British Telegraphic Work and Spaces, 1846-1950

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


This project is a revisionist study of the largely forgotten operators of Britain's inland telegraph network from the foundation of the first private telegraph companies in 1846, through nationalisation of the service in 1870, to 1950 when the service was in sharp decline owing to competition from telephony. It plugs a considerable gap in the historiography of British telecommunications - the need for a systematic and detailed understanding of telegraphic work and the spaces within which it was pursued. The project will yield new insights into such key developments as the entry of women into telegraphy
and the foundation of telegraphic workers' unions. The project involves the study of a wealth of largely unexplored primary source material, the bulk of which is held in BT Archives. The systematic study of these materials will enable the CDA student to make a highly original contribution to historical scholarship and to help BT Archives in several important ways, including significantly enhancing the detail in its catalogue, producing website content and curating physical exhibitions. The CDA's research will also help enhance the Science Museum's catalogue of telegraphic instruments.
A preliminary survey of BT Archives catalogue reveals an immense amount of material that can support this research. It holds complete runs of periodicals dedicated to telegraphy and a wealth of unpublished documents relating to such issues as station organisation, employee recruitment, training, health and working conditions, and the experiences of female and male telegraphists. It is possible that the project will also uncover materials revealing the experiences of BAME and other under-represented telegraphists. The richness of the archival material that the student will be exploring means that there is
much flexibility within the project for them to build on their own intellectual strengths and follow their own interests.

In addition to the 36 months spent on research, the CDA student will also spend a minimum of 3-6 months on professional development opportunities at BT Archives. How and when this time is used will depend on the student's interests and goals and this will be agreed with them early in the project. The time will be used to develop the student's professional archiving and cataloguing skills.

In addition to BT Archives the project's materials could also include the Science Museum's collection of telegraphic instruments - the CDA student's interpretations of which will enrich this collection's catalogue descriptions. If necessary the project will also explore materials in other collections such as the National Museums of Scotland and the Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno.

The project offers exciting opportunities for students considering careers in the archives and museums sectors, as well as in higher education. The successful applicant will be spending a considerable amount of time in BT Archives where they will be studying some of the collection's under-explored and uncatalogued materials and gaining experience of professional archive management and public engagement activities associated with BT Archives and the Science Museum. They will also be expected to present aspects of their research in workshops, seminars and conferences organised by the University
of Exeter and by BT Archives.


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