We felt we were doing pretty to well to keep going to talks while others went on the tour to Bruges. Our smugness was punctured when, on the last day of the conference, a woman we had never seen before in our life stormed up and accused us of avoiding her. She pivoted on her heel and walked away with an air of having given a good dose of come-uppance, the wings of her spectacles showing on either side of her head, while we stood, bemused, and wondered at the mysteries of life.
We went next to the talk by Jacques Pladys, a retired customs agent and head of the Museum of the Frontier at Godewaersvelde, about customs agents and smugglers on the border between France and Belgium. It was a strange presentation. Mr. Pladys plead the case of compassion for the poor families whose farms and homes were split when the border was defined. He then went on to describe with charm and humour the many ways that they smuggled goods back and forth across it, according to wherever prices were cheaper. He claimed that "everyone did it": priests, ladies with long skirts, teenagers with daring, old men with homing pigeons; and he moaned that today's agents are too strict.
Paul Delsalle, professor at the University of Besançon and past archivist of Tourcoing, spoke on farmers in a talk entitled "Nos ancêtres paysans : laboureurs, fermiers, censiers". The title is a summary of the talk itself, for each of the words in the title can have the same meaning or widely different meanings. Using examples from different regions, he made the valuable point that it is necessary to know the time and the place of the usage to know its meaning in context. A laboureur in one region was a man with a thousand hectares and dozens of farm animals; the same term in another area was applied to a man who owned ten manor houses; in yet another area, it was a manual labourer with no property of his own. The lesson was clear: a good genealogist has to be a good historian.
We have loved trains since our days of train chasing in Jamestown and Oroville. Where possible, we try to make every journey by train. If it brings us close to a steam train, we will detour to ride that. Our greatest thrills have included riding in the cab of The Jacobite while crossing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct on a moonlit night, and standing in the cab of the train jaune as it crossed the Gisclard Bridge. So, when there was a talk on the genealogical research on cheminots, railway workers, we jumped at it.
Henri Dropsy is the president of the Cercle Généalogique des Cheminots, and his title was straightforward: "Genealogical Research in the World of the Railway". He began by saying that there are "railway nuts" and there are "genealogy nuts" and one needs to be both for this research as it is not at all easy. The main archives for the current, national railway company, SNCF, are at the Centre des archives et de la documentation in Béziers. And in Mans. And in Paris.
For those who worked at one of the many other companies, information on them may possibly be found in Departmental Archives, in series S. Any documentation that gives a person's employment may also be useful. Specialised sources include annual directories of railway companies and lists of railway workers executed during the World Wars. Of assistance may the Association pour l'histoire des chemins de fer, the Association for the History of Railways.
Apparently, lost bundles of railway files still turn up; and Mr. Dropsy has managed to buy old railway personnel files on e-Bay. What a trooper!
Mr. Dropsy is vice-president of the Union des Cercles Généalogiques d'Entreprises, which organised the congress. It is they who bring together the various corporate archivists to work toward improving their cooperation with genealogists and with the national centre for archives relating to employment and industry at Roubaix. While it was under attended, as we noted, it was a fine conference, with excellent speakers. Bravo!
©2011 Anne Morddel