The Ballad of the Cars

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)



One of the last group of six, which did not appear until 1929, when the whole set of 26 items were assembled within a a three-volume collection called Poems 1886-1929. Collected in the Sussex Edition vol. 35. p. 141. (ORG Verse No. 861).


“Wardour Street Border Ballad”: The English/Scottish border in the centuries before the Union of England and Scotland in 1707, has a long and bloody history of conquest and reconquest, raid and counter-raid. It also has a splendid tradition of balladry, such that a whole group of songs exists that are often called “border ballads”, because they were collected in that region. The supernatural is a common theme, as are tales of raids and battles. (There is a useful summary on Wikipedia). See also Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3) by Sir Walter Scott, reprinted a number of times since, most recently by Dodo Press in 2008.

Kipling, like a number of poets, wrote several ‘Border Ballads’. See “The Rhyme of True Thomas” and “The English Way”, as well as this parody.

Wardour Street: in Central London runs from Leicester Square to Oxford Street, and in the twentieth century became a centre for the film industry. However, Kipling’s reference is to the second-hand furniture market there in the 1890s. ‘Wardour Street’ was literary slang for archaism – for example when King says in “Regulus” (A Diversity of Creatures): ‘I don’t like Conington’s “well-witting”, It’s Wardour Street’.

The theme

A man is killed in a motor accident and cars of various makes whose owners are attending the inquest discuss the various accidents they have witnessed and consider the circumstances that caused them. They decide that, with the best will in the world, the car cannot prevent accidents – it is the driver.

Notes on the text

[Verse 1]

stirrup-cup: an often strong drink given to horsemen before they depart on a journey or a hunt; also known as ‘one for the road’.

[Verse 2]

Coroner: the law officer who investigates sudden deaths – see ‘Crowner’ in our note to Verse 20 below.

[Verse 4]

Daimler:  The Daimler Motor Company, founded in 1896 in Coventry, became a subsidiary of BSA in 1910, and was acquired by Jaguar Cars in 1960. Their luxurious cars had distinctive petrol tanks, reinforced by horizontal slats.

[Verse 5]

Bonnets: a play on words – the cover of the engine compartment of a car, and also a cap worn by Scots. The expression “cock your bonnet” means to deliberately set out to defy someone.

[Verse 6]

nonce: a word of several meanings – in this context ‘now’ or ‘for the present’.

jack them free:  presumably jack up the car to get the wounded driver out from underneath. [D.H.]

dumb-irons:  parts of the chassis of a car to which the front springs are fixed.  [Wordsworth edition]

[Verse 7]

Armstrong:  Armstrong Siddeley, manufacturs of luxury cars, and aircraft engines began as Siddeley Autocars, of Coventry, founded by John Davpnport Siddeley (1866-1953) in 1902.

Grantham: a market-town in Lincolnshire on the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh.

[Verse 9]

but and:   but also [OED]

[Verse 10]

Babe Austin The Austin 7, produced from 1922 to 1939 by the Austin Motor Company, was nicknamed the “Baby Austin”, and was one of the most popular cars ever produced.

[Verse 12]

weel:  well

[Verse 14]

Morris: The original ‘Morris Cowley’, so called because the factory was in Cowley, just outside Oxford, was introduced in 1915; the last example of the model with the original engine appeared in 1920.

Cowley Friar: a member of The Society of Mission Priests of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican Order founded in 1865. usually known as the Cowley Fathers.

[Verse 15]

levin-spark: lightning, – See Alastair Wilson’s notes on A Fleet in Being, page 34, line 21, and KJ 140/04.

[Verse 16]

drunken: a hoop too deep One of the bands at equal intervals on a quart pot; hence, the quantity of liquor contained between two of these.

[Verse 17]

mellow:  in this context drunk

[Verse 18]

busk him:  be prepared [Wordsworth edition”], prepare himself,  See here. [D/H.]

at every tide:  at any moment, as in the original sense of “tide”, “A portion, extent, or space of time; an age, a season, a time, a while” [OED]

prick of horn:  when the motorist sounds his horn, the pedestrian must jump to safety.

[Verse 20]

Crowner:  archaic dialect term for ‘Coroner’, a law officer who investigates sudden deaths. See our note on Verse 2 above


©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2020 All rights reserved