The Railway Children

The Railway Children

First edition
Author Edith Nesbit
Illustrator C. E. Brock
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Children's
Publisher Wells Gardner, Darton
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 309
Title page of first edition

The Railway Children is a children's book by Edith Nesbit, originally serialised in The London Magazine during 1905 and first published in book form in 1906. It has been adapted for the screen several times, of which the 1970 film version is the best known. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography credits Oswald Barron, who had a deep affection for Nesbit, with having provided the plot.

Plot summary

The story concerns a family who move from London to "The Three Chimneys", a house near the railway in Yorkshire, after the father, who works at the Foreign Office, is imprisoned after being falsely accused of spying. The children befriend an Old Gentleman who regularly takes the 9:15 train near their home; he is eventually able to help prove their father's innocence, and the family is reunited. The family takes care of a Russian exile, Mr Szczepansky, who came to England looking for his family (later located) and Jim, the grandson of the Old Gentleman, who suffers a broken leg in a tunnel.

The theme of an innocent man being falsely imprisoned for espionage and finally vindicated might have been influenced by the Dreyfus Affair, which was a prominent worldwide news item a few years before the book was written. The Russian exile, persecuted by the Tsars for writing "a beautiful book about poor people and how to help them" and subsequently helped by the children, was most likely an amalgam of the real-life dissidents Sergius Stepniak and Peter Kropotkin who were both friends of the author.[1]


The story has been adapted for the screen six times to date, including four television series, a feature film, and a made-for-television film.

BBC radio dramatisation

It was adapted for radio by Marcy Kahan and produced by John Taylor. It stars Paul Copley, Timothy Bateson and Victoria Carling and was first heard in 1991. The play is available on CD.

BBC television series

The story has been adapted as a television series four times by the BBC. The first of these, in 1951, was in 8 episodes of 30 minutes each. A second adaptation was then produced, which re-used some of the film from the original series but also contained new material with slight cast changes. This had 4 episodes of 60 minutes each. The supporting/background orchestral music used in these early programs was the very lyrical second Dance from the Symphonic Dances by Edvard Grieg.

The BBC again revisited the story with an 8-episode series in 1957 and a 7-episode series in 1968. The 1968 adaptation was placed 96th in the BFI's 100 Greatest British Television Programmes poll of 2000. It starred Jenny Agutter as Roberta and Gillian Bailey as Phyllis. Of all the TV adaptations, only the 1968 version is known to be extant (it is currently available on DVD); the rest may be lost.


After the successful BBC dramatisation of 1968, the film rights were bought by the actor Lionel Jeffries, who wrote and directed the film, released in 1970. Jenny Agutter and Dinah Sheridan starred in the film. The music was composed, arranged and conducted by Johnny Douglas.

2000 version

In October 1999, ITV made a new adaptation, as a made-for-television film. This time Jenny Agutter played the role of the mother. Others in the movie include Jemima Rooper, Jack Blumenau and JJ Feild. The railway filmed was the Bluebell Railway using some of the Railway's steam engines and rolling stock and NBR C Class 0-6-0 "Maude", from the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway.

Cast 1951 (BBC) 1957 (BBC) 1968 (BBC) 1970 (film) 2000 (Carlton Television)
Mother Jean Anderson Jean Anderson Ann Castle Dinah Sheridan Jenny Agutter
Father John Stuart John Richmond Frederick Treves Iain Cuthbertson Michael Kitchen
Roberta Marion Chapman Anneke Wills Jenny Agutter Jenny Agutter Jemima Rooper
Phyllis Carole Lorimer Sandra Michaels Gillian Bailey Sally Thomsett Clare Thomas
Peter Michael Croudson Cavan Kendall Neil McDermott Gary Warren Jack Blumenau
Perks Michael Harding Richard Warner Gordon Gostelow Bernard Cribbins Gregor Fisher
Old Gentleman DA Clarke-Smith Norman Shelley Joseph O'Conor William Mervyn Richard Attenborough
Dr Forrest John Le Mesurier John Stuart John Ringham Peter Bromilow David Bamber

Stage versions

In 2005 the stage musical was first presented at Sevenoaks Playhouse in Kent, UK, with a cast including Are You Being Served star Nicholas Smith as the Old Gentleman, Paul Henry from Crossroads as Perks and West End star Susannah Fellows as Mother. Music is by Richard John and book and lyrics by Julian Woolford. The score was recorded by TER/JAY records and the musical is published by Samuel French Ltd.

A new stage adaptation written by Mike Kenny and directed by Damian Cruden was staged in 2008 and 2009 at the National Railway Museum, York. The adaptation starred Sarah Quintrell, Colin Tarrant and Marshall Lancaster (2008 only), and featured a Stirling Single steam locomotive (GNR 4–2–2 No.1) which, while not actually in steam, entered the stage on the tracks originally leading into the York Goods Station, in which the 'Station Hall' section of the museum is now situated. The stage was constructed inside the large tent outside the Goods Station, which is usually reserved for some of the working locomotives of the museum. The project was set up by York Theatre Royal, and involved its younger members (Youth theatre) in the production.[2][3] This adaptation then transferred for two seasons to two disused platforms at Waterloo International railway station.[4] The amateur rights now allow local amateur companies across the UK to produce the play. A Toronto production in 2011 was staged at Roundhouse Park, home of John Street Roundhouse National Historic Site[5] by Mirvish Productions. A temporary 1,000 seat theatre was built at the base of the CN Tower, around the railway tracks—with the audience seated on either side—and it featured a 66-ton vintage steam locomotive.

The production at Waterloo won an Olivier Award for best Entertainment in 2011.[6]

The stage adaptation, produced by the National Railway Museum and York Theatre Royal, reopened in December 2014 in a new theatre behind London's Kings Cross station[7] and is due to close on 8 January 2017.[8]

Allegations of plagiarism

In 2011, Nesbit was accused of lifting the plot of the book from The House by the Railway by Ada J. Graves, a book first published in 1896 and serialised in a popular magazine in 1904, a year before The Railway Children first appeared.[9] In both works the children's adventures bear remarkable similarities. At the climax Nesbit's characters use red petticoats to stop the train whilst Graves has them using a red jacket.[10]

A 200-metre footpath[11] in Lee, Greater London is named Railway Children Walk to commemorate Nesbit's novel of the same name. The short walkway connects Lee High Road to Grove Park, a nearby public park.[12] A similar path is also located in Oxenhope.[13]


  1. How did come to write The Railway Children?. The Guardian (25 June 2015). Retrieved on 2016-06-18.
  2. York Theatre Royal production. Retrieved on 18 June 2016.
  3. British Theatre Guide review. Retrieved on 18 June 2016.
  4. Gritten, David (29 June 2010). "The Railway Children: weepie that will never run out of steam". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  5. "Railway Children musical coming to Toronto park". CBC News. 26 January 2011.
  6. "The Railway Children wins Best Entertainment – Laurence Olivier Awards". Olivier Awards page. 26 April 2011.
  7. Mitford, Oliver (8 October 2014). "The Railway Children steams back into London". London Box Office. London.
  8. "TV's Mr Tumble Joins The Railway Children – Must Close 8 January 2017". Best of Theatre. London. 16 June 2016.
  9. Copping, Jasper (20 March 2011). "The Railway Children 'plagiarised' from earlier story". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 21 March 2011.
  10. Salkeld, Luke (20 March 2011). "Author of classic book The Railway Children accused of plagiarism: Did E. Nesbit lift from Ada J. Graves's earlier novel?". London: The Daily Mail. Retrieved 21 March 2011.
  11. Brown, Matt. "Photo of Railway Children Walk – Lee". Flickr. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  12. "Railway Children Walk". Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  13. Jones, Roger. "Visit to Hebden Bridge". Wordpress. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
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