Railway posters from the Golden Era of British Railways

For many railway enthusiasts and collectors of railway posters, the period between 1923 and 1948 is the Golden Age of the Railways. The passing of The Railway Act 1921 led to the ‘grouping’ of many of Britain’s diverse railway companies. They were amalgamated in to four new companies, known collectively as the ‘Big Four’.  The ‘Big Four’ comprised of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), the London, Midland, Scottish Railway (LMS), the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the Southern Railway (SR).

London, Midland & Scottish Railway posters

The LMS become the largest of the new railway companies. In fact, it became the largest transport organisation in the world, and after the Post Office, Britain’s largest employer. Publicity for the LMS fell on the shoulders of TC Jeffries who was the head of advertising and publicity. Norman Wilkinson, a Cambridge born artist, advised Jeffries that a new approach to poster design was needed. They both understood the impact ‘fine art’ posters by artists such as Hugo d’Alesi, Rene Pean, Roger Broders and Gustav Krollman had made on the European and North American markets. So, Wilkinson recommended that simplifying messages and using fine art in the LMS’s poster designs, would be the way forward. The idea worked! The railway posters were a huge success with the public. Ticket sales increased and the successful collaboration between Wilkinson and Jeffrey’s led to the sale of 12,000 posters direct to the public.

The three remaining companies were quick to realise the success of LMS’s newly styled railways posters. Promotion and publicity became the order of the day. The geographic locations of the four companies meant they were only nominally in direct competition with each other. However, a great rivalry still existed between them with each  company vying to offer the newest and fastest locomotives and ever better standards of passenger comfort.  This was achieved through a stream of beautifully illustrated  postcards, jigsaw puzzles, books, carriage prints and railway station posters.

Over the next two decades thousands of railway posters were produced by all four railway companies. A vibrant and wide ranging collection of posters would feature images as diverse as sunny seaside towns, beautiful country landscapes and mountain scenes. They also included bustling city centres, historic buildings,  castles and seascapes. The LMS’s locomotives, trains, ferries, hotels and ships would also provide an exciting, romantic view of Britain and rail travel at its most superlative.

Southern Railway posters

Southern Railway was the smallest of the Big Four railway companies with just over 2000 miles of railtrack. Despite its small size, its commuter lines around London ensured it carried more than a quarter of Britain’s passenger traffic. Southern Railway’s main line, the London-Brighton line, was the first electrified inter-city route It was also the largest electrified main line railway system in the world. The network linked London with Kent and the South West of England. It reached southern coastal towns including Southampton, Newhaven, Folkestone, Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings. Padstow railway station in Cornwall was Southern Railway’s most westerly point. In addition, lines to the Dover and Southampton channel ports also gave passengers access to France and Europe.

Artists including Edmond Vaughn, Joseph Feher, TD Kerr, William Spencer Bagdatopoulos embraced an art deco poster style for some railway poster campaigns. They advertised the ‘Sunny South’ with posters such as South for Sunshine and Sunshine Holidays in the South. And, perhaps, a little tongue in cheek, South for Winter Sunshine! Southern Railway were also keen to promote, what became, their most famous trains. These would include  The Golden Arrow, The Brighton Belle, The Night Ferry, The Bournemouth Belle and the Atlantic Coast Express. However, the largest selection of poster designs came in the form of early destination posters. Designed by artists like William Spradberry, George Ayling and Kenneth Shoesmith. Beautiful images of seaside resorts of the south and south west such as Bude, Exmouth, Ilfracombe, Falmouth, Eastbourne and Folkestone were created to encourage tourism through rail travel.

Great Western Railway posters

The completion of the Great Western Railway is considered to be one of the greatest feats of Victorian Britain. The British civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed by a group of Bristol merchants to construct a railway line from Bristol to London. The overcoming of many obstacles involved the building of many major bridges, tunnels, viaducts, hotels and the impressive Temple Meads and Paddington railway stations, leading the line to become known as God’s Wonderful Railway.

The main line opened in 1841 and by the time of the Big Four grouping, the GWR provided a considerable network of lines throughout England and Wales. With links as far afield as Birmingham, Crewe, Liverpool, Manchester, North and South Wales, Penzance and Plymouth. A crossing from Fishguard in South Wales to Rosslare provided access to Ireland and trips to New York were possible on the ‘Fastest route via Plymouth’.

Without coal, iron, steel or textile industry’s to depend upon, the Great Western cleverly marketed itself as ‘The Holiday Line’. It offered easy, relatively speedy access to coastal towns across the south of England. After the introduction of the King class locomotives, a train could leave Paddington and arrive at Plymouth, 245 miles away, in just four hours. A time only marginally improved upon now, almost 100 years later.

Respected and renowned artists including Frank Sherwin, Claude Buckle, Alker Tripp, Leonard Cusden and Ronald Lampitt provided glimpses of Cornwall, Devon, the Welsh coast and many other seaside towns on the south coast. The posters encouraged tourism and quickly transformed many towns in to popular seaside resorts. Health and relaxation was advised by doctors and encouraged by the rail companies. Consequently posters for southern spa towns such as Bath, Cheltenham, Leamington and Droitwich were created. In addition, the return trip was not neglected. Many railway posters promoting travel from home and abroad were produced by all four major railway companies to encourage travel back in to the nation’s capitol.

Many of the Great Western Railways trains were as famous in the South as the Flying Scotsman was in the North. Between 1929 and 1932, The Cheltenham Spa Express, nicknamed the Cheltenham Flyer became the fastest train in the world. First in 1929, covering the Swindon to Paddington in 75 minutes at an average speed of just under 62mph. Then again in 1932, at an average speed of 81.6mph, once again making the run the fastest in the world. However, probably the most famous of all the GWR trains is the Cornish Riviera Express that ran between London and Penzance – non-stop to Plymouth – from 1 July 1904 and featured on a Charles Mayo poster in 1937.

London & North Eastern Railway posters

With the ‘grouping’, The London & North Eastern Railway became the second largest of the four companies. With a total route mileage of 6,590 miles, the area covered London, East Anglia, the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the north east of England. The East Coast Main Line ran from London to Edinburgh via York and Newcastle upon Tyne with routes from Edinburgh running to Aberdeen and Inverness.

The LNER predominantly depended on heavy industry, In fact two thirds of it’s income was earned from freight. Despite this, the public image portrayed by the LNER was more often, one of glamour, romance, elegance and speed. New powerful locomotives and luxurious carriages built by Sir Nigel Gresley were regularly employed by the LNER publicity department. Under the supervision of LNER’s first advertising manager, William M. Teasdale, record breaking achievements were not only captured on railway posters but also in the public’s imagination. The flagship locomotive Flying Scotsman was employed most notably on the long-distance London to Edinburgh service. In November 1934 it became the first steam locomotive to be officially authenticated at 100mph. It was superb publicity.

Just a year later, Gresley introduced four new streamlined Class A4 locomotive. The trains were modern, luxurious and fast! At that time, they set a new standard for speed in Britain. The train from London’s King’s Cross to Newcastle would become known as The Silver Jubilee. Taking its trial run in September 1935, pulled by the Silver Link, the Silver Jubilee set an unexpected new world steam record of 112mph.The LNER were quick to utilise its success. A great looking locomotive, a new world record and a journey time reduced to just four hours.

A total of thirty five Class A4 locomotives were built. The Mallard is probably the most famous. In 1938 on a test run on the Peterborough and Grantham section of the East Coast main line, the Mallard set the official record for the highest top speed attained by a steam locomotive, reaching 126 mph. It’s a world steam speed record that stands to this day. Perhaps, just as impressive, is the fact that the entire class of locomotives was still in service into the mid 1960s.

Teasdale commissioned many top designers and artists including Charles ‘Shep’ Shepherd, Tom Purvis, Bryan De Grineau and Frank Mason to promote its services and destinations. Particularly to encourage the public to visit Scotland and the East Coast summer holiday destinations. Just as Jeffries had done for the LMS, Teasdale gave his artists a free hand with the design of the posters.

The LNER and the Gill Sans font

In 1929, the LNER chose the font Gill Sans as the standard typeface for the company. The simple, elegant font style soon helped to form part of the company’s branding. It soon appeared on locomotive nameplates and station sign, as well as printed literature, timetables and, of course, advertising posters. In fact, the font worked so well, that in 1948, Gill Sans remained the font of choice when the ‘Big Four’ were amalgamated into British Railways. But that’s a story for another time!

We’ve put together a short video featuring several of our British Railway posters. You can view it here https://youtu.be/8PhlJcfOGsg