How railways changed Britain

Today, the railways today are an important part of our infrastructure but rather tucked away out of sight and often forgotten. Stations which were once centrepieces of the towns in which they are located find themselves neglected. While the railways are a great way to travel and they are used for over three million journeys every day, they are not essential to the economy in the way that they were in the 19th century.

When the trains stop through strikes or bad weather, the traffic jams get worse and many people, notably commuters in the south east, are greatly inconvenienced, but the country does not come to a standstill. So we forget just how important the railways were when they were first built. It is no exaggeration to say that for much of their first century of existence, they were the only way to travel comfortably and reasonably cheaply across the country, and they were the key lubricant for the whole economy

Until the advent of the railways, no one had travelled faster than a horse can manage at full gallop and within a few short years of the first major line opening, the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830, trains were thundering up and down the country at the previously unimaginable speed of 60 mph. It was a frightening prospect. Before the railway opened, there were fears that it would be impossible to breathe while travelling at such speeds or that the passengers’ eyes would be damaged by having to adjust to the motion. Other Cassandras, including eminent scientists, expressed concern that cows disturbed by the noise would stop producing milk or that sheep would turn black from the smoke. We may laugh, now, but such feelings demonstrate the extent to which the railways were a plunge into the unknown.

The Liverpool & Manchester had originally been conceived as a freight railway because the narrow road between these two important towns was crowded with horse-drawn traffic. The canals were slow and unreliable as they froze in the winter and ran dry in the summer. Yet, the demand for transport at the outset of the Industrial Revolution was insatiable: the supplies of cotton and other raw material from Liverpool fed the Lancashire mills clustered around Salford and Manchester while their produce went the other way.

The promoters of the railway had, however, not expected that passengers would flock to the line, attracted by the fact that the 31 mile journey took just a couple of hours compared with more than twice that by stagecoach. Within a few months of its opening, thousands of people were using it every week and the railway age was born.

The concerns about fast travel were quickly allayed. The railway’s most articulate advocate in the early days was Fanny Kemble, an actress and campaigner for the poor who was given a ride on the train before the opening by the railway’s famous engineer, the gruff George Stephenson. She was entranced and wrote, in a letter to a friend, ‘you can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace…bridges were thrown from side to side across the top of these cliffs [the cutting at Olive Mount, Liverpool] and the people looking down upon us from them seemed like pigmies standing in the sky.’

Ms Kemble’s description sets out the sheer wonder of this new form of travel, which soon would become possible for large swathes of the population. Within a quarter of a century of the completion of the Liverpool & Manchester, Britain had the core of its present railway network with both the East and West Coast lines giving access to the North and Scotland, while the Great Western extended through to Cornwall and Wales. While travel in the early days was too expensive for the average worker, fares were gradually reduced through competition and the obligation, forced on the companies by Gladstone’s 1844 Railway Act to provide at least one daily train costing no more than a penny a mile. Thanks to the reduction in fares and the growth of the network, it became possible to pop up from London to Oxford to visit relatives or to go from Birmingham to the capital for a business trip and return that same day.

With standards of living rising thanks to the Industrial Revolution, people began to be able to afford a day at the seaside, using the many excursion trains be provided by the railway companies as early as the late 1830s. However, it was the Great Exhibition of the summer of 1851 in London that stimulated vast numbers to use the railways for the first time. The 13,000 exhibits were housed in a huge glass building, dubbed the Crystal Palace (to where it later moved, giving that district its name) in Hyde Park. Over the six months of its opening, the exhibition attracted an amazing 6.2m visitors, a third of the country’s population (and almost as many as the Millennium Dome in 2000), most of whom came by train. Entire towns and villages formed ‘Exhibition clubs’ which organised excursion trains up to the capital, which gave many people their first experience of train travel.

By 1854, nearly 100 million people used the railways annually on a network of 6,000 miles, about half today’s mileage. The railways changed everything. It is almost easier to list the few aspects of life that they left unchanged rather than enumerate their consequences. Just as the internet has speeded up communication between individuals, the railways brought the country together in an unprecedented way and allowed the development of many trades and businesses. Huge supply industries emerged to manufacture the locomotives, rails and other equipment needed to build and maintain this vast network. Stock exchanges flourished on the trading of railway shares while banks profited from their need to borrow vast amounts to pay for their construction, and for a time the biggest companies in the country – indeed the world – were the railways.

There were unpredictable side effects. The railways improved greatly the diet of city dwellers, by allowing fresh milk and meat to be delivered far more quickly and enabled fish and chips, which hitherto had only been available in seaside towns, to become a national dish. Professional football became possible, as the teams, and, most important, their supporters could travel by train across the country. It was not all good news. Stagecoaches went out of business as did the inns serving them. Markets in towns far from the railway declined, and shoppers shunned their local retailers in favour of going up to town to visit the department stores which were today’s equivalent of the out of town supermarket

Soon, with the main spine of the system developed, every town and village clamoured to be connected to the railway and branch lines, often built with the support of local aristocrats and merchants, reached virtually every sizeable community by the end of the 19th century. While the early railways were often met with hostility and suspicion, the huge economic benefits of being connected were, by the middle of the century, well recognised so that the arrival of a branch line was a cause for immense celebration, marked by day’s holiday and a festival. The first train would usually start off from the station furthest from the main line connection and fill up with every local person of note from the intervening stations. At the town where the new railway joined the main line, they would be provided with a banquet while the hoi polloi would be entertained with country dancing and provided with a ‘cold collation’.

The other method through which poorer people were attracted onto the railway was through the provision of workmen’s trains. The first service offering cheap fares for workers travelling into London for their jobs was in 1847 when the Eastern Counties Railway provided special services for dockers but it was in the 1860s, when London employment started soaring, that thousands began to use these cheap trains. Nor was it only London as extensive suburban rail networks had sprung up in major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. However, it was in London where the railways stimulated the fast expansion of the suburbs to create the world’s largest conurbation. There was even a measure of class separation as the leafier suburbs of south west London, such as Richmond and Wimbledon were served by the Metropolitan District Railway, now part of the London Underground, while the Great Eastern, which had the greatest number of workmen’s trains, catered for the less well-off inhabitants of Tottenham, Walthamstow and Edmonton.

Travel on the railways for the first few decades was a fairly uncomfortable experience. At first even open wagons were used for the third class passengers, but even though these were soon dispensed with, there was no heating or lighting, no refreshments and no toilets. First class passengers were soon provided with portable heaters – a sort of hot water bottle – in the winter and on the longer journeys there were ‘comfort’ stops. At stations like Preston and York, longer stops were built into the timetable to provide sufficient time to obtain a meal, but it was not until the 1880s when compartment trains started to become the norm and the Midland led the way by improving conditions for passengers, that modern facilities began to be widely provided. Sleeper trains were introduced from the mid 1870s, which must have been a great relief for travellers between London and Scotland, a journey of eight or nine hours.

In the last few years of the 19th century, the railways began to realise, somewhat belatedly, that reducing travel times would improve their profitability and improved engines were developed to speed up journeys. Contests even emerged between different companies, most notably between those on the East and West Coast main lines which, for a brief period in 1895 raced against each other between London and Aberdeen, cutting the timings down from 12 to just over 8½ hours but then reverted to a more sensible timetable.

The railways, which were virtually all completed by the end of the 19th century, were built by hand with the help of a few mechanical devices introduced later on and with lots of explosives which were used unsparingly but often carelessly. The labour was provided by navvies, an elite bunch of hard working and hard drinking men with a proud set of traditions.(see box)

The building of the railways did not entirely stop in the 20th century. Various improved routes and by passes were built up to the First World War, but then competition from the roads, initially from lorries but later from cars, meant it became even harder for railways to make a profit. After the First World War, the railways which had been vital in the war effort, were consolidated into four companies but they suffered from underinvestment and a lack of a strategy to deal with the growth of motor vehicles.

In the Second World War, the railway network was again vital in ensuring the movement of troops and war matériel but suffered from neglect and the system was nationalised in 1948. Under government control for fifty years, British Railways had a chequered history, with several successes such as greatly improved efficiency and the introduction of InterCity trains, but again suffered underinvestment and from the closure of many lines by Beeching. Privatised controversially in the mid 1990s, and now benefiting from far more government subsidy than they ever enjoyed under nationalisation, the railways are booming again, with a 50 per cent increase in passenger numbers since 1993 and a significant rise in freight use.

The railways, therefore, are booming again but they will never quite be the integral part of our lives that they were for our Victorian forebears. With the passing of steam and the closure of many branch lines, they have lost their romanticism and, to many, their appeal. But a train journey still remains the best way to travel, a great start to a holiday or a trip which can never be matched by a car ride or a flight and with the roads becoming ever more crowded, it is hardly surprising that many are letting the train take the strain once again.

Christian Wolmar’s book, Fire and Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain, has just been published by Atlantic Books, £19.99.

Time line

1803 While many mining railways, using wagons hauled my men or horses, had operated since the 18th century, the first public goods line, the Surrey Iron Railway opened for horse drawn traffic between Wandsworth and Croydon.

1825 The opening of the Stockton & Darlington, the first steam railway in which a locomotive hauled goods and passenger carriages on metal rails, although horses were initially used for many trains.

1830 Opening of the Liverpool & Manchester, the first double track railway using only steam locomotives and tragically, on the first day, September 15th, William Huskisson, a government minister is killed by a train.

1836 The first public railway in London, the initial section of the London & Greenwich, built on 878 arches, opened

1841 Thomas Cook, runs his first railway excursion trains, taking a group of 500 trippers to a ‘temperance fête’, charging a shilling (5p) each for the outing, including food.

1844 Gladstone’s Railway Act makes it compulsory for all companies to provide at least one train per day each weekday at a penny a mile.

1846 England and Scotland are connected by a railway for the first time.

1852 A standard time is introduced on the Great Western, paving the way for the creation of a unified time system based on Greenwich, finalised in 1880.

1863 The first part of what will become the London Underground, the section of the Metropolitan Railway between Farringdon and Paddington, powered by steam locomotives, opens.

1890 The City & South London Railway, the first deep line in the world, opens.

1899 The last main line to be built in Britain, the Great Central between Marylebone and Sheffield, opens.

1904 The City of Truro, a Great Western locomotives, achieves a world record speed of 102 mph.

1923 After playing a vital role in the war, the railways are in a poor state both physically and financially and over 100 railway companies are merged to create the Big Four: Great Western, London & North Eastern, London, Midland and Scotland and Southern.

1926 Railway workers join the General Strike which collapses after ten days, and later that year Golden Arrow Pullman services begin between London and Paris linked by a boat train.

1948 The British Railway system is brought under public ownership after being severely rundown and overused during the war. There are 650,000 employees assets include 20,000 steam locomotives, 1.2 million freight wagons, 56,000 carriages (including 631 restaurant cars) and 7,000 horses.

1965 InterCity, becomes the new name for express services linking major cities and the famous British Rail double arrow logo is introduced.

1996/7 British Railways, under public ownership for half a century, is broken up into over 100 companies and privatised. There are about 130,000 employees.

2007 The first High Speed Line in Britain, between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras, is completed in November, an earlier section having been opened in 2003.

The men who built the railways

The navvies, the men who built the railways, were an elite workforce who prided themselves on their strength, their appetite and their ability to consume alcohol. They were not simply ordinary labourers, drawn to railway construction as it paid better than work on the land. The word navvy comes from navigator, a term used for the canal builders of the 18th century but not everyone who worked on the railways automatically became a navvy. The nature of the work such as excavating and tunnelling was particularly arduous and the navvies developed fantastic camaderie as most had to live on or very near their worksites, often deep in the countryside. They was something of the dandy about them despite the dirty nature of the work, and their distinctive dress included moleskin trousers, velveteen coats, hobnail boots, white felt hats with the brims turned up and gaudy handkerchiefs. All were known only by their nicknames, such as Gipsy Joe, Fisherman, One-eyed Ern or Punch, a nickname given to anyone who was short.

They were often paid partly in beer and once they had money tended not to work until the cash ran out. To qualify as a navvy, a man had to be able to eat two pounds of beef and a gallon of beer a day. It took a year for an agricultural labourer to qualify as a navvy since, at first, they would not be strong enough to work all day, collapsing by mid afternoon and it was only through hard work and copious eating that they built up their strength.

They lived in atrocious conditions, often 12 or 14 to a room with only one small fire, forcing them to wear clothes which could not be properly dried after being washed. Many had permanent coughs as a result. They were cheated frequently by their employers, the contractors, who made them buy their food from the company shop at exorbitant rates, up to 50 per cent more than the prices in the towns.

Not surprisingly, their life expectancy was low, and few saw out their forties. Thousands died on the job, many because of the harsh conditions but often through their own carelessness. For example, three were killed in succession in the Kilsby Tunnel on the London & Birmingham Railway completed in 1836 because they had been dared to jump across a shaft and all three failed. The hardest railway to build was one of the last, the Carlisle & Settle which cut through particularly harsh territory and the local cemeteries were full of navvies by the time it was completed in 1875.

At one point, at the height of the railway boom of the 1840s, there were 200,000 navvies working on railways around the country. The navvies may have been a wild bunch, but their work, in which they took great pride, cannot be faulted and they left a fantastic legacy, a railway network of 20,000 miles, over half of which survives today.

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