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 1920's. 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 in the box labelling. They were all of a high quality, being made from 3-ply wood. The pieces are very varied in shape and size as the puzzles were cut out by hand four at a time. This also 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 index. 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

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 1920's.

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 1970's.

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 - part 1

As part of the memorabilia collection at the Old Ticket Office we have a large collection of original GWR jigsaws. Illustrated below are those puzzles currently in the collection, listed roughly in 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.

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

Caerphilly Castle

About 150 pieces (approx. 22 1⁄2"x8 1⁄2") in non-original 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 a 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 a non-interlocking design and finishing with what became the usual interlocking cut. 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 and lamp brackets. 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.

This example has non-interlocking pieces and detailed outline cut so probably dates from 1924. Whilst the original 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.

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 an early version of only the second puzzle to be sold by the GWR. This puzzle 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.

Caerphilly Castle

About 150 pieces (approx. 23 1⁄4"x8 1⁄2") in brown box with cream label, but with one piece missing and one broken.
Published from 1924 to 1928.
Featuring the engine 'Caerphilly Castle' number 4073, derived from a photograph.

This example has interlocking pieces and a much less detailed outline cut, so is probably the third (and last) version of this puzzle. Included in the box is an original (but undated) postcard with a picture of the locomotive with technical details on the front, and advertising for the first three ‘volumes for Boys of all ages’ over-printed on the reverse.

The 'St.Julien'

About 150 pieces (approx. 27 3⁄4"x10 3⁄4") in brown box with cream label, but with three pieces and a nib missing.
Published from 1926 to 1928. It is cut to the outline of the ship and masts, with a wavy bottom edge.
This unsigned image was possibly derived from a photograph.

The ship was built by John Brown & Co. on the Clyde in 1925 and was used as a pasenger ferry between Weymouth and the Channel Islands. She had two funnels, one of which was a dummy and this was removed in 1928. When war broke out in 1939 she was first put to use ferrying troops but was soon converted into a hospital ship. She took part in the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk and Cherbourg in 1940, spent a period operating in the Mediterranean, and supported the D Day landings. Returned to the GWR in 1946 she passed to British Railways on 1st January 1948 and was eventually scrapped in 1961.

Freight Train

About 150 pieces (approx. 22"x8 1⁄4") in brown box with cream label, but with three pieces missing and two broken.
Published from 1927 to 1930.
This puzzle has straight edges, but it is known to have been produced on occasion with wavy edges.
From a painting by the artist F.N.J.Moody.

The 2-8-0 engine number 2861 is shown hauling a freight train of over thirty wagons of different types. The train is passing a signal box, whilst in the far distance the end of the train can be seen still emerging from under a red bridge. The location is unknown and might be fictitious.


About 150 pieces (approx. 16"x12") in brown box with cream label.
Published from 1927 to 1930 this puzzle is the only one published which was not in full colour and only sold a few thousand copies.
Sepia pen and ink illustration of Oxford High Street by the artist Fred Taylor.


About 150 pieces (approx. 17"x11") in brown box with cream label listing other puzzles available, but with retailer's label applied on one side.
Published from 1927 to 1931. The outline of the ship is cut within the main puzzle.
By an unknown artist.

The GWR must have been proud of their new ship as this is the second puzzle to be produced featuring the St.Julien. Refer to the description of the first puzzle above for more background to the ship.

The Cornish Riviera Express

About 150 pieces (approx. 21"x9") in brown box with cream label listing other puzzles available.
Published from 1927 to 1936, this is the early version and has wavy edges. The puzzle was renamed and increased to about 200 pieces from 1934.
Featuring the engine 'Abbotsbury Castle' on its way to Penzance near Dawlish, it is by the artist James Thorpe.


About 150 pieces (approx. 20"x11") in brown box with cream label listing other puzzles available.
Published from 1928 to 1930. It is cut to the outline of the train and exhaust, with a wavy bottom edge.
Featuring the engine 'Caerphilly Castle' number 4073 by an unknown artist.

The Cathedral

About 150 pieces (approx. 16"x12") in brown box with black label.
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.

Whilst still being cut to about 150 pieces, this slightly later version of the puzzle is now packaged in the standard brown cardboard box rather than the rarer first more square shaped red box. The cut of the pieces is markedly different to that seen in the earlier version. This puzzle continues to carry a map of the GWR network on the reverse, still no reference to this is made on the box however.

Britain's Mightiest

About 150 pieces (approx. 14"x14") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1927 to 1930.
Painted by the Canadian artist Moy Thomas

The engine 'King George V' is shown carrying the bell presented during its visit to the United States in 1927 to participate in the centenary celebrations of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. This image was also used for a poster advertising New York to London, Fastest Route via Plymouth.
Moy Thomas also produced artwork for posters promoting visits to other countries such as Egypt and for Canadian National Railways.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

About 150 pieces (approx. 16 3⁄4"x11 1⁄2") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1928 to 1932.
From a painting by the artist Warwick Goble dated 1927.

A Cornish Fishing Village

About 150 pieces (approx. 12 1⁄2"x15") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1930 to 1933.
Painted by S.Clarke Hutton.

A Railway Station

About 150 pieces, with one replacement piece (approx. 19 1⁄4"x8 3⁄4") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1930 to 1933.
Attributed to W.P.Frith, R.A. on label and the painting is signed (very small on puzzle) W.P.Frith.

The full title on the coloured guide picture is A Railway Station (Paddington Station in 1862), but it was also published with a monochrome guide picture and the simpler title The Railway Station. It shows a very busy scene with a train which is preparing to depart having luggage loaded onto the carriage roofs before being covered. Soldiers in their red uniforms can be seen amid great bustle as passengers rush to board. The artist often included himself and members of his own family in his paintings and this one, which was painted in 1862 when Frith was 43, is no exception. Frith shows himself wearing a black hat and greatcoat with his hand on his son's shoulder. His wife, Isabella, is kissing their younger son who is carrying a cricket bat and is about to leave to start a new term at boarding school. Frith apparently led something of a double life with a mistress, Mary Alford, who was twenty years his junior. It is felt he must have included her in several of his paintings and it is thought by some that the young woman wearing a bonnet who can be seen above his right shoulder is Mary - she certainly seems to be keeping an eye on him.

This is actually a famous picture for a very different reason as it recalls an episode which took place on January 1st, 1845. On the extreme right a man can be seen being arrested as he is about to board the train. An arrest warrant is being served by one detective whilst another stands by, handcuffs at the ready. The reality was very different to that illustrated however. In short, a John Tawell had travelled from London to Slough and having poisoned his ex-mistress returned to London on the evening 7:42 train. He was followed after alighting from the train, and was arrested the next day in a coffee house, not at the station as enacted in the painting. The significance of the event lies in the fact that his description was telegraphed to Paddington from the station at Slough, enabling him to be identified on arrival. This case gripped the public's attention and was extensively covered in the press as this was the first instance of the electric telegraph being used for such a purpose. John Tawell was found guilty of murder and was executed in Aylesbury on the 28th March, becoming known as 'The Man Hanged by the Electric Telegraph'.

A whole website could be devoted to this large painting, its associations and how it first came to be painted. The identities of the models for the detectives, the identity of the gentleman clearly seen studying the broad gauge engine, the private life and work of the artist himself, the life story of John Tawell, the early telegraph apparatus used and the restrictions it placed on the message sent from Slough are all fascinating subjects for further reading.

Glorious Devon

About 150 pieces (approx. 15 1⁄2"x12 1⁄4") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1930 to 1933.
Image derived from a photograph.

Springtime in Devon - Fingle Bridge

About 150 pieces (approx. 17"x11") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1930 to 1933. This is the early small version with the puzzle later being increased to 200 pieces and renamed to simply 'Fingle Bridge'.
The painting by Edith A.Andrews shows a view up the River Teign towards Fingle Bridge on Dartmoor.

Warwick Castle

About 150 pieces (approx. 12 1⁄2"x16") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1930 to 1933. This is the early small version with the puzzle later being increased to 200 pieces.
From a painting by Warwick Goble.

This image is known to have been used for a poster which advertised Warwick Castle in Shakespeare's Country England and was headed Great Western Railway of England presumably being aimed at the transatlantic market.

The Torbay Express

375 pieces (approx. 27"x12 1⁄2") in blue box with blue label.
Published from 1930 to 1934. This is the early small version with the puzzle later being increased to 400 pieces.
From the painting by F.N.J.Moody, originally used for a poster.

Vikings Landing at St.Ives

375 pieces (approx. 21 3⁄4"x15 3⁄4") in blue box with blue label.
Published from 1930 to 1936. This is the early version with the puzzle being increased to 400 pieces from 1933.
Painted by the artist Percy F.S.Spence and dated March 1928.

Windsor Castle

About 150 pieces (approx. 11 1⁄4"x16 1⁄4") in brown box with black label.
Published from 1931 to 1934.
Painted by the artist Percy F.S.Spence.

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