Great Western Railway jigsaws

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

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 jigsaw puzzle titles were issued before ceasing in 1939. The puzzles varied in the number of pieces from 'about 150' and 'about 200' which sold for 2 shillings and 6 pence (2/6 or Half a Crown) each. A few larger puzzles were also published having either 375 (these boxes didn't say 'about') or 'about 400' pieces at 5 shillings (5/-). Just one jigsaw was ever produced with 'about 300' pieces (King George V) which sold for 3/6. 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.

In about 1927 they also published three versions of what they called a 'Puzzle Train'Click or tap to see an advert for these puzzles, which was made for them by Chad Valley. That series consisted an engine (King George V), a composite coach, and a combined (although smaller) set of both engine and coach. They were made up of a number of pieces ½inch thick which locked together and were fitted with wheels so they could be pulled along.

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 jigsawClick or tap to scroll through a gallery of images
Great Western Railway Magazine, September 1931
Jigsaw packing slip

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. 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. The September 1931 edition of the Great Western Railway Magazine carried a four page illustrated article detailing a visit to the Chad Valley factory in Harborne. See some more photographs from the article by clicking or tapping on the thumbnail image.

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 these booklets in our collection dating from 1928 to 1938. This promotional material provides a useful reference, although sometimes being undated it can also serve to confuse.

Ever mindful of a sales opportunity, with the exception of the earliest editions, each of these 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 order form is now addressed to The Sationery Superintendant, G.W.R., 159 Westbourne Terrace, London, W.2, later changing to number 167. This art deco style buildingClick or tap to see this building
when newly completed
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 following 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 ¼ 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. Sometimes advertisements were published with not only subtly changing titles but on at least one occasion quoting the wrong number of pieces, and dates quoted in reference sources have been found to be contradictory on occasion. We have therefore developed our own table showing the various dates of publicationClick or tap to see the date table
(pdf document format)
and source references which is based on materials held in our collection and is updated whenever new information comes to light.

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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 with the very first to be produced being featuring on this page.
Navigate through the pages using the menu bar and then click or tap on any jigsaw thumbnail to see a larger image.

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The earliest jigsaw puzzles

Caerphilly Castle - version 1

About 150 pieces (approx. 22½" x 8½") 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 publishedClick or tap to reveal our hidden page about the launch of this puzzle by the GWR. The cut of the jigsaw 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 quickly made to sell it at near cost 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. 23½" x 8½") 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" x 12") in rare early more square red box with full size white label and large printed sepia guide picture.
Published from 1925 to 1935.
Featuring Exeter cathedral exterior by the artist Fred Taylor. This rather dark painting was used on a poster not advertising the Cathedral, but rather the impressive book Cathedrals which was first published in 1924 priced 2/6 and then in hard back form at 5/-. It is this later version that is being promoted on the poster which was printed by John Waddington Ltd. of Leeds and London.

This is the early small version, the puzzle was increased to about 200 pieces in 1934.

It 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.

Most reference sources quote this puzzle as being produced from 1926. The January 1926 edition of the Great Western Railway Magazine makes a passing reference to there being two jigsaws on sale. 'The painting book has been a success, and the two jig-saw puzzles have proved "best sellers", no fewer than 50,000 copies of the "Caerphilly Castle" engine jig-saw having been sold.' The December 1925 edition carries an advert for just the Caerphilly Castle puzzle, but an article within the magazine itself, titled 'Seasonable Gifts', confirms the identity of the second puzzle. Under the heading of Jig Saws it states that 'The Great Western Railway has proved that jig-saw puzzles are as popular as ever by the success which has attended the sales of the "Caerphilly Castle" and "Catherdals"[sic] puzzles. These are just the thing for the Christmas tree.'

Caerphilly Castle - version 3a

About 150 pieces (approx. 23¾" x 8½") in brown box with cream label.
Published from 1924 to 1928.
Featuring the engine 'Caerphilly Castle' number 4073, derived from a photograph.

This is an interesting version of the puzzle as it has a more fluid interlocking cut and a much simplified outline at the front of the locomotive and to the rear of the tender. The puzzle appears to have been first cut into a series of vertical interlocking strips, and then almost all of these strips have been simply divided into pieces with slightly wavy horizontal cuts with little effort given to making them interlock. Quite a number of pieces look to have broken free from the strip before the cut was completed. This cut may have simply been the result of an experiment or a novice cutter learning the craft. Whatever the reason, it is different to the other examples in our collection and so warrants inclusion. The puzzle is contained in, what from now on will be, the standard brown box.