William Webb (1830-1919) – Researching Writing Lives

The Writing Lives project has provided me with a unique opportunity to develop key research skills, networking capabilities and methods of engaging with a large audience via social media (Facebook and Twitter). Through a series of structured lectures and seminars I have learned about a wide range of themes, (nineteenth-century) issues and research methodologies which equipped me with a broad knowledge basis. Using this as a platform I was able to explore interest areas of my own and relate them back to the working-class autobiographer, William Webb, who I had chosen to study for the independent component of the module. In particular I centred my study heavily on immigration/emigration as I had already covered this in my second year while taking a similar research module, Prison Voices. Having the freedom to explore personal and academic interests in this way was a major factor which encouraged me to take Writing Lives as a third year module. Further, I believe that my interest in the module did not subside because I was given greater autonomy and had control over deciding what exactly I focused my study on. These things were important to me because I could more easily pave the way to postgraduate study by narrowing my field of inquiry to something more specific e.g. rural education or working-class experiences of emigration.

As I have already mentioned having taken this module I now have a better understanding of what I would like to focus my research masters on, but am also more aware of how to conduct research and access relevant material. Using key resources such as genealogical database systems, online archives and local history catalogues I was able to build up a more detailed picture of William’s life and reveal a hidden narrative, by which I mean the information William did not disclose in his autobiography, e.g. travel details or family/marriage records. What has also become apparent to me in conducting research for this module is the importance of footnotes. As a reader I so often overlook them, however, when reading an article on nineteenth-century emigration I stumbled across some information in the footnotes relating to the Wiltshire Emigration Association. This opened up a new field to me and proved invaluable as it helped me to better understand the motives behind why so many working-class men, women and children moved to new colonies. Other resources which played a key role in developing my author blog were: Charles Dickens’ Household Words which has been fully digitised and is available online; Trove which is a databank containing newspapers, books, magazines and images; the Wiltshire Council local history which was useful for maps and statistics; and the digitised volumes of Victoria County House which gave me a concise overview of Wiltshire.

In terms of networking this module has showed me the importance of making good connections and utilising the skills and knowledge of other people. For instance, while researching William’s journey to Australia I came across an Australian academic (Jennifer Burrell) who had already detailed the voyage from the perspective of the Smith family. Using the contact details provided on the website I contacted Jennifer to ask about the origin of her sources. From this we developed a relationship and kept up our correspondences with one another. Having explained the Writing Lives project to her she was naturally intrigued and began to facilitate my research by accessing Australian resources which I could not. Through this collaboration I was able to draw on a collective knowledge which far surpassed my own independent understanding of subjects such as immigration. The result of all this was the creation of a more in-depth author blog.

Finally I have become more aware of the opportunities which are available by being an active member of a social media community such as Facebook or Twitter. This medium links in the last two points regarding networking and research because it is a place where likeminded people can come together and interact, share their ideas and pass on valuable information about resources which may aid an individual’s research. Similarly, it is a place where the finished product can be advertised to a mass readership which increases the probability of it being read or redistributed. To allow work to be disseminated more easily it needs to be targeted at interested parties. I have learned that the best way to achieve this is by identifying the key themes present in my work (e.g. education, immigration and labour) and then find institutions that have an interest in those themes.

In sum I believe that through this module I have become a more competent blogger, academic and researcher. I have built on existing skills which I learned in my second year of study, but have also developed new ones to supplement them. On a whole the Writing Lives project has been a fascinating programme which has provided students with a good balance between independent study and in class teaching. This was particularly useful for students wanting to go on to study at a higher level where there is less reliance on tutoring and more emphasis on independent learning. Similarly for those leaving education and going into full time employment I believe that this module has done well to bridge the gap. Lastly, this module has taught me the importance of networking and social media. They are not only tools used for ensuring effective communication but can also be used as a means of performing provisional research.

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