Railway Reform
in Great Britain


(notes edited by Alastair Wilson and John McGivering)



ORG Volume 5, page 2564 records first publication of this story in The Fortnightly Review for February 1901, and lists it as ‘Uncollected No, 235. Collected in the Sussex Edition, Volume 30 page 197, the Burwash Edition. and Kipling’s Sussex (Brownleaf, 2008) by Michael Smith, one of our Vice-Presidents – a former Hon. Secretary and Chairman of Council of the Kipling Society.

The text is also printed in KJ 310/09, followed in KJ 311/65 by an informative letter throwing light on the peculiarly local circumstances which inspired this piece of railway satire.

See also KJ 149/14 for “Kipling and Trains” and Themes in Kipling’s Works – ‘Railways’.



This delightful story mimics the flowery language of the translations of The Thousand and One Nights from the original Persian into English via Arabic, and is really a tirade against the unpunctuality and confusion on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway; but it is still entertaining in its own right.

The stories in The Thousand and One Nights are set in a frame telling of the Caliph of Baghdad, Shahryar, who, discovering his wife’s infidelity, has her executed, declaring all women to be unfaithful.

He then marries a succession of virgins, having each one executed the next morning. Eventually they run out of virgins, except for Scheherazade who volunteers to be the next bride. On their wedding night she tells the king a story, but does not finish it so he postpones her execution and hears the conclusion the next night. However, as soon as she finishes, she begins another, stopping half-way, and so on for one thousand and one nights.

The tales vary widely and include historical and love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques and erotica, also magic and legends like “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp” etc., some of which were not in the originals translated from Persian into Arabic and most of the languages in the world.

See our notes on “In the Same Boat” (A Diversity of Creatures), page 73, line 5, for an apt quotation from Three Men in a Boat commenting on the railways of the time.

Some further reading

The story

Travel on the railway is made difficult by the unpunctuality of the trains, the confusion at the stations and the inability of the company to improve their service. The Caliph and two companions dress up as merchants to see for themselves and suffer all manner of delays and indignities.

On his return home, the Caliph arranges for the chairman and the directors to be bombarded with letters at home from courtesans (which puts them in trouble with their wives) and other complaints: then ambiguous remarks on hoardings appear alongside the railway and the directors assume they are critical and issue an injunction, but the Caliph holds that the remarks are innocuous and the directors are fined vast sums of money.

As a result, the directors buckle to, and manage to make some trains arrive on time and are loaded with honours at inconvenient times which continue as more trains are punctual. The citizens celebrate for seven weeks and the directors – fearing more unsought and uncomfortable honours – apply themselves to making their railway a success.

Railway Notes

Since this tale may be considered a parable, it will probably be of help to 21st century readers to learn something more about the British railway system as it existed at the end of the 19th century, and in particular about the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, which was Kipling’s bête noire.

At the time, there were well over 100 separate railway companies in Great Britain, from the lordly Great Western Railway, with over 3,000 miles of track, down to the Knott End and Garstang Railway, master of one-and-a-half miles of track over marshes in Lancashire, just north of Preston.

The railway was the only means of personal travel for any distance greater than about five miles: more importantly to the nation, “all unseen” the railways moved vast quantities of freight: raw materials to the factories, manufactured goods to the docks and groceries to the village shops; and coal, millions of tons of coal, both for export and to ‘keep the home fires burning’.

The Great Northern Railway (London to York and Leeds) had a reputation for speed, but less for comfort: the London and North Western Railway (‘the largest joint-stock company in the world’, so its publicity said) took you in greater comfort, but much slower, from London to Carlisle (for Scotland) and Holyhead (for Ireland), on the ‘finest permanent way in the world’. The Great Western ran a few fast trains to Bristol and Exeter, but otherwise meandered on country branch-lines round the west country from Cornwall to Cheshire.

In the south of England, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway served a triangle of country covering east Surrey and Sussex, with minor incursions into Kent and Hampshire, and had an intricate network of suburban lines in south London. It was usually known merely as ‘the Brighton’, hence the bingo-caller’s cry for number fifty-nine; ‘five and nine, the Brighton line’ – an excursion fare from London to Brighton and back for a Londoner’s day at the seaside at one time being five shillings and ninepence. It was primarily a passenger railway, there being few major industries in rural Sussex.This was the railway which Kipling knew at this time, when he was living at Rottingdean, five miles or so east of Brighton.

It was the railway which he used, whenever he travelled to London, Portsmouth or eastwards to Lewes and Hastings, so he was well acquainted with its vagaries – which were many. Clearly, they ‘got to’ him, so that he wrote this tale. It cannot be said that it bore any fruit directly at the time, but it may be noted that today’s railways are set punctuality targets and have to publish their achievements – or lack of them.

In 1888 and 1895 the two main routes northwards from London indulged in two episodes of ‘racing’, to Edinburgh in 1888, and, after the opening of the Forth Bridge in 1890, to Aberdeen in 1895. The aim was to see which line (properly, combinations of lines) could reach the destination in the shortest time. In the same way as, today, achievements on the motor-racing track and technical improvements are later reflected in ordinary cars, so, although not matching the times achieved by the racing trains (some of which would attract favourable notice today), the speeds of service trains were improved, and the press commented favourably.

It was otherwise in the south. ‘The Brighton’ had a reputation for chronic unpunctuality, and had attracted unfavourable comment for some time. This reached its culmination in 1895, just after the races to the north. In September that year, having recently published approving articles under the heading “The Race to the North, The Times ran a long correspondence headed “The Crawl to the South”: one example will suffice here – the quotation is taken from Locomotive and Train Working in the Latter Part of the Nineteenth Century by E.L. Ahrons, a well-known railway journalist of the period, who wrote that ‘one Hastings express was described as follows by an unfortunate passenger’:

‘It was a light train running on a lovely afternoon, and there was no snow or rain, no head wind or fog. We swept on so rapidly that the speed could not alarm the most timid. We did not scamp a single stoppage, and yet we steamed into Victoria at 5.30 so proudly that I felt we must have arrived unexpectedly early. The time-table (a work of fiction!) indeed made us arrive at 4.37, but this I saw must be merely a printer’s error. Is there another line in the world that would dare to run such a train at the break-neck speed of 74 miles in 200 minutes?’

To be fair, the Brighton did have problems which were not entirely within its own control, but as will be apparent from the rest of Ahron’s writings, which you may sample here, most of the unpunctuality was home-grown.

However, Kipling was complaining not only about the unpunctuality but also about the lack of control which allowed members of “the great unwashed” to invade his first-class privacy. Since, with very few exceptions, none of the Brighton’s coaching stock had a corridor, once the train was in motion there was nothing to be done about it.

No doubt the writing and publication of this jeu d’esprit relieved his feelings, though it may be questioned how many of his original readers could interpret all the references, place-names and other plays-on-words. Neither of the two present Editors would claim to have identified them all.

[A.W./J. H. McG.]

©Alastair Wilson and John McGivering 2009 All rights reserved