Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The introduction of the railway to 
Victorian London

During the reign of Queen Victoria, the population of London grew rapidly which prompted the introduction of the railway to the city. During the 1830's – 40's England underwent what is known as the railway boom. The first intercity line to be built was the London and Birmingham railway (L&BR) opening in 1838. Initially for trade, the railway became a part of London life and by the 1870's nearly all journeys made in and out of London were done by rail. The introduction of the railway to London changed it dramatically. The railway provided a solution to the congestion and overpopulation in the centre of the city; trains transported people in and out of the city. The railways also provided new opportunities for travel and commerce and connected Londoners to the 'world beyond'.  

The development of the railway was a catalyst in the development of the suburbs. At first there “were few daily travellers from the suburbs [but] by the mid-1850's 27,000 people were commuting into London by train each day” (LTM collection). Image one is a poster showing the most popular suburban areas and the train times into the city centre.  Housing estates were built near the new railway stations creating a division of business and residential property. By the 20th century train companies were offering special rates to make the journey in and out of London (see image 3) encouraging the suburban lifestyle. The outer districts served by the railway became known, in 1915, as Metro-Land and was popular for being close to the countryside but within easy commuting distance of central London (LTM collection). Image two is a 1933 poster used to advertise the property available in the area. Due to low-interest mortgages and small-deposit housing in the early 20th century saw change. For the first time people were able to buy their homes as opposed to renting. 

Image 2: Photograph of 'Homes in Metro-Land' poster advertising houses for sale and train services to the suburbs. Areas include Pinner, Kenton, Kingsbury, Watford and Amersham.

Image 3: Cheap Day Return to Town, by F Gregory Brown, 1932

Image 4: Approach of L&BR to Camden Town (Davies Map of London, 1841)

The railway had a dramatic impact on the life of Londoners and subsequently on the literature produced in the period. Charles Dickens channels the atmosphere of London during the railway boom. His novel Dombey and Son provides readers with a third person narrative in and around London in the years of its progression. The novel is consumed with the railway, beginning in the early stages of its development and ending once the railway had become a party of everyday life.                                                               
The railway being built in Dickens' novel is thought to be the London to Birmingham (L&BR) link shown in Image 4. Dickens relates the construction of the railway in Camden Town to the “shock of a great earthquake” and he describes the chaotic atmosphere of the neighbourhood as the land around them was destroyed and transformed. He notes “there were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness” and “everywhere were bridges that led nowhere” reflecting the uncertainty of the railway. For London the railway embodied modernity and therefore the community was progressing into essentially the unknown. Dickens describes how the railway “wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.” (Ch.6) This early depiction of the railway is unsettling and chaotic. Later in the novel after six years have passed, Dickens describes the same area of London in its new transformed state. He reflects “There was no such place as Staggs's Gardens. It had vanished from the earth. Where the old rotten summer-houses once had stood, palaces now reared their heads, and granite columns of gigantic girth opened a vista to the railway world beyond.” (Ch. 15) This highlights the physical and economic progression the railway brought to London but also its destructive nature. London was now better connected to the “world beyond” but it had sacrificed Stagg's Gardens in order to become so. Dickens connects the two chapters such his later description of “Bridges that had led to nothing, led to villas, gardens, churches, healthy public walks” capturing the same scene before and after the railway. Dickens also highlights London’s growing dependency on the railway.  He describes “there was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in." His narrative embodies modernity and the way nature was replaced by industrialisation which echoes the transformation Victorian England underwent. 

Works Cited:

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Project Gutenberg online text. Feb 1997. Updated July 2014. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/821/821-h/821-h.htm#link2HCH0008

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