This document was originally written to help research into Indian Railways and was published on The Indian Railways Fan Club many years ago. The aim of this page is to collect together various sources of information on British overseas railways, so that researchers are given some ideas on where to look. The notes on sources here will also be of use to people researching Africa, India and South America. It is not meant to be for committed railway enthusiasts, so we have kept the technical side very simple deliberately. It is strongly recommended that before you visit any museum or institution, that you telephone or email first to see if they have the relevant documents.
Our country-specific research pages are good examples of applied research:
In producing these research files use has been made of the TRANSPORT RESEARCH BIBLIOGRAPHY (December 2018) by Gordon Pirie of the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. However, much additional material has been added.
In general, it is fair to say that the history of African, Indian or South American railways has not received the degree of attention that railways in Great Britain, Europe, America and Australasia have received. Most African countries concerned do not have an overall history, or if they do then it is not up to date. In order of volume of information about African railways the ranking is this:
Southern Africa (includes South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia)
East Africa (i.e. Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, dated overall history)
Nigeria (relatively recent overall history)
Sudan (dated overall history)
Egypt (very dated overall history)
Sierra Leone (dated summary history to about 1950)
Nyasaland (now Malawi) few limited journal articles
Gold Coast (now Ghana) no known history at all.
Books and Reference Sources
The British Overseas Railways Historical Trust holds a range of railway archives. Our library (see lists on the archive page) is available for reference by visitors to our registered office.
The National Archives, Kew, London (formerly the Public Records Office) will contain large volumes of British Colonial Office or other British Government Departments material from Nigeria or other colonies. You do need to get a reader’s ticket please see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ One recommended aid at TNA is “Administering the Empire” by Mandy Banton, the TNA staff usually refer to this as Banton, and copies are available to read on site. Perusal of Banton will help you in finding the right file section to start on. Searching the National Archives website for e.g. Nigerian Railways will bring up lots of what they have, it may also, depending on your search terms, bring up material held at other institutions.
Many governmental and other official documents from British India are now at the British Library at St. Pancras. The British Library also hold deposit copies of books and Journals published in the UK. This will include relevant material for the country of interest. It is now a relatively simple process to gain access to the British Library, please see https://www.bl.uk/. They also hold the British Newspaper Library material. You should note that not all material is held on site at St. Pancras and you may need to order some days in advance of your visit.
The Science Museum Group manages several British museums with relevant collections, including the National Railway Museum and the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Their archive can be searched online before arranging a visit; note - use mutiple variations on search terms to find all relevant content.
Professional and Amateur Journals
World Catalogue can be used to find online and/or library archives of many of these documents.
The Locomotive, Railway Carriage and Wagon Review commonly known as Loco Mag. Published from about 1896 - 1959 it was noted for the accuracy of its content. It contains technical and historical information about most railways. There are some small biographical notes. Copies should be available in the Science Museum Library, the National Railway Museum, York, and Ashford (Kent) Library Railway Room. The late Dusty Durrant produced a summary of all the African references in Loco Mag and BORHT has a copy. Google Play has free online copies of Loco Mag up to about 1921 (possibly later, because they are scanning all the time). The Hathi Trust Digital Library also provides access to many volumes of Loco Mag. See also the searchable index of Locomotive Magazine.
The Railway Gazette was primarily a journal for professional railwaymen, its technical content is superb. There are biographical notes. Of importance is the fact that in 1911 and 1927 it produced a two-volume set in each year dedicated to African Railways. These sets contain a fair amount of history, and current operating details, as well as many photos. Special editions were also produced for India, the Far East and South America. From the 1930s Railway Gazette also produced an annual overseas number, which effectively gives a snapshot of the railway for the previous year. Not all railways are included every year. Copies should be available at the Science Museum Library and the National Railway Museum, York. BORHT do have a run. The Railway Gazette was later renamed the Railway Gazette International.
The Railway Officials Yearbook produced from about 1898 onwards, with increasing amounts of information as time progresses. It lists the senior officers of each company, but who gets in will depend on what the company supplied, how large the company was and how junior an officer the compilers decided to include. Available at the National Railway Museum, York.
The Engineer was a broadsheet trade weekly journal produced from about 1850 onwards, it includes biographical details, detailed articles on civil engineering feats, locomotives produced etc. The drawback is its size and its indexing system that seems to vary almost with every volume. To give some idea of the size of a bound volume, take 26 copies of a reputable broadsheet newspaper, like the Daily Telegraph, bind them together and add heavy board covers. It is only recommended to use The Engineer if you have fairly specific dates. It should be available from the British Newspaper Library at Colindale. There are also copies in the Library of the University of Newcastle. Similar comments pertain about Engineering. Graces Guide has downloadable copies of many early issues of the Engineer and Engineering, but there are fees once the download limit is reached; check their free 'index' files before deciding to download.
The Beyer, Peacock Quarterly Review; from about 1926 onwards until the early thirties Beyer, Peacock, one of the largest British Locomotive manufacturers produced a quarterly firm magazine. It concentrates on their products but does include details of visits made overseas to clients, biographical notes on employees and ex-employees. Try the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
Allied to the Beyer, Peacock Review are their publicity books, many of which are lavish products which give details on the latest locomotive placed in service on a railway and solving their problems. Try the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
Vulcan Foundry Magazine was similar to to the above for Vulcan Foundry Locomotive Works, Newton-Le-Willows. It was first published in 1948 and lasted until the company merged with English Electric in 1962. Copies are available on enuii.org. English Electric had their own corporate magazine.
The Colonial Office List was an annual British Government List that states who was doing what and where for that year. They can be detailed enough to give railway statistics, European staff employed and their salary. Copies will be available in the public reading rooms at Kew.
The Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers; the ICE published annual proceedings in which various members are given talks on some civil engineering problem they had encountered. They are available from the Institution of Civil Engineers.
The Proceedings of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers; as for the ICE and should be available from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, some are available at Ashford (Kent) Library. Articles from the Journal of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers and the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers are available for download from Sage Journals, but are expensive.
Proceedings of the Royal Engineers Institution; in India, Royal Engineer officers were often seconded to Railway Companies for experience or had to build lines themselves. Others carried out detailed inspections of colonial railways. Some accounts may be found in the Proceedings of the Royal Engineers Institution. Try the Library, Royal Engineers Museum, Brompton Barracks, Chatham, Kent.
Railway Magazine often published good articles on overseas railways during the colonial period. It's entire archive is now available online to subscribers. Early editions are also available free-of-charge on Google Play.
Issues of Jane's World Railways provide brief annual snapshot statistics on most railways, including those in Africa.
Journal of the Permanent Way Institute deals with the PW issues.
The Colony Handbooks; both Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast produced handbooks on their respective Colonies which give data about the Colony including the railway, and senior members of the administration.
Continental Railway Journal was started in the late 1960’s by enthusiasts who started travelling to Europe following the demise of steam on British Railways. It contains trip reports and sightings of railways all over the world except for the British Isles. It also contains detailed historical articles. There are two series, the original series which was photocopied, then after about 14 issues, they started printed editions which were known as the new series. There were four issues a year until it merged with Locomotives International in 2013. You take potluck on when and if a specific country was covered. If there is a report, there may be photos to accompany it. TrainWeb has copies of the original series and indexes for the later issues.
Annual Colonial Reports; each British colony produced an annual report that includes statistics and some information on progress during the year reported on. They can be very interesting, but they do depend on who wrote the report.
The Narrow Gauge Railway Society publishes a quarterly journal called The Narrow Gauge, which often features articles on overseas railways. An index is available on their site. TNG editions 1-100 (May 1952 to Summer 1983) are available for free download.
Indian Engineering magazine was published in Calcutta from 1847 to 1950 and often included material on Indian railways. See the Hathi Trust Digital Library for many online copies.
Railway Administration magazines. Some railway administrations produced their own in-house magazines. Notably South African Railways whose journals up to 1967 have been scanned and are online at SA Railway History. Rhodesia Railways and subsequently National Railways of Zimbabwe produced one from at least 1952 to 1994; BORHT has copies of these, please see the archive. In India the following railways are known to have produced magazines, Indian State Railways, Indian Railways, Central Railway, Western Railway, Eastern Railway, Bengal Nagpur Railway, and the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway.
La Vie du Rail Outre-mer. A professional French language production published by SNCF, 1954-1978. Although it does mainly deal with the French speaking world it has published articles on other overseas railways.
Railway Wonders of the World. A weekly magazine produced from 1st February 1935 through to 10th January 1936. It has been scanned and placed on the internet and contains many articles about overseas railways.
Railway and Travel Monthly was published by George Augustus Sekon in London from May 1910 to 1920, it became Transport and Travel Monthly and became part of Railway Magazine. Copies are held in the British Library.
Locomotives Notes and Railway News edited by J H Fellows. It ran for about 3 years from 1919. It changed name to Locomotive News and Railway Contractor in 1922 but folded soon after. Partial index is included here - if there is nothing in the remarks column then either we don't have a issue or there was nothing of overseas interest. The British Library has some editions.
Burdett's Official Intelligence (London: E Couchman & Co). Published 'under the sanction of the Committee of the Stock Exchange', this volume is 'a carefully compiled precis of information regarding British, American, and foreign stocks; corporation, colonial, and provincial government securities; railways, banks, canals, docks, gas, insurance, land, mines, shipping, telegraphs, tramways, water works, and other commercial and industrial companies, known to the London market, and dealt in on the principal exchanges; by Henry C Burdett, Secretary, Share and Loan Department, Stock Exchange' This title was first published in 1882. It was published in 17 volumes from 1882-1898. It was succeeded by Stock Exchange Official Intelligence.The following libraries keep copies:
All the manufacturers produced catalogues etc. many of which can be found in the British Library, or at railway ephemera sales. Railway Gazette also used to publish reprints of various articles.
Our research to date has been limited to European staff, so the following information is limited; hopefully local organisations can assist with researching local staff. The higher up the ranks your ancestor got, the easier it ought to be to find out about him or her. They would probably have had to join his relevant professional institution, and this will give you at the least dates of admission, career to date of admission, promotion within the institution, possibly an article written by him or her, and an obituary. When searching for obituaries bear in mind that they often show up in an issue 2 or 3 months later than the date of death. They may also get mentioned in the professional Railway Press. Persons employed by the Government above a certain rank will be mentioned in official dispatches or gazette notifications; a search of these and public records archives may help (in the UK for pre-Independence, in country of interest for post-Independence searches).
There are plenty of commercial genealogical sites such as FindmyPast and Ancestry, they exist to make money and you get what you pay for. They do have free trials every so often, or it might be possible to use them for free in a UK public library. If researching family members in India, Families in British India Society (FIBIS) is a good starting point. FIBIS has published "Fact File 4: Research Sources for Indian Railway, 1845-1947" by Hugh Wilding FRSA, ISBN 978-0-9547-116-5-8, which has an emphasis on family research.
When you start researching family history do be prepared to find skeletons in the family cupboard e.g., there was a case of a man who was sacked from the Sierra Leone Government Railway because he had been drunk on the entire boat trip out from Liverpool and was drunk, riotous and fighting in the streets of Freetown; he was still drunk when he was landed back in Liverpool. Separate known facts from family rumour if possible; did great uncle Bill actually become General Manager or has the family history been distorted, not necessarily maliciously, over time?
A couple of tips, when you are confident that you have the right ancestor, copy down all that has been written about him on the record. Ask yourself, do I understand what has been written? Like all industries, railways develop their own terminology, so do not assume that x means x in that particular circumstance. There are plenty of books out there, or websites on railways and people in general are willing to help if you ask politely and say thanks. A good dictionary will help with many common abbreviations. Hopefully Legacy 95 will produce a list for Nigerian Railways eventually. Ask yourself does the website I am looking out seem authoritative? Can you read it easily and does what the author is saying make sense? If you read a book, that probably comes much easier than reading off a computer screen.
If your ancestor is mentioned as having been taken on by a railway company as a Premium Apprentice it does not mean that he was there to learn to be a fitter or some such trade. Today, we would call such a person a management trainee, i.e. someone taken on by a commercial company like Sainsbury’s on leaving school to learn the business. To become a Premium Apprentice the applicant had to have a good educational standard, be of good social standing and provide acceptable references. They were people destined to be future managers in the company or become heads of railway companies elsewhere. They spent 5 years going through all Departments to thoroughly learn the business.
An information resource with articles about railways around the world, covering technical, operational, maintenance and financial issues. The site is maintained by Dr. Piers Connor of PRC Rail Consulting Ltd.
Major British enthusiasts society dedicated to sharing information about railways, both in Britain and around the world. Their archives and library have a large amount of material on overseas railways.
UCL Library holds extensive archives related to Latin American railways, of which the most important is the Peruvian Corporation Archive.
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