2018 Transport History Book Of The Year awards evening

The 2018 RCHS Transport History Book of the Year Awards presentation ceremony took place on Friday 4th May at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, Wrexham during the Society’s AGM weekend, in front of an audience of more than 70 members and guests.

This year the judges had a shortlist of seven titles to assess, although with two of them being two-volume works, that made nine books in all.  These were drawn from the 91 titles that were reviewed in the Journal, a slight increase in number compared to the previous year’s total of 85.

As ever, new publications about railway-related subjects were plentiful and the judges selected three for consideration.

GWR Goods Train Working Volumes 1 & 2, by Tony Atkins, published by Crecy Publishing, each volume priced at £27.50, and including a loose reproduction map of GWR goods stations dated 1933.

These two hard-back volumes had to be treated as one work because volume 2 is a direct continuation of volume 1.  Their subject is the organisation and operation of goods traffic as it evolved during the existence of the company.  The conveyance of goods required a highly integrated system organised with military precision.   Timetabled local and long-distance services connected all points on the network, including multiple interchange points with other railway companies, with the aim of getting the goods to the consignee as swiftly as possible – usually overnight on six days per week for general merchandise.  Perishable traffic and livestock had even greater urgency, of course.

The author has organised his material into 25 thematic chapters, ranging through topics such as the service timetable, marshalling of trains, wagons, engines, couplings and brakes, the guard’s duties, control offices, shunting and marshalling yards, coal and mineral traffic, special traffic, dangerous goods and more.  Every physical aspect of the work is examined and explained.

Heavily illustrated, mostly with photographs of goods trains and reproductions of internal documents, the latter include such intriguing items as a 14-page set of instructions for shunt-horse drivers and horse-keepers.

Perhaps more a book for the railway enthusiast rather than the historian, there is for example little discussion of the commercial aspects of the freight business.  The role of the Railway Clearing House in inter-company working is only briefly touched upon.  Whether the practice described was representative of other railway companies or was innovative or derivative of course cannot be revealed by a study based on a single company.  Nevertheless it provides a valuable and rare insight into how one major company undertook this massive logistical challenge in the years before the HGV and motorway network took over so much of the nation’s freight business.

George Carr Glyn: Railwayman and Banker, by David Hodgkins, published by Wolffe Press, priced at £25.

A heavyweight paperback of almost 500 pages, this is an extensively researched biographical study of a hitherto neglected figure in early railway history.  On hearing of Glyn’s death, Edward Watkin commented ‘When the history of railways comes to be written the name of Lord Wolverton (Glyn was elevated to the peerage in 1869) will stand out as conspicuously on the page as, or more so, than that of Stephenson or any of the other pioneers of our noble industry’.  Posterity does not always play out as anticipated.  In the event, the engineers of the early ‘heroic’ phase of railway development have attracted far more attention from historians than the men of business.  More than 140 years has passed since his death before this first full biography of Glyn has appeared.

Glyn was born into a City family, his father being senior partner in a private bank and had served as Lord Mayor of London in 1798.  In his turn, George Carr developed the bank to be one of the two largest private banks in London, and it became known as the railway bank from the number of companies it served.  It was said of a London banker that ‘Banking is a watchful but not a laborious trade …  A certain part of his time, and a considerable part of his thoughts, he can readily devote to other pursuits’.  Thus it was that Glyn had a parallel career, becoming involved successively in the promotion of St Katherine’s Dock, the London & Birmingham Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada.

The author has mined the archives of RBS, which purchased Glyn Mills in 1939, and the railway company records at the National Archives, but many other archives have been explored too, giving confidence that the book is as complete as it could be.  Given such a mass of material, the author has adopted a thematic approach, broadly in chronological order.  Starting with biographical material there follow chapters on banking for each decade, interposed with chapters on Glyn’s other activities.  Of particular interest, from our perspective as transport historians, these include his chairmanship of the London & Birmingham Railway and subsequently the LNWR, his management of a major joint stock company, creation of the Railway Clearing House, modelled on the bank clearing system that he was already familiar with, Glyn’s relationship with government and his pragmatic views on the wasteful effects of competition and how this helped to shape the developing British railway system.

Readers lacking a financial background may not find it easy to understand some of the material about banking and Glyn’s relationships with the Government, the Treasury and the Bank of England.  Perhaps City financial matters have always been opaque to outsiders?  However, there is a comprehensive bibliography for those wanting to delve deeper.  Arguably some of Glyn’s correspondence quoted is lacking context, though it does serve to give an idea of his range of interests and contacts and may well be useful to future researchers.  It has to be said that the book needed more careful proof-reading.  There are good maps and a comprehensive index.

Festiniog Railway by Peter Johnson (2 volumes), published by Pen & Sword Transport, Vol 1 £30, Vol 2 £40.

A sumptuous history of a small but influential railway, Pen & Sword have excelled themselves in terms of production values.  Vol 1 takes the story from inception to 1920 and Vol 2 continues it up to 2014.  Hence the two volumes have been treated as one work.

Histories of this railway have been published before but the author has based his account on primary sources including the Festiniog’s own archives which include surviving minute books, directors’ reports to shareholders and locomotive repair books.  In addition he has consulted contemporary newspapers, Board of Trade and Ministry of Transport records, Parliamentary records and the engineering press.  It is difficult to think of anything substantial that might have been missed.

Volume 1 covers the commercial heyday of the line during the 19th century.  Initially a gravity worked tramway designed to bring slate from the inland quarries to a shipping point on the coast, steam locomotives were introduced in 1863 and passenger services commenced shortly thereafter.  The Board of Trade Inspector was sufficiently impressed by the potential of what he had seen to present a paper to the ICE in 1865.  This in turn brought delegations from abroad to assess the potential of narrow gauge railways for their own countries.

Of course the profitability of the railway’s slate traffic attracted the attention of the main line railway companies and gradually the Festiniog’s trade was nibbled away, leading to a slow decline from the latter part of the 19th century.  Volume 2 chronicles the final years down to closure and abandonment in 1946 and then the remarkable revival as a heritage attraction.  Recent history is more difficult to write, not least because it is within living memory and readers may have their own view of events.  The author has again relied mainly on primary sources, principally the directors’ minutes and annual reports.  Events are dealt with in chronological order.  The disadvantage of this approach is that the narrative skips from topic to topic then revisits them in subsequent chapters – this part feels a bit undigested.

As already mentioned, production values are high.  Most of the photographs in Vol. 2 are in colour.  There are excellent maps on the endpapers, numerous appendices in both volumes which include financial information and deposited plans, bibliographies and indices.

This was not an easy decision for the judges but after discussion they agreed that the winner of the 2018 Railway Book of the Year award was George Carr Glyn.  Society President Mike Clarke presented the author, David Hodgkins, with his certificate and cheque for £300.

As has sometimes happened in previous years, there were no new books on canals or waterways that scored highly enough to make the shortlist, so the second award was in the catch-all category of anything that isn’t railway or waterways history.  Two titles attracted attention.

London Carriers and Coaches 1637-1690, by Dorian Gerhold, self-published at the very modest price of £7.

The core of this A4 paperback book consists of transcriptions of three contemporary lists of 17th century carriers operating into London from as far away as Lancashire, Yorkshire and even Westmorland.  The lists have been sorted into county order and record the London inn they arrived at and departed from and the frequency of the service.  The two later lists, from 1681 and 1690, distinguish between carriers by packhorse and by waggon and also include a new innovation, coach-masters.  A seven-page introduction discusses why the lists were made, provides information about their authors, gives details of supporting evidence to verify their accuracy and goes into details of the economics of packhorse compared with waggon transport.

The significance of these lists is to show that a reliable, year-round, country-wide network of inland transport existed long before turnpiking began, albeit for light, relatively valuable goods.

This is the raw material of history, conveniently made much more accessible in book form.  The material has already been utilised by the author in his earlier 2007 RCHS prize-winning book, but it would be an invaluable aid, for example, to anyone starting to research early transport history in their own locality.

The Edinburgh Horse Tram: nineteenth to twenty-first century, by Alan W Brotchie, published by Stenlake Publishing at £40.

A very nicely produced and well-illustrated hardback.  The first hundred pages or so (titled ‘Chronology’) tell the history of Edinburgh’s horse tram system, mostly based on press reports and local authority records.  A second section gives details of the vehicle fleet and finally there is a description of the recent restoration of tramcar no. 23, which survived as a garden summer house for many years.

The Edinburgh system was built under Act of Parliament by a private company.  The City Council had an option to acquire ownership after 20 years but this did not extend to the sections of routes beyond the city boundary.  When in 1891 Edinburgh Council decided to exercise its option, the tracks in Leith, Portobello and Midlothian were not included.  A separate company was formed to operate these sections of routes and although tramcars ran through, crews and horses had to be changed at the boundary.  Relations between the Edinburgh and Leith authorities were fractious, resulting in perpetuation of this inconvenience for travellers for another 20 years.

The hilly nature of some routes caused operational problems.  Additional trace horses had to be used to assist trams up-hill in various places.  A social experiment bringing boys from Harris to work as trace boys was a disaster and they were rapidly returned to their native island.

Experiments with steam and electric power were conducted but did not find favour, despite the encouragement of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was vociferous about the welfare of tram horses.  The Edinburgh City authorities resisted electrification, apparently not wanting the streets disfigured by overhead wires.  Instead they eventually opted for conversion to the already outmoded cable system and the last horse tram ran in 1907.  As the author pithily comments in his introduction, questionable decisions about the city’s public transport go back a long way!

From the historian’s perspective, perhaps some consideration of the social and economic effects of the trams would have been welcome, as would a good map identifying the streets mentioned in the text, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the city.  However, accounts of horse tram systems are rare and the author is to be congratulated on documenting a little-known area of urban transport history.

The judges’ decision was to award the prize in this category to The Edinburgh Horse Tram.    The author, Alan Brotchie, was present to receive his certificate and cheque for £300.

The third award was for Popular Transport Book of the Year.  This year there were two books short-listed in this category.

The Canal belongs to me: the life of a towpath tractor driver, by Tony Byfield, published by London Canal Museum, £5

This little A5 landscape-format booklet is a transcription of a fascinating oral history interview which describes working life on the Regents Canal back in the 1950s, when horses had been replaced by towing tractors.  It describes the way of life, the camaraderie and tricks of the trade, narrated by someone who clearly loved the work.  Whether any of the stories related grew longer in the telling, we may of course never know, but such is oral history.  The enthusiastic reviewer commented that the book’s 48 pages contain more detail than in some works five times the length.

The booklet includes photographs and a map of the Regents Canal.

A Most Deliberate Swindle: how Edwardian fraudsters pulled the plug on the electric bus and left our cities gasping for breath, by Mick Hamer, published by Reddoor Publishing, £10.99

In the early years of the 20th century operators and city authorities were seeking an alternative to the horse as motive power for urban public transport. The emerging technologies on offer included the internal combustion engine, steam power and the battery-powered electric vehicle.  The Electrobus used heavy lead-acid batteries but proved to be operationally viable in London on defined routes and with a slick battery-changing facility in place.   The advantages of clean, quiet electric vehicles compared with the noise and pollution of the petrol engined bus are only too apparent.  However the Electrobus disappeared from history.

The author presents an explanation which reads like a crime who-dunnit, with a cast of professional city fraudsters worthy of the best crime fiction.  The story has been extensively researched amongst company returns, records of court cases and the press, including the ‘reptile press’ – journals published by unscrupulous operators designed to offload dubious company shares onto unwitting members of the public.  These people operated in many fields – whatever the current emerging trend, be it electric buses, natural rubber, oil or whatever, the fraudsters were there alongside the legitimate business people, but with the aim of duping the gullible to part with their money which was then creamed off for the promoters’ personal use.

The story is compellingly told, without too much journalistic hyperbole.  Sources are comprehensively annotated.  In an epilogue the author speculates on what might have been had the Electrobus been promoted by honest businessmen.  Where would we be now if electric vehicles and batteries had benefited from an additional century of technical development, and what difference would that have made to our cities and public health generally?  We can never answer that question but it offers much food for thought.

Produced as a budget-priced paperback, inevitably the quality of the paper and illustrations does not compare with more expensive publications but that is a very minor quibble.  As one of the judges commented, this is the sort of book that makes you want to read it at one sitting.

The judges’ decision was to award the prize to A Most Deliberate Swindle  The President presented Mick Hamer with his certificate and cheque for £300.

So finally, we come to naming the overall winner of the David St John Thomas silver cup and prize for 2018 Transport History Book of the Year. The judges had to compare the merits of the three category winners in dealing with their chosen subjects, taking into account factors including the quality and originality of research, the quality of the writing and presentation, and their overall contribution to the field of transport history.

David Hodgkins’ work on George Carr Glyn juxtaposes information about the national financial and economic situation with (to transport historians) more familiar railway history, throwing new light on events such as the 1847 and 1865 financial crises.  The judges felt this to be an important work, setting railway history into its broader context in a way seldom done, and highlighting the significant part played by a figure previously rather neglected by posterity.  They did think that a book of this stature perhaps deserved to be in hard covers, but no doubt cost implications dictated otherwise.

Alan Brotchie’s handsomely-presented study of the Edinburgh Horse Tram system explored a little-researched area of urban transport history and also impressed on account of the sheer amount of information presented.

Mick Hamer’s investigation of the Electrobus fraud explored an area of transport history that has been left undisturbed for a century and is a quite compelling read.  Sadly we learn that there was an Edwardian equivalent to the unscrupulous criminal element that currently plagues internet users.

After much consideration, the judges agreed that George Carr Glyn, Railwayman and Banker by David Hodgkins was their 2018 Book of the Year.  Mike Clarke presented David with the David St John Thomas trophy and a further cheque for £300.

All photos: Tim Edmonds