University of York

Is collecting railway ephemera an archaeological task?

Robert Forsythe

Paper for the IRS Research Workshop on 'railway ephemera'
13 December 2000

Clicking on the numbers in [square brackets] will take you to the footnotes. Click your browser's 'back' button to return to your place in the text.

Railway enthusiasm is probably perceived as a subject where no stone is left unturned. Certainly with regard to the hardware, the locomotives, coaches, wagons and signals have all been exhaustively studied. Hardly a railway company has not had its history published.

Nonetheless one major resource remains almost neglected in relation to the size of the subject and what publications exist, or attention is given to it in museum display. That subject is the official promotional literature of the nationalised railway since 1948. In the light of the 1990s privatisation and fragmentation of the industry, this is all the more pertinent both in terms of retrospect and prospect.

It would be unfair to say that railway ephemera is entirely neglected. There is a well recognised interest in all types of pre-1948 ephemera, and to some extent pre-1965 BR ephemera. Back in 1970 a Cheltenham bookseller Roger Burdett Wilson was the author of Go Great Western, a truly pioneering volume in studying one railway's publicity, A book that has not been surpassed in its field. He wrote however something of a cop out when it came to possibly looking at GWR timetables "The history of railway timetables, an intricate and fascinating subject, has yet to be written, and like the evolution of maps, is outside the scope of the present survey".

The interest in posters, tickets and postcards is widely developed. A landmark volume like Greg Norden's 1997 study of Carriage Prints revealed how a new subject in railway ephemera could be presented and it is a subject not contained in today's materials. Since I first penned this around 1990, the tide of interest has changed but study of BR's publicity output remains limited. By contrast, London Transport is becoming quite well served with a variety of books available, most notably Ken Garland's Mr Beck's Underground Map.[1] Capital who published this, have also commenced an introductory series in conjunction with the NRM on the Big Four's pre 1948 publicity.

For the preceding categories (posters, tickets, postcards) are not in any sense the bulk of the subject. That accolade must go to the publicly available timetables of the main BR system in leaflet and book form, and the vast array of supporting advertising literature promoting the use of the system, usually available free of charge.

This is the material that it is suggested is largely neglected. Perhaps the sheer size of the subject has daunted study. At a rough guess there were perhaps 2400 plus different timetables alone issued each year. The material was intended to become obsolete and be destroyed. Yet in a very real sense this was as much a face of British Railways as the colour of the trains. Significantly Michael Rutherford in November 1999's Backtrack called for the creation of register of timetables.

I shall submit that the material possesses three academic imperatives that make the study worthwhile. It is a primary historical source for the study of railway history. While pocket timetables may to a certain extent duplicate the published book, supplementary information was often provided. To establish exactly how well or poorly any particular service was promoted reference to its individual publicity is essential. It is the index by which one can judge how BR sold its business. The other promotional literature whether advertising special trains, station closures or openings etc is in many cases perhaps the most tangible or detailed surviving primary evidence of a certain activity.

The second significant reason is the relevance to social history. The changing work and leisure patterns of large areas of society can be charted through this material. The third reason is the value of the material to art and design history. In this case BR provides a wonderful case study of interest to a much wider audience. Here is one of the premier nationalised industries which has first to create an image from its components. Arguably the regional influences and individuality in terms of ephemera lasted for a very long time.

Then the industry undergoes a major trauma in terms of Beeching which leads to a complete identity change - the era of corporate image. This is followed by participation in a society which becomes much more advertising conscious: all sorts of elaborate marketing schemes are implemented.

As political pressures changed, the 1980s saw the end of the corporate image and ultimately the complete breakup of the national system by 1997. The result has actually been a fascinating revival in the standards of literature produced. This has been for at least two reasons, the new business sectors wished to create their identities, whilst there has been a general revival of the value of artist originated material.

Whilst there has always been a proportion of excellent ephemera in artistic terms from BR, its production divides into three technical phases. The pre-corporate image era sees a vast amount of 'crude handbills printed on lavatory paper', with a limited quantity of excellent artist influenced material. Some of this reproduces in minature form the famous posters of the period.

The corporate image era has a consistency of approach in design terms, certain worthwhile examples of originality especially in marketing schemes, and a great use of colour photography and logos. In this period BR received widespread recognition for its design achievement (cf British Rail Design).[2] The NRM, thankfully, does have sets of the official Corporate Image Manual.

The final period was one of overall high quality, with considerable variety in the actual image due to sectorisation and a very healthy use of all the different techniques available to designers. It might be said that the late 1980s/early 1990s produced some of the best BR ephemera in overall terms. That is in providing items that are attractive, informative, and generate business - which is their whole purpose.

Those are the academic reasons for giving the subject much greater attention. There are at least two practical reasons. For a museum or archive, ephemera is easy to look after compared with the resources required by railway hardware. It would be hoped that this essay might stimulate much greater attention by curators, and the national institutions. It can then be both an academic resource, and a most worthwhile display resource for exhibition, and publication. Consider how much ephemera could be occupied in the space one National Railway Museum locomotive occupies, yet does the institution systematically collect contemporary material or have a policy towards past material?

When will the Design Museum host an exhibition of BR ephemera? How many railway books heavily feature ephemera as a source or illustration?[3] Does a guide to BR train timetables exist? This author would dearly love to see the interest existing in official institutions that led to: the production of a full colour general guide to BR ephemera; and an attempt made to provide a line by line catalogue of BR train timetable issues.

Having argued the philosophy, this essay will now use some examples to demonstrate its argument. Only the surface can be scratched in suggesting this is an issue worthy of much greater attention by museum curators, and scholars. It could also provide a hobby of great potential to many enthusiasts and collectors.

Pre-Corporate Image

Festival Trains
1 Festival Trains (3760b 18.6-22.9.51)

The named trains of BR were accorded their own high quality ephemera of which there is great variety. This 1951 example from the famed Royal Scot has especial significance. The Festival Trains motif is of special note. The artwork of a brand new Britannia locomotive, a type of engine not used on the actual train but displayed at the Festival, is interesting, as is the reference to the use of new Mark One coaches. It suggests that today's literature marking the IC225 may be of merit in years to come. A leaflet in similiar concept was certainly available for this service into 1959. The route map inside suggests the potential of the study into the wide variety of line guides that BR has produced over the decades.

ER Football Notice
2 ER football notice (3383b 6.2.60)

This item may stand for the vast number of handbills produced from BR's inception until in about 1965-66, they fell out of favour. McCorquodale was a favoured printer, though not in this case. Some are known with the double arrow symbol. Often devoid of any form of artwork, nonetheless a percentage did feature this. The example has certain special points. It possesses a piece of artwork (the football stadium) that the ER widely used. There was also a different design for horse races. The social history interest is apparent, such an item would be perfectly relevant to a display in a Lincoln local history collection. It would appeal as much to football as railway enthusiasts. It also represents one of the management initiatives of the early 1960s, reviving line management on pre-grouping boundaries. The example is mint. They were intended to be punched at the top through the green circle, and to be hung with string, and torn off by passers by. This is cheap but uninspiring advertising.

LMR Timetable
3 LMR Timetable Manchester-Accrington (3969 11.9.61-17.6.62)

The standard pocket timetables of the period can be represented by this item. Each region produced distinctly different house styles, and this is typically London Midland. Scottish issues for instance were totally different usually being quarter of the size. On the LMR this style came with and without the train artwork. Artwork exists representing a class 104 DMU as here, a class 40 diesel, a Stanier express steam locomotive, the Derby Lightweight DMU, the class 310 EMU and a class 81 electric locomotive.

The BR totems were replaced by the double arrow for the final issues which were valid into 1967. A vast scope for research exists here. How often is it remembered that prior to the corporate image a special 'London Midland Electric Services' logo and image existed? This note can only scratch the service of a large and unrecorded subject.

Much of the route itself is now but a memory though part survives as the East Lancashire Railway, and other lengths nearer Manchester are still open.

The Glorious Thames
4 The Glorious Thames (4386b 1958)

Throughout the 1950s a limited number of high quality guides to popular areas were produced. These are now sought after for their obvious attraction. Some limited circulation listings have appeared in the 1990s. The combined rail river tours with Messrs Salter's continued to be available into the mid 1980s.

Diesel Railbus Services
5 Diesel Railbus Services (4837 11.9.61-17.6.62)

An entire subset of the subject exists in the ephemera of dieselisation. This often saw attractive glossy leaflets produced. This example has two extra features of interest. It represents services withdrawn in April 1964 under Beeching. The AC Cars railbus on the cover was one of 22 introduced in 1958 to revitalise lightly used branches - an experiment that events overtook.

Port Road closure notice
6 Port Road closure notice (3445b 14.6.65>)

Of obvious value, each closure received its formal final obituary, of which this is a typical example for one of the major cross-country routes that were closed. The appearance of the double arrow was not an omen of good fortune here. Typically they recorded the replacement bus services that generally had to be arranged, these themselves generally had a very short life. Thus the item becomes a momento of another form of transport interest.

Caledonian Steam Packet
7 Caledonian Steam Packet TSS Caledonian Princess (1657o 14.6-9.5.65)

BR has also been responsible for a variety of subsiduary activities including hotels and shipping. The latter has produced a quite outstanding range of varied ephemera over the years. Of the various sub-classes, each shipping route has its own material, and amongst them a large selection of material accompanying the operation of the TSS Caledonian Princess between Stranraer and Larne is exceptional for the quality of artwork, as this item exemplifies.

Two matters point the path forward into the corporate image era. One is the appearance of the double arrow, although typographically the layout is otherwise pre-corporate image. The second is the cover.

This shows the vessel passing Corsewall light inbound into Loch Ryan.The cover must have been freshly commissioned for it shows the rail blue hull with yellow/black/red funnel adopted during her 1965 overhaul. A variety of different images were generated, and some re-used. The interior view of the Rover at Stranraer with the ship's black hull being the cover for the previous issue.

The vessel's own interest derives from her being a product of the renowned Denny of Dumbarton shipyard, indeed the last Denny vessel of many delivered to British railways over the years. She was commissioned in 1961, Denny's went out of business in 1963. The ship was highly thought of, and is now a showboat in Newcastle.

Corporate Image

1 WR transition piece Aylesbury (3932 1964?)

Thoughts of a new image became increasingly apparent from 1964, although the corporate image proper was unveiled in 1965. This tiny and ostensibly insignificant item is one of several which chart the evolution of the new image. The same logo was used on a prestigious booklet 'Business Travel by British Railways', and on a limited but varied selection of other items including the 1964 WR timetable. Other transitional styles are also known. Their study would be an article to itself.

Standard timetable London-Glasgow
2 Standard timetable London - Glasgow (D 12.5.80>)

The new image tended to see bulky handbills replaced by this A7 folder, used in one style all over Britain from 1967 to 1984. There were in addition many variants which add interest. This example is here for its sheer ordinariness, it reflects both the order and simplicity, but also the unavoidable dullness of the era. Compared with what went before, it remained a cheap item; against what was to come, it is a very cheap item. An incidental feature of note in the example is the rather marginal reference to the anticipated APT revolution.

Breckland Line Timetable
3 East Anglia Paytrain scheme Breckland Line Timetable (D 1.6.81-16.5.82)

There was variety too. A large number of one offs, and another quantity of 'scheme' timetables existed to reflect marketing drives. One of these was Eastern's Paytrain idea which was promoted from 1969 to the mid 1980s. This itself spawned local identities which lasted several years. The example exemplifies one such initiated in 1973, no trace of which can be found today. These schemes were substantial successes in the post Beeching period marking a change in rail's fortunes.

Fare Deals
4 Fare Deals/Awayday (687b 13.11.76)

Popularly priced excursion traffic had almost deserted BR by its demise and has not made a comeback. It survived well into the 1970s as this handbill shows. The style is the successor to the cheap throwaway sheet of earlier years. There is a wealth of primary information here. The SR Central Division still supported an 'Excursions Section'. It had its own Assembly Point at Victoria, and this was the 100th trip. Corporate image was also the era of the slogan, two of which are on the item. Jimmy Saville's contribution to BR's corporate image was still a few years away.

Bristol Parkway opening leaflet
5 Bristol Parkway opening leaflet (D 1.5.72>)

Much perfectly satisfactory, attractive and practical ephemera characterised the era. This is one item highlighting the opening of the first of several 'Parkway' stations, a significant development in competing with road traffic. It shows good use of the 'rail alphabet' that the Corporate Image manual required. It also illustrates a perennial issue, that of the actual timetable typeface. The interior is little different to that of the latest Regional Railways use, despite the apparent attempts by BR in the late 1980s to adopt the 'Easyreader' format. That was far easier on the eye but it occupied considerably more space.

6 Savers Your Travel Guide from London (D 7.7.85>)

The transition from corporate image has proved more drawn out than its advent. The process began in the mid 1980s. In this item the rail alphabet on the slogan 'We're getting there', and the fact that it is not overtly published by a 'business sector' reflect the old era. The new era is shown by the revival of quality in the use of colour artwork, a new typeface elsewhere, and in the language of the item. This evolution can be charted through these leaflets on a year by year basis from the mid 1960s to date. A wide variety of this anonymous artist's work is also known, which really requires charting.

Post Corporate Image

InterCity Luxury Land Cruises
1 Intercity Luxury Land Cruises (D 29.3-19.10.91)

In the 1990s excursion traffic took a new direction, blatantly up market yet resulting in a very worthwhile item of throwaway literature. It used the new Intercity swallow motif adopted from 1987. There was more work from an artist (29 items). Colour photos reveal Intercity's livery on coaches and class 37 locomotive. That livery first appeared on the APT train, and then more generally from 1983, so the lengthy gestation period may be understood. Yet something survives of the 1950s (quite consciously). The coaches are Mark One designs, the famous BR totem is there delineating 'First' in both photo and painting. The photo also adds the old 'No Smoking' triangle. The contemporary fashions of quality, business, and heritage were abundant.

Network Card
2 Network South East One Day Travelcard (D 12.5-31.12.91)

A BR success story, this sector had created a most effective image through its ephemera and livery, as this item demonstrates. And then after less than a decade privatisation wiped it all away. This product was popular, surviving the turmoil, and integrates BR and LT, something not done before its advent. It was launched along with NSE in June 1986 although initially known as the One Day Capitalcard.

An artist has again been busy. Far more study will be required to highlight those individuals for the moment anonymous. This man's style is different to that seen in Intercity and some other NSE material. The items (at least the trains) are all recognisable, and an inviting pastiche of activity and variety has been created.

The NSE commitment to its image has been well publicised. Thus unusually even a spotter's guide details the image and illustrates ephemera in colour.[4]

Provincial Express Newcastle-Liverpool
3 Provincial Express Newcastle-Liverpool (D 14.5-30.9.90)

Intercity, Scotrail, and NSE have all created a strong profile. Many other aspects of BR had also been creating their images in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Arguably the plethora of colours has confused and failed the public, although delighted the enthusiast. The constant changes for Railfreight, and then even the departmental liveries, with a multitude of cryptic logos like Black Diamonds (and that was one of the more obvious) can all be charted via ephemera.

The third passenger business sector of BR had a contorted history which will not be elaborated upon now. Provincial was established to run 'local services'. In a short space of time it wore three liveries, and then became Regional Railways - all trace of which had disappeared by 2000 (apart from some shabby class 101 DMUs left with NWT). In a rare article on ephemera5, a new image was unveiled in April 1990 which was very soon redundant, as were a number of the images of the period (like Network North West and Loadhaul to name but two).

The trains and their matching ephemera became very confused. This item shows the Express logo solely applied to the May 1990 timetables. The Joanna typeface was adopted for Provincial timetables more widely, but is now discarded from the Regional Railways successors. The timetable with its class 156 Sprinter (itself soon displaced from this route) is attractive, but was possibly with its predominant use of silver too easily confused with Intercity's then colours.

Regional Railways Newcastle-Liverpool
4 Regional Railways Newcastle-Liverpool timetable (D 30.9.91-10.5.92)

1991 saw Provincial change into Regional Railways (which had a six year lifespan), and a determined attempt to create a consistent image. This timetable style (originated in 1986) has been refined with the colour band, the parallel tracks logo, and the Regional Railways title. Although the double arrow survives with the last three items, its role is trivial. The design appears to have finally replaced attempts to adopt the Easyreader format, and it has displaced the size of pocket timetable familiar from the mid 1960s. It was adopted from Penzance to Berwick, Scotrail using a variant north thereof. In size the style was still used over some of the same area in 2000.

Industrial Heritage
5 Explore Britain's Industrial Heritage by Train (D 1988)

The ephemera of BR thus underwnt an indian summer. Much of it revolved around our leisure time and thus our social history. That had always been so but from the mid 1980s there was a tremendous effort directed into this end. Several very considerable 'Explore', 'Day out' or 'Discover' marketing initiatives were launched. This item was one such. A free 28 page booklet available across Britain and supported by a series of area leaflets, it is a most attractive piece, and is bound to appreciate. In cost/benefit terms did it pay its way? Such a clear example of what many would classify as a book raises another wide ranging issue: how and should such items feature in the Ottley Bibliography of Railway History?

Rail Rovers Freedom of Scotland
6 Rail Rovers Freedom of Scotland (D 1.4.89-31.3.90)

Modern ephemera has thus become a fascinating subject with easily as much interest as that before it. It remains a vastly neglected primary source. It revolves around train times and tickets. For the latter it was often the only publicly available record. This item exemplifies this historic and contemporary interest. The contemporary because it is a good example of simple and effective balance between text, artwork, photography, local identity,logo and slogan.

The historical because Rail Rovers have been a popular product for decades. This particular ticket was created for 1958, and its annual leaflet charted BR design styles ranging from the imperial to the tacky.

The two themes are linked because this example stood for a corporate image that resisted the fragmentation for some years, with the logo and design standardised nationwide well into the 1990s. Over the last few years much Rover ticket publicity has disappeared. National promotions have been few and far between. Individual tickets do survive but for some almost their only record is buried in the current fares manual. Having been to several key meetings I know exactly how little known the long standing Tyne Valley Day Ranger ticket is in 2000. Publicity ephemera has a role in judging the success of today's railway was much as the historical railway.


I should like to close by looking at a most unusual item, something that I knew nothing of when I first set out this paper nearly a decade too. I show it to be seen in the context of this paper's title. It is probably evident by now that if any attempt were to be made to record the output in the areas we have glimpsed that something parallel to an archaeological dig would be required. The archaeological parallel stands good in another respect. An awful lot of archaeology is tedious recording. In order to reach credible conclusions an inordinate amount of recording is undertaken. If sense is to be made of our subject, the same task has to be undertaken or else the result may veer to guesswork. Long listings of individual route timetables or the history of rover ticket promotion are not purposeless, they will enable judgements to be made about whether for instance the Isle of Wight railways were purposelessly being run down in the 1960s. If we knew what publicity was available, we would have a tool to judge that regular question. The same could be said for The Waverley Route.

The final item shows this archaeological task in a strong light.

The Monotype Recorder
The Monotype Recorder Volume 41 Number 2 Spring 1958
Typography for Hospitality by the British Transport Commission

Frankly I was simply staggered to find this item. Christian Barman (whose name many of us ought to recognise), an authoritative practioner in the generation of railway publicity in the 1940s and 1950s as one could find, wrote a feature in an entire issue of The Monotype Recorder, which was the house magazine of The Monotype Corporation, dedicated solely to BTC work, in the main considering the publicity of the railway owned hotels.

His purpose was to set out as he saw it the seminal and leading role that the BTC were then performing in the generation of publicity. The essence was what in 2000 would be regarded as an unfashionable committment to order leading to a title "Variety Through Symmetry" and a judgement that "No other re-styling of recent years has had a more noticeable effect on typographic fashion".The individual items would if they appeared today certainly attract collector interest. But there is a sting in this tail. Barman had appreciated the value of what he was doing. There was apparently created, both on behalf of the BTC and a second collection for The Monotype Corporation, a reference collection of this material. The publication makes extensive reference to it. Where are these materials today? Possibly they are in a public collection but I do not believe this material is well known where-ever it is. It deserves to be, does it not?

© Robert Forsythe 2000. Except for bona fide individual or academic purposes, this lecture may not be reprinted in whole or in part, or stored, or transmitted by any means, including electronic, without the prior written consent of the author. All commercial use, reproduction or transmission of this lecture is strictly prohibited.

IRS&TH home | University of York | National Railway Museum
IRS&TH / 06 Feb 02


1 - See The Transport Ticket Society. Railway Picture Postcards, Maurice Bray, Moorland, 1986. Railway Tickets, Timetables & Handbills, Maurice Bray, Moorland, 1986. This really does not refer to BR ephemera at all. The Official Railway Postcard Book John Alsop, Author, 1987. Go Great Western A History of Great Western Railway publicity R Burdett Wilson, David and Charles, 1970. Happy as a Sandboy Early Railway Posters, Beverley Cole and Richard Durack, HMSO for NRM, 1990. Landscapes under the Luggage Rack, Greg Norden, GNRP, 1997. Mr Beck's Underground Map, Ken Garland, Capital Transport Publishing, 1994. South for Sunshine, Tony Hillman and Beverley Cole, Capital Transport Publishing, 1999 Speed to the West, Aldo Delicata and Beverley Cole, Capital Transport Publishing, 1999

2 - British Rail Design, James Cousins, Danish Design Council, 1978.

3 - British Rail 1948-1978 A Journey by Design, by Brian Haresnape, Ian Allan, 1979. Despite its title and authority, and considerable use of pre-nationalisation posters and ephemera, BR output is represented by 2 leaflets and 2 posters. BR Diary 1978-85, by John Glover, Ian Allan, 1985. This is a rare example of systematic use of ephemera, with 16 items, and a further item on the cover in colour. Through Limestone Hills, by Bill Hudson, OPC, 1989. This shows good use of ephemera underpinning a broad based railway history.

4 - Network South East Handbook, by David Brown and Alan A Jackson, Capital Transport, 1990.

5 Rail No 118 March 22-April 4 1990. p40 'Provincial A Subtle Change of Identity' explains new images and typefaces, line branding.