So often one can awake from a reverie in the corner seat of a railway carriage when the train stops and look out through a grimy window to see where one is: a helpful sign on the platform, lamp standard or station building quickly puts one right and allows one to slip back into the arms of Morpheus.
Such signs go back to the earliest days of railways and stations. By the way, avoid the Americanism ‘train station’: in this country ‘station’ has always meant a railway station (the correct qualification), whereas it was fire, police, feeding and other stations that required qualification!
Modern collectible station name signs really begin with the grouping of our railways into the ‘Big Four’ in 1923 and ends more recently with the denationalisation of the railways from 1996. Usually each station used to have a large board towards the ends of the platforms, sometimes two, mounted in a ‘V‘, with timber (occasionally cast iron) letters applied to a wooden board. These are now very rare, especially as, being outside, they tended to decay.
Thus from 1923 each of the four companies: the Southern (SR), Great Western (GWR), London Midland & Scottish (LMS) and London & North Eastern (LNER) tended to replace such signs with enamelled metal ones in their own colours. The SR produced target signs, green background with the name horizontally across a central annulet with white centre. The LMS used a maroon background and similarly used a circular centre but it was integral with the banner part of the sign to make a solid effect, whilst the LNER used dark blue rectangular enamel with white lettering. The GWR as a rule used white letters on a black background.
These signs can fetch from about £30 up to around £400, depending on condition and most especially, what place’s name they bore. Some places have resonance: large cities (obviously), long lost stations, places where a potential purchaser lives, and those with associations, like Adlestrop (GWR: Edward Thomas’s touching 1917 poem). These factors can push up the price enormously. A typical example of an ex-GWR platform lamp tablet is one for Horsehay & Dawley (Salop) which made £580 at auction last year, whilst a large wooden station sign for Park Hall Halt (GWR) made £750. A similar one for Adlestrop was rescued in 1965 upon closure and was re-erected under the ’bus stop shelter for the replacement ’bus service. Alnwick (LNER blue lamp tablet) made £520.
But if one cannot source a sign from before the Railways were nationalised in 1948, there is plenty of scope over the ensuing 20 years (when a boring new corporate image began to eat into the colour) but, oddly, the price tends to rise. British Railways, as the system then became, evolved what is called the totem sign: the round-ended banner being placed across a round angled rectangle and edged in white, with white letters. These were applied universally, although less so on the former Southern, where that company’s rather similar target signs tended to survive in large numbers.
What gave the totem signs their interest, apart from the places themselves (many of which ceased to have any function since the start of the slashing and burning régime of Lord Beeching of East Grinstead in the mid-1960s), was that the Nationalised concern split the network up into regions approximately based on the territories of the ‘Big Four’. Thus, the Southern’s signs remained green (albeit of a more virid shade), the GWRs were brown, the Midland (ex-LMS) region was still maroon (a distant echo of ‘Midland Red’ as applied to rolling stock and locomotives at Derby from the 1870s) and the LNER was a blue similar to that used previously. Added to that a region was created for the North East (orange) and another for Scotland (bleu de celeste).
Although these signs are much more ubiquitous and prices for unremarkable places can start at £500, resonance again can inflate the cost of acquiring one considerably. Whilst Mablethorpe (Eastern Region) made £2,800 recently, Northampton Castle (Midland) made £6,100, Stourbridge Junction made £1000 whilst Overton (Southern), a measly £960. Waterloo, being common (from the sheer size of the station – 21 platforms) made but £820. Yet on an on-line auction site, Grove Park (Southern Railway target) had failed to make its reserve of £21 in January! Another subject of nostaligic poetry (this time John Betjeman) was totem (SR) for Dilton Marsh Halt, estimated at £2,000-2,500.
The value of these later signs, though, have led to a burgeoning trade in replica ones, of the right size and colour. You can order one from any one of a number of firms who will make you one with whatever name you want on it. The problem is, how do you tell the difference? The answer (assuming the name borne is not obviously unlikely) is: wear. The originals were set up in stations either outside or, if under canopy cover, at least open to weather, smoke, steam, aerial pollution and casual vandalism. They will show signs of wear, and signs of fixing. Many were attached to lamp standards with brackets, and the brackets tended to rust whereas the signs, unless damaged, were protected by their enamel.
Thus, whilst signs in generally tatty condition are likely to be genuine, those appearing to be in superb condition, need to be looked at much more closely for signs of attachment and wear if they are to pass muster as genuine.
Later and post-BR signs tend to lack colour and interest and, although there are substantial numbers out there, they do not appear to be particularly collectible. Their sheer uniformity and lack of colour has militated against that!