Public invited to delve into historical records to aid study of Victorian working lives

27 January 2021

Illustration of Victorian receiving office
A contemporary illustration of postal workers in a Victorian receiving office

Members of the public are being invited to help deliver a major academic study of what life was truly like for one of Victorian and Edwardian Britain’s largest workforces.

The Addressing Health project aims to be the largest study of occupational health in the UK and will examine the pension records of thousands of postal employees from 1858-1908.

Organisers hope to encourage the public to help transcribe records dating from 1860-1862, aiming for around 21,000 transcriptions to be made in just one day next week.

That is because it is one of four projects taking part in Transcription Tuesday 2021, which happens on Tuesday 2 February, organised by the magazine dedicated to the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? TV series.

The event brings together family history volunteers around the world to transcribe important record sets and make them available to fellow researchers.

In readiness for the event, the project, headed by academics from the University of Derby, King’s College London, Kingston University, University College London and archivists at The Postal Museum, has gone live on the crowdsourcing research website Zooniverse.

The records have been digitised and made available online for the first time by the museum, revealing a vast amount of personal information, including the location and occupation of the pensioners, the reason for and date of their retirement, their length of service, and details on periods of sickness before retirement.

Portrait profile picture of Dr Kathleen McIlvenna

There are so many unique stories out there and we’ll be able to uncover these and learn more about health and ill-health of postal workers in the Victorian period.

Dr Kathleen McIlvenna
Lecturer in History, University of Derby
Workers in a Victorian sorting office

Dr Kathleen McIlvenna, co-investigator on the project and Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, said: “The transcription work through Zooniverse is not only vital to our project but a really exciting opportunity to gain new insights into our work from the public. There are so many unique stories out there and we’ll be able to uncover these and learn more about health and ill-health of postal workers in the Victorian period.

“When we are all being asked to stay at home, transcription projects and family history research are especially fulfilling activities. Anyone who has seen the Who Do You Think You Are? series will know how fascinating and revealing historical records are, and it would be great to have as many people as possible taking part in the transcription event.

“We’ll be focussing on just a few years to start with, but will hope to cover as many of the 30,000 or so records as possible. All of the information our volunteer transcribers provide on Transcription Tuesday will contribute towards our research into the lives of these workers.”

To help people take part in the transcription event, the Zooniverse website has a tutorial for participants to find and record information including the employees’ names, locations, or number of days off.

There are chat rooms to ask for help, and project team members will be on hand on Twitter to offer support, using the handle @postalhealth.

This collaboration, funded by a £750,000 Collaborative Award in Humanities and Social Science from the health research charity The Wellcome Trust, and a further £75,000 from its Public Engagement Enrichment fund, will allow historians to understand the shifts in the health of the Post Office’s workforce, transforming the understanding of wider patterns of morbidity and mortality during this important period of epidemiological change.

Professor David R. Green, the project’s principal investigator and Professor of Historical Geography at King’s College London, said “This is a truly exciting project that will fundamentally change how we view health in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain. The whole team is looking forward to working with the public to create new knowledge. 

“Through this work we hope to draw attention to the importance of occupational health both for today’s workforce as well as in the past.”

For more information about taking part in the event, visit the Addressing Health website.

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