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,” (Newsome, 37) 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.” (Vaughon, 1) 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?” (Simmons, 167) 

     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,” (Newsome, 31) 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.” (Newsome, 31) 

     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."

     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.” (Abse, 96) He also believed that to ornament commercial buildings “vulgarized the forms and diminished their worth,” (Abse, 96) 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 (Abse, 96).
     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” (Simmons, 163)
      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.” (Abse, 218-9)

     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.