Poetry in Motion: Verses and Odes from the archives

This post is written by our archive volunteers Jack Garside and Tania Parker

Whilst sorting through the National Railway Museum’s archive collections we came across this poem written about an unusual topic;  the start of construction on the Dee Bridge, near Connah’s Quay in Flintshire, on 16th August 1887.

It was written and also recited by the poet R.D. Roberts at a celebratory meal. The meal was attended by the leader of the opposition, William Ewart Gladstone, whose country house, New Hawarden Castle was located near the bridge. As well as commending the many benefits that the Dee Bridge would bring in terms of acting as a conduit for commerce and bringing together the nations of England and Wales, the poem also acclaims Edward Watkin, the chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and  Lincolnshire Railway.

This poem got us thinking about the many poems that have been inspired by the railways in our collection.

This poem was part of a large volume that recorded the event

This poem was part of a large volume that recorded the event

Another extraordinary railway poem that is held in our collections is the Railway to Heaven, written by an unknown author, possibly a clergyman. It forms a curious appendix to a diminutive Bible which contains select illustrated books from the Old Testament.

In this poem – probably from the nineteenth century – the author urges the reader to forsake the worldly obsession with railways and the financial speculation that reached its peak during the Railway Mania of the 1840s. The construction of a railway and a rail journey is used to demonstrate Christian teachings and beliefs.

NRM Ref: 1998-11356.

This Bible is not much bigger than a ten pence piece!

NRM reference: 1998-11356

Miniature book, “The Illustrated Bible; also verses entitled Railway to Heaven”. London: Goode Bros., Ltd, Clerkenwell Green E.C.

Whilst some people may argue that modern railways lack the romance and lyricism of times gone by, railway poetry remains alive today.  The renowned poet Ian McMillan wrote Love Me Tender for the Trainspotting Season that was held recently at the National Railway Museum.

In this poem Ian McMillan transforms trainspotting, often unfairly derided as a tedious hobby, from the prosaic to the poetic. It celebrates the sense of kinship and camaraderie that arises from taking part in a shared passion. It also draws out the more democratic and personal experiences of working on the railways and trainspotting.

These poems are reflective of the different ages of railway history and demonstrate the varying ways that people engage with railways. The Dee Bridge Ode and Railway to Heaven poems, both probably written in nineteenth century, lionise great railway magnates such as Edward Watkin and explore the commercial, political and moral significance of railways.

From commemorating great feats of civil engineering and religious journeys to evoking busy freight yards and modern platforms, poetry has been used to capture the many different facets of railways and to speak to a wide range of audiences. There are many more examples of poetry in our library, you can see these here.

What are your favourite railway poems? Have you have penned any railway verse yourself that you’d like share? Share them in the comments below….

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4 Responses to Poetry in Motion: Verses and Odes from the archives

  1. Geoff Slater says:

    Sir John Betjeman was undoubtedly the master of the railway verse, often resonating with the clickety clack of trains going over rail joints. Legendary!

  2. @GordonDudman says:

    This is my favourite from the pen of William Aitken:

    The summer sun was blazing doun,
    In new born glory beaming;
    When into Auchterarder toun
    The morning Mail came steaming.

    A London tourist, by my word,
    ‘Twas something new to see yin,
    Yet there he was, as proud’s a lord,
    But, mercy, what a wee yin.

    The hills he sought in quiet and ease,
    His shaky nerves to steady;
    By Jove! The bracing morning breeze
    Had done him good already.

    It filled him full of pith and pace,
    From toe to Tam o’ Shanter,
    He could have run a ten-mile race,
    And won it at a canter.

    “By George, this is the place for me,
    Its perfect elevating;
    Hey, porter there” he cried in glee,
    “Isn’t this invigorating?”

    Jock didn’t quite rightly catch the soun’,
    He through he meant the station,
    And that he got landed doun,
    At some wrang destination.

    “Jump in” he cried, “or else ye’ll miss
    Yer train, yer gangin’ farder,
    It’s no ‘Invigoration’ this,
    It’s only Auchterarder”.

    (published 1893)

    I was introduced to his work back in 1975 whilst working in Ayrshire. Almost all the men I worked with knew at the very least a snatch or two of his work. Many could recite complete works.

  3. jerry hall says:

    I have been searching for the entire,”The Railway to Heaven” poem. I was excited to find your short-print of the poem, however, would very much like the rest of it. When I was about 13 years old (now 67) an elderly English lady I did odd and ends for around the house, hand-inked the entire poem for me. However her writing, at best, is difficult to decipher. Does anyone know how I might get the entire poem which looks like it might have about 24 verses ? I would greatly appreciate the information.

    • Alison Kay, Associate Archivist says:

      Hi Jerry – see below reply from Tania who wrote the above blog

      We can send you some photos of the rest of the pocket bible that includes the poem but it looks like we only have the shortened version – just send your email address to alison.kay@nrm.org.uk

      The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford hold four copies of the “Illustrated Bible, also Verses Entitled Railway to Heaven” in the Opie Collection of Children’s Literature, listed here:

      Click to access LL_Religious_Instruction_post-1850.pdf

      Interestingly one of their copies also has a different publisher from the NRM’s holding. They may be able to advise as to whether they have an extended version of the poem.
      There’s also a copy of the “Railway to Heaven” Bible in the Royal Collection, a Mrs EM Bell gave one to the Queen!


      On the back page of our copy it says that the same publisher also produced an “Illustrated Testament; and Verses Entitled Spiritual Railway” so this might be an extended or alternate version of the same poem.
      Hope this helps,


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