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Friday, 26 February 2010

Looking for Albinus

One of the joys of studying History is that sometimes I don't know something. The fact that I am ignorant of a topic or of an aspect of my work, is what spurs me on to shed light on the missing links. However, unfortunately for me I am one of those historians who does not like leave a stone unturned. OK you may say that that is what a historian is supposed to do, to search every archive or documentary source for information on a particular topic, yet most historians don't have the capacity to search everything. Yet while I accept the limitations on historical research, I do sometimes push it, holding the fervent belief that the information I'm, missing must be somewhere. Its like the time I went to the Dorset record office to look at three inconsequential files. They were mildly interesting, but even before I had bought the ticket to go to Dorchester, I knew that they probably wouldn't add much. You see it was that one little hope that one line may have been important. I was proved right, there was nothing, what a waste of time. The truth is I can spend inordinate amounts of time looking for information that in reality I may not, or do not, need, becuase I am petrified that I may miss something small. This leads me onto Albinus Martin.

In my research at the National Archives the general area of research is the London and South Western Railway's (L&SWR) management between 1864 and 1914. However on April 22nd (and yes book it in your diary) I present my first ever paper at History Lab, the Institute of Historical Research's Postgraduate Seminar. The title is 'Managing the 'Royal Road': The Development and Failings of Managerial Structure on the London and South Western Railway 1836-1900.' Therefore I have had to do more research on the early period of the company's history.

We are generally under the impression the General Manager or Chief Executive were mainly an invention of the later Victorian railway companies. Yet on the 8th August 1845 the L&SWR's Resident Engineer, Albinus Martin, was appointed by the Board to take charge of the 'whole concern' of the L&SWR. WHAT!!! This made him, if not in name, the first General Manager of the L&SWR, and probably one of the earliest examples in the industry. Special lad! On reading this my brain did its irritating little habit of thinking that there must be masses of files somewhere; correspondence, letters, diaries must have survived, he must of left SOMETHING. I'll get this out of the way now, he didn't. The man died and left literally nothing. He is a historical enigma. But before I knew this fact, my compulsion to look under every stone kicked in!

First of there was the problem of the name. In Williams' three volume history of the L&SWR he names Martin, frustratingly, Albino, rather than Albinus. Secondly the documents that I looked at, including the source above, only refer to him as simply as 'Mr Martin. So therefore I went looking for more information on him, and the only thing that came up was Wikipedia, which didn't say anything. Therefore frustrated by my lack of information I searched every combination of 'Martin' and 'London and south western' that I could in Google. Google is a sobering experience when having to trawl through all the tosh! How can an estate agent have a reference to the L&SWR on its website? Don't ask me, but there it is, extending my research! After 2, or was it 3 hours, and much pounding of the keyboard, I finally came up with a biography of an 'Albinus Martin' on, which had his obituary from the journal of the Institute of Civil Engineers. Huzzah, eureka!

Now the engine was running, I could act! Next I placed a notice in the South Western Circle newsletter for any information. I got a nice letter (and it is nice to recieve an actual written letter) from a Circle member detailing Martin's life before and after working for the L&SWR. Lovely as the letter was, it only embellished a little more that which was in the ICE's obituary. So I was still nowhere. I then went back to Google and searched the correct name...after surprisingly less tosh, I found something about some signals he invented, but nothing that would really help me. Then I used the 19th Century on-line newspaper and journal archives to see if there was anything. Again after a day of searching every combination of 'London and south western' and 'Albinus Martin,' no new information came to the fore. Therefore with no archive of letters, very little information and no new leads, I hit a dead end...I'm still here after wasting what must be at least two working days.

The problem, in 'looking for Albinus,' was that I spent so much time searching for information that I failed to realise that I had all the material I needed for my work from within the company files. Therefore if there is a lesson I should learn it is that I occasionally shouldn't get carried away with flights of fancy and letting my work be led by just my curiosity about a subject or personality.

Some months after, while out for a run, I was listening lecture about Richard Trevithick's demonstrations of the first steam train in 1808. In it the lecturer said that one of his sources of evidence was a book from the 1850s. In it one Albinus Martin gave a recollection of the event having been a witness. The lecturer then said, "now I can't find much information of Albinus Martin." 'Well,' I thought, 'you're not the only one,' and kept on running...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Loving Clapham Junction (even if it is a bit shit)

I actually like stations...sometimes. Clapham Junction particularly is one of my favourites, even though it is cold, there are no waiting rooms and travelling from one platform to the next is like a continual re-enactment of siege of Constantinople. Indeed so bad is the Junction that the recent "Better Rail Stations" review from November 2009 described it as the second worst interchange station in the country, scoring a paltry 39% in the satisfaction stakes (The number one offender being Manchester Victoria). That said, I'm gonna stick my neck out and say I like it for a number of reasons

Firstly, it is possibly one of the most pretentiously named stations in the country. A glance at the map will rightly place Clapham Junction in Battersea, Clapham being a mile to the east. Originally when the main line was built between London and Southampton there was no station built there. The area was really just farmland, inhabited by the poor, a few ducks and a Daxon named Colin ("...and thank you Colin") The nearest station, a mile away, was Wandsworth, which was later re-named to Clapham Common. It wouldn't be until 1863 that the current station was built by the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), the London Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) and the West London Extension Railway (WLER), to act as an interchange between the Windsor and Southampton Lines (for the L&SWR), the Line to Victoria (Built by the LB&SCR in 1860) and the WLER. Keen to attract a better class of clientèle, the companies colluded to call it Clapham Junction, significantly raising its status, and since then the name has never been changed. Therefore to my mind it is a bit of an upstart station...

Secondly I like that being an interchange means there is a real sense that its a place where people come together. OK they may not talk to anyone but the station staff, the guy in the AMT coffee or the toilet attendant, (who has one of the worst jobs imaginable) but there has always been to my mind a tacit understanding that everyone there is going about their business commuting to their various destinations. Having observed many people there (and it is great for people watching), there is a mutual respect between the bulk of commuters, embedded in the knowledge that they are in it together. They may all be crammed into steel tubes, but they all made a concious decision to suffer 35 minutes of that existence...together, in silence...and sometimes in awkward silence...

This said my third reason is conflict. No, it's not what you are thinking...very rarely do I see commuter on commuter action. Rather the conflict stems from a phenomenon at Clapham that I have never witnessed at any other station. At rush hour a member of the station staff continually broadcasts on the PA system things like 'please stand behind the yellow line,' 'please let people OFF the train first before getting on,' 'move down inside the carriage,' 'there's another train along in two minutes,' and so on and so forth. Now I understand why he's there, he's the Lion tamer, the microphone is his whip. It does however suggest that the great British travelling public are in conflict with the railways, that while they are all travelling together, they are also pushing against the boundaries of what the railways can offer. They want to so badly get on the train, but he has to stop them. This guy therefore is the negotiator between the warring parties and where at other stations people just deal with this conflict, at Clapham the is another factor, a bold, and ignored, member of the South West Trains staff...the commuter tamer.

Lastly I'll go with the obvious one...History. Whatever you think about the railways, Clapham has had the most trains going through it of any other station in its lifetime. Therefore when I see the modern trains rush through, I see steam, smoke and wheezing, imagining a past I will never see and never truly understand. This history is also ingrained in the fabric. Clapham, whether you are on the platform or in the overpass, hasn't had its basic fabric altered in about 100 years. Oh there are a few more platforms, there have been some changes in its lifetime, but at the end of the day most of what was built before 1900 is still there and you can see its history in the bricks, the iron and the rivets. It is a place that is filled with everything wonderful about the Victorian it well, build it sturdy and make it functional...

Therefore while many rightly deride Clapham's failings, I do think it has got a life of its own, I love it and long may its character remain...

Sunday, 21 February 2010

So my train was on time, and is on time

This week I received an email from Network Rail (NR) that detailed the punctuality of the major railway companies. Of course there is that perennial joke that comes up with reference to Britain's railways that they are always late and that you are going to be stuck on a platform for hours freezing your arse off like a penguin waiting for the next iceberg to turn up. Well let me just burst this miss-information bubble and say that most trains in this country do arrive on time, indeed as the email title proudly proclaims, 'NINE OUT OF TEN TRAINS ARRIVE ON TIME DURING JANUARY.' Indeed the figures do give a good picture of companies' punctuality. I may have to sell everything own to pay for my ticket, but at least I'll get to my empty room on time.

For NR a punctual train is those arriving within five minutes of the scheduled time for commuter services and within 10 minutes for long-distance services. They take into account all factors, such as whether, vandalism and passing antelope. Therefore the results I received for six companies and are as follows (apologies the data hasn't come out well on the blog):-

Jan 2009/10 ; Jan 2008/09 ; % point change

First Capital Connect; 85.5% ; 93.0% ; -7.5%

Virgin Trains; 77.9% ; 71.8% ; +6.1%

London Midland; 89.3% ; 83.6% ; +5.7%

Southeastern; 84.1% ; 89.2% ; -5.1%

South West Trains; 90.8% ; 95.2% ; -4.4%

London Overground; 88.5% ; 91.7% ; -3.2%

Having seen these types of figures for years I can roughly say the results fluctuate, month on month, but that generally we can take it as a given that on average 85% to 90% trains have been arriving 'on time' for about a year, after years of improvement. The only constant is that Virgin Trains are always the worst performer, but given recent performance, they are improving.

What these results got me thinking about is how the punctuality compares with the performance of railway companies of days gone by. Are the railways doing better or worse than their predecessors? The answer lies in a number of parliamentary reports from the 1890s that detailed how punctual different railway companies' trains were (an example is shown). The first thing to note is that unlike NR's press release, the Parliamentary returns show the percentage of each company's trains that arrived on time within within more detailed time periods (i.e. 5-10 minutes, 10-15 and so on). The only exception is that those trains that arrived within five minutes of the timetabled time, in which case the returns were split by the percentage that arrived within three minutes of schedule and those that arrived between 3 and 5 minutes.

Therefore the Parliamentary committee of the 1890s gives far more information than NR. But why is this so? Why do NR only give me a dribble of information when they would clearly have access to more? For example Virgin operates only long-distance trains, however all I know is that 77.9% trains arrived within 10 minutes. What if all of them arrived on the 59th second of the 9th minute? Surely that would make Virgin and NR look bad? More importantly why can't I have more detailed information? I think the reason is, and this is purely speculative, that in an age when the media will jump on anything that makes the railways look bad, any data that may harm the reputation of the Train Operating Companies' or NR is closely guarded. Therefore, if we had more detailed returns and was able to say that not one Virgin Train actually ran to time (OK, I know this isn't true) then this would be a PR disaster for the company even though by NR (and apparently European) measurements they were technically 'on time' as they came in under ten minutes. This said NR reported in March 2009 that British railway punctuality was the highest recorded since 1992, so I can't really complain too much. Yet, I still think that there is a case for saying that NR keep a lot of information very close to their chest that would be interesting. Anyway I have gone off on a tangent...onward!

For my comparison I will use the results of the company I am studying for my PhD, the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), and those of South West Trains (SWT) who operate in an almost identical region. This also eliminates in large part having to worry about separating the trains arriving under 5 or 10 minutes in my comparison, as both companies operated mainly suburban and commuter services and as such I can classify all trains arriving under five minutes as 'on time.' I will also compare the punctuality of Virgin trains and the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR) and as both ran mainly ran long-distance services, and therefore the cut-off for trains not running to schedule will be ten minutes. The results are as follows (apologies againthe data hasn't come out well on the blog):

Jan 1890 ; Jan 2010 ; % difference

L&NWR/Virgin Trains; 79.2% ; 77.9% ; +1.3%

L&SWR/South West Trains; 76.4% ; 90.8% ; -14.4%

These results while basic, and highly imperfect, do provide interesting reading. Firstly the L&NWR performed only marginally better than Virgin. However if we consider that the L&NWR and Virgin both operated the West Coast Main Line, that had, and has, the highest levels of traffic of any main line, then the problems with running to time become evident (even though there are far fewer trains on it today). Both companies would have had the difficult job of balancing both goods and passenger trains, would have far more infrastructure that could fail and would have had many more customers to carry. It may be argued that Virgin trains are actually facing fewer problems, given there are fewer trains on the line, however as their trains go at faster speed, then this is a factor that actually negates this consideration because the trains are closer together and require more complex scheduling. However it should also be noted that the recent WCML upgrade was behind schedule, over budget and while now complete, is still replete with bugs, but once things get 'ironed out' there is potential for Virgin's punctuality to improved.

Secondly the results of the L&SWR's performance were poor compared to its successor, despite operating similar services. Of course I cannot venture an wholly adequate reason for the difference, however it may be because SWT operate a clock face timetable, whereby trains leave and arrive at the same time each hour, whereas the L&SWR did not until 1912. Also nowadays the trains arriving at 'x' minutes past the hour have the same rolling stock and passenger capacities. These two factors therefore mean that while SWT can cancel trains if they are running too late, simply turning them into the next scheduled one, a late train on the L&SWR would disrupt the entire timetable as the late runner could not become a following train as they would have put the rest of the timetable into confusion and they would have had different types of rolling stock and locomotives attached to them. In addition on the lines SWT operate, there is very little freight, whereas the L&SWR did have a large goods operation. Therefore the L&SWR had more trains on the line and more potential for passenger trains to get stuck behind them because of failure or late running. Thus overall it seems that the SWT has a much simpler operation than its predecessor that gives it far better performance.

More detailed analysis of past and modern railway punctuality would be welcomed, however, with such limited data, the reasons that I can venture for differences between the past and present can only be speculative at this point.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

What a clerk said...The editors of the South Western Gazette

I'm currently ploughing my way through writing an article on the early years of the South Western Gazette (SWG). This was a company magazine established by London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) employees in June 1881 and has the unique distinction of being the first railway company magazine in the country. As a source of basic information company magazines excel in comparison with the wearisome 'official' files of railways such as minute books and letters because they give the historian a chance to view the 'human' side of the railways. The pages are filled with stories and tales of a social culture, bounded by the company's organisational borders, that has long since past. For this reason I always wished the SWG had started earlier because the history of the people behind railway operations never really moves beyond very dry statistical studies.

When analysing the SWG or any company magazine it should be kept in mind that they weren't just some benign form of community notice board. Dig a bit deeper and it is clear that the content was influenced by a number of factors. Mike Esbester (University of Reading) in his work on the Great Western Railway Magazine (GWRM), and I in the case of the SWG, have separately found that the background and career histories of editors was a highly important in shaping their publications.

In the case of the GWRM Esbester speculated that because the editor from 1919, Hadley, was working in the General Manager's office and therefore was close to the administrative centre of the company, it was highly likely that he would have had ideals aligned with those of management. These ideals therefore came through in the GWRM's coverage of and role in the GWR's Safety Campaign, as Hadley would have shared conceptions of safety with the management.

In the case of the SWG's early history it is evident that its editors would also have identified with the ideals of the management, even though the publication was essentially independent from them. Firstly two of the founders, Goffe and Dyer, worked in the General Manager's office (which only had one other staff member) placing them at the administrative centre of the company. Secondly the entire editorial and management team were clerks in the Traffic Department, and as has been stated in a previous post all managers in the department had been part clerical staff, creating a promotional and career link between the clerical staff and management. Therefore with these factors in mind it is highly likely that the editors would have shared a view of company operations similar or identical to those of management.

These shared views therefore became manifest in the Gazette's early editions. Firstly while the publication was written 'by South Western men, for South Western men', any competing narratives of company performance were prohibited. In the first issue it was stated that the editor (Dyer) did not 'think it wise' to allow articles which were 'tending to a criticism of the South Western Company's policy, or the action of the company's Officials.' This clearly aligned the Gazette's content with the goals and thought of management, something that was re-enforced by some of its early features. While much of the content focussed on the company's social culture such as smoking concerts, fairs, promotions, long-standing employees and staff funerals, the was significant coverage of the 'business' side of company activities. Therefore early issues carried revenue tables, traffic information and reports of the half-yearly accounts, which was more likely the concern of management and those aspiring to be managers, rather than non-clerical staff such as porters and ticket inspectors.

Overall while essentially the SWG featured news of the L&SWR's social culture in its formative years, it did have a links to the views of management of which glimpses can be seen. Subsequently analysis of company magazines should always look beyond the pages into the background.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Waterloo isn't what it used to be

Waterloo is a dump! There I said it. We can of course applaud the cleaners, I didn't see one Metro or Evening Standard dumped floorward today. I did see plenty loitering the train. In fact in a bit of a tangent I think it is weird that Network Rail get a good cleaning job done at Waterloo, while South West Trains clearly don't give a shit about the carriage interior. Different priorities I suppose...anyway

I think that the problem with Waterloo is that now the romance has gone. If anyone has seen the 1961 John Schlesinger film 'Terminus: 24 Hours in the Life of Waterloo Station' they will know what they I mean. Since the station's building in 1848 (with the current station being the product of a re-build between 1900 and 1921) there has always been the bustle of commuters, and the film expertly portrays individuals going to their varied occupations. Yet what I think has changed is the fact that people don't interact with the station in the same way. The film expertly portrays the station as a social arena, where drinks were served, meals were sat and eaten and lovers came together and spent time talking. Now people drink on the move, the meals are over-salted and speedily scoffed, and I see most people arguing, yelling, or moving so fast that others nearly topple like dominoes. Waterloo is now one part in people's a-b-c lives and not an interactive part of it. In short the station experience, while still essentially still about travelling and meeting, has sped up.

The biggest indicator of the 'quicker' station experience are the barriers, designed to catch those devious travellers who were moving in too fast to buy a ticket. Pesky, ugly and unnecessary is my opinion. Oh the Train Operating Companies love them so much that I bet they get aroused by the mere site of yellow circles and flashing lights. I bet every time they see one open they can just hear the money jangling into their pocket. Of course this poses problems for the majority of travellers that are 'honest.' They place anyone who previously would have very willing pay for their ticket on the train or those who make simple errors with regard to ticket buying, in the category of a fare dodger. For all those who fail to have a ticket the mantra is now no excuse - you are getting a fine. This is a problem especially prevalent on South West Trains where many stations have been equipped with barriers, most notable amongst them being Waterloo.

Are these revenue-generating, money sucking, fare evasion instalments worth it? No. As Richard Malins at 'Transport Investigations' has just commented in the latest issue of RAIL magazine, they are only profitable at larger stations because of the extra cost of staffing them at the small ones. Thus all the Train Operating Companies have done in their efforts to slow the public down, catch fare dodgers and claim the money that is (rightly or wrongly) there's, is that they have dehumanised the travel experience and set them selves up for grief with their customers. Would it be terrible if at that at the cost of a few dodged fares and turning a blind eye to the errors of the travelling public they could have fostered good customer relations? In truth at the end of the day they just pissed us off, but then again they are monopoly Train Operating Companys with no others to challenge them. Thus this goes to show, in my opinion, that they don't really care about customer relations at all, rather bleeding our pockets dry is all that matters.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Developing the British Railway Manager

The evolution of the British railway manager in the Victorian period isn't something that immediately peaks the interest. However the shift that managers made from being amateurs to professionals, tells us something about the way that the railway companies and business developed in Britain. Whereas early railway managers were more apt to worry about whether steam engines would explode and kill local cattle, later managers were worried about steam engines having a similar effect on cattle that strayed onto the line. Therefore the tale of the development of the professional railway manager is about a shift in the knowledge that they were utilising to run their increasingly complex businesses.

In 1830 there was no such thing as a railway manager. Of course there were people who managed railways, but there was no one in the labour market, the country, or anywhere, who had had any prior experience of running the rail. Therefore early directors, faced with some the most complex organisations that had been established in history, appointed their managers mainly from three non-railway sources. There were whose who had worked on similar businesses such as canals, engineers and gung-ho military types. In fact it was the latter that was favoured by directors. This was because the military were the only organisations where individuals coordinated more than just a smelly guy with a cart. In fact after Waterloo and the dramatic scaling down of Britain's military, there was little else for meandering ex-military men to do.

A number of studies have shown the influx of military men into the railways. Terry Gourvish, who I bet will get more than one mention in this Blog, did his PhD on Captain Mark Huish, the first General Manager of the London and North Western Railway, (L&NWR). He was late of the 67th Bengal Native Infantry (Gourvish, 1972, p.48). Michael Bonavia also noted Captain Eborall of the London and Birmingham Railway, Captain Laws and Binstead of Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR) and Captian Coddington of the Caledonian Railway (CR). (Bonavia, 1971, p.13) In short, military men were everywhere.

My own PhD has however shown that no senior London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) managers that I know of did any form of military service (trust it to be different) .There was Albinus Martin, the first 'General Superintendent,' who was an engineer and helped build the company's first line between London and Southampton. There was also the scallywag, Cornelius Stovin, who was a failed stagecoach proprietor and in 1852 saw fit to run off to the United States, taking some cash with him (never to be seen again). What this shows is that while in some respects some early railway managers were trained professionals in other fields, especially the engineers, in general they were a mixed bag of individuals who directors were forced to employ because their was no other option.

By the end of the 19th century a dramatic change had occurred. In 1898 the London and South Western appointed their third General Manager, Charles Owens (Shown). He was the personification of the late-Victorian career railwayman. He had started with the company in 1862 at the age of 16 as an apprentice Clerk in the Audit Office. He had moved gradually through the ranks to clerk, chief clerk and then Goods Manager in 1888. 10 years later he was appointed General Manager of the company, a post he would hold until 31st December 1911. What Owens' career demonstrates is that the nature of the railway manager had changed dramatically. No longer were directors appointing a misfit bunch of individuals to run their operations, now they had a they plethora of long-standing and experienced railway employees who knew the lay of the land.

Evidence from my PhD therefore shows a change in the age at which managers started with the L&SWR. Of twenty eight L&SWR managers that began their careers in the period 1839 to 1859, 42.8% started between the ages of 20 and 60 and therefore must have worked in other businesses. Indeed its seems that before 1870 the L&SWR did a fair amount of poaching railway talent from companies allied to their business. However in the period 1860 to 1879 only 11.7% of 34 managers began their careers after the age of 20 and after 1880 none did. Boring as these statistics are they do show that management was increasingly being populated by individuals who had started with the railway in their teenage years and thus had had their entire career within the industry. Further to this all the managers had careers on the clerical promotional ladder, moving from junior (or apprentice) clerks, to clerks, then chief clerks or station masters and then being appointed to middle management. Overall only 3 out of a sample of 70 managers started with the L&SWR in non-clerical positions such as porters, inspectors or ticket collectors. Therefore it can also be said that the majority of managers had only followed one type of career path.

Therefore there is a binary character to railway management in the late Victorian period. On the one hand you had senior and middle managers who knew the ropes of the railway industry well, had vast experience and had worked their way up from the bottom. The problems of recruitment in the earlier period had been dispelled as no longer were directors forced to search outside the industry for managers who were hard to find and whose trustworthiness could not be assured. On the other hand however most managers in the later period only had experience of one industry and one career path, which may have led to managerial institutionalisation. In an effort to solve the problems of early managerial recruitment by favouring internal appointments, it is possible that directors and senior management created an environment where innovation and new ideas were uncommon as no 'new blood' was entering the railway industry. This subsequently may have affected the performance of Britain's railway companies in the late Victorian period.

However that is a question for another post...


Bonavia, Michael R., The Organisation of British Railways, (Shepperton, 1971)

Gourvish, T.R., Mark Huish and the London & North Western Railway: A Study of Management, (Leicester, 1972)

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