced out of home ‘care’ in Australia locate records about themselves. This project opened my eyes to the barriers people face when accessing historical records. Much of the archival material being accessed by ‘care’ leavers had been created for routine administrative purposes, however viewed from a different perspective had the potential to transform a person’s life by filling in key gaps of knowledge essential to their identity.

At the Modern Record Centre one recent project which similarly evidences the significance and impact of archives is the Chilean Exiles in the UK project, run in conjunction with the School of Modern Languages and Cultures and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. The Modern Record Centre holds the records of the World University Service which assisted around 900 scholars to escape persecution in the years after Pinochet’s violent seizure of power in 1973. This material is a vital record of the human rights violations committed by Pinochet’s regime, and recognises the plight of Chilean exiles as well as the contribution made by UK organisations. Further information about the project can be found here:

My role is not just about sharing these stories more widely but to encourage people to be more curious, and to find these stories for themselves. Gone are the stereotypes of dusty boxes and cardigan clad archivists, Archives are hives of activity, actively engaging with schools, students, researchers and the general public and making a positive impact on the local community.  I hope that as my role develops there will be more opportunities than ever to interact and engage with the collections here at the MRC, so watch this space!

A glimpse at the future of the past

Last week Digital Preservation Officer Rachel MacGregor was invited to speak at a seminar organised by the University of Sussex looking at Digital Forensics and the Born Digital. Here she explains what it was all about and how it relates to the collections at the Modern Records Centre.

Selection of the more traditional documents here at the Modern Records Centre

I was delighted to be invited to speak at a seminar organised by Thorsten Ries of the University of Sussex to a study day devoted to the topic of digital forensics and digital archives. Digital forensics are most familiar to people from reports of law enforcement agencies who will examine the contents of a criminal’s computer in order to reveal hidden and deleted files which can be used as evidence in criminal investigations.  These same techniques can be used by archivists to have a deep dive into the contents of hard drives, floppy disks or whatever format the archive collections have arrived at the archives.  The Modern Records Centre has archives deposited on floppy disk, CD, USB drive and hard drive so there is plenty of scope for this kind of work although it can be labour intensive and complicated.  However in some cases – especially when dealing with the archives of writers – there can be much valuable “hidden” information contained within the media.  In other cases there may be material which the donor did not intend to give to the archives, so a great deal of sensitivity is also required.

Tackling older media types can be challenging

The seminar was a great opportunity for me to share the work I have just started doing on the small part of the papers (if that’s the right word) of Eric Hobsbawm which are digital.  In total the collection contains fifteen 3.5 inch floppy disks dating from around 1997 which have not been examined since they were deposited in 2013.  For me it was a chance to use some new software, especially designed for the task, on a standalone workstation. It’s possible to find out things like exactly what time of day the file was created at (or at least the time the computer thought it was…) and what kind of software was used and so on.  For some scholars this kind of information is really crcuial.  Other people are more interested in the information which is contained within the files.  I also wanted to know how important the “look and feel” of the files was – does it matter if the files “look” like they would have done when they were created in 1997? Would we want to recreate the environment of the same home computer they were written on (although we don’t know what this was)? There are lots of possible approaches and it was good to be able to share them with people who have a wide range of interests in reading and analyzing text.

It was a great showcase for a lot of other interesting work that is going by archivists and researchers. We heard a great presentation from Professor Jane Winters of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London talking about the complexities of web archives which you can read more about in this recent interview.  The team from the British Library were also presenting on the email archives of Wendy Cope and how they were making them accessible – still something of a challenge eight years after they were received.  Fiona Courage from the Mass Observation Archive talked about the transition from the paper submissions to the collection through to the digital ones and how the perceptions of researchers using the collection changed once they were no longer dealing with the handwriting of individual diarists.

Some documents can become very difficult to access


Possibly the most intriguing presentation was from Kees Teszelszky from the National Library of the Netherlands sharing his detective work on the very first Dutch Online Literary Magazine called de Opkamer (“the upstairs room”) who tracked down the creator of this online magazine which can be glimpsed via the Internet Archive.  Teszelszky wanted to know what had happened to the content which you could buy via the online shop … and found he needed to talk to the website owner access it.

It was great to see the sort of work which is going on around the world on “older” digital files – still within my working life but now often being consigned to harder-to-access hard drives and floppy disks or even – as with Jenny Mitcham’s case study of the Marks and Gran (writers of Goodnight Sweetheart, Birds of a Feather and many other TV hits) Archive at the University of York, which she has previously written about here, in software that is not so easy to access.  It was a reminder that our cultural heritage and history is fragile and relies on work like that which we are doing here at the Modern Records Centre to preserve our more recent past.

So far I have only examined one disk from the Hobsbawm Collection and have found letter, notes, a fax and an interview. Hopefully further work will bring to light new and interesting material which could add to our understanding of Hobsbawm’s life and work and allow researchers to think about the way in which writers in the late twentieth century moved from handwriting to typewriters so computers.  It’s a little glimpse of the future of the past.

LGBT History Month at the MRC: The Social, Political, and Economic Contexts of Identity

Rebecca Jones reflects on some of the sources that have caught her eye whilst working as a Digitisation Assistant at the MRC. 

As a member of staff at the Modern Records Centre and a member of Warwick’s LGBTUA+ community, I’m always reminded that LGBTUA+ history is inextricable from the social, political, and economic context in which it exists. This LGBT History Month, I have been thinking back through some of the most fascinating documents I’ve found in our extensive archive that have significance to those interested in LGBTUA+ history, especially those that occurred in some unexpected contexts.

Work in the Sweated Trades, 1910s-1920s (part of the Trades Union Congress archive)

There’s an interesting figure who turns up a few times in the “Work in the sweated trades, 1910s-1920s” digital collection (which is drawn from our large Trades Union Congress physical collection). Documents 292C/239.08/1/72 and 292C/239.08/3/54 give us a brief glimpse into the life of Georgina Johnson, whose expression of gender seems to have been remarkably fluid. Johnson was a maker of hammered chains who employed female apprentices in her home-based workshop, and was therefore registered on the White List, which is where we find her first mentioned. Referred to by her learners with female pronouns, she nevertheless used the names “Georgina” and “George” interchangeably, and referring to herself dually as “mistress or master” in her self-penned learner agreements:

“I (Georgina Johnson) trading as George Johnson at the above address hereby agree to learn Annie Davies the Art of Hammered Chainmaking and while in my employ she shall behave herself towards her said Mistress or Master for the term of 2 years.”

Of course, there are a number of practical reasons why this may be the case – the potential for greater respect and ease of commerce earned by conducting trade correspondence under a male name, for example; coupled, perhaps, with a pre-written form agreement with pronouns designed to be struck out as applicable. Or perhaps George Johnson was in fact a male relative from whom Georgina inherited her workshop. It strikes me as interesting, though, that no other women employers – and there were quite a few registered on the White List – adopted a male name, either for convenience or as an artefact of a former business owner, let alone consistently insisted on its inclusion next to her given name; and that other learner agreements appear to be bespoke, referring to the “master” or “mistress” singularly according to the recognised gender of the employer. Indeed, I digitised the paperwork of dozens of White List employers, and the case of Georgina (George) Johnson struck me precisely because she stood out in this regard: she seems to have been quite attached to both of her professional identities, though of course we can say nothing of her personal life based on this small degree of evidence.


(Johnson is not the woman pictured here, though her workshop would have been very similar, being in the same region and trade at around the same time.)

Firefighter: The Journal of the Fire Brigades Union

In a previous blog, I noted that towards the end of the twentieth century, the editors at Firefighter became increasingly socially conscious. The argument that if everyone was deserving of equal help and protection in an emergency, then by extension they were also deserving of equal rights and protections under the law, seems to have been a guiding principle in this.

The first mention of gay and lesbian issues in Firefighter was a passing, yet sympathetic, reference in an article on tabloid sensationalism in 1993. By the end of the decade, however, not only was the magazine regularly advertising conferences and workshops for LGBTUA+ members of the fire service, but attention was being paid to the homophobia, both personal and institutional, that those members were experiencing as part of the workforce:

Pat Carberry, Chair of the FBU National Gay and Lesbian Committee, was given a standing ovation for his criticism of a homophobic leaflet handed out at the entrance to Congress. The leaflet condemned the TUC’s support for a woman’s right to choose and also “vile homosexual practices”.

Would he,” asked Pat, “call me vile if I was cutting him out of a car crash or rescuing him from a burning building?

(From Firefighter: Journal of the Fire Brigades Union. Vol. 28, No. 6. October/November 2000.)

We pay into pension schemes the same amounts as our heterosexual counterparts, yet our partners are denied any benefits when we die. The pink pound is good enough to be taken from us, yet the payback is sub­standard.

(From Firefighter: Journal of the Fire Brigades Union. Vol. 26, No. 10. November 1998.)

During the same era, the journal featured frequent articles on LGBTUA+ interests, ranging from impassioned arguments to repeal Section 28, to defending the right of gay men to self-identify using the word “gay” instead of “homosexual”.

The Boar

The University of Warwick’s own student newspaper has never been inclined to shy away from the hard-hitting social issues of the day. LGBTUA+ interests and issues have been present, at least on the peripheries, since The Boar was founded in 1973, particularly after GaySoc (a precursor to what is now Warwick Pride) was established in 1978.

Two articles that particularly caught my eye were featured in The Boar in 1985. The first ran in March for Gay Week, during which a number of gay-friendly events and informative talks took place around the university. It featured an anonymous piece written by an openly gay student about their experience of campus life. This proved to be something of a first, as even though The Boar had previously been largely positive on LGBTUA+ issues, most of this had been conducted from a presumably heterosexual standpoint reflecting on the campus’s gay community as an outsider.


The second was printed in October, and was aimed particularly at the latest intake of freshers to the university. In it the author, an open member of GaySoc, implores LGBTUA+ students at length not to feel alone, and to feel safe coming out now that they were living independently. He points out that, statistically, there must have been around 500 LGBTUA+ students at Warwick at the time, and ends on a message of unity and support that – somewhat progressively for the time – explicitly includes not only gay men and lesbians, but bisexual and trans people, as well as straight allies.


Elsewhere in the archive

These are all items that I have stumbled upon, quite unexpectedly, during the course of my work as a Digitisation Assistant at the archive. However, we do hold several physical collections that are of specific interest to anyone interested in LGBTUA+ history – including, but far from limited to, a 1949 newspaper article detailing the life and times of an American GI who deserted his unit and lived as a woman in the UK for several years; a 1954 Medical World journal featuring a sympathetic early treatment of trans identities; and a photograph taken at the 1984 Rugby Town Council rally that led to the first openly gay MP publicly outing himself in his speech. I showcased these, and a number of others, as part of a talk on LGBT+ History at the MRC for LGBT+ History Month 2019. (With thanks to my colleague Liz Wood, for helping me to select these items and generally making me look much more well-informed than I really am!)

The Modern Records Centre is an extensive and varied archive, and LGBTUA+ history is just as extensive and varied. It is also a part of bigger histories – those of culture, politics, and economics in many different times and places – and by looking across all of these disciplines for connections, we can gain a better understanding of the whole: both how context influences how we talk and think about gender identity and sexual orientation, and how expressions of gender and sexuality influence their contexts. All human history is, in part, the history of LGBTUA+ individuals; and evidence of that history is often closer to the surface than you might expect.

Volunteering at the MRC: my video analysis of Grunwick

Gabriel Wynne, a Warwick undergraduate and recent volunteer, reflects on his time with the MRC.
Contemplating the Void

Entering the final year of a history degree poses a few challenges. There’s the increased academic workload: a dissertation to research and write, a larger pile of weekly reading, and the not-so-distant prospect of final exams. More daunting, however, is the rapidly encroaching void of graduation. What am I going to do with my life? What societal function can I fulfil now I’ve spent £40,000 on memorising the chronology of U.S. Presidents?

Into the Archive

One idea came to mind – working in an archive. I could use the skills and knowledge I’d gained from my degree whilst learning an essential, tactile vocation. But what does archival work involve? Images of long rows of shelving, dusty medieval censuses and indeterminable indexes might come to mind. I thought I’d try some volunteering with the MRC to gain a better understanding of the area.

My mission

I was given the task of writing a description of an interview with lawyer Geoff Shears about his involvement in the Grunwick industrial dispute of the 1970s. Shears was one of thirty people interviewed in 2007 by film-maker Chris Thomas for The Great Grunwick Strike, 1976-1978 – a history which he produced and directed on behalf of Brent Trades Union Council. Thomas deposited the unedited interviews (on DVCAM cassettes) at the MRC and they have since been digitised for accessibility and preservation, complementing the written Grunwick archive also held at the MRC.

Geoff Shears during the interview (still from 803/04)

The setting

In the summer of 1976, remembered by many as the hottest on record, workers in a London film processing factory walked out in protest against working conditions, beginning a struggle for trade union recognition by mostly South Asian women that would involve mass picketing, police violence and national labour mobilisation. Shears was a young trade union lawyer at the time and an avid supporter of the strikes who came to represent several strikers under prosecution.

A “right-wing conspiracy”

What is immediately striking from the interviews is the wider narrative within which Grunwick exists for Shears. He doesn’t come across as a contemporary giving his first-hand account, but as someone who wants to convey his sense of the events’ wider historical significance. Viewing Grunwick in the context of the industrial disputes of the 1980s, Shears sees a pernicious “right-wing conspiracy” at work in 1976. Describing the “militarised” nature of policing, he views Grunwick as a “testing ground” for “people within the authorities” who wanted to use the police to crush mass industrial action “in preparation for the days of the Thatcher government.”

A cultural barrier

One key insight is in the difficulties posed by the cultural barrier between the British trade union movement and legal system and the South Asian women on strike. Shears talks about the “struggle to find the language” to convince such women of the respectability of industrial action, showing frustration at the good witnesses who were unwilling to give evidence because of cultural differences. Viewed from the women’s perspective, this exemplifies the multifaceted nature of their disadvantage. Not only were they discriminated against in the work place, they faced difficulties in pursuing justice through a system unsuited to their needs.

A career in archives?

This speaks to what was most challenging and interesting about using these interviews as sources. Unlike written documents, Shears’ words offer only part of his meaning, with significant subtext evident in the unspoken. More so than I had imagined, interpretation and analysis form a vital part of working in an archive. I’m undecided about whether I’m going to pursue archival work further. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a brief voluntary stint has challenged my assumptions and given a little insight into the nuance involved.

[The image of Grunwick strikers at the top of the post is taken from an educational module on the dispute on the Striking women website].

Post script by Martin Sanders, Senior Assistant Archivist:  I’d like to thank Gabriel for his excellent work.  By creating descriptions which give researchers a clear idea of the content of this source he has contributed to one of our key tasks.


Transcription Tuesday

Take the challenge! Help to transcribe an entire volume of railway worker accidents in a day.

The MRC is excited to be taking part in ‘Transcription Tuesday’ for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine and in partnership with the Railway Workers, Life and Death (RWLD) project at the University of Portsmouth.

One of the registers from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) archive has been digitised and will be available online for one day on Tuesday 5th February for enthusiasts to transcribe its contents.


The volume contains about 2,150 handwritten records covering 119 pages in the volume which recorded railway accidents to members between 1901 and 1905. It will be a great opportunity for enthusiastic transcribers to ‘get on board’ and help to make this resource accessible and searchable for family historians and all those interested in railway history.

The idea behind ‘Transcription Tuesday’ is that anyone (not necessarily family historians, railway historians or Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine readers) and everyone is encouraged to help out on a single day with projects involving some element of transcription. In our case, this means converting the handwriting from images of original documents into typed text in a database. It means that the records become more useable, for a worldwide audience.

Many of the entries include fascinating details about life on the railways along with some very useful information on accidents and injuries.  For example, the case of J Hallams, a track worker who was hit by a train and killed on 7 January 1901 at Thackley in Yorkshire, leaving a widow and four children. They were granted £234.11.2 in compensation (around £24,100 today), of which £98.11.2 was to be paid to the widow and the rest in quarterly instalments until the youngest child was 14. A later note recorded that the mother had died and payments were transferred to an aunt.  Another entry is for P.C. Pepper, a Goods Guard on the Great Northern Railway and member of the Doncaster branch of the union. He crushed his ribs while leading horses at Ferrybridge in February 1904 and received 15 shillings per week in compensation. He was off work for 8 weeks and 3 days.

The results will be freely available online and will also be added to the larger database on the RWLD website, joining the existing 4,500 or so records and the 60,000 or so cases over the coming years.


This register is only one source from our railway trade union collections but we hold many other valuable records of railway workers from 1873 onwards. Taking part in this event fits really well with our plans for the wider RWLD project which we are joining this year. There are already volunteers working on different resources at the National Railway Museum York and The National Archives at Kew. The RWLD project will enable us to get much more information about the members of the ASRS and the National Union of Railwaymen out of the volumes and into a searchable spreadsheet. We’ve just launched a volunteer project at the MRC to transcribe tables recording Board of Trade Inquiries, compensation claims and accidents from the annual reports.  Please do contact us if you’re interested.

Helen Ford, Archive Manager

Working from home

In late 19th and early 20th century Britain, home workers were heavily used in the so-called ‘sweated’ industries – facing long hours and repetitive work for very low pay.

In 1906 the ‘Daily News’, a reforming newspaper owned by the philanthropist chocolate tycoon George Cadbury, organised an exhibition to highlight “the evils of sweating”. As well as objects produced by ‘sweated’ labour, the exhibition created a sensation by also putting on display the home workers themselves. Almost daily lectures from prominent figures (including future leaders of the Labour Party George Lansbury and James Ramsay Macdonald, trade unionists Mary Macarthur and Amie Hicks, and the author George Bernard Shaw) and evening lantern slide shows contributed to the event’s popularity. Nearly 30,000 people visited the exhibition during its six week run at Queen’s Hall, London, and the first edition of the accompanying handbook (5,000 copies) sold out within 10 days.

The idea of using a public exhibition as part of a campaign against exploitative working conditions wasn’t new – the Daily News had taken inspiration from similar events held in Berlin and Bethnal Green in 1904 – but the response to the 1906 exhibition was unprecedented. Although many of the members of the organising council had their roots in the labour movement, the exhibition set out to attract, and shock, a broader section of society – it was officially opened by Princess Beatrice, one of the daughters of Queen Victoria, and became a social event during the London season. The idea of minor royalty and the well-to-do viewing some of Britain’s most exploited workers in a West End concert hall smacked of poverty tourism for some, but the exhibition helped to highlight the social costs of goods produced by ‘sweated’ labour to those with the purchasing power to buy the products and the political power to campaign for a change in legislation.1906 also saw a landslide Liberal victory in the January general election, and the new Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, was one of the exhibition’s many visitors. In response to public concern about ‘sweated’ industries, and the campaigning of the newly established National Anti-Sweating League, the government established a Select Committee on Home Work which heard evidence during 1907-8 and recommended the legal regulation of low wages. In 1909 the Trade Board Act was passed, introducing Britain’s first minimum wage for workers in four of the most exploited industries.

 The handbook of the 1906 exhibition has been digitised as part of the MRC’s current digitisation project on ‘Work in the sweated trades, 1910s-1920s’. It includes brief descriptions of the different trades highlighted in the exhibition and, perhaps more immediately striking, photographs of some of the workers themselves – mostly women – at home. The photos give a glimpse of people whose daily lives were only infrequently recorded – but they are seen through the lens of an outsider. Were those the usual working clothes of the people in the images or had they put on their Sunday best (and done a bit of tidying) for the photographer? How many images did the photographer take and are the ones included in the handbook representative, or do they reflect the editorial perspective of the campaigning publication? The photos are fantastic images but, like all sources, only tell part of a story.More information about our digitisation project on ‘Work in the sweated trades, 1910s-1920s’, including additional images from the 1906 handbook, is available on the project webpages.

Liz Wood, Assistant Archivist


From papyrus to pixels

Welcome to the Modern Records Centre!

At the Modern Records Centre we spend our time caring for collections covering a wide range of topics such as trade unions and employers’ organisations, pressure groups, fringe political parties as well as records of cycling and the motor industry.  It’s a wide remit and the majority of our holdings date from the late 19th century onwards. “Late 19th century?” I hear you say “I thought you were the Modern Records Centre?” Well of course for archivists who often may spend their time with much older material this is relatively modern.  Our colleagues at Cambridge University Library for example have things like the Nash Papyrus in their care which was written in the second century BCE – now that really is old! So yes – we are talking about modern in a relative sense, but of course like most archives our collections include material created in the last few months – our most recent archives are records of the University dating from this year. It’s been a while since the University wrote its records on papyrus (I am joking – the University of Warwick is only 53 years old – although if you want to see a really old university have a look at this fantastic guide to Al Quaraouyine University in Fez, Morocco – I wish we had those tiles…) and of course it does now conduct its business digitally.  As archivists we are responsible for taking care of the university’s records both as part of the history of the institution and also to ensure that there is a permanent record of the outputs and achievements of the staff and students.

And it’s not just the University which has digital outputs – every individual and organisation to a greater or lesser extent does, whether it’s texts and emails or digital brochures, spreadsheets, photos or video – the rate at which content is being created is snowballing.  This is part of what has been referred to as the Information Explosion (or Digital Deluge) where we are surrounded by an ever increasing amount of data which becomes increasingly unmanageable.  And whilst there are technical challenges around ensuring that all of this digital output remains intelligible and readable in the years to come, a far harder challenge in some ways is coping with the sheer quantity of digital material that exists.  We want to ensure that we capture the relevant material in a way that that represents and bears witness to the individuals and organisations whose records we care for. We also want to make sure that these important records are kept safe but made available for people now and in the future to be able to access.  We are trying to improve access to our physical archive collections by a programme of digitisation, and these digitised files also need managing and preserving so they can also continue to be accessed long into the future.  I wonder what the men and women who were using LEO (the world’s first office computer) would have thought of all this!

LEO – the world’s first office computer. This is where it all started…. Ref: MSS.363/S4/14/1/13

So how are we tackling these challenges? Well, we are working with the people who create records to ensure those records have the maximum chance of being accessible and understandable for as long as possible.  This is to do with choosing the right format and capturing the right contextual information so that the record can still be retrieved and understood at a later date.  We are using a range of tools which can help us manage our digital content and we are also trying new ones to refine our practices so that we understand the material we are looking after and help to keep it accessible. We are looking to improve how you might search and access digital materials  and working hard to make sure that the background to these materials is captured as well so that they can be understood in context.

Student protest, University of Warwick ref: UWA/Photos/IV.B.3/1

And just as more traditional archives are not just letters, journals and reports so digital archives are not just “bit streams” or collections of bytes of storage, they are all the building blocks of stories about people, about their work and leisure and about their struggles and triumphs. Looking after and these records and making them available is a privilege and one which we are continually working at.

Rachel MacGregor

Digital Preservation Officer

It moves and talks!

Sound and motion at the MRC

You may be surprised to see a cartoon rat adorning a post from so august an institution as the MRC, but there’s more to our holdings than you might think.  Rather than being a star of children’s TV, the shifty-looking fellow above is one of the villains in an animated film about seafarers’ rights (whose hero is an albatross) in the archive of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.  The film is just one of many audio-visual recordings which have come to us along with the paper records which form the bulk of our holdings.   This post summarises what we have done to address the particular preservation and access challenges that such material can pose.

What sort of stuff?

Many of the items are sound recordings of interviews of trade unionists, employers and others conducted as part of academic research projects in the 1970s and 1980s. There are also recordings of meetings and discussions, films and videos made for campaigning, propaganda and historical purposes, and the odd (sometimes very odd) piece of music and drama.

Reminiscences, confessions, Acker Bilk and a boogie

The following items illustrate the diversity of the material:

Formats galore

The first stage in deciding what to do with all these treasures came in 2011 when we conducted a detailed survey to find out exactly what we had. This revealed that we then held 1403 sound recordings, 679 videos and 47 cine films (those numbers have since increased).  These were in 16 different formats, only four of which (audio cassette, compact disc, VHS and DVD video) were playable in house. As most of the material was also in the form of inherently unstable signals on magnetic tape, it was clear that digitisation was essential to enhance both preservation and access.

The digitisation process

Since the survey we have been sending annual batches of recordings to external audio-visual digitisation specialists. For each recording they have produced a preservation copy, in which all of the original information has been preserved, and an access copy in a compressed format.  Wherever possible we have of course obtained the copyright holders’ consent to this process and to the subsequent wider dissemination of the recordings.

What to digitise?

Because we can only make relatively slow progress with digitising such a large volume of material we have had to decide which items to prioritise. The criteria for this have naturally included the items’ potential research value and general interest, their uniqueness, the absence of transcripts (although these can themselves be digitised as a useful adjunct to the recordings) and whether the original is still easily usable.  Unfortunately in a few cases the original signals have been found to be beyond rescue even by technical wizardry, and there have been quite a few less serious examples of poor recording quality.  These seem to be mainly down to rudimentary and inexpertly-used recording equipment, but the passage of time may already have caused deterioration and in many cases it certainly will in the long run.  This underlines the importance of preserving the best of what we have as quickly as we can.

Getting it out there

One of the advantages of converting information into digital files is that access to it is no longer dependent on the use of its original carrier. We have exploited this by making all the digitised recordings available via their descriptions in our on-line catalogues and presenting selected films and videos and sound extracts, with supporting information, on our website.  Some of these have been added to the on-line resources we have produced for students studying particular undergraduate modules.

“Particularly poignant”

Most of these recordings can broadly be described as being of academic or general interest, but in 2014 we were reminded that some could also have personal value when the son of a trade unionist in the motor industry contacted us after hearing the digitised recording of his father. It was, he wrote, “particularly poignant for me, not just because my father died fourteen years ago, but because he had a tracheotomy in 1983 and was afterwards only able to speak with great difficulty. My children never heard his natural voice. Now we can all hear him.”

Martin Sanders, senior assistant archivist.

Digitising Firefighter

Rebecca Jones, one of the Modern Records Centre’s Digitisation Assistants, talks about her work: 

Digitising Firefighter magazine was an extensive task: when I joined the MRC in January 2017, my colleague Gareth had already started on the project, but even with two of us now working on it, it would still take the best part of a year to complete. With our combined efforts we finished the bulk of the work in September, and with October spent going back to catch up with the few issues that had somehow slipped through the net and deal with some last-minute additional materials and technical complications, we were able to go live in early November.

Figure 1: The cover of the first illustrated issue of Firefighter, published in June 1940 (our ref: 346/6/1/6).

The digitisation process itself involved a few steps that were repeated for every issue of Firefighter. We’d be given the physical copy of the issue (either in its original newspaper/magazine format or as part of a hard-bound collection covering one or two years). Digital images were taken using an overhead scanner, and a software program allowed us to edit out some of the minor physical flaws (aided by buttons with labels such as “book-fold correction” – preventing text from getting lost in the spine of tightly bound books – and the grim-sounding “thumb removal” tool, which is actually a highly useful feature that allows you to manually restrain a book that won’t stay open in order to scan it without your digits being digitised along with the page). The end product of this stage of the digitisation process was a digital image of the page, preserving the text and images from the original, physical copy. In a three-hour shift, I’d typically scan about a year’s worth of issues of Firefighter.

In the second stage of digitisation, these images were imported into an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software program. This program allows us to mark out areas that contain pictures (making it easier for people reading the end product to single out and save an image they want), as well as areas containing text. The OCR software reads these text areas automatically, producing a digital version of the text that can be recognised and interacted with online: so that its contents can, for example, be searched on our website, copy and pasted by readers interested in just a section of the whole document, or converted into other formats like Word Documents for ease of reading. However, OCR software is not yet universally accurate, though highly useful for quickly generating a first draft transcript; and it was necessary to check the text ourselves to eradicate the more serious errors (misspelt names and incorrect dates would be particularly unhelpful to people attempting to search the text; and, on a quirkier note, my software’s unfortunate tendency to turn unrecognised words into profanities was not exactly reflective of the professional quality of document we aim to produce here at the MRC). Though the length of Firefighter issues has been widely variable over the course of its publication history, on average it would take about an hour to fully OCR an issue. Once everything had been checked, we saved the document as a PDF to be uploaded to the Warwick Digital Collections website.

Figure 2: One of the many header designs used by Firefighter over the years; this one is now the banner for the collection on our website. It was used for several issues dating between 1945-1948.

The project held a personal interest for me: as the daughter of a retired firefighter, I can remember reading issues of the magazine that were lying around the house (in fact, I still do on visits home – sadly my favourite feature, The Station Cat, a political review disguised as a gossip column, is too recent to be represented in our collection); it was interesting to me to look into the publication’s history, to see what changed over the 70-year period we were digitising and what has remained the same.

While reading every article in every issue I digitised would have caused the process to take well over the nine months I eventually spent working on it, it was of course impossible not to become side-tracked now and then by a headline or by-line that I found particularly interesting. A number of political figures in the Labour Party, which has historically shared close ties with the FBU, and whose influence has grown in recent years are represented earlier on in their careers: perhaps most notably, Jeremy Corbyn, MP, now the party leader, was featured on the letters page of the January/February 1998 issue, expressing his support for the Union and reminiscing about his memories of and involvement in the 1977 strike. Current London mayor Sadiq Khan was mentioned in Firefighter in March/April 2000 in connection with his role as a solicitor representing an anti-Nazi campaigner assaulted by police officers. The latter is an interesting example of the kinds of stories featured in Firefighter magazine increasingly throughout the twentieth century: those of political activism and social justice in ways sometimes only tangentially related to the firefighting profession. The development of Firefighter from a somewhat dry journal chronicling AGMs and pay scales in the 1930s and 1940s, to a magazine reflecting its readers’ interests more widely and encouraging them to become increasingly involved in political and social activism outside of the Fire Brigade’s direct sphere of interest by the 2000s, is a gradual but constant force of change that can be charted through the digital collection. To some it may seem out of place in a trade journal, but in my opinion it is wholly consistent with the underlying mission of the Fire and Rescue Service as I have always understood it: to give help and aid indiscriminately wherever it is needed, in the belief that everyone has an equal right to protection and safety.

Figure 3: The September 1990 issue of Firefighter (ref: 346/4/117/21) explains the FBU’s growing interest in social issues, both at home and internationally.

The collection of Firefighter issues held by the MRC dates from 1932 to 2001. I find it particularly poignant that the last issue we digitised is the September/October 2001 edition, which includes the FBU’s commentary on the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York, in which 343 of the 414 emergency workers who died were firefighters. (The death toll amongst first responders would later rise due to injuries and long-term health conditions developing as a result of their presence at the site.) On this terribly sad subject there is very little to add to what has already been written, except to appreciate again the extraordinary and selfless efforts taken by emergency responders every time they report to work.

Figure 4: A brief notice in the September/October 2001 issue (ref: 346/4/239/12/10) shows the international solidarity between UK and US firefighters in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York.

On the subject of our collection ending here, it feels somehow apt that this devastating turning point in 21st century history is accompanied by a reminder of some more positive changes in the realms of computing and technology that were taking place, gradually, at the same time. The Fire Brigades Union in the period 2000/2001 acquired the capacity to begin keeping digital copies of their own magazine, and this is the reason our online collection ends here: more current issues can be found in PDF format on the FBU’s own website. What we hold in our digital archive is a thorough and comprehensive history of the Fire Brigades Union in the twentieth century, chronicling everything from the biggest concerns of the day – annual meetings, major incidents, and watershed changes in policy – to the day-to-day concerns of the individual union members: injury claims, holiday clubs, training schools, and views and opinions that are deeply held and passionately expressed. It is a history that is still very much alive and very relevant today, because the modern Fire and Rescue Service is a direct continuity of everything written down and preserved in this collection.

Firefighter, 1932-2001, is available online as part of Warwick Digital Collections

“Britain’s greatest labour lawyer”: cataloguing the papers of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton


I joined the Modern Records Centre (MRC), University of Warwick, as Assistant Archivist in March 2016 on a year contract. My brief was to sort, arrange and catalogue the archive of Lord Kenneth William “Bill” Wedderburn, Baron Wedderburn of Charlton (1927-2012) QC, Cassel Professor of Commercial Law at LSE, British politician and member of the House of Lords. His papers were deposited at MRC during 2013-2014 by Dr Paul Smith, Honorary research fellow at Keele University, and former student at the University of Warwick. Funding for this post was provided through a successful grant application to the National Cataloguing Grants Programme, administered by The National Archives, and donations from both individuals and organisations, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

This significant and extensive collection (over 100 boxes) covers the period from the late 1950s to 2010, and reflects Lord Wedderburn’s role as one of the most important and respected European academic lawyers in Europe, advisor to the TUC, and advocate in many significant legal cases. The papers also complement MRC’s main collections which cover industrial relations, politics and labour history in the UK from the nineteenth century onwards, and include national records of trade unions, trade associations and related organisations.

Page of notes on developments in labour law in the UKPage of notes on developments in labour law in the UK

The Wedderburn archive offers an invaluable resource for students of politics, law, history and industrial relations, because of the detailed records on all the key issues in labour law and industrial relations since the early 1960’s. During this time the first edition of Lord Wedderburn’s ground-breaking work The Worker and the Law was published (Macgibbon & Kee, 1965). The papers cover his involvement with the Donovan Commission and the Bullock Committee on Industrial Democracy, legislation of both Conservative governments (1979-1997) and Labour governments (1997-2010), the European Community, legal cases, teaching papers, annotated books and published and unpublished papers. There are also papers and reports from the Social Science Research Council’s Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU), which has been based at the University of Warwick since 1970.

The Wedderburn papers were sorted into topics based on Lord Wedderburn’s filing system, and boxed at the family in London, prior to transfer to the MRC. Using Excel spreadsheets to list the papers offered a pragmatic approach for obtaining an overview of this large collection and its functional activities. The box listing phase also included sorting and appraising the papers, and weeding out duplicates. Given the size of the collection, I have concentrated on topics which I perceived to be the most important in terms of MRC’s own collections. The papers have been divided into five sections covering UK Political and Advisory, Legal, European and International, Teaching and Publications. The data has been imported into CALM and I have added biographical and description content to the catalogue. All the papers have been numbered as per the catalogue references.

Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities - acts or threats, 1980 Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities – acts or threats, 1980

I have enjoyed the challenges of arranging and cataloguing these important papers, and creating order out of “relative” chaos! It has been a fascinating insight into Lord Wedderburn’s career. His charming and somewhat satirical sketches scattered across the collection, are an unexpected highlight. Coming to the end of my year at MRC, the Wedderburn papers’ project has given me valuable experience in the cataloguing of labour and political history papers. One of the best things about being an archivist is the continual acquisition of knowledge in the day to day application of archival procedures.

The catalogue may be viewed at:

Helen Hargest, Assistant Archivist, MRC, has arranged and catalogued part of the Wedderburn collection of papers.


[i] “Britain’s greatest labour lawyer” quoted from: Professor Bob Hepple, “Obituary: Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC”,  Industrial Law Journal (ILJ) vol.41, no. 2 July 2012 (133)