For those of us enthused and passionate about railways, the idea of having railway ancestry or a solid connection to the industry can be both fascinating and emotional. For those that work on the rails in the modern age, it can mean the continuation of a family trade or legacy and for railfans learning about, studying and traveling to heritage railroads or abandoned lines, it can form a tribute to a retired or departed railway family member.
Finding out about a railway past can be an arduous journey however, requiring a lot of time, commitment and sometimes money to discover and access the kinds of records needed to establish solid information about one's ancestry. Below, we outline a number of ways to get started, who to contact for further information and tips for accessing some records and information for free. Much of this will be relevant to UK railfans, but US railfans may be able to use this information with respect to their own railroad and government archives too. Are you a Fuller or a Parrott? Then perhaps you're related to the Conductor or Captain from this sketch, taken from a photograph of 'The General' on the Western & Atlantic Railroad c.1887. Image from the British Library Flickr Collection.
All documents, scans and information courtesy of Joe Rogers and family unless otherwise stated.
Living relatives - the best place to start: It can be a little awkward at times to ask living relatives about their past, or about their own parents and grandparents. It can even seem embarrassing to come across as naive about your own family, but ultimately, living relatives can fill gaps in ancestry that no archives or records ever will. If you know of a relative that was an engineer, signalman, ticket clerk or guard, ask them about it or ask a close relative of theirs for more information. Often you'll find it can rekindle a connection to a forgotten arm of your family or grow a bond between an uncle or auntie that has been dying to talk more about their parents or childhood. They can also recount tales never put down on paper and provide a glimpse into the past as to what it might have been like working on the rails in decades gone by.
BMD - Birth, Marriage and Death dates: Without doubt, the most important information to obtain about any past family member are the dates of birth and death, supplemented by a marriage date. Almost every kind of ancestry record, from the census, to military and employment records, involve a date of birth at some point and so getting this correct can be the first big step to finding out more about one particular person. Knowing the place of birth is useful too and this can sometimes be different to the location that they may have lived as a child - for example because they were born in a hospital located in a bigger town or city. For British ancestry, FreeBMD and FreeReg are good starting points and totally free, though the information they yield is somewhat limited and records in some counties are incomplete. This marriage certificate clearly shows the groom's occupation as 'Railway Engine Cleaner'. Cleaning was often the first rung of the ladder when joining a locomotive crew. This particular individual later rose to Fireman, then Driver.
Census Records and the 1939 Register: With the information above, UK census records can be accessed by a number of paid services like Ancestry.com and Find My Past. UK Census records are made every 10 years and generally become available 100 years after they were completed, the most recent being the 1911 census. Each household was recorded with names, ages, relationship to the 'head' of the house and occupation. It is here where most people find they have a railway past. In addition to the census records, the 1939 register gives essentially the same information for September of 1939, at the start of the Second World War. Though these records often require subscription payments, a number of online local library services allow members to access limited information free of charge. Ancestry.com expands its records out to the USA and Australia and even allows access to passenger lists from ships traveling across the Atlantic. The person highlighted here on this 1911 British Census reads 'Fireman' followed by 'GW Railway', which of course is the Great Western Railway.
Railway Companies: It may be that the census simply states 'Railwayman', 'Fireman' or 'Engine Driver' under occupation. Whilst this is exciting in itself, finding out more requires knowing which railway company employed your relative. Up to 1948, when British Railways became the sole operator across the UK, there were many different companies operating individual stretches of line, each with their own ways of working, employee records and locomotive types. Just prior to BR's creation there were the 'big four'; Great Western Railway (GWR), London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Southern Railway (SR). In some cases, this information is listed on the census - for example 'GWR Engine Driver'. Generally, the location of where your ancestor lived would have determined the company they worked for, but in areas where more than one company operated, it can be harder to determine who their employer was. This marriage certificate is stamped with the mark of the 'L M & S RLY Savings Bank', which refers to the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. This provided the first evidence for this individual of which railway company his ancestor worked for. Other details have been censored.
Delving into finer detail: With the framework of important dates, census information and an idea of where and who they worked for, the real investigation work can begin. At this stage online research can become much harder as specific archives like employee records often require physical access to a local government building or National Archive. The National Rail Museum in York also provides access to their collection of archive material, including rail staff magazines and photographs and even have their own advice available on their website. Newspaper archives can also be useful for attempting to find out about a specific incident or occasion - for example if your ancestor was unlucky enough to be in a rail accident or was celebrated on a special train service. Typing the name of your ancestor in "quotes" can massively narrow down the results to pages and articles than mention them (or those with the same name) specifically. The British Newspaper Archive allows for searches by date, county / country or a specific newspaper and a number of free pages can be viewed by signing up to their service (views are then paid for thereafter). For staff records, payslips, awards and other company-specific information, the National Archives is normally the place to visit in person with little available online to readily search and save. This British Railway Staff Card was issued to the widow of a railwayman from the Area Manager at Shrewsbury, England. It allowed free or heavily discounted travel across the UK network. The name of the holder has been censored.
In the USA, the Railway Retirement Board can offer up details for a fee that requires information like a Social Security Number and those all important birth / death dates. The Biographical Directory of Railway Officials of America can also give information of staff at management level. Like in the UK, knowing the railroad that your ancestor worked for is vitally important and can guide you to researching local or national archives specific to one particular railroad company.
Of course, the results of thorough research can vary, from discovering that your railway link is nothing more than one job of many for one of your relatives, to striking gold with news that they were a celebrated member of staff or worked tirelessly to keep the railway moving through war, nationalisation or the danger of becoming a Fallen Flag. But finding out can be part of the joy of railway ancestry and learning more about social history through a relative can be a hugely rewarding experience for you and your family.
If you've already researched your railway ancestry or know stories of a relative who worked on the rails, we'd love to hear from you. Contact us via our social media pages or email us via the submission form.
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