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Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 - 1859) was an engineer of genius - as was his father, Marc (1769 - 1849). Of all the projects that the younger Brunel worked on, everything from tunnels, to iron sailing ships, to revolutionary bridge designs, perhaps the best known and certainly the best loved, was the Great Western Railway. I lived for many years in the town of Swindon, where Brunel had built his enormous railway works in 1841/2. The gauge chosen by him for his railway was 7 feet 1/4 inch (known as 'broad gauge') as opposed to the rest of the railway companies who used the 'standard gauge' of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. This, by the way, was supposed to have been derived from the distance between the wheels on a Roman war chariot! Brunel took care to survey the routes of his lines to give the best possible ride for his passengers, and everything about the line, which ran, initially, from Paddington Station in London to Bristol, was of excellent quality. So much was the GWR beloved by its passengers that to this day it is referred to as 'God's Wonderful Railway'.

The period 11890 - 1910 saw the start of a promotional war between the major railway companies in Great Britain. Having built their networks on freight traffic (like the Midland Railway), with short-distance commuter trains to bolster their revenues, they began to seek what would now be described as 'new revenue streams'. The Victorian fad for building seaside piers and creating resorts by the sea meant that the railways were eager to service this new group of customers. The GWR was in an especially difficult situation, as it had amalgamated in 1889 with the Cornwall Railway, another broad gauge line which had run down the length of the long Cornish Peninsular. Brunel had been the consulting engineer on this line, and he obviously favored the 'marriage'. The problem was that the CR was heavily burdened with debt, and now the GWR was looking to find revenue wherever it could. China clay, tin, spring flowers, vegetables, and fresh fish were all 'exported' from Cornwall, but the idea of stimulating the tourist trade was very attractive.

Other railways around the country were thinking along the same lines, and began issuing very attractive posters to encourage the trade. In 1908, the London North Eastern Railway, which dominated traffic up and down the East Coast out of London, issued a lovely poster to encourage visitors to the East Coast resort of Skegness; drawn by the illustrator John Hassall, it showed a jolly fisherman skipping along the sands, with the slogan 'Skegness Is So Bracing!'. This image and slogan became SO iconic that it was still being used (in a modified form) over 80 years later! The London and North Western Railway used a poster by the famous marine painter, Norman Wilkinson, to encourage their steamer service to Ireland, as they ran special, fast trains directly to the steamer quay. Their slogan was 'England to Ireland Via Holyhead' (Holyhead being the port on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, on the Irish Sea).

The GWR countered with a poster dated 1907, by the illustrator Arthur Gunn, as shown above. I found the reproduction of this work fixed to a gate at the Nene Valley Railway (a preserved railway near the city of Peterborough), as you can see in the top image. This is very disappointing as it is rather crude compared to the original shown below it, and uses only four-color printing, which is particularly cheap and garish. It has been issued by the National Railway Museum, which is part of the National Museum of Science & Industry (which I used to work for). The NRM has altered the original in two ways. Firstly, the word 'both' has been removed from the statement at the bottom of the work - which, I suppose, improves the English, somewhat. Secondly, the NRM has added a network of railways to the map of Italy, to match the ones shown on the Cornish map.

It seems to me that the Great Western Railway was being particularly disingenuous. They were attempting to 'compare and contrast' Cornwall with Italy to try and prevent tourists from going to the beautiful Mediterranean country and choose Cornwall instead. Since Thomas Cook (a Derbyshire preacher) had organized the first train excursions in the 1841, and his son and grandsons were selling over 3 million tickets each year through their various offices all over the world by 1890, it can be seen that overseas travel, particularly in Europe, had become commonplace.

GWR has outlined THEIR rail network in Cornwall, in the original, but has not shown a single railway line in the whole of Italy! The statement 'There is great similarity between Cornwall and Italy, both in shape, climate and natural beauties' is stretching the truth - just has Cornwall has been stretched! Look at the photograph of Cornwall from space...

If you look at the Lizard Penisular (the southernmost part of Cornwall, which corresponds to the 'heel' of the boot of Italy) you will see that the artist has enlarged it immensely, to make Cornwall resemble a mirror-image of Italy. Climate? You won't find too many peach groves in Cornwall. As for natural beauties, well, there are lovely things in both areas, but Italy is known world-wide as a beauty spot - Cornwall, not so much.

I don't know what I was more disappointed with, the fact that the NRM had made such a botched job of reproducing a 1907 poster, or the fact that, back then, the GWR would twist the truth so much. That's advertising, folks - as practiced in 1907.

Oh, and Brunel's 'broad gauge'? It is no more, forced into oblivion by the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act of 1846!

Originally posted to shortfinals on Mon May 27, 2013 at 12:09 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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