The Inimitable Mr Ellis Part 3

Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis : Self-portrait sketch, 1965. Neil Sinclair collection.

The postwar Railway Magazine carried nine more of Hamilton Ellis’s colour plates though by then most of his work was reserved for his own books , or those of other authors that he favoured, or private clients. Painting is what he enjoyed most, and, although his early work was done largely for pleasure, in later years he regarded himself primarily as a commercial artist, not a writer. He had a family to provide for and soon learnt that the potential earnings from writing railway history rarely justified the time spent on research. Painting, he found, was more rewarding both financially and in the giving of personal satisfaction.

“Up Express Approaching Ely In 1914” was perhaps the best of Ellis’s 1950s paintings for the Railway Magazine. This one appeared in the July 1955 issue.

About the time he left Modern Transport in the late 1940s Ellis became the sole beneficiary of a family trust fund. Although apparently not large it gave him a degree of independence from continuous paid employment. In the words of his son “he worked for others where necessary, and wrote or painted full time when he wished.” All the same it was necessary to be careful with money and he himself once recorded a remark by his bank manager: “Painting trains seems a hazardous way to earn a living, Mr Ellis.”

One of the spells of employment was as theme convenor for the maritime exhibits – his second love after railways was ships (and airships) – during 1949 to 1951 for the Festival Of Britain. In the early 1960s Ellis was employed by the BR Eastern Region Publicity Department to feed favourable stories and feature articles to the press. From time to time he took part in publicity promotions such as the ER/Ian Allan Great Eastern Progress Chasers programme for boys. That all came to an end with the arrival of Dr Beeching, who tended to look askance at the proliferation of non-revenue earning activities by the Regions.

Lecturing was part of the Liverpool Street job. Peter Coghill, then at school in Devon, remembers inviting him to talk to his railway society on the Pullman Car Company. Ellis thought that this would not go down well with Eastern Region and replied “If you would take an alternative subject which has my superior officer’s blessing Wednesday would be alright.” So Grenville College got a talk instead on the Great Eastern Railway, accompanied by a Claud Hamilton splasher casting “which looks quite toney on the lecturer’s table.”


To aid recognition on arrival, Ellis gave a delightful pen portrait: “I am 54, 5ft 8ins, wear horn-rimmed spectacles, and have a short grey beard. A large Victorian watch-chain adorns my waistcoat-part; in fact I might be likened to a London & South Western Officer in the reign of Edward VII.”


It was George Dow, then Chief Public Relations & Publicity Officer of BR London Midland Region, who in 1951 gave Ellis his first major art commission, a group of 24 paintings to be reproduced as carriage compartment prints, Given the generic title of Travel In, the series was something of a breakthrough. Carriage prints were nothing new, but before then had been either sepia photographs of holiday resorts and beauty spots, or promotional material for rail travel by well-known commercial studios.

One of the colourful carriage prints CHE produced for George Dow at British Railways

Their subject matter chosen by Dow personally, the Travel In prints showed the development of locomotives and trains of the LMSR constituent companies at five-year intervals between 1835 and 1920, and portrayed in classic Ellis style. Today, as with all carriage prints, they are highly collectable. For many years the original paintings adorned George Dow’s office and today are at the National Railway Museum

Further public recognition as a painter came with a one-man show at the Museum Of Transport at Clapham, and further shows in the 1970s at the Portal Gallery in Mayfair. One of Ellis’s early private patrons was Peter Allen, author, explorer of remote railways, collector of note, and rapidly heading towards the chairmanship of Britain’s largest company, Imperial Chemical Industries. It is significant that Ellis’s finest painting, a colourful pre-grouping scene at Newport, appeared on the jacket of Allen’s Rails In The Isle Of Wight.

Portal Gallery catalogue of Hamilton Ellis’s exhibition “The Royal Trains”.

The catalogue of Ellis’s “Royal Trains” exhibition, with a manuscript note by him.

Another patron was Professor David Dilks, who recalls a spur-of-the-moment purchase of one of the exhibits at the first Portal show, of Royal Scot Lancashire Witch near Harthope. Later Professor Dilks commissioned Ellis to paint the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire station at Shrewsbury Abbey, a picture that later appeared as the centre spread in The Railway Magazine of October 1976.

Of Ellis’s technical proficiency as a locomotive illustrator there is no doubt. His ability to capture ornate (and sometimes elusive) Victorian liveries and engineering detail is generally held in high regard, though few would rank him alongside Terence Cuneo, David Shepherd or Philip Hawkins in capturing the energy and spirit of the railway age. In other words his was not Great Art. That is unlikely to have bothered him: his legacy is a vast permanent record – perhaps four or five hundred paintings and as many again monochrome sketches – of how the railways looked in their great days. No other railway painter has achieved such an output.

33 Norfolk Square, Brighton. Ellis lived here in 1958.

There are also divergent opinions about the figures that appear in most of the paintings, those entities that one writer has unkindly called The Woodentops – the ramrod straight footplatemen, the demure courting couples by the lineside, the attentive paterfamilias ushering his wife into a first-class compartment. The present writer believes that it is possible to take a more charitable view and at the same time sympathise with the artist’s predicament.

His main purpose was to show locomotives and trains in detail, yet he was aware that a succession of unalleviated three-quarter front views can become tedious for the viewer. The lineside figures add variety without detracting from the main subject. We must also remember that Victorian and Edwardian society was highly formal by today’s standards. Gravity and seemliness were the watchword for those who ruled all the oceans and a quarter of the world’s population. It might also be added that Ellis’s stylised depictions have an honourable precedent in the popular American 19th century Currier & Ives prints, or the naive traditional decoration of canal narrowboats.

To be concluded

Portal Gallery catalogue of Hamilton Ellis’s exhibition “The Royal Trains” : the back of the catalogue

The Inimitable Mr Ellis Part 2

C Hamilton Ellis, aged 28, at Leamington locomotive depot, 12 December 1937. 2-6-2T 3163 in the background.

Hamilton Ellis’s breakthrough in the writing of railway history came in 1947. The publisher Philip Unwin, himself something of a railway aficionado, was looking for a new kind of book for his firm, George Allen & Unwin, that would be an antidote to the prevailing dreariness of train travel in post-war austerity Britain: bright illustrations and evocative descriptions of the glories of the Pre-Grouping age. Ellis responded with The Trains We Loved for the Christmas season.

The unforgettable opening words set the tone. “Surely it was always summer when we made our first railway journeys!…. Sun shone on the first blue engine to be seen, a Somerset & Dorset near Poole; there was sunshine, most dazzling, on a Great Western brass dome; sun shone on an extraordinary mustard-coloured engine of the London Brighton & South Coast; and he certainly shone upon the London & South Western!” We are then led into the delights of the Victorian and Edwardian era, Paddington’s odour of fish and disinfectant, the mahogany and plush of first class compartments, dawn over the Grampians, and the locomotive liveries of remote Irish railways.

The public loved the combination of nostalgia and colour reproductions of the author’s paintings, the first of them to be used in book form, and The Trains We Loved remained in print for the next thirty years. It was one of the best-selling railway books of all time and Ellis was able to buy his first house out of the royalties. Among a multitude of his fans the book introduced the librarian George Ottley to railways (and eventually to a lifetime’s work, the majestic 3-volume Bibliography Of British Railway History). At the age of 13 the writer found The Trains We Loved in the school library and his first reading convinced him that there was life beyond collecting engine numbers. Somehow, without saying as much, Ellis conveyed the impression he had stood alongside Dugald Drummond, William Dean and Matthew Holmes, and it came as a surprise to discover many years later that the author was still in his thirties when the Trains We Loved first appeared.

Other books for George Allen & Unwin on similar themes followed presently: Some Classic Locomotives (1949, described by the publisher as a series of intimate essays), Four Main Lines (1950), and The Beauty Of Old Trains (1952), though none quite so successful commercially as their predecessor – the writer recalls a shop in Carlisle still offering new copies of the sole edition of Four Main Lines in the early Seventies.

A far more valuable piece of scholarship was the publication in 1949 of Nineteenth Railway Carriages, a hitherto unresearched subject upon which Ellis came rightly to be regarded at the leading expert. Nowadays rolling stock histories pour forth in unstoppable torrents, nearly all of them heavy on facts and thin on analysis. Ellis managed to combine a depth of research – for years he had been sketching and recording carriage details – with an assured lightness of touch, explaining how the manners and conventions of Victorian society were fundamental to the design of the vehicles in which they travelled. A much enlarged edition, Railway Carriages In The British Isles 1830-1914, appeared in 1965 and he also wrote upon The Royal Trains in 1975.

Ellis’s four books on railway carriages.

The 1950s and early 1960s were the golden years of Hamilton Ellis’s literary and artistic output. While continuing to write regularly for Allen & Unwin, a new force in railway literature had emerged in the late 1940s and attracted his attention. Ian Allan, originally the publisher of the phenomenally successful ABC spotters’ companions and other popular paperbacks, was now moving into the field of hardback railway history. In 1953 Ellis provided Allan with his first substantial company history, The Midland Railway, followed by The North British Railway in 1955, The London Brighton & South Coast Railway in 1960 and London Midland & Scottish (“the hardest book I ever wrote” he told Sir Peter Allen) in 1970.

The Midland history set the tone for a decade or more of that type of writing by Ellis himself, and by O S Nock and Cecil J Allen. Heavily skewed toward the locomotive and engineering side, full of colourful incidents and personalities, today they are frowned upon by academic transport historians who dislike their lack of source references, bibliographies and other scholarly apparatus. Yet Ellis knew what his readers wanted, he had absorbed more locomotive lore than most of them, and was careful to describe his books as no more than ‘mechanical histories.’ We must also remember that he was very much a pioneer in this field at a time sixty years ago when primary sources of information were in shorter supply than today.

The pair of volumes comprising Ellis’s most enduring history.

Despite the limited amount of research materials he was able to prove himself a historian of no mean ability when the first volume of his 2-part British Railway History 1830-1947 appeared in 1954. While not perfect, its breadth of coverage of the whole of the railway age has not yet been surpassed, and it is this work above all others that stands as his literary memorial.

After his period at Modern Transport Ellis produced comparatively little further railway journalism. In the mid-1950s there were two short pieces for The Railway Magazine, eleven for Trains Illustrated, and one article for Trains Annual, The best of this work was Unforgotten Journeys, a delightful 7-part series in Train Illustrated that appeared between February 1954 and January 1956. No mere recitation of services and locomotives, they were full of typical Ellis touches: the eating of cold chicken on the night express to Cologne, the atmosphere of wartime Waterloo, an argument with a recalcitrant French stationmistress over obscure train connections in Britanny, Gaelic-speaking engine crews on the Oban line.

A little known interlude was his spell as a features and leader writer for the Daily Telegraph some time in the middle 1950s. This employment came to an abrupt end after an inadvisable reference to “wealthy men driving white Jaguars” caught the attention of the editor, Sir Colin Coote, who owned such a limousine.

All this time Ellis had been honing his skills as a railway artist and draughtsman. There was an artistic streak in the family – grandfather Frederick had been a close friend of the great William Morris – and there had been a desire to paint for a living since the age of 11 or 12, a career that his father considered inadvisable.

Ellis’s earliest sketches appeared during his spell at The Railway Magazine and it was the RM that also carried his first published colour painting, of a local train passing Corfe Castle, in the July 1932 issue. That might have been merely an overpainted photograph. Evidence of advancing skills came with a broad-gauge single climbing to Whiteball Summit (RM July 1938) and “A Scot Abroad” (RM July 1939).

To be continued

Ellis’s railway company histories.

The Inimitable Mr Ellis Part 1

(Originally published in The Railway Magazine for September 2011 under the title “C Hamilton Ellis”)

C Hamilton Ellis poses with 2-6-2T 3163 at Leamington shed, December 1937

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.

Ellis’s first book, Highland Engines And Their Work

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.

The two editions of Ellis’s history of the North British Railway

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.

A wizard tale of derring-do at Rannoch Moor.

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.

Novels : a line-up of Ellis’s five novels : The Grey Men, The Engineer-Corporal, Who Wrecked The Mail?, Rails Across The Ranges and Dandy Hart.

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

Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis

Statfold, peripherals.

A couple of weeks ago I posted some pictures of the various steam locomotives batting around the Statfold Barn Railway at the recent open day. Of course the running locomotives are the really fun part of the open day, but they are only the tip of the Statfold iceberg.

The roundhouse contains far more traction – steam, petrol and diesel, an array of fascinating and diverse motive power.

A corner of the roundhouse. Literally – a tiny part of a huge collection of traction. This place is amazing!


Robert Hudson (Leeds) 4wPM 39924 of 1924. The engine and transmission of a Fordson tractor, mounted on a rail chassis. It was built for use in Lanarkshire County Council’s Cairngryffe quarry.

I’ll just leave this here.
(But bear in mind that this picture was taken 10/6/2017, she might already be adorning someone else’s railway.)




Hunslet Engine Co 4wDH 9351 of 1994, a tunnelling contractor’s locomotive. It was built for use on the Jubilee line Green Park – Westminster – Waterloo. Later it was used by Murphy on the Lower Lea Valley Cable Tunnel project, which was part of the early preparation for the 2012 Olympics.

Near the roundhouse can be found some road vehicles.

The picture of  this beautifully restored tramcar last year, when it was in the museum. This year it was operating and I rode on it, but did not manage to take a better picture than this one.


Interior of the Plymouth. Bench front seat, and is that the gear lever on the steering column?

I photographed this magnificent Kenworth tractor in 2016 – it was not in evidence this year.
Fans of “Convoy” will remember that Rubber Duck’s truck was “a Kenworth pullin’ logs”. Ain’t she a beautiful sight?

We were also allowed to wander around the impressive engineering workshop. Work in progress was displayed.

The notice reads :
Single cylinder traction engine crank. We have removed the gear and made a new key and deepened the key way, then re-fitted the gear back on.

There are several of these Victorian metal framed windows in the rear part of the engineering workshop. It’s not clear whether the building is old and they are original to it, or whether they have been salvaged for re-use here. Either way they impart a great atmosphere to the workshop.

Notice in the engineering workshop. Beyond the tortuous grammar and obvious double-entendre there lies a more subtle engineers’ joke.



There is also a fine collection of signs of all sorts.

Oh, really?

Detail of the station canopy brackets.

There has to be a working loco somewhere in this post. Here is Sragi No 1 backing out of the running shed. That looks like Minas De Aller No 2 behind.


What Goes Up Must Come Down Part 3

Originally published in The Railway Magazine for March 2010 under the title “Cliffhangers”

Cliff railways, part of Britain’s transport infrastructure since 1875, are often overlooked by the enthusiast fraternity. ROBERT HUMM reviews their history and development : continued from Part 2.

Bridgnorth Castle Hill Cliff Railway. The exuberant architecture of the upper station and one of the stylish cars.
Photo May 2007 © Robert Humm.

The partnership in the 1890s between Newnes as financier and Marks as engineer resulted in three more cliff railways in quick succession, Bridgnorth, Clifton Rocks and Aberystwyth, as well as the long-forgotten Matlock funicular tramway. The latter no longer survives but the three funiculars remain, two of them active today.
Bridgnorth Castle Hill Railway, opened in 1892 to connect the Low and High areas of the town, is one of our few inland cliff railways. As at Lynton it is built in a narrow cleft of the sandstone cliff face and similarly has the narrowest practicable gauge of 3ft 8½” so as to minimise the amount of excavation required. It too was water-powered until converted in 1944 to electric haulage.
The length of the line is 201ft, the gradient 1 in 1.8 and the total rise is 111ft. The lower station on the west bank of the River Severn is inconspicuous in the extreme, being no more than a doorway at the end of a narrow alley between a shop and a public house. By contrast the upper station is a riot of stockbroker Tudor and steeply pitched turret roofs.
The original 18-seater cars at Bridgnorth had something of the appearance of single deck horse tramcars, complete with clerestory roofs. In keeping with the spirit of the times they were replaced in 1955 by a pair of steel-bodied vehicles that seem to have escaped from the motor coach industry.

Bridgnorth Castle Hill Railway. From a commercial card; dating the picture from the Morris 1000 van and the length of the elegant lady’s pencil skirt, any time mid-1950s to early 1960s?
Robert Humm Collection.

These stylish 55-year old veterans, painted in an attractive cream and blue livery, remain in use. They carry about 200,000 passengers a year, seven day a week.

Clifton Rocks Railway. A 1908 artist’s view of the spectacular Clifton Rocks Railway in Bristol. The line closed in 1934 after a short life of 41 years. Robert Humm Collection.

Arguably the most spectacular of all our cliff railways was the Clifton Rocks Railway at Hotwells, Bristol, which though closed three-quarters of a century ago is still largely intact and thus worth a brief reference here. It is the only one of our traditional cliff railways built wholly underground and the only one with a quadruple-track line.
Clifton Rocks was another collaboration between Marks and Newnes, the latter providing the financial backing when the original proprietors failed to raise sufficient capital. Opened in 1893, the line ascended 450ft in a cavernous 27ft diameter tunnel. Hydraulic power was the means of propulsion throughout the life of the line. The ornate lower station was set into the near-vertical cliff face and was adjacent to Hotwells Station on the Bristol Port & Pier Railway, while the upper station was behind elegant iron railings on Sion Hill.

Clifton Rocks Railway lower station from a commercial postcard. The frontage, flat against the cliff face, has something of the glamour of Petra. Grey, rather than rose-red, it is nevertheless an imposing structure. Brunel’s suspension bridge can be glimpsed top left.
Robert Humm Collection.

Attracting far less traffic than anticipated, the Clifton Rocks Railway suffered a severe blow when Hotwells station closed in 1922 and – there being little day-tripper business to sustain it – the end of the cliff railway occurred in 1934 after improved bus services came to the Clifton area. During the World Second World War the disused tunnel was partitioned for use by the BBC and several military organisations and was not finally abandoned until 1960.
The writer visited the railway in the mid-1970s with a party from the Railway & Canal Historical Society when we found the tunnel a scene of eerie desolation and both stations in decay. About six years ago the Clifton Rocks Railway Trust started a restoration programme with the ambitious objective of reopening the line. The removal of tons of rubble and rubbish from the upper 30 feet of track has revealed the gauge to be 3ft 2½ins rather than the published figure of 3ft 8ins. Regular open days now attract large crowds.

Aberystwyth Constitution Hill Railway. An ascending car seen from the upper station in this 1960s commercial card. Robert Humm Collection.

Aberystwyth Constitution Hill Railway. Cliff railway stations are often invitingly ornate. This is Aberystwyth’s lower station.
19 May 2007. © Robert Humm.

Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth, is a massive promontory and popular beauty spot at the north end of the town esplanade, and its cliff railway was the final joint venture between Marks and Newnes. Opened in 1896 with a track gauge of 4ft 10ins , the length of 798 ft is exceeded in Britain only by Lynton. Here for the first time Marks used his new design of stepped cars – now virtually universal for modern funiculars – rather than the familiar horizontal car on a triangular frame found on most British systems. The Constitution Hill cars carry 30 passengers in four bays, with side access from matching stepped platforms at the stations. Water power was used until replaced by electric winding in 1921.
At £60,000 it was a costly line to build (Lynton cost £8,500), partly because of the extensive stabilisation works of the shale forming the hill, and has always been expensive to ride. When opened the return fare was 1s-2d (most lines were a penny or tuppence) and in 2007 it was £2-75p. For that the rider is rewarded with magnificent views across Cardigan Bay and a chance to travel in the car now named The Lord Marks.

After Aberystwyth, Marks was engineer for only one more scheme, the second of Budapest’s funiculars. According to Marks’ biographer, he attended its opening and was honoured by the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha for his work in getting the line open on time for the great Budapest Exposition of 1896. That railway appears to have been short-lived and nothing is now known of its history. Marks then concentrated his energies upon his other main business enterprise, the lucrative patent agency Marks & Clerk (now a world-wide concern) but late in life acted as consulting engineer to the next of our railways, the Babbacombe Cliff Railway at Torquay.
A relatively late newcomer in 1926, Babbacombe is a classic seaside line that delivers its passengers to a ramparted station immediately above the beach. From there it only a few steps down to the sands. It was built to the gauge of 5ft 10ins and electrically powered from the beginning. Length is 718 ft (vertical rise approximately 250ft) and gradient is 1 in 2.8, the cars being of the traditional triangle-frame pattern. The line has recently undergone extensive renovation and was doing good business when visited in August 2006.

Babbacombe Cliff Railway, Torquay. This commercial postcard of the 1950s shows the line in its entirety. The cars and the winding equipment have since been modernised.
Robert Humm Collection.


The Southend-on-Sea Cliff Railway, now Britain’s last 4ft 6in gauge railway.
The single car is counterbalanced by a weight travelling on its own 1ft 9in track which runs beneath the upper line.
© Robert Humm.

The short cliff railway at Southend-on-Sea, Essex, is different from those so far described. The track was originally the site of a Reno Inclined Elevator that had been installed in 1901 and dismantled about 1912. The Reno Elevator was a primitive (and noisy) wooden ‘travolator’ of a type now familiar on the Bank-Monument section of London’s Underground and at many airports. Its replacement cliff railway was opened in August 1912 and consists of a single car running on 4ft 6ins gauge track, counterbalanced by an iron weight running on its own 1ft 9ins gauge railway beneath the main track. The line is built upon a pair of plateframe girders about six feet above ground level. These girders appear to be survivors from the Reno days. Despite modernisation in 1930, 1959 and 1990, the Southend line seems not to have had much success and was found to be out of use when visited in June 2007.

Shipley Glen Funicular Tramway. The 1ft 8in gauge Shipley Glen railway at Baildon in Yorkshire runs though woodland scenery. Here a 2-car train ascends the 1 in 12 gradient. August 2008. © Robert Humm.

Another funicular-type operation is the little-known Shipley Glen cable tramway at Baildon in West Yorkshire. Completely different from the usual steep cliff railways, and operated with a pair of two-car toast-rack trains, it is nevertheless a true funicular, running for over 1100 feet on an average gradient of 1 in 12. The counterbalance system is powered by a pair of 35hp electric motors at the upper station. Because of the length of the cable and the degree of expansion in hot weather the return pulley is mounted on a weighted trolley to maintain tension.
The Shipley Glen tramway was built by local entrepreneur Samuel Wilson in 1895 as part of a scheme to develop this popular beauty spot. The line was cheaply constructed for less than £1000, the narrow gauge of 1ft 8ins being used to accommodate some secondhand cars of obscure origin. The tramway has gone through several changes of ownership and faced closure more than once. Since 1982 it has been leased by the Bradford Trolleybus Association and is now operated at weekends only by volunteers. Traffic is fairly low, not helped by the lack of direction signs. On an August afternoon in 2008 there were less than a dozen visitors including the writer. This is a pity as it provides a delightful ride through sun-dappled woodland.


Centre For Alternative Technology, Llwyngwern. Undoubtedly the ultimate in “green” cliff railways.
Photo May 2007 © Robert Humm.

Since the 1980s a new breed of cliff railway has emerged to offset the numerous closures that occurred after the Second World War. I shall mention just three. In 1992 the Centre For Alternative Technology at Llwyngwern, near Machynlleth, built a new 200ft cliff railway from the visitors’ car park to the main demonstration area on the hilltop above. In keeping with its green credentials this was the first new water-balance cliff railway for ninety years. As at Lynton it is fed from a natural source and reservoir at the upper level, some water being returned to the upper level by a water turbine. The cars are of the stepped variety and were built by the Lancastrian Carriage & Wagon Co of Heysham. The track is 5ft 3ins gauge and is laid with ex-BR flat bottom rail.
In 2001 Britain’s longest and most ambitious funicular – it cannot with accuracy be called a cliff railway – was opened. This is the Cairngorm Mountain Railway near the Scottish Highlands ski resort of Aviemore. It takes skiers (and in summer tourists) to the summit of Cairn Gorm, at 4,084 ft (1244 metres) the 6th highest peak in Scotland, and where the summit station is now the highest in all Britain.
Superseding a life-expired ski lift, the Cairngorm Railway was built in the face of powerful opposition from the environmental lobby and was only permitted by not allowing tourists out of the top station. The reason is the ecological fragility of the mountain surface. Skiers have a separate alighting platform that is inaccessible to other riders during the summer. The single-track line is built entirely on a low concrete viaduct on widely a variable gradient – at one point the ascending car is travelling slightly downhill. The track gauge of 2 metres is unique in the United Kingdom, though it can be found on several modern funiculars in Switzerland.
The two large 5-compartment cars cars can carry 120 standing passengers in winter or 50 seated passengers in summer, and have several unusual features. The wheels are double flanged on one side and flangeless on the other so that the pointwork at the halfway loop requires no moving parts. There is an attendant on all journeys and the cars are designed to withstand winds of up to 150mph. Batteries power the car lights and emergency systems, these being recharged via pantograph pickups at both stations.

Cairngorm Mountain Railway. The mid-point passing loop seen from the descending car.
Photo June 2009 © Robert Humm.

Lastly, Britain’s newest and least known cliff railway can be found in the heart of the City Of London. Given the curious title of the Millennium Inclinator, it was opened in early 2008 and is situated at the north side of the Millennium footbridge across the River Thames. A single car on metre gauge track operates within a glassed enclosure, carrying pedestrians effortlessly up St Peters Hill toward St Paul’s Cathedral. It is Britain’s only free cliff railway but is hardly ever used: the complete lack of signage means that the public do not realise it exists for their benefit.

Millennium Inclinator, City Of London. Britain’s latest funicular, opened in 2008. It has a single car running on metre-gauge track. Where are the passengers? (The picture shows one woman, her reflection, and the reflection of another woman at the top. Not passengers!)
Photo September 2009 © Robert Humm.


Statfold Barn, June 2017

Statfold Barn – inside the Roundhouse.
As so many of its occupants are out on the line the roundhouse is half empty, which means there is plenty of room to admire and photograph the remaining fascinating tenants.

There is nothing like Statfold, this year there were sixteen engines in steam – so wherever you stood, wherever you waited there was always something going one – a great sense of highly-organised activity and a terrific atmosphere. This post is simply a catalogue of those sixteen engines (or would be – unfortunately I only have pictures of fifteen of them and am wondering which one eluded me). There is plenty of amazing static stuff to see as well, including the workshops with work in progress, displays of railwayana and the breathtaking line-up of non-operational traction in the roundhouse. Last year I meant to post a second helping of Statfold pictures, but other pressures prevailed. With luck I’ll do better this year.

Here are the engines, every one of them faultlessly turned out and in fine order.

Alpha with the goods train.
Hudswell Clarke, 1922

The lovely Fiji, emitting a cloud of filth, despite the fact that she is running in reverse down the gradient.
Lautoka No 11, Hudswell Clarke, 1912.

Howard heads out of the station with a passenger train.
Hunslet, 1936

The other Howard has a vertical boiler and shares the smaller garden circuit with Roger. This Howard is also a new build, dating from 2007 but incorporating older parts, so I don’t know whether she or Jack Lane counts as the youngest locomotive here.
Wilbrighton Wagon Works, 2007

Isibutu takes the station avoiding line, while Lautoka No 19 reverses past the signal box.
Isibutu : Bagnall, 1945.

Jack Lane, the other Statfold new build, and arguably the youngest locomotive here, stands outside the running shed. Note that Jack Lane was not some railway worthy, but the street in Leeds where the original Hunslet works stood.
Hunslet, 2005 No 3904.

Lautoka No 19 waits in the station with the goods train.
Hudswell Clarke, 1914.

Liassic gleaming outside the running shed. That’s Jack Lane behind.
Peckett, 1923.

Marchlyn, from the footbridge.
Avonside, 1933.

Minas de Aller No 2 backs through the running shed. The locomotive on the right was not in steam and I did not make a note of her name. No 2 has a complex valve gear, lost in this picture. A close-up follows.
Corpet, 1884.

Minas de Aller No 2 has Brown’s valve gear and indirect drive to the coupled wheels via a rocker arm.

Roger and the vertical boiler Howard serve the smaller garden circuit.
Kerr, Stuart and Company, 1918

Ryam No 1, assisted by – I think – Statfold, storms the gradient to the station.
Davenport, 1917.

No apologies for including another picture of this magnificent American locomotive.
Davenport, 1917.

Saccharine emerges from the avoiding line.
Fowler, 1912.

Sragi No 1 outside the running shed, waiting to be called forward,
Krauss, 1899.

Statfold is a new build locomotive, the work of the Statfold Barn Engineering Shop. As the railway’s owner bought the Hunslet Engine Company the Statfold-built engines are genuine Hunslets with a continuity of works numbers.
Hunslet, 2005 No 3903.

What Goes Up Must Come Down Part 2

Hastings East Hill Cliff Railway from a 1950s commercial post card.

Originally published in The Railway Magazine for March 2010 under the title “Cliffhangers”

Cliff railways, part of Britain’s transport infrastructure since 1875, are often overlooked by the enthusiast fraternity. ROBERT HUMM reviews their history and development : continued from Part 1.

With a total of four cliff railways the Kentish town of Folkestone was once second only to Scarborough. Today only the original line of 1884 remains in use. It runs from the Leas – the gardens in front of a solid phalanx of Victorian and Edwardian hotels – down to the beach and has a gauge of 5ft 10ins. At the top is a small cabin housing the operator, who is kept busy with not only the car controls but also the entrance/exit gates and the manual car doors. Below, facing the esplanade is a rather stylish pavilion housing the ticket office, pumping engine and waiting room. In 2007 a single ticket was 85p, good value when compared with some other cliff railways.

A 1960s view of Folkestone Leas Cliff Railway shortly before the second incline (on the right) was closed in 1966. The advertised fare was 4d.

The east car at The Leas, showing the water chute. The Leas is one of only four water-balance cliff railways remaining. Photo June 2007.

Folkestone is another rare surviving water-balance installation and is as good a place as any to observe at close quarters how the system works. The simple principle of the water-balance system is that the descending car should always be heavier than the ascending car, even if the former has a lighter passenger load than the latter. This is achieved by filling a tank beneath the car with a variable, measured amount of water. When the descending car reaches the lower station the tank is discharged, while, at the top, the ascending car is refilled. At Folkestone there is a double-sided water spout between the tracks, water being loaded by gravity which entails much enjoyable sploshing.
For the most economic operation there should be an unlimited supply of water at the top station. In practice this has been rarely achieved, the most notable examples being Lynton & Lynmouth and Llyngwern, both to be described later. Most water-balance railways either relied entirely upon water being pumped back up to the top, or (as at Saltburn) pumping augmented by a cliff-face spring.
Such was the popularity of The Leas railway that another was built alongside it only six years later. It demonstrates the idiosyncrasy of British cliff railways – the track gauge, gradient and length were all different from Leas (1) just a few feet away. Leas (2) closed in 1966 though the track still remains in place over forty years later. Further cliff railways followed at Folkestone’s west end – Sandgate Hill (1893) and the Metropole Hotel (1904) but both have long since disappeared.

The Bournemouth West Cliff line was opened in 1908 and was the first to be electrically wound from the start. The 1960s cars run on 5ft 6in gauge track.

Today Bournemouth has more active cliff railways – three – than any other town in Britain. The East Cliff and the West Cliff lines were both opened in 1908 and were the first to employ electric winding from the start. The installation was carried out by R Waygood & Co (later Waygood Otis), the well known lift manufacturers, and operated on a 500v dc supply. They were followed in 1935 by the Fisherman’s Walk cliff railway at Boscombe, the last of the traditional British cliff railways to be built.

Bournemouth Fisherman’s Walk was the last of the classic cliff railways. It opened in 1935, on the 5ft 8in gauge. Not many of Boscombe’s holiday-makers were taking advantage of it during this wet morning in June 2007.

Because of the friability of the rock formation the Bournemouth cliff railways are characterised by massive stone revetments. Originally the tracks were carried on baulks of timber, but were replaced by precast concrete sections in the 1980s. The first two lines have a track gauge of 5ft 6ins while Fisherman’s Walk is a little wider at 5ft 8ins. The gradient is approximately 1: 1.4 at all three.
All six of the present Bournemouth cars date from the early 1960s and their spartan interiors reflect that austere period. There is some talk of replacing them soon, one of the problems being that they are no longer waterproof – as was all too apparent on a wet and blustery day in summer 2007. The Bournemouth lines are well patronised though more could be done to advertise their presence to those not familiar with the town. Fisherman’s Walk in particular is so unobtrusive that by the time the writer eventually located it the railway had closed for the night. A local resident commented, “They took the signs down for the winter and haven’t put them back yet.” That was in late June.

Bournemouth East Cliff Railway was also opened in 1908. Note the massive stone retaining walls that are needed to stabilise the friable ground formation.


Fisherman’s Walk Cliff Railway from the beach, June 2007.

An unusual feature of the Bournemouth lines is a variable pricing system found nowhere else – it costs £1 to ascend but only 50p to descend.

The Lift, East Cliff, Bournemouth, from a commercial post card

Hastings,  in Sussex, is now the only other town with more than one cliff railway. West Hill was the first to be constructed, in 1891 – a decade that saw more new cliff railways than any other. It has the unusual distinction of being almost mostly within a brick-lined tunnel built into the cliff face. The gauge is 6ft and the length is 500ft, the attractive lower station being set well back from the esplanade among the town shops.

The lower station at Hastings West Hill Cliff Railway has a Mediterranean air to it. The line itself, almost all within a tunnel, is extremely difficult to photograph successfully.

This costly piece of construction soon led to the bankruptcy of the promoters, the Hastings Lift Company. Acquired cheaply by another private company, the line eventually passed into local authority ownership in 1947. Winding, originally with a gas engine, then diesel, is now by electric power. The 1891 wooden-bodied cars, built by the Midland Carriage & Wagon Co of Birmingham, remain in use today.

Hastings East Hill Cliff Railway is the steepest cliff railway in the country. The fortress-like structure at the summit once housed the water tanks for the hydraulic system.

Built in a natural cleft in the rock face and located immediately behind the famously picturesque fishermen’s tarred net lofts, Hastings East Hill is one of our more spectacular cliff railways. Its purpose is to provide access from the lower town to the extensive Cliff Walk Country Park. It was designed and built by the Borough Engineer and was opened in 1903. Gauge is 5ft and length 267ft; the gradient of 1:1.28 is the steepest of all the cliff railways. Both stations are distinctive, the beach station very much a suburban villa while the upper station resembles a medieval fortification. Water-balance operation was used (the castle towers housed the water tanks) until conversion to electric winding in 1973.
East Hill suffered a serious accident in June 2007 – only a few days before the writer’s visit – when one of the cars crashed into the lower station, and has been closed since. Both cars, which date from 1976, have been removed for renovation and other improvements to the line are also taking place. Reopening is scheduled for 2010.
Undoubtedly the best known cliff railway in Britain is that between Lynton and Lynmouth in Devon. The idea was first proposed by a local entrepreneur and councillor, John Heywood, who in the event was unable to take the scheme forward.

Britain’s longest cliff railway, from a commercial post card of the 1920s. The car is still in its original single level form. The run-off track can be seen in the foreground.

Eventually built as a collaboration between the publisher and philanthropist George Newnes, the engineer George Croydon Marks, and local builder Bob Jones, it was the outcome of Newnes’ distress at the sight of overworked horses toiling up the 1 in 4 road with goods and passengers from the harbour at Lynmouth to the town of Lynton many hundreds of feet above. He and Marks could see that the fast flowing River Lyn would provide an inexhaustible supply of water for a water-balance railway. The line was quickly built and was opened at Easter 1890. At 862 feet it is the longest traditional cliff railway in the country.
Much of the Lynton line is in a deep cutting. In order to reduce the amount of rock excavation the cars themselves are relatively narrow, as is the gauge of 3ft 8ins. The two tracks are laid no more than 8ins apart, except for a splay-out at the central passing place. A unique feature was an intermediate station at North Cliff House, long since closed,
Marks’ most important contribution was the realisation that a line of such length would require a more sophisticated braking and safety system than the earlier short lines. No fewer than four safety measures were incorporated, all of them patented in 1888 in the joint names of Marks, Newnes and Jones. They were a hand operated emergency brake, an automatic brake in the event of a rope breakage, a governor to control the speed of the car, and a hydraulically operated brake under the direct control of the conductor.
Unlike most British cliff railways the Lynton & Lynmouth had a serious public transport purpose. It embodied another improvement of Marks’ devising, a car body on its own wheels that could be drawn off the triangular underframe to allow goods vehicles to be transported. This was much used in the early years.

Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway; a car stands at Lynmouth station, July 1997.

With today’s vastly more powerful road vehicles the facility is no longer needed and the wheels of the passenger car bodies have been removed. The last recorded occasion on which motorcars were carried was in the aftermath of the Lynmouth flood disaster of 1952. In other respects the line is still very much as built. The cars are the originals, though the flat-floor configuration was altered to a stepped arrangement in 1947 so as to increase the carrying capacity to 40 passengers.
Water-power is still used, the free supply being cheaper than any alternative, and an added bonus in these environmentally conscious times is the absence of any emissions. Currently the line is open from mid-February to mid-November, a return ticket costing £2-85.
(to be continued)

Folkestone Leas Cliff Railway, interior of the lower station, June 2007.

What Goes Up Must Come Down Part 1

Saltburn Cliff Railway – top station and car

Originally published in The Railway Magazine for March 2010 under the title “Cliffhangers”

Cliff railways, part of Britain’s transport infrastructure since 1875, are often overlooked by the enthusiast fraternity. ROBERT HUMM reviews their history and development.

In North America they are called Incline Railways. In Europe, which invented them, they are usually known as Funiculars. Here in the British Isles, where the majority are located at the seaside, we have always referred to them as Cliff Railways. Disregarded by most British railway aficionados and rarely referred to in the railway press, this country’s slowly dwindling stock of cliff railways provides a welcome diversity of style and engineering methods.
In this article I want to look at Britain’s twenty-one active cliff railways, with a glance at some of the more notable closed lines.
How should we define them as a genre? The word funicular derives from the Latin funiculus, a thin rope or wire. That does not get us very far, for it would include all the former rope worked inclines like the Cromford & High Peak, Cowlairs Bank and the Corkickle Brake (Whitehaven) where rolling stock or complete trains were attached to a rope for a short and steep part of the whole journey. It would also include cable tramways such as the surviving San Francisco system where the cars are attached by grippers to a continuously moving rope.
The essential features of the true cliff railway are first, that it is a specialised cable-worked railway operating on a gradient too steep for other forms of traction; second, that it is self-contained and on a private right of way; third, that the car(s) are not self-propelled; and fourth, that the pair of cars are counter-balanced or that a single car is counter-balanced by a weight running on rails beneath the main track. This therefore excludes all rack railways, themselves a large and diversified subject.
Cliff railways are sometimes referred to erroneously as “cliff lifts,” a solecism also perpetuated by the Ordnance Survey who should know better. Cliff lifts, a rare species in this country, are outdoor vertical elevators similar to those found within tall buildings.
Because they are self-contained, cliff railways have no need of uniformity. Methods of propulsion have included steam, hydraulic power, diesel, gas and electricity. There have been at least 22 track gauges varying from 1ft 8ins at Shipley Glen to 7ft 6ins of Scarborough’s recently closed St Nicholas line. The cars can be flat-floor mounted on a triangular undercarriage – the usual arrangement in this country – or stepped as at Aberystwyth and Llyngwern. Entrance can be from the end or the side. Gradients can be as shallow as Shipley Glen’s 1 in 12 or as vertiginous as Hastings East Cliff’s 1 in 1.28.
The best of these railways have a decided air of seaside showmanship about them. Ornate ticket booths, florid signage, and the solid thump of well-oiled gate mechanisms reassure the passenger faced with an alarming descent. In some ways they are reminiscent of Edwardian tramcars. It is regrettable that a few owners seem to regard them akin to public toilets upon which as little as possible should be spent. Fortunately there is a growing tendency for cliff railways to be supported by charitable trusts or ‘Friends’ organisations.
Britain was by no means first in the field of cliff railways. That honour goes to France where the Rue Terme – Croix Rousse line in Lyon opened in 1862. Sadly, that closed unremarked in 1967. The second to be constructed was the Castle Hill funicular, Budapest, in 1870. This is the world’s oldest functioning funicular though it cannot claim unbroken operation, having been closed between the end of the Second World War and 1986. Budapest was soon followed by two short-lived lines in Vienna built in 1873, the Leopoldsberg and the Sofien Alpi.

Scarborough South Cliff Railway – general view from beach

Scarborough South Cliff Railway – view down incline


The world’s fifth funicular was Britain’s first, the South Cliff Railway at Scarborough which opened on 6th July 1875. It has two claims to distinction: it was the first to be built on the water-balance principle, and is the oldest in the World in continuous operation. It is one of only two in Britain to be built to standard gauge, the other also being at Scarborough. South Cliff was an immediate success and it easy to see why, connecting an area of numerous hotels, apartments and boarding houses with a fine, sandy beach. Today it remains busy though the water-balance operation was replaced by an electric motor many years ago.

Scarborough South Cliff Railway – car starting to ascend


Scarborough Central Cliff Railway – lower station and car from adjacent footpath

Success encouraged imitators and Britain’s second and third cliff railways were soon promoted, both also at Scarborough. Queen’s Parade Cliff Railway opened three years later in 1878, followed by the Central Cliff Railway in 1881. The former was dogged by operational and geological misadventure from the start and closed after only nine years. By contrast the Central Cliff Railway, serving Scarborough’s main beach, was as successful as the South Cliff line and remains in operation today.

“Scarborough Central Lift” 14/8/93

Scarborough Central Cliff Railway – upper station

To complete the Scarborough story, two more cliff railways were built in the 20th Century. The St Nicholas Cliff Railway, only a hundred yards from the Central, opened in 1929. Although it remains in being, closure came in 2006 as a local authority economy measure. It was losing £12,000 a year and the council now propose spending £150,000 (12 years’ deficit) removing it. At 7ft 6ins the track gauge is the widest of any passenger railway in the country.

Scarborough St Nicholas Cliff Railway – view of disused incline and top station

Scarborough North Cliff Railway in 1993, shortly before closure


The 166ft North Cliff Railway opened in 1930. Dismantled in the 1990s, the components were acquired for a proposed cliff railway at Launceston, Cornwall. That has yet to materialise as there is considerable local opposition and lottery funding has been refused.


Nowhere in Britain had more cliff railways than Scarborough, though in world terms it was far outclassed by Valparaiso, Chile, the funicular mecca which once possessed 29 and still has eleven.

Before leaving the North-East we should take a look at another early cliff railway and one that is still very much in being, that at Saltburn-by-the-Sea. It was the first line to be engineered by George Croydon Marks, the most important single figure in British cliff railway history and at that time general manager of the lifting machinery department of the Birmingham engineering manufacturers Tangye. We shall encounter Marks frequently in this story.

Saltburn Cliff Railway – Esplanade Station

Saltburn Cliff Railway – cars and pier

Opened in 1884 and one of the few still operated by hydraulic power, the Saltburn line still serves the function of taking visitors from the cliff-top town down to the beach. Greatly to the local council’s credit, instead of closing the cliff railway as has happened in so many other resorts, the line is kept in first class order. These days it runs daily during the summer but is shut during the winter and operates only at weekends during Spring and Autumn.

For the collector of antique transport the Saltburn railway is delightful in every respect: the little wooden pavilion at the top matches the larger station on the sea front, which in turn matches the pier entrance opposite. The two curve-roof cars have ornate stained-glass windows, polished slatted wooden seats, and everything is freshly painted in traditional red and cream. When built it had the unusual track gauge of 3ft 9ins. During reconstruction in Winter 1921-22 the equally unusual gauge of 4ft 2½ins was chosen. Line length is 207ft and the gradient 1 in 1.7.

Except where stated, all photographs were taken by Robert Humm on 28 August 2008.

Saltburn Cliff Railway – stained glass in car window.

To be continued

High Speed On The Great Western Railway

by Robert Humm
(Originally published in the Journal of The Stephenson Locomotive Society for July-August 2015; there are some extra notes about Charles Rous-Marten and Cecil J Allen at the end of the article.)

3440 City of Truro seen at Bentley Heath Crossing, near Knowle & Dorridge, on 4 Sept 1960, with SLS special from Birmingham to Reading and Swindon. Unknown photographer.

While turning over a quantity of Cecil J Allen’s old papers the writer came across a clip of correspondence that throws some light upon the official Great Western attitude to high speed running. The papers were treated as highly confidential at the time (Allen was enjoined to show them to no-one) but after eighty years we may regard them as of historical interest.

It began with the March 1934 instalment of British Locomotive Practice And Performance in the Railway Magazine, where Allen commented upon the passing of G J Churchward. This prompted a Mr A H Holden of Purley to write at length to Allen about City Of Truro’s alleged 102.3mph dash down Whiteball to Wellington. Mr Holden produced a number of countervailing arguments, suggesting that the actual speed was more in the region of 90-92mph. The outcome was that Allen decided in his July 1934 piece to write at length about the City Of Truro exploit, locomotive performance on the Cheltenham Flyer and the general question of speeds above 90-100mph.

The draft clearly worried Railway Magazine editor W A Willox, who persuaded his boss John A Kay to submit it to C B Collett, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the GWR. In turn Collett consulted the General Manager, Sir James Milne :

Collett to Milne 10th May 1934
Dear Sir James,
I send you a letter dated the 9th instant I have received from Mr Kay, enclosing a copy of Mr Willox’s memorandum dated 7th May, and a draft of Mr Allen’s proposed article, from which you will gather that the main object of the article is to cast doubt upon the accuracy of Mr Rous-Marten’s record of the high speed of City Of Truro in May 1904, when it was said that the speed of 102.3 miles per hour was attained.

Neither I, or any of my colleagues are able to express any opinion on this matter, as the only information we have ever had is contained in the records made by Mr Rous-Marten which were published some few years ago.

The question which is continually being raised as to whether a steam locomotive with reciprocating pistons can really attain a speed of over 100 miles per hour can, I think, be readily settled by making a trial under plenty of expert observation.

We believe in the past that that we have many times exceeded this speed, but have never taken any special precaution for making the record, having merely been guided by the ordinary methods of using the stop-watch in conjunction with the mileposts.

Personally, I do not like these high speed tests and, whenever I have been concerned in making them, we have been careful not to expose any members of the public, Post Office, etc, to the unnecessary risk which, in my opinion, is always involved. One has only to review the continuous efforts that are made to set up records in motor-car racing, to realise what a dangerous business it becomes, as soon as the high speeds usually obtained in ordinary practice are passed, and recently making the final arrangements, we carried out some preliminary trials, the results of which, from one cause and another, decided us not to make the final test, which it was then proposed should be made with a mail train.

It is one thing for a racing motorist to set up a record in which, as a rule, no one else’s life is at risk but his own, but it is quite another thing to set up a record on a railway, where the lives of several people are bound to be at stake.

On the other hand, if for any good reason, it is considered necessary or desirable for something of this sort to be done, there would be no difficulty whatever in getting together sufficient staff to voluntarily carry out the tests.

You will no doubt appreciate that the risk with the locomotive is considerably greater than with most other modern types of engines, on account of the difficulty of satisfactorily maintaining proper lubrication at very high speeds of the valve gear and driving mechanism, which is entirely unprotected, it being impossible to encase it in an oil bath like other modern machines and, although we have successfully made high speed runs for short periods in the past, we have had very numerous failures in the course of our experiments in that direction and, as you will know, the failure of oil to any part of the valve gear leads to the complete smashing up of the mechanism in a very few seconds.

It is only in recent times that we have so improved our lubrication arrangements that we are able to run with regularity a high speed service like the Cheltenham Flyer and this, even with the same engines that are doing it today, could not have been carried out under the conditions of only a few years ago.

From this you will gather that we are in a better position now than ever to make a high speed test from a locomotive point of view, and our main concern of recent times has been connected with the track, one of the most difficult problems being that of proper super-elevation on the curves, which needs to be quite abnormal for the extra high speeds which would be equally unsuitable for the ordinary speeds.

I think you will find that the highest speed records of the past were never purposely obtained, but were, as a rule, the result of some misunderstanding.

Please do not think in this matter that I am opposed to to progress or I think it is undesirable for our speeds to be increased, but I have come to the conclusion that for speeds over 100 miles per hour it would be necessary for track, as well as the vehicles, to be specially prepared and maintained and, in our last effort in this direction, you will remember we had great difficulty in finding a suitable place to carry out such a test.

I have set out this matter so fully and think it is only right to do so, as one might be so easily accused of taking unnecessary risks merely for a stunt but, on the other hand, if it is particularly desired that such a test should be made, I should be only too happy to do all I can to carry one out to a successful issue.
Yours faithfully,
C B Collett

Sir James Milne’s response to this Sir Humphrey-like screed has not survived.

Collett to Kay, 4th June 1934
I am obliged for your letter of 30th May enclosing the proof of Mr Allen’s article, which you propose to publish in the July isse of The Railway Magazine.

I have read this through with great interest, and think it is excellent in every way, and have no modification to suggest.

There is, however, one point which I do not think is sufficiently appreciated by some of the advocates of very high speed runs, and that is the great importance of having the outer rail of the curves correctly super-elevated for the speeds. This, on any railway where varying services are run, has, of course, to be compromised, and is never really sufficient for the normal high speeds, and, (what I think is not appreciated) is quite inadequate for the extra high speeds; in this connection, the matter was brought home to me very vividly when we were recently carrying out a preliminary run for a high speed trip which was to have taken place with the mail train, and we found that in running down a grade of 1 in 300 between Badminton and Somerford, where there are several curves, but of a fairly flat radius, that the insufficiency of the super-elevation of the outer rail for the speed caused terrific flange friction, and this grinding against the outer rail absorbed in running at high speed down this grade as much power as pulling a heavy train up one of the steep banks in the West of England and, under these circumstances, the risk of mounting the rail is very serious.

I am enclosing you a diagram setting this matter out but, of course, do not wish it published; you may, however, like to refer to the subject.
The full line speed curve on the chart clearly shows how the grinding of the curves retarded in each case the acceleration which was taking place, as the throttle was not interfered with.

Curiously enough on the morning on which the actual trial was to have taken place, I received the following telegram from the driver of the up 10.30 train from North Road:

“I was stopped at Wrangaton and informed by the signalman, platelayers reported road out of order. I left Wrangaton at 11.12 with the platelayer to the obstruction, which was a very bad buckle in both rails. After straightening as well as possible I pulled the train very slowly in safety. Total delay 33 minutes.”

This on a road which the night before was considered perfect for a high speed test. Naturally we do not want this published either.

Your draft returned herewith.
Yours faithfully,

C B Collett

Collett’s strictures upon lubrication and super-elevation were worked into Allen’s published article. Like Collett, Allen was sceptical of Rous-Marten’s claims and noted that whilst there were a number of authenticated maxima of 92mph nothing so far had exceeded that figure. Perhaps 92mph was a ‘natural’ limit for steam, he mused. Yet within a year or so Allen was reporting the 100mph achieved by Flying Scotsman, the 108mph by Papyrus and the 112½mph by Silver Link. Clearly rail grinding was less of a problem on the East Coast.


Cecil J Allen (1886-1973) was a permanent way engineer employed by the Great Eastern and LNER.  He was also a prolific railway author, speaker and broadcaster. Between 1910 and 1959 he wrote the monthly “British Locomotive Practice And Performance” feature in the Railway Magazine, and later similar series in Trains Illustrated and Railway World.
 A biography of Allen by RH was published in the Railway Magazine for January 2015; we might serialise it in the blog in due course.
Charles Rous-Marten (1844-1908) was an English technical journalist.  At an early age he emigrated to New Zealand and became involved in railway matters. In 1887 he returned to this country to prepare a report for the NZ government on the latest railway technical developments.  Back in New Zealand he prepared similar reports on several other railway systems. He returned to England for a second time in 1893.  He made numerous contributions on locomotives to “The Engineer” and developed the art of train-timing. He originated the monthly “British Locomotive Practice & Performance” column in the Railway Magazine.
 Rous-Marten was held in high esteem in official and railway circles, though there is considerable doubt as to whether he possessed any formal engineering qualification.  His account of City Of Truro‘s apparent record-breaking run has always been controversial.
British Locomotive Practice & Performance” still features in the Railway Magazine, under the abbreviated heading “Practice And Performance”, and is probably a record run in its own right. It is currently manned by Keith Farr and John Heaton – indeed Mr Heaton revisited this very issue as recently as August 2015.


On Writing : An Introduction

by Robert Humm

Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton “shark-nose” 1,500hp Co-Co of type RF615E No 5037 at Buenos Aires, 2004. And Robert looking very sprauncy.

Over the years I have published a fair amount in periodicals both eminent and obscure. My very first article, published about 1966, was strangely enough in a long defunct magazine called Sporting Motorist, and we need not dwell on that overlong. It was written under a pseudonym and wasn’t very good, but we all have to start somewhere.

I started writing in earnest for the transport press in 2006. My main outlet has always been The Railway Magazine, and here is the reason. In 2004 I griped to the then editor, Nick Pigott, that the RM no longer carried the good historical articles it once did. “We don’t get them offered any more and I don’t have time to research and write them myself,” was his riposte. “If you want us to publish some history you had better get down to business.” I took Nick at his word. To date there have been two dozen features in RM, with more in the pipeline.

Other periodicals that have taken occasional pieces include Heritage Railway, Locomotives International, Steam Railway and Archive. I also do a certain amount for society periodicals such as The Railway & Canal Historical Society Journal, The Narrow Gauge, Stephenson Locomotive Society Journal, and the WW2 Railway Study Group Bulletin.

What do I write about? The short answer is anything that takes my fancy and where I have some worthwhile depth of knowledge. Subjects often arise from chance conversations with fellow aficionados, family, and customers. Clare has the knack of asking “simple” questions that call for plenty of research. The outcome is often “I feel another article coming on,” and inevitably the dining table* and floor are covered once more with reference books, papers and photographs.

All the same, most subjects seem fall into a few broad categories: British railway history, locomotive history, overseas railways, railway literature and bibliography, military railways, unusual railways, and what The Railway Magazine is pleased to call “Famous Names Of The Past.” Some of them seem well worth a second outing.

What else? Since 1961 I have written up notes of my amateur railway comings-and-goings in a series of volumes loosely titled Railway Travels & Observations, records that range from an hour’s train watching by the bridge at the bottom of the road to the more recent journeys towards the far south of Patagonia, and by the Rossiya from Moscow to Vladivostok. None of this has ever been published before. Then there the better pieces from the Old Luddite column and all sorts of miscellaneous items, reviews and fillers.

It is my intention to post a selection of these writings in the blog at approximately weekly intervals, subject to holidays and the usual human frailties. I hope you enjoy at least some of them. And remember, should you wish to meet the source of these disemboguements, I can usually be found behind the counter of the bookshop at 59 Scotgate, Stamford. You might even fancy buying a book or two.


The photo was taken at the Ferroclub headquarters at Remedios De Escalada, Buenos Aires, on 31st October 2004.
The locomotive is a Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton “shark-nose” 1,500hp Co-Co of type RF615E, built at the Eddystone plant near Philadelphia  The Argentine State Railways ordered  51, which were delivered between May 1953 and October 1954.  All were allocated to the General Roca Division (the former Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway) and used primarily as freight locomotives. They were Baldwin’s last big order prior to cessation of locomotive building in 1956.
Most lines in Argentina are single track and at that time were nearly all semaphore signalled.  The Whitaker Token Exchange apparatus can be seen next to the cab door.
Because the 5001s are single-ended they have to be turned on a turntable or wye like a steam locomotive.  We saw this happen with 5037 at Altamirano the previous day when we took her for a spin in the country. 5037 was newly restored and this was her first passenger trip.