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.
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.
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