1 – Looking for inspiration

Part 1 – Looking for Inspiration

Over the last few years I have returned to the writing of waterways history and, in particular, to using archives. The latter has included our own archives at Ellesmere Port, but also in Birmingham, Kew, Wakefield and elsewhere. This short article contains some of my heretical reflections. “Heretical” sounds a strong expression for approaches that lie slightly outside the “accepted way” of working, but I must stress that my methods of working are personal to me. Guides to research, which are usually aimed at students carrying out research as an assessment task, tend to be a little more systematic and rational than many researchers, myself included, pursue. I am writing here because my aim is to encourage others to write and research waterways history, and to develop new ideas, so please do not let these heresies put you off.

What books on research rarely discuss is why you should carry out research in the first place. Perhaps because this is because if you have to complete research in order to have it assessed, or because some funder requires a question to be investigated, this provides its own requirement, if not its own inspiration. But, once you can exercise choice over the subject of research, there is a need for inspiration. What on earth should you study?

Unless you suffer from a strong sense of duty, you must find something that interests you, even (a greatly over-used phrase) excites you. Most research features processes that can prove dull and tedious, and if you are not committed to the result in the first place, you will probably give up. So there needs to be something about which, if you have not uncovered enough historical data, or have not yet developed a sound enough explanation, you will feel dissatisfied. This might be on a large scale – how about, for instance, the whole question of waterways under railway control? Or it could be on a smaller scale: when was a particular wharf on the Shropshire Union Canal built? Whatever the scale of question, you must be curious enough to pursue it.

The initial trigger for inspiration may be unpredictable. There may be something in published works that leave a question begging. For example, to date I have been unable to discover when wherries on the Norfolk Broads (bar the Yare to Norwich) ceased to operate; there were still regular traffics in 1932, but they were seemingly gone by wartime. A photograph (or a series) may illustrate part of a story, or present a puzzle; some of the images in the many picture books, which sometimes have limited captions, may cry out for further explanation. I will write about the handling of files in archives in a later piece, but it is rare to spend a day examining files without a number of subjects and queries presenting themselves. For instance, I recently looked through a file relating to the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation, one of many that been relocated from Gloucester, and found that this related to the work of the former manager of the SSYN, W H Pryce. As he was appointed in 1949 to advise the new public owners about potential for pleasure traffic on the waterways, this has a much wider policy interest.

People, or their recorded words, may provide a beginning for research. Witnesses to the history of narrow boat carrying are now limited, as indeed are those who recall larger craft. Even those who recall early leisure boating from the 1930s onwards are dwindling in numbers. Fortunately, many oral history interviews have been carried out over the years, some have been transcribed and some published. These may evoke past eras, may provide puzzles and incongruities, or may explain what was previously unclear. You might feel that research could add further detail, or that comparative studies could be carried out – were experiences and practices similar across all the waterways? This may, of course, lead to further interviews; or to pursue an interview may begin to open up questions. I recall the latter in an interview of a long-deceased figure, who explained the official reaction to a much-vaunted IWA trip through the Huddersfield Canal in 1948.

Above all, the canals themselves can inspire research; simple fieldwork can raise all sorts of questions. For instance, the top gates of the narrow locks at Ellesmere Port are mitred, as are those at Bosley on the Macclesfield and two on the Ashton Canal. Why, when all other narrow locks have single top gates? Peter Brown of Market Drayton (and the CRT Heritage Advisory Group) has published on this question, showing that locks on the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction originally had mitred top gates. But there are many mysteries, like the reasons for the widened chamber partway down the “Bratch-type” locks on the Cefn flight in South Wales. Despite many speculations, this has never been resolved definitively. Beyond localised queries, a more general knowledge of waterways may inspire other questions: why did waterways take particular routes with specific engineering works, what prevented most from being widened and developed?

Unfortunately, inspiration is only the beginning of what may be a lengthy process. There will be a need to explore the “literature”, what has already been recorded and published; more and more sources to explore, and interpret; to write sections, review, question, and finalise a written account. But if there is no initial inspiration, it is unlikely that you will begin research at all. It may, of course, be that your first inspiration proves fruitless, that you can find nothing that satisfies your curiosity; or that, as research progresses, this throws up new inspirations. It may well prove to be a journey with discoveries rather than a neat process of investigation, interpretation and reporting.

In succeeding articles, I will explore further aspects of research – but I must again stress that this represents my own approach, not necessarily anyone else’s!

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