Railway Ribaldry

If you have an older relative who loves either trains or old-fashioned cartoon art, then I have the perfect gift for you to give them.

Railway Ribaldry was originally published in 1935 to mark the centenary of the (English) Great Western Railway. Now its 96 pages have been reprinted, which should delight those who enjoy pen-and-ink portraits of another way of life.

Most of us will have no idea what the subjects refer to, since few of us take trains any more, but that’s part of the quaint fun. And even if you are a train fan, few will know how things used to be done. (Narrow-gauge engines? Open carriages?) Regardless of whether I understand the details of the gag, the drawings are lovely, with plenty of detail to pore over. They’re full of people, as manual labor was much more common then. And, of course, human nature hasn’t changed, with people picking complicated ways to do things, and them liking to dress up and commemorate first trains.

I don’t know what, specifically, the railway police were about, but I liked the drawing that said they were responsible for “picking up the bits that drop off now and again”. Such British phrasing! Among travelers, smoking was apparently a concern, as was the problem of cold feet. Several cartoons exaggerate how you’d train staff, of which there were varied types, while others tackled getting from and to the train.

Artist William Heath Robinson has a Rube Goldberg-ian love of contraptions. They’re working on getting him a museum in London for that reason, or you can view some of his non-train art online. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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