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The Railway Children

Related subjects: Children's Books

Background Information

SOS Children, an education charity, organised this selection. SOS mothers each look after a a family of sponsored children.

The Railway Children
The Railway Children (book).jpg
Author(s) Edith Nesbit
Country  United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Children's
Publisher T. Fisher Unwin
Publication date 1906
Media type Print ( Hardcover)

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.

Plot summary

The story concerns the Waterbury family who move to "Three Chimneys", a house near the railway, after the father who works at the Foreign office, is imprisoned as a result of being falsely accused of selling state secrets to the Russians. The three children, Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis, find amusement in watching the trains on the nearby railway line and waving to the passengers. They become friendly with Albert Perks, the station porter, and with the Old Gentleman who regularly takes the 9:15 down train. He is eventually able to help prove their father's innocence, and the family is reunited. The family take care of the 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. And 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.


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

BBC radio dramatisation

E. Nesbit's perennial favourite 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 was 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 BBC again revisited the story with an 8 episode series in 1957 and again 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 the 1960s, 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 TV)
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.. This adaptation is currently being performed at the disused Waterloo International railway station.

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