A Brief History

Totem station signs were brought in by the newly nationalized British Railways in 1948. The plan was to use the totem as the BR logo on all equipment and to give each station signs in a regional colour.

To start with the signs were flanged but the edges were prone to rusting and the wings were ideal for vandals to fold in. Later fully flanged totems were introduced and the flanged were dropped.
                                                          Click here to view our Rarity Guide.

This example of an unrestored half flanged totem shows you the sort of rusting you will see on a totem that has been out in the weather for a number of years
On a fully flanged totem you can see that the flange extends right round the edges and so gives it much greater strength making it much more difficult to crease.

Some stations had a mixture of and fully flanged, some had all of one type and some were never given totems. There was an element of randomness as to whether a Station got totems or not and if you want to check whether one you are interested in had totems and get some idea of its rarity then take a look at our totem rarity guide.

A plan was made at one time to make all stations uniform with black totems and a few were made and tested at BR(W) stations, but this idea was dropped with the advent of the new corporate image. Gradually all the totems were replaced with many finding their way to Collectors Corner at Euston station and others going to the scrap man. Many were rescued by someone simply being in the right place at the right time.

All totems are now highly collectable with most Railwayana collectors having at least  one in their collection - with many collectors opting for  one of each colour. - Hundreds of totems go through auction each year and so it is quite easy to start a collection. There were six regional colours and also the experimental  Western Region black ones.


There were many other variations and a number of different Totem types are shown below starting from the very first examples that started to emerge shortly after nationalisation in 1948.

The earliest BR(W) Totem sign was in this format which was a flanged rectangular sign with wooden ends. They were used at just two stations - this in Devon & Helston in Cornwall The Western region also had three stations with non flanged Totem signs that had a greater curvature on the top and lower panels - these were also found at Little Kimble & Radstock West.

A few stations on the Southern Region had totems with dark green enamel and black edges with no internal lining. (Wraysbury also had conventional white edged totems.) Exeter Central Station had 4 foot totems with wide flanges that were mounted in pairs back to back above the timetable boards. Three pairs to the station - these also had no internal lining.

Wooden Totems were used at six Southern Stations - in Axminster's case there were no conventional enamel Totem signs on the Station. A substantial Western Region Totem Direction Sign being 5 feet long and almost certainly from somewhere in Devon.

Totems from Pontefract Station on the North Eastern Region had the edges and back finished in tangerine enamel. Later totems on the North Eastern region had black edges to the lettering which was presumably to make them easier to read under station lighting at night.

The Midland Region had more 4ft long totems than any other area. These never look right in proportion and that is probably why 36" long remained the norm. Wembley Stadium Station was given totems but quite late on so rather than make new enamel ones redundant totems from Watford Junction were over painted to impress the visitors!

Some Totems were mounted Back to back hanging from the Platform Roof.

Another pair from Bristol. Only four Totems survived when the Station was cleared of BR enamels


The largest Totem in the World! - 8 feet long and quite likely to be from the station frontage at St Pancras Station.              

Totems were added at the end of station Facia boards as at Farnham Station. These could have a name included inside the totem as below or just white enamel.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie - but not in the Sleeping Car!

SR influence in BR Station Direction enamel

BR(S) pattern of similar sign

The totem was the Corporate image for the new British Railways and so appeared on many enamels during the 1950's/1960's. A few more examples are shown below.

BR(NE) small Totem Posterboard Header BR(M) small Totem Posterboard Header
BR(E) Totem Cap Badge BR(S) Totem Cap Badge

Totems can turn up in the most unlikely places. I don't think that this one was on the Carriage shed of the Bideford -Westward Ho & Appledore Railway located in Bideford when it opened! At least it is still standing - it and the Loco shed were both listed but somehow the Loco Shed was knocked down by the next door garage owner!

Paper advertising also had the totem logo with the most viewed being Railway Posters.

We have made a list of all the Stations that appear to have had totems and and give an approximate price guide as to how much you might have to pay to purchase any particular totem. Click here to view our Rarity Guide.

Back to top of page