John B. Snell: notably his Railways: mechanical engineering

To an extent One man's railway tells something about John Snell who was Managing Director of the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway for 27 years. The book jacket notes that he was born in Fiji in 1932. He is a barrister who worked for both London Transport and British Railways before joining the RHDR in 1972. He was found dead in his home at Dymchurch on 3 January 2014. His parents were New Zealanders. He was education at Bryanston and Balliol College. He was an early volunteer on the Talyllyn Railway. For a time he worked for London Transport and British Railways. He was Chairman of the North Norfolk Railway from 1969-74. He was Vice Chairman of the Heritage Railway Association. He had a sharp intellect and wry sense of humour. 

Britain's railways under steam. London: Arthur Barker, 1965. 224 pp. 206 illus. (incl. 26 col.),diagr., 17 tables, 7 maps. Bibliog
This is a history of steam railways, not a history of locomotives. It does, however, contain an economic study of steam motive power and there are many fine illustrations. KPJ bought his copy at Liverpool Street Station during Christmas 1965, at the time of his father-in-law's death.
Early railways. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964. 128pp.
This book has a strange similarity to the Puffin Picture Books: the simple diagrams and the multiplicity of illustrations (many of which are in colour, and a fair proportion of which are non-photographic) are obvvious similarities which are accentuated by the semi-landcsape format. As the period covered extends to 1914 and includes both early electric and diesel traction the title is inaccurate. Amongst the illustrations are some based on H.M. Le Fleming paintings. The approach is global. Sadly it fails to note the full sources for some of the key illustrations..
Mechanical engineering: railways. London: Longman. 1971. 177pp.
Ottley 10370: contains a useful bibliographical survey of the early literature and its observations on contemporary sources such as Nicholas Wood's Practical treatise are helpful.
Snell noted that the amount of literature published on railways, as one might expect, was very large between the 1820s and 1850s. Authors were at first propagandizing for, and then describing, something quite new; and popular interest was kept up by the spread of new lines over the country together with the pace of technical improvement. From the 1860s the quantity of matter declined markedly, and consisted of technical and educational works, concerned to describe the innovations that continued (at a slower pace) and to train new generations of railway men; together with works dealing with the administration of railways, and their finance and politics. Historical and biographical writing was fairly rare during the nineteenth century, though there were some important books of this kind; the first beginning of the present great flood of historical, descriptive, evocative writing did not appear until the 1880s and 1890s (when perhaps the imminent extinction of Brunel's broad gauge gave an initial impetus), although a few volumes of personal, more or less anecdotal, material were published earlier.
Following Wood, who used a number of drawings and whose book also contained some folding engraved plates, came several extremely large volumes mainly concerned to publish detailed drawings of every possible part of a railway, from the design of pumps and axles to station architecture (and layout) and signal-levers, as a guide to those engineers who were building new lines. In this way information regarding different practices was circulated, and the best gained acceptance; it is a pity that as new construction slowed (and engineers began to feel they knew it all already) the printing of such books became uneconomic after the 18608. However, such periodicals as The Engineer continued. In some of these books the text was minimal, and of less importance than the drawings; with Wood the balance had been quite the other way.
One example of this kind of book was S. C. Brees's Railway Practice, which appeared (in-five volumes) between 1837 and 1847 (Ottley 2554). It is mainly concerned with civil engineering, but has some useful information on rolling stock, including French and Austrian. It might be mentioned that the French published at least as many books of this kind on an even larger scale, including Perdonnet. and Polonceau's Nouveau portefeuille de l'ingemeur des chemins de fer (1857). G. D. Dempsey's The Practical Railway Engineer (1855) is a finely produced book which carries on Nicholas Wood's aim considerably more successfully than Ritchie, and in which the text is restored to predominance. D.K. Clark's Railway Machinery (1855) and Railway Locomotives (1860) are worthy of mention.
Three other contemporary works will be mentioned here, apart from those otherwise referred to in the text. The Liverpool & Manchester, when it opened and during its construction, was an object of intense public interest, and perhaps the first of all the popularizing railway books was Henry Booth's The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, published in 1830. Booth was not only the Treasurer of the Company, but as we have seen a man of some mechanical ability, with a recorded share in the development of the multiple-tube boiler and the screw coupling. More even than that, he was a competent writer, and in addition to a good account of the history of the project (for public consumption) enlivened his narrative with some quite evocative descriptive passages.

Dionysius Lardner has had a bad press since E. T. Mac Dermot, writing his two-volume History of the Great Western Railway (1927-51), savaged him on behalf of his ancient adversary, Brunel. Certainly his judgment lapsed on occasion; apart from the Box Tunnel incident, he once committed himself to the proposition that if a train ran on an undulating railway at a certain low speed on upgrades and a certain high speed on downgrades, its overall average speed would be the average of the uphill and downhill speeds, thus falling into a boobytrap avoidable by the averagely cautious schoolboy. But, as one of the first men to see the need, in an industrial society, for somebody to explain the mysteries of science to the general public, he had a considerable reputation in the 1850s and 1840s, and did a great deal of essential basic research into railway matters himself. He wrote a host of books; a typical sample might be his Report on the Determination of the Mean Value of Railway Constants (1842), prepared at the request of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and as a result of experimentation with special trains on the Liverpool & Manchester, Grand Junction, and Great Western railways, among other trials. By force of experiment, carried very much further than Nicholas Wood had been able to at Killingwoth, Lardner determined the nature of frictional and air resistance, and produced data, including a log, of a journey from Liverpool to Birmingham in vast detail, to show that the Stephensonian rule-of-thumb principles of construction, to keep grades and curves as slight as possible, was needlessly expensive. He proved that curves of under a mile radius, and gradients of up to 1 in 200, might be used without practical disadvantage, and Locke and others listened. On the way, he demolished by experiment a suggestion of Brunel's that air resistance might be significantly reduced by a form of streamlining with a train 'having a pointed front like a ship's prow', by trials on Madeley Bank in July 1859.
Perhaps the best general account of early railways in Britain is given by John Francis, in History of the English Railway (2 vols, 1851): Ottley 4774. This is a sound, non-technical account; Francis was a writer on commercial and financial topics. He rather enjoys himself on certain subjects, notably the depredations of the brutal and licentious qavvies, and the vitiated sons and dishonoured daughters of the country folk that they left behind them, but on such matters as the Railway Mania and the rise and fall of George Hudson he is extremely sound. However, he does not deal with technical detail, though he does write well of certain engineers.
Turning finally to recent books, which approach the subject as history rather than as exposition or memory, the two most useful works on locomotive history and development are probably E. L. Ahrons, The Bn'tish Railway Steam Locomotive, 1825-1925 (1927, 1961), and J.G. H. Warren, A Century if Locomotive Building (1925; 1970), which is a Centenary History of Robert Stephenson & Co. Ahrons's is a wideranging book, full of essential information, but very scrappy and ill-organized with many traces of its origin in a series of magazine articles, and with a poor index which might otherwise have helped. The author did not live to complete and revise the book. Warren covers a much narrower field (though one wide enough to miss little of importance, since the firm was in such an outstandingly predominant position in the early years) and therefore presents a clearer and better told story.
On other mechanical matters, there is much less. So far as carriage construction is concerned, Hamilton Ellis enters a one-horse race with his Nineteenth Century Railway Carriages in the British Isles (1949), but does his usual workmanlike job despite the lack of competition, within close limits of space. Otherwise, and on wagons, there seems to be nothing in book for, though back numbers of Engineening in particular are goldmines, waiting to be attacked.
Charles Hadfield's Atmospheric Railways (1967) is a useful summary; much was published contemporaneously, including pamphlets by the Samudas, but after the bubble burst a silence fell. A. R. Bennett, better known for his books on steam engines, published a paper on 'Electric traction', read to the East of Scotland Engineering Association on 19 March 1889, whose date makes it early enough to be useful to the antiquarian.
As regards general engineering history, the field is considerably wider, though little of it specially refers to railways. L.T.C. Rolt's biographies of I.K. Brunel and the two Stephensons deserve a place in any list: but the seeker of detailed information will find a treasuretrove bristling with further references in the five volumes of the Oxford History of Technology dealing with every aspect of manufacture and industry, to whjch the author records his final acknowledgements.
C.F. Dendy Marshall appears to receive no mention whatsoever, other than being listed in the bibliography.

One man's railway: J.E.P. Howey and the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1983.
Probably his best book as written from the inside: he was General Manager of the Railway when the book was written, which was not that long after Howey had died.


Home page