Saturday, October 14, 2006

Progress and the Railways

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.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Christmas Cards and Christmas Mail

Christmas, as we know it today, is very much a product of nineteenth century England and particularly the Victorian era. Certainly Victorians enjoyed the holiday looking both backward to the maintenance of old traditions and forward with the development of new ways of celebrating. In some respects, Christmas represented the ambivalence of Victorian Society in general. On the one hand, it was a society which constantly looked for the new and more powerful. It was the age of steam, and more importantly it was the age in which steam was harnessed, bringing Great Britain out of it’s medieval past and into what can be legitimately described as the modern age. Yet, at the same time, it was a backward looking society. The great fascination with the middle ages, a movement in art called, interestingly, the pre-Raphaelites, the urge to reach out to heaven seen in the neo-gothic movement yet tied to the modernism of the railway station and hotel as, for example, at St Pancras. It was out of this fascination with both the new and the old that the modern, Victorian Christmas was born. It was a Victorian invention which was to shape the celebration of the holiday around the world.

The earliest Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 and designed by John Calcott Horsley. Cole had the inspired idea that rather than write letters at the festive season to his wide circle of friends, he would send them a card. The card is designed as a triptych with the centre panel showing a family party drinking wine from goblets. The sides contained images of the feeding and clothing of the poor. A thousand cards were sold to the public at one shilling each. The following years saw more and more cards being created and sold.

A popular image from mid-century on was that of the Robin red-breast, a symbol of peace. Its popularity probably arose because of the association of the red breast with the blood of Christ and the story that it was red because it had picked the thorns from the crucified Christ’s crown of thorns. Cards could be serious or funny. Some reflected some rather strange facets of the Victorian sense of humour. Mr Pooter received an insulting Christmas card and was more than a little annoyed, writing in his diary, “I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning.” Sadly he does not describe the card and we are left with no idea as to what it was that he found so insulting.

By the last quarter of the century Kate Greenaway’s illustrations were very popular on Christmas cards as were cards containing elegant perfumed sachets. As the new century approached, mechanical cards had something of a vogue. Cards in which you turned a handle or pulled a string in order to create some kind of movement on the card were popular as were pop-up cards and those that folded out into three dimensional images.

It was with the introduction of the penny-post in 1840 that the postal service came into its own; a phenomenon which undoubtedly contributed to greater communication during the holiday season. For one penny a ½ ounce letter would be delivered anywhere in England. Deliveries were frequent with from six to twelve deliveries a day although one writer to The Times complained bitterly about the slowness of deliveries.

I posted a letter in the Gray's Inn post office on Saturday at half-past 1 o'clock, addressed to a person living close to Westminster Abbey, which was not delivered till 9 o'clock the same evening; and I posted another letter in the same post office, addressed to the same place, which was not delivered till past 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Now, Sir, why is this? If there is any good reason why letters should not be delivered in less than eight hours after their postage, let the state of the case be understood: but the belief that one can communicate with another person in two or three hours whereas in reality the time required is eight or nine, may be productive of the most disastrous consequences.

By the last years of the old Queen's reign, the amount of mail had increased so greatly during the Christmas season that hundreds of extra staff were put on to ensure its prompt delivery. Correspondents were asked to make sure that their missives to be delivered on Christmas Day were posted no later than the 24th of December. Aside from one delivery on the morning of Christmas day, there was no postal activity. And then, even as now, the Post Office requested those mailing gifts, especially food parcels such as mince-pies, to make sure that they were securely packed so as to avoid damage in shipping.

To see an image of the first Christmas card and read a bit more about it, click here.