All posts by warwickmrc

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