The Victorian Era is often seen as a period of great progress and certainly material developments continued through the Queen's reign. Progress, however, always carries with it a social cost. As Great Britain became increasingly urban, it was the steam locomotive which came to be seen by many as the symbol of the age. The building of the British railways in the nineteenth century was, as E. L. Woodward has so aptly described it, “the greatest physical achievement carried out by the human race within a comparatively short space of time.” The coming of the railways, with their adjuncts, the railway bridge and the railway hotel, brought about revolutions in domestic travel, transport of freight and accommodation for travellers.
The railways appealed to many Victorians. They were fast and efficient. They linked Great Britain into a network which allowed the transportation of goods in great volume over considerable distances at comparatively low costs. Aside from the obvious demand they created for iron for rails and coal, both for fuel and the smelting of the iron, they created a host of new demands by permitting perishables to be shipped greater distances to markets. In the process, the railways broke down the former isolation of the countryside bringing a host of new products and new ideas into what had previously been rural isolation.
In 1841, Thomas Cook started his travel firm, and by 1844 trains were transporting the poorest classes of Victorian Britain for a penny a mile. A measure of their impact may be seen in the number of people transported and the costs involved. In its first year, the line from Liverpool to Manchester more than doubled the number of travellers previously carried by coach and carried them for half the price in half the time. By mid-century, rail lines extended from Plymouth to Aberdeen and in 1865 the railways carried more than 250 million passengers. There is something uniquely Victorian about steam locomotives pulling carriages full of overdressed working folk on day excursions and of Holmes and Watson checking train schedules in Bradshaw’s Railway Guide while the latter yearns for a typical middle-class Victorian holiday in the glades of New Forest or at Southsea.
Not all of Victoria’s subjects approved of the steam-belching noisy behemoths. Landowners in particular despised the locomotives which crossed their land, affecting their hunting, frightening their horses and livestock and bringing a more disreputable element to their midst. The trains, by the middle of the century, were not only being used for the genteel types of tours run by Thomas Cook, but were used extensively in the attempts of supporters of pugilism to outwit the local constabulary. Some lines even went so far as to arrange special excursions to public hangings.
Despite the growth of domestic travel, the railways were not particularly safe. Accidents were frequent and, not uncommonly, fatal to innocent passengers. In the mid-1830s, the noise in the Box Tunnel on the London to Bristol line was said to be so great that “no passenger would be induced to go twice”. Derailments were frequent, causing, at best, delay and inconvenience to the travelling public and bringing in their wake, at worst, injury and death. But all progress, Victorians would have reminded us, carried with it some risk, whether to capital or to one’s very existence.
To see a photograph of a mid-nineteenth century train, click here.