Literary Cultures, Social Networks and the Victorian Railway Worker

Lead Research Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Department Name: Faculty of Humanities and Social Science


This innovative PhD project investigates a forgotten history of literary cultures connected to railway work, involving interdisciplinary research into the history of industry, into print cultures and literature, and into working-class culture. It is deliberately designed to fit with and contribute to an emerging priority of the NRM, as outlined under section 8 in this application, and to reflect upon - and redress - the relative under-representation of working-class culture and literacy in museum contexts. It is of scholarly significance as an intervention in literary and historical studies of working-class culture in Britain, and of importance to cultural heritage organizations in assessing how literary cultures can assist in interpreting holdings in science, industry and technology.

In common with many industrial workers bent on 'improvement', railway workers in the nineteenth century and beyond sought to acquire cultural capital through their participation in literary cultures. Such cultures include broadside song culture and verse written for performance (i.e. at society meetings or special occasions), prose and fiction, particularly as published in periodicals written by and for railway workers, published volumes of poems, newspaper contributions, autobiography and biography. They also include literary societies and reading groups, formal and informal. Scholars are aware that such writings exist, but they have never before received sustained attention. No previous twentieth or twenty-first century study of working-class literature has focused on profession, and discussions of railway literature have concentrated on literary representations of railways by travellers, not by those men (and few women) directly involved in constructing, maintaining and operating the vast new infrastructure of the British railway network. Alfred Tennyson's famous gaffe in one of the Victorian period's best-known poems, 'Locksley Hall', in which he believed that trains ran on grooved rails, is, for instance, referenced with glee in the writings of several working-class railwaymen, who deliberately displayed their superior technical knowledge of the terminology and operations of railways in their works to differentiate themselves from middle-class observers. The student will be able to use the National Railway Museum's extensive and hitherto underused holdings of railway literature, supplemented with research in minor and major archives across Britain, to develop an original and exciting PhD with potential impact beyond academia. The topic is designedly broad enough to enable the student to pursue his/her interests within this substantial field, guided by NRM staff's specialist expertise in historical terminology and operations and Prof Blair's expertise in working-class literary cultures, and supported by a tailored programme of training.

Key questions may include, but are not limited to:
1. Why did so many railway workers in this period engage in literary activity, whether individual or collective, and what was at stake in such activities?
2. In what ways does the investigation of these activities shed new light on the history of human infrastructures in railway work? To what extent do literary pursuits operate within or across the hierarchical structures of railway employment?
3. Does the self-representation in these texts conflict with representations written 'from above', i.e. nineteenth and twentieth-century histories of railway work?
4. How do literary productions construct and represent railway work and technology in this period, and are there discernible shifts across the century?
5. Do the writings of railway workers critique the practices of industrial labour or celebrate them, and how might this vary by position and in relation to chosen genre?
6. How does the study of railway workers and literary culture alter scholarly understandings of working-class culture, and understandings of the lived experience of labour?


10 25 50