Jack Birns photographs the Simplon Orient Express in 1950 — part I: England

The Gateway to the Continent

In 1950 the American photographer Jack Birns traveled the Simplon Orient Express from London to Istanbul for LIFE magazine.

LIFE published an article with 30 photos, but Birns made ​​almost 2000. That photo series gives a unique view of the legendary train during the Cold War. In upcoming issues, retours will be traveling after Jack Birns.

The journey started in London, Victoria Station as the gateway to the continent. However, passengers had to get off the train again soon; the trip really began on the other side of the Channel.

by Arjan den Boer

Map from brochure for the  Simplon Orient Express, c. 1932 | Collection Arjan den Boer

Simplon Orient Express

Since 1883, the famous Orient Express had linked Western Europe through Eastern Europe with Constantinople.

After World War I, the Allies created a new route south of the Alps in order to avoid pro-German territory. This was made possible by the Simplon tunnel between Switzerland and Italy.

In the 20s and 30s, this new Simplon Orient Express became the most luxurious means of transport to the Middle East for diplomats, artists, writers and wealthy tourists.

After the Second World War the former grandeur was not restored. Carriages had been devastated, the Iron Curtain hindered the passage and the wealthy preferred the airplane.

Jack Birns, photographer

Jack Birns (1919–2008) was a son of Russian immigrants from Cleveland. After studying literature and journalism he became a photographer for LIFE Magazine.

In 1947-1949 he covered the Chinese Civil War, with special attention to everyday life in Shanghai. Birns was then one of LIFE's leading photojournalists and received several awards.

In 1954 he retired as a journalist and started a successful business in underwater housings and lighting for marine applications.

Jack Birns with camera, somewhere in Yugoslavia | Photo: Roy Rowan, 1950
Victoria Station, western hall | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Victoria Station

Since 1860 Victoria Station actually consists of two stations. The Western side was built for trains to Sussex and Surrey. The East side was for the lines to Kent and the European continent across the Channel — originally from the London, Chatham and Dover Railway. The present buildings date from around 1910.

Nowadays the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel runs from London St Pancras.
Victoria Station has lost its function as gateway to the continent. It remains one of the busiest commuter stations.

Panorama Victoria Station

British Railways

The various 19th century railway companies south of London were merged into Southern Railway in 1923.

In 1947, all railways were nationalised as British Railways. That process was ongoing during the travel of Jack Birns; the Southern Region still enjoyed a large autonomy.

Nowadays, the British railways have been split up and privatised again.

Travel companion Roy Rowan at International Departures | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950


In 1950 several 'international' trains departed from London Victoria that had connecting ferries across the Channel.

  • The Night Ferry departed at night with sleeping cars that were driven on and off the boat, so that passengers could continue to sleep.
  • In the morning, the luxurious Golden Arrow left Victoria Station for Dover.
  • In the afternoon, the London-Paris Express connected to the ferry from Folkestone to Calais, and thus to the Simplon Orient Express. This connection was used by Jack Birns.

Victoria Station, 2011 | Photo: Arjan den Boer
Advertisement for Golden Arrow, 1946 | Designer: Charles Shepherd

Golden Arrow

Almost as famous as the Orient Express was the Golden Arrow, the luxury boat train from London to Paris. It had been running between Paris and Calais from 1926 as Flèche d'Or.

The train entirely consisted of first-class Pullman cars: richly furnished salons on wheels, created by the British Pullman Car Company.

Later on, the all-Pullman connection between Dover and London also got named Golden Arrow. Remarkable for that period was the striking branding on locomotives, carriages and stations.

In 1972 this legendary train came to an end.

The Southern Region Film Unit of British Railways created a colour film about the Golden Arrow in 1949.

Golden Arrow


On Birns' photos, we can see regular first and second class carriages, but also a Pullman car named Monaco.

While Pullman's on the continent were numbered, the British coaches had names of people, places or from mythology.

They were coloured brown and cream, while the main colour on the mainland was dark blue.

Monaco was a parlour car with sixteen spacious seats and a kitchen, built in 1921. It was converted into a Camping Coach in 1960.

Platform 8 with Pullman car Monaco | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

There is no regular international train traffic anymore from Victoria Station. However, the British branch of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) now departs from here. This expensive 'cruise train' consists of restored carriages from the 1920s-1940s.

Just like then, passengers travel to Folkestone in brown and cream British Pullmans and from Calais in blue continental cars.
The terminus is Venice, though the VSOE still runs to Istanbul once a year.

Venice-Simplon Orient Express at Victoria Station, 2011 | Photo: Arjan den Boer
Passport control at Folkestone Harbour | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950


Terminus of the British section was Folkestone Harbour station. After a passport control, passengers embarked on the ferry to Calais.

In addition to Dover, Folkestone became a major port for passenger transport to the continent in the mid-19th century.

The station is located at the end of a typical viaduct over the inner harbour and at the beginning of the dock where the ships departed.

Folkestone Harbour station, 2011 | Photo: Diamond Geezer, Flickr/CC-BY-NC

A few years after the opening of the Channel Tunnel, Folkestone Harbour was closed. The station now lies abandoned.

Nowadays, elsewhere from Folkestone Le Shuttle departs, the car shuttle train trough the Eurotunnel.

SS Canterbury

The ship that carried Jack Birns and his fellow passengers from Folkestone to Calais was called the SS Canterbury. The crossing took about an hour and a half.

The ship was built in 1928 for the Southern Railway to carry passengers of the Golden Arrow from Dover to Calais.

Originally it only had first-class suites and a restaurant. A second class was added during the Great Depression.

In the Second World War the SS Canterbury was used as troop ship.

On board of the SS Canterbury | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Poster The Continent via Folkestone-Calais, 1948 | Designer: Walter Thomas

After the war the SS Canterbury ran mainly from Folkestone, first to Calais and later to Boulogne.

In 1965 the ship was scrapped in Antwerp.

On board of the SS Canterbury | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Eight countries

The crossing to Calais was not the first journey Jack Birns had made to the European mainland.
As a photojournalist he had mainly worked in the Far East, but in early 1950 he was stationed in Rome. Perhaps he had flown to London from there.

Britain was the first of eight countries Birns would traverse while traveling the Simplon Orient Express.

Jack Birns photographs the Simplon Orient Express in 1950



[Rowan, Roy (correspondent) and Birns, Jack (photographer)] LIFE rides the Simplon-Orient Express. Europe’s most famous train has lost its luxery but kept its air of intrigue. LIFE september 11, 1950 p. 137.

Behrend, George Pullman in Europe. London 1962.

Behrend, George Luxury Trains. From the Orient Express to the TGV. New York 1982.

Searle, Muriel V. Down the line to Dover. A pictorial history of Kent’s boat train line. London 1988.

Sherwood, Shirley Venice Simplon Orient Express. The return of the world’s most celebrated train. London 1985.

Online sources

LIFE photo archive hosted by Google

Website Dover - The Canterbury