Great Western Railway first-class carriage smoking compartment, Great Western Railway official publicity photograph, posed with models, 1936.

Great Western Railway first-class carriage smoking compartment, Great Western Railway official publicity photograph, posed with models, 1936.

Alex Medcalf (CDA alumnus)


Alex Medcalf completed his PhD, ‘Picturing the Passenger as Customer in Britain: The Great Western Railway, 1906–1939’, in 2012. He was jointly affiliated with the National Railway Museum and the University of York, and was part of the AHRC-funded generic forms of accutane project, ‘The Commercial Cultures of Britain’s Railways, 1872–1977’. He is a Research Fellow and the Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Health Histories http://buytramadolbest.com/valium.html which is housed in the Department of History at York.

What attracted you to doing your PhD as part of the AHRC CDA scheme?
Although I had an interest, I’d never had an opportunity to research railway history in depth, and the chance to do this in conjunction with one of the world’s best railway museums was too good an opportunity to pass up! I had enjoyed my MA, where my dissertation focused on automobile advertising in the interwar years, so I saw the PhD as a chance to take some elements further, while at the same time exploring a different subject with a tighter focus on a larger organisation.

What was your project about?
My work fitted into a larger AHRC-funded project to research the marketing techniques developed by Britain’s railways between 1870 and 1975. My brief was to research the extensive photographic records of the Great Western Railway, majority large proportion of which were created for advertising purposes. My research used these sources as a window into corporate policy: the sheer amount of narratives revealed that the GWR segmented the market, and tried to create persuasive stories about consumption rooted in real life. This was a significant shift from previous policies, which focused on the provision of detailed information

What was the most exciting thing you found out during your research?
My colleagues and I said we were always looking for the ‘smoking guns’: there was a lot of great material in terms of photographs, negatives and advertising paraphernalia, but little about who produced it or why. Trying to understand this production context was a complex but also thoroughly enjoyable challenge, and involved scouring traditional and more unusual repositories. Along the way I found plenty of exciting and entertaining stories about how, for instance, the GWR’s advertising stopped traffic in Birmingham, the women looking to get ahead in the advertising profession, information about how agency models were used, and the interactions between the advertising department and the resorts they served.

What other activities were you involved in during your PhD?
It was great to be part of a group pulling in the same direction, and also a fantastic opportunity to undertake research feet away from the objects in the National Railway Museum. The sights, sounds and smells from the era were inspiring. I presented at a number of conferences and workshops, but it was just as interesting to discuss my research with museum staff involved in the preservation of my sources, who used them to reach out to wider publics.

Do you think your CDP helped you secure your current role?
It definitely helped me. First, my next post required extensive experience in researching historic image collections, as well as experience in public engagement. Instead of researching how photographs persuaded people to part with their money, I’m looking at how they encouraged people to take better care of themselves. I have kept in touch with museum colleagues; the experience of working with the NRM has also helped me come up with ideas for public engagement work.

‘See Your Own Country First’, Great Western Railway enamel sign, about 1910.

‘See Your Own Country First’, Great Western Railway enamel sign, about 1910.



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