Tory Historian's blog: a curious conundrum

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tory Historian was engaged in a discussion about the author of what might have been the earliest collection of railway detective stories by V. L. Whitrechurch and decided to find the book, having read several though not all of those adventures. As ever, London Library came up trumps and there, on the right shelf, was the 1977 reprint with a highly informative introduction by Bryan Morgan of Stories of the Railway, which is, as it happens, available on Gutenberg Australia under the original title of Thrilling Stories of the Railway.

Before TH moves to a discussion of the two titles, the collection as a whole and of its astonishing author, let us look at the curious conundrum raised by Bryan Morgan (himself a railway enthusiast, author of books on the subject and editor of The Railway Lover's Companion as well as of an exellent collection, entitled Crime on the Lines):
The nexus between railways and the clergy (today including at least two bishops, and extended to include such fringe churchmen as organists) has been often remarked upon but never fully explained. Should one, for instance, accept the view of a current professor of scripture that the organisation of a railway is a microcosm of God's organisation of the universe, or agree with that vicar and author of popular children's books who claims that despite their faults the railways and the church are the best ways of transporting a man to his final destination? Or should one look to the late Canon Roger Lloyd's opinion that railway-lore is 'morally good in the sense that it healthily occupies the mind and so becomes a subsidiary and indirect cause of that self-forgetfulness which is at the root of all virtue'?

Certainly, though, the clerical or lay enthusiast of the early years of the present century was a happy man; for Britain's railways were then at their peak of glory. 'Brief years, from the death of Queen Victoria to the outbreak of war', as Mr Hamilton Ellis has written, 'were proud years. Enormous coal-trains rumbled and handsome expresses rushed about the country. Maintenance was high and locomotives were often painted in gorgeous colours.' Bradshaw ran to nearly 1200 pages (a figure never preceded or exceeded) and in many a country rectory stood as a work of reference beside Crockford's. Numerous parsons stumped while drafting a sermon must have relaxed intellectually by working out the quickest route between Saxmundham and Blisworth.
Most certainly there is a link between railways and spy stories, at least those of that period as well as detective ones. But why the clergy should find itself so enamoured with trains and all matters to do with them remains a mystery and if Bryan Morgan cannot solve it, nobody can.

Whitechurch was an astonishingly prolific author of detective and other novels and short stories as well as books of topography and autobiography. As Mr Morgan says, his duties in the Church could not have been particularly onerous.

His knowledge of the railways seems to have been outstanding and several of the short stories have pages of incomprehensible detail about the various activities, which does not, oddly enough, detract from the actual plots that are usually very straightforward, sometimes of the detective, sometimes of the thriller variety.

Nine of the fifteen are concerned with the activities of the "first railway detective" as acknowledged by no less an authority as Ellery Queen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Thorpe Hazell, who shares his creator's knowledge of trains and railways but is also something of a diet and exercise weirdo. TH has wondered idly whether Mrs Ariadne Oliver's creation, the vegetarian Finn, Sven Hjerson might not have been influencd by the character of Thorpe Hazell, though the latter sticks to a seriously unhealthy diet of milk, lentils, macaroni and Dutch cheese with nary a piece of fruit or vegetable. He also eats Plasmon biscuits and chocolate and does quite ridiculous exercises before and after meals. But give him a problem such as how to stop a German messenger from taking a stolen document out of the country or how to ensure that an important diplomatic meeting takes place or what happened to a valuable picture and, indeed, the carriage it was in and Hazell is in his element.

There are also six non-Hazell stories and these are all thrillers with the villains ranging from German agents to Russian police officials and violent union leaders. All in all, quite interesting but not altogether thrilling. According to Bryan Morgan, the British Library catalogue renamed the collection from Thrilling Stories of the Railway to just Stories of the Railway, and that is how they were reprinted in 1977. As indicated above the Australian on-line version restores the original title as did the BBC when it recorded Benedict Cumberbatch reading inexplicably abridged versions of the stories.


  1. Great topic, and lots of interesting speculation. I read one Whitechurch book: Canon in Residence. Not crime, but very good and funny, and obviously featuring a cleric....

  2. Two V.L. Whitechurch novels available here

  3. dfordoom Says:
  4. I found Whitechurch's railway stories to be immense fun.

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