The Oxford Companion to British Railway History
Oxford University Press, 2000. 591pp.
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This is an extremely variable work with an utterly inadequate semantic foundation. Ottley's classification (which is far from perfect) could have been followed, or could even have been employed as an aide memoire. The compilers failed to remedy this by providing an index. The inadequate foundation causes some things, or persons (especially the latter) to have entries, whilst other topics are clumped (dumped) together. Thus, although one can find Ottley (which is probably just as well) it is impossible to trace the names of major suppliers to the industry. Not even Mallard is listed (although it is mentioned by George Carpenter on page 530) (as a former professional indexer the Press deserves to be charged at the standard rate for this one piece of information). Some topics are covered extremely well, others extremely badly.  Some of the contributors are extremely competent, such as Richard Foster and the late Michael Harris. Certainly, the book is unworthy of the Oxford University Press and if another edition is prepared without very major revision this would be nothing less than scandalous..

Edward Gibbins has sent an e-mail (see below) which suggests  that there are further serious flaws in the way in which the Companion approached key issues in an incomplete and inconsistant way. This is reproduced below, but it needs to be remembered that one of the many failings in this reference work is that the publisher failed to identify the target readership.

Kevin Jones was proud of his contributions to A.D. Roberts' Natural Rubber Science and Technology. published by Oxford University Press in 1988, notably the index which was recognized by the Society of Indexers as an important contribution to technical indexing, but he fears that certain aspects of the Press may make it highly unsuited to handling technological innovation. This lack is still greatly evident in the Dictionary of National Biography.

In spite of these reservations Simmons produced very good articles on the literature on railways, railways in literature and on railways in art, but see also Marshall. But, there is a feeling that Simmons abstracted a great deal from his own writings and then fought to preserve these chunks without any consideration of the effect of this on the overall nature of the work. There is some excellent biographical material, but as noted by the extract from Rutherford there are strange inconsistancies. Such a lack of an overall vision is typified by the Callender & Oban Railway having its own entry, whilst the rather more important, and still mainly in its original state, West Highland lacks one. An obscure notion from theoretical librarianship, namely bibliographical warrant, should have been applied (that is if a feature within a subject field has its own literature then this is a justification for a heading). Ireland is utterly ignored (for much of the period it is impossible to ignore this part of the British Isles and its place within the United Kingdom: furthermore, the Dublin & Kingstown Railway was the first major response to the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (and the Kingstown demonstrates the coherence of Britain at that time). The influence of Britain overseas is a further omission. There should have been individual entries for places like Horwich where the place was dominated by railway activity, rather than being subsumed under Works (a most unlikely access point).

It also needs to be noted that some of Simmons' own entries are in great need of editing: "But a further element in that disaster made it even worse than it would otherwise have been" is utterly redundant in a description of the contribution of gas lighting to the horrors of Quintinshill in the entry for accidents.

It is quite obvious that the publisher has given no consideration as to whom the work is directed: if it that elusive "general reader" he or she will be lost before they start: to them they would hope that the Companion will inform you whether one leaves (or more probably left) St Pancras, not for Cornwall, but for the Midlands (and at one time for South West Scotland and the Borders. and whether the journey could be accomplished by night, or within daylight. It is the sort of book which might have been consulted by "prize-winning" authors, such as Jane Gardam who manages to have her characters travel via Newcastle to Euston! The overall standard of production is well below that normally achieved by OUP.

The following is quoted verbatim from the review by Michael Rutherford in BackTrack It was with some foreboding that I first lifted this massive tome, having read an article last year in a contemporary magazine where its editors, with some glee I thought, indicated how much material had been omitted from the start or cut at each draft.

The dust wrapper does not seem to have kept up with the changes. however, and proclaims, "Maps, Diagrams, Tables and Illustrations amplify the text and clarify technical concepts".

Illustrations there are not, however. All photographs were cut apart from one on the title page, of a GWR 'Saint' driving wheel, splasher and nameplate. Just one engraving has slipped through - from F. S. Williams Our Iron Roads — of Britannia Tubular Bridge but it is poorly reproduced. While there is a good article about railway photography (by Dick Riley) there are no examples and no guide to the locations of historic collections (particularly those held in public collections). Neither is there a list of publications that would alleviate these omissions.

Similarly the maps, whilst neatly drawn, are devoid of any historical content, being set in the aspic of 1922. Surely the use of colour and the direct reproduction of some RCH junction diagrams and sections of maps should have been de rigeur in a work of such pretension (and price).

One would have expected a comprehensive summary of data and statistics both in tabular and graphical form but this is nor the place to find any. There is one graph, of investment in railways, but it has been so badly 'designed' that it is of no use for either approximating any figures for particular dates or for discerning any changing trends.

The dust wrapper claims to tell, the full story of this remarkable achievement [Britain's Railway History] . . . for the first time".

There is, however, no story, no geschichre here at all. It is a compilation of entries, some brief, some of a couple of pages; railway companies, personalities, locations, technical topics, towns and definitions all appear in unified alphabetical order. While this is an easy option for editors and publishers, it is of limited use for researchers. Many personalities, railway companies and locations appear within other unrelated entries and can't be located because there are no separate indexes. It would have been far better had the book been divided up in a classified way, perhaps based on the main divisions of the system used in Ottley's bibliography and that continues to be used (in modified form) in the Railway & Canal Historical Society's annual bibliography of transport history. This way the work would truly have been a 'Companion'

An index to all public (at least) railway companies should surely have been included with dates of Parliamentary acts, openings, mileage and subsequent fate; the list of the railways actually given (p577) of the companies included in the Grouping is an insult. There are no dates of any sort (and it should be remembered that not all companies were grouped on exactly the same date) and no list of those companies still in business but not grouped.

Few entries cover individuals but of those that do there is a disproportionate number of enthusiasts, writers and amateur historians whilst historically crucial figures are omitted. Thus a minor railway official and early 'stop-watch enthusiast' R.E. Charlewood is in but Charles Beyer, the German-born Manchester engineer, a founder member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the major influence on British steam locomotive design and manufacture during much of the nineteenth century, is out.

It is possible to detect contradictory opinions on certain events. Thus with regard to the GWR cut-off lines built at the beginning of the century, Jack Simmons takes the 'official' Paddington line and says:
"The GWR was determined to develop its South Wales and Irish Traffic by shortening its route between London and Cardiff", whereas Michael Robbins refers to a competitive, non-GWR-backed project, "The London & South Wales schemes of 1896 forced the Great Western to undertake its cut-off line. Robbins is, of course, right and most of the GWR cut-offs were forced on it in similar ways.

It has to be said that in general the quality of the entries is extremely high. Michael Harris' pieces on both the private railway industry and carriage and wagon matters are superb, as are Richard Foster's essays on signalling affairs, and Rodney Weaver's ability to explain technical matters in plain straightforward language is noteworthy.

For content, then, four stars but for final 'product' only one. The publisher should bear a great deal of the blame for the shortcomings of this book; it is certainly not the work proclaimed on the dust wrapper, neither does it succeed as the work described in the editors' introduction. The first needs much more data and fact, the second more illustrative material.

A price of £45 makes it very much a luxury. There are many more essential reference books both for the serious enthusiast and the academic student to collect before thoughts turn to this one. A cheap, paperback edition would alleviate matters but any second edition surely must merit a total re-think.

Further dark thoughts by Kevin Jones

Having only a modest personal library, and being in darkest Norfolk, far from the British Library or the National Railway Museum causes the limited resources available to worked to their limits. The Oxford Companion (purchased, not I stress a review copy) fares badly. A recent quest for John Thomas whom many consider to have been a significant historian of the railways of Scotland showed that he had been neglected in favour of R.H.G. Thomas whom Simmons considered to be the writer of "two fine books" and had contributed to the Companion, and then without the assistance of any editorial blue pencil wrote: "Thomas' sure command of the copious evidence enabled him to observe and record their operations". In a tome with so many omissions words like "copious" and the duality of "observe and record" are luxuries which should have been edited out.

Is it too much to condemn this work as merely Simmons' "common place book"? Like the products of many English writers Scotland was not to be treated on an equal footing: why "Thameslink" and no "Argyle Line"? The section on  "Markets and Fairs" is full of general material which has no direct bearing on railways, and the space could have been used far more purposefully.  The entry on Dionysius Lardner is further evidence that this work is Simmons' common place book. McGonagall, the poet associated with the Tay Bridge appears to be absent which is yet further evidence that this is Simmons' book (with all his personal quirks) rather than an aid for the public: Ottley included the poet e.g. 7596. Another perversity is that the excellent biography of John Urpeth Rastrick is marred by its failure to mention the three highly significant locomotives supplied to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad in 1829.

Brickbats are still being thrown: see Braithwaite in Midland Record (19) on omission of Beyer.

A CD-ROM version might alleviate some of the utter lack of overall structure.

See also Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


Edward Gibbins criticisms

The Companion says the Transport Tribunal was concerned with freight charges. It was set up in the 1947 Transport Act, with powers to determine passenger fares and freight charges. It spent most of its time hearing fares proposals by the BTC. It lost freight charges powers in the 1962 Act, but retained powers over fares until ended by the 1968 Act. During its 21 year reign, it dealt with 18 railway fares applications, 9 railway freight applications, one on Inland Waterways, and two on BTC owned Harbours. It was a court of law in which objectors were represented by barristers. Its dilatory proceedings delayed fares increases by 9.25 years, and freight charges by 3.75 years, although competitors – who had legal powers to object to changes in railway charges, and did so – were able to change their charges with virtually no delay. In 1961, its President admitted to the Transport Minister's secretive Special Advisory Group (aka the Stedeford Committee) that the Tribunal had cost Railways money by its decisions in which social considerations were taken into account, although the Acts made no provision for such factors. Gibbins' Britain's Railways – the Reality reveals the size of that revenue loss. By the end of its reign, it had lost BR £10.6bn at 1994 prices. 1994 was used as it was the end of the BR era. It was misnamed "the Transport Tribunal", because its remit was confined to transport owned by the British Transport Commission. It did not even have a remit for all publicly owned transport.

When writing Blueprints for Bankruptcy, in 1992-3, Gibbins discovered that virtually nothing of consequence had ever been written about the Tribunal. The Chartered Institute of Transport did not even have a card reference to it. Gibbins' book contains the first, and, even now, the only synopsis of its work. His later book, Britain's Railways - the Reality, contains a shortened reference to the Tribunal, but includes an Appendix listing all Tribunal Hearings on railway charges and the delay they caused. It had no powers on transport and harbours not owned by the BTC.

The book ignores other powerful QUANGOs - the Central Transport Consultative Committee and its allied nine Area Transport Users Consultative Committees, which were abolished –– as Gibbins predicted –– after privatisation. Whilst the Tribunal was busy holding down railway income, these Committees were busy preventing or delaying economies by enforcing the retention of loss making lines. Their costly activities are also set out in Gibbins' books. The costs of the Tribunal and these QUANGOs were paid by the BTC, mostly by BR revenue.

The Oxford Companion mentions the repeal of the Railway Passenger Duty [page 502], but does not mention that no other passenger transport paid this inequitable tax, and that Government's objective was to pressure railway companies to fund investments that would help to reduce unemployment.

It also mentions the "Square Deal" campaign [page 172] erroneously stating that the "government conceded in principle" [the railways' demands for equality with road transport], ""but the War intervened"". This is a popular myth was exposed - with comprehensive evidence from government files – by Blueprints for Bankruptcy - published 1995, two years before the Oxford Companion. A more comprehensive account of the issue was set out three years later in Square Deal Denied. Those files revealed that Ministers had no intention of giving railways any freedom. Files from wartime & post war confirm that attitude.

2010-05-15