Home » The Blog » It’s not just about posters – railway advertising before 1914.

It’s not just about posters – railway advertising before 1914.


A London & North Western Railway guide to the Lake District from 1910.

In the history books, the inter-war period has been dubbed the great age of railway advertising; the colourful and stylish posters of that age sticking in our memory. But railway advertising  before 1914 was no less appealing, and the companies issued a diverse range of creative and innovative advertising media. On the one hand, existing advertising such as posters and guidebooks became more complex and compelling.[1] Railways’ newspaper adverts also became more descriptive and alluring, whilst providing coupons enabling you to send off for guidebooks describing the beauty spots the railway served.[2] Alongside, companies also placed into public domain new advertising devices, including  bookmarks, the provision of lantern lectures, advertorials (adverts dressed up as journalism) and postcards. Bassett-Lowke model trains were also displayed at grand public exhibitions, whilst the London & North Western Railway commissioned the documentary film maker, Charles Urban, to make films of the destinations it served.[3] This expanding range of advertising media was not however simply introduced for diversity’s sake; nor did railway managers posses a simple assumption that getting the company’s  message into the most places possible would automatically lead to a boost in sales.


A London & North Western Railway Postcard from c. 1905/06


Edwardian companies, in response to increasing real incomes and growing consumer spending power, developed new and innovative approaches to sales in an effort to secure the consumer’s pound. Given the new competitive pressures the railways were under, as well as their significant decline in profitability in the latter part of the 1890s, railway executives started to do the same. Like many businesses, prior to 1900 the railways had simply proclaimed what services they provided, the expectation being that trains would be patronised as a result. Faced with changed trading circumstances after 1900, they began actively trying to compel and convince the customer to travel by their line; selling  the journey, the experience, the 101 reasons to holiday in the destinations they served, rather than those of a rival. In 1913 Felix Pole and James Milne, two senior Great Western Railway officials who both became the company’s general manager in later years, explained the change in approach:

‘formerly advertising was mere proclamation – now it may be defined as persuasion…The former methods were useless as a means of suggesting the benefits to health of travel or of touring new territory…[they] would not have told them [the traveller] why they should visit Cornwall.'[4]

Such changes in thinking therefore drove the growing diversity and complexity of Edwardian railway advertising, as railway publicity departments now had new objectives. Advertising was to maintain through a range of advertising channels consumers’ awareness of a company’s services and destinations, to differentiate one company’s product offering from those of another, and to be more persuasive about the benefits of North Wales, Cromer or golfing in Scotland. This new approach to generating sales cannot strictly be called ‘marketing,’ after all the companies were only starting to allow customer wants and desires to inform their thinking (the same was the case elsewhere in the corporate economy). Moreover, much of the advertising that was produced was uncoordinated and developed on an ad hoc basis. Nevertheless, embodied in the growing colour and diversity of Edwardian railway advertising was the fact that companies’ were steadily moving towards a marketing-based approach to selling. Perhaps we might even call it ‘proto-marketing?’

If you are interested in learning more about British railway history, perhaps you want to study the University of York, Centre for Lifelong Learning’s Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies, which I teach. The development of railway marketing is covered in module 2 (The declining profitability of the British railway industry, 1870-1914) and module 4 (Railways and government, 1880-1939). More information on the course can be found here.



[1] Felix Pole and James Milne, “The Economics of Passenger Traffic,”  Modern Railway Working – Vol. 7, ed. John Macaulay, (London: Gresham, 1913), 234-235.

[2] “In the Dailies”, The Advertising World, July 1913, 24.

[3] “Display Advert”, The Era, 3 August 1907, 27.

[4] Pole and Milne, “The Economics of Passenger Traffic,” 234.


  1. Gordon says:

    Interesting. So two questions.

    Firstly how much was the desire to try and get a greater market share from your opponents? The LNWR could well have been trying hard to get passengers who had already made a decision to travel/holiday in Wales to use their services rather than the GWR. The LB&SCR worked hard to “sell” its Newhaven to Dieppe service in preference to the SE&CR’s Dover to Calis route.

    Secondly, how much did developments in printing (such as off-set lithography) give the railways a bigger impact for their money?


    • David Turner says:

      It is hard to know given the paucity of the available files, and a lot of what we know about advertising strategy has to be constructed from external sources and the materials themselves. I think on the one hand the companies were trying to take customers off a rival, and the competition between the LNWR/GWR, or the LSWR/GWR evidences this. However, I think that as the person in the street’s discretionary income grew, they acknowledged that their choices were less constrained by geography. So, whereas a London based individual might have been choosing between two local railways for their holidays in around 1880, after 1900 they could choose between going to Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, East Anglia or the continent. I think there’s an anxiety amongst railways collectively about passenger trade being lost overseas. As such, there is an intensification of the competition nationwide and a scrabble to secure a bigger portion of a growing discretionary travel market.

      I think the developments in printing would have had an impact, but I do need to take a further look at this. However, it is evident that by 1904 the colour and vibrancy of advertising was common, maybe suggesting developments may have occurred before then. On the other hand, I note that one of the reasons the LNWR switched in December 1904 from Tucks to McCorquodales for postcard printing is because the latter used a more advanced carbonite process, which suggests the company was sensitive to either cost, quality, or both. This needs more investigation.


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