Monday, 11 November 2013

The rise and expansion of the railway in the Victorian era.

In the present day we have many modes of public transport: buses, the underground tube, and the national railway. And it is in the Victorian period with which our railway system of today had begun its rapid progression. The stage coach, a popular form of travel in the early nineteenth century had soon been quickly overtaken through the emergence of the railway. This, I find becomes seemingly apparent through paintings in the nineteenth century, where the upcoming railway system is encapsulated through artists’ works.

Many can agree that the Victorian era is a period of progression: an age which saw a rise in technological development, the emergence of the railway being an important part of this. Its rapid boom predominantly began in the 1940s and brought about a change within society. The surfacing of the British railway paved a quicker and cheaper way of travel, proving that it was ultimately a more efficient form of transport. Yet the railway is presented in a different light in Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s Cranford (1851), this new way of travel being “vehemently petitioned against by the little town” (4).  The novel is set in the early nineteenth century, when the British railway was beginning to rapidly grow. In reading just the beginning of the text I noticed that Gaskell portrays the emergence of the railway as being obtrusive. This is particularly shown in chapter two where Captain Brown, a railway worker is abruptly killed by an oncoming train. The quotation “’Captain Brown is killed by them nasty cruel railroads!’” (16), depicts the railway as being beastly and abhorrent. Moreover, the line “He looked up sudden at the sound of the train coming ... and the train came over him in no time” (16) reveals the way in which the town believe that the emergence of the railway is detrimental and that this new process of change should be rejected.  Just like the ladies of Cranford, many Victorians would have held strong oppositions towards the revolution of transport as it would have symbolised change. Essentially, the expansion of the railway symbolised a modern  industrialised era and despite many rejecting this like in Gaskell’s Cranford (1851), the rapid growth of the railway was a pivotal turning point for society.

Prior to the growth of the British railway, the stage coach had been a popular form of travel for the Victorians. In its popularity many artists captured this mode of travel, an example shown below. 


“The 'Tally-Ho' London - Birmingham Stage Coach Passing Whittington College, Highgate” (1836) by James Pollard.

However, the rapid expansion of the railway saw a rapid decline in stage coach travel. Philip Bagwell and Peter Lyth in Transport in Britain: From Canal Lock to Gridlock comment on the disadvantages of travelling by stage coach, “The chief deterrent to stage coach travel ... was the cost” (39) and so therefore “throughout the nineteenth century no alternative means of passenger travel could seriously challenge the railways” (59). Why would the Victorians choose to travel by stage coach when they were able to travel by train in a faster, cheaper and more comfortable manner? Travelling via train allowed the transportation of more people for half the cost in half the time.  And so it was inevitable that the stage coach, a once popular form of travel, saw a rapid decline in the emergence of the British railway. Like many artists captured travelling in a stage coach through their work, in its new incline artists also began to encapsulate the railway. Two examples of this are shown below.

“The Railway Station” (1862) by William Powell Frith.
“Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway” (1844) by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Ian Carter in Railways and Culture in Britain: The Epitome of Modernity comments on Turner’s oil canvas stating that it “has matured into the exemplary visual image of early railway years in Britain” (51). This view can also be applied to Frith’s canvas as both works seemingly capture the rise of the British railway in the Victorian era.

However, the railway system in the Victorian period was not perfect and also had its disadvantages. Despite its continuous rapid growth, the British railway during this era was not entirely safe. The table below, by J. Pearson Pattinson in British Railways: Their Passenger Services: Rolling Stock, Locomotives, Gradients, and Express Speeds reveals that there had been a large number of injuries and even deaths in the nineteenth century.

The table implies that there were many occurrences where innocent passengers were injured or subject to even worse. An extract from a report of the Armagh incident which occurred on the 12th of June 1889, where 80 people died after a fatal collision of two trains, is revealed below. This document, written by Major Gen. C. S. Hutchinson was published on 8th July 1889 by Board of Trade.

Train accidents similar to the Armagh incident would have undoubtedly produced a number of cancellations and delays and in turn would have caused inconvenience to those travelling at the time. Philip Bagwell and Peter Lyth offer possible causes of railway accidents stating “in the nineteenth century most railway accidents were caused by defective brakes, faulty engine boilers, inadequate signalling” (60). J. Pearson Pattinson in the table below not only supports Bagwell and Lyth’s view but also provides statistical evidence for train incidents in the first nine months of 1891. 

The British railway predominantly began to rapidly grow in the nineteenth century, the Victorian era. This new way of travel surpassed many other means of travel such as the stage coach, due to its efficiency of travelling in comfort at a quicker speed and at a cheaper cost. However, it also came with its disadvantages, namely the number of train accidents that occurred within the nineteenth century. Despite these occurrences, the British railway continued to evolve and has not stopped its expansion and improvement since. Below, you can notice the stark contrast between the rail map of 1854 and the national rail map of 2013. This revealing that ultimately had it not been for the rise of the railway system in the Victorian era, the national rail would not be what it is today.

Railway map, 1854

National rail map, 2013

Works Cited:
Bagwell, Philip and Peter Lyth. Transport in Britain: From Canal Lock to Gridlock. Hambledon Continuum, 2006.

Carter, Ian. Railways and Culture in Britain: The Epitome of Modernity. Manchester University Press, 2002.

Frith, William Powell. “The Railway Station” 1862. Accessed through the Royal Holloway virtual picture gallery.

Hutchinson, Major Gen. C. S. “Accident Returns: Extract for Accident at Armagh on 12 June 1889” document accessed through the Railways Archive.

National rail map, 2013. Accessed through the National Rail website.

Pattinson, J. Pearson. British Railways: Their Passenger Services: Rolling Stock, Locomotives, Gradients, and Express Speeds. Cassell and Company, limited, 1893. Accessed through the internet archive.

Pollard, James. “The 'Tally-Ho' London - Birmingham Stage Coach Passing Whittington College, Highgate”1836. Image sourced from the Tate Britain website.

Railway map, 1854. Accessed through The Industrial Revolution & The Railway system website.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William.  “Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway” 1844. Accessed through the National Gallery.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! Very interesting and well researched with good referencing. I liked your use of the visual format to show stats and pictures from the time, and how the railway was depicted through Gaskell's literature and the imagination of the painters. Best of all is the way you link in Victorian attitudes to change- some people frightened, wanting throwback to the stage coach past and some urging progress. It reminded me of everything we've seen about the Victorian battle of science and faith in the industrial revolution, and the desire for the safety of Gothic architecture and the medieval times held by many. The conclusion nicely shows the impact of the railway on today. Great. :)