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Heath Robinson’s weird, wonderful machines

Last week, we looked at William Leefe Robinson – wartime hero of Stanmore and for a time, a symbol of hope for the nation – but there was another Robison – indeed, another William Robinson – in Harrow during the war which you may have heard of too.

His name was William Heath Robinson – a satirist and cartoonist during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in 1872 in North London, Robinson started his career in illustration on children’s books. His work on The Adventures of Uncle Lubin in 1902 is considered the start of his focus on the overly complex machines for simple, everyday tasks that would come to define his career.

Becoming known as ‘the Gadget King,’ these machines included the Wart Chair, the Professor’s invention for peeling potatoes, a ridiculous contraption to split the atom, and, amusingly, the ‘Multi-Movement Tabby Silencer’ – a machine designed to throw water if any cat were to start meowing near it (speaking from personal experience, that one I rather wish had left the page).


These mad designs would become so well-known that his name entered common English language during the First World War as a descriptor for anything unnecessarily complicated, and indeed, during the Second World War too – with one of the complex automatic analysis machines at Bletchley Park coming to bear Robinson’s name at the time of his twilight years.

His work bringing him great success, Robinson eventually found love too with Josephine Latey – and in 1908, this love brought them to Pinner, where they would raise their two children. It was not long after that the First World War broke out, and, with it, Robinson’s work took a turn for the political as he began to draw ever-unlikelier secret weapons that were being employed in the war.

Some examples include the ‘netting tanks’ – tanks armed with nets instead of cannons to catch falling enemy parachutists – as well as a network of underground pulleys that would spin road signs to send the enemy in the wrong direction. His work at the time also made light of the possibility of invasion, with one cartoon depicting raised platforms at the coast on which people would stand so as to deceive the invaders into believing the tide was shallower than it really was.

Described as ‘British humour at its best’ by the National Heritage Memorial Fund’s chief executive last year, these cartoons must have shone some much needed light and levity at a time of increasing darkness – not too unlike Leefe Robinson’s role in the war, in some ways. But Robert Endeacott, a fan of Robinson who developed a screenplay based on his life, has argued that these wartime works had even greater importance as a stand against the war – with Robinson having mocked the German war machinery.

In 1918, Robinson and his family swapped Pinner for the Surrey countryside, where he stayed until his death in 1944 – but his time in Pinner has been remembered fondly by its people. His house, on Moss Lane, is commemorated by a blue plaque which can still be visited today, whilst his work was recently acquired by the William Heath Robinson Trust – whose forthcoming gallery at West House in Pinner Memorial Park will be home to over five hundred of Robinson’s works.

As one of Britain’s most famous cartoonists, with a unique style that has endured the centuries, and with some of his most powerful work having been drawn up whilst in living in Pinner, Heath Robinson is as much worth remembering as Leefe is – and with a gallery dedicated to his work on the way, there may soon be a way for you to see some of his famous works for yourself.


Written Harry Turner.

Image Credit: Pinner Local History

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