Great Western Railway jigsaws

Introduction and history

In addition to the ever growing range of books available for purchase, the Great Western Railway published a range of jigsaw puzzles starting in the early 1920s. About 44 different titles were issued before ceasing in 1939. The puzzles varied in the number of pieces from 'about 150' through 200 to 250 and were priced at 2 shillings and 6 pence (2/6 or Half a Crown) each. A few larger puzzles were also published having either 375 (3/6) or 400 pieces (5/-). Whilst still considered to be a bit expensive at the time, these prices only just covered the cost of production, but publicity rather than profit was the driver.

Advert for jigsaws in GWR magazine of December 1933
Advert in the Great Western Railway magazine, December 1933

As the number of jigsaw puzzles increased so did the variety of the subjects covered, ranging from named trains and engines to Cathedrals, historical scenes and castles. Subjects were chosen by the Stationery & Printing or the Publicity departments of the GWR, the artwork being either specially commissioned or adapted from existing poster illustrations. The boxes containing the jigsaws also differed in artwork and design. Between 1924 and 1934 puzzles were sold in boxes with lift-off lids. The box lid labels varied with some listing other jigsaws that were available. From 1930 to 1932 the larger 375 piece puzzles were in a slightly larger box with a more elaborate deep blue label which carried a map of GWR routes. All these box labels featured the GWR company crests and a very ornate 'GWR' cypher. From 1932 to 1934 some puzzles were also published in a plainer slip case type box. In 1934 the box changed to a book design folding open and secured shut with a ribbon tie continuing in this form until production ceased in 1939. The labels on these boxes also varied in size and design whilst remaining very simple overall, and carried either the earlier ornate GWR cypher or the later shirtbutton roundel. All boxes of whatever form carried a small picture of the original artwork, either monochrome or coloured, printed or stuck on, to guide the completion of the puzzle.

Operator cutting out a jigsaw
From an article in the Great Western Railway magazine, September 1931

Jigsaw production

All of the puzzles were manufactured for the Great Western Railway by The Chad Valley Co.Ltd. in Harborne, whose name is included on the box labelling. They were all of a high quality, being made from 3-ply wood, although the thickness and quality of the wood did sometimes vary as did the quality of cutting on rare occasions. The pieces are very varied in shape and size as the puzzles were cut out by hand four at a time. Some very delicate pieces could result, and 'false starts' can sometimes be seen in the cuts when a puzzle has been assembled. Different operators seem to have developed their own personal style of cutting over time and this helps explain the slightly flexible number of pieces each box actually contained. Believe it or not, every jigsaw was checked by re-assembling it and a packing slip was put in the box as confirmation. Should you loose or damage a piece they would make a replacement on receipt of the immediately surrounding pieces, a stamped envelope for reply, and three penny stamps to cover the cost. This did rise to sixpence in later years.

Jigsaw packing slip

The wording on the packing slips varied over time with at least three different ones being known. This example from our collection also notes the approximate size of the finished puzzle.

Jigsaw range

Although the number of puzzles issued is generally accepted as being 44, it is a bit more difficult to determine exactly when each one was available as we have been unable to find a truly definitive and accurate index. Both the Science Museum and the V&A hold a few examples in their collections but they are not accurately dated. However, the books The Chad Valley promotional jigsaw puzzles written and published by Tom Tyler in 2017 and Go Great Western - a History of GWR Publicity written by R.B.Wilson and revised by Colin Judge which was published by David St John Thomas and distributed by David & Charles in 1987 have proved valuable reference sources. Certain puzzles were re-issued in different sizes (for example Royal Route to the West - 200 and 150 pieces), or sometimes under a slightly different name (such as Beau Nash's Bath and Bath) and also in different styles of box, all of which serves to complicate matters. There are several examples of re-issued puzzles such as these in our collection.

Earlyish leaflet promoting jigsaws circa 1934 The Literature of Locomotion leaflets of 1934 and 1937 Later leaflet promoting jigsaws circa 1938
Literature advertising GWR jigsaws. Author's collection

The jigsaw range was sometimes promoted by the inclusion in the box, or in other publications, of a single page leaflet listing jigsaws available at the time. Some examples of these leaflets are in our collection. They were highlighted as being The Best Jig-Saw Value in the World which could, amongst the usual outlets, be obtained from The Stationery Superintendant, Great Western Railway, Paddington Station, London, W.2. As the range of publications and jigsaws increased a small booklet 'The Literature of Locomotion' was produced being included in the jigsaw boxes. We have a number of examples of these booklets in our collection dating from 1928 to 1937. This promotional material provides a useful reference, although sometimes being undated it can also serve to confuse.

Ever mindful of a sales opportunity each of the sixteen (sometimes twelve) page booklets contained an order form with which you could order more books or jigsaws. In the earlier booklets, up to and including July 1934, the order form is addressed to either The Superintendant of the Line, Paddington Station, London, W.2 or The Stationery Superintendant, G.W.R., 66 Porchester Road, London, W.2. According to the introductory notes, sales of jigsaws were more than half a million in 1932, rising to three quarters of a million just a few years later. It is believed that total sales eventually exceeded one million puzzles. Increasing sales of publications in general must have led to a rationalisation of departments as the November 1934 (and later) order form is now addressed to The Sationery Superintendant, G.W.R., 167 Westbourne Terrace, London, W.2. This art deco style building is situated close to Paddington Station and was designed in 1933 by the GWR's chief architect at the time, P.E.Culverhouse. The Porchester Road building dates from 1903 and was the Stationery and Ticket printing Depot for the GWR. Both buildings survive and have been redeveloped as multiple occupancy office blocks.

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Early postcard view of the Harborne Works
'Chad Valley Works (the local centre of industry)'
Courtesy of

The history of the Chad Valley company itself is interesting. The company had its origins as a printing business established by Anthony Bunn Johnson in Birmingham in the early 19th century. Under the management of his son Joseph and grandson Alfred the company moved to the suburb of Harborne in 1897. This was in the valley of the Chad Brook, which gave its name to the district of Chad Valley. The company registered the trade mark Chad Valley for use on its products, but did not change the company name until the early 1920s.

The purpose built factory, as seen on this early postcard, was adjacent to Harborne Station which was at the end of a short LMSR branch. It was served by its own siding which it later also shared with a Birmingham Corporation facility. Whilst the line closed to passengers in 1934 it continued to carry goods traffic both to and from the factory until 1963. The building was enlarged and the company grew through several aquisitions becoming a well known and respected manufacturer of quality toys. Cheaper foreign competition increasingly affected business however and the company finally ceased trading in the 1970s.

The Harborne factory itself closed in 1972 and suffered a devastating fire a year later. The site of both the factory and station have been extensively redeveloped but the former branch line survives as a green corridor called the 'Harborne Walkway'. The trade marked name was bought by various companies (including at one time Woolworth's) and still lives on as a brand exclusive to the Argos stores.

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Our jigsaw collection

As part of the memorabilia collection at the Old Ticket Office we have a large collection of original GWR jigsaws. Illustrated on the followng pages are those puzzles currently in the collection, listed roughly in ascending published date order. The boxes are not shown to the same scale as their puzzle however. The number of pieces quoted for each puzzle is that shown on the box and is not necessarily the actual number of pieces in that particular puzzle. The assembled dimensions of each puzzle are given to the nearest 1⁄4 inch - and yes, we have made each of the puzzles up. The dates of publication and artist for each jigsaw are the results of our best research but they should not be taken as being definitive.

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The collection of jigsaws has grown rather large over the years and in order to make the pages load quicker it has been split into smaller parts.
The very first to be produced feature on this page, and there are links to navigate up or down through the collection, finishing with the very last puzzles from 1939.

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Click or tap on any jigsaw thumbnail to see a larger image.

The earliest jigsaw puzzles

Caerphilly Castle - version 1

About 150 pieces (approx. 22 1⁄2"x8 1⁄2") no box and with one piece missing.
Published from 1924 to 1928.
Featuring the engine 'Caerphilly Castle' number 4073, derived from a photograph.

This puzzle was the very first to be published by the GWR and also the first puzzle to be made by Chad Valley in the new department set up specially to produce jig saws for them. The cut of these puzzles varied over time with at least three variations being known, starting with this non-interlocking design and finishing with what became the usual interlocking type of pattern. All versions were cut to the outline of the locomotive, but the first one followed it very closely around details such as the front coupling. The puzzle initially retailed at 5 shillings but was so expensive that very few sold. The decision was therefore made to sell it at cost (being 2/6) as a promotional item. This pricing policy was applied to all susequent puzzles and continued until production ceased in 1939.

Whilst the original blue box has been lost, and one piece of the puzzle is missing we are pleased to have been able to obtain this copy as it represents the very beginning of the GWR jigsaw series.
Close examination of the completed puzzle reveals four small holes. One can be seen in the leading wheel and another on the smokebox door with the two at the tender end being less obvious. We wondered what they were there for and decided they must be intentional and possibly part of the early production process.

Caerphilly Castle - version 2

About 150 pieces (approx. 23 1⁄2"x8 1⁄2") no box but with guide picture on fragment of original blue box lid, one piece and one nib missing and two pieces broken.
Published from 1924 to 1928.
Featuring the engine 'Caerphilly Castle' number 4073, derived from a photograph.

This version now has rather angular interlocking pieces. Whilst retaining the detailed outline cut around the front coupling and to the rear of the tender, the lamp brackets and rear tender step have been omitted. Although the box has been lost, this puzzle came with the guide picture on a fragment of its original blue box lid. The box and text on the box label would have been similar to that on the red Cathedral one shown below.

The Cathedral

About 150 pieces (approx. 16"x12") in rare early squarer red box with full size white label and large printed sepia guide picture.
Published from 1926 to 1935. This is the early small version with the puzzle later being increased to 200 pieces.
Featuring Exeter cathedral exterior by the artist Fred Taylor.

This is only the second jigsaw puzzle title to be sold by the GWR and is unique in that it also carries a map of the GWR network on the reverse, although no reference to this is made on the box. The box label is the first to state Manufactured by the Chad Valley Co., Ltd., Harborne, and Published by the Great Western Railway Co., Ltd. although it does not carry any other form of GWR branding.

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