Transport for London


Tamara Thornhill - Corporate Archivist

Tamara Thornhill, Corporate Archivist with Transport for London provides a compelling and humorous insight into the TfL Corporate Archives and TfL’s relationship with the city and its people. Tamara talks about the pressures of working with and maintaining a large collection and shares numerous anecdotes about the fascinating materials found within the archive.

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Hello there welcome to the Max Communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is Faith Williams and I'm joined today by Tamara Thornhill who is the corporate archivist for Transport for London otherwise known as tfl Tamara would you like to introduce yourself hi everybody what is so what is your average day the archive uh through today at the archives that's an interesting question isn't it so I'm the corporate archives manager for for transport for London so my role is ordinarily sort of a little bit more removed from day-to-day handling of the collections and some of the other archivists because obviously i have the people management role as well as strategy planning horrible financial spreadsheets but i would say sort of I've always got at least sort of four long-term projects that I'd be working on they would generally be around raising the profile of the archives they would also be based on particular projects to do with sort of improving accessibility so for example at the moment I'm working through an enormous uh set of closure material to see if we can bring forward the closure dates that's on it so that it's accessible to people more quickly than we originally thought that it would be and then in addition to sort of the long-term projects there'll always be ad hoc things that come up so that may be to do with a particular inquiry someone's got it's often to do with something that the press office chucks at us so they want a fact checking or they want some something fun to use as a as a hook for a story or something to relate it back to kind of the past and then there's always just just with archive collections you know everywhere there's always something crops up in the sense that you'll find something interesting pretty much every day or somebody in in sort of the service will find something interesting and you'll have you'll want to go and have a look at that and have a have a good discussion about that so it's nice and varied and that is one of the things i love about my job really is is just how varied it is so it sounds like you you deal with a lot of sort of internal queries like different departments and do you also get a lot of external like researchers what what type of people access the material you have yeah so this is quite interesting because this has changed a lot over the last well definitely particularly the last six years but sort of more broadly the last 10 years when our inquiries used to very much with the exception of one or two business areas all be external members of the public and they were pretty much all genealogists because obviously tfl has i think it's currently the third largest employer in London behind the nhs and the metropolitan police but it's always been a massive employer within London so with that common sort of staff records so it's a bit of a genealogist hunting grounds really today we're traditionally a user base but you know we are a business archive the vast majority of our collections aren't about family history they're about the history of our organization the history of transport history of engineering there's so much social history in their economic history art and architecture so i always knew that not only in terms of uh kind of demographic of the general public who was using us but more specifically at internal user base it should have been drastically different so we've done an awful lot of work over the last 10 years to change that and now if you look at our sort of inquiry stats it's probably about 60 percent external and 40 internal but for in terms of people who actually come in and use the archives it's about 70 internal and 30 external because the internal people are the internal people tend to be looking for very specific information so they always want to come and look them generally always want to come and look themselves to to make sure that they're getting the right thing and i love the fact that we are now sort of in a position where we can really argue that we are a genuine asset to the business you know we we we're used on current projects this is not just people who are interested in in in history and what went before they're actually using the records to inform current business practices which is exactly what an archive or business archive in particular should be used for is your data that you have on hand then is that used for do other companies access that to organizations such as architectural organizations or anything like that do they collate information from you yeah we do yeah we do sometimes get inquiries from architectural companies you know below ground in London is very complicated an awful lot going on down there uh tunnels all over the place utility pipes all over the place so there's yeah there's an awful lot of work that needs to go in into any kind of construction and a lot of research work that needs to go into any kind of construction within London yes so they will often come to us to to find out sort of the history of of buildings and areas and then our own infrastructure protection team uses an awful lot to particularly to prove boundaries of sort of ownership and they will use property records that can go back to sort of the 18th century a couple of times they've used ones that have gone back to the 17th century just to kind of chart that progression of how a how a boundary has changed and you know if somebody digs here who's whose property are they actually going into whose soil are they actually going into it gets yeah it gets very complicated because that's the type of information that they needed to build Crossrail and things like that right yeah absolutely and sort of bank capacity upgrade project or all of those types of things really and then you'll get it quite a lot with if they're doing any sort of station modernization that particularly if it involves work on plat the platforms or the subway uh the subway areas and they want they basically want to know if we sort of start knocking down here are we liable to find anything that in the past they just sort of covered up you you get a sort of quite a it's not a trend it's an ethos now that if if you're refurbishing a station you should as much as possible try to refurbish it to sort of an original design print so sort of there was once i can't remember which station it was recently but that they've been going through through this process and they were sort of well currently our colns are green but were they always green or should we be painting them a different color so of course they come to the archives to look through for old photographs or or old design surveys to to work out what color if they're taking it back to the original sort of design print what color they should actually be painting them so it's really interesting i think that's something that the public do appreciate as well you've got a station like baker street which is still very kind of Victorian and that that's very popular with tourists and things like that for that precise reason yeah and even sort of some of the the newer stations i mean if you think of the stations on the jubilee line extension sort of Westminster Southwark they may not be to everyone's taste but they are magnificent feats of design and architecture in their own right they've got that very sort of space-agey feel yeah yeah yeah so you know and it is something that actually as being part of this organization's sort of culture and approach to to building from virtually from the outset but but but definitely from sort of the 1920s it's been you know if we are going to build something if we are going to have an impact on the built environment and people's experiences of traveling and perhaps their mood then we want to try and get it right we want to try and make it pleasant and and interesting space for people so you've mentioned that you have maps and things like that is there any type of material in the collection that you would think people would be surprised that you have like videos or anything like that i always say that when i took this job which was what virtually 10 years ago now i didn't take it for the collections i didn't necessarily think I'd be all that interested in in the collections right i took it for what i thought i could do for the service but the collections really amaze me and pretty much every day i find something that's interesting and the reason for that i think is because they're not put they're not they're definitely not solely transport the history i would argue that they're not even predominantly transport history because although fundamentally when they're sort of embarking on a new project yes it is about getting from a to b actually all of the documentation around it tends to be about you know analysis of demand and looking at demographics and looking at design and architecture and engaging with the general London public to find out their attitudes and what they want so actually most of the material is has got that much broader element to it and then even sort of the the older material some of the older material we've got so from sort of the a lot of the material in the 19th century particularly the first half of the 19th century is quite heavily omnibus orientated and you know so we end up having sort of these journals of horses that list every horse that the company owned where they were bought from how much they were bought for what you know what happened to them did they have to be put down because they weren't lame did they get sold on because it was decided they were actually far too good to be pulling omnibuses and they may as well make some more money out of them but by selling them off to somebody who was going to do something sort of a bit more significant with them to the sort of things like that there's things we've come across in the past sort of in the early days of of the tubes where you had to have sort of different licenses to carry different products on the tube so if you wanted to carry fish on the tube going to to and from fish markets you have to have license even the the sort of the Victorian organ grinders they had to have a license to transport their monkeys around well they've been caused so you know there's all there's there's all kind of these little bits and pieces to it and and unless you you get great correspondence in there from notable individuals you know we've got some letters from Rita Hayworth's agents so apparently she'd been filming over here and her and her friends took to traveling around on the tube and they really liked a lot of the poster work that they saw so when they when she got back to America she said to her agent oh can you write off to whoever it is that's in charge of that kind of stuff and see if they can give me any copies of their artwork so yeah you you come across all sorts and then sort of the the audio visual is quite interesting because that's something we've only recently sort of started looking into okay for years and years it just sat there on you know vhs tapes and and audio tapes and reel and a lot of the time we didn't even know what was on there so we have gone through the process of getting quite a bit of it converted and yeah we one of them for example is this it's a bit mad but it's kind of brilliant as well it's from the early 50s and it's basically just this footage of a route master bus being driven at speed around a test track so it's so as i say it's sort of a bit bonkers because there's not even really any commentary on it you're just watching this bus go round and round but you kind of get to see it wobbling and then there's that oh is it going to tip over oh no it's not going to tip over which of course is what they were testing yeah yeah but yeah there's sort of all sorts of weird and wonderful things get thrown up really early top gear there yeah maybe we should do a top gear voice over on it yeah yeah absolutely [Laughter] so you have a lot of social history in your archive not just transport history though yeah very much so but and that's for sort of a couple of reasons i suppose the the the first reason would be London doesn't and hasn't grown and developed without a very good transport network so you know you get you get that side of it you know sort of liaison with with government and different borrowers about well where should we build next if we build this sort of housing estate here can you supply bus routes to it can we do anything about about providing extra extra transport so you get that kind of side of it then you also as i said sort of alluded to earlier you get the the employment side of it and and that's you know right from how much has somebody paid a certain moment in in history and for doing what kind of job do they get what kind of money what what types of jobs are women doing are women getting the same amount of money do we have any references to sort of lesbian gay bisexual you know when does that start coming in into the collection and then also at various points this this organization has been very involved in overseas recruitment so you get sort of the immigration element as well so after the second world war there were sort of a lot of maltese and polish were employed particularly on the buses and then in sort of the 50s this the organization started setting up recruitment centers in the Caribbean so so you see you get that element coming through into the collections as well there's material in there that's look that's sort of asking quite sensible questions around sort of sikhs wearing turbans and you know how do we fit a hat over the top of that or and eventually obviously they realize no we don't have to fit a hat over the top of it we just give them a badge that fits on there on their turban but so it's yeah there's there's there's really really interesting stuff in there so what kind of challenges do you come up against when handling all this material and managing it in terms of the management the i mean the biggest challenge and you'll probably have every archivist in the country would say this is simply the resources and that's both in terms of you know the people nber of people uh working in the service and sort of the the budget that that you're given and that's not necessarily sort of uh to the to the detriment of the the parent organization it's just i think the cost of looking after archives and making archives as accessible as possible is much higher than many people realize and appreciate you know we often get asked the question about digital copies of our material our physical material so just just to kind of give you a bit of an idea our physical collection we've got over 165 000 files and items that live in well now it's up to about 20 000 boxsters so it's a pretty big collection uh particularly for business and people don't people are so used to the the Google age the amazon age they're not used to this idea that you can still only come into a building and see the physical item we can't deliver you a digital copy of that and when they sort of say well why don't you just get all that digitized you sort of turn around and say well have you got at least 35 million pounds to give me yeah no it wouldn't cost that much would it yes it would because this we're not just talking about shoving something on a scanner I'm an office scanner and doing it that way so so you know even even something that seems as straightforward as let's provide a digital copy of something which then of course facilitates access is for the archives world requires a lot more thought and a lot more resource than than it would in for you know just some home scanning or something like that and then it's just you know as i say the the sides of the team you know our team for example there's four permanent members of staff versus out the rest of the organization which is sort of at the moment about 27 000 staff all spread across over 300 different sites so you know that makes collecting material really really difficult making sure that people know to give us material and getting those processes set up so that's sort of one of the biggest challenges and that's particularly true in the digital age because i think the the digital age has seen this explosion of of data that's being created and it's but it's also at the same time sort of broken down a lot of the centralization that there used to be around record keeping you know so many organizations used to have sort of the central registries for example central filing registers or even just within sort of a department they have a a sort of an area of the rolling racking that was for them and everybody sort of used had to comply to that filing system that was within that rolling racking whereas in the digital world we've lost a lot of that control we've lost a lot of that centralization and as archivists our kind of job is is to firstly try and work out what is being created then try and get it and then actually try and some of that structure and classification that has perhaps been lacking in in the digital world so yeah it's very difficult but it's very exciting as well it's quite exciting to be kind of at the vanguard of something because you know this is what i always think with with digital with sort of audio conversion that type of thing yeah with with paper we've pretty much got that down you know we've been dealing with paper for centuries we know what affects it and what doesn't affect it we know what processes work and what processes don't but with digital we're sort of making decisions and we're trying different things and we think they're working but we won't actually 100 know for another sort of 20 30 years uh we won't know kind of how robust though those decisions have proven to be and those processes actually are so it's it's a little bit frightening but as i said it's also actually really quite cool i guess to actually be at the vanguard or something it's it's a living archive so you're always you're always adding to it what kind of things are you sort of bringing into it so we have the what i would always term the sort of the more boring material which is are actually our vital records which are sort of the board papers minutes agendas high level committees right yeah standing orders all of that kind of thing as i say personally i think they're really dull but but they are the the the set of material that if if everything else about the organization fell down that's how you could rebuild it or know what they were doing very dry yeah obviously we'll be looking at sort of annual accounts and budgets but then beyond that we're our kind of main what we generally say is that it's it's records that are docenting decision-making processes that are evidencing our rights and responsibilities and promises we've made to the general public or government whichever that may be we're looking for material that demonstrates how we have interacted with London and its people so that's where you kind of get this idea of the built environment coming in and sort of art and architecture as well as sort of consultations and on all of that kind of thing and then obviously providing a transport network we we produce an awful lot of demand analysis and for future historians that kind of demand analysis is priceless yeah so so it's all that kind of thing we don't particularly care what format it's in we we sort of tend to say now that we prefer digital because we are you know that is the future yeah and particularly if something is born digital there sort of seems little point in then printing it out to paper just to sort of store it and get it in a box but ultimately we're sort of format neutral and we'll just do our best to look after whatever comes our way so do you actively look for stuff or do you get offers from uh general public people or people with other collections who have donated to you it's both so within the business we you know predominantly we we try to be proactive about our collecting and try to have agreements with different business areas i mean that obviously you as I've said about kind of the size of the organization versus the size of the team there are massive difficulties with that but that's always the way we try and go we also do get business areas or individuals that come to us in independently which is great because then we can have those conversations with them we liaise with uh London transport muse very frequently to make sure that if we are being offered material either from within the business or externally that it that it's going to the right collection generally if it's created by the business issue it should be coming to corporate archives unless it's a bus or a tube or something like that because i don't want those they can have those [Laughter] but yeah generally if it's created by the business the first port of course it should be the corporate archives but then externally you you tend to find they kind of fall into two categories they will either be former members of staff or sort of the partners of former members of staff who sort of took stuff home with them usually for safe keeping to be honest and I've now run out of room or the partners have told them they've run out of room so so they're sort of offering it back and then the other type of material you'll get offered is sort of private collections we generally don't take private collections they would be more the realm of the muse because we generally say our sort of starting point for collecting is that it has to have been created by or commissioned by this organization right otherwise it's sort of a bit endless it could yeah that's what to what we took in but the exceptions would be if we felt they sort of plugged a significant gap in our collections so you know the one that we've taken in quite recently that is a good example of that is a private individual who had uh taken photographs of the construction of Croydon tram link so he just sort of spent pretty much every day that Croydon trambling was being built sort of walking along various parts of the route photographing stations and track so you got to see the development of it and actually we didn't have that kind of material so that did and we did feel that that that plugged as i say sort of a significant gap but it is rare that we take private and private offerings so you've mentioned gaps in your archive what are the the hopes for the future for developing or expanding is there any area you want to make more accessible or audience you want to target yeah we've got we're actually in the process of moving the the archive service so when life returns to not normal or new normal after after covered 19 lockdowns and working from home we will be opening up in new offices in Stratford and one of the things we want to do there is perhaps hold some more sort of public open days and engage with the local communities in in that area we've got sort of a project that we've been working on around the first world war uh where so we've got hundreds of letters that were written by members of our staff who were serving overseas in the first world war and they wrote them home but they actually wrote them to the organization's staff magazine which is for how we've got them and we've been engaging with current sort of station staff or any member of staff really to do audio recordings of those letters so to give voice to to the past which then again enables those letters to be more accessible to sort of people with visual impairments or reading difficulties and that's that's an area we'd really like to take forward to do the same kind of thing with other parts of the collection it would be parts of the collection that have sort of that that that good social context to them i don't think anybody really wants to to read minutes of finance committee meetings onto tape it's quite a niche yeah yeah but yeah so so you know it's it's that kind of accessibility that we're sort of looking at at the moment so it sounds like you have a variety of interesting things but what in your opinion is the most interesting thing that you find well i love the horse book but that's because i love horses so yeah there's like bias there [Laughter] i really like we've got a royal warrant signed by queen Victoria that gives permission to basically construct tunnels under parliament square i i like that because firstly it's sort of quite you know it catches the ear doesn't it if you say oh we've got queen victoria in the archive and her signature people people can relate to that yeah kind of get gets them in as a hook but by the same token it kind of i think it's a good as a docent it's a good illustration of of the agreements that we have to go to go through of complexities of the kind of whole rights and and ownership that i was alluding to earlier but i yeah so i like that one for for what it offers but i i personally tend to like kind of the the slightly more obscure things so we've we've got sort of a really lovely set of material from the lost property office we could have taken thousands of these letters but we just sampled some of them to to to so that we've got a flavor of them and it's people who've just written in saying you know thank you for finding my property but a lot of it a lot of them are actually from children and they're they're great so you get these children writing and of course they're drawing pictures or they're sort of saying so it was for a while i think they do still try to do it there was sort of this little scheme where if somebody had lost sort of a teddy bear and this teddy bear wasn't found they would often send them another unclaimed teddy so they send them a replacement yeah so so you sort of get these little letters from kids saying oh thank you very thank you very much for my new teddy I'm I'm sorry that you couldn't find hphrey or whatever his name is but i will look after this one so things like that are really really nice so not many people know that tfl is actually also a part-time rescue service for soft toys yeah indeed and a rescue service for animals you get a lot of animals abandoned on tfl land yeah dogs horses in particular horses yeah yep you'll get horses abandoned on tfl land and so there is actually sort of a member of our legal team who is responsible for basically taking care of them they get them checked out by vets and then they try to sort of re-home them or they'll give them to animal shelters so yeah that's the there's so much that goes into running a transport network so we've come to the end of our time is there anything else you would like to uh mention before we finish up no not really it's just all i would really say is just to encourage people to not only check out the tfl corporate archives but you know archives within their own local areas because i think you'll be surprised at what you can find in them and and often they'll put sort of little exhibitions on and things like that and i i always say that you may you may not think you're interested but actually if you if you go along or go online and and have a little look around you you will soon find something that piques your interest so yeah give it a go thank you for agreeing to speak to me today I'm sure the students can find that very insightful particularly about rogue horses which yeah not consider as part of the transfer sport remit and you can visit some of the archive digitally at uk or you can go direct to you at what's the website uh tfl corporate archives catalog dot co dot uk yeah and check it out it's queen Victoria's royal warren up there uh queen Victoria's royal warrant is the description of it is up there but the digital pictures of it aren't I'm afraid if you get however oh but then when there are there are digital images of it on the on the on on our tfl pages so our tfl pages are as you said it's the main tfl website which is uk and then we're in the about us culture and heritage section and in there there's actually quite a lot of research guides and sort of our top 20 highlights and that kind of thing and yeah there's a bit more about the queen Victoria docent in those as well as lots of information about sheltering on the tubes during world war ii and building planes and all sorts of weird and wonderful things anything about the uh infamous urban legend of the plague pits uh no maybe you need to get one of them that's the question coming next thank you very much for talking to me today.