An introduction to archival research

In the middle of July, the project’s ongoing archival research programme turned its attention to the holdings at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, which include some relevant and interesting materials, particularly relating to the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW). Mike and Laura, who have been conducting the archival work to date, booked in for a day at MERL, and this provided a chance for Paul and Carmen to head down the hill from Whiteknights to learn more about the process of archival research at first hand.

The single most striking observation that Carmen and I made, as novice archive-miners, was the degree of discernment/intuition/expertise needed to search through the catalogues to work out exactly what it is you want to look at. It sounds obvious, but when there are large holdings, and much that is available only via request from the archive (so the friendly local archivist must locate the boxes in storage and deliver them to you), a good deal of decision-making is required to ensure that efforts are focused on the right materials, or at least in the directions that are most likely to be productive. The value of this became apparent as we began sifting through the contents of the first boxes – the Minutes of the Health Safety and Welfare Committee of the NUAW. Each bundle of documents took some time to read for relevant material, and this made that initial search and sort task even more important.


The MERL Reading Room.

The second observation was about the needs and conventions of the particular research context. Many of the materials we were dealing with were more than fifty years old and needed careful handling; the reading room at MERL was full of researchers working on their own projects, making it important for us to be quiet and considerate to others; and the rules of the archive (sign in and provide ID; no pens, only pencils!) must be respected. We also learned the methods involved in using a digital SLR camera to photograph copies of documents for future reference, and the need for careful recording of what you had looked at and in what order!

But the most important lesson learned was the value and insight that comes from engaging with historical materials at first hand. Like a sleuth from a detective novel, finding a snippet of info in a document, snapping a picture, and then following the lead as it develops felt like a real thrill. As an example, I was lucky enough to get the box containing the NUAW H+S Committee minutes from 1970-75 – so contemporary with the Robens Report of 1972 and the passing of the HSWA 1974. It was exciting to track the initial concerns raised by the NUAW about the exclusion of agricultural workers from the scope of the Robens Report, through to evidence of the to-and-fro with government over this issue, and then to the efforts to understand the implications of the general duties contained in HSWA 1974 ss.2-3 (which apply to all employees and others affected by business activities) for farm workers.

It was even more exciting to cross-reference these concerns to contemporaneous evidence from Hansard, to see when and how these issues were raised within the legislative process, including by a youthful Neil Kinnock during Commons debate on 21/05/1973. We also located evidence as to controversies during the post-1974 implementation of the new law, including the ongoing argument (1974-6) between the NUAW and the Country Landowners Association about whether agricultural workplaces should be excluded from the scope of the new unified inspectorate (the HSE) and, by 1978, the emergence of disquiet about the limitations of tripartite working within Industry Advisory Committees.

Overall, the real benefit of going back to the archives is that the sources force us not to take for granted any of our contemporary assumptions about the Robens era. Consensual and tripartite working was shaky in practice; unified inspection and legislation was never a foregone conclusion; and the implications and meanings of the broad duties within the HSWA 1974 took time to be recognised and understood. Reform was thus an ongoing process, not a single event, and that is a crucial realisation for the rest of this project.



Is HSE an easy target?

Since it came to power in 2010, the Conservative-led coalition government has issued a series of disparaging statements about health and safety. For instance, back in 2012 David Cameron bemoaned the ‘excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses’ and vowed to tackle the ‘health and safety monster’ ( While just this month, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling pledged to ‘slay health and safety culture’ through the new Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (

Considering HSE (Health and Safety Executive, the UK’s health and safety regulator) is itself part of government, such negative comments appear counter-intuitive, an example of government shooting itself in the foot. However, the somewhat unusual status of HSE may go some way to explaining this apparent anomaly. Indeed, as an executive non-departmental public body, HSE lies at arm’s length from central government. It is this critical distance that makes HSE’s relationship with the Department for Work and Pensions, under whose ministerial responsibility it falls, a potential battleground and explains why central government feels politically capable of talking so critically of the area it regulates.

This distance is perhaps also the source of central government’s suspicion of HSE and the driving force of the many reviews it has endured over the years. Notably, in the early 1990s under the Major government, it was subject to several reviews which called its very existence into question, prompting John Rimington, then Director General of the HSE, to label them ‘firestorms’ ( Given government’s desire for centralised influence and control, one question reviews often seek to answer is whether HSE, an operationally independent body, is the most appropriate regulation delivery system.

That said, HSE is arguably only notionally operationally independent, as central government consistently seeks to take the lead. The government’s 2011 ‘Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone’ policy document, setting out as it did major reforms to Britain’s health and safety system, is one such example of central government seeking to exert control (

Combining history and policy: 2014, 1974 and earlier

The 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act has not passed unnoticed. As might be expected, health and safety organisations and professionals have drawn attention to Act’s history, and this has been picked up by some media outlets. Now this project’s Mike Esbester has contributed an opinion article on the anniversary to the ‘History & Policy’ network.


This network brings together policy-makers, journalists and historians, showing how the past is relevant to the present and providing avenues to explore for the future. Mike’s piece draws on the longer term history of occupational health and safety – past 1974 and into the nineteenth century – to look at the ‘appropriate’ role for the state in the workplace.


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