Public Waste

(notes edited by Roberta Baldi and John Radcliffe. We have been grateful for critical comments and suggestions from Alastair Wilson)

the poem

[October 21 2012]


First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, March 9th, 1886.

Collected in:
  • Departmental Ditties and Other Verses, 1st Edition 1886, and many later editions
  • Early Verse, 1900
  • Inclusive Verse, 1919
  • Definitive Verse, 1940
  • Sussex Edition, Vol. 32, p. 23
  • Burwash Edition, Vol. 25
The poem is listed in ORG (p. 5109) as no. 170.


This is a tilt by the poet at the Goverment of India's tendency to restrict senior appointments to a charmed circle of well-connected men with suitably high-class pedigrees. In this case a highly experienced railway engineer, 'Exeter Battleby Tring ', who is not a military man of rank or decoration, is passed over in favour of a Royal Engineer of more modest railway experience. To secure his silence Tring is given a well-paid, but presumably less important, advisory post, which Kipling clearly feels is a waste of public money.

This is an early expression of Kipling's respect for hard work and experience in technical matters, and his scepticism about government hierarchies and formal honours. (In later life he resolutely refused honours himself, apart from honorary degrees from universities, and the Nobel Prize for Literature.) Here, as A.W. explains below, he may have done less than justice to the Royal Engineers, although he may have been referring to a particular case, in which the injustice of the decision was evident to his readers.

Some critical comments

Harry Ricketts (pp.90-91) writes:

“Exeter Battleby Tring, an expert railway-surveyor, was the obvious candidate to manage ‘The Railways of State’. But since he did not come from the right social bracket, ‘the Little Tin Gods on the Mountain Side’ pensioned him off at great expense and appointed ‘a Colonel from Chatham’ in his place. Such a scam was likely to strike a chord with readers who were themselves regularly frustrated by a system of snobbish preferment.

Rud gave extra force to his satire by dislocating the rhythm of the lines so that the act of reading them was itself frustrating. [stanza 1 quoted] By rhyming the anapaestic lines alternatively. Rud displaced the natural movement of the verse, just as the Little Tin Gods had displaced what should have been the natural administrative order.”
Alastair Wilson writes: Both Kipling and Harry Ricketts are less than just to the ‘Colonel from Chatham’. As is noted below, Chatham was (and remains) the home of the Royal Engineers, and the Royal Engineers have been trained in the construction and maintenance of railways since the 1840s. (The Board of Trade had since the earliest days of railways been responsible for the maintenance of standards, and its railway inspectorate was until very recently headed by a succession of Royal Engineer officers.)

On a point of detail, Exeter Battleby Tring would not have described himself as a 'Surveyor' (the Surveyor’s professional body was only formed in 1868), but as an Engineer. All the early railways were laid out, surveyed in detail, and constructed by men who were Civil Engineers – men such as Brunel, Robert Stephenson, Locke, were all Engineers.

The Royal Engineers built and ran railways in South Africa in 1899-1903, and became a very large organisation in World Wars 1 & 2, operating railways in France, Greece, Egypt, Persia (Iran), etc. [A.W.]

Notes on the text

The lines refer to the whole poem, heading lines included.

[Line 1] Walpole Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) , was an English statesman who was 'First Lotd of the Treasury' from 1721 to 1742, and is generally seen as the first Prime Miinister of the United Kingdom. A wealthy cynical figure he was immensely successful in an age when politics was highly corrupt.

a man and his price. William Coxe in his Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole (1800) writes (Vol. iv. p. 369):

Flowery oratory he despised. He ascribed to the interested views of themselves or their relatives the declarations of pretended patriots, of whom he said, ‘All those men have their price’.
[Line 6] the Little Tin Gods on the Mountain Side. “A disrespectful reference to the Viceroy of India and his Executive Council, who during the summer months have their headquarters in the hills at Simla” (Durand pp. 4-5). For further reference to Simla see “Army Headquarters”.

[passim] Tin Gods. Tin is a 'base metal', not to be compared with with precious metals like silver or gold. 'Tin Gods' are worthless idols, mean, petty, counterfeit.

[Line 7] By the Laws of the Family Circle. Kipling had his own ‘family square', consisting of himself, his sister, and his parents, who shared their problems and supported one another. The 'family circle' referred to here is that of the social and political 'establishment' of British India, the power élite who made the rules and set the standards.

[Line 8] Chatham. The town in Kent where officers of the Royal Engineers attended the School of Military Engineering.

[Line 9] breeks breeches or trousers.

[Line 11] In the 19th century, one of Great Britain’s major exports was railway expertise and the capital to build railways. Many early railways in France, Spain, China, Japan and the whole of South America, to say nothing of all the countries of the British Empire, were built with British money and know-how. If the capital was British, then it was likely that the Engineer who built the line and the men who maintained it thereafter would be British. The home railways produced a flood of skilled young men for whom there weren’t sufficient jobs in Great Britain, so they took their skills overseas. 'Exeter Battleby Tring' would have been one such. [A.W.]

[Line 14] iron horse Railway locomotive. The 'Lords of the Iron Horse' were the men that ran the railways.

[Line 15] jettier Of the colour of jet, jet-black.

[Line 17] Vauban The Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707) was a Marshal of France and the foremost military engineer of his age. 'His work had a profound influence on the arts of fortification and siegecraft'. (Durand (p. 5)

[Line 17] drill Drill, the repetition of movements until they are perfected, was the basic principle of much military training. To say that Tring was not familiar with Vauban or drill implied that although he might have been a thorough railway professional he knew little of soldiering.

[Line 18] the “College” The Staff College at Camberley in Surrey, at which officers who wish to qualify for staff appointments were trained.

[Line 19] harried. In this context, 'worried', or 'tortured themselves'.

[Line 24] on the shelf set aside, as being of not much further use. The expression is most frequently used of unmarried ladies who are past what is generally accepted as being of marriageable age. [A.W.]

[Line 26] berth In this context a situation, place, or appointment.

[Line 27] exempt from the Law of the Fifty and Five “Exempt from the regulation which requires a man to retire at the age of fifty-five” ( Durand (p. 5).

[Line 31] Bhamo A remote district in Upper Burma.

[Line 32] In other words, it was a very small, narrow-gauge, railway, whereas the “Railways of State”, even in the 1880s, were extensive. At the time the poem was written, there were some 9,000 miles of railway in India. The line between Calcutta and Delhi was opened in 1854 only 24 years after the world's first inter-city railway, from Liverpool to Manchester. The Indian railways were largely run by Eurasians. (See "Among the Railway Folk" and "The Bold 'Prentice" ) [A.W.]

[Line 32] furlong 220 yards, one eighth of a mile, roughly 200 metres.

[Line 34] four thousand a month Four thousand rupees a month. A very substantial pension. The General Manager of the Indian railways earned 3,500 a month. Kipling earned some 375 rupees a month when he had been in post at the Civil and Military Gazette for a year.


©Roberta Baldi 2005 All rights reserved