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.

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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.

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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.

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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