Off the boats and in the Archives…

Tuesday 7th

I’m back on dry and land in the archives, the reason for my really being here, I am awash with ideas and stories, thoughts for projects which encompass all of the things, people, stories that I have come across over the previous few days.

It’s quiet, today, in the museum, the rush and swagger of the Easter Bank Holiday Boat Rally calmed down in a few families and a crochet knitting group in the cafe (a regular Tuesday occurrence and a source of knowledge I discover later on). I am aware of the vastness of themes and knowledge at hand here, wondering what I really want to say by the stories and information that I gather. Aware that everything has been written about and documented in booklets and pamphlets,  that I am also finding an interpretation, a way to draw different people in.

I am being introduced to the archives today, the filing, the system (s), the listings of items. In the newly opened search room I chat to a man still there from the boat rally tracing the working history of the boat he owns, Badger. Looking through the receipts of cargo’s she’s carried, companies that have owned her, her changes and add ons.  And when he talks about her, there is a shine in his eye- Best boat he’s had, the way she steers, her balance. The passing on and selling on of boats is quite common, boats known by their name, and the owners that have steered them.  This obsession of history of an object, an item, a home, this detective work appeals to me. The unpicking of all those layers and hands that have held the tiller, or walked the boards (whether they are replaced boards or not). That boat tells it’s own story of working to where she is now.

And I have a vague lists..some direction of things that I am interested in; which when I list it,  appears to be a history of the canals-that’s the not quite formed idea at present, snippets moments of stories that tell a moment in time on the canals. This of course will always change dependent on what is found and what is thrown up.

Vague topics…

The building of the canals…In the beginning, particularly The Navvies, the hands that built the waterways, not necessarily the engineers.

Heydays and Glorydays of the working Canals

The sound of the tracks (trains taking over)

Working women

Rolt (and the beginning of regenerating the canals)-Rebuilding the Canal

Becoming for Leisure

Now (and what next)

Not that much to get through then…

I had an idea that there is very little archival material or records of Navvies, because they were transient, usually without record or knowledge of full names, they moved to where the work was, drank hard, worked, died often, with few people to mourn them.  It seems more archival items about them can be found with the dawning of the railway age, but it is usual in reference to ‘The Navvies’ as a group; complaints to local newspapes, or calls for a Union, or the religious looking to save their souls, it seems very rare to find individual to hold on to and start to trace.

This is my usual inclination that triggers an obsession, names or writings, records of a person. However, when delving into records and history, manual labourers, the poor, and poorly educated get lost between the cracks, the people that rise up through and stay in archives tend to be people that had a voice, reason or means to record their thoughts, moments and deeds. This is of course not always true, but majoritively as social history dictates. When I look at Canals I want to see the bottom, the ground, the end of it’s depth. The men that started on even ground and dug down, in mud. The hands that made the waterways.

I wonder at trying to find an image, a moment to place some fiction on, one of the volunteers,  hearing me talk picks out a book on Navvies for me from library available at the archives.

With the other subjects in my list, I know there is material,stacks of it, it is just trying to find the right way to it.

Derek, the volunteer that has been charged with showing me the ropes is demonstrating how the system works with try outs to find something from the archive room, where everything is stored.  We make an easy search by typing in ‘Telford’ select an item to find, cross sectioning reference numbers that refer to bays, and shelves and stacks before we rustle around and rummage (a little) to find the item we sought. And already from that test run, we’re picking out fire tinged work dockets in looping handwriting, eligible sometimes, pencil, clinging to the burnt smell, as it tells of the fire that it escaped. And what we were looking for, it’s description not quite befitting it,  is there, under piles of other paper.

Wednesday 8th

Armed with a good idea about how to look, I start to look, for what I’m not entirely sure. I begin with a database that list most items (10,000 or more) with a reference and a description in an excel spread sheet.  On I read, down the columns trying to find descriptions that catch my eye. I’ve re-headed my headings in what I’m looking out for (it’s good to have some perimeters) to Navvies, The Wolverhampton Corragated Iron Company, History of Clearing The Canals, Ellesmere Port History, Birmingham, Journals and Diaries. I’m making lists and writing down reference numbers, things that spark a jolt of interest;

Thesis of developments in oil industries, ticket receipts (some unused), lists of boats leaving ports, plans for new canals and openings, Wage books, newspapers, maps and plans of boats, timetables for packets, rail connections, lists of boat owners and, boat inspectors note books, journals in water colours of by gone days, oral histories, slides, boat books and paintings.

All with a story tell. Mundane as it could seem.  All stored in boxes, underneath other things, in racks and shelves of other items , all with their own stories to tell. Finger prints left on, not visible, but there, handwritten notes from archivists archiving them somewhere else. All of this panics me. Like I might not find the thing that I need to find.

And I go on my own trial search…

Alone in the archives, 20 or more so winding shelves to my left, 20 or so static shelves to my right. And the smell, of cold, slight damp and paper. And potential.

My heart beating. Feeling like an archaeologist, like the brummie taxi driver said. But it’s too much. The problem that I have in junk shops and charity shops and car boots is the feeling that there is something, one thing there for me to find. A ridulcouls dedication to some pre-ordained fate that still stems from reading too much detective fiction and a preference for the past. Something that is known. That has already been written. Panic that I might not find that one thing. Panic that I will. Overwhelming. Things that could have been thrown away, but haven’t. Arguments from some sides of things that should have been thrown away, but haven’t.

I don’t find what I’m looking for in that moment. Boxes placed in other destinations, moved or awaiting re-catogorising. Next week I’ll come back and look more.

Still not quite closer to what I’m really looking for.


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