John Thomas
steamindex home page

John Thomas is often considered to be one of the best authors on Scottish railway history. This is probably true when he worked on a small scale (Springburn story is a minor masterpiece ignored by snooty Simmons in his commonplace book: but public school like Westminster means something very different in the former Second City of the Empire), but neither of his contributions to the Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain match those of many of the other volumes in the series: these demanded greater resources of organization than that required in Thomas's other books. There is a photograph of him on the Glasgow District Libraries website.
David St John Thomas (Journey through Britain) has this to say about his namesake: and close friend, John Thomas, Scotland's renowned railway historian, was a Springburn man. The first book he offered in my early publishing days was indeed The Springbum Story, about the locomotive works set against the town's social and economic background. After a quick read, I returned it, accepting it but requesting a few changes. That was the last time I made the mistake of returning a manuscript I was accepting, for John assumed it had been rejected, and – in depression – didn't open it for weeks. Springburn had a large population but no bookshop. The millinery department of the Co-op agreed to stock John's book and sold hundreds, the first lesson that sales didn't have to be restricted to bookshops. John was so important to D&C that we honoured him by holding a literary lunch in a restaurant car at Springburn. He lived in one of the large tenements that were steadily being replaced with soulless tall-rise flats... till common sense reigned. He was just saved from having to move by a decision to restore the remaining old blocks, starting with his, and that made his remaining life much happier.
St John Thomas has more to say in his Romance of Scottish railways (which had to await being seen until a recent visit to the Central Library in Edinburgh – nearest library to West Runton). Springburn story was the first full length manuscript of his publishing career. The book was of a kind then almost previously unknown, and was an immediate local best-seller, most copies going through the linen department of Springburn Co-operative Society since great though the industrial complex was it was without bookshop
And then began a unique relationship, John for example writing the Regional Railway History volume on Scotland: the Lowlands and Borders (and beginning the North of Scotland before his untimely death) while I [StJT] had statrted the series with the West Country one. Many thought we were one and the same person and we were forever getting each other's mail.
By any standard, John was not only the doyen of Scottish railway historians but a major performer on the national British scene, few titles for example rivalling The West Highland Railway in its sheer narrative excitement, people and events brought to life by examples and short quotations. John was a door-to-door insurance salesman and must have cheered the lives of thousands of customers with his ready banter. Persuading him to become a full-time writer took courage but paid off handsomely, his work always being of the best possible quality based on much original research. Scottish railway historians were lucky that their records were stored in Edinburgh, while wherever you lived in England you had expensively to go to London to consult yours. Without that John (and the world) would have lost a lot. .

The Callander & Oban Railway. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1966. 200pp.
Ottley 9569: locomotives and rolling stock covered in Chapter 10
The North British Atlantics. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972. 188pp. 188pp. Including plates. Coloured frontispiece
Although the book is nominally about the North British Atlantics, it probably tells the curious reader more about the relatively lowly position of the Locomotive Superintendent, William Paton Reid, and the relationship between him and David Deuchars, Superintendent of the Line, and William Jackson, the General Manager. It also demonstrates the close involvement of at least one of the Board Members, Dr John Inglis of the Glasgow family shipbuilding and engineering firm in the affairs of locomotive acquisition and control. Thomas is able to show, through his close examination of the company's outgoing correspondence, that Jackson was a martinet who was highly intolerant of what he regarded as inefficiency.

The book is also interesting for the involvement of officers from other railways in the assessment of the locomotives which the Civil Engineer, James Bell, had adjudged to be unstable and damaging to the track. Both H.A. Ivatt and Vincent Raven were brought in as consultants to assess the locomotives. The former suggested modifications, which had little to do with stability and these were ignored, presumably because of cost. The latter who was then an assistant to Worsdell was involved in extensive tests, including dynamometer car tests, which led to a highly laudatory report for which he received 200 guineas, twice what Ivatt received (but whether this was a personal fee is not stated). This, in turn, tells the reader more about the impressive Mr Raven who was clearly held in very high esteem even before he became Chief Mechanical Engineer of the North Eastern. The tests over Shap against an LNWR 4-6-0 of the Experiment class are also mentioned where the Atlantic returned an enormous coal consumption of 71 pounds per mile.

Although Thomas received the accolade of some of his books being reprinted as paperbacks, this title is not especially readable and is not helped by the relatively long, and somewhat tedious quotations from contemporary correspondence held at the Scottish Record Office, such as: "With reference to what took place at our meeting on Saturday I will be glad if you will let me have estimates of the costs of the three types of engine...". Jackson requested Reid to send him detailed costs of the three types of engine, preferably with a citation to where it was in the file inspected, might have been more helpful. Thomas had a similar tendency to use an excessive number of words: "the provision of secondary passenger and goods engines and rolling stock on an unprecedented scale" which could have been expressed more concisely. Albeit, this is at the core of the interesting part of the book as Inglis was attempting to persuade the Company to invest in locomotives and rolling stock. The North British was noted for the meagreness of its expenditure. Thomas does not even question whether Inglis was acting on behalf, either directly or indirectly, of his fellow members of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the book is the failure by the author to state exactly what the "block trains" were; this is especially important as the locomotives were constructed to haul these trains on the Edinburgh-Aberdeen route, with through coaches being added/detached at Dalmeny. One has to turn to Ellis for an explanation: "Though the North British Aberdeen block trains had not the elegance of the Caledonian "Grampian Corridor" coaches, they were comfortable and convenient, and ran very well... In one very important respect they were superior to the Caledonian carriages and that was in the plumbing..." Ellis gives quite extensive details of these trains, although like Thomas he fails to include a photograph of one of them. Posed illustrations of the Grampian Corridor are relatively common.

The North British Railway. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1969/1975. 2 vol.
The first volume of this work is excellent and reflects the assistance of Robert Hogg, the Archivist to the Scottish Region. which Thomas recognizes. At the time the book was written the collection was stored in the Headquarters of the old NBR in Waterloo Place, Edinburgh. In places one can almost detect the wisdom of the dedicated historian, Hogg, shining through. This volume is especially good for unearthing the financial scandals which inflicted the locomotive department and which led to the departure of Hurst and Wheatley, both of whom were excellent engineers. Ellis lacks this detail. The second volume is a slighter, but still significant work, but it has its moments, and is usually readable. Volume 2 (which covers the period from the failure of the first Tay Bridge forward) begins with John Walker, General Manager, contemplating a northward journey from Edinburgh on the 09.30 train "if the weather is fine" and how [Sir] William Arrol began his career by mending porridge pots in Renfrewshire. There are some original sharp comments and some notes are given of the fiercesome internal boardroom politics. The servants, right up to that of the General Manager, were treated with contempt, and were presumably paid at oatmeal levels. See how Conacher, a very able man, was treated by the Macbethian Board. Nevertheless, it is better than Ellis's North British. Those historians who are trapped in "English history"should be beware: the North British was active in Cumberland, with its development of Silloth, and through several border raids into Northumberland. Thomas does not act like one of those absurd Englishmen. As in his account of the West Highland, Thomas appears to have been unaware of Dow's rich account of that line. Ellis is not mentioned: was he scared that unhappy comparisons in literary style might be made, or did Thomas consider Ellis to be a dilettante Englishman?. The very extensive locomotive history by Everard, augmented by Purdom in The Locomotive is not cited, but was presumably used. This, and that of Dow, are serious omissions and must bring into question the whole validity of the David & Charles output.

with David Turnock. The North of Scotland. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1989. 356pp. incl. Plates (Regional history of the railways of Great Britain, vol. 15).
More leisurely than other volumes in the series. Chronology. Well-laid out bibliography. Dreadful index: Passenger trains followed by 31 page references; locomotives followed by 33; landowners by 34; stations by 29. With few exceptions most railways had stations. No entry for Waverley, or Edinburgh, Waverley.

The more leisurely approach permits such oddities as the exploitation of iron ore from Tomintoul and how the LNER had been trapped by a Mr Cleveland Macdonald into considering the construction of a branch line to tap the ore: this adventure was as late as 1927. Tomintoul not in index. Posthumous work: Thomas died with work only one third complete

Includes extracts from timetables: interesting for the paucity of the service. Also unfulfilled attempts to reach Ullapool (not in index: p. 261) due to difficulty of decent to Loch Broom, but significance (since fulfilled) of shorter route to Stornoway was recognized. Surprisingly the Campbeltown & Machrinhanish Light Railway is included in this volume: Campbeltown is actually south of Berwick

The Springburn story. Dawlish: David & Charles, 1964.
Generally considered to be his best book (might even be called a masterpiece), probably because of its warm, Glaswegian folksy character as exemplified by an extract from some of the early pages in the book.

I remember the night the 'Nizam's big engine' went down to the docks. It was 17 March 1933. Although nearly midnight Springburn Road was lined with people. Craftsmen and their wives mingled with youths and girls from a St Patrick's Night dance. The spectators might have been waiting for a royal progress, and so in a way they were. The newest product of the Hyde Park Works, a locomotive for the railways of His Exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad, was about to pass on its way to the docks.

The good folk of Springburn were well used to the spectacle of out-of-gauge engines trundling down Springburn Road in charge of a pair of snorting traction engines, bound for some sun-baked railway halfway round the world. On such occasions the local people were reminded (if they needed reminding) that for seventy years the world had come to Springburn for engines, just as confidently as it had gone to the Clyde for ships. The Clydesider's traditional craftsmanship in marine architecture and engineering was matched by the rail way expertise that had deverbped over the years in Springburn, and the variety of Clyde-built ships ranging the Seven Seas had a counterpart in the variety of Springburn-built engines traversing the world's land masses. There was hardly a country in the world that had not seen one.

About a quarter to twelve the big gates of Hyde Park opened and two traction engines eased the 16-wheel artictulated trailer bearing the Nizam's engine out under the arch into Vulcan Street. The engine was a 103-ton 2-8-0 for heavy freight duties, fitted with a North British Locomotive NI type mechanical stoker, the first of its kind to be manufactured in Britain.

The cavalcade halted outside the Public Library opposite the works. NB officials, policemen, and officers of Glasgow Corporation buzzed about. The top of the boiler was sheeted with rubber because of the tram wires which would be some six inches above it during most of its journey, and representatives of the tramway department were in attendance just in case of accidents. There was also an official from the water department, for had not a Hyde Park engine once sunk down through the road and burst a water main?

Just before midnight the traction engines, their copper-capped stacks billowing yellow smoke, eased their load up the gentle slope of Vulcan Street, round the tricky right-angled bend into the main road. The great locomotive, its boiler as high as the first storey of the surrounding tenements, was trundled townwards at a brisk walking pace watched by the spectators on the pavements, and followed by officials on foot and in vehicles. Wee boys in pyjamas, let out of bed specially for this great occasion, had their faces pressed against the glass of their bedroom windows. Round the elbow bend of Springburn Road and down the hill past Saint Rollox (now St Rollox, LMSR) it went, and at Inchbelly bridge there were precious few inches to spare between the chimney cap and the bottom of the girders.

We will leave the engine to spend the night passing down Castle Street and Parliamentary Road, Sauchiehall Street and St Vincent Street, eventually to arrive alongside the City of Barcelona at Stobcross Quay. Inchbelly Bridge is as good a place as any to begin the Springburn story, for here it was, 102 years before that night in 1933, that the railway came to Springburn.
The Springburn story: the history of the Scottish railway metropolis. 2nd ed. . Dawlish: David & Charles, 1974.
Substantially enlarged: a re-examination shows this to be a gem of a book which describes things which the Author perceived through his own senses, or by others who had witnessed, the things described. There is a fascinating account of rope working on the Cowlairs Incline: this ceased in 1908. This includes details of what happened if the stationary engineman failed to halt winding at the correct moment; the tricks played by the local boys on interfering with the cable (and the whippings imposed upon them if apprehended), and the operation of the brakemen employed on descending trains..
The Tay Bridge disaster: new light on the 1879 tragedy. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972. 208 pp. incl. plates.
Includes 25 facsimile letters in text from letters in the Scottish Record Office. One major failing: inadequate diagrams.
The West Highland Railway. Dawlish: David & Charles, 1965. 172 p. + col. front. + 24 plates. 60 illus. (incl.. 3 facsims.), diagr., 5 plans, 4 tables, map. Bibliog.