Documenting Britain

Edward Nelson

A document of the research process for a film. The starting point for this research is a train crash in a blizzard between Edinburgh and Glasgow in December 1937. 35 people died and 179 were injured, a missing 8 year old girl was never found. Amongst the dead was Edward Nelson who happens to be the person who who gave me my name.

Nelson Project #2

This is the Glasgow Herald, published the day after the Castlecary Rail Disaster in which my grandfather (I haven’t as yet come up with a better way to describe him) was killed. My Grandma must have kept it. And then my Dad hung on to it after she died. And my mother kept it after Dad passed. A significant bit of family history—worth saving.

Its been in a drawer for years. Its yellow pages are crumbling, they disintegrate a bit every time I touch them. I took some photographs to preserve it in it’s current state but I’m finding it difficult to resist the urge to hold it. Its an extraordinary thing, a freeze-frame of a particular moment in history. Besides the coverage of the crash, of which there is a lot, there are articles as you would expect on domestic and international matters. Its a candid moment, a pregnant pause before the outbreak of a catastrophic world war.

Here, a report on a bus skidding on ice in Paisley, injuring two passengers, then, an analysis of the first election under the new Russian Constitution that will be held the following day in the U.S.S.R. – Stalin is confident given that in most constituencies only one candidate is running. A report from the trial of four Glasgow men in Edinburgh’s High Court on charges of carpet fraud – one of the accused admitted disguising himself as a Canadian and offering high prices on carpets and tapestries of poor quality. In Women’s Topics, the members of Balmidden Ski-ing Club would not claim to wear the last word in winter sports clothes but they hope to aspire to something like this Business-like Ski Suit. In Ireland, de Valera prophesies an end to proportional representation in the Irish Free State’s Dail, all running alongside the usual small ads and weather reports. And of course pages and pages of coverage of the crash – photographs, eye-witness reports, statements from the rail company, reports on the attempt to clear the crash site of the dead and the debris.

I came across this newsreel footage from British Pathé by chance. Everything about it, the film quality, the voiceover, the music, places it in time in a way that the newspaper doesn’t so much. Somehow it brings home the scale of the destruction and carnage in a way that the newspaper images do not either. So specifically of its time on the brink of the war, I wonder if anyone had any intimation of the scale of the disaster of what was to come. How it would dwarf the shocking casualty numbers at Castlecary. I assume if Edward had survived the crash he would have been called up. Would his life have been ended by an enemy bullet a couple of short years later anyway?

Scottish Train Disaster 1937 - British Pathé

Scottish Train Disaster 1937 - British Pathé