Not in the Premier League: some lesser writers on railways

Many are tempted to write about railways, Some books get reviewed in the national press, some may get reviewed in the specialist "railway press", and some are chanced upon in public libraries where their populist character appeals to technologically illiterate library managers who have little interest in more specialist literature. It is hoped that given time the character of this type of book should become self-evident. It must be stressed that some of them are very good, but they are a long way behind the standard set by George Dow, although they may approach the quality achieved by Hamilton Ellis. A few are downright bad.

Chris Ellis and Greg Morse
Steaming through Britain : a history of the Nation's railways by Anova Books, 2010

This book carries the imprimatur of the National Railway Museum, although neither author appears to be on the staff of the Museum nor do the illustrations (which are often interesting and well reproduced) stem exclusively from the Museum's vast collections. As with many contemporary books it is not clear whether the book is intended to be read or merely gazed at. If it is the latter then the captions fail dismally on two serious counts: they are difficult to read due the typography (coloured type and/or coloured backgrounds) and they fail to state their provenance (for instance on page 69 the original caption of the reproduced text is in either Dutch or German: why?). This assertion will be fully susbstantiated later.

The main text contains a serious error on page 79: the Midland Railway's London Extension did not start south from Rugby. If it had, and can one imagine Richard Moon tolerating that, then railway history might have been very different. This little bombshell is planted because KPJ believes that the authors have failed to plan an overall strategy for their text especially when it comes to motive power (and the title would seem to imply that is the central theme). There is also a suspicion that the writers are sometimes unaware of the correct terminology: thus "freight station" seems as alien as "train station": one knows that "goods" in the railway sense is rather old fashioned and freight may be preferable, but "depot" as shown in the illustrations might have been better and "yard" would have carried an air of authenticity.

Further evidence that the text is regarded as secondary is visible on page 96 where the phrase "bigger and more powerful single wheelers for express work were built for all major companies" is repeated within the same paragraph. What has happened to publisher's editors and proof readers. A book is not a Wiki website...

One really gets steam up over the utter failure to record the role of the locomotive builders, like Beyer Peacock, on steam locomotive development. Their influence was far greater than that of Hawksworth or possibly Riddles on the overall story. Trevithick is accorded several pages: on this basis Beyer, Webb and Johnson should at least have been allocated a paragraph each rather than total neglect. In the overall story of steam traction what happened in the 1840s and 1850s was far more significant than the debacle of the 1950s. In common with much bookstall literature this book seems only to be interested in late steam locomotive activity. The National Railway Museum is rich in that the North Eastern Railway ensured that a representative collection of its locomotives was preserved. Sadly, the LNER and British Railways failed to complete this collection, but there is no evidence that Ellis examined what is still there and this is vastly more significant than remains garnered from Barry.

On page 88 there are indications  that the authors do not have a strong grasp of their subject when they assert that "turntables in locomotive sheds were long enough, of course, to hold even the longest locomotives". A full knowledge of steam locomotive literature would have shown the everyday problems encountered in turning locomotives which were a tight fit and sometimes resort had to be made to triangular junctions or tender-first running. On the following page locomotive workshops are described as "lavishly fitted": lavish is an inappropriate adjective for anything pertaining to railways other than Pullman cars. There is a failure to note the concept of the railway town, such as Melton Constable or Crewe and the representative list of railway workshops is eccentric: three Southern, no Scottish, no Doncaster nor Darlington.

As noted the illustrations are good, but why include a picture of the German Adler at work and a note on it in the text, when so much has been missed. Similarly, the third part of the book is a list of some of what has been preserved both at the NRM and in railway theme parks: the illustrations are out-of-date — Weybourne station had not seen a green B12/3 for a long time. The text refers the reader to websites for recent information. This type of information is far better approached via Google. In short an attractive, but not very useful book. It is regretable that the NRM consented to publish it. Contrast this with David McIntosh's The Flying Scotsman published by Ian Allan which is a gem of a small book and designed to be looked at and read: No. 4472 is of course the star member of the National Collection. Perhaps, the authors should have consulted George Dow's British steam horses, but even underplays the role of the British independent locomotive builders on their domestic market...

A.F. Garnett
Steel wheels: the evolution of the railways and how they stimulated and excited engineers, architects, artists, musicians and travellers. Waldenbury (Sussex): Cannwood Press, 2005.

The Isle of Arran has no railway system, but does "enjoy" a boat train service which sometimes connects with the ferries and provides a reasonably fast service to Glasgow Central with links to the rest of the Notwork. On a recent visit to the Island the local public library had two books on railways: John Thomas's The Skye Railway (an inspired choice) and A.F. Garnett's Steel wheels. The latter is an "appreciation of railways" written by someone who loves them and believes that they (and this includes tramway systems) have a future. The author's experience of railways is relatively extensive and included routine use.

There is no index, and sources are not quoted (whilst reading the tome I had hoped that the publisher's website might have given additional information, but it doesn't. In many respects the book is more like an anthology, although early railway history is considered at some length. In spite of this the book remains anthology-like: in Chapter 9 there is an extensive account of how Basil Zaharoff had observed Dom Francisco, an important member of the Spanish Royal family attempt to murder his bride Maria whilst en route by train from Paris to Vienna to spend their honeymoon with Emperor Franz Joseph and how Dom Francisco was incarcerated as a lunatic and Zaharoff married Maria following the death of Dom Francisco, giving her the Casino in Monte Carlo as a wedding present. The same chapter contains further information on European royal trains and the private cars used by the very rich in the USA.

There is a section on segregated travel in the USA and the fight to end it. German connivance in conveying Lenin and the Bolsheviks from Switzerland to Russia is also observed.

A chapter on words and song does include Reich's Different Trains; Adlestrop, Night Mail, Larkin, long extracts from William McGonagall, and Alfred Williams of Swindon. Platform 9¾ at King's Cross.

Matthew Engel
Eleven minutes late: a train journey to the soul of Britain. London: Macmillan, 2009. 324pp.

Also reviewed by Graham Bird in J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2010, 36, 132.

Engel is a professional journalist, who wrote for the Guardian for many years and is now with the Financial Times. He suffered the unbearable loss of a son to cancer when he was only thirteen and with his wife have established the Teenager Cancer Trust. The book is intended to be amusing, but is really rather sad in that it demonstrates what was lost through Beeching and the utter failure to make any reparation. There are sad comments about electrifiaction (that is the lack of it), the cultural poverty of the train operating companies, the dismal "third world" nature of Voyagers and Pacers, and the utter lack of any spur to improve journey times or frequencies. He blames warm beer John Major (who granted him an interview) for privatisation and its lack of initiative. The book was partly the product of a fortnight's exploration of the network with a rover ticket. The approach is very different in that many of the most profound glimpses into the stagnant nature of British railways is stated to firmly lie in the profoundly awful nature of British politicians and their failure to be able to see beyond their fancy houses for their ducks on their moats, or put simply to live the life of a lord, As an investigative journalist he has used this skill to pry into the dark and evil world of political decision making.

Two of the alien faces (that is to the world of railway enthusiam) introduced by Engel are Mark Casson and Sir Christopher Foster. Both are economists and at this point it is worth pointing out that KPJ came from a background of pure science where economists were considered to be meddlers who lacked any form of formal discipline. Casson appears to be the more harmless: someone who likes to play with trains by designing counterfactual railway networks for Britain based on something akin to the Belgian model: that is centrally conceived and using heuristics. Foster is a more sinister figure who assisted with the ghastly rail privatization. Judging by his address and that of his club transport is for other people and is akin to transportation (as to Australia).. .

The Conservative Party was not thinking of potential traffic problems in the twenty-first century; it was concentratinlg on getting through the distinctly unpromising 1964 election. It wanted to show the electorate that it was dynamic, unstuffy, forward thinking and possibly even cool, with-it and groovy by grasping the problems of the railways. But there was next to no liaison between the transport and housing ministries about how the plans might link with another government policy of moving people out of London. In 1962 it was decided to triple the population of Haverhill in Suffolk; in 1963 Haverhill station was listed for closure.

The initial enthusiasm for Beeching quickly faded as Tory backbenchers contemplated the possible consequences for their own majorities. The reshaping of the railways was a popular policy; the closure of a local station was not. So the government started making political decisions about which lines would go

Engel's observations on Beeching are so astute that this has led to the creation of a Beeching "page" which incorporates some these comments. The dust jacket is very strange as it shows a train which appears to be on the wrong track: or is a deliberate take?.

Robert Hendry
The changing face of Britain's railways, 1938-1953: the railway companies bow out. Stamford: Dalrymple & Verdun, 2006. 192pp.

This is slightly more than a picture book and is unusual in considering mainland Britain and Ireland on an almost equal footing. There is even a chapter on Wales, and Scotland is not quite forgotten: the Far East (of England) is ignored, however. The writer is the son of a GP, of the old-fashioned sort who used to visit patients, whenever they were in need at day or in the night and the author makes sharp comments upon the nine to five attitudes of current medical practitioners. Nevertheless, he had the time and financial resources to apply himself to his hobbies of model railways and to recording the railway scene. In a way the book is almost a memorial to his father. These pictures are supplemented by others, mainly those taken by H.J. Streeton-Ward and by R.E. Tustin.

The author's father practiced in Rugby and the doctor developed excellent contacts with local railwaymen. Thus there are some good pictures of the Rugby Locomotive Testing Station and of the "new" power signalling box at Euston opened in 1952, but already looking out-of-date. The reviewer has a general fear that text is gradually being eroded by visual material and to a great extent this is the case with this book: the pictures appear to have dictated the overall pattern. The extended captions and the brief commentaries which open the chapters are well written, and have been well thought out, but...

The period covered was dominated by a major event which in terms of pictorial content is sanitised beyond belief: a few pictures of Austerity (British and American) 2-8-0s. The reviewer may have been spared some of the worst personal images of the Second World War: he did not see the actual destruction of Charlton station, but he can still remember the shock of seeing a station which had disappeared under the impact of a rocket attack. Furthermore, the odour of War was still present in the great piles of rubble which dominated South East London in the immediate Post-War period. Before enjoying a period of relative tranquility in Edinburgh he had seen houses being destroyed, felt hot shrapnel, watched the lurid glow from Thameshaven as it burned... Robert was born too late for any of that. But in retrospect one of the most remarkable aspects of immediate Post-War Britain is that the lifts and escalators on the London Underground worked, the Southern Electric may have been over-crowded, yet trains ran to time. It took the magic of John Major and his wee pal MacGregor to disrupt that aspect of Englishness Only on the LMS did trains run hours late, but much of that was due to Stamp's parsimony which eventually reaped its rewards in Lancashire where tunnels collapsed and bridges carrying football crowds fell apart. These were Stamp's "Hatfields" and Ladbroke Groves.

There are some charming pictures of Ireland, North and South and some engaging chat about them, notably about George Howden and Frank Pope. The section about Howden is excellent: the reviewer still has a childhood scrapbook showing the marvellous modern Irish DMUs with their brilliant livery, so different from the dull dark green eventually used in mainland Britain. Pope remains a shadowy figure in spite of Hendry's advocacy, although he does illustrate the "Ulster dimension" in the affairs of the LMS, which culminated with the appointment of William Valentine Wood as President (Hendry presents a sharp verbal portrait).

So all in all a disappointing book: even the pictures often disappoint. They certainly do not present a balanced picture. And 1938 was a very strange starting point. Mel Holley paints a different picture of this work in Steam World No. 234.

Peter Herring

Classic British steam locomotives. Wigston: Abbeydale, 2000.
Accent on extant rather than extinct: colour photographs

Yesterday's railways. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. 2002. 288pp.
Rather like the Atterbury books and with vague similarities to the Whitehouse and Thomas LMS 150  and its companions (but not even remotely as good). Includes pen portraits of forty locomotive types which include the Midland compounds, the superheated Directors, the Churchward and Robinson 2-8-0 types, but the information provided is little more than an extended caption to photographs of variable quality. Obviously the material related to "present status" is no longer valid. The physical presentation leaves much to be desired and it is tedious to find the Whyte noation distorted by slanting equals symbols: 4=6=0. There is an index.

Owen Jordan
Jordan's guide to British steam locomotives

A letter sent to steamindex requested KPJ's opinion of this strange book: here it is. Firstly most of the graphics are poor in terms of clarity, perspective and detail: most look as if something nasty has happened during reproduction. The text suffers in a similar way. There is a lack of coherence and in consequence there are errors which may not have been intended. Thus a streamlined observation car appears to have been attached to the Silver Jubilee train (page 149) and later on the same page the achievement of ths speed record by Mallard concentrates upon the failure of the middle big end, rather than the speed where the streamlining (mostly the subject of derogatory comment elsewhere) is not mentioned in a positive context. On page 300 Jordan again rushes into trouble with the Coronation Scot train where we are told that the livery was red with gold 'go faster' stripes and in a blue and white striped livery. Sadly the red comes before the blue. The design itself is considered on page 156. There is no index and only refernces of the "to be considered later" sort. Thus coherence is essential, but lacking..

Subsequently, Jordan devoted a chapter to the evolution of the tank engine which includes the following convolution:

Having designed a locomotive in the sure knowledge that it was far too small for the growth of train weights at the end of the nineteenth century, the London and Brighton company set about putting the record straight in the years immediately prior to the First War, first with a 'Pacific' tank to the design of D.E. Marsh in 1912, and then with a 4-6-4 weighing in at just a couple of tons under a 'ton', by L.B. Billinton. This was the largest tank engine built for main line service in Britain, and was not destined to survive in the manner of the 'Terrier'. In terms of duty however, the prize for the biggest tank dinosaur goes to the London and North Western Railway, and for once it was not completely the company's doing.

The casual reader might be tempted to infer that the Brighton company had leapt from the Stroudley Terrier to the realms of Pacific and Baltic tanks with nothing in between. Furthermore, one senses criticism of Stroudley for not anticipating conditions at the end of the century when designing a locomotive 25 years before for very different conditions (before electric lighting and steam heating, for instance). The phrase "couple of tons under a 'ton'" is unacceptable and shows the lack of a publisher's editor. The term "dinosaur" for the LNWR 0-8-4T may be justifiable on the basis of reading what Dunn had to say about the class, but appending it to the observations on the Brighton Baltics gives the impression that these were unsatisfactory: they were not. Electrfication led to the early conversion of the Baltics into useful 4-6-0s.

Having introduced the LNWR 0-8-4T Jordan takes two paragraphs to depict the difficulties encountered on the route between Abergavenny and Merthyr which includes such wayward expressions as "The railway that the London and North Western acquired to access the South Wales coalfield was a very different animal..." This colloquial expression is unhelpful, as is "not short of tunnels" in the following paragraph where "many", "several", etc leap out. Sharp curvature was the problem, but Jordan could have noted that, and possibly the failure by Beames not to have sought a more flexible form of wheelbase. which Churchward achieved with his vastly more successful 42XX 2-8-0T which had a degree of flexibilty built into its rear axle.

Not all of the book is bad: the section on the Rocket is quite good, but then Jordan does cite Brian Reed's excellent Loco Profile! One suspects that in his endeavour to knock certain failings in design, such as Webb's compounds and Gresley's derived motion Jordan fails to record the intellectual strengths of these engineering giants. .

Tom Quinn

Memories of steam: reliving tyhe golden age of Britain's railways. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.251pp.
A recent (2016) descent into Cornwall by Last Great Western showed where the once famous publisher used to be in reality, but like the train company its present state is threadbare if based on this book which is error stuffed. On page 29 there is a picture of a Platform 7 which is clearly not Paddington as the caption states, but somewhere else with at least seven platforms. On pages 144-5 the caption refers to an L1 class at Bishopsgate in experimental green livery whereas it was B17 No., 61665 in LNER apple green, but lettered BRITISH RAILWAYS. On page 18 (upper) No. 67460 on the Arrochar push & pull is described at being "on the branchline near Loch Lomond": the location is correct, but was on the main line to Fort William.  The photograph on page 109 is reproduced back-to-front. The picture selection and captions are credited to Julian Holland. Some strange decisions have been made in picture selection: the brief streramliner period is covered on page 129, but lacks colour apart from a stylized poster for the Coronation. Mallard is depicted in British Railways condition minus its valances. Unusually "Britain" includes some Irish items. There is a highly interesting to a resident of West Runton a photograph of a notice board on the northern approach to the station thereat with posters indicating that it dates from the period after 1923 and prior to the cost-cutting measures of the 1930s.

Tales of the old railwaymen. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.192pp.
Nostalgia industry publication; includes pen portraits of several railwyman: mainly drivers and signalmen, but also Richard Hardy and Bill Sidwell. Typical journalist's book with Grauniad errors, e.g. Rhyll.

Andrew Roden

Great Western Railway: a history. London: Aurum, 2010. 306pp. + plates.

Two of Roden's books already receive attention on the steamindex website: one on the Duchess class and another on Flying Scotsman and these were added before this extraordinary book was encountered on the virtually railwayless Isle of Arran in its excellent Public Library where a chance encounter was made with it. The map which serves as frontispiece concentrates on Paddington to Penzance route via Westbury and pays little attention to Bristol whilst most of Wales, the Midlands and the route to the Mersey are ignored. To an extent this map is indicative of an overall portrayal of the Great Western as a line which largely aimed to link London to the western beaches. The Author was part of a campaign group which had sought to preserve the Night Riviera sleeper service to Cornwall, but neither coal nor china clay appear to be mentioned. The latter traffic is still important in Cornwall and Didcot power station still receives coal by the trainload. As the book claims to be a history this relegation of a major aspect of the Company's traffic to a few jottings on milk and other rural traffic borders on the absurd.

The text is sometimes very loosely written: on page 82 there is a statement that "Brunel opted to create a twin-span steel arch bridge". The correct material (wrought iron) is mentioned on page 84. But this later page also contains the absurd claim that the Royal Albert Bridge was the first of Britain's three great railway bridges (the others are the Forth and Tay bridges in Scotland). The Tamar crossing is a masterpiece, but to attempt to diminish Robert Stephenson's achievements in crossing the Menai Straits in the Britannia Bridge and across the Tyne is absurd and does nothing to add to the stature of Brunel who worked closely with Stephenson on these vast undertakings. Similarly no mention appears to be made to the Stephenson locomotive which worked whereas most of the other early locomotive purchases made at Brunel's behest were abject failures.

On page 160 Roden overplays the effort required to introduce The Great Bear: "Designing the Great Western 'Pacific' was a demanding and difficult task and for once there were no prototypes Churchward could readily draw inspiration from". This is utter rubbish: Pacific locomotives were common in North America and the De Glehn type had grown from the 4-4-2 to the the 4-6-2 type in France and elsewhere. In 1908 Maffei produced a superb Pacific for the Bavarian State Railways. The unsatisfactory nature of the locomotive was due to the failure to design something lighter which would have satisfied the Civil Engineer and was something which was being achieved routinely in the British contract shops at that time. 

On page 224 it is claimed that "the 'Granges' were adored": they were probably preferable to the 43XX 2-6-0s for mixed traffic duties where freight predominated, but adoration is an unsuitable concept for a concept which involved working in a draughty cab and several tons of coal had to be shovelled out of a tender into a greedy firebox. On page 166 it is claimed that "the Great Western never pursued the commuter market as much as other railways". This is partly a consequence of geography: Paddington was far from the City of London, but the company co-operated with the Metropolitan to provide through services and had considered using mobile power houses to enhance these services. The company was very active in the Birmingham suburbs and sought to develop traffic in Bristol and Plymouth.

On pages 250-1 Roden overplays the use of the stationary plant at Swindon in Sam Ell's work on draughting where the key element was controlled road testing. No mention is made to other testing techniques developed under British Railways. Ell's work largely post-dated the Great Western. No mention appears to be made to electrification (it was certainly considered more than once for the line west of Taunton), nor to oil-firing.

In short this is an unsatisfactory book. 

Christopher Stead
The birth of the steam locomotive

Christopher Stead's The birth of the steam locomotive – a new history was found on the shelf at Cromer Branch Library. The title appeared to be highly pertinent: the only surprise was that although published in 2002 KPJ had not been alerted to it through a review. Certainly, the period covered (namely that prior to 1850) is rarely approached, although there has been a procession of books about the Stephensons and about Trevithick. Furthermore, the development of the Steamindex webpage on early locomotives has been haphazard: is it possible that Stead's little book might provide some stimulus? In one respect KPJ is in agreement with Stead in that 1850 definitely marks the end of "the early period". Stead is also relatively unusual for current authors of locomotive history in looking backwards from Trevithick towards the general development of steam technology, and especially the significance of Newcomen and Watt.

Nevertheless, it is not possible to give this work a euphoric welcome as the bibliography fails to list Dendy Marshall in any shape or form and Stead does not give a reason for this glaring omission. The author is an academic of considerable standing in ancient philosophy and Christian doctrine and must be aware of the requirement to make reference to earlier work. This omission is compounded by the citation of Ahrons (who only covered post-1825) and Warren, and even Nicholas Wood which KPJ has never seen. In addition room is found for Clement Stretton without any indication of his lack of veracity. His inclusion of Snell's Early railways is a glaring inclusion as it is decorative rather than informative..

In spite of  an excellently written introduction it is not really clear whether this is a cautionary tale for existing railway enthusiasts, or is a book aimed at the general reader, possibly one set the task of "write a brief history of how and where the steam locomotive developed". To a great extent the book does answer the second question, and as there are chapters on how the technology spread from Britain to North America and to Continental Europe this question is capable of being answered outside Britain. The book is at its most disappointing in its final chapter when the author makes the mistake of introducing the British 4-4-0 which is well outside the intended period, and there is a rushed account which extends even to City of Truro's rapid entry into Somerset. Similarly, there is a rather too rapid consideration of Brunel's broad gauge and once again: the broad gauge may have acted as a stimulus towards higher speeds on the standard gauge, but the proponents of railways between York and Newcastle were well aware that this would become a high speed railway, and did not need to look elsewhere for inspiration.

Kevin P. Jones
2016-06-20