Leigh Denault                                                                                       December 1999

Jennifer Landis

History 256

Motion and Means: Mapping Opposition to Railways in Victorian Britain


1.      Introduction

1.1.   Victorian Britain and the Birth of Steam


“You see, Tom, ... the world goes on at a smarter pace now than it did when I was young fellow ... it’s this steam, you see.” Mr. Deane to Tom Tulliver in George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss. (p. 27, Newsome)


Change is one of the defining characteristics of the Victorian age. Almost every aspect of the older social milieu was turned on its head, while technology and industry became the new “Brazen Calfs, [sic]” (Carlyle, Hudson’s Statue, p. 1, Vaughon) of a worshipful middle-class that was itself remaking society in its image. Population growth profoundly changed the nature of British society, and the mechanization of industry created a demand for larger labor force.  Factories and railways absorbed the bulk of this labor force, while many skilled workers, and particularly handloom weavers, were out of a job. 

Figure 1: Able-bodied poor breaking stones for roads in Bethnal Green, Illustrated London News, 15 February 1868. (Perkins)

The very standards of time and size were called into question. British society hurdled headlong through the corridors of industrial change: people were astounded by the pervasive nature of that change, which seemed without precedence in history. As W. Cooke Taylor wrote in his 1842 Notes of a Tour in the Manufacturing District of Lancashire: “The steam-engine had no precedent, the spinning-jenny is without ancestry, the mule and the power-loom entered under prepared heritage: they sprang into sudden existence like Minerva from the brain of Jupiter.” (p. 21, Newsome)

Even Tennyson penned a paean to change:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward,

forward let us range,

Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change.

Through the shadow of the globe we sweep into

the younger day;

Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay. (Tennyson, p. 34, The  Triumph of Time)


Figure 2: The first train into Grimsby – a Romantic view of the coming of the railway. (from Perkins)


The very language of the poem recalls the grooved tracks that were spreading across Victorian Britain, reminding people that the times were changing.

Railways were a symbol of change and progress. They also seemed to epitomize popular resentments toward a changing world picture: the depersonalization of workers and passengers, the altering of an established social pattern, and of course, their tendency to mow down anything that what happened to get in their way, be it public opposition, family land, natural beauties, national history, or even unwary pedestrians on its tracks. But public outcry did have a direct impact on railway development, and the popular conception of the railway in Victorian society.


1.2.   Progress of the railways c. 1837

Leading up to 1835, Britain had experimented with a few rails.  These lines were built with the exclusive purpose of conveying commodities.  Like the coal-road, the Stockton and Darlington, they ran primarily between industrial centers and areas of natural resources.  Rails of this era were powered by stationary engines, horse labor, and sometimes by locomotives.

The Railway Fever of 1825-1826 proved the utility of railroads both for conveying passengers and goods.  This period brought rails out of the experimental field and into the application of common enterprise.  The railway fever was fueled by the anticipated success of rails as a dominant form of transportation for the future.  George Stephenson, one of the foremost engineers developing steam engines,

…has been known to confess that his ideas and anticipations of the capabilities of this mode of transit, both as the speed and the effect which it would produce when generally adopted (as he foresaw it must ultimately), were such as he did not even dare to express, for fear of being produced insane. (Schwartz 2)


Figure 3: The Railway Office, Liverpool, c. 1830, was the first railway station in Britain. The above sketch is a view of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway drawn by T.T. Bury. (from Perkins)


The Liverpool and Manchester line was a direct result of the Railway Fever.  It was the first exclusively steam rail built for the dual purpose of carrying passengers and freight (256).  The success of this line and the financial success of men like George Hudson encouraged businessmen to speculate on new lines.  Jackman, a rail historian explains the mindset of investors in this time, “Men were induced to believe that they had only to embark in one of these schemes to ensure themselves a life of affluence and ease” (532).  Rail schemes were developed for individual profit with little attention paid to the final outcome of construction.  This excitement and financial investment in railways between 1835-1837 has been dubbed the first Railway Mania.  Due to the surplus of bills, plans for potential railways, that were put before parliament many were never heard.  The Railway Mania absorbed soo much of the domestic capital that between 1838 and 1844 very few lines were sanctioned (Jackman 571).  There was a second Railway Mania between 1844 and 1846 that was characterized by another rush of speculation on projected lines.  “The rage for shares continued and increased in intensity in 1845, until it infected all classes from peer to peasant and from private individual to government officials” (Jackman 584).  Wordsworth’s infamous battle over the London and Northwestern’s Kendal and Windermere line was a product of the second Railway Mania.



2.      Differing Views on Railways: A Cultural History


2.1.   Proponents of the railways, arguments and ideas


Proponents of the Victorian railways came in many different voices; there were investors, engineers and architects.  Most of them recognized the opportunities that the new rails had to offer.  Shareholders like George Hudson who recognized opportunity, new enterprises and big money to be made. Engineers George Stephenson saw new machines to be built and old records to conquer.  There was also a faction, begun by Thomas Grey, that believed that the railways would benefit Victorian society as a whole and raise the basic standard of living in the nation.

       2.2. George Godwin’s Appeal to the Public

In his Appeal to the Public in 1837, George Godwin, an associate of the institute of British Architects, does an excellent job identifying and expounding upon the advantages of rails.  He attempts to gain the support of the middle and upper classes by informing them of the ‘intrinsic goodness’ of railroads and addressing their concerns. 

Many common people were frightened by the sight and implications of railroads (Simmons 15). One parish clerk, after seeing a locomotive for the first time, was quoted as saying, “That was a sight to have seen; but one I never care to see again!  How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?” (Simmons 16). Godwin directly addresses the ignorance of the Victorian people and urges them to be open minded towards positive change.  He draws a correlation between Gallileo and the introduction of the steam engine; he counsels the people not repeat ‘mistakes’ of the past (8).  This particular manipulation may have been most useful in attacking members of the upper class who did not (yet!) have a vested interest in the rails.  They were more likely to have a background in history or science and would be inflicted with the weight of this statement more than the uneducated working class. 

Later in his appeal, Godwin manipulates the growing nationalism of the times by stating that each man can help better Britain by supporting rail development. 

To retain our pre-eminent position, then as manufacturers for the world- a position which our improved machinery has principally enabled us to maintain so long…we would strongly and sincerely urge every individual of the society to lend his utmost aid in establishing and increasing their effectiveness; feeling assured that he would thereby assist, not merely to maintain the prosperity of the country, but greatly to increase it. (43)


Godwin lists the advantages of the railway in a systematic order.  He claims that rails will reduce the cost of transporting goods and considering that, “In some instances the cost of conveyance forms a greater part of the price of an article”, many luxuries would no become more affordable and would be enjoyed by more people (19).  This suggestion indicates that he is speaking now to the middle classes.  In all likelihood, even if some goods costs are lessened the working class is still not going to be able to afford them.  It is, therefore, the middle class who will benefit from this particular change.

During the Victorian era time became a commodity itself.  Before railways there were not even timepieces that counted minutes.  With the introduction of the Railway destinations became increasingly closer and time more valuable, or at least recognized as a limited resource.  Godwin states that travel in general would take less time.  This would be advantageous to day-trippers, as they would have more time at the chosen location to enjoy the sights.  Also. due to the nature of rails, Godwin points out the advantage railways would have in quickly assembling a military force.  This, again, appeals to the nationalistic appetite of the Victorian age. 

Many coaching establishments were concerned that rails would displace their usefulness and put them out of work.  Godwin address this issue by claiming that not only would the coaches not be out of work, but that, demand for coaches may even increase.  He said that their trips would be shorter and more frequent to and from the railway stations.

Analogy, however, leads us to believe, that no reduction in the number of horses now maintained would take place: and, indeed, experience gives strength to the inference; for, between Manchester and Liverpool, although there is now no direct coach, the increased number of travelers has rendered so many more coaches necessary on the cross roads, and for short distances on the line, that more horses are employed there at this time than were so formerly. (40) 


Opponents of the railway consistently said that rail lines break up and desecrate the countryside.  On the same subject, Godwin sees the glass half full.  Instead of ruining the natural landscape he claims that the buildings and rails will make use of that land and in addition “architecturally embellish” the country,

To say nothing of the means of decoration afforded by the viaducts, bridges, approaches, and depots appertaining to railways themselves…as we should in many cases, be able to use stone- the cost of transport being lessened, places now remote being brought together- instead of brick. (41)


Godwin does not respond directly to the opposition.  He states simply that, the buildings to be built will be appealing in the quality of their material.  He assumes that building are a part of progress, and as with the railroads, progress in ‘intrinsically good.’

            As a primary source the Appeal to the Public is a gem. One would have expected that that support for the railway would have taken on a pompous voice.  George Godwin sees himself as a guide to the people, something like a loving father, teaching his children right from wrong.  He tries to explain their options and consequences and leaves the people to make a choice,

Let then, the English public now think seriously on the matter, and resolve whether the advance of civilization shall be made by them. (11)


2.1.3 George Stephenson- Engineer Extraordinaire

Many authors refer to George Stephenson’s engineering accomplishments.  Despite frequent references there is little information available on the sort of person he was.  He is known for his contributions to, and improving the steam engine.  

Figure: George Stephenson (from Perkins)


In 1829, the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway held a contest for engineers to see who could build the best over all locomotive for their new line.   George Stephenson was awarded the hefty, L500 prize. 

This achievement gave a decisive stamp to Mr. Stephenson’s reputation as a railway engineer; and he was subsequently employed in the construction of most of the principle lines of railway in the kingdom. (Schwartz 2)


As a proponent of railways Stephenson must not have been very politically active or there would be more information on him available.  He and other engineers, however, by improving upon the railway made it more and more enticing to potential travelers and investors.   The faster the railway could go the less feasible it was to take any other form of transportation.  In 1753 a trip from London to Shrewsbury would take almost 3 and a half days by coach as compared to 12 hours and 40 min by train in 1835 (Simmons 310).  Stephenson’s enthusiasm for the improvement of technology and the potentials he saw were not always received quickly.  While before a Parliamentary committee Stephenson speaks of the gentleman’s reaction to his claim that a locomotive could reach a speed of 10 mph, “Someone inquired if I was a foreigner, an another hinted that I was mad” (Schwartz 2).  This narrow perspective brings Godwin’s analogy to the persecution of Gallileo back to mind.  It also indicates that engineers may have had to endure a form of self-censorship much like artists today.  Indeed, Stephenson was quoted as saying, “…that his ideas and anticipations of the capabilities of this mode of transit, both as to the speed and the effect which it would produce when generally adopted (as he foresaw it must ultimately), were such as he did not even dare to express, for fear of being pronounced insane” (Schwartz 2).


2.1.4                Thomas Grey- A National Vision          


Thomas Grey envisioned a national railway long before an amalgamation proved necessary.  You could say ‘he had a dream’ that one-day rails would reach across all of Britain and everyone would benefit from a low cost and efficient form of transportation.  In the early 1800’s,

He warned against subscribing to canal schemes, ‘for the time is fast approaching when rails must, from their manifest superiority in every respect, supersede the necessity both of canals and turnpike-roads, so far as the general commerce of the country is concerned.’ (Jackman 507-508)              


Grey envisioned a locomotive utopia in which rails were taken on as a national project and controlled by a national board rather than capitalists.  He wrote letters to the Ministers of State trying to persuade them of the great national importance of his ideas.  In 1823, he petitioned both the Board of Agriculture and the Select Committee of the House of Commons (Jackmann 509).   

In retrospect, Thomas Grey was a visionary.  One has to wonder how the rail development in Britain would have been different if Grey’s scheme had been taken up while he was promoting it.  The lines might possibly be more efficient earlier in their undertaking.  “Whatever the reason may have been, Grey’s national railway project was not taken seriously, for nothing was done towards its accomplishment” (Jackman 508). 


2.2.   Opponents of the railways, arguments and ideas


As early as 1830, the Victorians realized that the railways were there to stay.  Many recognized their advent as the most important development of the age. Yet exactly how, and where, this great new power was to be harnessed was the topic of a continuing debate.  The first phase of opposition, which we will treat as extending roughly from 1825 to 1844, during which a large number of lines were sanctioned by Parliament, and the amalgamations of 1845, was marked by an almost universal aversion to the railways. Formerly objects of scorn or indifference, the railways were suddenly thrust into the public eye with the success of George Stephenson’s “Rocket.” Those who recognized the potential of the railway seemed overwhelmed by negative public response. To plead their case, railway proponents produced materials to argue their own point of view: one G. Godwin was moved to pen “An appeal to the public on the subject of railways” in 1837, and in 1849 R.M. Martin authored “Railways past, present, and prospective,” both positive endorsements that made an effort to sway public opinion.

Almost all railway construction during this period was contested in one form or another, as each line had to be sanctioned by Parliament. A system of railway hearings was established in the House of Lords, requiring companies to weigh the potential benefit and harm of their proposed schemes. Railway historian Frederick S. Williams writes: “A rumor that it was proposed to bring such a thing as a railroad within a dozen miles of a particular neighborhood was enough to elicit adverse petitions to Parliament, and public subscriptions were opened to give effect to the opposition.” (p. 23, Williams) There were however, few cases that brought the nation together in protest: most of the opposition was by nature local, consisting of persons who were not, in theory, opposed to the idea of rail transport, but who fought railway encroachments on their own territory. The most effective opposition movements took place largely during this period, as it was preemptive: by the second half of the century, railways had become a part of the landscape and the largest period of expansion was completed.

             The second phase of opposition, from the 1850s to the 1880s, could be seen in part as a response to the railway manias and fears of railway monopolies, and in part as a reaction against perceived “railway vandalism.” Railways, once so strongly opposed, were now using their economic clout to push new lines through previously off-limits areas. The debates on railway vandalism centered largely around city centers (particularly central London) and national historic sites, spawning the character of the “sentimental gentleman” and societies for the preservation of antiquities.

            Map ii in Appendix I, in combination with Table 1, (which follows below) shows incidences of English railway opposition that attracted public attention, and illustrates the correspondence between geographical location, population density, and success of opposition movements. In the early stages of opposition, smaller towns fought the intrusion of railways, while in the later period many small towns worked to attract railway speculation as a means of economic revitalization. Railway historian W.T. Jackson, writing in 1916, could scarcely believe that some towns “rejected the boon that was offered them, and opposed the railways so strongly that they would not allow the company to build their line within the city limits. Small towns, interestingly, seem to have had a greater autonomy in determining the placement of rail lines: lines such as the Liverpool and Manchester or the Liverpool and Birmingham, which were key trunk lines in connecting industrial resources with national markets, were built despite strong opposition on the part of local residents.

Table 1: Cases of Opposition to Railway Lines which Attracted Public Attention (see Map ii, Appendix I)


Name of Line



Reasons for Opposition


Buttermere and Braithwaite

Buttermere and Braithwaite


Opposition against further incursions into the Lakes District.

Scheme fell through.

Dalton and Barrow

Furness Railway


The proposed line would pass directly through Furness Abbey, an antiquity famed for its beauty.

The line was rerouted to skirt the Abbey ruins, but was still considered by most a travesty.


Wilts Somershire & Weymouth


Proposed lines threatened Maumbury Rings, which had successively been henge, ampitheatre, and Civil War fort.

In 1846 the railway company was forbidden to approach the Rings beyond a certain distance. The first antiquity to be saved from railway incursion as the result of protest by local people.


South Eastern

early 1840s

Maidstone town in Kent, which the line would pass through, protested its construction.

The Dover line was rerouted.

Kendall and Windermere

London & North Western

early 1840s

Wordsworth led opposition against “contamination” of the Lakes District

The line was postponed by the legal proceedings, but eventually was constructed along slightly altered plans.


Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire


Plans for London extension place large part of the castle and Roman Jewry Wall under limits of deviation, local opposition led by town’s Literary and Philosophical Society and the Leicestershire Architectural and Archaeological Society.

Opposition in Leicester sparked opposition in London, and when the line was constructed in 1893 the course was altered to leave castle and Jewry Wall intact. First occasion in which official and unofficial bodies came together to preserve an antiquity.


Brighton Lewes & Hastings Railway


Railway would pass through the ruins of St. Pancras Priory at Lewes, the earliest Cluniac monastery in Britain.

The railway was approved, the line passed over the site of the high altar.

Liverpool and Birmingham

Liverpool and Birmingham


Strongly opposed by coach proprietors, post-masters, and wagon-masters.

Line was constructed despite opposition.

Liverpool and Manchester

Liverpool and Manchester



Line was constructed despite opposition.

London and Birmingham

London and Birmingham Railway


People of Northampton protested the line, claiming, as it was a shoe-making town, that the wool of their sheep would be harmed by the smoke.

Caused line works to be moved to Wolverton.

London and Bristol (Salisbury)

London and Bristol


New trunk line would run across Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge.

Scheme failed – more because railway proponents did not make an adequate case for the railways than because of opposition.


Lynn & Fakenham and the Eastern & Midlands


Line proposed would break city wall on the north side, and would link with Great Eastern by running across Lower Close of cathedral. Also involved line across Mousehold Heath, open tract valued by people of Norwich.

Proposals were dropped due to strong opposition.

Oxford Station

Great Western

early 1840s

Opposed by the University (Opposition of Oxford and Eton the most vehement the Great Western was to encounter)

Station forbidden at Oxford.



early 1840s

Castle at Huntingdon and Clare destroyed by line.

Line was constructed despite opposition.

Slough to Windsor

Great Western

early 1840s

Proposed extension of Great Western from Slough to Windsor contested.

Clause inserted in the Great Western Railway Act forbidding a station at Windsor

Stockton and Darlington

Stockton and Darlington


Landlord opposition.

Line was constructed despite opposition.



Figure 4: Example of "romantic" style in railway architecture, c. 1846. (Perkins)

            Railway “opposition,” tidy and homogenous as the term may sound, was not represented by a single, unified coalition, nor did it necessarily connote a similarity of argument among railway opponents. Opposition had at least two distinct phases, and the “old gridirons” had their enemies in all walks of life. To explore questions of how and why people spoke out against the railways, one must examine the social and political context of their times, and unravel distinct threads of arguments fought in the “dailies,” or within the borders of Punch cartoons, in cheaply-published pamphlet literature, and within the courts of Parliament.


2.2.1.      From the vox populi: pamphlet literature, popular opinions, and court decisions

The first passenger railway, opening in 1825, was the Stockton-Darlington Railway, engineered by George Stephenson. Even this early project met with fierce landlord opposition. The second passenger line, the Manchester-Liverpool, opened in 1830. Tragedy overshadowed the triumph of Stephenson's high-speed “Rocket” at this great event in railway history. When the Rocket stopped for water at Parkside, William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool, was killed when he stepped off the train and then panicked, running back onto the rails. Some took this misfortune as a portent against the “iron roads.”

Editorials and pamphlets began to appear, arguing against proposed lines. Following the death of Huskisson, people feared railway accidents, and the rising number of deaths at same-level crossings was cause for serious public alarm. Many railway accidents, such as the one involving Charles Dickens in 1865, became famous through retelling in The Illustrated London News, Punch, and the dailies, filling potential passengers with horror at the graphic descriptions of railway tragedies. And they were indeed horrible. Historian David Newsome describes Dicken’s brush with death:

Dickens himself experienced an appalling accident in 1865, traveling from Folkestone to London, when approaching the viaduct at Staplehurst at a speed of fifty miles an hour on a downward gradient.  The train jumped the rails because two had been temporarily removed by workers on the line, the foreman having consulted the wrong timetable.  All the first-class carriages except one plunged down into the river-bed below.  The one that was spared, hanging perilously over the bridge, happened to be the one occupied by Dickens ... ‘I never thought should be here again,’ he said when he returned to his home in Gad’s Hill Place. (pp. 31-32, Newsome)


The Household Narrative had a special segment on ‘Accidents and Disasters.’ In the first six months of 1852, 113 were killed and 264 injured, and in the first six months of 1853, 148 were killed and 191 injured in rail accidents.

There were less grisly reasons to fear railway incursion. People who owned property on land that had been designated as railway right-of-way – or land rumored to be so – worried that their houses would be destroyed, or at the very least rendered uninhabitable. A Quaker who called himself “Ebenezer” wrote a letter to the Leeds Intelligencer 13 January, 1831:

On the very line of this railway, I have built a comfortable house; it enjoys a pleasing view of the country.  Now judge, my friend, of my mortification, whilst I am sitting comfortably at breakfast with my family, enjoying the purity of the summer air, in moment my dwelling, once consecrated to peace and retirement, is filled with dense smoke of foetid gas; my homely, though cleanly, table covered with dirt; and the features of my wife and family almost obscured by a polluted atmosphere.  Nothing is heard but the clanking iron, the blasphemous song, or the appalling curses of the directors of these infernal machines. (p. 498, Jackson)


Landowner opposition was strong, particularly among the wealthier classes. They worried that the railways would “contaminate” the bucolic rural landscapes that had come to embody middle-class dreams of “arriving,” which had inspired artists and poets as the height of natural perfection, and had nurtured generations of middle and upper class British with visions of a “green and pleasant land” as a national ideal.

However, not all parties in the railway debate viewed the landlords as protectors of a rural tradition. “As a rule,” wrote historian W.T. Jackson, “the landlords thought much more of the peacefulness of their own estates and mansions than of the public good, and the mental picture of a railway with its tail of smoke curling across the countryside … was to them the symbol of all that was disagreeable, vulgarizing and mercenary.” (p. 497, Jackson) Of course, it was those very “vulgarizing and mercenary” people, who had invested heavily in railway expansion, who put forward egalitarian arguments about railway usage. And again, many of those “railway kings” who pointed to the upper-classes as draconian and insensitive to the needs of the poor strongly resisted instituting penny-a-mile fares and other third-class conveyance schemes. Neither side of the railway debates had a monopoly on the moral high ground, and almost everyone spoke with ulterior motives.

The predicament of the urban poor was far worse: often, railways demolished decrepit city tenements without making provisions for those they had evicted, sending the dispossessed families to squeeze into neighboring buildings. Many worried that the enormous cuttings and embankments rendered necessary by the weakness of early locomotive engines would subside, taking houses and people along with them.

   Farmers were concerned about their crops and produce: no one knew the effects of railway development on, say, the average hen’s laying capacity, or a cow’s grazing habits. According to Jackson’s 1916 history of transportation in Britain, “A farmer in Northampton refused his assent to the proposed London and Birmingham Railway on the ground that the smoke would injure the fleeces of his sheep.” (p. 498, Jackson) Many of those who had worked along the canals, or on the highways, or in one of the hundreds of roadside inns that flourished in the heyday of coach travel, felt their livelihoods threatened by the new locomotives. That frightening Victorian behemoth, the “railway monopoly,” reared its ugly head. Speechifying politicians worried that the railway “was a monopoly the most secure, the most lasting, the most injurious that can be conceived to the public good.” (p. 34, Williams)

In 1843 in 1844, railway speculation became another serious problem. Up until this time, the railway said offered means for the investment of capital, but they also offered adequate security and profit to ensure healthy growth.  Railways such as the London and Birmingham or the Liverpool and Manchester paid dividends at a rate of 10 percent per annum, the Stockton and Darlington paid 15 percent. (pp. 39-41, Williams) This sparked another railway mania, even more serious than the mania of 1835-1837. Fabulous wealth suddenly seemed to be within the reach of a great many people, and success stories were numerous enough to keep businessmen from all walks of life investing.

The Manchester Guardian published in account that in the space of one week, 89 new ventures had been advertised in three newspapers.  The combined capital required for the schemes was estimated to be more than £84 million.  However, over the period of one month, 357 railway schemes were advertised in the same newspapers, their combined worth being estimated at £332 million. (p. 41, Williams) In 1844, Peel’s Bank Act was passed as an attempt to prevent banks from issuing credit past their gold reserves. However, the Bank Act was suspended at least three times during the mania. In 1855 and 1862, two Limited Liability Acts were passed, with slightly higher success. (pp. 78-79, Newsome) A popular song of the time summed up the hysteria:

Old men and young, the famish’d and the full,

The rich and poor, widow, and wife, and maid,

Master and certain – all, with one intent,

Rushed upon the paper scrip; their eager eyes

Flashing a fierce unconquerable greed –

Their hot palms itching – all their being fill’d

With one desire. (pp. 41-42, Williams)


Nor was speculation necessarily confined to the “Manias:” Gladstone himself lost a great deal of money the 1860s, and he was not the only such famous personage to feel the pinch. In 1868, Herbert Spencer published an essay on “Railway Morals and Railway Policy” in his collection Essays: Moral, Political, and Aesthetic. Spencer examined what he called the politics of the railways, and revealed the discrepancy between general public perception of railway financial activity, and the actuality of illegitimate and untenable practices. Spencer cites instances of “men of straw” holding shares amounting to 200,000, boards that kept books in cipher, subscription contracts made up with bought signatures, false registries and gaps in minute books. Spencer adds the public associated “railway iniquities” solely with bubble schemes, and continues:

Associating the ideas of wealth and respectability, and habitually using respectability of synonymous with morality, it seems to them incredible that many of the large capitalists administration to administer railway affairs should be guilty indirectly enriching themselves in the expense of their constituents. (p. 254, Spencer)


Court arguments centered around the same basic issues, and Parliament thrashed out the problems of blackened sheep fleeces, ruined fox-runs, and dispossessed tenants throughout the decade of the 1840s. Many of these arguments were ridiculed by transportation historians of the early twentieth century, and indeed by railway proponents of the day, but they deserve to be taken seriously. These myriad concerns reflect the pervasiveness of railway influence on daily life in Victorian Britain, and demonstrate fears, among all classes, about what the nature of that influence would be. Nearly everyone, from the urban pickpocket running amuck in the new stations, to the remote and powerful country gentleman, experienced the changes railways were making in Victorian society.


2.2.2.      From the literati: Arnold, Carlyle, Punch, and Ruskin on Railways


Members of Victorian literati were among those most vocally against the railways. Matthew Arnold, in his work Culture and Anarchy, named the false God to his time “railroads and coal,” (p. 37, Newsome) while Carlyle no doubt had railway speculators in mind when he spoke of the century’s Mammon-worship: “Go at your pleasure, there assemble yourselves, and worship your bellyful, you absurd idolaters,” he rages in Hudson’s Statue. Carlyle took Hudson to task, naming him “railway king” and adding, “His worth, I take it, to English railroads, much more to English men, will turn out to be extremely inconsiderable; to be incalculable damage rather!” For them, the railway was yet another symbol of the country’s obsession with wealth, accumulation, and material values over moral and aesthetic concerns. There were a great many fortunes made by the iron roads, but, these writers remind us, there were also a great many things lost or destroyed, and among these was an older, and slower, way of life.

Punch, the great satirical journal of the nineteenth century, originally followed the positive media reception of new technologies. However, the cartoonists were quick to caricature the businessmen caught up in railway mania at the expense of public safety and well-being: “with regard to railway accidents it is ‘the pace that kills.’ This is particularly the case when companies go it too fast in the pursuit of profit.” (p. 1, Vaughon) By the 1860s Punch was waging war against railway vandalism, and was in fact among the first to use the term “vandalism” in connection with the railways. In 1863, a Punch article recommended St. Paul’s Cathedral as a potential station, asking “What else will it be fit for when every railway runs right into London?” (p. 167, Simmons, The Victorian Railway)

Ruskin was among those firmly against railways, particularly the railway’s “vandalism” of personal homes and national treasures alike. Some of Ruskin’s more famous lines were written against railway incursions and the frenetic pace of contemporary life: “A fool always wants to shorten space and time, a wise man wants to lengthen both,” (p. 31, Newsome) and “It does a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow: for his glory is not all going, but in being.” (p. 31, Newsome)

On a trip to Venice in the 1840s, Ruskin was horrified to discover that the railway had arrived, and treated this is a new act of vandalism in the decaying, ancient city.  He mourned the railway’s encroachment on the Rhine, and the loss of the scenes that Turner had painted between Constance and Basle. Ruskin was also involved in Wordsworth’s battle to keep the Lakes District free of railway “contamination,” (see Punch caricature below).

Figure 4:  Cartoon published in Punch 5 February 1876: caricature of Ruskin and his support of a protest organized by the St. George’s Guild against a proposed extension of the railway in the Lake District. (pp. 156-57, Abse)

In describing the Lamp of beauty in his work The Seven Lamps, Ruskin presented his own time as completely bereft of aesthetic value. He felt that beauty in architecture stemmed from an imitation of natural form “because it is not of the power of man to conceive beauty without her aid.” (p. 96, Abse) He also believed that to ornament commercial buildings “vulgarized the forms and diminished their worth,” (p. 96, Abse) especially railway stations, which people were always rushing to escape.

Wherever you can rest, there decorate, where rest is forgiven, so is beauty.  You must not mix ornament with business any more than you mix play... Work first, and then gaze... Will a single traveler be willing to pay an increased fare on the South Western, because the columns of the terminus are covered with patterns from Ninevah? – He will only care less for the Ninevite ivories in the British Museum... Railroad architecture has, or would have, the dignity of its own if it were left to its work. You would not put rings on the fingers of a smith at his anvil.” (p. 96, Abse)


Railway vandalism of British sites spurred the formation of societies for the preservation of antiquities. The most famous case of railway vandalism involved the ruins of Furness Abbey, a Cistercian monastery hidden away in the Vale of Nightshade. As the ruins were situated on land owned by the Earl of Burlington, a railway promoter, there was little opportunity for public outcry at the time, but the event was remembered as one of the greatest acts of railway vandalism against a historical site dear to public memory. As railway historian Jack Simmons wrote, “When Ruskin was offered the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1874 he declined it, in protest against what he considered four public atrocities committed in his lifetime, one in Britain and three in Italy. The passage of the railway by Furness Abbey was the British one.” (pp. 161-163, Simmons, The Victorian Railway)

Apart from aesthetic and historical concerns, Ruskin was also strongly opposed to railway speculation. During the slump from 1847-1848 he was vindicated his opinions when his future father-in-law, Mr. Gray, was nearly ruined. He felt that, in order to insure the regulation of the economy, the railways should be owned publicly. Ruskin also advocated quadruple rails as a safety measure, thereby separating passenger and freight traffic. As one of his biographers, Joan Abse, put it: “He may have hated the railways as they destroyed the countryside and a former way of life, but he thought at least they should be run for the benefit of the community.” (pp. 218-19, Abse)

Opposition from the literati represented different interests and voiced separate concerns than, for example, that of the Northampton farmer, but both stemmed from the same basic fear of change. Medievalists like Ruskin and Carlyle mourned the passing of an older way of life, and the destruction of its outward remnants. However, perhaps the strongest voice against the railways is the great Romantic, Wordsworth himself, whose losing battle to preserve the Lakes District consumed his last years. Today, tourists flock to Windermere, now approachable by train, but as late as 1914, no “iron roads” marred the heartland of Wordsworth’s beloved Lakes.


3.      Case Study: No Ground Secure: Wordsworth and Opposition to the Kendall and Windermere Railway


3.1.   Wordsworth’s views on nature and on industrialization


3.1.1.      Wordsworth, an elderly man by the 1840s and the Ambleside debates, could be seen as representative of a Romantic sensibility better ascribed to an older era. He regarded nature as an animated force, as inspiration and as an integral part of his identity. Nor was his view necessarily contrary to general public opinion: Wordsworth captured an aspect of “Englishness” that his fellow countrymen identified with. Gladstone, when asked to choose his favorite line of poetry, placed Wordsworth’s “Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn” beside Milton for the crown. The accompanying verses from “The World is Too Much with Us” reflect Wordsworth’s feelings of growing isolation against the tide of changing times: “Little we see in nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

As early as 1814, Wordsworth was speaking out against the waste and inhumanity of “these profaner rites,” the processes of industry. In “Outrage Done to Nature,” Wordsworth makes his stance toward industrialization clear:

Meanwhile, at social Industry’s command,

How quick, how vast an increase. From the germ

Of some poor hamlet, rapidly produced

Here a huge town, continuous and compact,

Hiding the face of earth for leagues-and there,

Where a habitation stood before,

Abodes of men irregularly massed

Like trees in forests,-spread through spacious tracts,

O’er which the smoke of unremitting fires

Hangs permanent, and plentiful as wreaths

Of vapour glittering in the morning sun.

And, wheresoe’er the traveler turns his steps,

He sees the barren wilderness erased,

Or disappearing; … (p. 2, Schwartz)


His image of rural English life overtaken by a Dantean underworld of smoke and flame was a powerful one that was summoned by many poets and writers afterward to describe the painful changes of industrialization. The unnaturalness of the increase was also a point of concern for Wordsworth, who believed in the smaller scale of life that had been a part of the Romantic ideal of English country life.

He was strongly opposed to the principles of Utilitarianism as espoused by Benthamites, and believed that nature should be appreciated for its own sake, and not as a resource to be exploited for a vastly increasing and irreverent humanity. His references to factories and the tyranny of the bells, to child labor, indeed show his attitudes on “the darker side Of this great change.” (p. 3, Schwartz)

The expanding tourist industry also offended the reverence he felt was due to nature’s greatest beauties. The thought that the railways might come to Windermere and the Lakes District filled him with dread. The first line of his sonnet “On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway” demands “Is there no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?” (p. 1, Schwartz)


Figure 5: Bradshaw's April 1910 Railway Guide, detailing the accommodations available in the Lakes District for tourists arriving by rail.


3.2.1 Wordsworth’s arguments against the Kendal and Windemere railway

In  1844, the proposed Kendal and Windermere rail line threatened to violate William Wordsworth's precious lakes district.  He responded with a literary campaign against the line.  Wordsworth wrote poems and letters that were published in the Morning Post to gain the support of the public and specifically address the members of the Board of Trade and the House of Commons.  In his letters, Wordsworth is “Clearly representing a minority, he speaks with both a sense of his argument’s limited popular authority, overriding sense of it’s rightness notwithstanding, and a desire to extend this authority as possible into the public sphere” (Mulvihill 311).   

In his first letter to the Morning Post published on October 16, 1844, Wordsworth first claimed that there was no need for a rail in close proximity to the Lakes district.  He stated that there were no manufacturers, quarries nor a substantial agriculture base to warrant the intrusion.  After refuting the need, Wordsworth turned on the main argument for introducing rails into the district,

The projectors have induced many to favor their schemes by declaring that one of their main objects is to place the beauties of the Lake District within easier reach of these who cannot afford to pay for ordinary conveyances. (148)


Wordsworth understands that the corporate faction need only to prove the utility of a rail for it to be taken seriously, he writes “Utilitarianism, serving as a mask for cupidity and gambling speculations” (Mulvihill 312).  Wordsworth responds to this proposal by humbly explaining that members of the working class would not have the capacity to appreciate the “beauty” and “character of seclusion and retirement” that the Lakes District had to offer.  He states quite plainly that “a vivid perception of romantic scenery is neither inherent in mankind, nor a necessary consequence of a comprehensive education.”  He concludes this letter by stating that bringing many travelers into the district would destroy the beauty they had come to enjoy.  He says, “Let then the beauty be undisfigured and the retirement unviolated” ( Selincourt 156).

 This first letter was not received well; William was quoted in a letter to a friend responding to the opposition, “They actually accuse me of desiring to interfere with the innocent enjoyments of the poor, by preventing this district becoming accessible to them by a railway” (Mulvihill 306).   Wordsworth’s second letter to the Morning Post dated December 9, 1844, searches to explain his position regarding the working class more thoroughly and carefully.    In the very first paragraph he stats,

The scope pf the main argument, it will be recollected, was to prove that the perception of what has acquired the name of picturesque and romantic scenery is so far from being intuitive, that it can be produced only by a slow and gradual process of culture.


Essentially he is expounding upon his original conception that an appreciation for nature is an acquired taste and it would be futile to bring the lower classes in because they would not have a developed context with which to compare the richness of the Lake District.  Wordsworth dedicates the rest of the letter to listing other reasons why the proposed Kendal and Windermere rail would be bad.  It seems though; that he makes these further statements to gain back the ‘face’ he may have lost with the people he offended with the first letter.

Wordsworth claims that with the influx of strangers the railway promises could potentially estrange the local poor and wreak moral havoc upon the Lake District, “There cannot be a doubt that the Sabbath day in the towns of Bowness and Ambleside, and other parts of the district, would be subject to much additional desecration” (Selincourt 155).  

The Furness Abby issue gave Wordsworth hope; he wrote that the antiquity was able to be saved by finding an alternative around it.  This led him to conclude that the Lakes district was just as worthy of saving,

Sacred as a relic of the devotion of our ancestors deserves to be kept, there are temples of Nature, temples built by the Almighty, which have still higher claim to be left un-violated. (Selincourt 162)


The railway will intrude upon this ‘temple’ as Wordsworth sees it.   To back his claim that the rail itself will ruin the beauty of the district he draws upon an example of a road that was built on the eastern side of the Lake of Grasmere and of a passage in the Alps. Here he inserts 19 lines of an MS poem that revel in the beauty of a particular pass in the Alps as the poet saw it.   Wordsworth then claims that he saw the same path thirty years later and due to the intrusion of a road it was no longer the pristine landscape it once was.  Throughout both his letters Wordsworth inserts literary references.  This was most likely due to the fact that they related to his line of work.  However, he may also have know that many of the people who would read his letters would probably have admired his poetic career and so including this medium in his letters would help to sway them to his side of the opposition, if they are already pre-disposed to identify with poetics.

Wordsworth concludes this final letter with a disclaimer to protect anyone from claiming that his arguments were based on selfish initiatives.

I have now done with the subject.  The time of my life at which I have arrived may, I trust, if nothing else will guard me from the imputation of having written from any selfish interests, or from fear of disturbance which a railway might cause to myself.


Again he returns to the issue of the working classes taking excursions to the Lake District.  Reverting to a harsh tone he exclaims, “As for holiday pastimes, if a scene is to be chosen suitable to them for persons thronging from a distance, it may be found elsewhere at less cost of every kind” (Selincourt 166).


Although Wordsworth was not a politician of any sort he was able to gain much fame during his lifetime.  He exploited this position during the battle against the Kendal and Windermere line.  He was relatively tactful in his communications with the public and was probably successful at gaining support through his literary campaign.


3.2.2  Progress of Rail Lines in the Lakes District from 1845-1914

William Wordsworth was a leader in the effort to keep the lakes district pure and untouched by the filth that railways had to offer.  His death in 1850 is coincidentally coordinated with the explosion of rail lines between 1854 and 1876 (see appendix, maps iv and v), the number of rails tripled from two to six.  This development is not exceptional, when compared to the nation as a whole it is quite representative (see appendix, maps viii and ix).  However, when considering the efforts applied to avoid such geographical intrusion less than a decade earlier, the growth rate is surprising.  The Kendal and Windermere line in question was completed on April 21 in 1847.  Perhaps this event was the climax of Wordsworth’s failing health.  Interestingly enough, there were no lines built after 1876 (see appendix, map 1914) and the core of the Lake District remained untouched.  Perhaps the actual lakes themselves posed a problem or maybe there were no more rails built out of respect for the poet laureate, lest he roll over in his grave.

4.      Conclusion


4.1.   The nature of the changes ushered in by railways

The nature of Victorian change could be seen as demographic, environmental, social, and industrial. The railway alone was a symbol large enough to encompass all of these profound cultural changes. William Johnston, a barrister who published an 1851 survey titled England As It Is, summed up his century’s final verdict on the railway:

the most important event of the last quarter of a century in English history … this dependence magnitude of the capital they have absorbed – the changes they have produced in the habits of society – the new aspect they have given, in some respects, to the affairs of government – the new feeling of power they have engendered – the triumphs and disappointments of which they have been the cause – above all, the new and excessive activities to which they have given rise – must lead all who reflect upon the subject to admit that the importance of the general result of these great undertakings can scarcely be exaggerated.” (p. 32, Newsome)


According to the 1916 Development of Transportation in Modern England, Edwardians looking back on Victorian rail development saw the benefits of the railways largely in terms of reduced cost and speed of travel. Some also considered the enhanced value of land adjacent to proposed railway lines as a beneficial aspect of railway incursion, and felt that the railways helped to constrict urban sprawl by centering urban development on certain fixed points. Some thought that railway development necessitated important improvements, while other believed the railways were destroying low-income housing blocks and national heritage alike. All were in agreement over the detrimental effects of the Railway Fever and the Railway Manias, during which lines were proposed for purely speculative concerns, or, as part of a bubble scheme. This had also led, many felt, to too many lines clustered along single routes. The railway finance mess, as described above by essayist Herbert Spencer, was also seen as a detriment to public welfare, and was indeed a major consideration in the scheme to nationalize the railways.

4.2.   Legacy of opposition?

Without the railways, Britain’s industrial potential could not have been developed as fully. As a people-mover, the railways took part in social and demographic change on a scale never before seen. But what were the long-term effects of railway opposition? Maps vii-x in Appendix I provide an overview of British railway development 1845-1914, and provide some sense of scale: the railways expanded at an incredible rate, and it seems impossible that a few examples of popular concern should have a significant impact – particularly since, by 1916, general opinion had shifted to favor railways and the changes they helped to bring.

However, opposition was, as we have seen above, significant and enduring. Societies for the preservation of antiquities, as well as architectural and archeological societies, were founded to oppose railway “vandalism” and to catalogue finds uncovered by railway construction. Such societies may have led to the development of official bodies like the National Trust, which restore, protect, and manage historical properties in Britain. Townships and local groups banded together with official bodies to organize protests against proposed lines, thereby leaving a history of cooperation between official and unofficial public interest groups. Railway opposition left a legacy of coalition building, and an infrastructure for further public action, whose effects would reach far beyond the individual victories and defeats of those “sentimental gentlemen” of the Victorian age.


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