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Don’t confuse your Bradshaws

Picture2One of the questions I frequently get asked as a railway historian is “do you ever watch the Michael Portillo show? You know, the one where he travels on the railway with a Bradshaw’s Guide?” Usually, I respond that I don’t very often. This is not because I dislike the show, I just have too much going on. My opinion is actually that the BBC have produced an excellent program that has re-awakened national interest in the Victorian railways and their legacy; this is to be celebrated. Where previously railway history books were relegated to a bottom, lonely shelf in bookshops, now they can lay claim to whole bays.

Yet, I have a problem with Great Railway Journeys. The program puts over the idea, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the ‘Bradshaw’ Portillo wields was hugely popular in the nineteenth century; that it was one of the premier railway publications of the age. I am sorry to break it to you, it was not .Picture1

In October 1839 the Manchester publishing company owned by George Bradshaw produced a small collection of railway timetables entitled Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling, with Illustrative Maps and Plans. Soon renamed Bradshaw’s Railway Companion, this pocket-sized publication appeared irregularly until it was discontinued at the end of 1848.[1] This small step into the world of railway timetables did nonetheless lead to the production in December 1841 of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide: a comprehensive collection of all the timetables of Britain’s railways. Published monthly and constantly growing in size as the railway network developed in scale and complexity, this – not the handbook – was the publication that brought great fame to the name ‘Bradshaw.'[2]

Over the second half of the nineteenth century Bradshaw’s Railway Guide acquired a dual reputation. On the one hand it was frequently accused, not unjustly, of being mind-bogglingly complicated. ‘At what hour will I get to Glasgow’, wrote Trollope in 1869, ‘I cannot learn without an amount of continued study of Bradshaw for which I have neither the strength nor mental ability.’[3] In Henry James’ 1904 book The Golden Bowl, a character exclaims ‘I have seen you with a Bradshaw! It takes Anglo-Saxon blood.’[4] Irrespective of such comment, the timetables did however achieve great standing for their utility and comprehensive content. In 1865 Punch chose not to mock the Bradshaw, as it did with so many things, but commented that “seldom has the gigantic intellect of man been employed upon a work of greater utility.”[5] When deciding to take a train, the master detective Sherlock Holmes would invariably reach for the Bradshaw, such as in the Adventure of the Copper Beeches.[6] Such was the fame of the Bradshaw from the 1850s onwards that the term ‘Bradshaw’ was commonly used to mean any railway timetable, even if it had not been produced by his company.

But what of the standing of Portillo’s guidebook? The Bradshaw company started producing descriptive guides to various railway lines in the 1840s. The first is unknown, but the earliest I am aware of was Bradshaw’s Descriptive Guide to the London & South Western Railway from 1845. Thereafter a plethora of guides followed, from Bradshaw’s Guide through London and its Environs, published in 1857, to continental guides including Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand-book to Germany of 1873The Bradshaw from Great Railway Journeys is the 1863 edition of Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland.[7]

Picture3Yet while these guides were were commonly known, they were not lauded and praised like Bradshaw’s timetables because they existed in a highly competitive marketplace. The first true guidebook describing the attractions and highlights of a railway line was published in 1833 entitled Railway CompanionBy a Tourist. An almost continuous stream of similar publications followed as the railway network grew. The most famous handbooks of the second half on the nineteenth century were those produced by George Measom between 1852 and 1866, for example his Illustrated Guide to the Great Western Railway from 1852. Throughout the period the railways were also publishing or authorising their own handbooks, with production significantly increasing from the 1890s as companies tried to promote their lines to tourists.[8] The most famous handbook was the Great Western Railway’s Holiday Haunts. This began publication in 1906 and, in addition to information on resorts and attractions, included the details of hotels and boarding houses.[9] The multitude of other handbooks and descriptive guides ultimately meant that Bradshaw’s Handbooks struggled and failed to gain the same fame and respect as their sister publications the timetables, swamped as they were by more famous and well-respected competitors.

So the next time you sit down to watch Great Railway Journeys, perhaps it is worth remembering that what Michael Portillo has in his hand was not nearly as celebrated in its time as it might first appear. The program takes the reputation and fame of one Bradshaw product and applies it to another.


[1] Charles E. Lee, The Centenary of “Bradshaw” (London: The Railway Gazette), 14-15. It should be noted that it remained in publication until only a year after Bradshaw had stepped back from the management of the firm because of ill-health. It can therefore be surmised that he was the individual that was behind its publication.  Bradshaw died in 1853.

[2] G. Royde-Smith, The History of the Bradshaw, (London: Henry Blacklock and Company, 1939), 47-64. Bradshaw’s Railway Guides were published until 1961.

[3] ed. John Hall, The Letters of Anthony Trollope, (California: Stanford University Press, 1989), 493

[4] Henry James, The Golden Bowl, (London: Methuen, 1904),

[5] Punch cited in “Punch on Bradshaw” editorial, The Railway News, July 29, 1865, 111

[6] Arthur Conan-Doyle,”The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” The Strand Magazine, June 1892

[7] “Bradshaw’s Guide,” wikipedia, Nov. 10, 2014, accessed Nov 13, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradshaw’s_Guide 

[8] Jack Simmons, “guidebooks,” in The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, ed. Jack Simmons and Gordon Biddle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 198-199

[9] Alexander Medcalf, “”What to Wear and where to go”, Picturing the Modern Consumer on the Great Western Railway, 1921-1939″ in ed. Benjamin Fraser, Steven D. Spalding, Trains, Culture, and Mobility: Riding the Rails, (Plymouth: Lexington, 2011), 66