There’s something enormously seductive about glazed ceramic tiles. They sparkle (when clean…). They carry colours and designs limited only by the imaginations of artists. They are one of the ultimate tactile objects; the hand is irresistibly drawn to them, fingers moving lightly over that cool, smooth, glaze. Just find yourself an antique fair and hang around near a stall selling Victorian tiles, wait, and then watch passers-by touch them. They can’t help it.
They’re also incredibly practical when it comes to decorating public spaces. Their ultra-shiny surfaces mean that they take a long time to get grimy, and when they do, you just wipe off the grime and they’re as good as new. They last practically forever, unless some idiot takes a sledgehammer to them (which happened a lot to Leslie Green’s tiles on the London Underground over the course of the twentieth century). They can come in any colour you want, and because they are moulded from a soft material before firing, you can get shaped ones. While they’re not used as often these days in public buildings, the lure is still there. London Underground might have ‘lost’ quite a lot of its early station tiles, but from time to time in recent years it has returned to the material, for instance at Monument station on the District and Circle Lines:
While modern materials now offer many of the advantages of ceramic tiling, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries glazed ceramic tiles were the only realistic option for low maintenance, high visual impact decoration, which is why Leslie Green used them at his Underground stations. Other railways were in on the act too, and some of them found a particular use for ceramic tiles which has left us today with some of the most visible reminders of early British railways.
Just as they do today, train travellers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries needed maps of the railway network to help them plan their journeys. In fact, railway maps were even more essential then than they are now because (a) travelling by train was still fairly new and scared the living daylights out of most travellers, so anything that could rationalise the experience was helpful, and (b) the railway network was a lot more complicated with many more lines and stations, so woe betide you if you thought you were going to navigate your way round by following your nose.
Paper maps were generally the order of the day, or sometimes painted ones. But a few railway companies went rather better than that, and produced maps of their railway networks on ceramic tiles. It’s a fascinating decision in retrospect. First of all, they would have been gigantically expensive compared to paper maps, so it tells you a lot about the pride those railway companies placed on their operations.
Secondly, by putting their networks and company names on ceramic tile maps, such railway companies were also knowingly memorialising themselves, and their operations, forever. As I said, unless some idiot deliberately removes ceramic tile decoration, or possibly if the tile adhesive fails in damp conditions, it’s there practically for eternity. While many ceramic tile railway maps have been lost as the railways subsequently fell from favour, stations closed and the network shrank, some survivors are with us still. And they’re beautiful, albeit slightly haunting for their recollection of a lost world.
Probably the most well-known set of ceramic tile railway maps can be found in the north-east of England, thanks to the efforts of the North Eastern Railway. Between about 1900 and 1910, the company put up ceramic tile maps at a number of its stations. No-one now is sure exactly how many were made (though 25 seems to be the best guess), and 12 survive today, nine in their original locations. This one is at Morpeth station:
Each map is made up of 72 individual tiles, measuring some 1.6m across by 1.7m tall in total. The maps were manufactured by Craven Dunnill & Co Ltd. of Jackfield, Shropshire:
Preserved on ceramic tile, the name “North Eastern Railway” (and a full stop as well, mind) is emblazoned across the top of the maps, demonstrating the company’s complete lack of comprehension that it might not exist forever. In fact, it would last only until 1923, when it was absorbed into the London and North Eastern Railway as part of a rationalisation of Britain’s railways called the “Grouping”. The maps contained some mistakes even at their manufacture, with some station names misspelled, and a proposed (but never actually built) railway line shown as complete. Today, thanks to cutbacks to the British railway network in the 1950s and 60s, the remaining maps are wildly inaccurate, and must be completely confusing for tourists. The North Eastern Railway, however, was simply unable to conceive that its network might one day be reduced in scope as yet-to-be-invented modes of transport drew passengers away from its lines. At least Morpeth station is still on the national railway network. The map at Tynemouth station…
…is particularly misleading because Tynemouth is now served only by the Tyne & Wear Metro light rail system, which offers rather more limited journey opportunities than the map suggests.
As with Leslie Green’s tiles, the North Eastern Railway maps have made the jump from station decor to home/office decor. The North Eastern Tile Company offers full size reproductions as well as three-quarter and half-size versions. Gloriously, they’re still made by Craven Dunnill. They’re so good that it’s hard to tell the modern reproductions from the original ones, and presumably many of the visitors to Pickering station on the preserved North Yorkshire Moors Railway assume that the tile map they encounter is a lucky survivor, when in fact it’s nearly new.
This blog entry was originally inspired by a visit to Tyneside-based online editorial agency Blogaboutanything, whose managing director Paul Gilder has this in the kitchen area his company uses:
He picked up his single-tile version of the map at a market which is regularly held in Tynemouth station under one of the original multi-tile maps (which has a circularity too good not to recount).
Meanwhile, in London, a pair of ceramic tile maps guard one of the entrances to Victoria station. The first shows the suburban rail network:
Above it, picked out beautifully in green and gold mosaic, is the abbreviation for the railway company that installed the map, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway:
I suspect that the screws which are protruding from the map are not in fact holding it to the wall, but held a cover over the maps at a time when they were covered over. The vandalism makes the mind boggle. The second map shows the LB&SCR’s mainline routes and a spectacular rendition of the company’s coat of arms:
Unfortunately, despite the rarity and historic interest of the map, its surrounding tiles weren’t looking very well looked-after when I last saw them (next time I’m at Victoria I’ll check again and let you know whether they’ve been fixed).
As with the North Eastern Railway, the LB&SCR would vanish in 1923, subsumed into the new Southern Railway. Its network hasn’t been cut back as savagely as the North Eastern Railway’s but the maps are still full of lost lines. Check out the Isle of Wight, off the south coast. Only one section of one of those lines is still in existence.
But the big daddy of ceramic tile railway maps can be found in the north-west of England, at another Victoria station, this one in Manchester. In the entrance is this absolute monster:
The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s map is huge. Yet despite the ample space available, it shows a cavalier disregard for the existence of most other railways outside its operating area. Not only did it think it was important enough to memorialise its name and network in everlasting ceramic tiles, it clearly couldn’t think of any reason why you as a passenger might want to wander outside its sphere of operations. When a traveller is tired of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway then, why Sir, he is tired of life itself! The map is a remarkable survivor, and is looking pretty well as good as the day it was put up. Like the other maps featured above it is, however, looking rather less accurate given line closures which have taken place since.
I was waiting at my local railway station the other day, and I wandered over to the railway map displayed on the outside of the building. It was made of paper (of course), and being on a south-facing wall, had already faded to near illegibility, despite only being on display since late spring. They really don’t make them like they used to.
Update, January 2014
As promised, I’ve been to London Victoria to check on the LB&SCR tile maps. They remain in scruffy condition as pictured. I also found out what the screws around the maps are for. I should explain that I wrote about the tile maps in the entry above from memory, having passed them several months previously and decided I ought to mention them in the blog at some point. I found the photos on the internet (though I’ve since taken some of my own, here). The screws, as I would have known if I’d been paying more attention earlier, hold perspex over the tiles to protect them from damage. The irony of the fact that someone has had to drill into the tiles to protect them from damage seems to have been lost on Network Rail. It’s a sort of, “To protect the tiles, we must destroy the tiles” philosophy.