2017 Transport History Book of the Year awards evening

The results of the Society’s 2017 Transport History Book of the Year awards were announced on Saturday evening, 22 April 2017, during a ceremony held at Reed Hall, University of Exeter.

(photo: Stephen Rowson)

The judges’ report was presented to an audience of around seventy members and guests.  After thanking all those who had participated in the book reviewing, short-listing and judging processes, the report continued:

There was a shortlist of nine books to read this year, drawn from the 85 titles that were reviewed in the Journal.  It is perhaps worth noting that last year there were 112 reviews, which represents a reduction of 24%.

Books on waterways were once again in a minority but two stood out as worthy of consideration.

Ferries across the Humber by Kirk Martin, published by Pen & Sword Transport, is a beautifully produced hardback, with well-reproduced colour and B&W illustrations, which retails for £25.  It begins with the author’s personal reminiscences of an unusual student holiday job, as fireman on the last coal-fired paddle steamers in the UK, plying between Hull and New Holland.  It goes on to recount what is known of the history of the Humber ferries, which dates back at least to Roman times and probably much further, for the remains of prehistoric vessels have been found in the Humber mud.  The Roman ferry linked portions of Ermine Street, connecting Lincoln to York.  By the time of the Norman Conquest there were ferries operating between Barton and Hessle and North and South Ferriby.  Kingston upon Hull only rose to regional prominence during the 13th & 14th centuries.  In 1315 Edward II granted a royal charter to the wardens and burgesses of Hull to operate a ferry between Hull and Barton.

Steam boats were introduced in 1814 and gave impetus to a rapid expansion of services.  Soon ferries were offering passage not just across the estuary but as far afield as Selby, Gainsborough, Thorne, Grimsby and many other destinations, often on alternate days three times per week (with return sailings the following day) or as weekly market boats.  The book moves on to cover events following the arrival of the railways, the acquisition of the New Holland – Hull ferry by one of the predecessor companies to the MS&L Railway, improvements to the terminals on each shore, and the periodic introduction of new steamers, which culminated in the construction of the last three steam ferries, two in 1934, the third in 1940.  The ferry service of course was superseded in 1981 when the Humber Bridge opened.  Earlier proposals for a fixed link are also mentioned.  The final fate of the three vessels is recorded: two still exist, one in Hartlepool as a museum exhibit, the other in much-modified form as a floating restaurant on the Thames in London.

The second short-listed waterways book was The Leeds & Liverpool Canal by Mike Clarke, published by Milepost Research and selling on-line for £28.  A 400-page history of the canal, covering a 250-year timespan, this is a very ambitious and comprehensive work.  The first half deals chronologically with promotion, construction, extension schemes both successful and unsuccessful, relationships with other waterways etc, with the story brought right up date in our post-industrial era of recreational use.  The second half deals thematically with aspects such as passenger traffic, leisure use (from a surprisingly early date), finances, engineering, water supply, boats and boat people, traffic and warehousing.  It always attempts to set the subject matter into its wider regional and national context.  The canal was promoted and financed by local business people rather than land-owners or City financiers.  The author contends that it was the canal’s provision of cheap and efficient transport that facilitated the growth of the textile industries in Lancashire and Yorkshire, which in turn was the foundation of Britain’s national prosperity in the 19th century.  He demonstrates that the canal continued to prosper during the 19th century despite railway competition.  This was achieved by concentrating on bulk traffic such as coal, and the canal could even provide a better service than the local railways for the more lucrative general merchandise traffic.  He offers some interesting thoughts on the influence of government at various times.  Lack of government intervention in the early years of canal promotion hampered the development of a national network by the failure to impose common standards.  Later, ironically, government intervention in the form of the Railway & Canal Traffic Act 1888 which led to control of tolls and imposition of a common carrier obligation, reduced profitability and discouraged improvements.  Then, lack of adequate compensation after wartime control during WW1 further hastened commercial decline.

The judges were unanimous in deciding the winner of the 2017 Waterways Book of the Year was The Leeds & Liverpool Canal by Mike Clarke.

Mike Clarke is presented with his certificate by RCHS Vice-President Grahame Boyes (photo: Stephen Rowson)

The second award tonight is for Railway Book of the Year.  As in previous years, we have been spoiled for choice with a number of notable contributions to railway history appearing during the year.  After some difficult deliberation about what to leave out, four very different books were short-listed.

Early Victorian Railway Excursions: the millions go forth by Susan Major, published by Pen & Sword Transport and priced at £25.  This book began life as an academic thesis and breaks new ground by revealing the scale and significance of cheap rail travel in the early main-line railway period.  The railway promoters, directors and managers had not anticipated the potential for large scale passenger traffic.  They had assumed that demand for passenger travel would come mostly from the more affluent strata of society.  Others soon spotted and exploited the possibilities.  There were precedents, for example the use of canals for Sunday school outings, or trips on steamboats, but the railways enabled a massive scaling up of activity, and from a variety of motivations.  Social reformers sought to give the working classes in the large industrial towns the opportunity of recreational and improving days out to seaside, countryside or some cultural attraction.  At the same time this removed them from the temptations of race meetings or beer houses.  Large paternalistic employers could give their workers and their families a treat. Entrepreneurs saw the chance to make money and the railway companies too joined it, either directly or through agents.  Although Thomas Cook is often cited as the pioneer in this field, he was not the first and was certainly not alone.

To begin with the railway companies were not well prepared to handle large crowds.  Stations were too small, open trucks were used all too frequently and operational problems such as over-selling tickets and the unsafe working of very large trains were frequently reported.

The author’s main source of information is contemporary newspapers but their reports have to be interpreted in terms of the subliminal messages that editors were trying to convey.  Were such large crowds of the lower classes a good thing or a bad thing?  It all depended on your point of view.  The author successfully unravels some of the prejudice and special pleading.  What is clear is that the availability of affordable travel for all but the very poorest was extremely popular, despite the uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous conditions – witness the attendance at the 1851 Great Exhibition – and began an unstoppable social revolution.

Sir John Hawkshaw 1811-1891: The Life & Work of an Eminent Victorian Engineer by Martin Beaumont, published by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Society.  This hard-back volume is profusely illustrated in colour and black and white and sells for a very modest £18.

Here is an account of an engineering career that isn’t about I K Brunel!  Only five years younger than Brunel, Hawkshaw came from humble, northern origins.  He left school at 13 and went to work for Charles Fowler, building turnpike roads in Yorkshire.  By 1830 he was assisting Alexander Nimmo with a survey for a railway from Liverpool to Leeds.  In 1832, at the age of 21, he was sent to Venezuela to take charge of a copper mine, returning to the UK two years later.  The following year he was working for James Walker, surveying a railway from Leipzig to Dresden and in 1837 he was appointed resident engineer on the Manchester & Bolton Railway, beginning an association with what would become the L&YR that continued until his retirement.  In 1850 he opened an office in Great George Street, London and henceforth worked as a consulting engineer.  His opinion was sought on schemes ranging from completion of the Circle Line in London to docks and harbours in the UK and abroad, Charing Cross and Cannon Street stations and their associated Thames bridges, construction of the East London Railway through the Brunels’ Thames Tunnel, foundations for Palmerston’s Spithead Forts, drainage and sewage schemes, the Suez and Panama Canals, completion of Clifton Suspension Bridge, the fall of the Tay Bridge and, possibly his greatest work, the GWR’s Severn Tunnel.

Unlike his near contemporaries, Brunel, Robert Stephenson and Joseph Locke, he survived the pressures of the job, retiring at the age of 77.  He rose to the top of his profession.  His decision making was rapid and generally sound, his commercial judgement reliable, his practical skills exceptional and he surrounded himself with talented subordinates who themselves went on to achieve great things.  With such a subject, one has to wonder why it has taken so long for an account of his career to appear.

The L&YR Society is to be commended for its enterprise in publishing the book.

Highland Survivor: the story of the Far North Line by David Spaven, published by Kessock Books.  A good quality paperback priced at £16.99.

The main theme of this book is to explain how and why the Highland Railway’s line from Inverness to Wick and Thurso managed to survive inclusion on Dr Beeching’s closure list and to resist all subsequent closure efforts.

The author begins with a brief history of the line’s construction.  It was a conglomeration of five different promotion schemes, with a variety of motivations, finally completed in 1874.  As a result of this and geographical factors the route was meandering.  From Inverness to Wick as the crow flies is 80 miles but by railway the distance was 161.5 miles.  Nevertheless, a large swathe of the Highlands was now connected to the national network and opened up for potential development.

For 90 years the railway served its scattered communities well.  In both World Wars it played an important strategic role.  Agricultural traffic was important but, by the 1950s, passenger traffic at many of the intermediate stations was minimal.  The economics of the line were dreadful, leading to inclusion on Dr Beeching’s list.  However, the line was reprieved as a result of the combined lobbying and campaigning efforts of local and regional authorities, rail users, regional media and those behind the scenes, including the author’s father.  Success was due to a combination of factors – social hardship (the only admissible basis for objections to closure), the economic case, with the railway demonstrably being essential for regional development, political considerations which transcended party politics and the sheer breadth of the anti-closure campaign – all had an impact.  There were probably some at the Department of Transport in far-off London who recognised that closure might not be achieved and even saw a PR benefit in a few lines being reprieved.

BR made efforts to improve the economics of the railway – closure of wayside stations enabled passenger services to be accelerated, while dieselisation, radio signalling and self-switching points on passing loops reduced costs.  However, road improvements, especially new road bridges across the Firths, significantly reduced road journey times.  A freight boom in the 1980s linked to North Sea oil and the Invergordon aluminium smelter came and went.  Staple traffic such as parcels, mail and newspapers was lost.  On the other hand, it began to become apparent that road transport was not the panacea it was once thought to be.  Some stations were reopened and commuter traffic to Inverness was successfully encouraged at the southern end of the line.  The Public Service Obligation diverted attention from the economics of individual lines and franchising after privatisation gave stability, albeit it did not encourage local management to exploit such opportunities as did exist.

So, the railway survived but economically it is still expensive.  In fact, the case for retention is less strong now than it was in the 1960s.  The author concludes with his analysis of what could be done in future to promote and encourage greater use of this asset.

Samuel Telford Dutton, Railway Signal Engineer of Worcester by Edward Dorricott, published by the Signalling Record Society and prices at £30.

A book of two parts.  The first is a biography of Dutton, who was born in Manchester in 1838.  In 1861, aged 23, he moved to Worcester to take up a draughtsman’s post with McKenzie, Clunes & Holland.  Three years later he was promoted to works manager.  He married, became prosperous and active in local affairs.  In 1888, Walter Holland, the last of the original partners at McKenzie & Holland, died and that year Dutton established his own company in premises across the road from his former employer’s.  The Regulation of Railways Act 1889 forced somewhat reluctant railway companies to complete the installation of block working and interlocking.  This led to a huge increase in orders for signalling equipment in which all the established contractors shared.  There was plenty of work for newcomers too, although of course Dutton was already a well-established figure in the business, able to use his contacts within the railway industry to advantage.  The business prospered until the mid-1890s but then work dried up as the programme of interlocking was completed.  There was now over-capacity.  In 1899 the business was sold to a member of the Pease dynasty.  This was not a great success and the signalling interests were surrendered to McKenzie & Holland in 1901.  Some Dutton-designed equipment remained in production well into the 20th century.  The author goes on to record the careers of Dutton’s descendants, several of the sons following in their father’s footsteps as signalling engineers.

The second part of the book is a company by company survey of Dutton signalling installations, as far as is known, with detailed descriptions of the equipment.  The Cambrian and Highland railways were important customers but other contracts came from such varied sources as the City & South London, the first deep level tube line, the Isle of Man, the GER, the GNR and many more.

The book is very readable, even for the less mechanically minded, and appears thoroughly researched, drawing on many less-than-obvious sources such as an unpublished autobiography by one of Dutton’s employees, William Buck.  The list of acknowledgments in itself is impressive.  Again, the Signalling Record Society is to be commended for publishing this work.

The judges found it difficult to decide on an outright winner in this category, given such diverse subjects and approaches.  This should be interpreted as a measure of the depth and quality of the competition.  All these books contribute something new and worthwhile to the body of railway history and all are well researched, written and presented.  To single one out is perhaps unfair, but after some debate it was agreed to award the title of Railway Book of the Year 2017 to Highland Survivor by David Spaven.

David Spaven receives his certificate from Grahame Boyes (photo: Stephen Rowson)

The third award this evening is for Popular Transport Book of the Year.  At David St John Thomas’s suggestion, this is awarded to work which, rather than being based on research into primary sources, is interpretive of existing material in a way which adds to our understanding of the subject.  This year there were three books short-listed in this category.

Rails in the Road by Oliver Green, published by Pen & Sword Transport and priced at £30.

The subtitle encapsulates the subject succinctly – a historical overview of tramways in Britain and Ireland.  It takes us from the pioneering but unique Oystermouth Tramway of 1807 to the horse-drawn systems which began to proliferate in urban areas from the 1860s, through experiments with steam and cable haulage and then, from the 1880s, electrification, which proved to be the optimal form of motive power for street railways – clean, quiet and able to move large numbers of people quickly.  Much of the technology and some of the hardware came from the USA.  The involvement of both private companies and municipal authorities is explained, each town’s system a result of local conditions and politics and often with no co-ordination or co-operation with neighbouring districts.  Hence in the 11-mile route between Bradford and Huddersfield there were three different track gauges on the systems of three different local authorities.

With fares deliberately kept low and concessionary workmen’s tickets available, trams enabled the working classes to move out of the inner cities.  Some more enlightened local authorities saw that affordable urban transport and social housing should be provided in parallel.  Private tramway companies were motivated by profit and some of these built lines in anticipation of development gains.

However, by the 1930s, many systems were in need of major investment which was seldom forthcoming.  The motor bus and trolley bus were often perceived as cheaper and more flexible alternatives.  Over the next 30 years the trams throughout Britain were gradually replaced, only Blackpool retaining much of its municipal system.  No thought was given at that time to the harmful effects of pollution from internal combustion engines and no-one at that time could foresee the future effects of growing private car ownership.

By the 1970s there began a gradual realisation that cities and towns were clogging up with cars, while other forms of public transport were in decline.  A modest revival began although the cost and complexity of building new street tramways was a major barrier.  Nevertheless, 10 ‘light rail’ systems are now operational in major cities around the UK and Ireland.  All are popular and well used and, as before, local approaches have varied so that each system has its own unique characteristics.

This is a well-written, beautifully illustrated and produced overview of tramway history.  Although not drawn from primary sources it is authoritative and comprehensive.  The author is clearly aware of the literature, including the academic side.

From Rails in the Road to Railways in the Landscape by Gordon Biddle, another beautifully presented volume from Pen & Sword Transport, retailing at £25.

Perhaps as much about geography as history, this eminently readable book takes its cue from the work of WG Hoskins and Jack Simmons, and appears to have grown out of a chapter that Gordon contributed to the RCHS book How Railways Changed Britain. It presents a comprehensive overview of the ways in which railways transformed the British landscape.  In town and village, countryside and coast, the railway transformed the landscape in many ways, both directly and indirectly.   This study ranges from the earliest days of wagonways right up to the present.  It considers the building types associated with railways and the changing materials and styles of architecture employed over time.  Settlements created or expanded by the railway are examined, as is the ongoing impact on the landscape of both operational and abandoned railways.  Finally, the London & Birmingham railway is taken as a case study, comparing its current visual appearance and impact with the line as recorded in JC Bourne’s lithographs.

It draws on a lifetime of observation and experience of the British landscape and its lines of communication, and should appeal to a much wider audience than merely the specialist transport historian.

The third book in this category is Train Doctor by Roger Senior, again published by Pen & Sword Transport and selling for £25.

There have been many accounts of railway careers written by steam locomotive drivers, signalmen and other grades from that era.  An account of a working life spent on the modern railway is rarer, though doubtless there will be more in the future.

Roger Senior started with BR in 1968 as an electrician at Leeds Holbeck depot.  In 1979 he transferred to Neville Hill to maintain the new Intercity 125 HST fleet, followed in 1988 by the introduction of the Class 91/MkIV coaching stock electric trains for the East Coast Main Line.  Around that time he was asked to become a Technical Riding Inspector, based at Doncaster and under the direction of York Control.  His remit was to travel on trains with reported faults with the aim of solving technical issues that could not be identified and resolved in the depot.  The aim was to reduce breakdowns in service and minimise consequent delays to other trains.  Starting on a temporary trial basis, he continued in this role for 16 years, eventually heading a team of six TRIs.  The importance of preventing failures became even more significant after privatisation when there were financial penalties for delays and far fewer locomotives available to rescue stranded trains.  Roger’s final post was as Resident Engineer for GNER at Bombardier’s Horbury Works for the Mk IV refurbishment programme carried out between 2002 and 2005.

Much of the book describes the various types of problem dealt with and inevitably the text sometimes becomes technical.  It demonstrates a characteristic of modern technology – that faults can often take hours or days to identify but minutes to fix.  It also shows that no matter how sophisticated the design, tweaking and learning from practice remain an essential part of commissioning and operating a successful machine.  What also comes through is the author’s commitment to the job, having to change plans at a moment’s notice as circumstances dictated and never knowing when he might get home at the end of the day.

The judges’ unanimous decision was to award the prize to Rails in the Road by Oliver Green

Oliver Green is presented with his certificate by Grahame Boyes (photo: Stephen Rowson)

Finally, we come to naming the overall winner of the David St John Thomas silver cup and prize for 2017 Transport History Book of the Year. The judges had to compare the merits of the three category winners in dealing with their chosen subjects, taking in factors such as the quality and originality of research, the quality of the writing and presentation, and their overall contribution to the field of transport history.

Mike Clarke’s ambitious and comprehensive history of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is the result of many years of research, though the author makes clear that it cannot be the final word.  New information continues to come to light and of course the canal’s history is ongoing.  One of the judges thought that this book would set a new benchmark for the writing of waterways history.  David Spaven’s account of the Far North Line is a significant contribution to a growing area of interest – broadly defined, the railway history of the second half of the 20th century.  This is a complex story of decline and renaissance which played out differently in different parts of the country.  David has recorded what happened, why it happened and much about the people and organisations involved in making it happen in the north east of Scotland.  Perhaps this will provide comparative material for studies of events elsewhere.  Finally, in view of the recent revival of interest in urban light rail transport, Oliver Green has given us a timely and comprehensive overview of tramway history in the British Isles, describing social, political and economic factors as well as the relevant technical aspects to give a balanced account.   The reviewer commented that this was in his opinion the best single-volume introductory history of British trams, and truly a quality production.

After much consideration, the judges agreed that Rails in the Road was their Book of the Year.

Oliver Green receives the David St John Thomas cup (photo: Stephen Rowson)

In accepting the award, the author, Oliver Green, spoke of how he discovered trams in mainland European cities during the 1970s and of finding them to be such a civilising influence in the urban environment.  Although there are a number of systems now operating in Britain and Ireland, he was disappointed by the slow pace of development and the apparent lack of will to commit the necessary resources.

The evening concluded with copies of the winning books being offered for sale with their authors on hand to autograph them.

 

Details of award winners in previous years may be found on the Previous Book Award Winners page

Information on how the winners are decided and how to enter books for the awards is on the main About the RCHS Book Awards page.