Book review: ‘Railways - A history in drawings’ by Christopher Valkoinen
Image credit: Thames & Hudson
Not many engineers expect their working drawings to be of any interest to future generations, but life is full of surprises. It’s well known that the development of railways played a huge part in Britain’s social and economic development over the last 200 years; this book provides new insights into that development through a selection of the engineering drawings held at the National Railway Museum in York.
Author Christopher Valkoinen, who works in the museum’s library and archives, has chosen over 130 drawings from the collection, along with a similar number of photographs, for ‘Railways: A History in Drawings’ (Thames & Hudson, £50, published August 26 2021), and provides a fascinating commentary explaining their significance.
It's not a book to read from cover to cover, but dipping in at random throws up all kinds of interesting snippets of technical and social history and is rewarding enough to make you want to return again and again and to share your new discoveries with your family and friends.
However, if you want to be more systematic, the material is organised by theme, beginning with the timeline of ‘Two centuries of locomotion’, from the horse dandy to the British Rail High Speed Train. Other sections cover passengers, freight, railway workers, ‘the railway workshop of the world’, railways at war and the infrastructure of track and stations, while a useful index will guide you to anything specific.
Plenty of credit is given to the people who made these drawings, along with a discussion on how the arrival of the steam engine contributed to the new skill of engineering drawing. Much to my surprise, a photograph of the Horwich works drawing office in 1917 reveals that around half the workers were female. Women were widely employed as tracers, copying the draughtsman’s original work onto a translucent medium which would become the master copy from which multiple blueprints could be made by a kind of photographic process. These master copies form the bulk of the National Railway Museum’s drawing collections.
In the book’s introduction, NRM director Judith McNicol notes the technical and artistic ability required to produce works that were not only accurate but meaningful. “The skilful presentation of information using precise line-making and careful placement of annotations, elegant shading and imaginative use of colour calls to mind modern trends of data visualisation and information graphics,” she points out.
There’s a lot in this book, but I’ll note a couple of highlights that stood out for me. One 19th-century drawing, labelled ‘The General Arrangement of the Royal Train’, features decorative roundels and borders and elaborate calligraphy, far more than would have been necessary for engineers, which makes me think this sheet must have been intended for royal eyes. The following spread, though, has contemporary and modern photographs of Queen Victoria’s LNWR royal saloon alongside a more functional drawing with someone’s rough sketches and notes in the margin, indicating that this was strictly a working document.
A far cry from Queen Victoria, both socially and geographically, is the section on ‘Central African Railway native coaches’. Even the description makes a modern reader cringe, but it’s a stark reminder of colonial attitudes that are still just about within living memory. Designed in 1928 by Metropolitan-Cammell for use in what is now Malawi, this vehicle has basic wooden benches, slatted windows and open-hole squat toilets - and at full capacity provided just 0.25m2 of space per person. Needless to say, the European settlers travelled in rather more comfort.
There’s more to this book than trains, though. For example, two successive spreads feature first the engineering drawings for a sophisticated artificial leg, to be manufactured at the Crewe locomotive works for issue to injured employees, and on the following page the architectural sketches for a church in Crewe, paid for by LNWR to serve the local community of railway workers.
Of necessity, a book with such detailed illustrations has to be in a large format and it even includes a gatefold page to give extra width for the drawings of Nigel Gresley’s A1 class express passenger engine. At over 300 pages, it’s also thick and therefore heavy. My review copy was delivered to my house, but if you’re planning to pick it up from your local bookshop, make sure it’s the last item on your shopping trip – you won’t want to lug it around all day.
On the subject of weight, I was disappointed to note that the book is printed in China; transporting it back to Britain must have added a lot to its carbon footprint. I can only assume that printing such a beautifully produced volume closer to its market would be uneconomic. Even so, the £50 price tag means it’s not likely to be an impulse buy for most people, but it would make a good gift for a special occasion. It might also be an excellent item for a railway business to keep in its reception area for the edification of visitors.
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