Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The False Memory of a Railway Clerk

As a historian one of the perils of the profession is that I have too often come across individuals or groups of individuals who consider memories a more useful source of historical information than the material found in archives. Yet, my philosophy is that  recollections from memory should only be used as a guide when starting research, and then only to supplement archival material. This seems quite harsh, but I have come across too many instances where memories have been plain wrong to change my opinion, and personally I would rather not take the risk of being in error when writing.

The stark reality of the inaccuracy of memory was brought home to me today when examining the personal recollections of William Buckmaster, a London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) clerk between 1875 and 1925 (when it was the Southern Railway). Buckmaster recalled that 'I joined the 1875 as a junior clerk at my "home" station when I was 11 years 7 months of age.'[1] Unfortunately, Buckmaster's memory was in error. According to his staff record, which was written at the time, he did indeed join the company in October1875 at Fareham Station as a Junior Goods Clerk. Yet, this was at the the age of fifteen.[2]  But this wasn't the only problem I found in his writings. Later, in the book he said that after seven years he 'applied for and obtained a transfer to a busy goods depot.'[3] Yet, his staff record again proves him wrong and it was after six years, in November 1881, that he moved to be goods clerk to Reading.[4]

Thus, while I would accept that many of the stories Buckmaster recalled have some truth in them, either in part or in their entirety, the actual dates he recalls and the finer details of his book are open to questioning. Therefore, while I do believe that recollections are the historian's friend, they're just not the best man at the wedding.


[1] Buckmaster, William, Railway Reminiscences, (Unknown, 1937), p.1
[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/497, Clerical staff character book Weekly Paid Clerks, p.54
[3] Buckmaster, Railway Reminiscences, p.3
[4]  TNA, RAIL 411/497, Clerical staff character book Weekly Paid Clerks, p.54

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