The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

3 January 2006

The National Collection of Railway Posters
by Beverley Cole
15 November 1999

Beverley Cole has been with the NRM for 16 years working with the collection of Railway Company posters. This now runs to some 7000 examples, covering the period from 1890 to the present. The latest major event which was the subject of advertising by the Railway Companies was the full eclipse of the sun this August - the NRM had a small exhibit comparing these with the equivalent ones for the 1928 event.

Beverley structured her illustrated talk to cover conservation, examples from the collection and then gave a preview of the Southern Railway special exhibit which will shortly appear in the gallery at the NRM.


The early posters tend to be in either double royal - 25 by 40 inches, or quad-royal - 40 by 50 inches. If these arrive at the museum on a card backing, the first step is to arrange to "floated-off" the poster, using a specialist company. Normally, this works well if it has been attached with normal paste, but if fish glue has been used, nothing can be done. Often, when the top poster is removed, there are 2 or 3. Unlike the top copy,these were often only displayed for 3 months, so are usually in excellent condition. Being intended as ephemeral documents, the posters were commonly produced on acidic paper and therefore subject to deterioration, requiring stabilisation before archiving.

Letterpress posters were the first type of publicity produced by the early railways. These usually just announce what times the train left with no attempt to attract customers. The contemporary stagecoach companies followed a different approach, waiting for passengers until they were full, so inevitably the public were confused and the posters were intended to educate the public about the differences.

Over time the advertising poster developed into an art form, with some of the best artists in the country employed. However, this took a long time.

Examples from the Collection

Before the first world war the train was the only way to travel any distance and, as a consequence, there was little pressure to compete, other than against other railway companies. One of the areas of such competion was in the promotion of sea bathing, which expanded rapidly after the 1880s. Most of the resorts catered for all types, but some tried to differentiate themselves by looking to the more select clientel. Surprisingly, Blackpool was initially amongst this select group, but soon sucumbed to all classes and its current success. Southport was promoted as an all-year round resort with carefully crafted explanations about the weather! Inland resorts were also the subject of railway company promotion. Harrogate, for example, doubled its number of visitor in 1849 when the railway arrived. Golf was also popular and the Scottish companies promoted it extensively. Skegness in 1871 had only 500 visitors, by 1907 it had 300,000 - and this was before it became "so bracing"!

After the 1923 groupings, new arrangements brought differencies. The GWR had never been noted for the quality of its posters, but in 1923 it issued "Bathing in February in the Cornish Riviera" with straight-forward black & white photographs . In the 1930s the GWR tried to catch up with the competition by introducing coloured artwork. In 1933, they introduced six posterd from Edward McNight-Caverner of Devon and Cornwall which caused a lot of positive comment. In 1936, an unusual mosaic style was used, also causing a good deal of comment. In 1939, their most famous poster was published " Speed To The West".

The Southern took time to establish unity between its component companies. The Frits posters gave this process a boost by providing factual data on the new combined company network. A "Local and Information Section" at Waterloo Station took over responsibility for the production o these and all other publicity for th new company. Arguably one of the most famous posters "Waterloo Station In War and Peace" by Helen McKei is documented extensively in the NRM with a comprehensive collection of drafts and watercolours.

The first posters of the new LMS followed the examples of its earlier consituents, but they quickly changed. Norman Wilkinson became the adverrsing manager, and he used members of the Royal Academy to design its posters. This allowed him to compete with the LNER. They had a theme of advertising the industries they served, and the workers on the railway. There were 18 posters in the series. The Carlisle poster by Maurice Greiffenhagen was particularly popular in the USA.

The LNER issued its first poster of York Minster. This was followed over the next few months by a range of very colourful posters. Tom Purvis used lots of colour with bold simple designs to get the attention of travellers. The NRM has a large collection of this artists work. Beverley is preparing a biography of him and hi work. Frank Newbold used a series of characatures of animals in the frolics around the region, and these were identified by numbers designed to attract people to seek out the full series.

Some of the best advertising was used to stress the speed of the trains. The first streamlined trains were highly distinctive and stimulated a lot of publicity. Both the LMS and LNER also stressed the comfort of their carriages and services offered to passengers. Several posters highlighted the restaurant sevices - including the chef and waiters. This was a reaction against the continuous poor reputation of railway food - for example in 1923 the Birmingham Post carried a report of the 2000 year-old poutltry found in Tutenkamuns tomb - and jokingly said that the railway companies had already tendered for it for their buffet rooms! Whether the new posters preveted a repeat of such stories is questionable.

In 1948 the four railway companies merged to form the British Transport Commission. But the holiday poster also made a welcome return after the wartime austerity, although fewer people were now travelling by rail.

Southern Railway Special Exhibition

A new exhibition at the NRM is about to start under the title "South for Sunsine". The exhibition starts with the story of the merger of the three constituent companies. At that stage King Arthur class engines, the process of electrification, and stunning viaducts, were all used to promote the services of the company. The next part of the exhibition concentrates on "Sunny South Sam" who didn't really exist by was promoted as a man of the people. The famous poster with the boy speaking to te engine driver wis also included in the exhibtion. The boy is Ronald Witt, who emigrated to Canada shortly after the photograph was taken. Beverley has received at least 10 people claiming to be that child. The poster was even translated into Italian to convince pople there that England really was sunny! The middle-years includes posters of Eastbourn, Ventnor on the Isle of Weight, Brighton and Hove, and "Sunset over Guernsey". Winter sunshine was also promoted to te claim that extra sun was available in the south. Hiking was also promoted, a booklet advised peaple what to do and not to do - such as not to eat the crops -"you are not a locust!" The final part of the exhiblition promotes the bathing beauties - from Bournemouth, Brighton, Devon - and finishes with The Golden Arrow.


During questions we heard that several TV programmes have been made of the posters and bot the Science Museum and NRM web sites have samples of the posters. We asked whether Beverley will produce a sequel t her "Big Four" poster book, for the BR period, but the choice is not hers, the museum is the one to decide whether to release the copyright for the posters. Copyright was passed to the NRM on privatisation in 1995. The new privatised companies are very good at sending copies of their current posters to the NRM, and if the museum sees anything which is important to note, Beverley is told. There are, of course, other forms of advertising e.g. on video, webs, tv and radio, and there remains a question about how to collect and archive these.

We asked whether there are some gaps in the archive, and were told that only the GWR kept a full record of its posters, none of the others did, so it is always possible that something novel will appear at any time. However, once the posters are found, there are entered on an index in the museum, all held on computer. So if anyone comes across something which may be a new find it can quickly be confirmed by the museum. If you wish to research a particular example, an appointment can be made to check on any section of the Museum's collection.

Until the 1930s none of the professional artists wanted to become graphic artists. It was only when the LMS paid 100 guineas for their Royal Academy series that the atists began to wake up to the possibilities. A recent well-known artists, Terence Cuneo, established his career as a graphics artists for the then new BR. He only started to put in a mouse in his paintings in 1953, this was the series he did for the Coronation. His early railway paintings therefore do not carry the mouse - so beware if you are "hunting the mouse".

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