Death And Distaster

Since the early days of railways, accidents during their construction or involving trains have lead to the death of many workers, passengers and bystanders. During the opening celebrations of the Liverpool and Manchester railway on September the fifth 1830  the President Of The Board Of Trade, the Right Honourable William Huskisson MP, was struck by a train and fatally injured. Doubtless many had been killed or injured before that day and since there have been countless accidents.

From time to time such events have been recorded in poetry and in this post I will share a few of my favourite pieces. The first short verse is about a lack of awareness as to just how fast trains go and their inability to stop as quickly as a horse and cart or motor car can.

He tried to cross the railway track
Before a rushing train.
They put the pieces in a sack
But couldn’t find the brain.

Anon.


Long working hours and fatigue were common in the Victorian era and how many people today can say with a clear conscience that they have never once felt drowsy when driving a car late at night. So the next poem is about a train crash caused by the engine driver falling asleep as the train was hurtling along the track.

DEATH AND HIS BROTHER, SLEEP
by
Edwin J. Milliken

Who is in charge of the clattering train
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
Ten minutes behind at the Junction. Yes!
And we’re twenty now to the bad no less!
We must make it up on our flight to town.
Clatter and crash! ‘That’s the last train down,
Flashing by with a steamy trail.
Pile on the fuel! We must not fail.
At every mile we a minute must gain!
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
Why flesh and blood as a matter of course!
You may talk of iron and prate of force;
But, after all, and do what you can,
The best – and cheapest – machine is Man!
Wealth knows it well, and the hucksters feel
‘Tis safer to trust them to sinew than steel.
With a bit of brain, and a conscience, behind,
Muscle works better then steam or wind.
Better and longer and harder all round;
And cheap, so cheap! Men superabound
Men stalwart, vigilant, patient, bold:
The stokehole’s heat and the crow’s-nest’s cold,
The choking dust of the noisesome mine,
The northern blast o’er the beating brine,
With dogged valour they coolly brave;
So on rattling rail, or on wind-scourged wave,
At engine lever, at furnace front,
Or steersman’s wheel, they must bear the brunt
Of lonely vigil or lengthened strain.
Man is in charge of the thundering train!

Man, in the shape of a modest chap
In fustian trousers and greasy cap;
A trifle stolid, and something gruff,
Yet, though unpolished, of sturdy stuff.
With grave grey eyes, and a knitted brow,
The glare of sun and the gleam of snow
Those eyes have stared on this many a year.
Tho’ crows-feet gather in mazes queer
About their corners most apt to choke
With grime of fuel and fume of smoke.
Little to tickle the artist taste –
An oil-can, a fist-full of “cotton waste”,
The lever’s click and the furnace gleam,
And the mingled odour of oil and steam;
These are the matters that fill the brain
Of the man in charge of the clattering train.

Only a man, but away at his back,
In a dozen cars, on the steely track,
A hundred passengers place their trust
In this fellow of fustian, grease and dust.
They cheerily chat, or they calmly sleep,
Sure that the driver his watch will keep
On the night-dark track, that he will not fail.
So the thud, thud, thud of wheel on rail
The hiss of steam-spurts athwart the dark,
Lull them to confident drowsiness. Hark!
What is that sound? ‘Tis the stertorous breath
Of a slumbering man, – and it smacks of death!
Full sixteen hours of continuous toil
Midst the fume of sulphur, the reek of oil,
Have told their tale on the tired man’s brain,
And Death is in charge of the clattering train!

Sleep– Death’s brother, as poets deem,
Stealeth soft to his side; a dream
Of home and rest on his spirit creeps,
That wearied man, as the engine leaps,
Throbbing, swaying along the line;
Those poppy-fingers his head incline
Lower, lower, in slumber’s trance;
The shadows fleet, and the gas gleams dark
Faster, faster in mazy flight,
As the engine flashes across the night.
Mortal muscle and human nerve
Cheap to purchase and stout to serve
Strained too fiercely will faint and swerve.
Over weighted and underpaid,
This human tool of exploiting Trade,
Though tougher than leather, tenser than steel.
Fails at last, for his senses reel,
His nerves collapse, and with sleep-sealed eyes,
Prone and helpless a log he lies!
A hundred hearts beat placidly on,
Unwitting they that their warder’s gone;
A hundred lips are babbling blithe,
Some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!


One of the better known railway disaster poems is William McGonigall’s epic The Tay Bridge Disaster that begins:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It is rather long and best experienced recited in a Scots accent. You can find the rest of it here <http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/gems/the-tay-bridge-disaster&gt;

To close is a poem that can be found on a grave stone  at Ely cathedral.  It is a memorial for William Pickering aged 30 yrs and Richard Edgar aged  24 yrs who died in an accident on December 24th 1845.

The Spiritual Railway

The line to heaven by Christ was made
With heavenly truth the rails are laid
From Earth to Heaven the line extends
To Life eternal where it ends
Repentance is the station then
Where passengers are taken in
No Fee for them is there to pay
For Jesus is Himself the Way
God’s word is the first engineer
It points the way to heaven so clear
Through tunnels dark and dreary here
It does the way to Glory steer
God’s love the Fire, his Truth the Steam
Which drives the engine and the train
All you who would to glory ride
Must come to Christ in Him abide
In First, and second, and third class
Repentance, faith, and Holiness
You must the way to Glory gain
Or you with Christ will not remain
Come then poor sinners now’s the time
At any station on the line
If you’ll repent and turn from sin
The train will stop and take you in

Anon.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. – See more at: http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/gems/the-tay-bridge-disaster#sthash.SsloW86C.dpuf
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. – See more at: http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/gems/the-tay-bridge-disaster#sthash.SsloW86C.dpuf
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. – See more at: http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/gems/the-tay-bridge-disaster#sthash.SsloW86C.dpuf
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