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Family history

Researching a family connection to the railways? Discover a range of resources and information to help you on your search.

Follow the tips and suggestions in the steps below to delve deeper into your ancestors’ railway stories and find out what their working life was like.

1. Find the railway company they worked for

For this you will need to find your ancestor’s address. A census search should supply this information if you don't already know it—census information is held at the National Archives.

Once you know where your ancestor lived, you’ll need to find the location in a railway atlas (see below). In most cases the railway line nearest the home address would be the company your ancestor worked for. This becomes harder to find out in urban areas which are served by more than one company. You may need to research more than one company’s records in this case.

2. Work out dates of employment

Before 1923 there were over 100 different railway companies, between 1923-1947 there were four, and after 1948 there was just one.

It will help your research if you have an idea of when your ancestor worked on the railways. If you don’t know, add 14 years to their date of birth. Many railway employees began their working life very young as apprentices.

3. Research locations of company records

It's important to note that records may not have survived, and that those that do exist may be held by more than one organisation.

4. Background research in our archives

A visit to Search Engine can help bring your ancestor’s story to life. You can read up on the history of the railway company your relative worked for, listen to oral history recordings from people doing similar jobs, see photos of where they worked, and hold tools similar to those they used.

You might also find these items from our collections useful:

  • Staff magazines from the major railway companies of the 20th century. These magazines feature staff promotions, retirements and awards, and often have employee photos. They also provide an insight into what life was like working on the railways
  • If your ancestor served in the armed forces in the First or Second World Wars and was unlucky enough not to survive, we have copies of many of the Rolls of Honour
  • If your ancestor was involved in a railway accident, you might want to consult the official Accident Reports
  • Our Railway Work, Life & Death project, a collaboration with the University of Portsmouth, features details of railway worker accidents that were investigated by the state from the late 1880s to 1939
  • We hold examples of certificates and books presented to staff when they won an award or retired

Whatever your family connection to the railways, you’ll find something in our collections to link with your past.

Useful resources