Railway songs

Railway songs from NRM's archive

Author and social historian Colin Bargery has been singing folk songs for forty years and has a special interest in songs from the Industrial Revolution. He's currently compiling a collection of popular songs about railways for our archive, under the general title Songs From the Age of Steam.

These songs are eyewitness reactions to the railways, and filled with allusions to contemporary attitudes and references to particular events. In the course of his research, Colin has brought together the words of the songs, the music (where it can be found), and notes to explain the references and allusions. Each song has its own individual file.

We'll be adding more themes in the future, so follow us on Facebook or Twitter to be kept informed of when we update these archives.

List one - Railway openings | List two - Navvies | Master index

Railway openings

Railway Songs archvies at the National Railway MuseumThe opening of a railway was a major event and the cause for celebrations on a grand scale. Cannons and muskets were fired, church bells were rung, and bunting was hung in the streets and around the new railway stations. As businessmen became increasingly aware of the commercial value of the railway, the opening of even relatively minor branch lines became the cause of lavish celebrations.

The opening ceremonies usually comprised three main components: a procession of local dignitaries together with representatives of the railway company and contractors; an inaugural train journey upon which the dignitaries rode; and celebratory meals for the dignitaries. Sometimes separate meals were organised for the navvies and common folk of the area.

Celebrations were attended by large crowds in holiday mood; an ideal market for ballad sellers who took the opportunity to sell ballads printed especially for the occasion.

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Railway Songs archvies at the National Railway MuseumThe railways were an important source of employment for agricultural workers made destitute by changes in farming that happened during the early 19th century. Contrary to popular assumptions, the Irish were always in a minority of about 30% of the workforce. Most of the early navvies came from the north of England where much of the early railway building took place. Canal digging continued well into the railway era and navvies moved easily between the two sorts of work. However; those working on the railways vastly outnumbered those on canals. At the peak of railway construction there were about 100,000 railway navvies. 

The work was arduous – shifting 20 tons of earth was a normal day’s work; and dangerous – 3 accidental deaths per mile was considered an acceptable average; but it was well paid and navvies lived high on the hog. Navvies worked in gangs each led by a ganger. Good gangs were highly valued by contractors and moved around the country from job to job. Young men far from home with money in their pocket are always likely to spend a good deal of it on drink and women, and their songs give due attention to these pleasures.

The wild life-style of the navvies made them a target for the attentions of the temperance movement and evangelical Christians (often the same people) who sought to save them body and soul.

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