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By Faris Al-Ali on

Uncovering the secrets of WHSmith’s railway bookstalls

Faris Al-Ali unveils the story of an extraordinary railway bookstall that will feature in our redeveloped Station Hall.

In March 2022, Lawrence Jones and I were invited as volunteer researchers to explore the WHSmith Business Archive at the University of Reading’s Special Collections. We were asked to find out anything we could to inform the conservation and interpretation of the Waterloo Loop railway bookstall. This resulted in a four-month-long collaborative project that unearthed the fascinating world of a WHSmith railway bookstall, its intriguing employees and the discovery of a special anniversary.

Browsing the WHSmith Business Archive
Faris Al-Ali (left) and Lawrence Jones (right) browsing the WHSmith Business Archive. Photograph taken at the Reading University Special Collection’s Reading Room

When we began the project, we knew very little about the bookstall. It had originally been installed at London Waterloo Station between platforms 17 and 18. It was in operation for nearly 60 years until 1978 when the bookstall was given to the National Railway Museum. We quickly learned, with the very little information we had, that it would be no easy task to uncover everything that the archive had to hold.

The WHSmith Business Archive is a mammoth of a resource. This large collection spans over two centuries’ worth of corporate history. Our first session in the reading room was therefore an opportunity to explore the archive and identify crucial information and sources that would benefit the project. This was important in the early stages of the project because it would allow us to explore more in-depth questions later on.

This began with asking some important questions:

  • What did the bookstall look like?
  • Did the bookstall have a name?
  • What year did the bookstall open?

On the right track

There were several WHSmith bookstalls operating throughout the 20th century. At least three were in operation when our bookstall closed in 1978—Waterloo South, Waterloo Loop, and Main. Secondary research led me into the history of Waterloo Station’s building and extension development. This turned out to be a valuable venture, as the station’s history had an impact on the bookstall’s naming conventions.

I quickly learned that London Waterloo had a history of being a chaotic and confusing place. Between 1848–1900, Waterloo had, in an ad hoc manner, incorporated so many extensions that it eventually became troublesome for passengers to navigate. Signs on platforms, as well as maps of the station at the time, indicate platforms 1–10. Yet the station had a total of 18 platforms at this point in history.

Plan for Waterloo Station (1888)
Plan for Waterloo Station (1888). Platform 17 and 18 would eventually be located at the North Station, where the Windsor and Loop Lines stood

The station’s reputation would eventually be immortalised in Jerome K. Jerome’s comic novel Three Men in a Boat, where haphazardly placed signage led to constant delays and missed connections. In 1922, Waterloo Station reopened to the public after a nearly 22-year period of redevelopment in order to correct its confusing layout.

During my research, I had discovered areas of the station listed varying names for the platform areas. The oldest area of the station became known as Waterloo Main, the south extensions became known as South station, and the North station would occasionally be known as the Windsor and Loop lines.

While we had some suspicions, it wasn’t until we compared pre-development and post-development maps did we realise the Windsor and Loop Lines were exactly where platforms 17 and 18 would be. This suggested that our bookstall was the Waterloo Loop bookstall that kept showing up in branch lists during our reading room sessions. This small piece of the puzzle would eventually bring us closer to revealing more behind the bookstall’s mysterious past.

Extra! Extra!

During the 20th century, the bookstall was an iconic staple of railway life—with WHSmith being one of the major news distributers in railway terminals. Luckily, the archive held a large collection of in-house periodicals and bound volumes. This gave us an array of knowledge of what life was like at the Waterloo Loop Bookstall.

My colleague Lawrence Jones had focused on The Newsbasket, a monthly staff newsletter, while I concentrated on The Newsboy and Newsgirl, the junior staff magazine. Both magazines led us to discover some fascinating tales behind the life of the managers and so-called newsboys who had worked at the Waterloo Loop Bookstall—including the first manager of the bookstall, Mr Olney.

One day, Lawrence Jones had found a Newsbasket article of particular interest. This would soon unravel an important era in the Waterloo Loop bookstall’s history. An article described how Mr Olney would soon be gaining a newly refurbished bookstall installed at Waterloo Loop. The article described how the previous bookstall was demolished to make way for a newer design in the exact same style as the Waterloo Main bookstall—including an image of what the bookstall would have looked like in its early days.

During our weekly catchups with our supervisor Chloe Shields, we realised an important detail about the article Lawrence Jones had found. While examining the photograph of the bookstall, we noticed the date of the article was May 1922. We stopped silent in our tracks before bursting into the realisation that the bookstall would be turning 100 years old this year.

‘A Happy Bookstall Manager’ Article
‘A Happy Bookstall Manager’ Article appeared in May 1922 Issue of The Newsbasket: The Monthly Journal of the Staff of W.H.Smith & Son Ltd

The excitement of this discovery was only possible through our collaborative effort as researchers. By figuring out the name of the bookstall, and the date the bookstall was in operation, were we able to then trace a collection of photographs and stories of the Waterloo Loop Bookstall and the lives of the employee who served it. Suddenly, we were on track to unveiling the legacy of what is believed to be one of the longest standing bookstalls in a London terminus.

Waterloo Loop Bookstall in 1939
Waterloo Loop Bookstall in 1939. From The Newsbasket: The Monthly Journal of the staff of W.H. Smith & Son Ltd

For over 56 years, the Waterloo Loop Bookstall stood in one of London’s most prominent railway stations. Having withstood some of the most significant events of the 20th century, it deserves to be celebrated as an artefact of British railway history. The research we conducted as team would eventually help bring this history to life.

Railway enthusiasts and booklovers alike will be able to uncover more secrets of the Waterloo Loop Bookstall when it opens its shutters following the redevelopment of Station Hall.

You can find out more about the Station Hall redevelopment project on our website.

4 comments on “Uncovering the secrets of WHSmith’s railway bookstalls

  1. Excellent article, very interesting and informative. Well done Faris and congratulations to WHSmith on their 100th anniversary.

  2. I presume you have visited their superb museum where you can actually walk around one of their original shops?

  3. Is there anywhere, I wonder, a photo of the W H Smith bookstall on Chinley Station? I knew someone whose mother worked on it. It certainly did not exist by the 1950s, as far as I remember.

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