David St John Thomas

Born in 1929. As when considering Ian Allan, it is difficult to segregate the author from the publisher. Thomas founded his publishing business in 1960 with Charles Hadfield: hence David & Charles – which he sold in 1990, founding a Charitable Trust in its stead. Prolific autobiographer: Double headed steam celebrated his father's life (Gilbert St. John Thomas) who passed many of his passions on to his son and Journey through Britain and Remote Britain form a pair of easy to read journalist's autobiographies (their main fault is that they are excessively long and difficult to handle perhaps they were written in anticipation of the Kindle where bulk will be less significant). The Tombeau de St John Thomas has now been shunted into the Necropolis platform..
When this page was written its author was woefully unaware. in spite of his membership predating the publication) of David St John Thomas's Varieties of railway and canal history (J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2004, 34, 537) wherein he set out the criteria for "good history". These are appended.
Both Allan and Thomas developed publishing from their authorship, and their writing/compilation skills tended to infuse their publishing excellence. In both cases the publishing began at a remarkably early age, and this precocity tended to colour their activity for a very long time. One of Thomas's greatest achievements had been The Regional History series which was begun with his own contribution on the West Country. This series has great strengths, but also suffers from inherent weaknesses, some of which could now be resolved by electronic publishing. The greatest weakness is that some areas fall on the edge of several volumes, and in consequence it is difficult to be certain that all is seen (and this also leads to duplication). Some main lines are considered on a very divided basis – this is especially annoying for the GNR which was conceived as a coherent whole. The trunk of the Great Western is treated far more kindly. As a volume on Ireland (which is hardly in Great Britain but it was good that nobody appeared to notice this anomaly) now exists it might be appropriate to produce a general volume covering each of the main lines with interfaces to the appropriate volumes for greater detail.

Another weakness is that for a number of reasons some of the authors selected whatever their intrinsic merits may have been were not suited to the task of what was essentially historical geography. Thus Scotland was ill-served by Thomas and London  and the South of England had the right author, but one suspects that the publisher dictated too slim a coverage. In this respect, Jackson's London's local railways is vastly superior and his work on London's termini remains essential reading. As the work on Ireland is relatively recent and some of the earlier volumes remain in print there is a need to examine what sort of work should replace it, given that much of what was described has actually been removed without trace in the flatter, agricultural or deeply industrialized parts of Britain. Furthermore, there has been some new railway development, notably but not solely in the South East. In this respect consideration might have to be given to including street tramways.

For a time the publishing house performed a remarkable service in bringing back out-of-print material back into print.

The Locomotive Studies were mainly dominated by Nock, but other writers also contributed, notably Brian Reed, J.W.P. Rowledge and Brian Webb (excellent studies of post-steam traction). There were also Locomotive Monographs (all by Nock. The "Monographs" tended to be fatter than the "Studies" and weakened the Series concept which should have had its own colophon to encourage serial purchase.

It is as a popular writer/publisher where he worked with P.B. Whitehouse that he will remain most memorable. The LNER 150, and its companions, remain excellent coffee table books to which one can return and find not only amusing paragraphs and diverting illustrations, but real bits and pieces of information, although it is perhaps indicative of decling values that these are sometimes commended as primary sources.

2009 Clinker Lecture. The Romance of the Country Railway. J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc, 2010, 36, 70.

A regional history of the railways of Great Britain. Volume 1. The West Country. London: Phoenix House, 1960.


Thomas, G. and Thomas, D. St. J.
Double headed two generations of railway enthusiasm. Dawlish (Devon), David & Charles, 1963. 200 p. incl. 24 plates, 59 illus.
A delightful "twin" autobiographical study of father and son, their love of model railways, and the real thing and how they established David & Charles in Newton Abbot.

150 series
All were credited: Patrick. Whitehouse and David St. John Thomas, except SR 150 where the compiler/editors were reversed

The Great Western Railway: 150 glorious years. 208pp. 1984.
The later editions tended to be richer in information, but lacked some of the  illustrative richness of this first venture, notably the folding map,
LMS 150: the London Midland & Scottish Railway: a century and a half of progress. 1987. 208pp
Includes a substantial amount of material written by D.S.M. Barrie: very much more than a coffee table book and one of the few reference books to include the Irish railways, notably but not only the Northern Counties Committee, as an integral part of the story.
LNER 150: the London and North Eastern Railway: a century and a half of progress. 1989. 208pp.
Lacks something of the authority of the other three volumes, possibly due to much of it being written by John Powell who was an LMS man and not especially sympathetic to LNER motive power.
SR 150: a century and a half of the Southern Railway. 1988. 208pp.
Excellent source for biographical material: rather more than a coffee table book, but just short of true reference book status. Most of the contributions were in effect signed (see page 206) and included A. J[ohn] Powell on both steam locomotives and on electrification.and R.A. Savill who began his railway career as a Southern Railway cadet and ended it on the British Railways Board..

The romance of Scotland's railways. Nairn. 1993.
Similar to the 150 series, but lacking the rigour although does include some interesting items. It is analysed in greater detail than the 150 series.
1. Introduction. 8-39.
The Monkland Railways. 40-3.
Chronology. 43-5
2. Some Scottish stations. 47
Diaries of a fifties spotter 60=5
Failure on Drumochter 66-7
Three illustrations of ex-Caledonian Rly No. 54494 having to come to front of train to assist it forward to Aviemore or Inverness
3. The Caley's traditional bread and butter. 68-74.
Lanarkshire coal
4. The Scottish country railway
John Thomas [box] 83-4

John Powell. Running the Bon Accord
Description of run with A4 No. 60009 Union of South Africa with Driver Dougal Ross and Fireman  Ian Ingram from Aberdeen to Perth and Driver Alastair Dewar and Fireman Willie McKay from Perth to Buchanan Street.
Reproduction of handbill showing unrebuilt Patriot on three hour express announcemeent
Brief notes on Cowlairs, St. Rollox and North British Locomotive Co (and exports from latter hauled by steam traction engines).
Notes on smaller locomotive works and on lines closed including that through the Borders

Autobiographical
Journey through Britain: landscape, people and books. London: Frances Lincoln, 2005. 700pp.
The following extracts give a good indication of the stylish prose which characterize the work of this railway and model railway enthusiast, writer, publisher. In some respects it follows in the footsteps of J.B. Priestley's English journey, but it is probably more akin to the best of Eric Newby.
"I've always put my dislike of bathing down to Hythe's waves crashing on the steep shingle. Conversely, my love of railways was encouraged by another of the town's features. The miniature (15-inch gauge) Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, was controversially built across marsh and shingle in 1926 and soon extended to Dungeness. It was still very much in its original state when I first travelled on it in the mid-I930s. Then it carried both shingle and fish into Hythe, but largely lived on, as well as helped develop, holiday camps along the coast., There was a wartime interlude when pleasure trains were exchanged for military ones including an armoured one with aircraft gun. Advertising itself as the world's smallest railway, the RH&D was built as a double-track 'main line', with frequent trains in and out of the four-platform terminus at Hythe. On a recent visit, the same steam engines of my boyhood, displaying the same names and smelling and sounding exactly as I first remember, were hauling long rakes of newer passenger coaches, one bringing children back from school. Thanks largely to a long innings by author John Snell as general manager, the railway survived difficult times, when holiday camps closed and there were many fewer visitors. It is scarcely where one would build such a thing today. Once Dungeness was a lonely place. A new lighthouse had to be built when the original became well inland as the shingle headland was steadily built up by the sea which of course sometimes creates land as well as eroding it. Dungeness is dominated by an ugly atomic power station". page 83 and on the preceding page:
"Now it is hard to get a decent view from the train even of housing estates, for the windows are grimy and/or scratched while, for long stretches, trees grow alongside the line almost continuously. Since the abolition of steam and the mowing of embankments and cuttings, trees have spread more rapidly on railway land than in any other environment. No wonder there are problems with leaves on the line. Behind the trees, the hop gardens have gone, and surviving oast houses have mainly become upmarket homes. Apart from stoppages caused by leaves and snow on the line apart, there was once. a much richer seasonal variation. Passengers were aware of how the crops were growing, while the migration of cockneys by the hop-pickers' specials is just one colourful seasonal episode consigned to history".
Includes interesting biographical clips on some of his former railway authors like Rex Christiansen and Allan Patmore (not visible in the dusty wastes of the bibliographical Kalahari)..

Remote Britain: landscape, people and books. London: Frances Lincoln, 2010. 536pp.
Sequel to Journey through Britain. It is autobiographical and extends to areas which have never seen railways (that is passenger carrying ventures) such as the Isles of Scilly and the Hebrides. In both cases this has particular resonances for both KPJ and his wife as the Outer Hebrides were not visited until three years ago (Barra in 2008) and the Isles of Scilly in the summer of 2010. These were first visits: whereas DSJT was making repeat visits, but were in some cases firsts for his wife. The book has similarities to Eric Newby's wanderings, but with a tendency to mix business with pleasure. The book trade and other shopping topics intrudes at times: Barra is remembered for the instantly recognisable corncrakes and the feverish activity of its cuckoos rather than for its publishing activity.

Criteria for good historical studies
The essence of the route. Often lacking is a summary of what a route was all about, its unique factors, how it fItted into the wider scheme of affairs, and so on.
Incorporation. Political issues might be considered along with the kind of landscape and its economy through which it was proposed to build the route, and of course the dates of Acts of Parliament. Though it is sometimes helpful to quote from newspaper reports of public meetings — they often reveal tell-tell titbits, especially about local trade — most readers are interested in what actually happened, not the planning. For this reason, most of the best histories only touch briefly on schemes that never happened.
Building. There is usually fascinating material to be unearthed, but a world of difference between good writers skilfully selecting and ordering it and those merely compiling a catalogue. A short quote by a contemporary observer, the engineer or contractor, helps bring things to life. Major engineering works should of course be mentioned. Was completion delayed, possibly by difficult terrain, a failed contractor, or economic crisis (such as that of 1866 which brought much construction to a halt)? Were there labour disturbances, accidents?
Openings. Too many transport histories tell us that opening date was such and such when the directors enjoyed a feast and the workers a cold collation. Though such details should be included, more purposeful authors start by emphasising the practical difference that a new route made. What were the immediate effects by the local economy (such as often halving of the price of coal and doubling that of milk in the countryside)? Did the telegraph come with the railway, and were London newspapers available locally for the first time? Any particular industry helped, or indeed wiped out, as sometimes happened when local mills and breweries could not face competition from outside?
The route. Some historians prefer to describe this around here, though others to leave it until near the end of their book. Whichever, special characteristics, such as gradients and operating problems, major engineering works and station facilities need covering. How convenient were key stations for the places they served? Station architecture, loop lines, where engineers were stationed, private sidings or docks, signalling... the choice of ingredients is vast, but emphasising unique characteristics is especially valuable.
Mid-history. What social and economic trends were established, and how did traffic fare? What improvements were made, such as doubling or quadrupling track and replacing wooden viaducts? Did the local population rise or fall? How were agriculture and industry affected, for example, by specialising for distant markets, and what about tourism?
Later history. Roughly a third of railway history is post nationalisation. Even on routes subsequently closed, there were lively times and in many cases new works. What traffic is left today on routes open, or indeed reopened? What kind of services are run on today's railways (in many cases of course more frequent as well as faster)? What is left to see of abandoned railways and canals?
Locomotives and rolling stock. Many so-called histories are lightly-disguised locomotives histories. O.S. Nock was a particular offender. On locomotives and their performance he was brilliant, but he thought and wrote as though 85 per cent of railway history took place on the footplate. There is nothing wrong with a locomotive history as such, but label it honestly. Conversely, some real railway historians have felt ill at ease in locomotive matters, perhaps realising that many readers will have greater expertise than themselves. Yet history is not complete without full coverage of locomotives. After all, it was the steam engine that first took man faster than an animal and that first knit Britain more closely together.
While many railway books have too many three-quarter views of trains, balance is destroyed if one does not realise that the locomotive and the carriage behind it were the most modem, stylish things seen in all parts of the land.
Passenger trains. Though sometimes these are brought into earlier sections, a detailed review is often illuminating. Increasing speeds with better motive power, the length and type of trains, through services, refreshment facilities, excursions are among topics to include. But who used the trains? Local people shopping, connecting with other trains, going to school? Visitors coming for holidays or to see buildings and other points of special interest? What was the changing ratio between express and local services? What about Saturday nights and Sundays? Freight. Though we used to be taught that railways made their profit on freight and that passengers were the icing on the cake, goods trains are too often neglected. What were the major mineral or other flows, who were the railway's biggest customers? What about livestock flows, local cattle or sheep markets or fairs?
Parcel business. Any special flows? Newspapers, mail, milk, flowers? What was carried in the guard's van revealed much about a tract of countryside.
Signalling and accidents. What hours was the line kept open. Did peak traffic create difficulties, was it a diversionary route? Were there significant accidents? In the case of canals, any significant floods of droughts, and what arrangements for keeping the traffic moving in seriously-cold weather?
Staff. Railways and canals were major employers, yet many books on both railway and canals totally ignore this aspect. The railway station and canal wharf were often the most important trading posts for miles around.
End features. There is a huge range of possible 'extras': chronology, gazetteer, dramatis personae, appendices (such as extracts from specific records or accounts of early journeys), acknowledgments, bibliography, index. Well chosen and developed, they add considerable depth to history and, moreover, can lighten the burden — such as the need to state precise opening and closing dates — in the main text. While some end features are of course optional, even in a short picture history that hardly needs indexing there is no excuse for lack of acknowledgements and simple bibliography or note on further reading.
Photographs and captions. At David & Charles we always laid out pictures and went through a check list. Had the best pictures making several points been chosen and were those points fully explained in the captions? Was there a good balance between closeups and broader scenes? Were there sufficient showing people and goods and what purpose the railway served? Were pictures of obvious highlights included, even if published before? Were stations, signalling, locomotives, locomotive depots, rolling stock, trains in the landscape, special as well as ordinary occasions, accidents and other aspects properly represented? Was there a sound balance between different historical periods? Could captions more usefully make comparisons with other pictures? Were any pictures especially worthwhile referring to in the main text? Gradient profile, a good map, track layouts, old notices and advertisements, timetables of several periods, tickets - they all have had a part to play. We were suspicious of authors who wanted to use too many of their own photographs.
Conclusions Though the heyday of railway history may have passed, we should do our best to encourage good perspective and such details as the courtesy of acknowledgements even in albums, and above all to encourage authors to remember that railways and canals were businesses serving the needs of others. Different authors and readers will naturally have different preferences, and guide lines which I found useful will not necessarily work well for others. Yet even the writing of a short article on a railway or canal requires discipline to ensure that there is a wide choice of ingredients and sensible progression through them. Brave is the author who chooses a theme beyond the limits of a single route or company to portray an aspect of transport with good historical perspective against the social and economic background. If the best railway history were after all still to be written, it would surely break new ground in a thematic way to bring to life the way we used to live and work as well as the sights and sounds of yesteryear.

Essays

Railway Season. London: Frances Lincoln, 2011.
Most people would consider the reviewer to be old, in which case the Author must be regarded as extremely ancient and sadly this shows in this lavender-ridden collection of essays on railways accompanied by a dreadful collection of illustrations. Railways never have been, and never will fall within the realm of being pretty. Hamilton Ellis claimed that the steam locomotive had a certain beauty, but beauty collapses when it is prettified. The worst feature is that the collection lacks an index, so one cannot return to things noted earlier: a dreadful failing for an ageing readership. A few errors were noted. but sadly the lack of an index does not assist in keeping track of them.

These essays are written in the same style as the Journey through Britain and Remote Britain, but there is less human interest and in too many cases it is merely a regurgitation of this material. Possibly the freshest essay comes in the form of The natural history of the railway (pp. 124-36) which reminded me of my wife's sorrow at the loss of a bank of a glorious golden shrub which used to bound the railway on the opposite bank at West Runton until the track was relaid with continuous welded rail. Nevertheless, I could not conceal my joy at the evidence that the Sheringham stub now appeared to enjoy a long term future and that trains would not terminate st Cromer in the interests of economy.

To a great extent the essays cover the ground of the privileged:: the first-class compartment, the dining car, the sleeping car; the press invitation, rather than the reality of the crowded commuter train, the unpleasantness of drunken youths on the 22.45 ex-Norwich and the happy variety provided by M&S Simply Food at the better stations like Edinburgh Waverley and London Liverpool Street.

Railways for pleasure (pp. 117-46) is a thoughtful essay and is remarkably up-to-date: it includes the "new" level crossing in Sheringham and the crowds which greeted it, but failed to note that the local excellent baker had baked special level crossing hot cross buns to mark the occasion and also fails to ponder whether this excellent family business will survive the arrival of yet another Tesco to be adjacent to the utterly inadaequate terminus of the train service from Norwich, or how the majority of "preserved railways" fail to link into the national system. The North Yorkshire Moors could have reached Malton, but for being blocked by a supermarket development in Pickering. The painting of the Roland Emmet Far Twittering & Oyster Creech as presumably seen in Battersea Gardens (page 141) says it all: the preserved railways (in spite of all the effort expended on them) are very different from preseved canals.

There are chapters on floods, fog and snow. On page 149 it is stated that the Flying Scotsman had to reverse at Alnmouth on 12 October which gives the impression that the East Coast floods of 1948 did not start until October: personal memories of a return journey from Dundee to London in August 1948 on the "non-stop" via Hawick, Carlisle and the Midland route to Leeds, hauled by two black engines, and eventual arrival in King's Cross behind an A4 remain.

A final backward glance, to December 1952, as it happens only weeks after the Harrow & Wealdstone accident. Now it wasn't the transitional nature of fog, but a long-lasting greeny-yellow pea souper that brought London to a standstill and was so bad that it, like the accident, finally awoke the public conscience. For days it was impossible to get round the capital in a normal manner. Bus services were abandoned, and so many resorted to the Underground that there were reports of picnicking among crowds waiting for a train they could force themselves onto.
On Friday 5 December, a journey from Aldershot to Waterloo which should have taken about forty five minutes lasted hours, with constant stopping and starting. Only slowly it dawned on passengers that there was a smog. They didn't realised when the train finally reached Waterloo. 'The guard came along hammering on the doors, "Get out, get out". You couldn't see the platform. You had to take it on trust.'
Two days later the stock finally arrived for the Smithfield Show. Many fine animals were seriously distressed: ten had to be put down, and several more died. The fog cut visibility in the building, as it did in some theatres where performances had to be cancelled. Harold Macmillan, then the Housing Minister whose performance was ultimately widely respected, wasn't sure that preventing smog was a government responsibility. The public now felt otherwise. Indeed it actually spelt the end of days of laissez-faire.
They were not happy times, for less than two months later 133 people met their death in a storm on the railway ferry Princess Victoria on her way from Stranraer to Lame. As in accidents involving fog, the enquiry revealed considerable negligence.
Today it is on our motorways that fog is dreaded with, it seems, occasionally inevitable multi-crashes. No wonder many who usually travel by road resort to trains in difficult conditions.
And at such times it is marvellous seeing crowds alight from punctual trains. But give a thought to the unsung heroes of past pea soupers, including those in shunting yards.

Farewell to trains: a lifetime's journey along Britain's changing railways..London: Frances Lincoln, 2013
Memento mori for the author rather than might be inferred from the title for trains as such which seem likely to go on aided by global warming, the political impossibility of building further new roads This reverts to the 150 series style  and presumably marks the beginning and end of the infinity series. It even has a range of boxes (coffins?) . Assessed solely as a coffee table book it suffers from an almost total absence of material on the LNER: there appear to be no pictures of Gresley locomotives other than an N2 at the buffer stops at High Barnet station. The author/publisher is welcome to reflect his whims, but this is essentially a view from Newton Abbot where going up country beyond Exeter is rarely contemplated. Like the Railway season this diminishes my regard for the author..

2014-01-10