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The Growth and Impact of Railways

Early railways

1767 the first iron rails were laid at Coalbrookdale.
1790s-1800s the period of the French Wars
1804 Trevithick's "Wylam" locomotive at Pen-y-Darren. (Click here for picture)
1808 Trevithick's "Catch-me-who-can" at Euston.
1812 Blenkinsop's rack locomotive. (Click here for picture)
1813 Hedley's "Puffing Billy" (click here for picture) and "Wylam Dilly".
1815 Stephenson's "Blücher".
1825 opening of the Stockton to Darlington line, built by Stephenson. His engine, Locomotion 1 carried the first railway passengers. The line comprised 27 miles of 4' 8½" track. (Click here for picture)

Early railways were a combination of horse power, fixed steam engines and locomotives. The adaptation of steam engines to railways was slow.

1826 An Act of Parliament was passed to allow the building of the Liverpool to Manchester line.
1829 The Rainhill Trials took place, to decide what form of power should be used on the Liverpool-Manchester line
1830 the official opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line, an all-steam line from the start. Unfortunately, William Huskisson was injured in an accident and died of his injuries.

The importance of this first passenger line cannot be too strongly stressed. After the Liverpool-Manchester line was opened, passenger traffic increased dramatically: the Manchester to Liverpool line catered for passengers right from the start and other lines followed suit.

1838 5½ million rail passengers
1845 30 million rail passengers
1855 111 million rail passengers

Freight was also catered for, and freight costs were much reduced.

Railway Building

An Act of Parliament was necessary to build a railway. Committees of MPs studied proposals and objections and there was much scope for bribery from those who both proposed and opposed the building of new lines.

Opponents of railways included:

Landowners demanded high compensation and soon realised that they could hold railway companies to ransom. The result was that by 1850 it cost about £40,000 to build one mile of railway.

By 1860 each mile of railway cost:

United Kingdom £54,152
England and Wales £64,453
Prussia £21,000
America £13,000

Costs were loaded onto freight and passenger charges.

The First Railways

1830 the Manchester to Liverpool line was opened, comprising 30 miles of railway
1833 the Leicester-Swanington line - a line for coal transportation - was opened
1835 Isambard Kingdom Brunel was employed to build the London - Bristol line, with Daniel Gooch as the engineer. It was the start of the Great Western Railway (G.W.R. - God's Wonderful Railway), which was absolutely flat for 85 miles.(SEE here for further information)
1838 the opening of the London - Bath - Bristol line.
the opening of the Birmingham - London line.

By 1838, a total of 500 miles of railway existed
By 1848, a total of 5,000 miles of railway existed (click here for a graph of railway expansion)
By 1860, a total of 10,000 miles of railway existed

One of the reasons for the massive expansion in railways was because iron was cheaper


Joseph Hall improved Cort's puddling and rolling process


Neilson's hot blast allowed the use of coal instead of coke.


Nasmyth's steam hammer allowed for longer and faster forgings.

The first railway boom broke because of

1842: Queen Victoria made her first railway journey from Slough to Paddington. This gave respectability to railways.

Railway Mania: 1844-1846

By 1844 cheap money was available: the lending rate had been cut to 3¼%. Also, the 1844 Bank Charter Act created stability and confidence in the pound. The result was a great deal of wild speculation on railway construction.

1844 805 miles of line were sanctioned
1845 2700 miles of line were sanctioned

These lines were built entirely by private enterprise. They were often built through slum areas of towns, making the housing problem worse, because of the demolition of the houses.

1859-67: c. 38,000 persons were made homeless because of railway construction.
1866: 4,000 houses were demolished to build St. Pancras station.

Even the dead were not allowed to rest in peace if they got in the way of the railway, as Engels described in his Condition of the Working Classes, 1844

Between 1839-1853, six government committees discussed railway policy. Only Gladstone's 1844 Committee recommended even a gradual take-over of railways by the State. Because of a lack of co-ordination, communications were haphazard and wasteful of resources and money. Rotherham had three stations, eventually. There was much rivalry between the 104 railway companies.

George Hudson, the "Railway King" made his fortune from railways and fraudulent dealings in stocks and shares. He was responsible for the first amalgamations, however. He created the Midland Railway. By 1845 he controlled 33% of the entire railway system.

1846: 20 further amalgamations.
1847: the financial crisis deepened and stopped the building of many of the lines.
1852: the railway network (NEVER a system) was almost worked out.

Railways expanded the economy while in construction

At the same time, railways adversely affected road and canal transport and investment.

Railways were responsible for:

George Bradshaw, the originator of railway timetables, was an engraver and printer at Manchester. The first Bradshaw's Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling was published on 19 October 1839. It contained route maps, town plans, coach fares in London, Liverpool and Birmingham, and a table to enable passengers to reckon their speed in miles per hour by timing the train over a quarter of a mile in seconds. The railroads for which full timetables were given were the London to Birmingham, the Grand Junction, Liverpool and Manchester, Great Western, and Newcastle and Carlisle. The London to Birmingham line was started in 1834, opened in instalments from 1837 and completed in September 1838. The London terminus was at Euston Grove.

Railway Legislation

Parliament welcomed railways as competition for roads and canals, but allowed piecemeal development because it was reluctant to interfere: laissez-faire. Eventually the government was forced to do something to regulate the railways.

1830 Railway Act required the Stockton-Darlington railway to keep a record of all its financial dealings. It applied to all other railways.

1838 Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act said that railways had to carry the Royal Mail.

N.B. Sir Charles Wheatstone had patented the telegraph in 1837. Telegraph lines ran alongside railways and were used as signalling systems by 1839.

1840 Railway Regulation Act. The Board of Trade was given the power to inspect all lines before they opened. It was also given powers to supervise fares, rates and traffic and to investigate accidents if it so wished.

1842 Railway Act. This was mainly a safety Act to ensure that railways ran safe services. New lines had to be inspected by the Board of Trade, which could demand traffic returns and inquire into accidents.

1842 Railway Clearing House was set up to co-ordinate through traffic over the lines of different companies.

1843 Budget allowed the export of machinery. Railway rolling-stock, locomotives and expertise were exported world-wide by such men as Brassey, Peto and Sarin.

1844 Railway Act (the "Parliamentary Trains" Act). This followed Gladstone's Committee of inquiry into railway policy.

1845 Railway Act: parliament imposed a maximum charge for freight.

1846 Gauges Act prohibited the extension of the 7' gauge, except on the Great Western Railway and said that a third line of 4' 8½' had to be laid where 7' track met 4' 8½" line.

1849 Railway Act ratified the Railway Clearing House.

1854 Railway and Canal Traffic Act made it statutory to provide facilities for through traffic.

1854 Cardwell's Act made the railways public carriers and outlawed 'preferences' which levied different rates on different customers for particular goods.

The Railway Navvies

These were skilled men, named from the canal navigators. Many came from Yorkshire, Lancashire and Ireland. Casual labour was used for unskilled work. Old navvies were rare: 40 was a good age. They lived in isolated communities near constructions in shanties.

In 1845, some ¼ million navvies were working on 3,000 miles of line and 1,100 lived in shanties working on Woodhead tunnel which ran under the Pennines to link Sheffield and Manchester. Navvies changed the face of the country, building viaducts, cuttings, tunnels and embankments by using sheer muscle power. Steam shovels were available by 1843 but men were cheaper.

Railway companies appointed an engineer to devise the route and appointed a contractor to build the railway. The 'butty system' developed whereby sub-contractors negotiated with gangs of navvies for a section of track. Brassey preferred this system. The truck system was the worst evil of railway building - isolation helped to encourage it, and the 1831 Truck Act did not apply to railways. Few people cared about navvies, anyway.

The Woodhead tunnel was built between 1839 and 1852. By 1842, a thousand men were employed in the construction. Initial estimates of the cost of £60,000 had risen to £200,000 by 1852. Provisions had to be taken 12 miles from Glossop, but prices were 50% higher than in Manchester: there was systematic 'robbery' by the contractors via truck. Men working on Woodhead were exhausted and ill because:

Men paid into a club for a doctor, themselves - the company gave no help or compensation.

Edwin Chadwick led the protest against the wretched lives of navvies, as publicised in the Woodhead scandal. He proposed:

A Parliamentary Select Committee recommended these reforms, but was ignored.

Effects of railways

Railways were seen as bringing many advantages to society and the country and created a second industrial revolution in their own right. The railway revolution had many consequences.

In 2009 I received an email from Adrian Vaughan concerning the Great Western Railway. Mr Vaughan is an ex-Western Region Railwayman and author of 28 books on the GWR and more general railway history and of two biographies of Isambard Kingdom Brunel; he is working on a third. His book, The Greatest Railway Blunder has just been published and his biography of S.M.Peto is due to be published in 2009.

Mr Vaughan said

I always protest at anyone using the term 'God's Wonderful Railway.' No-one ever used that expression until the 1970s when it was used in a TV The railwaymen, of whom I knew dozens, many of them with service extending back to 1920, never ever used such a term for their railway. I did once hear an LMS man, to whom I had just vacated my footplate, after being relieved by him at Oxford, refer to the GWR as 'All you people think about is Grub Water and Relief'. Now that is real.

My driver did once point out to me what the letters G W R meant on the face of the boiler pressure 'Gone Wrong Right' because the G on the left-hand side of the dial stood under the figure or 60 lbs per sq.inch, while the R stood under the 225 psi number. That is real. If you want a first class meaning for GWR you cannot do better than 'Gone With Regret' and forget about attributing the pick and shovel and sweated creation of the railway to God.

The other point, where the GWR is concerned, that it was absolutely flat for 85 miles is absolutely untrue. The line original route rises, with two or at most three, very short level stretches, for 77¼ miles from Paddington to Swindon.

Paddington is about 100ft above sea and Swindon station is about 300ft. Gradients are minimal by the standards of other railway, the steepest - as far as Swindon - being 1 in 660 but 'absolutely flat' it absolutely is not. From the 77¼ mile post to the 85 mile post the line falls, there is a very short level and then it falls for 2 or 3 miles at 1 in 600 to Wootton Bassett, at the 85 m.p.

Finally - I.K Brunel was the Engineer of the Great Western Railway. Daniel Gooch was the Locomotive Superintendent - and IKB made sure EVERYONE, including Gooch, knew that!

In June 2017, I received a mail from Mike Doubleday, former Timetable Planning Manager, British Rail, InterCity West Coast, saying
I noticed the comment that you'd had from Adrian Vaughan back in 2009:- I always protest at anyone using the term 'God's Wonderful Railway.' No-one ever used that expression until the 1970s when it was used in a TV I've no idea what the TV sit com. was, but I have to take issue with him because I was told about the term God's Wonderful Railway well before the 1970s by a much older family friend (who was also an ex GWR employee) and by way of proof, I actually wrote it in my 1961 Ian Allan ABC of WR locomotives at the time (I was 10 years old!). So, sorry Adrian, the term was certainly current before the 70s but I can give no more accurate history of it.

I'm surprised Mr. Vaughan didn't mention the taunt that was made in the Victorian era that GWR meant Great Way Round. This was because their route from London to Birmingham, until the early 1900s, was via Reading and Oxford and considerably longer in mileage than the rival LNWR route from Euston. [back]


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Last modified 16 August, 2017

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