I am always amazed and delighted to unearth a collection of antique posters that has somehow survived the decades from first printing to the present day. This month’s blog post is about just such a collection, earmarked for destruction over 90 years ago and saved from the bin on at least two occasions since.
System map, 1927
The story begins in October of this year when I was contacted about a group of railway posters found during the renovation of a house in Cheam (south London) during the early 1990s. The posters, almost 40 in total, had been used to line a linoleum floor and had survived in apparently poor condition. So much so that it seems amazing that they hadn’t been thrown out with the remnants of the flooring. But instead, the folded, stained and torn posters had been carefully stored away for another thirty years, and a few weeks ago I got the train to south London to see what remained.
Some of the newspapers found with the posters
It wasn’t a very prepossessing sight. A bin liner full of very dirty posters (some ripped beyond repair), interspersed with old newspapers and other scraps of paper that had been removed from under the floor at the same time. But within a few moments some truly remarkable posters began to emerge from the pile in surprisingly good condition. These included pictorial designs I hadn’t seen before, together with a wide range of excursion notices and poster timetables – all published by the Southern Railway and most dating to 1930 – 1931.
Time table poster, 1930
Usually with a discovery of this nature you can only guess at the circumstances that led to the posters being saved in the first place. But on this occasion one of the posters has a handwritten note on the reverse explaining that fiancées Norman Childs and Dorothy Abbot fitted the linoleum flooring in August 1931. Norman, it turns out, was a booking clerk on the Southern Railway, and the couple presumably reused redundant posters from his workplace to line the floor. As a coda to their story, we know that Norman and Dorothy married later that year and spent their lives together in the house at Cheam.
Note on the back of one of the posters
It seems safe to assume that Norman worked at nearby Belmont station on the Southern Railway, as most of the surviving posters have the station name handwritten on the reverse. Belmont (still open today) is situated on the short branch line from Sutton to Epsom Downs in Surrey, which opened in the 1860s to serve the famous racecourse.
By the early 1930s, this part of south London was undergoing a profound transformation from rural backwater to suburban sprawl as part of the Capital’s ever expanding commuter belt. It’s a change reflected by the posters themselves, several of which include details of commuter trains or promote the possibility of living even further out of town thanks to the Southern Railway’s fast and frequent electric trains.
One of these posters, by the celebrated commercial artist Charles Pears, depicts the Ouse Valley Viaduct between London and Brighton above the message ‘Southern Electric helps you Live In The Country’. I have only ever seen a black and white photograph of this astonishingly rare poster before.
Another, with artwork by Frank Sherwin, gives information about leading private schools served by the Southern Railway, while a third promotes the extension of the company’s electrification programme to Brighton and Worthing, although sadly both these posters are in very poor condition. It was all part of the Southern’s campaign to establish itself as the premier commuter service for city clerks and businessmen, enabled by electrification and directed by the company’s energetic head of publicity, John Elliot.
Other posters promote day trips to the seaside (Brighton, Hove and Portsmouth) and to Race Meetings at the bewildering number of courses reached by the Southern, including Salisbury, Lingfield Park, Sandown Park, Hirst Park, Goodwood and Folkestone (although no posters for Epsom – presumably if you were on the branch line already you didn’t need further advertising!).
The greatest of these ‘holiday’ posters are two magnificent designs by Kenneth Shoesmith and Bayer-Dowden. The first, printed in March 1931, depicts fashionably attired bathers enjoying the beach at Hythe (described here as ‘The Pride of Kent’), while a bearded sea captain surveys the scene from his grounded boat. Again, it’s a poster that I’ve not seen for sale before, although the Southern Railway donated a copy to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1933 to become part of the national collection.
The second is a poster for the Atlantic Coast Express, depicting a timeless harbour scene in either Devon or Cornwall. Introduced in 1926, the ACE (as it was commonly abbreviated) was a much-publicised attempt by the Southern to compete for the lucrative holiday traffic to western England. Over the years, I’ve seen several posters and booklets promoting this famous ‘named train’, but (you’ve guessed it) never this poster. In fact, I’ve been unable to locate even a black and white reference copy. And despite the years spent folded up under a suburban floor, the colours of this previously unrecorded poster are exceptional.
For contemporaries with deeper pockets, the remains of one poster advertises the famous Golden Arrow Pullman service which ran from London to Paris. The Golden Arrow was undoubtedly the Southern's most prestigious train and second only to the Flying Scotsman in terms of national fame. Clearly the Southern Railway’s publicity office thought there was a market for this sort of luxury travel among the new suburb’s wealthier residents.
Pieter Irwin Brown
Why these posters weren’t pasted up at Belmont is, of course, a mystery, although they were clearly out of date by the time Norman took them home. It’s possible that some were office copies, intended for reference rather than display as a few are stamped “General Manager’s Office. Sanctioned for Exhibition. Advertising Department. Southern Railway. Waterloo”. I’ve only seen this sort of stamp on a British railway poster once before, although it was a more common practice on the continent.
Whatever the reasons may have been I’m thankful that they weren’t consigned straight to the bin in 1931. And thankful, too, that the remnants were not discarded after 60 years’ service as lining paper.
PH7, paper conservators, Ealing
The best of the group have now been professionally conserved by our friends at PH7 and are available to buy here. As the photos in this post show, some have retained their original vibrancy against the odds. More information about individual posters can be found by clicking on an image (above) or by contacting Twentieth Century Posters.
Thanks to Tony Hillman for help with identification of some of the more damaged posters via his excellent web site: www.srpublicity.co.uk
An official SR photo of one of the posters found in pieces (courtesy of SR Publicity/Tony Hillman)