Research: general guidance

These notes are mainly intended to help the beginner — someone who fancies knowing more about a particular aspect of transport history but isn’t sure how to go about it.  They may also help the student, someone who is writing a transport thesis as part of an academic course.

Choosing a topic

Start with something manageable and familiar, perhaps something related to where you live or to your family history.  The grand project — the history of a railway or canal company, say — will take many more years than you could ever expect.

As well as the ‘what’ and ‘when’, you should try to answer the ‘why’ — usually the much more interesting aspect of any project.  Inevitably this leads you to the ‘who’.  It is also worth thinking about the question: ‘What was the effect?’ — what impact did it have?  was it successful?

Transport history is not a self-contained subject.  To some extent it is an aspect of economic and local history, but it also relates to most other aspects of history including political, social and engineering.  (Regrettably, some published railway histories seem to imply that railways were created to give engineers fun things to do.)

Remember that transport history did not stop with nationalisation in 1948!  There are many gaps in our knowledge about events and trends after that date.

Essentially, there are two sorts of research.  The usual method, particularly for beginners, is to study a particular topic (a locality, a company or an individual, for example) mainly using ‘primary sources’ such as minute books and newspapers; the alternative is to take an overview of a subject, mainly by using ‘secondary sources’, that is, bringing together other people’s researches in a comparative study.

Before going too far, it is worthwhile finding out what has already been written on the topic, in case you would merely be duplicating other people’s researches.  This is not always easy to ascertain, particularly as academics and amateurs tend to publish in different journals.  (Some hints about how to do this are give in ‘Sources’ below.)

Charles Hadfield, the country’s foremost canal historian and one of the founders of the RCHS, gave wise advice in the linked article, An approach to research – principles.

Research agendas, suggestions of possible fruitful topics for research, have been prepared for some aspects of transport:


Doing the research

Try to use as many sources as possible.  For example, a company’s minutes may give the basic facts, but other contemporary sources such as Acts of Parliament, newspapers, directories, maps and photographs add further information and, in particular, may provide ‘colour’ — the human touch which can turn a dry specialist article into something of wider appeal.  Also, if possible, visit the site or route being studies as this may reveal information or invite questions.

But always regard sources with a degree of scepticism.  Even if something is recorded in the minutes it did not necessarily happen.  The provisions of Acts may have been ignored.  Newspapers have a political bias, so two local newspapers may give a totally different view of the same event; also bad news (especially death and crime) is far more likely to be reported than good news which can give a totally misleading impression of what life was generally like.  Reminiscences are particular problem: they are notoriously unreliable, yet they may be the only source of information about things which at the time were ordinary and unremarkable.

Again, Charles Hadfield gave excellent advice in the linked article, An approach to research – sources.

Good note-taking and filing is essential.  Key points are:

  • Make sure that you have clearly identified the source of every note you take: for example, for a document the full archive reference; for a published book, the correct title, author’s name and initials, publication date and the page number; for a newspaper the title and date.
  • Make sure that you distinguish clearly between when you are making a verbatim quotation and when you are summarising. Verbatims should be exact, that is, mis-spellings, capital letters and all.  You can edit them later, but what you have noted should be an accurate transcript.
  • Make sure that you note everything you are likely to want. It is better to note too much while the going is good than too little. The fact you didn’t note and cannot find is likely to be the one you finally need.

In some ways, research is much easier than when Charles Hadfield was doing it.  In particular, digital cameras have made it much easier to copy from minute books and other archival sources, which means that now you can in effect do most of your work at home.  However, this does require you to index all images accurately using a filing structure which makes pages easy to locate; also it is still desirable to make notes from the images.

Various source documents are now on-line — links to some of the more useful ones are given below.  And of course there is a vast quantity of secondary sources on-line, in particular Wikipedia.  This has to be treated with particular care; most Wikipedia entries are quite reliable, but once an error gets into the public domain it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  (A good example is the ‘fact’ that the Great Central’s London extension was built to the continental loading gauge.  But it wasn’t.)


A brief guide to sources

Railway & canal companies:  The minute books of most of the companies which were nationalised have survived, as have many of their other documents, and are in The National Archives (TNA) at Kew.  The main records for railway companies are in the series RAIL1–781 and RAIL1175–1180; those of most canal companies are in the series starting at RAIL800.  County and other archives may also hold records relating to a particular transport company, having acquired them from a local office of that company (or its successor), from the company’s solicitor or from a shareholder.  The relevant local archive might not be the obvious one: it is best to carry out a search using TNA’s ‘Discovery’ website, which holds more than 32 million descriptions of records held by TNA and more than 2,500 archives across the country.  The archive of the Canal & River Trust at Ellesmere Port holds a wide range of documents concerning its waterways.

Parliament:  Transport companies’ Acts can be seen at TNA and county archives.  More revealing can be the evidence given to the Parliamentary committees when the Bill was being debated, also when Acts for rival companies were being proposed.  These may be held in the Parliamentary Archives.

Government:  The Railway Deprtment of the Board of TRade was established in 1840; from 1919 it became part of the Minsistry of Transport.  Their records are held by TNA.  Series MT6 and MT29 include the inspecting officers’ reports on new lines and, from 1871, alterations to existing lines.  Inspectors’ published reports of accidents are in RAIL1053/17–26, 51–161.  Timetables are in RAIL900; periodicals in ZPER; and records from 1948 in the AN series.  Many miscellaeous records are in the series starting at RAIL1000.

Other companies and individuals:  Transport companies did not exist in isolation.  Most had relations (friendly or otherwise) with other transport companies, and those companies’ records can be most revealing.  All would have had relations with landowners, suppliers and customers; again, their records can provide useful information, often setting out the other side of disputes.

Maps:  Every proposal to Parliament for a new canal or railway had to be accompanied by a plan of the intention; these are held in the Parliamentary Archives and by the relevant county archives.  Estate maps, and maps associated with property deeds, can also be useful.  Ordnance Survey maps, particularly the 1:2,500 and 1:10,560 series are a basic tool for any historical investigation.  Local archives and many libraries hold copies; alternatively they can be accessed on-line (at the cost of a monthly subscription) from a site sponsored by the Ordnance Survey and  the website of the National Library of Scotland provides free coverage of the whole of Britain for some series.

Newspaper articles and advertisements are an invaluable source of contemporary information.  Most county archives have good collections of local newspapers but rarely are they indexed, hence it is difficult to find what you need unless you know the approximate date from another source.  The British Newspaper Archive is an on-line searchable database containing many tens of thousands of issues, but its coverage is patchy and it is expensive to access.  Welsh Newspapers Online is free to access but coverage is mainly restricted to the period from 1870 to 1920.  Many national newspapers, most usefully probably The Times, are available online, as is the Illustrated London News; access is charged, but some local library services provide this for free.  The British Library Newspaper Collections are now held off-site but can be inspected providing adequate notice is give.  These collections include magazines and periodicals, which can be a useful source of contemporary information.  (Railways have been well served since just before the start of the 20th century, canals since the 1960s.)

Directories such as Stater’s and Kelly’s can yield much information about cities, town and villages, their businesses and transport facilities.  The University of Leicester Special Collections On-line website has over a hundred, dating mainly between the 1820s and 1930s.

Photographs sometimes provide information not available elsewhere.  A great number of postcards were produced between 1900 and 1914, often of surprisingly mundane subjects.  Collections of images are held by county archives, local museums and libraries, by the Canal & River Trust archive and by various transport societies.  Historic England has a collection of over 9 million images.

Film and television:  The British Film Institute National Archive contains many items relating to transport which may be viewed (for a fee) at its London premises.

Reminiscences, more formally known as oral history, can help when investigating more recent history — in particular, they can yield information about what was once ordinary but is now just a memory.  Some archives and local museums have made collections of recordings.  A letter to your local newspaper can enable you to find potential interviewees, though ‘the grapevine’ and personal recommendation are likely to be more fruitful.

Secondary sources:  Books and magazine articles used to be the obvious place to start; one way of judging their accuracy is whether they show source references.  One problem is finding out what has been published.  For railways, George Ottley’s A Bibliography of British Railway History, originally published in 1965, together with its two later supplements, is the best starting-point.  For inland waterways (up to 1950), the equivalent, compiled by Mark Baldwin, is contained within Canals: a New Look.  Since 2002 the RCHS has produced an annual bibliography of books and articles in periodicals, covering railways, waterways and road transport.  The internet is now the first source most people use and (for our type of research) it is generally reliable though the information gathered should be cross-checked with other sources if possible.  Doctoral theses are listed on the EThOS website and may be downloaded for free.


How the RCHS can help

RCHS Journal:  The Journal, which is published three times a year, contains a variety of well-researched and referenced articles, authoritative book reviews and letters & comments.

RCHS Bibliographies:  The society publishes an annual bibliography of books, theses and periodical articles.

Railway History Research Group and Waterways History Research Group:  These Special Interest Groups are designed to help members conduct research by linking members who are active researchers (or otherwise very knowledgeable).  They mainly work as moderated internet groups, but copies of the transactions are printed & circulated regularly to give a permanent record.  The principal content comprises members’ queries and responses, and the publication of occasional papers — these may be brief items written specifically for the Group, republication of members’ articles which have appeared elsewhere, or drafts of articles submitted for Group members’ comments.

Other Special Interest Groups publish short articles and other information about their particular subject areas.  The Railway Chronology SIG has published much on the dates of opening, renaming, relocating, closing etc of stations.  The Modern Transport SIG has published detailed chronologies of events since 1948.

Workshops:  The Society holds occasional workshops to give advice to researchers or to give them the opportunity to present work-in-progress for comment.  These are sometimes held jointly with other organisations.

Research Adviser:  The Society’s Reseach Adviser can give general advice about undertaking research and potential sources but cannot answer specific historical queries.

Research grants:  The Society gives grants of up to £500 to help defray the cost of of original research being undertaken which is intended to lead to publication.  Our RCHS Research Grants document gives further details.



Research is not complete until it is published.  The act of putting one’s thoughts into writing is a good discipline.  When you give a talk, you can usually get away with some vagueness on points of detail, but when you write you are forced to be accurate; it can also reveal gaps in your knowledge.

Publishing your findings and conclusions invites others to read them, to comment and perhaps to challenge.  In this way knowledge increases.  It is a basic principle of ‘the scientific method’, and is equally applicable to history.  It can also stimulate others to build on your work, and so extend knowledge further.

Publication — seeing one’s name in print — can be deeply satisfying.  Especially satisfying is seeing your book or article cited by someone else in their writings, giving a public seal of approval to what you have done.

When to publish can be a difficult decision.  As Charles Hadfield once wrote, ‘A time will come when you reckon you had better publish.  I will not say when you reckon the job is done, for that time never comes.’

In the Society we know of numerous instances of members doing decades of thorough research for a book but dying before they felt they had done enough to go into print.  Often the fruits of their labours are thrown away by their heirs; sometimes their notes are offered to the Society but rarely can anyone be found to complete the work.

One solution to this conundrum is not to save up everything for the definitive book on your subject, but instead to write articles for transport history societies (including the RCHS, of course), for your local railway/canal society, or for your local history or civic society.



The basic rule is: ‘Remember the reader’.  This determines the amount of background knowledge that can be assumed, the amount of jargon and understanding of abbreviations that would be understood, and even (to some extent) the level of language to be used.

The requirements vary depending on the intended audience.    At one extreme is the degree thesis or academic journal, both of which have special requirements.  If you are writing for the RCHS Journal or transport magazines, that is, for people interested in transport history, you can assume good background knowledge but not that they are specifically interested in your particular topic.  Or you may be writing for wider audience, where you must not assume they know the basics.

A series of articles about writing for publication appeared in the Society’s 5oth Anniversary Journal:

Each of these gives advice on the craft of writing.  The respected railway author, Michael Robbins, summarised it when he wrote, ‘The kind of history I want is accurate, comprehensive, and readable.  That’s all.’

Always get somebody, preferably several people, to read your draft before you submit it.  They may notice gaps in your argument, ambiguities, lack of clarity, grammatical errors — possibly even questionable statements.

Particularly problematic issues are copyright and reproduction rights.  These are addressed in the attached article: An introduction to photographic copyright.


Links to sources

Parliament and legislation

General archives



Road and road transport

Other transport modes