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The Ballad of John Axon
First transmitted on
2 July 1958

The first of the Radio Ballads, The Ballad of John Axon concerns a steam-locomotive driver from Stockport, posthumously awarded the George Cross for an act of heroism in 1957 when he refused to abandon his runaway train and saved lives at the expense of his own.

Axon's train was making the run from Buxton in the Derbyshire Peak District to his home depot at Edgeley, Stockport, when the steam brake pipe fractured. Despite exposure to scalding steam, he urged his fireman to jump to safety and hung on the outside of the cab as the train picked up speed up to 80mph down a long incline. His warning to the signalman at Doveholes enabled a diesel train at Chapel-en-le-Frith to be moved to safety but his own life was lost as his engine crashed into a freight train there.

When MacColl, Parker and Peggy Seeger travelled to Stockport to interview Axon's widow and workmates, it was apparent that the immediacy of their recall and richness of idiom, along with the sound effects of the locality, were far too compelling to use merely as a script for actors performing a formal musical as originally planned. A new form of radio was born to deal with this unique situation, telling the story of John Axon in song and 'actuality' - the field recordings of colleagues and family in their own environment. This marriage of the ballad form and tape recording technology was hailed in the national press as a remarkable innovation, and the response was described by Parker as "staggering".


What did you think of the Radio Ballad extract? Do you have first-hand memories of the great days of steam trains? Send us your comments.

Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

Read what others have said...

Dave Eaton, Barnstaple, Devon.
I can remember listening to this at Chapel-en-le-frith school, but what my teacher did'nt know was I was at the scene of the crash, my uncle took me up to see it, although I was only 3 almost 4 years old I can remember seeing the wreck.

Allan Lewis. Sale, Cheshire
Ron Scanlon, the fireman in the 'Ballad of John Axon' used to later drive the shunting locomotive at Stockport Station, where, in 1969 I started my railway career as a signal box lad. He used to allow me on the loco when shunting the parcel vans and showed me 'how it was done' I will be forever grateful to the many railwaymen who took the trouble when I, as a schoolboy and new to the railway wanted to know everything. Nothing was too much trouble for them.

Peter Cole, Almeria. Spain
"Fantastic". I am the middle son of John Cole the harmonica player on this documentary and Johns Father, Ernest, was an Engine driver on the GWR when Dad was just a young boy and still remembers his Dad lifting him up on to the plates, the smell of the grease, oil and steam. He says the best toasted cheese sandwich came off of the firemans shovel. Dad still plays his harmonica/mouth organ every day (they say practice makes perfect) Listening to this again after all these years brings back memories to me as well, as a young boy living in London and Dad telling us stories of his trips to the BBC recording studios and the fun he had. When ever we went on holiday to the coast Dad made sure me and my two brothers always went to the engine and thanked the driver and fireman. If anybody knows where I could get a copy of this I know he would be "chuffed to bits" please contact me.

Keith Brunt
I remember my brother playing this record. Now long lost. It would be nice to hear the whole thing again. The miners one was very interesting as was the sheffield steel one.

Nick Johnson - Steyning, West Sussex
I first read an extract from the Ballad of John Axon as a young child of about 6 or 7 in a book my grandfather gave me. It captured my imagination way back then but at the time, it never actually occurred to me that it was true. However some years later I learned that the truth about this man & his ultimate sacrifice. I now work as a train driver for one of the former Inter City companies & even though the job has changed somewhat from my hero's days, he was the kind of driver I always hoped I'd make, showing unerring dedication above & beyond the call of duty. Mr Axon will always rank alongside other railwaymen who showed the same spirit such as Benjamin Gimbert, James Nightall, Wallace Oakes and many others too numerous to mention.

Peter Cole, Almeria. Spain
Thank you so much it was wonderful especialy as my father John Cole was the harmonica player on this radio documentery, what memories it brought back from my childhood in London during the 50,s. My Grandfather Ernest Cole was an Engine Driver on the GWR

Mike Partridge Stockport
Please repeat the entire ballad programme

Keith Perks
wonderful stuff. i first became aware of the radio ballad's @ a talk by michael (?) parker @ the 1971 loughborough folk festival (1972). though i was allready aware of the greaT CONTRIBUTIONS OF EWAN mcColl to the English Folk revival. Subsequently, i heard the balad of john axon on BBC radio and saw McColl & Peggy Seeger in Aston, Birmingham. Thank you for making this wonderful material available, and I look forward to listening to the new radio ballads on BBC Radio, even if they are only half as good as the original Radio Ballads they will be wonderful!

Christine Leigh Stockport
I lived as a girl at the Armoury drill hall in Edgeley, Stockport. My father, Charlie Teece, was caretaker and our house was built over the track - the trains ran under the house. We got used to the sound ot the trains and never even noticed them. When I was about ten ( I am now 59) the railway claimed back land they had loaned to the army and the house was demolished and another one built at the opposite end of the drill yard. It is still there. I was 11 in 1957. This programme was great when it came out and is still moving now. My parents were in to all kinds of music. We bought the LP of the ballad of John Axon and I think we still have it still. I think it is a great idea to bring them back and up to date.

Colin Southampton
fascinating insight into past lives, although i was born in 1961.i find it hard to concieve such working comitment would be possible in this day and age!

Grace, Harrow
Thanks so much for putting online the details of the original Radio Ballads, I have been searching for details of the Ballad of John Axon, without remembering the exact title, for some time. Now I can hear that again, as well as the others which I missed first time round.

Julian Smith - Enfield
These are on CD as I borrowed it from my library. Really a chilling tale of a life given for a love of the railway. Should be on the school curriculum.

Andy Mabbett, Birmingham
The original recordings from which this programme (and others in the series) was assembled are archived in Birmingham Central Library.

Dr Jimmie Aitken
Born in 1943, I am old enough to have heard them all - and I thought I had! I now realise I had heard very few: The Ballad of John Axon, Singing the Fishing and Travelling People are all I recall - but I have indeed remembered them with great affection. The excerpts are welcome but - they must all be made available in full. We can't all expect to win the complete set!

mick, rotherham
brilliant!! brings back the heady days of steam when the trains ran on time and the kids had someone to look up to: the loco driver.

simon cross, nottingham
Actually, the Radio Ballads were not the first time that working (class) voices were heard on radio. You might be interested to know that 'ordinary voices' figured relatively prominently in the very earliest years of radio broadcasting in Britain (between about 1926-29). Manchester's North Region was home to working people's voices as much as the North Region programme makers could get them on air (not always possible). After John (later Lord) Reith set about creating centralised control of the BBC from London, the diversity of regional voices in British broadcasting was squeezed and it took Peggy Seeger, Charles Parker and Ewen MacColl (each were really the co-creators of the Radio Ballads) another 30 years or so before the voices of ordinary working people were allowed to figure strongly. The Ballads are thus important but only part of a long struggle for working people's access to the airwaves.

Henrik Batallones from Manila, Philippines
It is staggering. The music is amazing, and the use of clips were something far better. I wouldn't have known about this - as a seventeen-year-old - from somewhere else, and it's truly wonderful to hear this online.

Vic Argyle, Mount Martha, Australia
"Singing the Fishing", magic moments. I'll always remember the old chap who went to sea in the late 1800's and his comment about being on the cheek bones of his arse. What wonderful tunes too.

Peter Smith - Nottingham
When are we going to get those original ballads back on the radio? And what about The Long March of Everyman, still one of the highlights of radio in the past thirty years - is that ever going to be broadcast again?

Mark, Manchester
I can't believe it was as late as the 1950s when we heard working people's voices on radio for the first time. It's a wonderful thing to be able to hear these gems online!


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