19th Century

“The Railway Robin Hood” (1868)

"The Railway Robin Hood and Little John" Punch, 26 Sept. 1868, p.129.

“The Railway Robin Hood and Little John” Punch, 26 Sept. 1868, p.129.

‘Rail fares a rip-off,’ thundered the Daily Mail in an article of December last year. [1] Indeed, there seems to be a constant debate in the United Kingdom these days about what exactly the cost of rail travel should be, and whether it should be run for profit or as a public service. Yet as Chris Bowlby has recently pointed out in an article for History Today, the Victorians had the same concerns. Until the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 Victorian extra-parliamentary pressure groups and the rail companies seem to have perpetually been at loggerheads over the issue of rail prices. [2] Rail travel could be quite expensive for some commuters, and even the penny-per-mile cost of rail travel which the (supposedly laissez-faire) government demanded of rail companies on certain routes still meant that travel over long distances could be quite expensive. [3]

It is with this historic (and seemingly perpetual) debate over the price of rail travel in mind that I would like to direct your attention a humorous ballad entitled ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ which appeared in 26 September 1868 edition of Punch. The magazine was launched in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells and was originally a radical, reformist publication, drawing attention to social ills through satire. [4] Most of the satirical pieces in the magazine were what we would consider ‘Horatian’ satire; clever, gentle, and light-hearted humour designed to poke fun at social and societal follies. The ballad itself is written anonymously, which was standard practice for many of the articles in Punch. We are not in the medieval period in ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John,’ however, for the second verse sets the premise of the ballad. It is a time when:

The Railways did their fares increase
Upon a certain daye;
Itt was a fytte of Robin Hood
To make the public pay. [5]

It goes without saying that the author is not too concerned with historical ‘authenticity’ here, as railways obviously did not exist in the medieval period, although it does seem that he wants to give and air of historicity, given that he uses some archaic spellings such as ‘itt’ and ‘fytte’.

The advent of the railway construction has, it seems, harmed Robin Hood’s and Little John’s revenue, and the two men discuss how to get more booty out of travellers now that the vast majority of people have taken to commuting by rail instead of road travel. They conclude that it is best to raise the price of rail travel:

As rogues for true men breeden bale,
Soe counsel Robin and John
Did take how folk, that go by rail,
They best mote put upon.
And soe on all that went by rail,
Whereon a holde they had,
The fares were raised by those two fellows:
Men swore it was too bad. [6]

It is not clear how Robin and John, as outlaws, manage to place themselves in such a position of authority whereby they might raise rail prices, but they do. Besides, I suspect the author of this ballad is not too concerned with explaining it, and the results of Robin’s policy of price hikes are:

And many took to going-a-foote,
Far over stock and stone,
They had liefer that than that Railwaymen,
Soe moche sholde stick it on.
But Robin’s and Little John’s plan to fleece poor commuters backfires on them:
A bad shoote Robin shote, and John,
With waste of might and mayne:
Men first-class carriages gave up fast,
And third to take were fayne.
These shooters with their long bend-bowe,
Their marke did overshoote:
Their gains do so fall off that now
They find they have missed their loote. [7]

And to close the ballad the author gives a warning to those railway bosses who would try and rob commuters with excessive fares:

Woe worth, woe worth, the knaves who would,
Fleece true men in such a degree,
And may they ever find all bale,
That boote they hoped wold bee. [8]

The ballad is significant because it is illustrative of the ways in which the earliest Robin Hood texts were familiar to people in the nineteenth century. ‘The Railway Robin Hood’ opens in the following manner:

When clouds be white and skies be blue,
And fields both dry and browne
It’s merry riding in the railway train
Going South out of Towne. [9]

There is similarity here with the opening to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (c.1450):

Whan shaws beene sheene and shraddes full fayre,
And leaves both large and longe,
Itt’s merrye walkyng in the fayre forrest
To heare the small birdes songe. [10]

The author had to be reasonably confident that his readers would recognise the ballad that he was adapting to the circumstances of the present day, which ties in with the fact that a work such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) was republished several times throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, the ballad holds significance for students of medievalism. It belongs in the same category of medievalism as William Makepeace Thackeray’s Ivanhoe (1819) sequel entitled Rebecca and Rowena (1850). Whilst Walter Scott in Ivanhoe at least makes an attempt to recreate the medieval world of ‘merrie England,’ Thackeray is content for his medieval world to be full of glaring anachronisms. When Thackeray brings Robin Hood into his narrative, for instance, he says that Robin, after the events of Ivanhoe, has become a mean and hard-hearted magistrate. In his role as magistrate, Robin ‘sent scores of poachers to Botany Bay.’ [11] Transportation of offenders from Britain did not come about until the Transportation Act of 1718, allowing those guilty of capital offences an alternative to hanging. [12] Botany Bay, moreover, was not “discovered” until 1770 by Captain Cook, and it was in 1788 that Arthur Phillip established a penal colony there. It seems that in the nineteenth century there were two types of representations of the medieval period: the ‘authentic’ recreation of it as witnessed in works such as Scott’s Ivanhoe, and the heavily anachronistic type of representation such as ‘The Railway Robin Hood.’

In conclusion, ‘The Railway Robin Hood’ is a light-hearted mockery of what to the Victorians was the ever-increasing price of rail travel, a debate which is still ongoing in Britain today. The famous outlaws Robin Hood and Little John are equated with what was perceived to be the robbing rail barons of Victorian England. They ‘fleece’ their commuters. The ballad is an example of the ‘fun’ and less serious medievalism of the nineteenth century that was prevalent in the works of Thackeray and others, in contrast to the work of Sir Walter Scott.


References

[1] Martin Robinson, ‘Here comes the £5,000 for annual season ticket: Rail fares blasted a ‘rip off’ after latest 2.5% price hike’ Daily Mail 5 December 2014 [Internet <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2861854/Rail-fares-raised-2-5-January-record-numbers-pay-5-000-year-season-ticket.html&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].
[2] Chris Bowlby, ‘Worried about the price of train travel? So were the Victorians: Chris Bowlby looks at the history behind rising rail fares’ History Today 27 December 2012 [Internet <http://www.historyextra.com/feature/worried-about-price-train-travel-so-were-victorians&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].
[3] Ibid.
[4] A. J. Doran More Pick of Punch (London: The Folio Society, 2001), p.17.
[5] Anon. ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ Punch, or the London Charivari 26 September 1868, p.129.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Anon. ‘The Railway Robin Hood and Little John’ p.129.
[10] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. 1 (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.115.
[11] William Makepeace Thackeray Rebecca and Rowena (1850, London: Hesperus, 2002), p.13.
[12] Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker ‘Crime and Justice – Punishments at the Old Bailey’ Old Bailey Proceedings Online [Internet <https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Punishment&gt; Accessed 07/08/2015].

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