What’s a waterways Fellow to do, Jodie?
DR JODIE MATTHEWS, lecturer in English Literature at Huddersfield University, was appointed the first Honorary Research Fellow at the National Waterways Museum in February. The question is, what exactly would such a post entail? So we sent CB Dep Ed Martin Ludgate to find out.
“Well, it’s the first time there’s ever been one, so it’s not set in stone yet,” is Dr Matthews’ initial response, before going on to explain her role as a link between the different types of historical research by which different groups of people are trying to understand and explain the history and significance of our waterways. And there are a lot of them: family historians researching the genealogy of the canal people; the Railway & Canal Historical Society with its Journal full of in-depth articles about carrying companies and waterways; enthusiasts in the canal societies; contributors to community local history events and so on. “There’s an enormous body of work,” she says.
And then there are the academic researchers such as Jodie herself: covering a range of disciplines including economic experts; literary scholars; and environmental scientists, as well as historians. But you probably won’t have come across many in relation to the canals – partly because there isn’t a great deal of such work on waterways; partly because what there is, hasn’t been very ‘outward facing’ as she puts it. Learned papers are written, peer-reviewed and published – but behind a ‘paywall’ that makes them hard-to-access for anyone outside academia.
And that’s a key part of her role: to be a point of contact between these different people, so that they can exchange knowledge and resources. People carrying out research on waterways history outside of the universities will be able to get in touch with her, and she can give them ideas about where to look, and what approaches to take. And, at the same time, within academia she can promote more research on waterways. An early example of how she can help to connect different branches of historical study came in January when her university hosted a meeting at which Liz McIvor, industrial history expert and presenter of the recent TV series Canals:TheMakingofaNation, spoke about the making of the series to a number of waterways researchers. That wasn’t the only purpose of the meeting: it was also about understanding the way that academic research is perceived, and explaining “what do academics do?” This probably all sounds fairly dry, but some actual examples of canal history help to illustrate some of Jodie’s point about how she feels that research might progress – and who better to start with, in the 300th anniversary year of his birth, than James Brindley, canal-building ‘genius’. And I’ve put that word in quotes, because as Jodie points out, if you look back it’s a word that’s been used about him in different ways. An engineering genius who could create the Barton Aqueduct (and yes, people still argue about how big his role in the pioneering Bridgewater
James Brindley: what sort of ‘genius’ was he?