Robert and Fiona Forsythe are the custodians of The Forsythe Collection of Transport and Travel Ephemera. Perhaps the largest private collection of this type of material in the British Isles. Robert Forsythe was born in Norfolk, UK, in 1959. He met Fiona on top of the Denny Shipyard Model Test Tank at Dumbarton next to the Firth of Clyde in 1986. They live on a Northumberland hillside and have a daughter Clare. Between them there are seven graduate level qualifications. In the following interview, we talk about the collection that includes approximately a quarter of a million pieces of ephemera.
ephemera: This is a massive collection. How did you become interested in transport timetables?
Forsythe: I was brought up never far from water and railways in Norfolk. From a young age, I enjoyed travel; it was not until I was 12 that I thought of collecting transport publicity. Everyone at school collected something.
I wanted to do something different. So I thought of writing to the local stationmasters and asking for the free pocket timetables. That is how it all started and the original correspondence survives in the Forsythe papers in the Norfolk Record Office, Norwich. That was in 1972 and now in 2008 the collection takes up 272 feet of shelving and is about 250,000 items. I have written eight books and many features. All is detailed in our website www.forsythe.demon.co.uk, and I much recommend following the links to the bibliography, also to our full listings on eBay and on www.specialistauctions.com. We have thousands of spares to trade across the field of rail, road, water and aviation. I am a moderator of transport categories for Specialist Auctions. My latest project has been to write a history called Are We On Time? British Railway Timetables 1948-1997. The history of the BR timetable has never been written up before, and we have done it in 12 chapters, 70,000 words, and 410 scans. GNRP are doing the publishing. They have already produced a landmark tome on Landscapes Under the Luggage Rack: Great Paintings of Britain - The Lost Art of the Railway Carriage Print.
Forsythe: I explained that I started by consciously wanting to collect something different, but as life progressed it has become yet more targeted. I went on to have a career in museums and married a wife who has turned into a very well qualified professional librarian. As time passed, I realised how little formal recognition there was of the subjects that I was working in. I kept trying to persuade professionals that what I was doing was their job really. And we kept being snubbed. Eventually when that happens often enough, you realise it is a case of DIY - Do it Yourself. The problem in a nutshell is that for the librarian this stuff does not have an ISBN, to the museum curator it is not 3D (wot, a 1,000 page timetable is not 3D?), to the archivist it is not manuscript. So, each professional area relegates it to secondary interest. The collection therefore has become a bit evangelical. It demonstrates the value of relatively modern collecting in a fast changing world. It can appeal to all of local historians, transport historians, designers, sports enthusiasts, social historians etc. The transport scene in Britain has been turned upside down since the mid 1980s and fortunately we have been able to obtain printed memorials to many of these changes.
On our national railway whole brands have come and gone in the twinkling of the eye. For instance there was that American James Sherwood and Sea Containers and its subsidiaries buying up our British Rail's Sealink operation, taking over the Windermere steamers. All that is now history.
The story runs on...
Forsythe: The practical one is always where to put it all. We have invested money in proper library shelving, hundreds of lever arch files, and innumerable polypockets. The collection is not fully catalogued although areas are.
Like the full BR timetable run. It is in order though and the detail of that order is documented. Currently the collection document has about 640 headings which represent files, boxes, or whole shelves. Housing it in the family home is far from ideal and our current long term aim is to move it out of the house and preferably to an academic institution or another very monied collector willing to invest properly in making it publicly accessible. Now if you read this and it is you, get in touch...
One challenge we do not have is finding the material. It finds us. An army of willing collectors assist us. It has even been the case that anonymous donations have arrived in the mail.
ephemera: Finding materials. That's the rub, yes. What are your favorite items in the collection?
The Isle of Mull timetable is a community timetable being produced by a Baptist Public Transport Officer working with a retired Presbyterian minister who has Parkinson's disease. A timetable can show that grace triumphs over law. With some other volunteers they have produced the most extraordinary printed timetable. So extraordinary I found myself invited to Vienna in early September 2008 to speak about it to an international conference on Infoconnectivity organised by www.iiid.net .
Other favourites include the entire BR Paytrain theme. I grew up with this and it was both a classy and economical way to save rural railways in Eastern Britain. Bus timetables from Keighley and District and its sibling companies are some of the best modern bus timetable offered so I like them. Older material will include items with the Eric Gill association ( Gills Sans type). In the shipping items, there are a strong bunch of items from the Coast Lines group of companies between the 1930s and the early 1960s. A view of a steamer on a Burns Laird sailing out of Ardrossan passing the Bathing Belles on Ardrossan South Beach about 1960 has to be right up there. Visually material that conveys the excitement and mystique of travel will move me. It can be for a humble item. There is no reason why a bus timetable should not do it. Too often though, modern design is unimaginative. Whole companies rely on photos of passengers to sell their wares. Are they ashamed of what they ask them to travel in? Normally an image of my fellow passengers (real or imagined) will not entrance me. Passengers in reality can be very engaging and even a right pain (those mobile phone calls about other's love lives in your ear).
Forsythe: Go Great Western by Roger Burdett Wilson published back in 1970 was a seminal book looking at one railway company's publicity. And even he consciously said timetables and railway maps were too involved to write up. A semi-underground magazine called The Paperchase has been very useful over many years, our bibliography reveals more. I jest a bit about it being semi-underground but in Britain there has never been one fully glossy magazine devoted just to transport collectables, yet the world of diecast collectables supports several. There are actually several small circulation periodicals and in our website the links page will get the reader to some.
ephemera: I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this amazing collection. Thank you for your time and thoughtful answers.
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.