Thoughts on railways, clergy, religion and the law

in a guest post prompted by our reporting of Chancellor Gau’s regretful refusal in Re St Bartholomew, Wick [2016] ECC Bri 3 to allow a coloured enamel image of Thomas the Tank Engine on a child’s grave, Michael Ainsworth muses on the law, railways, clergy and religion…

The instant case

Enamel images affixed to headstones wear even worse in the British climate than elsewhere in Europe where they are commonplace but end up looking tacky, which is why they should be resisted on aesthetic grounds. But a compromise might have been a discreet laser-etched image, which in some dioceses has proved acceptable and appropriate for other symbols of childhood (as have flowers and animals and tools of the trade for adults where there is a particular link). Old headstones often have such images, though carved rather than etched, which add interest even when the personal connection has been forgotten – so long as they are not inconsistent with the Christian religion. Does the Thomas corpus meet this criterion?

As the petitioners pointed out, his creator Wilbert Vere Awdry OBE (1911-97) was an Anglican priest; and one or more of his engines feature in various memorial windows, including Emneth, Norfolk (where he was Vicar from 1953-65) and Rodborough, Stroud (where he lived in retirement until his death). In the latter, he is holding the engine-shed door open – is this Revelation 3.8, or 3.20, or what? The Council for the Care of Churches (as it then was) was consulted on the appropriateness of these, under faculty jurisdiction, and was happy to recommend a faculty, provided (proud pedants that we were) that the iconography was correct: an 0-6-0T engine with the right livery, number, funnel and whistle. In both cases, it was.

The Fat Controller

Awdry’s tales often have a moral, if not specifically Christian, dimension. Some of his attitudes have dated: for instance, the silly female coaches Annie and Clarabel who misbehave for the locos (who are all, of course, male). Maybe the announced ‘updates’ will address this sexism. But the most shocking incident is the walling-up of Henry in a tunnel. He is the campest of the engines, proud of his green livery with red trim, and when it rained he stopped in a tunnel to avoid getting his paintwork wet. Sir Topham Hatt, aka the Fat Controller, tried without success to have him pushed or pulled out (not joining in himself, on doctor’s orders) and then mercilessly had the tunnel bricked up – for long enough to construct another tunnel alongside. Henry was only released when his help was needed for a crisis elsewhere. Ringo Starr’s lugubrious narration comments I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you? (An American re-write unconvincingly suggests this was really therapy, to help him overcome ombrophobia.) Children understandably are alarmed by this episode; it has been deleted on my grandson’s iPhone by his father as morally reprehensible. So it is not just the sizeism of the Fat Controller that needs to be addressed (as Frank’s and David’s post suggests), but his status as a semi-divine authority figure. There are other examples.

(As it happens, our excellent, now semi-retired, financial adviser is also one of several licensed Fat Controllers for franchised Thomas events; his girth is right but he is altogether more genial. There is also a Thin Controller – who runs the narrow-gauge lines – but we hear less of him and his attitudes. Awdry himself was sometimes referred to as the ‘Thin Clergyman’.)

Stroudley’s Improved Engine Green

When I was an incumbent in Tower Hamlets, the then Bishop of Stepney, Stephen Oliver, invited all his clergy on a mystery tour, which turned out to be a enjoyable trip on the Bluebell Line in Kent, hauled by the engine Stepney, after which we were each given copies of Awdry’s Stepney the Bluebell Engine. He (the engine, not the bishop) had recently been repainted in ‘Bluebell Black’, but his normal and traditional colour is  Stroudley’s Improved Engine Green, developed for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, which is actually a dirty yellow – Stroudley being apparently colour-blind, though the colour is certainly serviceable. (It is also known as ‘Golden Ochre’.) Christopher Armstrong, Dean of Blackburn Cathedral (where I worship), sports a well-worn and faded stole of exactly this shade in ‘ordinary time’. It is a relic of Kelham, for he is proud – as he should be – to be one of its last batch of ordinands. He was glad to learn of the Stroudley rationale to justify this apparel as truly green rather than gold. The moral of which, perhaps, is that things are not always as they seem. Of course, lawyers can resort to deeming something to be something else.

‘How lucky we did put on our red flannel petticoats’, said Phyllis

Speaking of liturgical colours, you’ll remember how The Railway Children stopped the train, when the line ahead was blocked, by tearing up their red flannel petticoats. Although such garments had been fashionable (‘balmorals’), they became primarily servants’ wear, and this rather than the Pentecostal hue is probably why the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete wear them to this day (don’t ask how I know this).

Railways and religion

The coming of the railways in the 19th century excited deep passions among churchmen, as many novels of the time illustrate. The manner in which building was legally driven through, line-by-line, has been exhaustively documented. For some the speed, the smoke, the ‘blot on the landscape’, were unnatural and diabolical – particularly when Sunday trains broke the sabbath commandment. The vast church of St Bartholomew Brighton was built on a commanding site, and allegedly on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark, as a witness to those travelling down for ‘dirty weekends’. However, one of the most ‘proper’ films ever, Brief Encounter, takes place in a railway station – as Frank may recall when he changes at Carnforth, where it was partly filmed, and sees its famous clock. [Certainly do! – FC]

Clergy joined with landowners in resisting encroachment. (They had limited success – note, for example, how the line curves round Sacred Trinity Church in Salford.) The perils of rail travel were brought home early by the first railway fatality, in 1830, of William Huskisson MP at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line: a memorial at the site, still clearly visible on the line over Chat Moss, was erected in 1913. The dangers were confirmed by the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 which evoked what has been widely hailed as the worst poem in the English language (but curiously enjoyable) by William McGonagall.

But others hailed railways as a godsend and a sign of divinely-blessed progress (despite blighting the urban landscape, of which this is a famous illustration). By the latter part of the century, they had certainly revolutionised episcopal ministry. The late 19th-century renewal of enthusiasm for confirmation would not have been possible without the railways. For example, of James Fraser, Bishop of Manchester 1870-85, it was written he spent the week travelling through his diocese, so that there were few days in which he was not somewhere on the railways.

Unsurprisingly, as with all things new-fangled, ‘spiritual’ messages were drawn from an early date. The most famous is the memorial in the cloister of Ely Cathedral (widely circulated as a broadside ballad) to two victims of an accident on the Norwich to Ely line in 1845, which Pevsner found eminently characteristic of the earnestness with which this new triumph of human ingenuity was still regarded:

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.

This is certainly ingenious, particularly linking the three classes of travel with repentance, faith and holiness: it would need reworking for ‘First’ and ‘Standard’.

Clergy and railways – model, fictional, real

Among clergy who have been ‘keen on railways’, perhaps Eric Treacy, Bishop of Wakefield from 1968-76, significantly described in his Google entry as railway photographer and Anglican bishop, in that order, was pre-eminent. He died in 1978 on Appleby station awaiting a rail-tour arrival. One of the few lapses in Alan Bennett’s chronicling of northern life is in his wonderful Bed Among the Lentils where ‘Mrs Vicar’, the alcoholic wife of a Leeds incumbent (in the diocese of Ripon, as it then was) entertains the bishop who leaves on the pretext of having to bless a steam engine in Keighley (then in another diocese: Bradford, as it then was). However both – plus Treacy’s diocese of Wakefield – are now within the diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, aka Leeds (whichever it has decided to call itself), so no harm is done. Appleby remains in Carlisle diocese.

It has often been said that the reason why some clergy – probably male rather than female – and others, including church musicians, are keen on railways is because they are reassuringly ‘closed systems’, and Awdry’s setting of his railways on the Isle of Sodor confirms this. Lines and boundaries are set, detailed timetables can be pored over, structures are clear: a joy for those who run model railways in their attics for their own pleasure, or larger versions in their gardens to raise funds – both, according to various reports, threatened from time to time by health and safety regulations.

This joy is less pronounced now that the real railways have been franchised and fragmented. Responsibility for trains, track, signalling, stations and all else is dispersed among many bodies – providing more benefit to lawyers than to passengers, orse ‘customers’. Connections, where they exist at all, cannot be held because they will incur a fine for stopping too long in the station. Problems are always someone else’s fault.

Information overload

BING-BONG! Welcome on board our aeroplane/ship/train, says the pre-recorded voice (or increasingly, the reassuring male/female duo), whose information is then reprised with variations by the live voice of the train manager. Please take time to familiarise yourself with the safety procedures displayed in the vestibule – an interesting borrowing of an ecclesiastical term (Joel 2.17). Keep arms and legs out of the aisle to prevent trip hazards. Please present the correct change at the on-board shop and do not attempt to pay by card until we have passed Watford – assuming the shop is not closed for a ‘cleansing cycle’. Ensure that you take all your personal (though maybe not other) belongings with you. Take care when leaving the train – for you might not otherwise think to do so, even with the added perils of rain, or the wrong kind of snow. Do not leave any items on the railway – mysterious: perhaps this refers to dead bodies? Be aware of any suspicious behaviour and report it to a member of staff – one wag has suggested that this might include a train arriving on time. And so on: oh, and [she] now relax and enjoy your journey and [he] thank you for choosing to travel with us – whoever ‘us’ may be in this context – as if we actually had a choice.

You’ll recognise this as a rant by one who has to endure endless, largely needless, and often grossly inarticulate, announcements, sometimes offered on behalf of myself. (Virgin, the worst offenders, claim that they are in fact the result of much love, craft and wisdom.) Recently the entire journey from Manchester to Stockport was taken up with an exposition of the ticket restrictions on that service and the horrible consequences of falling foul of them, though passengers who joined at Stockport were spared a repeat.

The culture of legalism is largely to blame: the company must protect itself against being sued for failing to point out the dire hazards of travelling by train, greater than in the 1830s it would seem. I just wonder why this is not the case in other European countries, where they simply and quietly say the next station is X, which is all I want or need to know. In some blessed Nordic lands, the quiet coach actually means ‘no talking at all’.

The tube network generally handles announcements rather better, with a careful TfL ‘house style’. My only beef with them is This is St James’s Park. This is a District Line train to Ealing. Existentially, it can only be one or the other. Which enables me to conclude with three anoraky questions:

  1. Why does one of the roundels on that station’s platforms have the spelling St James’ Park – which is correct?
  2. At what station does London Overground run beneath London Underground?
  3. Which TfL station has no letters in common with the word ‘lobster’?

Michael Ainsworth

Cite this article as: Michael Ainsworth, “Thoughts on railways, clergy, religion and the law” in Law & Religion UK, 17 April 2015

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on railways, clergy, religion and the law

  1. TfL and Network Rail both send their station announcers on a special course in which they are taught how TO stress all THE wrong words IN announcements. Or so I assume.

  2. Edward Green’s link opens up a dimension I had missed. If I could find my copy of the wonderfully accurate 1981 ‘Not the Church Times’ I’d have riposted with the advertisement of ‘slow and dirty trains from Liverpool Street’ to glamorous liturgical events of an advanced nature in Chelmsford diocese. Can any reader provide the reference?

  3. As an employee of a TOC I can assure you that many train connections are held. The debate on how long to hold a connection is not about cost, but rather how much more disruption will holding that connection incur. Bear in mind that train being held will have passengers on board expecting to leave on time (what about their connections?) and that physical train will have another service to form eventually, again with passengers expecting to leave on time. Crew considerations, the list goes on. Regardless, many of the decisions taken to hold trains are actually by Network Rail rather than the actual TOC.

    My father (another clergyman interested in railways) used to tell me the story of the country vicar who used to cycle down to the railway bridge each day at the same time. He’d watch the express go by then cycle back to the village. When parishioners asked why he replied that “it’s the only thing in this parish that moves without me pushing it”. Chortle.

    Thank you though for this article, very interesting.

  4. Ii was perhaps fitting that Eric Treacy died on Appleby Station awaiting the arrival of Evening Star, the last steam locomotive to be built (at its Swindon works) by British Railways.

  5. The mention of Kelham where I spent four happy years doing theology, reminds me that Fr Kelly was once apprehended by the police as he, with an SSM brother, carried home a railway sleeper, doubtless for the fire. Every ex Kelham student looks out for the gothic tower of Kelham Hall whenever he travels on the train through Newark. Happy days and memories

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  7. Yes, and what legal twitchiness is responsible for the clumsy locution ‘the next station stop will be…’? Is this to cover them against breakdowns, or passengers [sorry, customers] attempting to alight in the middle of a field, or at a station where the train keeps moving? Since the doors are locked, neither is these days possible – thereby thwarting the activities of various detectives, murderers, spivs and others. Why has no-one so far referenced The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery – ‘I am Amelia Fritton and I claim my reward’, and so on?

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  9. The late and great New Testament scholar Dennis Nineham is also reported to have been a railway enthusiast

    And I also record that my wife’s former churchwarden, choir member and general factotum (who has been commissioned by a certain retired bishop to paint model engine in an obscure Wirral livery) inherited a Thomas the Tank Engine kneeler in the choir stalls. Manchester has a very understanding Chancellor.

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