This guide does not cover the following – click on the links to read our research guides:
2. Essential information
The National Archives holds many railway records, but others are in:
- specialist museums
- university collections
- local preservation societies
- private hands
This guide will tell you where to look for different kinds of records.
Locating records of a particular railway may be difficult unless you know which company owned it.
Consult the British Railways Pre Grouping Atlas and Gazetteer or the Railway and Commercial Gazetteers to find out which companies owned, or operated through, a particular station.
3. What kinds of records does The National Archives hold?
The National Archives holds all surviving records of private railway companies before they were nationalised in 1947.
Before 1923 there were many private railway companies operating across Britain. In 1923 over 120 of these companies merged into four new groups:
- Great Western Railway
- London Midland and Scottish Railway
- London and North Eastern Railway
- Southern Railway
The National Archives also holds records of the British Transport Commission, British Railways Board and other bodies that managed the railways after 1947.
4. How to search for The National Archives’ railway records
The best way to start is to search Discovery, our catalogue using keywords such as:
- the railway company name
- a name of a publication such as a pamphlet or staff magazine
- report name
- committee name
- location of an accident
Many railway records have the department codes:
Refine your search by these collections or by date, or use other relevant keywords. You may also wish to browse our catalogue if your search is unsuccessful.
5. Key records at The National Archives
5.1 Board of Trade
The Board of Trade was the first government department to assume responsibility for railways. Its Railway Department was created in 1840 but some records predate this.
Most of the records were transferred to the Ministry of Transport after 1919.
- BT 41 for railways registered under the Joint Stock Companies Act 1856
- BT 285 for registration papers compiled under the Railway Companies Securities Act 1866
- BT 22 for the Railway Department’s own administrative papers
5.2 Ministry of Transport
Following its creation in 1919 this ministry assumed much of the work, and records, of the Board of Trade Railway Department.
Browse records in:
- MT 6 (with index in MT 7, MT 11 with index in MT 12) for correspondence and papers
- MT 13 for minute books
- MT 14 (with index in MT 16) and MT 17 (with index in MT 18) for papers relating to light railways
- MT 58, MT 130 for light railway orders made under various parliamentary acts
- MT 56, MT 77, MT 131 for material relating to charges and rates
- MT 45, MT 47, MT 56, MT 64, MT 74, MT 87, MT 88, MT 96 for records of the reorganisation of the railways following the Railways Act 1921 and the nationalisation of railways following the Transport Act 1947
- MT 1, MT 67 and MT 80 for work of various tribunals and of the Railway Inspectorate
- MT 29 (with index MT 30, MT 114) for records on the Channel Tunnel and the Serpell Report on Railway Finances (1982-1983)
5.3 Accident reports
You can find railway accident reports in the departments RAIL, MT and elsewhere.
Accidents were not always investigated in depth if it was felt an investigation was unlikely to lead to a report suggesting corrective measures.
Search our catalogue by the date and, if known, the location of the accident for 7328 railway accidents between 1853 and 1975 (RAIL 1053/51-161).
You cannot search these reports by people’s names.
These records include:
- the names of passengers and crew – whether they survived, were injured or died is usually included
- illustrations and maps (not always)
- ZPER, particularly after 1900, for further details of some accidents and obituaries, especially when railway staff involved lost their lives
- MT 114 and MT 29 (with index in MT 30) for the Railway Inspectorate of the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Transport accident reports
- MT 6 for correspondence and papers relating to railway accidents
- MT 143 for the official enquiry into the Clapham Junction rail disaster and in EF 14 for the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster
Consult reports in the House of Commons papers for major, and especially fatal, accidents. House of Commons papers are in any large reference library, including The National Archives Library.
You can also find accident reports in the records of the individual companies.
5.4 Locomotives and rolling stock
Browse the 50 continuing GWR locomotive and rolling stock registers held by The National Archives in RAIL 254.
- RAIL1204 for records relating to the Pullman Car Company, 1909-1985, including minutes, agreements and share records
- ZPER and ZLIB for technical papers and in RAIL 1149 records of the IK Brunel Collection
5.5 Other sources
Browse or search:
- J 13 for filed papers relating to winding up orders and J 45, J 100 and J 107 for related material
- J 14 for debenture action files
- BT 226 for railway bankruptcy files
- Cabinet papers online with relevant keywords and CAB 117, CAB 123, CAB 127, CAB 134, CAB 143 and T 229 for material
- WO 33 and WO 252 for handbooks of railway networks of other countries providing topographic and technical details
- WO 32 for papers relating to the use of railways particularly during mobilisation
- BT 31 (by company name) for overseas railway companies dissolved after 1856
6. Online sources
Consult Parliamentary papers (£) for local and private acts of parliament relating to the construction of railways which usually required parliamentary sanction.
7. Records held elsewhere
Consult appendix 3 of Railway records: A guide to sources by Cliff Edwards (Public Record Office, 2001), which has a guide to railway company records held by local archives. Also consult the ‘Railway records across the land’ resource on the ‘All change!’ on Britain’s railways page. Search the Find an archive directory to find out contact details of local record offices.
Contact the London Metropolitan Archives for:
- London Transport and predecessor company board minutes and papers (1933-1962 and c1855-1933)
- some Metropolitan Railway records
- records of the London County Council and the Greater London Council, which had responsibilities for transport
Contact Transport for London (TfL) for the main collection of historical business records for the TfL Group and predecessor companies.
Contact the London Transport Museum for printed items such as tickets and posters.
Contact STEAM: Museum of the Great Western Railway for:
- GWR company papers
- official publications
- drawings and photographs
- a comprehensive library of railway books and periodicals
Contact the Science Museum Library and Archives for information including:
- drawings and manuscripts of the works of civil and mechanical engineers
- records of the British Transport Commission and Central Youth Employment Executive
Contact Thomas Cook Company Archives for records of timetables, guidebooks and holiday brochures, photographs and staff magazines.
Contact The National Railway Museum for surviving technical records on:
- locomotives, carriages, wagons and signalling
- engine history cards for practically every London Midland Scottish standard locomotive built
- repair reports for most of London & North Eastern Railway
- many Southern Railway and most British Railway standard steam locomotives
- the ten Great Western Railway carriage registers
- the first 100 GWR Wagon registers
Contact the National Records of Scotland for records relating to the railways in Scotland.
8. Further reading
Read Railway Records: A Guide to Sources by CJ Edwards (PRO 2001) for further guidance on how to use our records.
Visit ‘All change!’ on Britain’s railways, which looks at the way railways have changed both lives and landscape. It aims to also provide a guide to the wealth of railway records held at The National Archives, the National Railway Museum and across the UK.
For background information read:
- British Railways Vol 1: 1948-1973 by TR Gourvish (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
- British Railways Vol 2: 1974-1997 by TR Gourvish (Oxford University Press, 2002)
- The British Railway history 1877-1947 by C Hamilton Ellis (Allen & Unwin, 1959)
- A chronology of the construction of Britain’s railways 1778-1855 by Leslie James (Ian Allan Ltd, 1983)
- A bibliography of British railway history by George Ottley (HMSO, 1983), Supplements (HMSO, 1988 and NRM 1998)
- The railways of Britain: A journey through history by J Simmonds (Mallard Press, 1990)
- The Oxford companion to railway history (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 69
By Rev. Peter Barham
The University Library is a storehouse of much to interest the railway enthusiast and, while not working hard for Tripos ten years ago, I came upon their collection of Railway Guidebooks. I knew the modern guides produced by the Railway Development Society, and the reprints of earlier guidebooks published by the Big Four, but the history of railway guidebooks is far longer than that. I cannot recall ever seeing them used as source material in any railway history, and yet they cover a wealth of information.
My appetite was whetted while thumbing through the library's Supplementary Catalogues. These contain much material which was, to quote the Library Guide, "not thought to be of scholarly interest or importance". They are to be found in the corridor outside the Reading Room. 1800- 1905 is a sheaf catalogue, handwritten on to slips, 1906-75 is in a card index. A bit of detective work with the names of the Railway Companies, names of authors, and words such as "Illustrated ..." turned up lots of interesting references. The books can be ordered in the West Room, and usually arrived from the bowels of the building within half an hour.
For a librarianship qualification the year after leaving Cambridge (1984), I produced A Bibliography of the Guides to East Anglia issued by the railway Companies prior to nationalisation, and their interest to the railway enthusiast. For this I used the University Library and checked the catalogues of the British Museum. There are also two published Bibliographies of Railway material which record other material and its location:
- A tentative check-list of early European railway literature published by the Baker Library at Harvard, 1955.
- A bibliography of British railway history, compiled by George Ottley, HMSO, 1983 (ISBN O 11 290334 7) - there is now a supplement to this work.
I also approached the National Railway Museum and the Great Eastern Railway Museum at North Woolwich. The N.R.M. sent me details of G.E.R. guides they held, and the N.R.M. Museum was just opening - they replied saying that their collection was all in boxes! I phoned them in January 1996, prior to writing this article, and was told everything is in boxes as they are being closed at the end of March due to cutbacks at the London Borough of Newham.
In my investigations I found the details of 8 different guides produced by the Eastern Counties Railway Company - these are listed as an appendix. Two good background books:
East Anglia's first railway by Hugh Moffat. - Lavenham: Terence Dalton, 1987
A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: Vol. 5: The Eastern Counties by D.I. Gordon. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 3rd ed., l990.
The Eastern Counties Railway Company was incorporated in 1836 to build a line from Shoreditch to Yarmouth via Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich. Their first guide was produced in 1838, giving times as far as Brentwood - in fact the first public trains ran between Mile End and Romford on 20 June 1839! Shoreditch to Brentwood wasn't open until 1840, and Colchester was finally reached in 1843. Here the line terminated, and it was left to the Eastern Union Railway to build a line further north.
The Northern and Eastern Railway Company was incorporated in 1836 to build from London to Cambridge, but by 1843 they had only reached Bishop's Stortford and they were taken over by the E.C.R.. The first line in Norfolk was the Yarmouth and Norwich which opened in 1844. West from Norwich the Norwich and Brandon Railway was projected in 1843, and they merged with the Yarmouth and Norwich in 1845 to form the Norfolk Railway. The E.C.R. extended from Bishop's Stortford to Brandon, and the through route, London to Norwich via Cambridge, was open for traffic on 30 July 1845. Fuller details are given in J. Brian Carter's article in the last edition of Eagle. The 1845 guide claims to have been reprinted from the Norfolk Chronicle, but as it's 94 pages long I find that rather difficult to believe. It is interesting that it covers the lines of two different companies - perhaps this is a hopeful sign in this modern age! The E.C.R. leased the Norfolk Railway from 1848, and eventually took it over.
If anyone has contacts at Stanford University a photocopy of Felix Summerly's guide would be fascinating! The guide to the line from Ely to Peterborough presumably links with the opening of the line in 1846 - although March is the only place en route which could conceivably be described as a "town". The 1847 Stevenson and Matchett guide is presumably a second edition of their 1845 guide - and one wonders how a copy came to be in New York public library!
The final guide on the list is available in the University Library, at classmark Cam.d.851/1. The idea for this guide was suggested by the Great Exhibition of 1851, an event for which many people travelled to London for the first time. It states that its "main design has been so to popularise the ordinary topographical data as, with the assistance of the engraver, to afford the hasty reader a more truthful and effective reflex of the scene traversed than has yet been attempted in respect to any other railway" (page3).
It was originally planned to be a two volume work, but ended up as only one, covering only the E.C.R., because of its failure to amalgamate with other companies.
I want to reproduce the first few pages as we are given the half yearly report of the Company, dated 4 January 1851. They had spent £12.99 million in the building of 326 miles of route, and in the six months prior to the report had carried 1,734,390 people. The balance sheet is as shown in figure 1.
The income is described, with all the pride that one would expect of a Victorian Railway Company, as "much larger than that of many a Continental state" (page 1).
The profit was £175,204 6/11, and while only a small dividend had been paid, they hoped for better in the future.
The engines of the Company had run 1,208,204 miles in those six months, and the costs had been as shown in figure 2:
The first chapter of the Guide introduces us to the Greatness of Railways, and we are given the history of those in East Anglia. It is admitted that early accidents gave the line a certain notoriety, but we are quoted statistics to prove that they are no worse than any of the others. The lines open are listed - there are 103 stations, with 2,933 staff.
We start our journey at Bishopsgate, which was the terminus until Liverpool Street was built in 1874, and then go out to Stratford, the position of the works and junctions. George Hudson was in favour at the time, and we are given his biography. Stratford is well described: "in another portion of the buildings the carriages are being cared for and attended to: some, first class, are being stuffed, and padded and petted, to fit every bend of the human frame; others, second class, have to be satisfied with a dose or two of paint, and a lotion of varnish; and the less-favoured third class merely get a copious application of cold water, and a liberal application of mop" (page 11).
Some more statistics: 203 engines, 164 first class carriages, 154 second, 164 third, 241 vans, 2151 goods trucks, 679 cattle trucks, 802 other trucks, 49 breaks (sic), and they employed 20 clerks, 176 smiths, 264 fitters, 67 joiners, 61 painters, 72 coachmakers, 192 drivers, and 1068 labourers. They have 75 engines in steam daily, and there are 5,416 distinct pieces per engine. Prior to Christmas 1850, 999 turkeys were despatched to London (there must be a PhD in that: 'The influence of the railways on turkey consumption in London"!).
The journey continues on to Yarmouth via Cambridge, Ely and Norwich. Each chapter heading, and this section is divided up into nine chapters, gives us the population of the main settlements and their distance from Bishopsgate. We are given much historical detail about the places we pass through - and all sorts of other information. There is a village called Ugley between Elsenham and Newport, and we are given the rhyme about the "girls from Ugley", and then assured: "the females for the most part (are) exceedingly good-looking, and contrasting most advantageously with their more Celtic visaged sisterhood of the opposite side of the island" (page 137)
- there must be a PhD in that too!
Lord Braybrooke, of Audley End, had insisted on the building of the two tunnels where the line crossed his land, but the Guidebook waxes lyrical about him: "He is considered one of the best agriculturalists of the present day, for he throws his grounds open to the public every day except Sunday, is quite agreeable to the admission of picnic parties, and is a great encourager of cricket- matches, in which he himself generally joins with pleasure, being a remarkably good player; beside being otherwise deservedly popular for the possession of all the attributes becoming his exalted station, great intellectual acquirements and active social position" (page 18).
The University of Cambridge is fully described, and the text contains many engravings, including one of the Round Church before the tower was removed (page 21). We are given the number of Resident members on 14 November 1850, and a full history and description of each of the colleges. We are also given a full picture of undergraduate life - including the bills they had to pay. "On resuming our seat in our fiery chariot the bell rings, the porters bellow unintelligible injunctions, the engine indulges in a scream or two, and after a few affected pant and convulsive struggles - a sort of make-believe that it is quite tired and exhausted, and that it is protesting vehemently against proceeding another yard, it appears suddenly to resolve upon the course it will take - and we are at once dashing along through brick yards and ploughed fields" (page 27).
As we continue across the Fens we are told the history of Fen drainage, and then reach Ely. Once again the engravings are beautiful. Across to Norwich, where we get the history of the city, a description, and useful information like Market Days. There are engravings of several parts of the city, but not the Cathedral. Having reached Yarmouth, we cover the branch to Lowestoft, where the new boat service for Hjerting and Ballum leaves. Samuel Peto was the Lord of the Manor of Lowestoft, and a major figure behind the development of the town and the railway - the branch from Reedham had opened in 1847, and come under control of the E.C.R. in the following year. By 1851 the number of vessels docking there had quadrupled from pre- railway days, and Peto's company, the North of Europe Steam Navigation Company, had established these regular sailing to Denmark. Peto's statue can be seen on Norwich station.
Peto was also a driving force behind the line from London to Colchester, which had opened in 1843, and which this Guide goes on to describe. It does not cover the line north to Ipswich, opened in 1846, or Norwich (1849) as that was run by the Eastern Union Railway. This ran into Norwich Victoria station and there was no physical connection between the two companies until 1852. The branch from Marks Tey to Sudbury, opened in 1849, was also run by the E.U.R. (they had running powers south from Colchester along the E.C.R.). The E.C.R.'s plans to build a large dock at Maldon are covered in the Guide, and the intention to build a line to Harwich (open 1854).
Back in the west of the area, the branches from Ely to both Wisbech (sic) and Peterborough are covered. The first was open from March in 1847 by the Wisbech, St Ives and Cambridge Junction Railway, and later taken over by the E.C.R.. The Peterborough line had been opened in 1846.
The engravings in this Guidebook are lovely, and the text is full of history and little snippets of information. However, they must be read with care. Gordon comments that: "an 1860 pamphleteer could still truthfully write: 'Notoriously there is no railway system in the Empire so badly worked as the Eastern Counties. There is no system on which the Passenger Trains are so few or so irregular; none on which the rates for Passengers and Goods are so excessive; and few, if any, where accidents are more plentiful" (page 31).
This is a very different picture to the one that you get from reading their Guides! In 1864 Parliament forced the E.C.R. to prepare a Bill for amalgamation with the E.U.R., and this happened in 1862 to form the Great Eastern Railway. They have produced many more Guides - many of which are in the U.L. and give for hours of fascinating reading (and some more articles for Eagle if required!).
Eastern Counties Railway guide, with the fares, and times of starting to the Stratford, Ilford, Romford and Brentwood stations by G. Mansell. - London (Borough), 1838. - 12 pages. Ottley: record 5796: held in a private collection reprinted from the "Stratford Chronicle"
A Guide to the Eastern Counties Railway, containing an account of the rise and progress of the company, a description of the works.., with engravings of the bridges, etc. with correct time, distance and fare tables printed by J.T. Norris, London, 1839. - 54 pages. Ottley: record 5800: London School of Economics
The Eastern Counties Railway Guide, a description of the first grand opening, particulars of the whole line of railway with the fares and times of starting. - 1839. - 12 pages. Ottley: record 5799; Checklist: record 1286
A guide to the Norfolk Railway, from Yarmouth to Ely, and to the Eastern Counties Railway, Cambridge line, from Ely to London. - Norwich: Stevensom and Matchett, August 1845. - 94 pages. Ottley: record 5805: held in a private collection
Felix Summerly's (pseud.) pleasure excursions; as guides for making day's excursions on the Eastern Counties, South-eastern Brighton and South Coast, South-western and London and North-western railways, with seventy four engravings by Sir Henry Cole. - London, 1847. - 76 pages; 22 cm. Ottley: record 3694: Stanford University.
A guide to the branch railway from the Eastern Counties line at Ely to Peterborough: comprising a descriptions of the line ... with ... particulars of the towns with which it connected. Norwich 1847. - 21 pages. Checklist: record 3758.
A guide to the Eastern Counties Railway (Cambridge line) from London to Brandon; of the NorfoIk railway, from Brandon by Norwich to Yarmouth; and of the Broxbourne and Hertford branch; with historic and topographic notices of the paishes and towns... Norwich: Stevenson and Matchett, August 1847. 115 pages; 18 cm. Ottley: record 5809: in the British Museum; Checklist: record 3759: New York public library
The Eastern Counties Railway illustrated guide. - London (Nelson Square): James Truscott, 1851. - 64 pages; 27 cm. British Museum; CUL: Cam.d.851/ 1; Ottley: record 5820: held in University of London (Goldsmith's library)
Eagle 61 Contents