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How does one become a Railway Historian?

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alexl92

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Probably a pipe dream but I’ve always loved History and really enjoy learning about the impact of the railways on Britain’s social and industrial development.

Until recently I had no idea that there exists such thing as a ‘Railway Historian’ - and the idea absolutely fascinates me.

I just wondered if anyone knows how one would make a career out of this? Presumably you’d have to have a History degree and do a post-grad with a railway focus... what then?
If anyone can enlighten me I’d be very grateful!
 
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theironroad

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Probably a pipe dream but I’ve always loved History and really enjoy learning about the impact of the railways on Britain’s social and industrial development.

Until recently I had no idea that there exists such thing as a ‘Railway Historian’ - and the idea absolutely fascinates me.

I just wondered if anyone knows how one would make a career out of this? Presumably you’d have to have a History degree and do a post-grad with a railway focus... what then?
If anyone can enlighten me I’d be very grateful!

Can't help specifically but maybe drop a tweet to Tim Dunn (does railway docs on tv), or sound out the national rail museum at york who maybe can provide some pointers.
 

Gloster

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Although all sorts of strange things can happen nowadays, I very much doubt if you can walk into a job or career as a railway historian. Probably the best way would be build up a reputation by producing a series of well researched articles, although this would be a slow process. There may be a few people who have started as a railway historian, but most only come to it as an occupation later in life. A history degree would have its advantages, but is far from necessary unless you intend to go into academia. It is not the way to riches, except in an intellectual sense.
 

Ianno87

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Probably a pipe dream but I’ve always loved History and really enjoy learning about the impact of the railways on Britain’s social and industrial development.

Until recently I had no idea that there exists such thing as a ‘Railway Historian’ - and the idea absolutely fascinates me.

I just wondered if anyone knows how one would make a career out of this? Presumably you’d have to have a History degree and do a post-grad with a railway focus... what then?
If anyone can enlighten me I’d be very grateful!

York University have a Railway History department, and I think it can be done as a Post Grad course - Dr David Turner is very active on Twitter.
 

WesternLancer

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Probably a pipe dream but I’ve always loved History and really enjoy learning about the impact of the railways on Britain’s social and industrial development.

Until recently I had no idea that there exists such thing as a ‘Railway Historian’ - and the idea absolutely fascinates me.

I just wondered if anyone knows how one would make a career out of this? Presumably you’d have to have a History degree and do a post-grad with a railway focus... what then?
If anyone can enlighten me I’d be very grateful!

Study here:

You could even ask them how many of their graduates have ended up employed as Railway Historians in some way or other.

I suspect you need to write a few books and articles, which are not that likely to generate enough money to live off unless you are very lucky I fear.

Then there are jobs related to railway history - for example I believe Network Rail has an archivist, possibly more than one, probably mostly dealing with documents/plans/drawings etc, but they probably train as generic archivists on relevant student courses, rather than railway specific.

York University have a Railway History department, and I think it can be done as a Post Grad course - Dr David Turner is very active on Twitter.
we posted at the same time about the same thing!
 

YorksLad12

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With my other professional hat on: an archivist should be someone with a relevant qualification and experience (and postnominals), as well as subject matter knowledge.

Christian Woolmar seems to be the go-to person on TV when they want to talk railway history. It might be useful to see what he did in the past to reach that point to get a flavour of the skills and experience required. The history courses will also be good in helping you to specialise, if that's what you want to do.
 

Gloster

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I think that Christian Wolmar was a jobbing journalist who got lucky as he was a transport correspondent at the time of privatisation. As he knew his stuff at a time when the railways were much more in the news than normal he was able to build a deserved reputation.
 

Bevan Price

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Probably a pipe dream but I’ve always loved History and really enjoy learning about the impact of the railways on Britain’s social and industrial development.

Until recently I had no idea that there exists such thing as a ‘Railway Historian’ - and the idea absolutely fascinates me.

I just wondered if anyone knows how one would make a career out of this? Presumably you’d have to have a History degree and do a post-grad with a railway focus... what then?
If anyone can enlighten me I’d be very grateful!

I think you would need to be very very lucky to make a financially viable full-time career out of railway history. A career in academia seems your best option, if you can get a good history degree (or, maybe, economics.) and the find a vacancy for a lecturer, perhaps specialising in transport.

There are already dozens - maybe hundreds - of railway history books. You need to find something new and interesting to draw attention to your work. Regurgitating old history will do nothing for your reputation, so yet another history of the GWR (for example) would probably be wasted time & energy. And even if you find something new / special, and get it accepted by a publisher, do not expect to sell millions of copies and make a fortune. I think that many writers of railway history had / have other jobs, and did/do the "railway bit" as a sideline or hobby.
 

DB

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A career in academia would be very tough to get into - there is a lot of competition, and obviously it will require reaching PhD level first.

That's not to say it's impossible of course, but anyone trying it ought to have a fall back plan for if it doesn't work out. Only a minority succeed.
 

LSWR Cavalier

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The NRM does have a huge collection of railway photographs, I applied for a job there once, had an interview but was not offered the job. There were hundreds of applicants

I think some preserved lines have voluntary archivists, you could try that
 

WesternLancer

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I think that Christian Wolmar was a jobbing journalist who got lucky as he was a transport correspondent at the time of privatisation. As he knew his stuff at a time when the railways were much more in the news than normal he was able to build a deserved reputation.
Yes, had previously done stuff on housing and homelessness / squatting back in the 70s and 80s IIRC, and worked for The Independent at time of privatisation of rail and must have sussed there was plenty to report....
 

30907

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alexl92

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Thanks everyone, every single reply is genuinely helpful!
 

birchesgreen

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I suppose i am a kind of railway historian as my MA dissertation a few years ago was on the impact on the coal trade in Stratford-on-Avon by the Stratford & Moreton Tramway. It is hard to get a job as a "railway historian" but you need to write, get published (self-publishing to start with if needs be) and build up some "brand recognition" around your name. You need to spend some time in archives, all sorts of interesting things are there to find...
 

etr221

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It might be worth looking through Dr Turner's original blog https://turniprail.blogspot.com to see what you can pick up about his 'way in'. Or read up about any one else who inspires you to see how they did it.
But I think in general it's a case of research, write, get published, then repeat until you're well enough known to get an offer... which means it will change from spare time labour of love to full time job.
 

vic-rijrode

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...There are already dozens - maybe hundreds - of railway history books...
There are indeed hundreds probably into the thousands of railway history books, I have approaching 400 and that is a small subset of what's available. This doesn't include books on locomotives, rolling stock, stations, heritage lines etc.

Take a look at Oakwood, David & Charles, Atlantic, Capital etc. on Amazon.
 

Trackbedjolly

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If you want to be an academic historian of railways then do the York Uni Masters. If you want to be a railway historian in the sense of those who write conventional histories of railways do your own research in secondary sources and publish it as books as so many have done in the past.
Or you could publish your own history based on what is available in the archives which are primary sources. There are vast amounts of unrevealed detail to be found in the Minute books of the boards of directors of railway companies to say nothing of the accounting books. these latter are not only valuable to the economic historian-there are details of events which are not mentioned in the minute books. Very few people have even looked at these-when they do they only summarise what is written there.
There are plenty of railway societies who want articles written for their members. It is a case of persuading them that they want to read what you have found. A lot of these members are interested in the 1950s-1960s. Think of it as your mission to interest them in the 1850s-1860s ;)
 

LSWR Cavalier

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I am collecting little-known queer facts about my small town, there are plenty
In the media age, maybe that is the way to go, queer railway facts
Why was broad gauge 7'0,1/4", for example, why the extra quarter inch?

The centenary of the Grouping is imminent, I wager someone is preparing a book about that
 

Dr Hoo

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I am collecting little-known queer facts about my small town, there are plenty
In the media age, maybe that is the way to go, queer railway facts
Why was broad gauge 7'0,1/4", for example, why the extra quarter inch?

The centenary of the Grouping is imminent, I wager someone is preparing a book about that
There is already Michael R Bonavia's book, The Four Great Railways, published in 1980.

Any serious railway historian would want to consider joining the Railway & Canal Historical Society (which has published various books over the years).

As with many aspects of railways, anybody wanting to make a small fortune out of railway history had better make sure that they start with a very large one.
 

randyrippley

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I am collecting little-known queer facts about my small town, there are plenty
In the media age, maybe that is the way to go, queer railway facts
Why was broad gauge 7'0,1/4", for example, why the extra quarter inch?

The centenary of the Grouping is imminent, I wager someone is preparing a book about that

Because once the stock was built Brunel decided an extra quarter inch was needed to ease tightness on curves......it started off as 7'
 

smtglasgow

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I’m late coming to this, but good as York Uni is for doing something railway related, if you have a good first degree (presumably History) there would be plenty of opportunities to study a railway-related topic at universities across the country. My area of research is economics, but I have several friends/colleagues who work in business/economic history and/or social history who would be delighted to supervise a Masters/PhD research project. Depends on what aspect of railways you want to study, but have a look at different university websites – most history departments list staff research interests. You’re looking for modern historians – preferably economic and/or social history. But you’ll need a good first degree – especially if looking for funding.
 

EveningStar

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A career in academia would be very tough to get into - there is a lot of competition, and obviously it will require reaching PhD level first.

That's not to say it's impossible of course, but anyone trying it ought to have a fall back plan for if it doesn't work out. Only a minority succeed.

Totally agree. Anybody who thinks academia as some fluffy, safe place needs disabusing of the notion ... it is tough to get in, can be a ruthless environment and most fall by the wayside. If you have a good first degree or some evidence of cognate academic study, by all means go for it, yet do have that back up plan.
 

etr221

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Looking for nothing in particular, I came across https://www.roberthummbooks.co.uk/blog/ , recounting the career of C Hamilton Ellis - who moved from writing railway histories to painting, as more rewarding, although he quoted his bank manager as saying “Painting trains seems a hazardous way to earn a living, Mr Ellis.”
 

DVD

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I did the University of York's Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies between 2016 and 2018. It was a brilliant course run by Dr David Turner, who is probably the UK's only specialist academic railway historian. Important to emphasise that it covers academic railway history, a niche area which rarely gets covered in the forums. I have a history degree (from York in the 1980s) which was a help as the course involves writing essays to a tough postgraduate academic standard. Since I did my PG Dip, the course has now evolved into a Masters degree with a dissertation.
I would highly recommend the York course. It's demanding but fascinating. Mostly online but with occasional residential weekends. On the ones I attended we had a behind the scenes tour of the NRM archives and a morning spent at York ROC. David Turner is a brilliant enthusiastic tutor. Tim Dunn may have pop star appeal but David is the Brains of the academic railway history world.
Finally there has been plenty of academic railway history published but much of it is several decades old. Work by Jack Simmons spring to mind plus Terry Gourvish's more recent histories of BR.
You don't have to have an academic background to enroll on the York course, but it helps.
 

LSWR Cavalier

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@DVD
Care to define 'academic railway history'? Is it a counterpart to popular history/entertainment?
Thanks in advance

Would "Rails in the Fells" by David Jenkinson be "academic"?
 

65477

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Most aspects relating to you question have been answered.

I tackled the same question about 50 years ago. I looked at my skills and decided the the best route would be to use those skills to get a well paid job. This allowed me to have enough money to pay for my interests. This incuded some self published local histories. I also planned to retire early so a few years before retirement I undertook some relevant academic courses, including a Museums study course.. This gave me the skills to lead the team leader in.a museum at a preserved railway.

A further thought - I have worked with.a number of primary schools where railway history is used as a term long project. If it suits you then become a teacher and pass you interest on. (Added in an edit)
 

30907

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@DVD
Care to define 'academic railway history'? Is it a counterpart to popular history/entertainment?
Thanks in advance

Would "Rails in the Fells" by David Jenkinson be "academic"?
Interesting question, and I don't have a copy to refer to; my guess is that is undergirded by solid research; in modern terms it is "the book of the thesis."
.
More generally, the best popular historians (etc) have a solid academic or professional background - researching, evaluating and comparing sources etc. - but have also learnt to communicate selectively - and some of them are entertaining too (Tim Dunn...). Rather a lot of railway writing, by comparison, is strong on sources but weak on evaluation and selection.

FWIW: my own interests outside railways are Biblical study/church history and there are certainly writers who cross over from academic (measured in footnotes per page!) to accessible - NT aka Tom Wright and Diarmid McCulloch are example (sorry if those names mean nothing).
 

DVD

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@DVD
Care to define 'academic railway history'? Is it a counterpart to popular history/entertainment?
Thanks in advance

Would "Rails in the Fells" by David Jenkinson be "academic"?
Academic railway history is analytical, comparative, placing railway issues in the context of economic, social and political history. For example one module of the York postgraduate diploma looked at railway employment in the nineteenth century. Not so much the role of individual drivers, signalmen, guards, station masters, but what were their wage levels and how this related to other occupations, their promotion prospects, staff turnover (which was generally surprisingly high), how they were recruited, the importance of paternalism, different employment patterns between the various companies, the role of the unions, railway friendly societies and so on. Another module looked at the impact of the growth of the railways, their effect on urbanisation, leisure, etc.

Popular railway history looks at locomotives, rolling stock, stations, the physical building of lines, company histories, etc, which is fine and most interesting. But the academic approach tries to place railway history in context. If that makes sense.
 
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