In the fifth in our series of railway writers and artists, the life of the great communicator and railway historian supreme is recounted.
George Dow was a man of many parts. Professionally he was a career railwayman for his entire working life, much of it spent in public relations on the LNER and BR London Midland Region. He was a patron of up-and-coming railway artists Vic Welch, Hamilton Ellis and Arthur Wolstenholme. In private life he was a writer and historian of considerable talent, a collector of railway memorabilia, someone who encouraged and developed new areas of railway study such as railway heraldry and scale modelling, based on solid historical fact. He was a perfectionist in everything he did.
Believing that “no one would ever read it” Dow refused to write an autobiography. That, perhaps, was his one serious misjudgement. Fortunately, his son Andrew wrote a private memoir, which I have drawn on freely, that preserves the most important aspects of George’s many-faceted life. In this article I shall sketch his early life and railway career and then concentrate on his literary and artistic talents.
Born in Watford, Hertfordshire, on June 30, 1907, George Dow (GD) was the eldest surviving son of Herbert and Loela Dow (née Currell). There was an older son, Reginald, who had died in infancy and two younger sisters, Phyllis and Betty. Herbert was an estate accountant, whose grandfather had moved south from Scotland in the 1850's.
George’s early life, in that brief golden era of railways before the cataclysm of 1914, has parallels with several other subjects of this series: childhood walks with mother beside a railway fence, an early favourite company (in this case the Midland, its irresistible crimson livery first seen on a coal merchant’s calendar), Bing and Bassett-Lowke model engines. The die was cast at a very early age. George wanted to be a railwayman and he was determined to design locomotives.
In 1920 the Dow family moved to Brighton, where George attended Brighton College as a day boy. It was arranged that, upon matriculation in 1924, he would go to Crewe Works as a premium pupil to study locomotive engineering under the chief mechanical engineer Hewitt Beames.
Alas for hopes and plans. Herbert Dow died unexpectedly in 1922 at the early age of 48, and there was no prospect the family could afford the hundred guinea premium (the equivalent of perhaps £5,000 today) required by Capt Beames at Crewe. George needed work quickly to support his mother and sisters and found it with a London firm of wool importers, the Australian Pastoral Co. Nothing daunted him; he also started evening classes in locomotive engineering in anticipation of his fortunes one day taking a turn for the better. At the same time there was an urgent desire to exchange the world of Antipodean wool for that of railways.
Through a family connection Dow managed to obtain an interview with Robert Bell, assistant general manager of the LNER, instigator of the pioneering traffic apprenticeship scheme, and for many years responsible for finding promising young men for the company. Dow was rebuffed in 1926, but at a second attempt in 1927 was appointed a probationary Class V junior clerk in the general section at King’s Cross. The pay was £100 a year, £20 less than his existing salary. That did not matter – he had got his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. He said that even if there had been a Grade VI he would have taken it. The real benefits were intangible. His office was next to those of the chief general manager, Sir Ralph Wedgwood, and of CME Nigel Gresley and his team.
Sensing that his future lay on the commercial and not the mechanical side Dow abandoned his locomotive engineering B.Sc studies and turned to the London School of Economics for a course in railway operating , economics and geography. In the time-honoured manner the LNER sent him to out-stations to gain experience of passenger and goods depot work, accounts, signalling and the rule book. Some of his time was spent in the press section and this marked the beginning of his involvement in railway public relations.
Dow’s first contribution to the way the LNER presented itself to the world came in 1929 when, on his own initiative, he produced two diagrammatic route maps for display in the compartments of suburban carriages on the Great Eastern and Great Northern sections. They were adopted immediately and printed from his originals.
Christened “Dowagrams” they preceded by several years the Harry Beck diagrammatic maps for the London Underground. Together there were 13 of these diagrams, including three for the LMS as paid commissions. Maps of great clarity were something of a Dow speciality and they appeared in many of his own books and some by other authors.
By 1932 Dow had been appointed a junior canvasser in the commercial advertising department at a salary of £190 per annum, selling advertising space on trains, at stations and on billboards. He worked for, and came under the influence of, the remarkable Cecil Dandridge, who commissioned the superb series of 1930's LNER pictorial posters. Dandridge also adopted the Gill Sans typeface used extensively for signage and printed material on the LNER and subsequently by British Railways, until replaced by what many regard as the inferior Helvetica ‘modern image’ typeface in the mid-1960's.
In June 1939, at the age of 32, Dow became the LNER’s information officer, in effect becoming the company’s official spokesman in all its dealings with the press, BBC radio, and newsreel companies, promoting its beautiful streamlined trains and the world’s fastest locomotives. His office also dealt with chambers of commerce, civic societies, railway clubs and individuals seeking information about railway operation. Its enlightened attitude in matters such as lineside photographic permits (handled by his secretary, later his wife, Doris Soundy) helped to lay the foundations of the post-war enthusiast hobby.
In due course George became a popular speaker and an occasional broadcaster. Particularly during the war he was in great demand as a visiting speaker to small clubs and societies, where he could sometimes provide small morsels of official information out of reach of the censor.
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