Skip main navigation

The engine driver hero

The engine driver was often a heroic figure in Victorian culture. Using a famous painting from the Railway Museum's art store, Kirstie tells us more.
So I’m standing now in the art store, in front of the original 1924 painting
by William Orpen, “The Night Mail: The Engine Men”. Orpen was a distinguished Irish painter and a member of the Royal Academy and he was persuaded into painting for the London, Midland and Scottish railway by his friend Norman Wilkinson and for this painting he actually recruited a real engine driver and fireman to pose for him. So here we see the grizzled, experienced engine driver surveying the line ahead, one hand placed in a casual, proprietary way on his engine. And behind him the younger figure of the fireman, back-lit by the glow of the fire, shovelling in the coal to keep the engine running.
And there’s a good story about these models, well these workers who were acting as models, because Wilkinson recorded that the fireman was very scornful of the chair that the painter had provided for him to rest on because he said that his day-to-day work was far more strenuous than acting as a model. But by the end of the day, after holding this pose, he was nearly faint. This image was made into a famous poster for the railway company and it really cements the idea of the engine driver and fireman as heroic, larger-than-life people. As we heard in the previous video, engine driving was an extremely dangerous career during the nineteenth century. Sometimes these dangers and difficulties were recognised.
So Oli showed us that 1861 medal for bravery. But by the late nineteenth century, through newspaper reportage and other media sources this idea of commemorating the bravery of engine drivers had really gained more and more traction. To take only one example, in 1898 on the Windsor Express a connecting rod snapped and pierced the boiler and it filled the cab with scalding steam and smoke. So the driver and the fireman, Harry Dean and William Peart, were thrown from the cab with terrible injuries. But before this they had managed to put on the brake, meaning that the train glided to a halt and no lives were lost.
So these men, Harry Dean and William Peart, were actually commemorated on a memorial to civilian bravery in London in Postman’s Park as well as this incident being very widely reported in the newspaper press. It wasn’t just real-life incidents like this that stirred the Victorian imagination. By the end of the nineteenth century, readers were accustomed to tales of heroism and self-sacrifice by engine drivers. And this fed into a really popular Victorian narrative, the heroic men taming the monstrous machine or sometimes it’s imaged as almost a wild beast or runaway horse.
And the fact that they’re doing this in a self-sacrificing way and that they’re often martyred themselves to save the lives of innocent passengers, really fed into the kind of narrative of sacrifice and heroism that Victorians admired. So this is very common, these kind of characters and works for both adults and children. By the twentieth century, engine drivers and firemen were literally lifted up in the public gaze because of the increased size of the engines so when you stood on the platform you were looking up to them in the cab above you.
Four out of six of the medals awarded for civilian bravery in the twentieth century to railway men went to engine drivers and firemen for their various acts of heroism. So by the time that Orpen produces this in the 1920s, these figures are well-established as among the pantheon of working-class heroes of this time.

The engine driver was often a heroic figure in Victorian culture. Using a famous painting from the Railway Museum’s art store, Kirstie tells us more.

This article is from the free online

Working Lives on Britain's Railways: Railway History and Heritage

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education