Shropshire railway posters

PUBLISHED: 11:25 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 17:01 20 February 2013

This poster painted in 1960 by Jack Merriott shows a part of Shrewsbury that has changed very little.

This poster painted in 1960 by Jack Merriott shows a part of Shrewsbury that has changed very little.

Dr Richard Furness is a lover of the railways and of Shropshire where he was born and bred.

Shropshire is a beautiful county, and I was most fortunate to have been born there a year after WWII ended. My parents were both serving in the RAF when they met in 1942, my mother coming from Wrockwardine Wood in East Shropshire, and my father from the historic Derbyshire plague village of Eyam. Because of how they met, I now have the initials RAF. I grew up to the sight and sounds of steam engines, living as I did, just east of Wellington. I did not know it at the time, but they were to influence and shape my life, wherever I lived.

I left home at 18 to go to College in Yorkshire, and then to university in Southampton, but railways and Shropshire were always in the background. Today, having lived in six English counties and in three states in the USA, I am in Gloucestershire, and about to start work on my third book about railway posters (Volume 1 was Scotland and Volume 2 is Yorkshire), which will feature Shropshire and all the counties of the Midlands. This short article looks at the local railway poster and the impact it has had on my beautiful county.

I have always been fascinated by industrial history and archaeology, and living close to the home of the industrial revolution, the Ironbridge Gorge, I was able to study this first hand. At that time, there was no Telford, no museums, and little to tell the world this was the Birthplace of Industry. It was just not marketed that way, even by the railways. Today when I go back, I scarcely recognise some areas. The open spaces, where I used to roam and play, are housing estates: modern Telford has swallowed up most of the area I grew up in. Just look at an OS map from 1954 and compare it to an OS map of today. The change is enormous.

Railways came to the county in 1767, when cast iron rails were laid so that horses could more easily move raw material and freight. In 1802, Richard Trevithick was experimenting with steam engines, and by the mid-19th century many lines had been established across the county, (Shrewsbury station opened in 1849). At the railway zenith, there were 80 stations and small halts in all parts of the county, but progressive cuts have reduced railway travel to a shadow of its former self.

Shrewsbury, the county town, naturally became a major junction, with lines to Wolverhampton, Hereford, Mid-Wales, Birkenhead and Crewe all meeting at the famous station above the river. When railway posters appeared in the early 20th century, the delights of Shrewsbury were advertised. It is an elegant town, full of history, character and superb buildings. As a boy, several of us used to buy platform tickets at Wellington and ride to Shrewsbury. There was just enough time before ticket inspectors came through to check! My friends and I first used to go train spotting on the station, and then walk up Castle Street, down Pride Hill and into the Square.

We were greeted by the sight shown in the poster pictured on the first page of this article. This was painted in 1960 by Jack Merriott, around the time we used to go there. This part of Shrewsbury has changed very little, so you can go today and stand in front of the Old Market Hall to take in this same view. From here, let us walk the short distance, via St. Johns Hill towards the Quarry. We pass the home where Percy Thrower used to live in the shadow of St Chads Church, and see the other claim to fame the town has. Walking down to the Severn, we gaze up at Shrewsbury School, a very famous public school, which is perched high above us on the opposite side of the river. This is the poster opposite, which was painted by famous artist Norman Wilkinson CBE in 1938. Very little is different today.

Founded in 1552, Shrewsbury School remains one of the great scholarly foundations of England, and a place I aspired to, but have never even visited. They moved to the Kingsland site in 1882. The poster however is a beautiful depiction of afavourite location. There are other posters for Shrewsbury, two of which deserve special mention. The town is full of wonderful old buildings and both Rowleys House and Irelands Mansion have both featured on railway posters. The railways used to emphasise such aspects, and space allows only one of these to be shown, so I chose Irelands Mansion in the High Street area of the town, (see overleaf ). This building appeared in 1575, but other notable buildings were the Old Market Hall (1596), Owens Mansion (1592) and Rowleys House (1618). Sadly, none of the railway companies produced a poster for Shrewsbury Abbey, or the two graceful bridges that cross the Severn.

The English Bridge was built in the 1770s, and this was followed 20 years

later by the Welsh Bridge. But it is the Severn (and its moods) that dominates the town. The poster pictured bottom left shows a view near Porthill footbridge looking upstream towards the Welsh Bridge. If we move outside the county town, the main line down to South Wales passes through a beautiful part of England. I used to cycle with many friends all around Church Stretton, even as far as Craven Arms, before coming over Wenlock Edge and back to Wellington. But the railways ignored the area. There is no Ludlow Town, no Cardingmill Valley, Stiperstones or Wenlock Edge all wonderful places to portray.

Frank Sherwin made his painting for the Ludlow Castle poster, pictured on the cover of this magazine, in 1950. This poster is in my own collection and hangs proudly alongside Merriotts Shrewsbury in the downstairs railway office. Alongside these two in the office hangs an original oil painting by Norman Elford of my favourite engine (Castle Class Earl of St. Germans) leaving Shrewsbury on the Londonbound Cambrian Coast Express.

We used to go all over Shrewsbury station and the staff there, once they got to know us, allowed entry into the sheds, and at odd times into the huge signal box, the viewpoint where this picture is painted from. Today, stupid health and safety rules spoil all of that, with common sense relegated in favour of illogical, nonsensical procedures. To stand with our back to the wall, in the safe care of the signal box confines, watching Earl of St. Germans come towards us is unforgettable, even to this day, some 55 years after I last did it.

There are many closed lines in Shropshire, including the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway, the Minsterley branch line, the Bishop's Castle Railway, the Stafford-Wellington line and the narrow-gauge Snailbeach light railway. Many were closed in the 1960s, although the county did not fare too badly under Dr Beeching's massive nationwide railway cuts. The Heart of Wales Line was saved from closure. However, some previously major railway centres in the county, such as Oswestry, Newport and Market Drayton, now have no public railways. The Stafford-Wellington line via Newport, near where I used to live in Hadley, has long been dismantled, but part was restored to MOD Donnington in 2008; it is hoped the next phase might be to reconnect Newport to the railway network.

Thank goodness we still have the Severn Valley Railway running from Bridgnorth to Kidderminster, and the Horsehay Trust near Wellington, which is hoping to extend to the existing freight line that serves the Ironbridge power station. I can only dream that one day, momentum could be given to the idea of building the extensions for both these preserved lines to the Home of Industry area. Now that would do wonders for tourism in my beloved county, and would allow the county motto Floreat Salopia to really mean something!

Art of the Railways

Commercial art played the central role in 20th century advertising, until photography and the digital age changed the way we market and promote our products. It was the same with rail transportation. When railways first appeared in the mid Victorian Age, there was no photography, no lithography and indeed no real need to advertise. The fact that there were railways meant that only informative billposters were required to tell people when and where the trains ran to. The Victorian era saw Britain at its zenith, and as affluence became more widespread, people could travel (and wanted to travel).

Because there were no cars, the train took the strain: (this was later used in a British railways campaign in the 1980s). The railways and their posters were responsible for tourism and local business development. Towns such as Filey, Skegness, Ilfracombe, Torquay and Scarborough were made by the railways. Printing and lithography was perfected in Britain in the 1850s onwards, so when posters started to advertise services and places, images were required to tempt customers to use the railway. This led to the birth of the informative and decorative poster. Two types of approach were used. The LMS Railway used Royal Academicians, to drive the image upmarket, and the LNER used commercial artists, where boldness and style replaced conventional detailed paintings.

The result was these two cultures clashed in the 1923-1933 period, when these railway giants went head to head for freight and passenger business. The Great Western and Southern Railways were less aggressive in their approaches but still produced a few real classics. Because the four main companies were trying to outdo each other, some wonderful paintings appeared on posters, and the so-called Golden Age of Posters was created.

This series of regional railway journeys I am writing allows poster developments to be critically examined, and to assess the influence they had on British society throughout the 20th century. Of the several thousand railway posters published since the Victorian era, less than 10 per cent have featured in poster books, including some of those featured here.

We were fortunate that some great artists (and poster artists) were used by the railway companies. The result is a plethora of wonderful works of art that today are very collectible, both within the art world and in railway memorabilia collecting circles. This is part due to nostalgia, and partly because many of the early posters are now extremely valuable. However, the more modern posters are also affordable and memorable to all of us who regularly take the train, but just not as nice as those shown here. The posters also give an insight into a time that will never again happen in the British Isles.

*The foreword for Dr Richard Furnesss book Poster to Poster Railway Journeys in Art Volume 5, The Midlands and Wales, is written by Pete Waterman and the publication is scheduled for the end of October. It is one in a series commissioned by the National Railway Museum in York.

All poster images provided courtesy of Science & Society Picture Library London, the licensed copyright agent for the National Railway Museum in York. Images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without express permission from the copyright holder.

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