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By Cheryl Knight on

Gentlemen prefer trains

Journey back in time to discover how railway companies tried to compete with road travel in the early 20th century.

Hi everyone – I’m Cheryl, an Interpretation Developer here working on The East Coast Time Line, the museum’s first ever iPhone app.

A little while ago I promised to bring you some sneak peeks into some of the themes that we’re covering in the app before we launch it in September. A good place to start is with the intense competition between the railways and road transport.

The period after the First World War saw a huge increase in car ownership and road building. By the 1920s, competition from cars and motorcoaches was making life uncomfortable for the ‘Big Four’ railway companies.

One of the many ways in which the railways responded to this competition was by focusing on a key customer – the middle class gentleman, as likely to be tempted in to a car purchase as he was to spend his money on a rail ticket.

If such a man could be persuaded that the train was a more civilised choice than the private motorcar and more appropriate for a gentleman, he may well decide to travel by rail more often.

The cartoons in railway magazines give us an entertaining insight in to how the  railways painted motoring as less civilized than taking the train. This 1935 example from London, Midland & Scottish Railway magazine shows an upper crust male arriving in a less than pristine state at his destination:


The clean, tidy and relaxed ‘Girl’, we are led to assume, came by rail!

These cartoons often played on motorist’s feelings of inadequacy when compared to the power of the train. In another LMS cartoon from 1935 a bespectacled ‘Speed Fiend’ is shown trying, and failing, to keep up with the effortless speed of the express train, much to the frustration of his wife:


It is no accident that ladies are present in these images – women were often shown as the ‘victims’ of reckless motoring. They were depicted as valuing safety, and by extension, men that chose the train over the car.

The message to send was that the train was the only choice for the debonair, sophisticated man. Southern Railway’s publication ‘Over the Points’, sent to First Class ticket purchasers underlined this with stylish illustrations by Victor Reinganum, like this one from 1939:


I’ll let EP Leigh-Bennett, debonair if somewhat self-satisfied correspondent for ‘Over the Points’ have the final word. Imagining a fantasy trip to the seaside, he compared his relaxed journey by rail with that of his motor maniac friend:

I visualized him dropping me from his supercharged Somethingorother on a Saturday summer noon at Victoria Station and getting thence to Brighton at his best pace. And of my tranquil progress to the same house in Brighton by the route I infinitely preferred. And of how much lunch would be left for him by the time he reached our mutual destination!

The message was clear – gentlemen prefer trains!

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