Music and railways



The guard whistles up to start the train!


In the earliest days of railways, coach horns were used by train drivers to warn people near the tracks. Then after an accident in 1833 when a locomotive ran into a farm cart and broke a lot of eggs, the railway company went to a musical instrument maker who produced a steam-operated trumpet for locomotives which was 18 inches high and 6 inches across at the top end. Whistles operated by steam followed soon after, and they’re still with us on heritage working locomotives sounding in a bunch of keys – as you might say musically!


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed as Engineer for the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1833. Despite his busy schedule surveying, supervising work on the new line from London to Bristol and designing bridges, he found time to marry Mary Horsley in 1836. The newlyweds moved into 18 Duke Street, Westminster which was their home for the whole of their marriage. Mary was nicknamed the ‘Duchess of Kensington’ by her family and she was known for her entertaining and social connections. The composer Felix Mendelssohn visited the house and it’s known that Isambard was fond of music and was a keen opera-goer. Mendelssohn travelled to Scotland by railway where he was inspired to write the Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave). The Brunel’s marriage can’t, though, have been inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Wedding March which came six years later.


Much of the middle to late 19th century was taken up with the openings of new railways. Dinners, bands and balls marked these occasions and, from reports of these events, ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ from Handel’s oratorio ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ was top of the pops at the time. More funereal and nostalgic music was heard at the time of railway closures following the Beeching Report of 1963 which inspired the comedy duo Flanders and Swann to write and perform their lament ‘Slow Train’.


In 1927, the station at Port Sunlight in the Wirral became a fully-fledged passenger station. It had been open since 1919 for workmen’s trains from Birkenhead for the Lever Brothers soap factory. An unusual feature of the station was that according to a notice over the entrance it was licensed for music and dancing! This was because the station entrance also gave access to the Lever Brothers Co-Partners Club where licensed music and dancing took place.


Edward Elgar was born in GWR territory at Lower Broadheath, Worcestershire on 2nd June 1857. He was knighted in 1904 for his musical achievements and had four locomotives named after him. Firstly, GWR ‘Bulldog’ class number 3704 was renamed ‘Sir Edward Elgar’ in August 1932. Then in August 1957, ‘Castle’ class number 7005 was renamed ‘Sir Edward Elgar’. After that, Class 50 diesel locomotive number 50007, originally named ‘Hercules’, was renamed ‘Sir Edward Elgar’ by conductor Simon Rattle (now Sir Simon) in a ceremony at Paddington station in 1984, two days away from the 50th anniversary of Elgar’s death. At the time, Simon Rattle was principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. However, on this occasion he conducted the Cholsey Silver Band who were seated on the platform at Paddington. Finally, a Class 92 Channel Tunnel electric locomotive number 92009 bore the name ‘Elgar’ until 2011 when it was renamed ‘Marco Polo’. Elgar was also a regular performer in GWR territory at the Three Choirs Festival which still rotates around the cathedral cities of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester. A GWR train brought the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák to the festival at Worcester in 1884 when he conducted two of his works in the cathedral, his oratorio ‘Stabat Mater’ and Symphony No 6. Dvořák was a keen railway enthusiast who spotted and drew inspiration from trains at Prague’s main station. So too was another enthusiast, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. But German composer Paul Hindemith preferred his model railway.


Composer Vivian Ellis, (1903 – 1996) composed the work ‘Coronation Scot’ whilst on board a GWR train on a journey in 1938 from London Paddington to Taunton. This was a frequent journey for him as he had a country cottage in Somerset. He admitted to being inspired by the rhythm of the train. The obvious title for the piece would have been ‘Cornish Riviera Express’ after the famous GWR train. However, as fellow light music composer Ernest Tomlinson has pointed out, this does not exactly ‘trip off the tongue’ – just too many syllables! So, Ellis chose the title ‘Coronation Scot’ – which was the prestigious LMS streamlined train running from 1937 taking 6½ hours between London Euston and Glasgow Central. Don’t forget that we have streamlined “Coronation” locomotive 6229 “Duchess of Hamilton” in the NRM at York! ‘Coronation Scot’ was recorded by Sidney Torch and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra and according its composer ‘did nothing’ until it was used as the theme tune to the popular BBC Radio series ‘Paul Temple’ about a suave crime writer and amateur detective and his wife nicknamed ‘Steve’. ‘Coronation Scot’ then became a much-requested piece on the radio in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Image: Coronation Scot’ and streamlined 6229. NRM


The GWR Paddington Band continues making music to this day and until the pandemic was playing at Paddington Station weekly between Easter and Christmas. This is just one of the many longstanding railway bands which still meet and play today. And across the world we can see the vast amount of music inspired by railways. The Strauss family in Austria produced ‘Line Clear’ and fast galops and waltzes based on train themes. Mikhail Glinka wrote ‘Train Song’; Charles Ives, ‘The Celestial Railroad’ piano piece; Hector Berlioz with his ‘Song of the Railways’ cantata; Rossini, ‘Un Petit Train de Plaisir’ piano piece; Charles-Valentin Alkan’s piano piece, ‘Le chemin de fer’; Arthur Honegger’s orchestral piece, ‘Pacific 231’, and Hector Villa-Lobos’ orchestral piece, ‘Little train of the Caipira’ were all inspired by the sights and sounds of locomotives and trains. The enthusiastic rail traveller Percy Grainger wrote an orchestral piece ‘Train Music’ and ‘Arrival Platform Humlet’ which appears in various solo, band and orchestral forms. Benjamin Britten wrote the music for the 1936 documentary ‘Night Mail’ and Sergei Rachmaninov’s emotive music was chosen for the 1945 film ‘Brief Encounter’, some of which was shot at Carnforth station. Then add in the more popular ‘Daybreak Express’ by Duke Ellington, ‘Tuxedo Junction’ which was a hit for Glenn Miller; ‘Oh Mr Porter’, ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo’ and, along with masses of folk music, you get the rhythmic railway picture.


Mike Peart



Mike Peart is the co-author of Volume 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and "Trains of Hope" published by Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994.

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