“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.


[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].


Robin Hood Staffordshire Figurine

Robin Hood and Little John Staffordshire Figurine c.1860
Robin Hood and Little John Staffordshire Figurine c.1860

During the nineteenth century, various authors such as John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Love Peacock transformed Robin Hood into a morally safe figure; a respectable outlaw hero with whom the Victorian middle classes could identify.

It was not purely in literary texts that Robin Hood’s respectable status was exhibited, however, but also in material culture. During the nineteenth century Staffordshire emerged as one of the foremost regions in the UK for the production of ceramics and pottery. The figurines produced by Staffordshire included ‘royalty, historical personalities, characters from fiction and the stage, and sporting heroes.’ The subjects of a recent article by Simon Morgan were figurines of political personalities, whilst Rosalind Crone briefly discussed the figurines of murderers which were produced during the 1820s and 1840s. However, Robin Hood as a Staffordshire figurine does not fit easily into the scope of either Crone’s or Morgan’s research: he is not – by the nineteenth century at least – a murderer but a historical figure, and could not therefore have provided a substitute for the contemporary vogue among members of the public for visiting crime scenes. Neither is Robin Hood an overtly political figure, in the same way that a figurine of William Gladstone could be. Hence the outlaw’s figure could not be used as ‘a prop in collective rituals of [political] belonging.’

Staffordshire figurines were made specifically so that they could be displayed in the home, evident by their ‘flatback’ design, and the figurine of Robin Hood and Little John is of this design. The technique for this type of ‘flatback’ emerged in the 1830s through the use of press moulding. A ‘master copy’ could then be produced which would provide a mould for subsequent products. Their cost seems to have been quite reasonable, and within the reach of those of the working classes who had a little money to spare, although there is debate about what type of people actually bought them. Crone places purchasers of these figurines squarely within the working classes, saying that the ‘figurines and models were […] part of the expanding pictorial world of the lower classes.’ On the other hand, Morgan says that while ‘they were within reach of the pockets of manual workers, with wholesale prices of between 7s. and 10s. per dozen for single figures […] anecdotal evidence suggests they were mainly purchased by a more affluent clientele.’ Similarly, K. Theodore Hoppen links Staffordshire figurines to a middle-class clientele, and it is as a middle-class consumer product that the figurine of Robin Hood is viewed. After all, he is already a feature of domesticated ‘moral and instructive’ works which were presumably read in the drawing room, and he had by the middle of the nineteenth century become a hero whom the middle classes could admire. In the Staffordshire figurine Robin Hood could be admired on the mantelpiece, which as Rohan McWilliam comments was one of the most precious places in the Victorian middle-class home:

Staffordshire Figurine of the Duke of Wellington
Staffordshire Figurine of the Duke of Wellington

We need to take seriously the mental and emotional world of the mantelpiece – a space for memory and pleasure (though there were other sites within the domestic interior for the display of objects such as windows or even the tops of upright pianos). They were museums in miniature. The fragility of pottery meant that the mantelpiece was a space defined as being out of harm’s way.

Arguably, Robin Hood, represented in a three-dimensional Staffordshire figurine is a manifestation of the qualities which he had gradually been imbued with since the days of Joseph Ritson and Walter Scott. He was, as McWilliam comments about another piece of Staffordshire Pottery, ‘a nod to the cosiness of the domestic sphere.’ The outlaw hero had indeed become a ‘domesticated’ hero, evident in his appearance in Victorian moralist works such as Historical Tales for the Instruction of Youth (1859). A speciality of the Staffordshire potters was patriotic figures, and as seen in the novel, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood was a patriotic figure, a man who gave his all in the service of the nation. The beauty about owning a figure of Robin Hood, however, is that he is a relatively un-political figure unlike, say, the Duke of Wellington who later became a Tory MP. Robin Hood was also a moral patriotic figure, unlike Admiral Nelson who, while he may have won the Battle of Trafalgar, was guilty of some indiscretion with Emma Hamilton. Moreover, Robin Hood and Little John are depicted as leaning against a tree; it is almost nostalgic, much like Keats’ poem, Robin Hood: To a Friend. Whilst Simon Morgan argues that people bought Staffordshire figurines of certain radical politicians as a means of proclaiming their identification with a particular cause, with Robin Hood purchasers did not have to make a political statement. The outlaw was, to borrow a phrase from A. J. Pollard, ‘all things to all men;’ provided, of course, that they could afford the Staffordshire figurine, and had their own ‘museum in miniature’ in which to display it.

Crone, R. Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Hoppen, K. T. The Mid-Victorian Generation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

McWilliam, R. ‘The Theatricality of the Staffordshire Figurine’. Journal of Victorian Culture 10: 1 (2005).

Morgan, S. J. ‘Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England’. Journal of Victorian Culture, 17: 2 (2012).

Stoke Museums ‘Staffordshire Portrait Figures: A description of the Pugh Collection of Victorian Staffordshire Figures in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery’ [Internet <http://www.stokemuseums.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/sm-info_staff-figures.pdf&gt; Accessed 26/02/2015].

Robin Hood’s Death

Robin Hood's Death in Howard Pyle's
Robin Hood’s Death in Howard Pyle’s “Robin Hood” (1883). [Scanned Image]

One of the reasons for the longevity of the Robin Hood legend is the fact that, in the original medieval ballads, his origins are not stated. He is simply there, in the forest. No one knows why he is an outlaw, he just is. This state of affairs allowed later writers such as Anthony Munday to ascribe to him the grandiose title of Earl of Huntingdon. However, we do know how the ballads tell of Robin Hood’s death.

In the ballad ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (published in printed form c.1470), Robin, after living as an outlaw in the forest a full twenty-two years, begins to feel ill. His cousin is the Prioress of Kirklees, and in addition to her spiritual role, is also something of a nurse. He decides therefore that he will go to his cousin to be bled (bleeding was believed to be a cure for a range of ailments from the medieval period down to the 1800s). Yet his cousin was a devious woman and, conspiring with her lover, Roger of Doncaster, bleeds Robin excessively so that he dies:

Yet he was begyled, I wys / Through a wycked woman / The pryoresse of Kyrkesly / That nye was of his kynee.

For the love of a knyght / Syr Roger of Donkester / That was her own speciall / Full evyll mote they fare.


Syr Roger of Donkestere / By the pryoresse he lay / And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode / Through theyr false playe.

Later ballads such as ‘Robin Hood’s Death’ (a ballad that is perhaps 18th/19th century origin) would embellish his last moments even further. Little John his lifelong companion is by his side. Robin shoots a final arrow out of the window and asks to be buried wherever it lands:

These words they readily promis’d him / Which did bold Robin please / And there they buried bold Robin Hood / Near to the fair Kirkleys.

There is a grave stone close to the site of the former Kirklees priory with the following epitath:

Robin Hood's Grave in Kirklees [Source: http://nijurbex.blogspot.co.uk/]
Robin Hood’s Grave in Kirklees [Source: http://nijurbex.blogspot.co.uk/%5D

Hear underneath dis laitl stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick [such] utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.

To my fellow Yorkshire folk, it is doubtful that there was ever a Robin Hood who was buried here. Firstly, the grave was “discovered” in the eighteenth century, and even the “Old” English wording is inconsistent with the Middle English that Robin Hood and his men would have spoken. Thomas Percy, who in the eighteenth century collected many old ballads, including ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, was sceptical about the grave:

This epitath appears to me suspicious. However, a late antiquary [Will Stukeley] has given a pedigree of Robin Hood, which, if genuine, shows that he had real pretensions to the earldom of Huntington.

Percy was right to be sceptical, the genealogy provided by Stukeley was nothing more than an invention of an eighteenth-century Robin Hood enthusiast.

Evidence suggests that the ballad ‘Robin Hood’s Death’ was not very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even more so, only one movie in the last 100 years, Robin and Marian (1976) has shown a scene with Robin Hood dying – that movie wasn’t popular either! It seems people don’t like seeing/hearing/reading about the outlaw’s death.