(Originally published in The Railway Magazine for September 2011 under the title “C Hamilton Ellis”)
In the first of an occasional series ROBERT HUMM celebrates the life and work of the railway writer and artist C Hamilton Ellis.
Known to his friends as ‘Cuthie’ or ‘Chip’ and to himself as ‘Ham,’ Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis was born in Raynes Park, Surrey, on 9th June 1909. The family home was “Meadholme,” Grand Drive, and his parents were Herbert Moates Ellis, a chartered surveyor and JP, and Jane Elizabeth Ellis, née Hamilton, a professional photographer. Jane was Herbert’s second wife (the first, Marion, had died two years before) and Cuthbert was her only child. Raynes Park was on the London & South Western main line and childhood experiences of LSWR locomotives and carriages, the old Waterloo, and travel to the West Country were to inspire some of Ellis’s most elegaic prose.
There was sufficient money to send young Cuthbert to Westminster School, which in the 1920s was something of a hotbed of railway enthusiasm. One of his contemporaries there was Ian C Allen, later to become an eminent photographer of East Anglian railways. Slightly later alumni included Jack Simmons, Roger Kidner and Michael Robbins whose typescript school notes of railway sightings were the origins of today’s Oakwood Press.
Ellis regarded himself as an indifferent scholar and mediocre sportsman whose self-avowed preference on games days was to discuss the merits of locomotive design rather than racking up runs on the cricket field. Nevertheless Westminster instilled a mastery of the English language and a deep knowledge of the classics that in due course would produce a literary stylist above all others practising in the field of railway writing.
From a young age Cuthbert was taken by his father on extensive rail journeys throughout Europe, to France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, during which he learnt first to recognise and subsequently to appreciate the merits of Continental locomotive design. Of all the railway writers of his era he was the most internationalist in outlook, and was as much at home in discussing the great Maffei Pacifics of the Bavarian State Railways as the finer points of a Drummond T9 or Johnson Spinner.
Westminster was followed by an 18-month spell of further education in Munich where he learnt to speak fluent German, and by three years of classics at Brazenose College, Oxford, which he hated and failed to graduate. His first recorded item of railway writing was a two-sentence paragraph in the “Locomotive Notes” section of The Railway Magazine of June 1925. At the age of 21 his first book appeared.
Regarded today as a somewhat trifling publication, Highland Engines And Their Work, produced in 1930 by the respected Locomotive Publishing Co, was nevertheless a significant contribution to the then-sparse corpus of company locomotive histories.
In 1933, at the age of 24, Ellis was appointed assistant editor of The Railway Magazine, then owned by John Aiton Kay’s Tothill Press. His father was dead and money was short. “I simply barged into Tothill Street and because I could translate French and German technical matter I landed a job at two pounds a week.” There is some evidence that he might have worked here, perhaps in a temporary or unpaid capacity, as early as March 1932. Much of his routine was on the production side but he was able to contribute several signed feature articles each year as well as numerous unsigned news paragraphs, photographs, fillers, sketches, and Why & Wherefore replies. His RM output was meticulously recorded on the flyleaves of his own bound set, now in the possession of the present writer, and these show that he was a major contributor to at least the end of 1941.
His time on the editorial staff of The Railway Magazine and its sister publication Railway Gazette was relatively brief, perhaps no more than three or four years. Staff cuts were imposed and for a brief period Ellis found himself on other, unfamiliar, Tothill Press publications such as The Industrial Chemist and The Crown Colonist. Freelance work was also on offer and he made several contributions to Clarence Winchester’s best-selling 1935 part-work Railway Wonders Of The World and to the 1937 companion series Wonders Of World Engineering. By the late 1930s he had moved to the weekly newspaper Modern Transport
In 1933 Ellis married Olivia Mildred Sargent – otherwise known as Polly. There were no children from the marriage but in 1942 they adopted a boy, Nicholas J Sargent Ellis, who has been most helpful in supplying the writer with background details of family life.
Apart from a collaboration with Charles Hadfield in writing The Young Collector’s Handbook, Ellis’s next books were railway-related novels mainly aimed at adolescent readers. The first was a ripping yarn titled The Grey Men’ described by him as “written in a fortnight in 1938 to pay pressing bills and is the pottiest of pot boilers.” It was followed by The Engineer-Corporal (“written partly in barracks, partly in hospital, a doctored version of the American Civil War Andrews Raid” and subsequently dramatised on BBC Radio), Rails Across The Ranges and Who Wrecked The Mail?
All four were published by Oxford University Press, and were distinguished by colour plates and ink sketches by the young artist Terence Cuneo. His fifth and last novel, a much more mature work, was Dandy Hart published by Victor Gollancz in 1947.
A brief period of military service at the start of the Second World War interrupted his journalistic career. The journalist John F Parke commented wryly “One has to say that in military uniform Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis was hardly a striking figure.” The Railway Magazine has recently recorded an unsuccessful episode in which Ellis was dispatched incognito to Switzerland to observe Germany-bound rail traffic and with the intention of organising a band of saboteurs. Escape from Switzerland to Gibraltar by bicycle through occupied France and neutral Spain seems somehow characteristic of the man.
Military discharge on grounds of poor health – “my insides had not always gone right” – came in the summer of 1940, and after a spell in hospital Ellis rejoined Modern Transport sometime in 1941, where he reported for the best part of a decade upon the whole field of current transport affairs.
To be continued