Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: its  extremely limited coverage of railway related people
Steamindex home page

This major reference source is available as a multiple volume work, or online. The printed version follows earlier editions, and Supplements, and has a long history, but there is general agreement that earlier editions failed to recognize engineers and industrialists, and where it did some of the biographical material appeared to be inaccurate because of the failure of the biographers to cope with technical subjects. The new edition is very different and is accompanied by what early inspection appears to be the best website on any subject with an in-built search engine which is both simple to use and is 100% suited to the site which it serves. Fortunately, any library member of a public library or other institution which has purchased the hardcopy work (or agreed to subscribe to the service) has access to this wealth of information merely by entering their library number.

The pages on the website are at least as presentable as those on the printed page, and may be more up-to-date as the publisher routinely updates the entries. There are many portraits, some of which are in colour. The biographies are easy to read and are followed by lists of appropriate bibliographical references, but although patents may be mentioned they do not appear to be cited in the biographies inspected so far. The names of the biographers, and revisers of existing biographies are listed, and it is possible to find all the biographies written by an individual biographer.


Specific locomotive engineers: Richard Maunsell, Henry Alfred Ivatt, Charles John Bowen Cooke and Robert Riddles have been excluded, although Peter Drummond is included, presumably on the basis of having a clever brother. The Worsdells are treated as a family. Charles Markham is also excluded, yet certainly contributed more than Peter Drummond. The biography of Aspinall is extremely thin: his great inventiveness is scarcely covered: imagine an entry for a great artist which failed to mention his or her paintings: the editors must share the responsibility for the poverty of this entry. There are some scandalous exclusions: notably the Reid family who virtually ran the once great North British Locomotive Company as a family business and influenced the lives of many, including some of whom where mention has to be made to this once great Company. In consequence, the ODNB's excellent online indexing demonstrates the rag bag nature of the content: there are many Reids who were minor ministers of religion, yet the creators of one of Glasgow's greatest enterprises is ignored. Charles Beyer is neglected, presumably because was German-born: presumably one would not look in the ODNB for George I. Samuel Waite Johnson is a gross omission especially when  many utter nobody Johnsons are included..

But the biography of John Ramsbottom by George W. Carpenter is excellent: it acknowledges the extent to which he was a product of his background: his father's ownership of the only steam-driven mill in the area of his both and the value of the local schoolmasters and Baptist ministers in giving him a basic education. It notes all his major techical innovations, his dedication to standardization, and the introduction of advanced steel-making to Crewe Works. Before listing his many awards and his endowments it notes that he was a "modest and kindly man". Carpenter's other biographies are also sound, but more are needed if locomotive engineering is to receive adequate coverage.

In terms of authorship, Nock and Simmons are included but Hamilton Ellis, C.F. Dendy Marshall, Norman McKillop and Ahrons are neglected. Presumably Nock is considered as a sort of Ruby M. Ayres or Annie S. Swan both of whom are included, on the basis of literary tonnage. As a literary figure McKillop is far more worthy than Annie S. Swan. McKillop was also a great Scotsman, but Oxford is negligent of its ties with Scotland: perhaps the Press should humbly become the Balliol Press. Thomas Tredgold, a key figure in the rercording of early railways has a shoddy entry which implies that he was little more than a carpenter. Ahrons is an extremely serious omission: this is on a par a failure to find Shelley or Keats: Ahrons is absolutely central to his segment of "literature". Even more eccentric is the utter failure to net any of the Pendreds who edited The Engineer for over a century. As The Engineer was a major periodical publication for a very long period this is extraordinary: clearly the editorial team at the ODNB are engineering illiterate: one wonders whether they even understand bicycles.... On the artistic front the lithographer Bourne is clearly dismissed for being "trade".

The steamindex website is being gradually updated to incorporate references to this page (where biographies have been found), rather than be provided with a direct link to the ONDB page as access is dependent upon where the searcher is located.

Civil engineers appear to be very well covered as there are no less than 45 biographies written by the Librarian of the Institution of Civil Engineers: Mike Chrimes. A similar approach to other sectors might have brought more coherent results: superficial inspection of entries relating to the rubber industry shows at least one significant omission (Moulton) and a failure to link people who worked together and the use of one archaism which makes full text searching more difficult, namely indiarubber, James Miller (important Scottish architect of Wemyss Bay station, Turnberry Hotel and West Highland line stations is absent) .

Rubber research: Mullins and Bateman continue to be absent: it would seem that the ODNB sails on utterly disregarding certain sections of British life and retaining a vast tonnage of obscure characters from earlier times.

Navigation: this is brilliantly achieved: for example, a search for locomotive produced nine pages of references which when entries were displayed highlighted the word locomotive on the biographies displayed. Thus when the biography of Lord Reith, the famous Controller of the BBC, was displayed it was found that he had been forced to train as a locomotive engineer at the North British Locomotive Co. (and hated every minute of his apprenticeship). Reith had also been exposed to the bracing air of North Norfolk at Gresham's School in Holt (Auden also educated at Holt was a railway enthusiast: how did this love of railways develop?). One could cycle on and on.

The entry for Lord Weir of Cathcart fails to note two of his major achievements: the Weir Report on railway electrification and his contribution to the British Empire Exhibition in Glasgow.

Oxford DNB

2015-11-24 (always November for this page)