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First published in the Journal in March 1981
The importance of using primary sources, especially company minutes, has long been accepted by transport historians. But experience in afield somewhat remote from the transport scene has cast — for me at least — considerable doubts on the reliability of the company minute book.
What does it tell us? It is supposed to be an account of what was discussed and decided at meetings. But is it? For over two years, I was until recently Administrative Officer to a national organization. An important function of this organization was to take evidence from numerous bodies and individuals, to try to assess its worth and then to act as a catalyst between them on the one hand and Government and local authorities, etc on the other. I was required to act as Secretary to the Council at its quarterly Executive meetings and minute the proceedings. It was at these meetings lasting 5 hours or more that the main decisions were taken — decisions that could often have far reaching effects within the Principality of Wales.
Partly in a form of shorthand, I often covered at least a dozen large sheets with notes in less than five hours. Back at the office afterwards, these would be drastically condensed to about two sheets of foolscap for the published minutes — yet even my first draft taken during the meeting would only contain a fraction of what was discussed and aired by the members and delegates. I tried very hard to make my minutes an accurate account of what went on at those meetings, yet it must be admitted that with the best will in the world, they were still my personal condensation of what I believed had taken place.
Of course the minutes had to be approved at the next meeting three months later. Invariably they were so without amendment. That is hardly surprising for I had taken more comprehensive notes than anyone else present. I had no axe to grind and had no vested interest in anything — yet I know it would be quite wrong to claim that my minutes were an accurate record of the proceedings. Even resolutions sometimes had to be altered when it was noted that the wording actually agreed by the meeting had either a logical or grammatical flaw which would make them unworkable.
In the light of this it is surely reasonable to assume that the minutes of many a railway or canal company were still more inaccurate as a record of what went on. It is hardly necessary to try to catalogue the reasons for this. Anyone who has studied a railway company minute book — or published minutes (which are not the same thing) — will have noted the odd outburst of dissent from a shareholder in which his ‘demolition’ by the Chairman is given far more prominence. How much else was said that went unrecorded? Are we able to judge the true position? Yes, of course the minute books should be studied, but let us stop treating them as gospels. They are not.
Perhaps worse is the excessive emphasis on contemporary newspapers. Agreed they too should be consulted, but only on the understanding that their accuracy is often grossly at fault. In the days when typesetting was still done by hand, the newspaper was just as anxious as now to rush into print with its stories before a rival got there first — and frequently before the facts could be verified. Read a series of different newspaper accounts of a major railway accident and later compare them with the official report of the subsequent inquiry and note how much they are at variance with each other and with the findings. I know which evidence I would be more ready to accept.
The word ‘contemporary’ is not an automatic label for reliability as some members of the primary source school would have us believe. By that token Victorian engineers should only be read in Smiles and not in Rolt. When the late and much lamented L T C Rolt wrote some of his biographies, he surely did not need further contemporary evidence to see that Smiles had certain typical Victorian hobbyhorses which biased his accounts. Using his intelligence and viewing the scene from afar, he was able to see the wood for the trees. Interesting though it is to read Smiles, who wrote a contemporary account, I prefer to rely on Rolt’s interpretations, written a hundred years afterwards.
But if this makes us wary of what we are trained to regard as the only reliable sources, we can take heart in new avenues of acceptability: ‘Never take notice of the ramblings of the oldest inhabitant’ was good advice and should still be heeded if there is no way of measuring them. In the past decade, however, oral history has taken on a new meaning with the excellent work done by an increasing number of individuals and bodies concerned with obtaining accurate and reliable information by this means — and much of it is information that is not available in primary source material. A study of the books of George Ewart Evans or Paul Thompson’s The Voice of the Past (OUP 1978) will reveal that a great deal of research has been done recently on the reliability one can place on various types of oral evidence and methods of obtaining it. It is achieving the status of a new science and properly applied will open up new fields to the historian.
By all means let us continue to place high emphasis on primary source material, but let us be aware of its pitfalls. At the same time let us accept that there are other sources of reliable information — and to get the story right we need all the information we can obtain.