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kirtleypete

Illiterate symbols on wagons.

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This may be a daft question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. It was prompted because I have just been painting some LBSCR wagons in Stroudley livery, including the 'Illiterate' symbol of a blue circle with a red and white shield inside it. A lot of railways in the 1800's used these symbols on wagons, though the Brighton one is the most elaborate I've come across.

 

The question, then....why use a symbol at all? Surely if an employee was illiterate he could recognise, say, the letters 'LBSCR' just as easily as a painted symbol, even if he didn't know what they meant. After all, a letter is just a meaningless symbol like any other until you learn what it means. Someone who cannot read could still tell the difference between LBSCR and SECR, for instance.

 

It may be that the symbol was easier and cheaper to paint, though the LBSC one certainly wasn't, but if its function was purely so that illiterate employees could tell one wagon from another it seems unecessary. A wagon arriving in Brighton to be unloaded with the LNWR symbol on the side still had to be recognised for what it was. 

 

Am I missing something? Was it meant for non railway employees such as coal merchants? I've no idea. 

 

These are a couple of my models; other than the blue plate on the solebar the company name doesn't appear; large lettering didn't come into use until the 1890's under Billington. There was the wagon number under the symbol which I've yet to add.

 

17171891767_93ca3c42c5_o.jpg

Peter

Edited by kirtleypete
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I suspect that if you are illiterate then as the letters have no meaning it would be very difficult to remember the shapes - especially as there were so many different companies, most of whose wagons you would hardly ever see.  Also if you can't understand the letters and have to load a particular wagon then if you are told to look for (say) a wagon with diamonds on it (I think that's LNWR) you will probably get the right one.

 

Edit - I suppose it would be like most of us looking at Chinese letters - or even the Cryllic alphabet - much of it is meaningless.  It's also difficult to describe latter shapes without using the name of the letter.

 

David

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True - but would you know what a diamond was? A diamond is no easier to remember than, say, an 'L'.

 

I really don't know the answer, but it's an interesting sideline.

 

Peter

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I suppose theoretically if a worker could remember and identify 26 symbols, then he might as well learn the alphabet?

 

Mike.

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I wonder the same about dyslexia. Why can dyslexics have no trouble with some shapes (i.e. Not letters such as their car in a car park), but letters (which are just shapes) cause problems

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Kirtleypete - I'm with you, symbols letters, etc., are just graphic symbols, to which we have attached a meaning to, singularly or in groups.
As I'm a bit deaf, I use sub-titles a lot, but the reality is I don't READ them, I recognise each block of letters (a word) as having a meaning.  The graphic shape of 'Coca-Cola' can be 80% erased, but people still still know what it is/means - It's a symbol.

But back to the original OP, why symbols, being flippant, it used a lot less paint.  
I recognise the Chinese symbol/letters for 'Gents', to me it's a graphic symbol, to a Chinese person, a word.

However all the stock would have had numbers on them, for recording by Railway Clearing House (RCH) personnel, for mileage rates, demurrage, etc., 
One also has to keep in mind that a lot of Companies, did letter their stock, albeit in Victorian times with (very) small lettering, as we move into the Edwardian period, self promotion became rife, be it Railway Co. stock or Private Owners, their lettering became LARGE.....
My interest being LNWR, they retained the diamond shape until 1903, then large lettering crept in - there are recorded sightings of LNW stock still with the diamonds into the 1920's.  
From the beginning (1840's) all stock had to have ownership plates on their solebars, or nearby, with full letters and numbers, again for RCH reasons, as the retention of other companies stock by some companies was a big problem, and the correct allocation of fees etc.,  The RCH play a significant roll in the development of goods trade on the railways.  

- OK, I know somebody is going to produce a plate with a symbol on it.....  

'Stones' and 'Glass Houses' springs to mind.
Always an interesting topic...... 
BTW - The Blue circle on LBSC stock, did this apply to all goods vehicles, or a specific class of vehicle.....

.....and did coaches also have this symbol on them?
I ask about the blue, because for a short time (1850's), the LNWR had red diamonds on small coke wagons.

 

Arrrgh, Talltim has posted whilst I've been mulling over what to say....

Didn't know about Dyslexic's, uhmn, but % wise are their numbers that high, that there was a need for  symbols,

.... and thus what happens during and after the Edwardian era for Dyslexics.

Edited by Penlan
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Interesting stuff!

 

The LBSC used the same symbol on all their goods stock, with the same blue circle behind the shield, but it was never used on coaches, they had the proper coat or arms. 

 

Peter

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It would be interesting to know what the literacy percentages were during Victorian times as literacy levels were rising all the time in that period. This became necessary as the nineteenth century progressed due to the industrial revolution and increasingly complex weaponry used by the army and navy, indeed it was their requirements for a minimum level of literacy and numeracy that led to the first education acts, George Stevenson himself only learnt to read and write in his thirties. As for dyslexia, in a population that was largely illiterate it would not be apparent or possibly even its existence known about.

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The evolution of what, for want of better, I'll call commercial heraldry is interesting.

 

It makes me wonder what the GWR did at the same period for wagons, other than perhaps the wagons being painted red. Painting traditional arms on coaching and locomotive stock lasted much longer on GWR stock than the Victorian period.

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The evolution of what, for want of better, I'll call commercial heraldry is interesting.

 

It makes me wonder what the GWR did at the same period for wagons, other than perhaps the wagons being painted red. Painting traditional arms on coaching and locomotive stock lasted much longer on GWR stock than the Victorian period.

My 1st edition Great Western Way mentions the possibility of GWR wagons being marked with a symbol 'like an asterisk'.  I don't know if any further evidence has come to light.

 

Of course, there is also the point that no-one could be mistaken over broad-gauge monsters!!!

Edited by MikeOxon
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We need to remember that while railway employees had to understand the relevant parts of rule books non employees working for haulage firms, carters etc in goods yards and private sidings did not read the rule book, so may not have been able to read, therefore looking for a symbol would still help them find the right wagon.

 

Also the shapes were, as already mentioned good logos, just like companies use today.

 

Edit.  In the early 1970s I knew a number of people, mainly elderly, who had never needed to read or write much for their work and really struggled with their letters.  This was in a rural area where they had worked as farm labourers, domestic helps and similar.

 

David

Edited by DaveF

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My 1st edition Great Western Way mentions the possibility of GWR wagons being marked with a symbol 'like an asterisk'.  I don't know if any further evidence has come to light.

 

Of course, there is also the point that no-one could be mistaken over broad-gauge monsters!!!

The GWR wasn't the only company with broad gauge! There was the Bristol & Exeter, South Devon, Cornwall, West Cornwall, various South Wales companies etc. although they were all absorbed by the GWR. Then there was the Midland and the L&SW. A lot of the confusion would have been resolved by absorption or gauge conversion in the 1870s, but it must have still been necessary to identify ownership before that.

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I cannot contribute on whether the symbols were to aid the illiterate or not (I suspect they were), but from the posts I suspect there is a massive underestimation of the levels of illiteracy.

 

UK illiteracy is currently estimated as being at 12%; in Germany it is 15% and in France 9%.  I suspect the differences are more to do with definition and measurement that any significant  real difference.  I have found these numbers out over a number of years following incidents at work where we finally identified the problem as being people who could not read properly/completely.  This ranged from a total inability to read anything to a problem of being character blind and confusing just 2 characters. 

 

All of these people had to fill out an employment application form (or rather probably had someone to do it for them).  Their ability to read was never tested at interview - why would you?  They did not walk around the world with a sign round their necks saying I am illiterate.  Many went to great lengths to hide their problem and would be seen in the mess room at break time with a newspaper.  We all thought they were reading it, but in fact they were looking at the pictures. 

 

So back to Victorian times, what would have been the illiteracy rate??   I suspect rather high since reinforcement of reading is and was done at home and if the parents cannot read and write......

 

What I do know is that as late as the 1930s, the PLM railway in France was still painting its first class coaches in Burgundy and black, its second in yellow and black and its third in green.  These colours matched the colour of the ticket for each class.  I see this as a strong suggestion of a high level of illiteracy among the travelling public less than 80 years ago.

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I dont know much about the railways use of illiterate symbols, but I can understand your confusion to not just memorizing the shapes of the letters. But letters can be complicated. And with illiteracy, being told to look for the wagon with the "red and blue cross"or something to that nature is a lot more effective than "look for the wagon with the symbols L B S C R"

Simple monocoloured symbols can get a bit droning after a while and its easy to mistake something, say an I for an L, or an M for an N when those symbols mean nothing to you.

 

The Star Wars universe's written language is Aurebesh. A language of about 30 symbols which each stand for an English letter or punctuation. Try reading that when you have a vague understanding of what each symbol means. Maybe some will stick, but others will just confuse you.

 

Just my input on the original confusion.

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I used the term 'illiteracy symbol' as they are described at that by Powsides and in the book on LBSCR wagons. Interestingly though having looked again at the pictures some LBSC wagons had the symbol and the company lettering so I think David is probably right.

 

Peter

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I think that stating that railway workers had to read the rule book is a bit naive. Yes the rule book was there, and you needed to know the sections that applied to your work, but you didn't need to read to know it. In Mike Collins book 'Railway Character Lines' (cracking read BTW) he mentions that even in the '60's when it was raining the P-wag gang would retire to a hut, and then the most literate person (ganger perhaps?) read sections out of the rulebook so that those who didn't read would still be refreshed....

 

Andy G

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There's some information on historic literacy rates here: http://ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy/

 

There's a big surge in literacy rates in the second half of the 19th century. Before then it looks like about half the population were literate following a massive increase between 1550 and 1650 (which I guess is a combination of printing presses and the Reformation). I forget where I saw it, but apparently almost all tradesmen could read by 1700. 

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This may be a daft question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. It was prompted because I have just been painting some LBSCR wagons in Stroudley livery, including the 'Illiterate' symbol of a blue circle with a red and white shield inside it. A lot of railways in the 1800's used these symbols on wagons, though the Brighton one is the most elaborate I've come across.

 

 

Perhaps this is just one of the many model railway myths that have taken root over the years. The symbols had very little to do with illiteracy, the people who would have made most use od these symbols were the number takers, who by the nature of their work would have had to be literate. The symbols are indeed a form of identification that can seen as the equivalent of modern logos, and it must also be remembered that they date from a time were there very few acronyms in common use. 

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There was a famous case involving Lloyd George and the LNWR which accused the LNWR of discriminating against non-English speaking employees (i.e. Welsh).  I don't recall the outcome but I recall it started because a number were dismissed because they could not read the rule book.  One should remember that not everyone that was literate could read English.

Edited by Brassey

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The evolution of what, for want of better, I'll call commercial heraldry is interesting.

 

It makes me wonder what the GWR did at the same period for wagons, other than perhaps the wagons being painted red. Painting traditional arms on coaching and locomotive stock lasted much longer on GWR stock than the Victorian period.

I always thought the reason the GWR didn't much go in for lettering it's rolling stock was that it was just presumed that you knew it was the GWR and not one of the lesser railways...

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One difference between the various symbols and most letters of the alphabet is that all the symbols I have seen have been symmetrical, so fewer problems for dyslectics, if that is relevant.

 

Many railway staff would have had to be literate to do their jobs - signalmen, station masters and their clerks, goods clerks etc. And numerate as well; woe betide you if the money was out by a farthing. And an awful lot was done by written messages on standard forms. A surprising number of engine drivers in the later part of the 19th century were also involved in local politics, even being mayor. They would have had to be literate. Guards had to keep journals. So there could have been some railway employees who could have been illiterate but not many of those dealing with loading or unloading of wagons.

 

But I too question whether they were "illiterate symbols". After all I have rarely if ever seen a private owner wagon with one - there were some with shapes as well as words but I can think of few which would have identified the owner on its own. And shunters etc would have had to identify wagons correctly. Delivery drivers would have to read waybills etc.

 

In fact the railway was a paper based bureaucracy.

 

Yes, platelayers might not need to be literate but the ganger would to read weekly notices and work instructions.

 

Jonathan

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I believe that, on the LB&SCR, the mark was actually referred to as the "totem" - nothing about an illiterates mark.

Best wishes

Eric

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Dyslexia wasn't a concept, far less recognised in Victorian or Edwardian times; if you couldn't read, clearly you needed to work harder at it. No provision was made in such cases save the provision of varying degrees of education, self-help being the watchword of the times.

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I did wonder at first if this thread were like the dyslexic spinster, seeking an illegible bachelor..

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