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By Alison Kay on

Poetry in Motion: Verses and Odes from the archives

Poetry about the building of a railway bridge? Our fascinating archive collection has it all.

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

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

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.

This Bible is not much bigger than a ten pence piece!
This Bible is not much bigger than a ten pence piece!
Miniature book, "The Illustrated Bible; also verses entitled Railway to Heaven". London: Goode Bros., Ltd, Clerkenwell Green E.C.
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….


This post was jointly written by our archive volunteers Jack Garside and Tania Parker.

2 comments on “Poetry in Motion: Verses and Odes from the archives

  1. 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.

  2. I am seeking the full text of a Poem by Caryl Brahms, “Ode to Dr Beeching”, c 1964. It was performed on the TV programme “That Was The Week That Was” and was released on a Vinyl record (EP?) entitled “Saturday Poems”. Grateful for any help please

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