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Remembering golden age of railways with cigarette cards

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 18, 2014

  • 1936 Wills cigarette card, LMS Silver Jubilee

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THESE cards from the 1930s combine two popular pastimes – cigarette card collecting and railway memorabilia. They have been kindly loaned to us by Sheila Cole of Darby End, Dudley, and originally belonged to her late husband John, having been given to him when young.

The album of railway engines was issued by tobacco company W.D. & H.O.Wills in 1936.

Cigarette cards first appeared in the 1870s when they were originally plain pieces of card used to stiffen the packaging around cigarettes. Companies in the USA began printing advertising on these cards and then collectible pictures of baseball players, boxers, actresses and other popular personalities.

British companies soon followed suit. In 1887 W.D. & H.O.Wills began issuing advertising cards with their cigarettes and in 1893 John Player and Sons issued one of the first collectible sets with Castles and Abbeys. Wills released their first collectible set, Ships and Sailors, in 1895.

In the first half of the 20th century a wide range of subjects was covered by cigarette cards and they remain highly sought after today. Paper shortages in the Second World War saw production cut back and after the war the popularity of collecting cards never recovered to its pre-war high.

The 1936 Wills railway series contained 50 cards and we have picked some of the more interesting examples. The "Big Four" British railways, LMS, LNER, GWR and Southern were all represented with three cards each but the majority of the cards are of foreign locomotives, from Ireland, France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Lithuania, USSR, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, India, Siam, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Brazil and Argentina.

For the young Black Country railway enthusiast there would have been little opportunity to see such railway engines for real but he may have spotted the LMS or GWR locos which ran on the lines through our region. For example, the LMS Silver Jubilee was then brand spanking new. The details on the card read: "The interest of this 4-6-0 three-cylinder passenger engine, completed in May, 1935, centres in the beautiful finish. The shiny black of the boiler, cab and tender sides is contrasted with the chromium plating adopted for wheels and motion work, steam pipe casings, etc. No. 5552 bears the name 'Silver Jubilee' in honour of His late Majesty King George V's Silver Jubilee. She was exhibited at Euston together with the former LNWR 4-4-0 engine 'Coronation' (built 1911) during the Silver Jubilee Week, May, 1935. On Nov. 6th, 1935, she worked the honeymoon special conveying the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester from St Pancras to Kettering."

This famous engine ended its days in the Black Country when it was scrapped by Cashmores in Great Bridge in 1964.

From the Great Western we have picked Windsor Castle and the streamlined Manorbier Castle. According to the card, Windsor Castle also had royal connections: "During a visit to the GWR Works at Swindon in 1924, His late Majesty King George V personally drove this engine and its train from the Works to Swindon Station; a brass plate commemorating the event has since been carried on the cab side. It was singularly appropriate that the same engine should be used to draw the Royal Funeral Train bearing the body of the late King from Paddington to Windsor on January 28th, 1936. The 'Castle' class of four-cylinder 4-6-0 express engines is world renowned for speed, being used on the famous 'Cheltenham Flyer' express."

Streamlined engines became the vogue in the mid 1930s but the GWR only half-heartedly experimented with them, as can be seen with this rather ugly version of Manorbier Castle. The LNER and LMS, which operated the two main lines connecting London with Scotland, were more enthusiastic proponents, as they competed to break records: "Great Britain's first fully-streamlined locomotive, a 4-6-2, was introduced by the LNER in 1935 for working the streamlined London-Newcastle express 'The Silver Jubilee', so named in honour of His late Majesty King George V's Silver Jubilee. The distance of 268.3 miles, with one stop at Darlington, is covered in 4 hours. On an experimental run on September 27th, 1935, 'Silver Link' twice reached a maximum speed of 112½mph."

To represent the Southern Railway we have chosen Lord Hawke, a passenger express engine that was used on the Golden Arrow luxury service from London to Dover. In 1940 Lord Hawke was derailed when a German bomb landed on the line in front of it and it was unable to stop in time.

The majority of the cards in the album are from railways around the world. Among the more interesting is Ireland's Great Southern Railway Drumm Battery train. These electric trains, powered by rechargeable batteries, ran from Dublin to Bray from 1932 until 1949 at a time when the so-called "economic war" between Ireland and Britain (1932-38) saw limited British coal imported into Ireland.

Dwarfing British trains is this monster 4-14-4 heavy freight loco from the Soviet Union. At 110' 9" long, including tender, and weighing 327½ tons it hauled very heavy coal trains in the Donetz region.

From Africa we have an articulated Garratt locomotive, Emir of Katsina, built by Beyer, Peacock and Co. of Manchester and shipped to Nigeria. It pulled passenger service over the 700 miles between Lagos and Kano and agricultural exports between Jebba and Minna.

Our last cigarette card shows a streamlined locomotive from the USA. The New York Central Railroad's Commodore Vanderbilt hauled express services between New York and Chicago at speeds of 70-90mph.

Sheila's cards are a double reminder of a lost age. The decline in smoking habits, and restrictions on advertising has seen "tobacco culture" all but disappear from our daily lives and the once great steam locomotives are now found only at museums or heritage railways.

Have you an interesting collection to share with Bugle readers? Contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

Gordon Hensman is taking a break from his Weatherview but will return to our pages.

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