Railway Ribaldry

This week has seen some further additions to the NRM’s image collections in the form of five pen and ink drawings by William Heath Robinson (1872 – 1944) – which the museum has purchased at auction.

The drawings came from a collection of original artwork for the book Railway Ribaldry which was published in 1935. The book was commissioned by The Great Western Railway as part of their centenary celebrations that year and sold well at one shilling a copy. The book took a humorous view of various aspects of the railway’s history and incorporated the mad-cap contraptions for which Heath Robinson made his name.

Heath Robinson was well known for his satirical take on the age of machinery. Although he was largely a book illustrator, he became known for his series of wierd and wonderful inventions which featured weekly in The Sketch (an offshoot of The Illustrated London News). He depicted crazy and complex devices cobbled together with string and fulfilling (or not) a variety of simple and usually unnecessary ends.

His drawings also featured comedic characters operating his machinery or taking part in the action. By 1912 he was so well known for these unlikely inventions that the term ‘Heath Robinson contraption’ entered official dictionary use.

In one of the images Heath Robinson shows passengers finding ingenious ways to keep their feet warm during their journey before the use of foot warmers (metal containers filled with either boiling water or acetate of soda were used from the 1850s until around 1914).

The drawings acquired by NRM are entitled “An interesting method of overcoming the cold feet difficulty before the introduction of foot warmers”, “The first sleeping compartment”, “Last post for the Country – An early attempt at picking up mail without stopping”, “One of the many suggestions for doing without tunnels” and “When coal was cheap”.

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