Summary: Heritage branding of locomotives citing SR Q1 class in the National Collection. . . . . . .
Recently, I was reading something about railway history (yes, I do sometimes) and came across a reference to ‘Flying Scotsman’ as ‘a heritage brand’. Not being a marketeer the word ‘brand’ grated a bit but, then, the railways have been no strangers to branding over the years nor, indeed, to the whole idea of ‘heritage’.
The idea of a brand is to create some sort of set of values in the public mind about what the brand stands for and, therefore, what might be sold to others based on those brand values. Wander around the NRM shops in York or Sheldon and you soon get the idea. We have everything from Flying Scotsman T shirts, beer, key fobs, to Mallard caps and wallets. Most famous locomotives are a brand nowadays but for each of us, the brand promotes slightly different but broadly similar values – you know, power and strength, elegance even, speed. It’s not surprising that Bulleid’s Q1 doesn’t get a look in as a brand – chunky, slow, grimey, utilitarian, a plodder?
‘Heritage’ is a more tricky concept which again means different things to different people. We might find common ground in thinking of iconic steam locomotives as ‘heritage’ but whose heritage? To those of us who can still remember steam locomotives the answer is probably obvious but not so to younger folk and those with different ethnic origins, for example. To some these are just curiosities from the past. It becomes the challenge of the modern museum curator to interpret heritage in a way that means something to us all. Not easy.
As if that were not enough, heritage and its parent, ‘history’, are constantly shifting. It’s not that there’s one definitive account of an event in the past but multiple interpretations that use facts in different ways. Was it a fact that Mallard broke the world speed record or was it the interpretation of those present? Some commentators have noted that we seem to be creating more heritage faster than events themselves. Soon the events of yesterday might become our heritage. Far fetched? Maybe but perhaps we might need to be more selective about what we consider to be heritage. Heritage is close up behind us now, not in the more comfortable, distant past. As the writer Marc Augé wrote in 1995: ‘We barely have time to reach maturity before our past has become history …… the recent past – ‘the sixties’, ‘the seventies’, ‘the eighties’ – becomes history as soon as it is lived. History is on our heels, following us like shadows, like death……..’ Extreme you might think but, then, take a look at that HST power car in the NRM or the Pacer unit outside ‘Locomotion’. Not so old heritage, are they? Or, are they not heritage to you at all? Heritage doesn’t just become heritage because somehow it predates me or you.
By now, I’m probably at risk of tying readers in knots but the points are important ones for us all to consider as Friends of a national museum. Just what is heritage? Does it have a brand and if so, what does the brand stand for? Perhaps it has many brands, manifest mainly in the different locomotives and objects in the collection. How does this heritage fit with the constant evolution of history and, thinking of those who visit the museum to inspect the objects on show, what should the heritage on show mean for them?
I have written several times in these columns about the project to collect oral histories in the East Midlands. The recordings are not always of those who remember the railways of Britain and used or worked on them in some way. There was a tentative plan to gather the memories of other ethnic groups from Leicester who had their own railway memories to tell. What happened is another story, but set in the context of this piece, the heritage of railway life meant different things to interviewees – sometimes similar and sometimes, quite different.
One man recalled returning to Nairobi a few years ago to see where he grew up – a district of the city where railway families lived but now a rather disreputable and semi-derelict place. He was shocked, he said. His heritage was not a million miles from the back streets of Crewe or Swindon or many other railway towns in the UK. But then he talked about travelling with his father, a guard on the Nairobi to Mombasa line of the East African Railways. Crossing Tsavo and the high plains of the vast game reserves, he told stories of watching out for wildlife on or near the tracks, the sort of wildlife that locomotives couldn’t just brush aside (more likely the other way round if it was an elephant). ‘It’s all history now,’ he thought. ‘There aren’t many elephants left. We have a few heritage herds but not much else.’
Interesting to think that heritage might mean elephants as much as engines. And how each of us thinks of heritage in different ways. Reading this piece again my mind drifted back to locomotives and branding and that awkward looking Southern Railway Q1. Why not Q1 ‘Jumbo’ T shirts? I might pass that on to some unsuspecting marketing executive.
With apologies to ‘Precedent Class 2-4-0’s of the London and North Western Railway, known by enginemen as ‘Jumbos’.
Friends is an independent charity established in 1977 to support the National Railway Museum. We have raised £1.8m to date in support of the museum in funding, restorations, exhibits & acquisitions of new artefacts. We also support & promote research & educational projects relating to the history & development of railways.