The Spiritual Railway – What’s On Your Memorial?

When I was researching the start of the London and Birmingham Railway and John Cooke Bourne’s painting of Euston Arch, I happened to visit Ely Cathedral with my good friend, Professor Michael Ruse. In the Cathedral’s cloister, I noticed a memorial to two men who died on the same day. They were victims of an accident on the Norwich to Ely railway line in 1845. What struck my attention was the quick integration of spiritual consolation with metaphors related to the new technology of the railway.

The story of these deaths is a sad one. The trainline opened 29 July 1845. The accident occurred on 24 December 1845. It was reported in Norfolk Chronicle.

“A serious accident occurred on the Norfolk Railway near Thetford. The up-train from Norwich was proceeding at a rapid rate when the engine left the line and fell down the embankment. The engine-driver, named Pickering, was killed instantly, and the stoker, Richard Eager, had both legs broken, and died shortly after his removal from the scene of the accident. None of the passengers were seriously hurt. The accident was supposed to be due to the excessive speed at which the train was travelling—fifty-five miles an hour.”

The memorial stone in Ely Cathedral offers a striking use of railway metaphors in the spiritual journey of life. I transcribe it here in full.

What’s On Your Memorial Headstone?

Memorial for William Pickering and Richard Edger in Ely Cathedral, England. The Spritual Railway. 1845.
Memorial for William Pickering and Richard Edger in Ely Cathedral, England. The Spritual Railway. This is memorial for two victims of an accident on the Norwich to Ely railway line on December 1845.

In memory of
William Pickering
who died Decr 24, 1845
Aged 30 Years.

Also Richard Edger
who died Decr 24, 1845
Aged 24 Years.

The Spiritual Railway

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.

Repetance 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.

Further research on the Spiritual Railway

Jacqueline Banerjee noted Nikolaus Pevsner transcribed this memorial in The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire (page 365), noting he found it “eminently characteristic of the earnestness with which this new triumph of human ingenuity was still regarded”. She also notes it was published as a broadside in the 1850s.

BriansTalkingHistoryBlog has noted considerable research into the historical background of this story. This blog is well worth a read. Note especially the proper names of the victims: Thomas Pickering and Richard Hedger. Also note the poem seems to precede by a year or two its appearance on this memorial stone.

Ely Cathedral has a number of notable memorial stones, such as one to Richard Elliston, who was killed by “the kick of a horse” sadly “in the 13th year of his age”.

A recent postgraduate student of mine, John van Laun investigated similar themes of cultural integration of railways through an analysis of John Cooke Bourne’s painting and what he calls the invention of a new railway-influenced genre in landscape art that combined the Picturesque and the industrial Sublime. His study makes me re-think what I’m supposed to be seeing when I studying Bourne’s images just as this memorial stone makes me re-consider what I should be pondering when I consider which ride I choose.


  • Featured image: Norwich & Worcester RR 4-4-0 # 3 WP Greene Buile WM Norris #213 Philadelphia 1845, from HistoryCentral.
  • Memorial image: Pickering and Edger. Cloister of Ely Cathedral. 2006. Photo by ProfJoeCain.