In researching my novel, which is set in the mid-1930s, I needed to do some research into train journey times. As any good Agatha Christie fan will know, the ABC railway guide was just what I needed, and I managed to get hold of a very exhausted one for April 1934 (Christie’s novel, The A. B. C. Murders, was published in January 1936). The ABC was first published in 1853, and was very much London-centric. So you can find out the 9.19am train from Wivenhoe arrived at London Liverpool Street at 10.36am (and operated on Mondays only) but if you want the times of trains from Wivenhoe to Colchester… well… this guide isn’t going to tell you.
The front of the book, before the timetables, is filled with hotel adverts. Starting with London, they are then alphabetical by the name of the town or city, and include the Channel Islands.
Most of the adverts (and there are hundreds!) are not very interesting – it’s incredible how similar hotel frontages at the time were. The ad will consist of an exterior photo or line-drawing of the hotel, very standard font and blurb about the hotel – such as the adverts for The Royal Esplanade, Seaford and Ryde Castle Hotels in Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Rustington I have included here for looking like Mr. Rochester’s house in “Jane Eyre”, with its crenellations.
However, the bulk of the adverts in this gallery (follow the link to Flickr or see the slideshow below) are in fact not representational, and have been included here because they are rather interesting.
Beaumont Hall Hotel in Clacton on Sea goes for an aerial view.
The Beach Hotel and Percival’s Hotel in Worthing are very unusual for showing an interior photo of a room, rather than showing the exterior.
The Bay Hotel in Falmouth doesn’t bother with any photos at all and goes for a vibrant font.
Tollyard Royal Hotel focusses on its special suntan glass and uses a photo of a woman in swimwear.
Branksome Tower Hotel in Bournemouth emphasises its evening entertaining with a fantastic “jazz age” drawing (which looks uncannily reminiscent of the Jeeves & Wooster opening titles sequence).
The others show fabulous art deco design – the stylised drawing of the Suncliff and the Albemarle, angular lines – Cranleigh Court, the Metropole, the Grand Hotel the Atlantic (which I’m sure was in an episode of a David Suchet Poirot). Hawthornes uses representative graphics to show a chef, a woman playing tennis, people dancing….. The Minnis Bay Hotel even reminds us of what life was like for the graphic designer who had to work without computers and do everything by hand.
It’s intriguing to see what was considered a draw for guests – hotel rooms with both hot and cold water, a gas or an electric fire, heating, electric lighting (in the 1930s, many people still used coal fires and gas lights were still within living memory), lifts (mainly specifying that they are indeed electric lifts), and a huge amount of car-parking. It’s interesting that car-parks and garaging are mentioned in a railway timetable book, but it suggests that the people using this drove too, or that it was an aspirational status symbol – you might not have a car yourself, but you could stay at a hotel with people who did, which was clearly posh. And notice how many cars appear in the adverts themselves. There are optional extras – tennis and croquet, dancing, bowling greens, billiards, ‘wireless concerts’… (presumably this hotel came with its own radio: what a modern marvel!).
The other adverts in the book are in the main not graphical – Barclays Bank and Norwich Union, and a very unglamorous advert for W. H. Bailey & Sons’ trusses and abdominal belts, which tells us, I think, that it was men (London commuters, one imagines) who usually bought the ABC and got most use out of it.
But like all “old things”, all surviving artefacts from that “foreign country” (as L. P. Hartley said), it’s a fascinating window into the past.