More than any other piece of machinery created by the mind and hands of man, the Steam Locomotive is described as being “alive”; indeed they are said to be “born” when they leave the works brand new, and they are “Christened” when they are named. And, it is amazing to think, that a little over a century separates the record-breaking Mallard and Stephenson’s Rocket – which, in comparison, was basically a self-propelled kettle. It’s also interesting to note the Unitarian involvement in the development of the locomotive: George Stephenson was educated by Rev. William Turner of Newcastle; Henry Booth, one of the Directors of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway and the progenitor of the multi-tube boiler, was also a Unitarian. And of course there was Richard Peacock of Beyer, Peacock of Manchester and Lord Airedale of Leeds who both built and developed railway engines. But we’re not here for a lecture on railway locomotives and the Unitarian influence thereon.
What we are here to do is honour and learn from the faith and trust of those involved in breaking the world speed record in 1938. When Joe Duddington and Tommy Bray stepped on the footplate of Mallard 75 years ago, they knew something special was about to happen. But they didn’t know what. The fastest a railway locomotive had ever run in Britain was 114mph; the Germans had bettered that in 1936 with 124mph (200kph). But just over a hundred years before the Unitarian commentator Dionysius Lardner had predicted a human’s head would come off at speeds greater than 25mph! Nigel Gresley, the designer of Mallard, was determined to not only win the speed record for his own company (The LNER) from their chief rivals, the LMS, but also from the Germans. It would be a major propaganda coup in those troubled years immediately pre-war. There was a lot resting on the footplate crew, and on Mallard herself.
Duddington and Bray were, quite literally, going into the unknown. A locomotive had never gone faster than 124mph. Could Mallard do it? Would she come off the tracks? Could the crew do it? Were they up to the task?
Duddington had been a railwayman for over 40 years: he was born in Doncaster in 1876; joined the Great Northern Railway aged 18 in 1895 and started driving in 1898 and drove the London-York express trains from 1913. He should have retired in 1942, but instead continued working as the driver of Mallard until the end of hostilities in 1945 so that “I could do my bit”. As any footplateman will tell you, the most important man on the footplate is the fireman, not the driver. The fireman on that day was Tommy Bray of Doncaster. Like Duddington, a veteran fireman with decades of service, and both men had been Mallard’s crew since she left Doncaster works. It was his job to check the water level in the boiler and to physically shovel coal into the firebox – all 230 square feet of it! Without him the steam pressure would have dropped and Mallard would not have been able to have broken the record. The two men worked like a well-oiled machine. They were a team. They knew instinctively what to do. They trusted and had faith that the other would do their duty. The choice of Duddington and Bray to break the speed record would seem a complete contrast to today: how many men over 50 would be chosen for a world record attempt? How many 62 year olds have driven over 120mph? (Other than Kate, perhaps?). Duddington and Bray were the best crew the LNER had. They were the perfect team for the record attempt.
In an interview with the BBC in 1944, Duddington spoke of his and Bray’s efforts as if it had all been in a days work for them. Without pride. Without hyperbole. With modesty: without their bravery, their skill and sweat the record would not have been broken. Without Duddington’s superb judgement and Bray’s ability to fling one ton of coal an hour through Mallard’s dinner-plate sized firebox door, everything would have been for naught. Even for Mallard, the record-breaking locomotive, she returned to her normal duties and didn’t have commemorative bronze plaques attached to her boiler until 1948. She continued to pull high-speed trains from London to Edinburgh, twice daily until she was retired in 1962 having run 1,414,138 miles!
As the Railwayman’s Prayer at the start of the service reminded us, we are all on a journey. We are all on a journey into the unknown – perhaps not at 126mph – but one we take at our own speed. But we are not making the journey on our own. We have family, friends, and colleagues –those with whom we want to share our life, or joys and woes – with us. We trust that the way ahead for us will be clear; we put our faith and our trust in those on our journey, our pilgrimage of life, with. But, more than that, we have faith that God (however you define God) will be with us too.
The Christian Bible – Old and New Testaments - is littered with statements about trust and faith, and this is why people find it comforting in times of great distress. But what does it mean to trust in God? The answer depends on your interpretation. If we think that God is a superman who swoops down and puts everything right, we can be disappointed. If we think that opening our hearts to the universe for courage and strength to handle the challenges of life, many of us won’t be disappointed.
But, how do we develop trust in the first place? The psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson wrote, “Basic trust is a state of relationship in which a child has learned to rely on the sameness and continuity of the outside provider.” He felt that over time the child comes to feel that the world is a safe and happy place and that he is a valued part of it….and that this bodes well for good mental health.”
Trust engenders Love. One person completely opens his or her heart to another, entrusting inmost thoughts. Truthfulness, dependability, faithfulness, and respect will be required to sustain that trusting relationship. In such a relationship, whether lovers or friends, we live out our first two principles: worth and dignity and justice and compassion in human relationship. When such a trust is broken, it can be devastating. How can we regain trust again? That is where psychology and religion can be helpful and also philosophy.
The 18th century philosopher and theologian, Emmanuel Kant, offers us a simple and profound way of how to create a state of trust that honours human beings. It is essentially a version of the Golden Rule. He bids us to “Act towards others as we would have done to us.” His exact words were: “do as you would be done by.” And he added: Treat others with dignity. He adds: do not make a promise you cannot keep. Like Duddington and Bray, who placed their trust in Mallard, we place our trust in many of our human achievements and institutions: the church, the police, the fire brigade, the employer, the bank, other financial institutions, our government representatives, health professionals, and so on. Today we have a crisis of trust in many of our institutions. I won’t bore or distress you with a tirade against banks and investment companies. Although, reminding them about THOU SHALT NOT STEAL and of the deadly sin of AVARICE (OR GREED!) would give me a bit of satisfaction!
The Ten Commandments were about holding one another to account around the very basic foibles of human nature: lying, cheating, stealing, and so on. It is about creating safe and trusting communities by following simple rules of trust.
If we don’t have trust in our lives, we don’t have much at all. I’m with the Buddhists when it comes to having trust in the self so that we can recover when we suffer a breach of trust. I do trust that most people will be honest and reliable and I think most of you will as well. We will all come out of this whole debacle of loss of trust in institutions a lot better off when we are reminded of the things that really matter, beginning with the trust in our personal relationships and in our communities.
Liberal religionists like us generally have trust in human nature and in life itself. We are “good” for goodness’ sake not for any belief in either heaven or hell. And we trust for trusts sake. In our chapel community, we can practice the trust we’d like to take into the world and we can BE a deep well of trust for one another in our beloved community. May we ever be the beloved trusting and trustworthy community.