For years now, in company with about half the world, I’ve been watching Michael Portillo on TV strutting in his peculiar gait around the railways of Europe and Britain, dressed in his absurd fluorescent jackets and clutching to his breast, like an old-time preacher man, an ancient copy of Bradshaw’s, the British railway bible. I daresay most viewers see this tome in Portillo’s hands as simply the tangible rationale for his messing about on trains, no more significant than a future space traveller using a Lonely Planet or Michelin guide from today to frame his exploration of the Earth as it was before the Great Interstellar War tore it apart.
But Bradshaw’s is much more than that. It is a key document in the library of everyone who’s serious about rail travel and its history, which includes those who like to babble on about Pacifics and Atlantics and that starring pair of the railway circus, Bo-Bo and Co-Co, but is by no means confined to them. Bradshaw’s, first published in 1839, less than a decade after the world’s first steam locomotive-powered passenger railway was opened between Manchester and Liverpool, demonstrates that the many disparate lines built by then were actually coming together to form a network which, if it kept expanding, would allow people to travel cheaply and quickly just about anywhere. The British invented rail travel and Bradshaw’s enabled everyone to take advantage of it.
And so, today, Bradshaw’s is taken for granted among those who study, or are simply interested in, the history of rail travel. Because it is ubiquitous it is assumed to be the first, possibly unique, railway travel guide. This, it has been made clear to me in recent days, is not the case.
On 17 April, I received a notification from Victoria Madden, my blogging friend in Warrington, Lancashire, that she had posted a piece titled Warrington’s Early Railways: Freeling’s Grand Junction Railway Companion (1838), which dealt with an old book she had discovered on Google Books describing, in what is now the time-honoured manner of railway guide books, the journey on the then brand-new railway linking Birmingham with the Liverpool-Manchester line through Victoria’s beloved Warrington. It also contains much arcane stuff about the early passenger railways but that’s not what really struck me.
The content and style of Freeling’s rail guide sections were so close to those of the two Bradshaw’s I have on my shelves (alas, they are modern facsimile copies, not originals which carry hefty price tags) that I started to check the timing. After all, 1838 was awfully soon after the dawn of the railway industry.
Let’s backtrack a little.
Bradshaw’s was first and foremost a passenger train timetable. It began by putting together in one place the schedules of all the railway lines in England, with regular updates as the industry grew and the lines connected and expanded. Eventually Bradshaw’s timetables covered all of the British Isles. (The idea was taken up in many countries, even as far away as Australia, where a Bradshaw’s was published in Victoria until after WWII. In true bushranger fashion, this had nothing to do with the British Bradshaw’s – the naughty colonials hijacked the name.) The first Bradshaw’s was annotated with bits of useful extra information but it was not a guide book – that came later.
I don’t know who actually invented the railway guide book but it must have been pretty close to the author of the Companion that Victoria uncovered, Arthur Freeling. I suppose there might have been a template already established for guide books as tourism had started to grow before the advent of the railways. Freeling’s Grand Junction Companion was actually his second such book – the first was a Companion to the Liverpool-Manchester railway, published in 1832 only two years after it had opened for traffic on 15 September 1830. If anyone got in ahead of that he must have been fairly slippy.
Freeling’s first Companion appears not to be available online but, as Victoria found, his second is and so the content and style of the first can be fairly inferred from that. The frontispiece of the second book states: “The Grand Junction Railway companion to Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham; and [a] guide containing an account of every thing worthy [of] the attention of the traveller upon the line; including a complete description of every part of the rail-road; of the noblemen or gentlemen’s seats which may be seen from it; and of the towns and villages of importance in its neighbourhood. Dedicated (by permission) to the chairman and directors of the Grand Junction Railway Company.”
Mr Freeling advertised in this book that he was also preparing Companions for nine other lines “&c. &c. &c.” Ambitiously, he added: “N.B.– Railway Companions for every other Line will be published, as soon as their state of progression will allow.” Railway development progressed rapidly all over England after 1830. The Grand Junction Railway, started in 1832 and opened in 1837, eventually linked the Liverpool-Manchester line through Birmingham to London and opened the way north to Scotland. Competition was fierce among railway promoters, and so it seems it was also among those who would explain these new phenomena and their environment to the populace at large.
Freeling complained in his Grand Junction Companion about the activities of a Mr Cornish who had published ahead of him in 1837 a Companion to that same route. Cornish’s work had compelled Freeling to rush into print earlier than he wanted. He all but accused Cornish of theft and plagiarism. Cornish’s volume is available on line and it is closely similar in style and content to Freeling’s. Given Freeling’s apparent groundbreaking volume on the Liverpool-Manchester railway, he seems prima facie to have a case.
Against Cornish anyway – also focusing on Freeling’s territory were Osborne’s and Drake’s guides, someone named R. Brooks, plus a Companion-style book by “J.W.W.” (left) who just on a swift glance seems to have mimicked Freeling, er, freely – compare “including a complete description of every part of the rail-road; of the noblemen or gentlemen’s seats which may be seen from it; and of the towns and villages of importance in its neighbourhood” (Freeling) and “Account of the Towns, Villages, and Gentlemen’s Seats Within Ten Miles of the Railroad” (JWW).
Freeling was a busy man. An internet search throws up a number of further railway companions he authored, plus other sorts of guide books – to etiquette, for example, and The Young Bride’s Book: Being Hints for Regulating the Conduct of Married Women (1839) which I gather is for husbands. (I think his advice might be a bit late for me.) But Freeling has pretty much disappeared from public consciousness. I have scoured my limited but not bad collection of railway histories and travel books and, as far as they are concerned, there was no other, only Bradshaw’s.
George Bradshaw, publisher of the eponymous timetable and guide books, was also a Lancashire lad. He got around a bit before he set up business in Manchester as a printer and cartographer. As Wikipedia tells it, “Bradshaw’s name was already known as the publisher of Bradshaw’s Maps of Inland Navigation, which detailed the canals of Lancashire and Yorkshire, when, on 19 October 1839, soon after the introduction of railways, his Manchester company published the world’s first compilation of railway timetables [and first national railway map]. The cloth-bound book was entitled Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling . . . In 1840 the title was changed to Bradshaw’s Railway Companion . . .”
Companion? Well now, there’s something. I doubt this is an accident. The world of railways in the north of England was still small in 1840 and there can be little doubt the Liverpudlian Freeling and the Mancunian Bradshaw at least knew of each other, if not actually having met. In the 1838 second edition of Freeling’s Grand Trunk Companion, the advertisement at left appears among many at the back (these were not in the first edition, most probably because of Freeling’s rush to print) for “A General Railway Map” – this being “Bradshaw’s New Map of the Railways, &c., of England Wales and Scotland, reduced from the celebrated and highly accurate Ordnance Survey.” The ad was placed by Bradshaw’s Liverpool agent, Henry Lacey, “publisher of Freeling’s railway companions”.
I can’t find any explanation of why Bradshaw styled his annotated timetable book as a “companion” after only three months of publication but I don’t think I need to be a commercial genius to have a good guess. The arch-Quaker Bradshaw, who for religious reasons refused to label his books with the names of the months, decided his principles didn’t extend to passing-off. I imagine copyright and trade mark laws were rudimentary in those days and anyway my bush lawyer expertise tells me that even today Freeling could not have alienated the word “companion” for his exclusive use. So long as Bradshaw didn’t actually copy Freeling’s titles and style in full he was home free.
The genius that propelled Bradshaw’s to dominance was its national coverage. Travellers didn’t have to buy several books – they had it all in one: maps, timetables, useful information and, eventually, full guidance to (in Freeling’s words) “every thing worthy [of] the attention of the traveller upon the line”. The method and presentation are clearly modelled on those of Freeling. Such is the tragedy of invention and innovation. Who, for example, today knows the name and work of Nikola Tesla? And yet everybody uses alternating current, which he pioneered and which eventually overtook direct current, promoted by Thomas Edison, as the means of reticulated electricity supply. Edison is everywhere and Tesla is reduced to the name of a car and experiments with coils in school physics classes.
Bradshaw published his companions, updated at irregular intervals, until 1845, after which they were succeeded by his guide books. These reached their full flowering in 1860, after Bradshaw himself had died of cholera in Norway in 1853.
The guide books continued for more than a century before they went to the great siding in the sky in 1961 but, courtesy of M. Portillo Esq., the name is probably better known today than it ever was. With Bradshaw’s in hand – or, in the eastern US, the Appleton’s knock-off – this former Conservative politician has brought his best Cabinet minister manner to explaining how and why the railways changed everything.
I must confess, though, I’ve been getting a little frustrated with him as the latest 3000 episodes of Series 512 have been airing – on SBS free-to-air, but I’ll swear they’ve been around before on all 153 cable channels. He started out all right, getting on the tracks and showing us the trains and actually talking about them, their routes and their destinations. However, like Tootle, he’s gone off the rails at times. I can’t believe he’s run out of things about railways to show and tell – I have a bookcase full of material, if he’d like to borrow – but he must have or he wouldn’t indulge in the little stunts his producers have set up for him. I’ve seen him making biscuits in the ancient England-Scotland border town, Carlisle, when there’s an interesting station and historic junction to look at . . . and teetering halfway across a rope bridge on some moors somewhere miles from any train . . . and cruising on boats in the Lake Country and Switzerland . . . and swinging alarmingly on a fairground ride . . . etc etc (in Freeling style, &c).
What I’m saying is he’s gone all touristy. I should make allowances for the fact that, by the time the shows hit our screens Down Under, they’ve been through their umpteenth iteration and the order gets a bit mixed up. But back in medieval days when these Great [British, Continental, American] Railway[road] Journeys first found their way into public consciousness, it might be that he was in fact a tourist and only got into the train thing when the complaints from rail nerds like me rolled in. After all, he has been examining of late the railways’ role in prosecuting the Great War and, while he’s performed the odd little stunt, the shows have been admirably about his topic, and fascinating accordingly. Likewise the most recent episode about the first paying run of the resurrected Flying Scotsman.
This wonderful event occurred on 25 February 2016 – let’s see now, that would be a year and two months ago – and, courtesy of the ever-alert BBC, the film made it to British screens at express pace in January this year, that is to say 2017. We colonials got it only a scant three months later, having been delivered by fast clipper ship out of Tilbury Dock. All facetiousness aside, though, I have to say I enjoyed it immensely. It was one of Portillo’s best efforts – he did some nice interviews, was mightily chuffed at being interviewed himself as THE train expert and absolutely glowed in full schoolboy enthusiasm at being allowed on to the footplate of locomotive 60103 (this British Rail number having replaced the more familiar pre-World War II 4472).
Bradshaw’s was in hand as Portillo told us about the massive crowds that turned out at London King’s Cross to see the train off on its journey to the loco’s home at the National Rail Museum, York; the enthusiasts at every vantage point along the way; the enforced halt by trainspotters trespassing on the track; the loco’s need to take on water from a truck by the side of the line now that watering facilities essential to steam operation no longer exist; and, above all, the sheer joy of the whole experience.
I’m glad Bradshaw’s was there. In its red jacket, it’s an institution, too. Pity about Freeling.