Canon Victor Lorenzo Whtchurch (1868-1933) was the son of an East Anglian vicat, and was one of that large convocation of clergy, ranging from Bishops to curates, fascinated by railways and model railways. If they were not ministering to a large impoverished congregation in deprived inner-city areas, they seemed to have plenty of time to pursue other interests.
Canon Whitchurch was a prolific author of novels, short stories and articles on railways, clerical lore and topography. He was a regular contributor to The Strand, Railway Magazine, Boy’s Own Paper, and later to Pearson’s Magazine, the series of articles, including those featuring Thorpe Hazel, later published in book form as Thrilling Storied~s of the Railway.
It has to be said, that “railway expert” Thorpe Hazel, for all his knowledge and esteem in which he was held “At least two railway companies habitually sought his expert advice in the bewildering task of altering their time tables…” was rather an irritating twerp, who one would have felt inclined to slap. He was one of those idiosyncratic private detectives inspired by the Sherlock Holmes (cocain and opium user) stories, including Max Carados (blind), Horace Dorrington (crooked solicitor, whose clients were fortunate just to be robbed not murdered), Romney Pringle (Literary Agent, with no visible clients, thief and con man), Lord Peter Wimsey (wine expert and collector of rare books) Albert Campion, (criminal past hinted at in his first appearance) and many others. In contrast to Holmes who never varied his fees, “save when he remitted them altogether,” many of his imitators were gentlemen of independent means, who took no fees at all. In fact, Hazel was quite offended when offered remuneration by a Bishop whom he has helped out of a tight spot, and when Sir Gilbert Murrell offered a reward for the return of a valuable stolen painting.
Why was Hazel so irritating? Well, he was an evangelising health freak, (of a type not unknown today) subsisting on a diet of lentils, plasmon biscuits (a biscuit contaoming a trade-marked dried milk, favoured by George Bernard Shaw) salad, Dutch cheese, macaroni and lemonade. He regarded all alcohol as “pure poison” but paradoxically was very choosy about the quality of his cigars and when pondering a problem, furiously chain smoked cigarettes. Additionally, regardless of place or company he would engage in vigorous “Swedish arm waving” exercises when due to eat – robust exercises before eating being vital to good digestion… Whitchurches railway details and descriptions of block working, signals, etc. are always accurate, although one story, featuring the removal of a wagon from the middle of a slow moving goods train, its running into a siding and the subsequent re-coupling of the still moving train does stretch one’s powers of belief somewhat!
The stories very much reflect the preoccupations of people in the first decade of the 20th century. German spies, stolen secret documents, Russian secret police, seeking to eliminate plotters against the Czar, amongst the emigre population, a bitter relaway strike, culminating in an attempt to murder an unpopular General Manager, and a strike amongst iron workers, which degenerates into severe civil disorder, so some of the strikers attempt to sabotage a train bringing soldiers to aid an overwhelmed police force.