THE SPIRITUAL RAILWAY – the work of William Harrison?


If you visit Ely Cathedral and stroll round the beautiful building you will come across this tombstone attached to a wall. It is in memory of 30 year old William Pickering and 24 year old Richard Edgar who both died on Christmas Eve, December 24th 1845

spiritual railway tombstone close

The inscription reads:

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 dear,
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.

The first time I saw it I thought ‘that reads like William Harrison’. I spoke to a few people and their responses ‘sort of’ supported my thoughts – but no-one could tell me who the individuals were or the background to the text.  I set about doing some research and the first thing I established was that it linked to a ‘true’ story – but the facts were not quite right!

Thomas Pickering (not William) was the Engine Driver and Richard Hedger (not Edger) was the Stoker/Fireman on the engine of the 11.15 a.m. up train from Norwich on the 24th December 1845. The engine ran off the line near the foot of a 1¾ mile decline between Harling Road and Thetford on the Norfolk Railway.   The accident is recorded as being caused by the excessive speed of the train on the 1 in 200 falling gradient. Pickering is reported as having been addicted to fast driving. He was killed on the spot. Hedger was seriously injured and died shortly some two hours after the amputation of his leg. However, none of the passengers were seriously hurt in the accident.

This information was recorded in the ‘Friends of Ely Cathedral Journal, 20th report 1963 and had been provided to the journal by Mr Bonar of the British Transport Historical Office in Edinburgh who extracted the information from a Board of Trade Accident Report dated 1st January 1946 [sic]. At the end of this article the Editor puzzled over who wrote the lines – his bet was an Evangelical lady – and how they got the names wrong. Five years later in the Friends of Ely Cathedral Year Book, 25th Annual Report 1968 C.P.H. (the Editor?) reported as follows:

‘I gave my vote for an Evangelical lady and I was not far off the mark. For it now appears to be as good as certain that the author was William Harrison – a study Nonconformist and a humble minded man’.  I was reasonably content on this but – what was the reason for the incorrect names? The search for the truth continued and I had correspondence with a number of people on the subject. Then I received the following:

Dear Brian,

Thank you for your most detailed response and in particular for enabling me to see where the reasoning for the attribution of the words to Harrison came from. As a result of personal interest I have been aware of the words for a good number of years and last year decided to collect together everything I had learned about the words over the years in single source, which I have now done. Subsequent to my initial email to you I discovered your most helpful booklet on Harrison in the Cambridgeshire collection in the library here. The staff were also very helpful.

The major argument I have discovered against Harrison as writer is the appearance of the words in a hymn book published nearly a year before the accident by Rev Stamp who was living in the Manchester area at the time. The following refers:-

I would suggest that the poem “The Spiritual Railway” may have been written by either Richard Jukes or Joseph Hodgson and very quickly circulated as a broadside around 1844. The earliest dated version of the poem appears in the third edition of a hymn book entitled “The Christian’s Spiritual Song Book containing upwards of five hundred spiritual songs adapted to popular tunes, designed for revival meetings, open-air services, infant and Sabbath schools, teetotal meetings, etc., etc.” It was edited and compiled by the Reverend John Stamp, who had spent some time as a Primitive Methodist Minister and had drawn on many Methodist sources to compile his book.  John Stamp was a fascinating character, fierce to depend his integrity – in 1841, after he had been ‘forced out’ of the Primitive Methodist church – he published ‘A Plain and Brief Defence of the Conduct of the Rev. John Stamp, Against His Unjust and Illegal Expulsion, As a Preacher and a Member, from the Primitive Methodist Connexion.’

The third edition of “The Christian’s Spiritual Song Book” was published by W Brittain, Patternoster Row; and Westbrook and Isaac, Northampton in 1845 and it included “The Spiritual Railway.” The book has a dedication by John Stamp dated 17th January 1845, and the editor’s address is given as ‘Teetotal Cottage, Manchester.’  So far the two earlier editions of the book have not been traced so it has not be possible to discover if the words had been published with an even earlier date, however this third edition is described as ‘enlarged’ and it could well be that the poem appears here for the first time. Unfortunately no author is given against the words, although since Stamp clearly indicates those hymns which are of his own composition we can rule him out as the author. However the fact that the author draws heavily on Methodist sources may provide circumstantial support for us to consider Primitive Methodist Minister Richard Jukes as the writer of the words.

By October 1845 the words had also appeared in “The Cornwall Parochial Visitor” edited by Anglican clergyman the Reverend Henry Addington Simcoe, on his own printing press. This states that the poem was “written by a poor man” and this may reflect the use of the poem as a broadside to raise funds for the sellers who may have been unemployed, or perhaps injured in a Railway accident.

So – we have a fascinating story that predates the incident recorded and clearly cannot be attributed to William Harrison but:– Could there have been a request to William to write some appropriate words, and he had referred the requesting party to appropriate words already written? We’ll never know that.


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