Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The coming of the railways

"Euston Station - 1851 - from Project Gutenberg - eText 13271".
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 
See here, here and here for some excellent sites.

This post is heavily indebted to Christian Wolmar, Fire and Steam. How the Railways Transformed Britain (Atlantic Books, 2007) and Michael J Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination (Yale, 1999), Simon Bradley, Railways: Nation, Network & People (Profile Books, 2015); and also to Simon Garfield, The Last Journey of William Huskisson (Faber and Faber, 2002).


The idea of putting goods in wagons that were hauled by people or animals along tracks built into the road is extremely old. In Britain the history of these ‘wagon ways’ stretches back at least to the mines of the 16th century when crude wooden rails were used to support the wheels of the heavy loaded wagons and guide them up to the surface. The logical extension of the concept was to run the rails out of the mine to the nearest waterway where the ore or coal could be loaded directly onto barges. By the end of the 17th century tramways were so widely known in the north east that they were known as ‘Newcastle Roads’.

In the eighteenth century there were attempts both in Britain and France to put steam engines on wheels, but these failed because of technical limitations. The person with the strongest claim to the inventor of the steam locomotive is the Cornishman Richard Trevithick, who developed the concept of using high-pressure steam from which he could obtain more power in proportion to the weight of the engine. This opened up the possibility of making his device mobile as the engines could provide the energy to move themselves. In 1802 he put a steam engine on rails at Coalbrookdale and in 1803 his engine managed to haul wagons weighing nine tons at a speed of five miles an hour at the iron works at Pen-y-Darren in Wales – though the locomotive proved too heavy for the primitive rails.

Could passengers be carried along what, in every language other than English, came to be called ‘iron roads’? In 1807 the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, built originally to connect the docks at Swansea with the mines at Mumbles, carried passengers, charging a shilling for the ride. The wagons were pulled by horses and for a time even helped by sails. Would it ever be possible to harness the power of steam in order to transport people as well as goods?

The first lines

The opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway on 27 September 1825 is usually regarded as the symbolic start of the railway era. This was the first public railway worked by steam and it set the pattern for the development of railway systems across the world. The prime mover was George Stephenson (1781- 1848). He had developed the Locomotion, a pioneering mobile steam engine and it was the Locomotion 1 which pulled the freight train from Darlington to Stockton Quay.

"The Opening of the S&DR (crop)"
by Unknown -
Thurston, Robert H. (1878)
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 

The Stockton and Darlington line was followed by Stephenson’s second project, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. This was the first fully evolved railway as it was to carry passengers as well as freight and to rely on locomotive traction alone. The Rainhill locomotive trials were conducted in 1829 to assure that those prime movers would be adequate to the demands placed on them and that adhesion was practicable. Stephenson's entry, the Rocket, which he built with his son, Robert, won the trials owing to the increased power provided by its multiple fire-tube boiler. 

The rail line began in a long tunnel from the docks in Liverpool, and the Edgehill Cutting through which it passed dropped the line to a lower elevation across the low plateau above the city. The navvies raised embankments above the level of the Lancashire Plain to improve the drainage of the line and to reduce grades on a gently rolling natural surface. A firm causeway was pushed across the Chat Moss swamp to complete the line's quite considerable engineering works. When it was opened in September 1830, the event was turned into a festival, with a reported 40,000 spectators lining the route. A trumpeter was appointed to every carriage or set of carriages and a full military band was stationed at the head of the procession. 

Unfortunately the event also saw the first casualty of the railway age- the death at Parkside station of the politician, William Huskisson.

London got its first railway in 1836 when the first part of the London and Greenwich Railway opened to the public. It marked a radical departure from all the earlier railways, as it was built in an already developed area with the idea of catering for commuter traffic. It also had to compete with well-established boat traffic on the Thames. The railway was only 3½ miles, but it was a remarkable achievement, built on top of 878 arches to avoid using up too much land and interfering with the street pattern below. It took five years to build, required 60 million bricks and 400 navvies and cost nearly £1million to build. The railway was soon joined by the London and Croydon Railway with a separate station alongside at London Bridge.

By 1840 the south east was developing its railway network. 

"S E London railways 1840" by Chevin
 at English Wikipedia -
Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons 

The railways extended

In 1830 there were just under 100 miles of railway open in Britain. By 1852 there were some 6,000 and the main body of Britain’s railway system was in place. By this time London was linked to Bristol and most of the Channel ports.  Robert Stephenson’s London and Birmingham lines linked London with the Midlands and the North. The Great Northern Line had reached Doncaster (following the line of the old Great North Road).

Newcastle Central Station, 1867.
Passengers entered the station via a classical
portico large enough to house a concert hall
Public Domain

Information about railway journeys was provided by ‘Bradshaw’. In 1842 the Quaker publisher George Bradshaw first printed a monthly timetable that quickly established itself as the only guide to set out all scheduled rail services in the country, in spite of the fact that its complexity made it difficult to follow. It survived until 1961!

"1850 Bradshaw Whitby" by Original uploader
was KF at en.wikipedia -
 Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer
was stated to be made by User:Matt.T..
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

The free market

This boundless energy was underscored by the free market. (Compare with Belgium, where the first line was opened in 1835; the Belgian government laid out the shape of the network and funded its construction.) By 1844 Britain had 104 separate railway companies. But the great railway entrepreneurs aimed at monopoly through amalgamation. By 1848 the great Victorian railway companies were in place: the London and North-Western, the Great Western and the Midland. Between them they accounted for slightly more than half the mileage then open.

In the early 1840s there were tentative efforts at state control. Following a Select Parliamentary Committee in 1839 Acts were passed in 1840 and 1842, giving the existing legal powers of the state to a railway department of the Board of Trade. The department had the right of inspection, collected statistics of traffic and accidents, and could undertake legal proceedings for neglect or illegality. It also inspected new projects. In 1844 William Gladstone, the then President of the Board of Trade, brought in the Railway Regulation Act. Gladstone wanted to nationalize the railways and the original draft bill would have given the government sweeping powers of regulation. However, he backed down in the face of protests from the railway owners. 

However, the Act introduced an important provision: the train companies had to guarantee at least one train every day on every line running at a minimum speed of 12 mph and with a fare of not more than 1d a mile. This is the origin of the ‘parliamentary trains’. The result was that within five years more than 50 per cent of passengers were paying the third-class fares of a penny a mile. Otherwise, most of the provisions of the Railway Act remained a dead letter. For practical purposes the work of the department ceased after 1845 though the Board of Trade retained a general responsibility for railway matters.

Reaction to the railways

Reaction to the railways could be one of fascinated horror. When Thomas Carlyle journeyed on the Grand Junction Railway in September 1839, he saw the railway as the devil’s mantle; a month earlier Lord Ashley, journeying from Manchester to Liverpool, remarked that if the devil had travelled he would have gone by train. Nothing in nature exceeded the speed of 30 mph. The railway companies had to alleviate people’s fears of travelling at ‘unnatural’ speeds through tunnels. This is why the interior of the Edge Hill tunnel was painted white and it was illuminated by gas jets at regular intervals. Dickens’s Mrs Gamp believed that the railways caused miscarriages.

As the navvies worked on the cuttings of Stephenson’s London and Birmingham trunk line (some of them 60 or 70 feet deep), they exposed fossils in the rocks and amateur geologists, already familiar with Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33) flocked to view the rock exposures. One of Lyell’s correspondents wrote to him in February 1838 of the fascinating sections uncovered in making parts of the Forfar-Dundee railroad. In July 1845 the botanist Joseph Hooker wrote to his friend Charles Darwin about the way cutting open railways caused a change of vegetation.

The construction of the railways had many political implications. The authorising Acts gave the railway companies the novel right of compulsory purchase, which the Tory landowning class saw as an affront to their status. The Acts gave companies the authority 
‘to enter, survey and even to excavate private land situated on a prescribed route’. 
This was the most dramatic infringement of private property rights since the Civil War. Notices of intention to purchase were issued, and, failing a response from the landowner, the railway company were entitled to have the matter settled by a sheriff’s jury. The Illustrated London News of 1845 compared the powers granted under the Acts to a Russian ukase.

Landowners fought hard to block or frustrate the course of individual lines. For example, the earls of Sefton and Derby vigorously opposed the Stockton and Darlington Railway which was to run across their land. In the first survey of the line in 1822 the antagonism of the landed interest was such that the railway venturers resorted to hiring a prize-fighter to carry the theodolite. In subsequent surveys much of the levelling was done by moonlight and by torchlight. In one case, in the face of clerical opposition to the London and Birmingham Railway, the survey team had to carry out their work during the hours of church services when the opposition would be otherwise engaged. In many cases the landlords’ labourers and hired bullies fought pitched battles with the teams of surveyors. But George Eliot’s sensible Caleb Garth in Middlemarch says: 
Now, my lads, you can’t hinder the railroad: it will be made whether you like it or not.’ 
When he saw the first train pass through the Rugby countryside, Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, remarked that feudalism had gone for ever. Wordsworth saw the railway capitalists as part of 
‘the Thirst of Gold, that rules o’er Britain like a baneful star’. 
There was deep social unease about the fact that the railways were underpinned by industrial capital. The Doric portico entrance to Euston station (now much mourned!) was derided as the grandiose triumphalism of the new manufacturing class. It was also an engineering victory – celebrating the conquest of the engineers over the subterranean waters and quicksands of Kilsby near Rugby.

The railway mania transformed the English stock market. A few made millions, but many more were ruined. In the early 1850s the Darwin family’s portfolio ran to some £14,000 or railway stock. Having initially opposed the railways many aristocrats began to invest in them. The earls of Leicester invested in lines in Norfolk and the earls of Yarborough in Lincolnshire.

The early railway companies formed their own police forces modelled on Peel’s Metropolitan Police. The government began to use the railways to transport troops to sites of political demonstrations. In 1842 they embarked from Euston on trains of the London and Birmingham Railway for destinations in the northern manufacturing districts.

Railways were initially viewed as the enemies of nature. Thomas Carlyle: they forced 
‘a second or produced nature’. 
John Ruskin: the railways brutally amputated every hill in their path and raised mounds of earth across meadows faster than the walls of Babylon. Dickens in Dombey and Son
the railway ‘was defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle’.
When the London and Dover Railway Company’s works reached the Channel coast in February 1843, the engineers blew up part of a cliff and the nobility and gentry came to witness the event.

The railway telegraph

The ultimate representation of the railroad’s war with nature was in the clocks which observed railway time. Initially it was a cumbersome process, involving the carrying of a watch the length of the journey in order to standardize time. But after the setting up of the Railway Clearing House in 1842 this practice gave way to the observance of Greenwich Time at stations around the country, a practice made easier by the spread of the telegraph. The first railway telegraph seems to have been installed in the Great Western between Paddington and West Drayton and was operating by the spring of 1839. In 1842 and improved telegraph consisting of double-needle instruments and only two wires was ordered. The wires were suspended overhead on upright standards of cast-iron and at intervals of up to 150 yards. By 1848, 1,800 miles of railway were so equipped in the country as a while. Time could now be synchronised and by the 1850s Greenwich or ‘railway’ time had become standard in Britain.

The Great Western Railway

"IKBrunel" by Robert Howlett
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

In March 1833, the 27 year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. The strategy was to build a railway that would link London and Bristol. The first section of the track that went from London to Taplow (Maidenhead) was opened in 1838. The line was completed to Bristol in 1841 and helped to establish Brunel as one of the world's leading engineers. Impressive achievements on the route included the viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box Tunnel and the Bristol Temple Meads Station.

Original uploader was Cheesy mike at en.wikipedia -
Transferred from en.wikipedia.
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The battle for the gauge

Early British development was not characterised by a uniform gauge. Most of the initial lines were built to a gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches (1422mm), which accorded with the track dimensions used by the Romans. It was the preferred choice of gauge for George and Robert Stephenson. But in 1835 Brunel convinced the Board of the Great Western that a gauge of 7 feet 0 ¼ inches (2140mm) was technically superior. 

As a result the ten years from the mid 1840s saw a dramatic struggle among railway proprietors. A Royal Commission tried to adjudicate. Though accepting the technical capabilities of the broad gauge, it viewed the narrow gauge as best suited to the general needs of the country and recommended the compulsory extinction of the broad gauge. But Parliament did not feel able to insist on this and the broad gauge continued to expand after the Gauge Act of 1846. 

The ‘break of gauge’ created problems for passengers and goods as they had to be transferred from one train to another, especially Gloucester where the Great Western met the Birmingham and Gloucester line. By 1866 there were thirty places where ‘break of gauge’ occurred. Queen Victoria, travelling from Balmoral to Osborne had to change trains at Gloucester and Basingstoke. One of the consequences of using the broad gauge was that Great Western locomotives could not use Euston and Brunel had to build its own station at Paddington, which was not completed until 1854. But although passengers preferred the broad gauge, Brunel lost the war and by the end of the 1860s he was forced to start the process that ended in the adoption of the narrow gauge.

Thomas Cook

"Thomas.Cook" by Unknown -
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons - 
In 1841 the Baptist Thomas Cook (1808-92) persuaded the Midland Counties Railway Company to run a special train between Leicester and Loughborough for a temperance meeting on July 5. It was believed to be the first publicly advertised excursion train in England. Three years later the railway agreed to make the arrangement permanent if Cook would provide passengers for the excursion trains. During the Paris Exposition of 1855, Cook conducted excursions from Leicester to Calais. The next year he led his first Grand Tour of Europe.


In 1850 in just one August holiday week, more than 200,000 people left Manchester by excursion train. Fleetwood became a holiday destination when it was connected to the Preston and Wyre Railway. In 1841 the railway reached Weston-super-Mare. Scarborough, Blackpool, Eastbourne and Torquay were all linked to the railway. 

The seaside holiday became big business. Excursions helped to inculcate the railway habit in millions of people who would not have travelled otherwise.They provided a relief from the grind of factory life. Many saw the sea for the first time though at resorts such as Blackpool the middle and working classes were segregated on different beaches. 

The dangers of rail travel

The most notorious railway accident was the Tay Bridge disaster of 28 December 1879 when as many as seventy-five passengers might have lost their lives.

"Catastrophe du pont sur le Tay - 1879 -
Illustration" by Unknown -
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 

There were ten fatalities from the Staplehurst rail crash of 8 June 1865, in which Charles Dickens was embarrassingly involved.

"Staplehurst rail crash"
Engraving in Illustrated London News.
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 


Before the invention of the steam engine, humans could travel no faster than the fastest horse. The railways dramatically shortened journey times, and opened up for middle-income and even poor people experiences that previously had only been available to the rich. Both work and leisure were transformed.

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