Inside the treasure trove of the National Railway Museum archives

The tenth anniversary of Search Engine, the National Railway Museum's archive service.'Pictured library supervisor Peter Thorpe.
The tenth anniversary of Search Engine, the National Railway Museum's archive service.'Pictured library supervisor Peter Thorpe.
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It’s a railway buff’s nirvana. Stephen McClarence joins the train enthusiasts – and a leading crime writer – and delves into the archives of the National Railway Museum. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

As he leafs quietly through magazines, making occasional notes, Andrew Martin has murder on his mind. York-born Martin – novelist, journalist and train expert – is back in his home city to research his next crime novel at the National Railway Museum. It’s a place he keeps coming back to for inspiration.

“I’ve been in here before with a loose idea for a novel, and the whole story has been determined by my research,” he says, as he browses vintage railway staff magazines. “Or I might see a photo of a miserable man in Blackpool that could determine an aspect of the plot.”

Martin is one of a dozen or so visitors at Search Engine, the museum’s niftily named research archive, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It’s upstairs from the Great Hall, where gleaming engines (or locomotives: you choose) eye each other across a turntable.

Since Search Engine opened, around 350,000 people have used it to access the museum archives, which runs to 1,000 paintings, 2,350 prints, 11,000 travel posters and drawings and 1.75 million photographs. I check that figure. Yup, 1.75 million.

Down in the storerooms, senior curator Ed Bartholomew pulls open a drawer. Inside is a 1930s railway poster of Scarborough. A suave couple gaze dreamily into each other’s eyes as the Spa stretches below and the South Bay sweeps round behind. Scarborough is improbably imbued with the glamour of Nice.

Under that poster is another – a 1920s Art Deco-ish job, also of Scarborough, by the Paris-trained British artist William Barribal. Lithe bathers frolic at the Lido and a slightly camp young man places his hands on his hips and glances at the viewer with a look that would either have cut a dash or got him arrested. There’s also a poster of Bridlington that includes a man blowing up a floating dog. You found your pleasures where you could in Brid.

“The strange thing is that Barribal always used his wife as his model,” says Bartholomew. “So if you study the women in the picture, they all look the same.”

We’ll be exploring more of the storerooms – literally behind the scenes at the museum – later, but for the moment I’ve asked Bartholomew and library supervisor Peter Thorpe to dig out their favourite items from the collection.

The most captivating, chosen by Thorpe, is the earliest surviving child’s drawing of a steam train. Fourteen-year-old John Backhouse witnessed the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and wrote to his sisters to tell them about it. “Perhaps you may not understand what that drawing at the top means,” he tells them (in the neatest handwriting). Trundling across the letter, flags flying, is a tiny almost cartoon-like engine. It’s pulling two dozen open carriages (converted coal trucks) packed with 600 passengers, though you can’t see them. It was the world’s first passenger train.

“It was a very grand sight to see such a mass of people moving,” says young John, though “moving” is a relative term. The train was travelling at 8mph.

Thorpe has also chosen an 1830 notebook about a competition to decide on engines for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. At the auditions, such worthy-sounding contenders as Cycloped, Perseverance and Sans Pareil were rejected in favour of what became one of the most famous engines in history – Stephenson’s Rocket. The original ink-daubed sheet of pink blotting paper is still in the notebook nearly 200 years on.

Thorpe’s other choices include one of the earliest photographs in the museum collection. Taken around 1860 and in a smart gilt frame, it shows a young railway porter in a neckerchief and overlarge jacket staring glassily at posterity.

Bartholomew’s selection includes official reports from the Stockton and Darlington Railway, in which a railwayman is fined half-a-crown (12 and a half pence) “for using bad language”. There’s a sheaf of 1840s railway-themed notepaper with a surreal line in humour (one engine is depicted as a winged kettle with bellows behind).

There is a selection from the museum’s collection of 11,000 negatives taken by Eric Treacy, the celebrated loco-loving Bishop of Wakefield who died in 1978. They include some startling images of engines steaming across the Forth Bridge in pre-health-and-safety days, when intrepid enthusiasts could apply for passes actually to stand on the bridge with their cameras.

And there’s a more exotic poster than the Yorkshire coast ones, urging imperial Brits to visit India and experience Indian State Railways. Three Pashtun warriors pose on a hillside in front of the Khyber Pass. In the background, a train emerges from a tunnel.

Down we go to the chilly, slightly bunkerish storerooms, with their banks of shelves and cabinets piled with an astonishing amount of stuff: cardboard boxes of company and family archives, local history archives, films, oral history projects, home movies and a Victorian petition from railway employees demanding to be allowed to keep their moustaches while on duty, partly as “a protection against the inclemency of the weather”.

Back upstairs in the public area, with its extremely helpful staff, shelves offer some of the 5,000 books available to visitors (there are 20,000 more in store). A chance to browse The Railways of Montenegro, The Great Eastern Railway Ambulance Movement, East German Steam in the 1970s and More on Caledonian Wagons. “Many of these books have been researched here,” says Thorpe.

At one of the tables sits the Rev Amanda Stevens. She’s come up from Cornwall to research her Open University PhD on railway carriage interiors, 1920 to 1955 (a potential Mastermind specialist subject if ever there was one).

“A lot of railway books focus on locomotives rather than carriages,” she says. “And if carriages are mentioned, it’s usually about the outside. This is to redress the balance.” She’ll be asking such questions as: How does a carriage interior compare with a house interior? How does the King’s Lounge on George VI’s Royal Train compare with the Queen’s Lounge?

Not all visitors have such specialised needs. “Sometimes people come in and say: ‘My granddad worked on the railway’ but they don’t know the company,” says Thorpe. “We can often find it from the staff magazines.”

Which brings us back to Andrew Martin, plotting murder. Son of a railwayman, he’s been a regular visitor to Search Engine since it opened. Today he’s working his way through some of those staff magazines.

Railways, he says, offer a natural setting for crime fiction. “You’ve got people trapped in a closed environment and it can sort of write itself. But I’ve discovered that there were just half a dozen murders on British trains between 1830 and the First World War. In my books, they average three murders a novel.”

National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York (0333 016 1010, nrm.org.uk) is open daily, 10am to 6pm. Free admission. Search Engine is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm.