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Railway Research Tips
In the time that Rail Around Birmingham has been on the web I have had a lot of emails from
people asking for tips on various aspects of railway research with such varied topics as how
you locate the site of stations that no longer exist to how you find details of past railway staff
from the pre-grouping era. However, by far the most common advice sought is by people interested in
creating their own railway website along the lines of Rail Around Birmingham but for the area in
which they live and in which their interest lies.
I have always thought that it would be fantastic if every area in the country were covered by a site
similar to this one as it would be an immense resource. So, I have decided that rather than answer
individual emails (although I will, of course, deal with any specific queries anyone may have and would be
more than willing to offer any assistance possible), and in the hope that other enthusiasts will give it a go,
I would provide a basic guide to researching railway sites and I hope it is of some interest!
Part 1 - Identifying Sites
The most common, and in many ways problematic, issue in researching railway sites is 'where are they now?'.
Whilst it is relatively easy to obtain a current network map from any of the regional train operating companies,
finding a station site that has been closed for 50+ years on a line that no longer exists can cause serious headaches!
A publication such as The Railway Gazetteer will list all the stations existing at whichever period
you choose to study and copies can usually be found through the local library (albeit they will probably be held
in the main library of the region). However, one of the best, cheapest and fastest ways to identify sites
is to follow the principles below which will give you a good (but not perfect in ways we will discuss below) idea of
the scope of your project:
When you have decided on the area you want to study, pick a central point: ie for Birmingham you would
probably select Birmingham New Street station. Go to
www.old-maps.co.uk, enter the road the station is on in the search box on the left-hand side (making
sure that the 'Address' option is selected), then click on 'Search'. You will then be presented with a list of
all the roads in the country with that name, select your road from the list, select any postal address
that may then be thrown up and finally select 'View Your Map'. You will then be shown a late 19th Century
map of the area surrounding the road/address you entered.
By using the scrolling 'arrows' around the map you can follow a railway line through the region and make
a note of all the stations on it: if you can't make out a particular part of the map you can click on the
'Enlarged View' button at the bottom of the page and a new window will open displaying a very large copy
of the map on it. In many instances, the operating company for the line will also be shown at some point along it
and if you are particularly fortunate, the name of the line will also be indicated. However, the important part
here is that if you hover your cursor over a particular location, at the very bottom-left corner of the window
you will be given the OS coordinates of that particular spot. Thus, for each station or site of interest, make a note
of the relevant OS coordinate as we will need them for the next step.
So now we have a list of all the stations in the region with their OS coordinates too. However,
this isn't necessarily that useful as we don't know if all the sites still exist today or, in the case
of long lifted lines now home to housing estates etc . . . , how to locate them. If you are an excellent
orienteer you will now have the information required to get a modern-day OS map and visit the sites. However,
for the rest of us the easiest way is to go to
www.streetmap.co.uk, enter your OS coordinates for the site you wish to find (making sure you have
the 'OS grid (x,y)' option selected) and click 'Search'. You will then be presented with a modern-day
street map with a big orange arrow pointing at the exact spot indicated by the coordinates you entered!
For me, the best thing to do next is to transfer that data to an 'A to Z' street guide for you chosen area as
you will then take this with you when you visit the site.
Now, there are limitations to the above method that should be apparent. If the particular station/line in which you
are interested was constructed post-1899(ish), then the above method will not be useful to you and you will need
to try some of the following methods:
A useful resource are the series of 'Godfrey Edition' OS maps which mostly date from the early 20th Century
and are fantastically detailed and follow an 'A to Z' style format for each map. They cost around £2.00 - £3.00
per map and to see if your particular area is covered (they don't cover a particularly large area in each map and
some areas have not yet had their maps reproduced) go to
www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk. The maps can be bought through many online sources but by going to the Alan Godfrey
site you will be able to check out the full catalogue of maps.
Another useful map resource is E-bay. There are
usually a large number of old OS, A to Z and Bartholomews maps to be purchased covering everywhere
By using the above methods you should be able to track down the sites of all stations and railway sites of interest
in your area with minimal effort and financial outlay.
Part 2 - Visiting Sites
Now, I don't want to appear patronising but preparation before you visit any site is useful and ensures
you get the greatest amount out of any visit and don't (as I have on several occassions) returned home after a frustrating
marathon walk still not sure if you have found the exact spot or if a certain existing building had any railway
relation etc . . . so I hope the following tips may help:
ALWAYS research your site well beforehand and obtain as many period photographs of the site as possible
and study them well. There is nothing worse than visiting a station that now consists of a 'bus shelter', photographing it
and returning home only to discover a photograph some weeks later showing the station once had goods sidings/hotels/sheds etc . . .
but as you didn't know this in advance you didn't look for signs of their existence: remember that old
'barn' used by a builders merchants you walked past and didn't photograph? - that was the old goods shed! There is nothing worse
than that happening, especially if the site you visited was some distance away and you can't just 'pop back'
and investigate further: get as much as you can out of each site on your visit.
When analysing old photographs, particularly if the station and especially the line no longer exists, it is
easy, however well you have marked the spot on your A to Z street map, to arrive at a site only to find you can't see
anything indicating where the site once stood. A particularly frustrating thing you can do if you are not careful and don't follow
the earlier procedure correctly, is to look at an old map which shows a street corresponding to the same street
on your modern A to Z, saying to yourself "well, the station stood to the left of the road as you walk up
it from so and so street" and marking it thus on your A to Z. However, unbeknown to you in the intervening years
the road was realigned and the actual station site is now to the right of the road today. This is an easy error to
make unless you follow the method above. A useful tip is to look at old photographs and look beyond the
railway site: are there any distinguishing features in the background of the photograph that can help you
locate your spot such as a church steeple or a row of houses, for example? When you visit the site, take
the old photographs with you as these will prove invaluable in getting as much out of your visit as possible.
It might sound a little daft, but if you are really stuck - for example you knew there was a level crossing
at the site which wasn't shown up on your map studies - ask someone passing-by who looks old enough to remember the site
in action. I have on a number of occassions and been given some very useful information!
Have faith in your own research: I have encountered a number of mistakes, particularly in certain
'Past and Present' books where 'present' shots show the wrong sites! Errors occur (I know I have made them from time-to-time
and have had to revisit certain sites (Bilston West springs to mind with three visits in total) so don't think
you haven't necessarily found the correct site because it doesn't correspond with a contemporary photograph in a particular
It can happen that you visit a site for which you haven't located an old photograph. Whilst this is far from ideal,
there are usually clues to help you identify what was once there (although I would stress the term 'usually': I
have visited a few where you'd never have known a railway had ever graced the area). The worst possibility
for your endeavours is either countryside stations or housing estates. With the former, as we are now some 40
years since the notorious Beeching closures of many rural lines, nature has had plenty of time to reclaim many
sites to the point that, without careful study, you will miss a certain site. Also, maps are less useful in the
countryside unless you are using GPS as there aren't so many markers to distinguish where you are on a long
countryside road where the line has been long-since lifted with bridges demolished, cuttings filled and
One useful method in such circumstances is to get to high ground: you will know the rough
direction of the line so look for clues: unnatural lines of trees are sometimes a good giveaway lining, as they once did,
the course of a trackbed. Due to land-owner objections, country railways were often sunk in cuttings which should be
discernible unless filled-in. However, if they were in a cutting they would likely pass under the road you are on
through a bridge and, where these have been filled-in, the walling of the bridge parapet is often left (as the bridge itself was not
always removed so still exists but is now buried) so
look carefully along the roadside for such evidence! In urban areas you can usually plot the line quite well
using the method described earlier but sometimes it is useful to plot multiple coordinates along a now
lifted line so you can walk or drive around an area until you pick-up some sign of the railway (there are always
some at some point regardless of how well scoured an area has been).
If the line still exists when you visit a site and
the road off which the station stood crosses the line via a bridge, look along the brickwork of the bridge parapet
for signs of differently coloured patches of brick where an entrance could have stood, for example. There are
often many clues at each site: car parks are a particular giveaway as they often occupy the site of goods yards! So to
summarise, look for:
Blue brick walling
Areas of brickwork in walling that are not of the same period as the rest of the walling
Lines of trees
Houses near a site that are not the same style as the rest of the houses in the immediate vicinity: these
are often ex-Stationmaster's houses or, as with smaller stations, the station buildings themselves converted into
Railway picket fencing: especially the wooden type with the diagonally mounted slats
Rows of old houses with several houses missing and filled with new properties: often good for charting
an old railway - particularly good if you move road by road and the same pattern is repeated.
Road names are a good clue . . . obviously 'Station Road' is a bit of a giveaway, but many other names
are good clues: look for roads with, for example, 'Midland', 'Great Western', 'Stanier', 'Gresley' etc . . .
in their names. Railway-themed road names usually indicate either they were built at the time of the railway or
built on the site of an old railway.
Even pub names can give you a clue: 'Station Inn', 'Great Western Inn' or 'Brunel Arms' etc . . .
Part 3 - Other sources of information
There are many sources of information on railways that can be used. From the obvious books to more specialist routes.
Below I will attempt to highlight some of the resources I have found useful over the years:
- In-Print Books - An obvious starting point for any railway study. There are literally thousands of contemporary books
covering the railways of Britain. In addition to a lot of standalone publications on particular railways/lines/locos etc . . .
there are several series of books that provide a useful resource such as the 'Past & Present', 'Then and Now', 'Lost Lines of' and
'On Old Picture Postcards' series of books. In addition to these, you'd be surprised what useful railway info and pictures can
be gleaned from books on canals as they were not only often bought-out by railway companies but often had many transhipment wharves along
their route - sites of which are often overlooked in railway publications. Amazon is a good resource for railway books and there is
the specialist Railway Book Club which, once you have joined, allows you to buy many current publications at good discounts.
- Ian Allen
Excellent (but overpriced) railway book publisher with extensive back-catalogue.
- Midland Record
Home of the Midland Record and LMS Journal publications.
- Transport Diversions
Large selection of railway publications and Alan Godfrey maps too.
- Silver Link
Publishers of the 'Past and Present' series of books.
I'm sure you know about these already!
- Railway Book Club
Good specialist book club with many special offers and discounted prices.
- Out-of-Print Books - Another great resource, often better than historical contemporary works, are old books. Now these
are many and can be quite hard to locate. The library is a good starting point but if you, as with myself, prefer to own the books
yourself I would recommend keeping a regular eye on E-bay as there are always a number of good publications there at (mostly) reasonable
prices. Amazon are also worth checking-out as you can place a request for a particular book, or buy one, through their 'Market Place'
facility. Additionally, there are a number of internet book search engines and you can try specialist online shops such as Nene Valley Books, for example.
- Public Records Office - When the railways were privatised in 1948, most of the records of the four companies then
in existence were sent here (although British Rail did, obviously retain some!). The PRO website will tell you how to go about accessing their
vast resources that are held at Kew - unfortunately to view the material will require prior arrangement and a personal visit.
- The National Railway Museum - The NRM at York is a compulsory visit for any railway enthusiast but also houses many
records from pre-nationalisation and pre-grouping railway companies as well as a vast photographic archive which can be viewed, and
in many cases, reproduced by prior arrangement.
- Freedom of Information Act - Another useful method of obtaining information is by using the Freedom of Information Act. Under this act, anyone can
write to an organisation asking for material to be made available to them (there are a few get-out clauses for organisations but it is
unlikely a request for old railway information would be within these exceptions). A fee can be charged if there is a large amount of material for them to
reproduce but I would recommend this as a possible avenue. Local Councils, Train Operating Companies, Network Rail, Strategic Rail Authority and
regional Passenger Transport executive bodies (such as Centro for the West Midlands) could provide a useful resource for information.
- Railway Auctions/Fairs - Apart from E-bay, there are many exhibitions, fairs and auctions covering railwayana
that are worth a visit selling everything from railway uniforms, models, postcards, books, photographs etc . . . to locomotives
themselves in some instances! The Prorail website gives dates of some such events and is worth checking-out but there are many others.
Part 4 - Placating the Wife/Husband
They just won't understand why standing waist-high in brambles, in the rain, and in the middle of nowhere with a
camera is an enjoyable day out for you. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a suitable solution to this issue but would
be glad for anyone who has to email me!