Up close and personal

Earlier today, Sunday, I was listening to a very fine version of that old blues classic ‘Rock Island Line’, an Arkansas prison work song, immortalised by Huddie Leadbetter, aka ‘Leadbelly’. We don’t have a tradition of prison work songs here but, we do have a very fine piece of English folk music dedicated to the man, who died at the controls of his engine, just like the one above, trying to save the lives of others.

John Axon was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his heroism and a forty five minute radio programme, based on the tragic series of events which led to Axon’s death, ‘The Ballad of John Axon’ was broadcast in 1958 and repeated later that year; and again in 1960 and 63. The GCR, where the photograph above was taken, have also held events to celebrate Axon’s heroism and his George Cross was donated to the NRM by his family. I remember listening to the broadcast, as I guess many a trainspotter did, it made quite an impression on me, as my own Dad had just died, though not in a horrific accident. When I listened to it again, in 1963, I was a footplateman myself.

I’ll leave you with the way Ewan McColl began his ‘Ballard of John Axon’:

“The year was 1957, the morning bright and gay,
On the 9th of February John Axon drove away.
In a class 8 locomotive from Buxton he did go:
On the road to Chapel–en-le Frith his steam brake pipe did blow.
It’s a seven – mile drop from Bibbington Top, oh Johnny,
It’s 1 in 58 and you’ve no steam brake, oh Johnny,
She’s picking up speed and the power is freed; it’s a prayer you’ll need,
But you’ll never make it, Johnny.
It’s hell on a plate, it’s a funeral freight, oh Johnny,
It’s the end of a dream in steel and steam, oh Johnny,
There’s a world in your head and you’re due at the shed and there’s life ahead
But you’ll never see it, Johnny. …….”
You can find the rest of the song and much more besides by following the link, if you’re interested: http://www.setintosong.co.uk/downloads/PDF/rb_website_john_axon.pdf

If you have enjoyed my blogs – I have written a book about my 60 years involvement with railways, from trainspotter, via steam age footplateman, to railway author and photographer, this is a link to it:


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