Victorian Children

Victorian Children and Life in Victorian Times

The Victorian Railway – Golden Age of Steam

In the 19th century, a revolution on rails unfolded in Britain, reshaping the very fabric of society. The Victorian Railway, a marvel of the era, connected Britain like never before. The rollout of rail brought distant towns and cities within reach of each other. transforming how people lived, worked, and interacted. Indeed the industrial revolution may not have been quite so ‘revolutionary’ if not for this phenomenal advancement to the transport network. So let’s delve into the fascinating world of Victorian Railways, exploring their development and the profound impact they had on industry and society.

Pre-Victorian Railways in Britain

Before the Victorian era, Britain’s transportation relied heavily on horse-drawn carriages and canals. The first major railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, opened in 1825, primarily for freight. It then became the first public railway service to use steam locomotives. However, it was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, inaugurated in 1830, that truly marked the dawn of the railway age in Britain. The rollout of the rail network was quick to gather pace, and by the mid-19th century a vast network connected most major cities and towns.

The Revolutionary Rollout of the Railways in Victorian Times

The introduction of railways in Victorian Britain was nothing short of revolutionary. It’s hard to imagine that anyone really knew just how far and wide reaching the effects would be in all areas of life. Widescale rail networks drastically improved commerce by making it easier, faster and more efficient to transport large quantities of goods. Necessities such as fresh produce for example, could now be delivered much further across the country while still remaining fresh. Another knock on effect of this was cheaper food, and this improved the diet of the poor and working class significantly.

The railways also transformed the reach of mass media and the efficiency of the postal service. Newspapers printed in London would eventually be able to reach Edinburgh on the same day. People could send letters or Christmas cards and expect delivery much quicker than ever before. It was like everything stepped up a gear thanks to the steam locomotive.

The impact on the workforce was also profound. People could now commute to work from neighbourhoods outside of the city. This lead to the growth of suburbs and changes in living patterns.  Victorian schools became more accessible, and the concept of commuting for education took root – though this was still too expensive for the poor and working class at first. 

Train tickets varied in types and pricing, making travel accessible to different social classes. Initially, only the wealthy could afford first-class tickets, but with the introduction of third-class carriages, train travel became a possibility for the working class. The number of people using trains surged throughout the Victorian era, reflecting the growing reliance on this mode of transport.

Hurdles And Challenges To Victorian Railway Rollout

The expansion of the Victorian Railways was not without its political challenges. Each new railway line required its own individual Act of Parliament, a process often fraught with opposition and debate. Influential landowners, whose properties were in the path of proposed lines, frequently objected, fearing the impact on their lands and the potential noise and disruption. These objections often led to costly legal battles or forced railway companies to adopt less than ideal routes to appease landowners.

As if challenges from land owners wasn’t enough to deal with,  canal companies, threatened by the emerging competition also leveraged their considerable political influence to hinder railway development.

Incentives for Building Railways

The lure of economic growth and national progress.

The push to build railways in Victorian Britain was driven by several incentives. Foremost was the promise of economic growth. Railways opened up new markets for goods, and not just food like I mentioned before. Trains reduced transportation costs for virtually all materials and stimulated industries like coal and iron. There was also a nationalistic element; railways were seen as a symbol of progress, prosperity and modernity. The sprawling network positioned Victorian Britain as a global industrial leader. The government, recognizing these benefits, often supported railway projects, though it maintained a laissez-faire approach to their operation.

Strategic and Economic Imperatives

The expansion of the railway network in Victorian Britain was partly motivated by the need for economic recovery following periods of economic downturn. While creating a new line required a significant investment, railways were seen as a good return on investment. As both a means to stimulate industrial growth and to bring a considerable return. They created lots of jobs, a mobile workforce and improved the national infrastructure. 

Government also recognized the strategic value of railways for the ability to move troops quickly. Not just for war but, to quell civil unrest. The Victorian era was a time of massive upheaval and change, not everyone was on board and in many ways there was significant resistance. The ability to move troops rapidly across the country was a big consideration, to temper the political unrest and potential civil conflict.

The Role of Private Capital and Speculation

Investment in the Victorian Railways came primarily from private sources. It was a very costly enterprise and not something the government could fund alone. Many investors were lured by the  promise of high returns. From wealthy industrialists to middle-class citizens looking to improve their fortunes. Without this influx of capital, the rapid expansion of the network would never had been funded.

It didn’t come without its own set of challenges though, leading to ‘speculative bubbles’, most notably during the ‘Railway Mania’ of the 1840s. This term refers to a period when frenzied investment led to a rapid and unsustainable expansion of the network. As with all bubbles of this nature, eventually they have to pop.

George Hudson: The Railway King

The rise and fall of a railway tycoon.

George Hudson, known as the ‘Railway King,’ was a central figure in the expansion of Britain’s railway network during the Victorian era. Starting out his career as a draper, Hudson invested in the fledgling railway industry early, and quickly amassed significant wealth and influence. His role in setting up the Railway Clearing House in 1842 was pivotal in bedding the roots for a more robust and modern railway network. 

Hudson was a key player in the development of several major lines, and amalgamated lots of smaller lines (a precursor to setting up the RCL) too. His empire collapsed in the late 1840s amid financial irregularities and scandal, highlighting the volatile nature of railway investment during this period.

Victorian Railways Impact Crime Rates

The railways did influence crime rates, albeit indirectly for the most part. Easy travel provided new opportunities for criminals, leading to an increase in crimes like theft and pickpocketing at busy stations. Particularly in crowded city stations. Trains used to transport money, valuables and wealth could also see themselves the target of organised robbery attempts and guards were often employed to these trains. The railways also became a means for criminals to quickly flee from the scene of a crime.

Safety On Victorian Trains

Safety was a significant concern in the early days of the railways. Accidents were common due to inadequate safety measures and the lack of experience in operating high-speed trains. Over time, various safety measures were introduced, including better braking systems, safer railway carriages, and the establishment of railway policing and safety regulations.

Types of Trains in the Victorian Era

Victorian trains were primarily steam-powered, with locomotives pulling a series of carriages. These trains varied in length and could reach impressive speeds for the time. The design and comfort of the carriages improved over the years, evolving from basic wooden benches to more comfortable, upholstered seating in first-class compartments.

Timeline of Victorian Railway Network Rollout

  • 1825: Stockton and Darlington Railway opens, the world’s first public railway.
  • 1830: Liverpool and Manchester Railway inaugurates, setting the stage for passenger railways.
  • 1838: London to Birmingham line opens, connecting the capital to the Midlands.
  • 1841: Great Western Railway extends from London to Bristol.
  • 1850s: Expansion of the network continues, with major cities like Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield getting connected.
  • 1870: The network reaches over 16,000 miles of track and hosts 423 million passengers in the year.

Lore And Strange Victorian Beliefs About Trains

There was a peculiar belief in Victorian times that train travel could induce madness, termed ‘railway madness.’ The speed and motion of trains were thought to be capable of affecting the human mind, leading to bizarre and sometimes violent behaviour.

12 Fun Victorian Railway Facts

  • The first train journey had a top speed of just 15 mph.
  • Early trains didn’t have toilets!
  • The term ‘train station’ was originally coined in the Victorian era.
  • Queen Victoria was the first monarch to travel by train in 1842.
  • The London Underground, the world’s first subway, opened in 1863.
  • Railway time led to the standardization of time zones in Britain.
  • The Flying Scotsman, starting in 1862, was the world’s first non-stop train.
  • In 1892, the final stages of the old broad gauge network were converted to standard gauge in just one weekend.
  • The Victorians invented the railway buffet car.
  • The first railway murder occurred in 1864, capturing public attention and fear.
  • £3 billion was spent on building the railways from 1845 to 1900.
  • By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, over 1.1 billion passenger journeys were commuted on trains annually.

Link / Cite this Page

<a href="https://victorianchildren.org/victorian-railway/">The Victorian Railway – Golden Age of Steam</a>

Stewart, Suzy. "The Victorian Railway – Golden Age of Steam". Victorian Children . Accessed on June 21, 2024. https://victorianchildren.org/victorian-railway/.

Stewart, Suzy. "The Victorian Railway – Golden Age of Steam". Victorian Children , https://victorianchildren.org/victorian-railway/. Accessed 21 June, 2024.

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train travel in victorian times

The History Hit Miscellany of Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds

What Was It Like to Ride a Victorian Luxury Train?

train travel in victorian times

Martyn Pring

28 feb 2020.

train travel in victorian times

Most people believe luxury train travel was the product of the 20th century’s inter-war years.

While it is true that some of the most illustrious luxury trains were firmly entrenched in this period, the history really unfolds much earlier.

Towards the end of Victoria’s reign

Ideas surrounding luxury rail travel really began in the mid-1880s, when society was on the move and the Old World was attracting tens of thousands of new international visitors.

In Britain there had been some railway company experimentation. However the notion of civilised travel arrangements had hardly moved on from 1862, when new Anglo-Scottish expresses were made up of primitive 4 and 6-wheeled non-connecting carriages.

GNR’s No 990

Clerestory carriage stock still dominated prestige Anglo-Scottish expresses but by 1898, the east coast route was powered by the first 4-4-2 locomotives. GNR’s No 990 entered service in May of that year (Credit: John Scott-Morgan Collection).

This was the norm before two 4-wheeled (and later 6-wheeled) bogie stock caught on. Sprung bogie construction was still some time off to enable a smoother passenger ride.

Some railway companies like the Midland were true trailblazers with “luxury 12 wheelers”. Others remained unconvinced of benefits they delivered, citing the fact that they were heavier, required more powerful locomotives, and were a prerequisite for greater investment and capital expenditure they were loath to spend on.

For travelling passengers, the advantages were self-evident; new bogie carriages provided greater comfort and freedom to move around.

The Orient Express

train travel in victorian times

The first Orient Express in 1883 (Credit: Jürgen Franzke).

The launch of the Orient Express in October 1883 provided a pivotal moment in the development of the luxury train concept.

The initial service linking many European capitals ran with two sleeping car saloons and a dining carriage sandwiched between the two fourgons or luggage cars.

However it was the idea of a better travelling experience with sumptuous accommodation that caught the media’s eye.

The launch event and the celebration of cuisine delivered by a small band of chefs working in cramped conditions was universally received with journalistic plaudits and especially with British audiences, who went on to form the majority of the luxury train’s customers.

The return journey lasted 11 days, but clearly demonstrated Georges Nagelmackers’ uncanny ability to negotiate complex travel arrangements involving national institutions and myriad railway companies across the pockets of European states.

train travel in victorian times

1888 poster advertising the Orient Express (Credit: Jules Chéret ).

Railway route expansion fueled the expansion of first-class trains largely driven by a combination of railway competition and increased traveller expectation.

train travel in victorian times

A better to way to travel

The 1890s marked a significant step-change in Britain and how railway companies saw their customers, belatedly realising passenger expectancies surrounding the quality of travel and services were clearly evolving.

It was a decade of rapid and bewildering change as science and technology transformed the country, giving rise to the modern world. The bigger railway companies were a key lever of industrial expansion altering everything around us forever.

Whilst railways possessed the infrastructure to effect change, society as a whole was knocking on their doors demanding transformation.

An educated and moneyed upper and middle-class, benefiting from the professionalisation of society (on both sides of the Atlantic), demonstrated personal ambition, self-confidence and a willingness to tap into life’s better things.

Railway companies and shipping lines were the new conduits of better ways to travel.

The age of decadence

Train advert

The 1890s saw significant strides in express train carriage development with improved comfort and passenger facilities ensuring longer rail journeys could be enjoyed rather than endured (Credit: Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans).

The end of the Victorian age was discernable as a period of decadence and interest in arts, popular culture and the written word altering the travel landscape and demand for luxury products and services.

Frequent and short breaks were now on travel agendas – railways got you there fast. Domestic and overseas travel became cornerstones of urbane lifestyles.

train travel in victorian times

Notions surrounding adventure, walking, outdoor pursuits, culture and heritage registered ever more prominently on peoples’ radars.

From the 1890s decadent places to stay, restaurants, eateries and new concepts surrounding the luxury floating palaces of trans-Atlantic liners and their accompanying boat trains were on architect and designer drawing boards – but constructed to mirror society’s accepted class segregation.

The British Pullman Company

Pullman advert

In the early days of railway grouping, the Pullman Car Company was seeking to enhance their promotional image with a tag line of ‘the maximum of luxury at the minimum of cost’ as shown in this advertisement from the 1924 ‘Railway Year Book’ (Credit: James S. Baldwin).

So how did all of these ideas transform themselves into better ways to travel by rail? Certainly increased use of longer and spacious bogie carriages provided improved passenger comfort and facilities.

Gangway/corridor connected stock with compartments and lavatories became the norm. Some railway companies invested in raised clerestory roofed coaches providing more natural light; elliptical shaped roofs became the standard from Edwardian times when aided by new electric lighting technologies.

This came about in 1894 when dynamos were attached to bogie wheels; dimly lit coaches on premier services were consigned to the past.

One of the first benefactors were the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s (LBSCR) Brighton Pullmans and Newhaven boat trains.

It was the beginning of ‘Pullman and Deluxe train travel’ whispered in the same breath as the British Pullman Company came under new ownership.

A golden era of train travel

Southern Belle

Advert for the Southern Belle (Credit: Public domain).

Improved gas technologies also provided safer environments for lighting, food preparation, cooking and the dining carriage, although in the event of collision and derailment, seeping gas was always a potential fire hazard with wooden constructed coaches.

High-quality dining cars provided sophisticated “food on the move” rail travel for both first and third-class passengers.

On the continent, it was more complex as second-class travel still existed, but British food service developments were innovative; new third-class diners were akin to first-class of other railway companies.

Train advert

The Tatler was another key publication for railway promotion. The title’s editorial in December 1907 coincided with the GNR’s ‘Luxurious Hotels on Wheels’ initiative (Credit: Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans).

Similarly, first-rate sleeping car services on long-distant runs were ever more pleasant places especially on the consortia led Anglo-Scottish expresses. Viewpoints of “hotels on wheels” entered everyday language.

After a difficult start in Britain, The Pullman Company gradually gained a foothold on LBSCR and South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR) services providing some of the first named luxury trains.

By Edwardian times affluent first-class passengers increased substantially; the new Southern Belle Pullman was described as “The Most Luxurious Train in the World” when launched in 1908.

Visitors from the New World

train travel in victorian times

Illustration from 1885 Chicago & Alton Railroad timetable (Credit: Public domain ).

One of the major drivers to the extension of luxury facilities enjoyed by period travellers was the value and numbers of New World tourists coming to Britain.

The impact of the US source market in shaping luxury travel agendas in this country was a significant signature of the times.

New classes of trans-Atlantic liners could be found; the first-class “floating palaces” reflected the value of American visitor economy and exercising a profound influence as all involved recognised the high-spending potential.

Travel providers – railway companies, shipping lines and hoteliers – went out of their way to provide simply the best.

Martyn Pring is currently an author and independent researcher with interests in culinary tourism, destination marketing, luxury branded sectors and travel histories. He is a self-confessed railway, maritime and aviation enthusiast from a young age. He is the author of Luxury Railway Travel: A Social and Business History published by Pen and Sword .

Luxury Railway Travel

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1848: The Year of Revolutions

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The National Archives

COPY 1/408 Paddington, 1892

Victorian Railways

Lesson at a glance, did they create more crime, teachers' notes, connections to curriculum.

In Victorian times, Britain’s railway network grew rapidly. In the 1840s ‘Railway Mania’ saw a frenzy of investment and speculation. £3 billion was spent on building the railways from 1845 to 1900. In 1870, 423 million passengers travelled on 16,000 miles of track, and by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign over 1100 million passengers were using trains.

The railway system offered new chances for travel, holidays, transporting goods, developing businesses and the growth of towns and cities. The distance between town and countryside was erased. Dairy produce and fish could be delivered easily to different parts of the country within hours. Increased communication allowed for the spread of ideas and national newspapers. A standardized time was introduced across Britain as trains were timetabled. The mobility of labour and maintenance of law and order were made easier. Of course, the railway network also stimulated the coal and iron industries but led to the decline of the canal system.

However, with more people and goods on the move, trains and railway stations arguably, offered new opportunities for crime. The first carriages were unlit and unconnected by corridors, so there were cases of lone travellers being robbed or attacked. Railway stations were often packed and busy which made theft easier. The first railway murder took place in 1864 on train travelling from Fenchurch Street towards Hackney on the North London Railway and caused a great deal of public concern about travel safety.

Use this lesson to explore sources relating to criminal activity based around railways.

Look at Source 1

Extract from a report about pickpocketing at Kings Cross Station written for the Board of the Great Northern Railway. All railway companies had a Board of Directors, which received various reports railway business, 1867 (Catalogue ref: RAIL 236/299/11)

  • What type of document is it?
  • Who has written it?
  • What is the report is about?
  • What happened to the women involved in the crime when they went to court [Middlesex Sessions]?
  • What do you think of their sentence?
  • Why do you think these women were punished like this?
  • What is the style/tone of the report?
  • Why would a railway station offer opportunities for crime?

Look at Source 2:

Two entries from a Home Office Criminal Register (Catalogue ref: HO 27/147)

  How have the women in Source 1 been punished?

  • Why do you think the Home Office kept a criminal register?
  • How could this type of source be used by historians studying 19 th century crime?

Look at Source 3

Extract from a report about the theft of a copper tap at Leeds Station written for the Board of the Great Northern Railway. (Catalogue ref: RAIL 236/299/11)

  • What was age of the boy concerned?
  • Why do you think he carried out this theft?
  • Does this source give any insight into police methods at the time?
  • Why do you think this boy was punished like this?
  • Do you think sources 1 & 3 suggest that crime increased because of the railways?
  • Can you think of other reasons why people turned to crime in the 19 th century?
  • What other sources could you use to find out?

Sources 4-8

The following sources taken from police files at the time, concern the first railway murder in 1864 of a man called Thomas Briggs. Discover what the documents reveal about police methods of investigation in Victorian times.

Look at Source 4

Front page from a pamphlet sold about the murder of Thomas Briggs on the North London Line in 1864. Read the background notes for information on the crime. (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/76 p1.)

  What type of document is it?

  • What does this document suggest about public reaction to the crime?

Look at Source 5

Metropolitan Police Special Report Division K, 17 th September 1864. (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/76)

  • Who has written this report?
  • What does the report reveal about the way the police have carried out their investigations?
  • What are the similarities and differences with how a similar crime might be investigated today?

Look at Source 6

Police report from the Division at Islington & Hackney concerning a witness who had travelled on the same train as Mr Briggs. (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/75)

  •   What type of record is this?
  • What does it show about police methods of investigation?
  • Are you surprised by any of the information supplied by the witness?

Look at Source 7

A list of policemen involved in the case and their duties from the Detective Department. (Catalogue reference, MEPO 3/76)

  • How long did the investigation last?
  • What does this source infer about police methods of investigation?

Look at Source 8

Letter to the Commissioner of Police from the Home Office at Whitehall about rewards for certain policemen who worked on the case, 6 th February, 1865. (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/76)

  • What type of record is this?
  • Can you find out what is the connection between the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police?
  • What does this letter reveal about the police response to the crime?

Can you suggest reasons why the investigation was so intensive? [see Source 4 again]

Look at source 9

Extract from ‘The Daily Telegraph’, July 13 th 1864.

  • What has been the impact of the crime on the public according to ‘The Daily Telegraph’?
  • What three suggestions does the extract make about improving safety for passengers using the railways?
  • How would you describe the tone/attitude of this article?

Thomas Briggs, a sixty-nine year old banker was found severely injured on the railway tracks of the North London Railway line near Hackney. He had been travelling in a first class carriage from Fenchurch Street to Hackney, and his compartment was found soaked in blood. When he was discovered and examined, it seemed that Briggs had sustained several serious blows to the head and he later died from the attack. His hat and gold watch with chain were missing and after an intensive police investigation, the prime suspect, Franz Muller was caught by British police who arrested him in New York. Muller was extradited and charged with murder. In Britain, he faced trial and was found guilty then publically hanged.

The crime revealed that in terms of safety, wealth and position made no difference, the assault on Mr. Briggs took place in an isolated first class carriage. The Daily Telegraph, dated 13th July 1864 seems to capture sense of public panic: “There is one general feeling which this dark crime has excited among the population there must be an end put to the absolute imprisonment…which railway travelers endure”

In order to improve train safety, a bill was introduced in 1866 for the use of communication cords in railway carriages to enable passengers to stop the train at any sign of danger. This was later made compulsory by the Railways Regulation Act of 1868.

This lesson is designed to introduce pupils to different historical sources to find out about crime on the railways and explore how the records can used to understand more about police methods and crime detection.

Pupils use two railway crime reports and a Home Office criminal register to find out about pickpocketing at Kings Cross Station and the theft of a copper tap at Leeds station by a young boy aged 10 years. The reports were written for the Board of the Great Northern Railway. All railway companies had a Board of Directors, which received various reports railway business and the day to day running of the railway.

The other sources included in this lesson relating to the investigation of the first railway murder in 1864 represent the tip of an iceberg. They come from two police folders on the case which contain a vast collection of hand written witness statements made in police stations all over London including Clapham Junction, Kennington and Tottenham for example, letters to the police advising them about their investigation, and how to improve rail safety, newspaper clippings collected by the police commenting on the investigation and court proceedings and so on.

Please note there are further examples of crime associated with railways in our Crime and Punishment website . In addition you could also ask students to consider what other sources they could use to find out more regarding the social context of crime. For example, census returns, newspapers, letters, criminal depositions and photographs available on this website focus on issues of 19 th poverty and social deprivation.

For this lesson, pupils can work in pairs or small groups to study each sources and report back to the whole class to discuss the answers to the questions. Alternatively, pupils can work through the tasks independently.

Source 1: Extract from a report about pickpocketing at Kings Cross Station written for the Board of the Great Northern Railway. All railway companies had a Board of Directors, to which groups or individuals would send reports on the business of the railway, 1867 (Catalogue ref: RAIL 236/299/11)

Source 2: Extract of Home Office criminal register (Catalogue ref: HO 27/147)

Source 3: Extract from a report about the theft of a copper tap at Leeds Station written for the Board of the Great Northern Railway (Catalogue ref: RAIL 236/299/11)

Source 4: Front page from a pamphlet sold on the murder of Thomas Briggs on the North London Line in 1864 (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/76 p1.)

Source 5: Metropolitan Police Special Report Division K, 17 th September 1864 (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/76)

Source 6: Police report from the Division at Islington & Hackney concerning a witness who had travelled on the same train as Mr Briggs (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/75)

Source 7: A list of policemen involved in the case and their duties from the Detective Department (Catalogue reference: MEPO 3/76)

Source 8: Letter to the Commissioner of Police from the Home Office at Whitehall about rewards for certain policemen who worked on the case, 6 th February, 1865 (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/76)

Source 9: Extract from The Daily Telegraph, 13 th July 1864 (Catalogue ref: MEPO 3/75)

Key Stage 4 GCSE Schools History Project thematic studies offered by Edexcel, & OCR based on Crime & Punishment.

Key Stage 2 Aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066; changes in crime and punishment from the Anglo-Saxons to the present- Teachers may wish to adapt this lesson or use some of the sources as appropriate to the needs of their pupils.

Related resources

A victorian prison.

Why were Victorian Prisons so tough?

Victorian children in trouble with the law

Did the punishment fit the crime?

19th century prison ships

What do these documents reveal about attitudes to crime and punishment?

Crime and punishment

1834 poor law.

What did people think of the new Poor Law?

  • Collectibles

All Aboard the Victorian Luxury Train: Uncovering a Gilded Age of Rail Travel

  • by history tools
  • May 26, 2024

Introduction

Imagine yourself as a well-heeled Victorian traveler stepping aboard a gleaming locomotive at London‘s Euston Station in the year 1900. As you settle into your plush first-class compartment, the train lurches forward, beginning a journey that promises not just transportation but a full-fledged luxury experience on rails.

Over the next several hours, you‘ll dine on gourmet cuisine served on the finest china, relax in sumptuous lounge cars adorned with exotic wood paneling and chandeliers, and bed down for the night in a cozy sleeping berth as the rhythmic clickety-clack of the train lulls you to sleep. This is the golden age of luxury train travel in Britain.

For several decades spanning the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, Britain‘s railways engaged in a battle of opulent one-upmanship, rolling out increasingly posh trains and services in hopes of winning the loyal patronage of the nation‘s most discerning and deep-pocketed travelers. It was an era when the journey itself was as much a part of the travel experience as the destination – a far cry from the utilitarian rail trips of decades prior.

The Early Days of Victorian Rail Travel

To fully appreciate the Victorian luxury train epoch, we must first rewind to the early-mid 19th century when passenger rail travel first emerged in Britain. The first generation of passenger carriages were little more than open-air wagons with hard wooden benches – practical but far from comfortable conveyances. As Mark Casson notes in The World‘s First Railway System , "At first, conditions were primitive. Third-class passengers traveled in open wagons, and there were no toilets on trains."

Even first-class accommodations were spartan by later standards. Carriages lacked heating, lighting, and toilet facilities. Passengers were jostled about on rough track and exposed to soot and cinders from the locomotive. Refreshments, if any, typically consisted of simple fare purchased from platform vendors during brief station stops. As railway historian Jack Simmons put it, early Victorian rail journeys were an experience "most travelers were glad to see the end of."

But Britain‘s rail network expanded rapidly through the mid-late 1800s, going from just 67 miles of track in 1830 to over 7,000 by 1850 and over 15,000 by 1870. Total annual passenger journeys skyrocketed from 6 million in 1842 to 507 million by 1875. With this explosive growth came greater expectations from passengers for improved comfort and amenities, especially among the expanding middle and upper classes of Victorian society.

The Enabling Technologies

Several key innovations in the second half of the 19th century laid the groundwork for the emergence of the luxury train:

Bogie Carriages : The introduction of four-wheeled and later six-wheeled "bogie" carriages with effective suspension systems in the 1870s-80s was a game changer, enabling a markedly smoother and more comfortable ride even at high speeds.

Gas Lighting : The 1860s-70s saw the rollout of gas lighting in train carriages, replacing dim oil lamps and making reading and socializing easier. Later, electric lighting started to appear in the 1880s.

Steam Heating : Introduced in the 1860s and widely adopted by the 1870s, steam heating from the locomotive finally provided reliable warmth in first-class carriages during cold weather.

Dining Cars : Purpose-built dining cars, first appearing in Britain in the 1870s, liberated railway catering from the limitations of station stops and allowed travelers to enjoy a proper sit-down meal while on the move.

Corridor Connections : By the late 1800s, corridors between carriages became the norm, allowing passengers to move about the train to access dining cars, smoking saloons, lavatories and other amenities.

The Pullman Revolution

Perhaps no name is more synonymous with Victorian luxury trains than Pullman. Founded by American entrepreneur George Pullman, the Pullman Car Company had already earned a reputation in the United States for operating luxurious sleeping and parlor cars finished to the highest standards. In 1874, Pullman brought his innovation to Britain, partnering first with the Midland Railway to run sleeping cars on its London-Glasgow route.

But it was Pullman‘s subsequent launch of luxury parlor car services with the LBSCR between London and Brighton that truly ignited a revolution in high-end rail travel. As railway historian David Jenkinson describes:

"The cars were like nothing ever seen in Britain: 27 ft 6 in long and 8 ft 10 in wide, weighing 20 tons, with a clerestory roof, and an interior panelled in satinwood and maple, decorated with engraved mirrors, upholstered armchairs, thick pile carpets, and oil paintings."

Pullman‘s signature cars, named after British castles and stately homes, featured plush armchairs (either open "parlor" configuration or in private compartments), large picture windows, elegant decor, and at-seat steward service. Riders delighted in the restaurant-quality meals served on fine china and crystal. As the Illustrated London News gushed in 1875:

"In travelling between London and Brighton, one dines and enjoys all the comforts of a first-class hotel. You may commence your dinner with soups, go on to fish, flesh, fowl, and game, and wind up with a variety of sweets and dessert, to say nothing of the accompaniments of tea, coffee, claret, champagne, and cigars."

By the 1890s, Pullman services had expanded across southern England with popular luxury trains like the Brighton Limited and Eastbourne Express. In 1908, Pullman raised the bar again with the launch of the Southern Belle between London and Brighton, hailed as the "most luxurious train in the world." The cream-and-umber liveried train featured two lavish dining cars, a ladies‘ drawing room car, and a smoking lounge with an outdoor viewing platform. As one awestruck journalist wrote after the inaugural run:

"Travelling seems to have reached the very apex of comfort and convenience in the Southern Belle, which beats the Orient Express, the train de luxe of Europe."

The Race for Luxury Dominance

Not to be outdone, the major British rail companies rolled out a host of new luxury services and amenities in the 1890s-1900s to rival the Pullmans:

In 1892, the LNWR inaugurated its "American Special" boat train between London and Liverpool, featuring music lounge cars and elaborate afternoon tea service aimed at affluent transatlantic travelers.

The GNR, meanwhile, heavily promoted the opulence of its Flying Scotsman express from London to Edinburgh, proclaiming "Luxurious Hotels on Wheels." A 1912 GNR guidebook enticed passengers with promises of velvet sofas, card tables, reading lamps, and "a magnificent dining car replete with every modern convenience."

For the Midland Railway, the watchword was innovation. It introduced Britain‘s first sleeping cars with ensuite bathrooms in 1896 and pioneered amenities like onboard barbers and ladies‘ maids. Its 1902 "Midland Maid" tea car service featured a corps of smartly uniformed waitresses.

On the Glasgow-London west coast route, the Caledonian Railway‘s flagship Reston Limited of 1909 boasted five-course dinners and Edwardian Baroque interiors "reminiscent of an English country house." It later launched the sumptuous Gleneagles Specials aimed at well-heeled golfers bound for the famous resort.

Catering to New World Wealth

The flood of wealthy American tourists arriving on ever-larger trans-Atlantic liners added fuel to the luxury train race. As Terry Gourvish notes in British Rail 1974-97 , "the volume of trans-Atlantic passenger traffic more than doubled between 1900 and 1913 to over 1 million one-way journeys annually." British railways pulled out all the stops to court these lucrative customers and their dollars.

Dedicated boat trains like the LNWR‘s "American Specials" would meet passenger ships upon arrival in Liverpool or Southampton, where liveried railway staff would handle luggage and usher travelers into sumptuous Pullman cars bound for London. The LMS promoted its "American Travel Service" at major US ports while the GWR opened international booking offices in New York and Chicago.

Onboard, the railways catered to American tastes and sensibilities with more informal dining options, private compartments, social spaces like ladies‘ drawing room cars, and hot and cold running water for washing up. The Midland even hired a dedicated American passenger agent to tend to this clientele. As historian Amy Richter writes:

"Making first-class ocean liner and railway passengers feel ‘at home‘ was in fact a complicated endeavor involving an array of spaces, objects, and social interactions that had to be carefully constructed and performed."

Quantifying the Luxury Boom

Just how much did the luxury train trend boost passenger traffic and revenues for British railways? While exact figures are hard to come by, data from the Railway Returns suggest the impact was significant:

Between 1870-1900, the number of first-class passenger journeys in Britain surged from 30.8 million to 58.1 million per year – an 89% increase compared to 67% growth in third-class journeys.

In that same period, average revenue per first-class passenger rose 72% versus just 12% for third class, implying passengers were taking longer journeys in more expensive luxury accommodations.

By 1910, there were over 100 named luxury train services crisscrossing Britain, up from a mere handful two decades prior.

A 1912 report by the GNR estimated its luxury trains had boosted revenue on the East Coast route by 8-10% while the LNWR proclaimed its American traffic had quadrupled since launching the American Specials.

A Legacy of Luxury

At their peak, Edwardian luxury trains weren‘t just a mode of transportation but a vital part of high society. They served as status symbols and social spaces where elites could see and be seen. Richter even describes them as "civilizing spaces" that "conferred status and gentility on those who traveled in them."

Alas, the era of the Victorian luxury train was not to last. The outbreak of World War I halted the trans-Atlantic tourist trade and ushered in an age of austerity. In the postwar years, luxury train services gradually gave way to more egalitarian transportation as automobiles and later airplanes democratized travel.

But the legacy of the luxury train lived on. From the great 20th century trains like the 20th Century Limited and Super Chief in the US to the Orient Express in Europe to more recent entries like Japan‘s Seven Stars cruise train, the Victorian era established a template for luxurious rail journeys and a tradition of treating passengers like pampered guests that carries on to this day.

And for those who want to relive a taste of Victorian splendor on the rails, venerable British operators like Belmond and Orient-Express Hotels still offer luxury journeys aboard restored cars from the Edwardian glory days – complete with five-star dining, posh accommodations and white-glove service. It‘s an experience that harkens back to that gilded age when the journey was every bit as important as the destination.

  • Mark Casson, The World‘s First Railway System
  • Jack Simmons, The Victorian Railway
  • David Jenkinson, British Railway Carriages of the 20th Century
  • Terry Gourvish, British Rail 1974-97
  • Nicholas Faith, Locomotion: The Railway Revolution
  • Amy G. Richter, Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity
  • Railway Returns for England, Scotland, and Ireland 1870-1910

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Victorian Railways

Travel by rail, either by products or by people themselves, changed the way life in Victorian England was lived. The railways opened up an entirely new world for commerce, fun, and relaxation.

Fresh produce could be shipped across the country and upon arrival at its destination, it would still be fresh.

Newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals could be printed in London and then whisked to Edinburgh on the same day. Upon its arrival, the information provided would still be current.

Time-saving inventions, such as the vacuum cleaner, allowed for more leisure time. Families could enjoy a day at the seashore as the railways offered a fast, efficient, and inexpensive way to enjoy time off.

In the first half of the 1800's, over six thousand miles of Victorian Railway was available for use.

By the end of the 1800's, there was hardly a small town in Great Britain that didn't have access to a railway station.

Great Western Railway

With Isambard Kingdom Brunel as its chief engineer, this railway company made tremendous strides from 1833 onwards.

A railway line from London to Bristol was the target, and this was completed by 1841.

Seven years later, railway lines from Bristol to Exeter , and from Bristol to Gloucester were constructed.

Steam Engine

The locomotive for this portion of the Great Western was designed by Daniel Gooch and could run at the great speed of 67 mph.

Due to the gauge which Brunel was using for the lines, Gooch's train could not enter Euston Station. Thus, Brunel built his own station - Paddington.

London to Brighton Railway

For the thirty years between 1841 and 1871, Brighton was the fastest growing town in England. This was due to the railway connecting the town with London.

The first train pulled into the Brighton station in September, 1841. Originally filled with only first-class passengers, this Victorian railway quickly realized that lowering the ticket price would enable more people to journey to Brighton.

With the numbers of visitors swelling the seashore area, entrepreneurs soon made Brighton their home. Hotels , restaurants, and other tourist attractions soon filled the town to overflowing. Brighton, as a seaside holiday spot, was born.

Caledonian Railway

In 1848, the first through service from Scotland to London was established. Six years before, Glasgow and Edinburgh had been connected. Now the line headed south. The Caledonian Railway Box can be seen at the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway Museum .

The Great Northern Railway

With the completion of London's Kings Cross station, Cambridge , Leicester , and Nottingham were connected to London. With a reputation for giving good service, and offering express trains, this Victorian railway into more Northern parts of England became quite popular.

It was quite lucrative for the owners, also. Coal was transported from Yorkshire to London and the revenues were great for this rail company.

The Forth Rail Bridge

Stockton and Darlington Railway

The Stockton and Darlington Railway was the first, in 1825, to offer an open-to-the-public service. Passengers and goods were placed upon the same train. It was also the first railway line to use a steam locomotive.

Travelling by Rail

In the early years, train travel was not a comfortable way to get from Point A to Point B. Seats were often just wooden boards, and springs and buffers were an unknown commodity. The best way to describe the ride is to compare it to riding in a stagecoach.

Eventually, Victorian trains began to offer comfort. Upholstered seats, armrests, and an enclosed carriage were soon the norm, at least for first class passengers. Oil lamps placed along the carriages offered light.

Second class travellers had to contend with being exposed to the elements, and with sitting on wooden benches. With the enclosure of some of these carriages, second-class became an easier way to travel, while third class had to make do with being exposed to weather.

By 1844, courtesy of the Railway Act, third class carriages had to be enclosed. Lighting was also provided, albeit only one oil lamp per carriage as opposed to the many placed in first class.

Victorian Railway Accidents

As in any sort of mass transportation today, accidents did happen on Victorian railways. Sometimes it wasn't the train that was at fault, but the attending structures which allowed the rails to cross Great Britain.

On Christmas Eve 1841, near Reading , a train loaded with produce and passengers ran into a land slip. Carriages were thrown everywhere, with goods and passengers thrown out of the train.

At this time, most carriages were without roofs so there was nothing to stop the passengers from either flying out of the train, or falling between carriages and being crushed. This accident was remembered in the Railway Act of 1844.

Shortly after Christmas, in 1879, The Tay Railway Bridge collapsed into the Firth of Tay, Dundee . 75 people lost their lives due to the failure of this bridge.

Article by "Tudor Rose"

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train travel in victorian times

By Karen Baker on 26 April 2017

The victorian railways: a pop-up anthology from journal of victorian culture.

In this guest post, National Railway Museum librarian Karen Baker introduces some intriguing articles from the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Railways are in many ways synonymous with the Victorian era: the mass spread of the network and its impact on society reached its zenith during this time. Over the years, the  Journal of Victorian Culture  has reflected this impact and has hosted many articles in which rail is either central or part of a wider contextual narrative. The review in this anthology is a smorgasbord of ideas worth celebrating and sharing. We thank the authors and the publishers Taylor and Francis for allowing us access to these essays for a limited period.

train travel in victorian times

These articles have already been a vital resource for us at the National Railway Museum as we plan and research our public programme of events and exhibitions. Most recently we have been digging up past railway crimes and their influences on contemporary culture for our new  Mystery on the Rails   season , which runs from March to September 2017. Although our season foregrounds railway mysteries by the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, our research led us back to the beginning of passenger transport: to the fears that were generated and stories that were circulated around early passenger travel. We discovered early cultural markers around notions of isolation, entrapment and passenger anonymity that resurface later in the stories of the 20th century: the murders on the Blue Train, Orient Express or 4.50 from Paddington touch on the same or similar themes, centralising the drama of carriage isolation and assumed passenger anonymity. Peter Bailey’s ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’ [1] and the two articles on ‘Rape on the Railway: Women, Safety, and Moral Panic in Victorian Newspapers’ [2] and ‘Shattered Minds: Madmen on the Railways, 1860–80’ [3] ’  by Robin J. Barrow and Amy Milne-Smith respectively, were instrumental in identifying the origins of these fears.

train travel in victorian times

[1] Peter Bailey. ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’. Journal of Victorian Culture 9 (2004) 1, http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/jvc.2004.9.1.1

[2] robin j. barrow. ‘rape on the railway: women, safety, and moral panic in victorian newspapers’, journal of victorian culture 20 (2015) 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2015.1057390, [3] amy milne-smith. ‘shattered minds: madmen on the railways, 1860–80’ , journal of victorian culture 21 (2016) 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2015.1118851.

We also have ambitious plans for the future. The redevelopment of our Great Hall, involving the redisplay and interpretation of Britain’s important railway story, is providing a framework of new topics and research opportunities for us and our collaborators. As a top-level ambition we want to represent the impact railways have had on our lives. These articles have worked as a reminder and pointer to the manifold directions we could take in this regard. As an example, we are keen to investigate early passenger perceptions of rail travel and the speculation that led to the bursting of the bubble that railway mania created. Henry Atmore’s ‘Utopia Limited: The Crystal Palace Company and Joint-Stock Politics, 1854–1856’ [4] has been a useful read here, as a case study of the politics and positioning of the resituated Crystal Palace and the key part the railways played in its perceived success, or failure.

[4] Henry Atmore. ‘Utopia Limited: The Crystal Palace Company and Joint-Stock Politics, 1854–1856’ Journal of Victorian Culture 9 (2004) 2. http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/jvc.2004.9.2.189

An interesting perspective on colonists and notions of expansion is discussed in Paul Young’s ‘Industrialising Crusoe: Adventure, Modernity and Anglo-American Expansionism,’ [5] featuring the Robinsonades of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and Douglas Frazar’s Perseverance Island. Here, railways feature in a positive light, as part of the trappings of modern civilisation and the industrial development of a hitherto uncolonised land. For us, investigating perceptions of nationhood and British railway export, these stories offer us quite a different avenue of exploration. Even in far-flung imaginings, railways are a prominent fixture in the writers’ mental landscape.

train travel in victorian times

[5] Paul Young. ‘Industrializing Crusoe: Adventure, Modernity and Anglo-American Expansionism,’ Journal of Victorian Culture 18 (2013) 1.   http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2012.751046

This globalising picture makes for an interesting juxtaposition with Christopher Donaldson, Ian N. Gregory and Patricia Murrieta-Floress, Mapping ‘Wordsworthshire’’: A GIS Study of Literary Tourism in Victorian Lakeland’ [6] . In this article, Donaldson looks at how the transport networks of rail and road influenced literary tourism. Railways are not necessarily a positive symptom of civilisation here. In ‘Wordsworthshire’, where unsullied nature is part of the appeal, carriages and stage coaches are seen as giving tourists a closer link to the region’s beauty and connection to the famous poet, whose opposition to the Keswick to Windermere line is well known. While railways are given short shrift in this instance, the shaping of writers, tourists and landscape to mobility networks sheds new perspectives on railways’ cultural legacy and the development of leisure. Our collections at the National Railway Museum are rich in the publicity used to entice passengers to use the various companies’ lines and services, and we have the maps and timetables which document the routes and times of travel. Perhaps there is more mapping that could be done to show railways’ leisure impact in other settings?

train travel in victorian times

[6] Christopher Donaldson, Ian N. Gregory and Patricia Murrieta-Floress. ‘Mapping ‘Wordsworthshire’: A GIS Study of Literary Tourism in Victorian Lakeland.’ Journal of Victorian Culture 20 (2015) 3 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2015.1058089

As a museum whose subject is technological and industrial, we are keen that the human story is not neglected, but told alongside the material. The experience of using and running such a vast and complex network emphasises how intertwined is the human and machine connection. In the museum collection we have the personal anecdotes, letters and writings of individuals on the one hand, and the policies, rules and organisational frameworks of the companies on the other. Together they allow us to do draw these stories together in an engaging way. But what is interesting in this human story, and something we need to reflect and consider more fully, is the impact these networks have had on societal life outside the ‘Railway World’. Karen Odden’s article on ‘‘‘Able and intelligent medical men meeting together”: The Victorian Railway Crash, Medical Jurisprudence, and the Rise of Medical Authority’ [7] and Ralph Harrington’s ‘Railway Safety and Railway Slaughter: Railway Accidents, Government and Public in Victorian Britain’ [8] show what happens to wider society when these networks fail. Railway crashes and the subsequent alarm and anxiety fuelled by newspaper headlines changed how the government intervened in railway management; changed how society saw the medical profession; led to the rise of insurance firms and the creation of new forms of malady brought about, allegedly, by this new form of transportation. The human dimension to these stories and the ensuing effect on culture are left untold in our exhibition spaces at present. This needs to change so that we can provide a more multi-faceted interpretation of not just rail’s safety but, more broadly, of railway’s cultural impact writ large.

train travel in victorian times

Today this important Victorian invention is having a resurgence. Not since the 19th century have we seen so many large-scale capital investment projects in railway construction. Crossrail, HS2, railway reopenings across the country: all point to railways taking back centre stage after years of being sidelined by roads. Perhaps that’s why we have found new significance in the Victorian railway landscape mentioned by David Pike in ‘Fun in Victorian London Today’ [9] . St Pancras’s new lease of life and the Harry Potter tourists flocking to King’s Cross are just two examples Pike uses to illustrate the recreational fascination we have with Victorian railwayana. But while nostalgia has its place, and indeed is a key reason visitors come to the National Railway Museum, we are also keen to reflect the future: to be an inspiration to future rail engineers, and a sounding board for ideas about rail’s direction – where do we as a society want the railways to take us and what will be the cultural legacy of our journey?

[7] Karen M. Odden. ‘”Able and intelligent medical men meeting together”: The Victorian Railway Crash, Medical Jurisprudence, and the Rise of Medical Authority’ Journal of Victorian Culture 8 (2003) 1. http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/jvc.2003.8.1.33

[8] ralph harrington ‘railway safety and railway slaughter: railway accidents, government and public in victorian britain’ journal of victorian culture 8 (2003) 2 http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/jvc.2003.8.2.187, [9] david pike. ‘fun in victorian london today’, journal of victorian culture  18 (2013) 4 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2013.857530, one comment on “ the victorian railways: a pop-up anthology from journal of victorian culture ”.

I am writing a paper about the railways influence on Victorian Theatre (in Tyneside and the NE.) and although I have found some hints herein I was wondering if you may be able to point me in the direction of any papers you know of (or have in your collection) that may enhance my research. Any pointers welcome.

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Railways During the Victorian Era

Railways during the Victorian Era molded the current landscape of Britain as it stands today. The innovations and advances during this time improved economic prosperity, and vastly improved quality of life.

The Victorian Era was one of great advancement in Britain. During this time, Britain had just emerged victorious from the Napoleonic wars, increasing positive viewpoints of Britain across the globe. It marked the beginning of the country’s industrial revolution, and changed the way people lived worldwide. In addition to the industrial revolution, British imperialism was prevalent throughout the 19th and early 20th, as they occupied various territories throughout the globe. Additionally, back home in Britain, the country’s agriculture and steel industries were beginning to prosper. Thus, the railways played a major role in the advancement of both the economy, and lifestyle.

During the industrial revolution, many new industries began to arise throughout the country, moreover, existing industries such as textiles and coal began to grow and thrive. This rise in industry saw a need to transport goods quicker and more efficiently than the then current canal and carriage routes. Additionally, it was prevalent that there was a need to reach rural and remote areas of the country, in order to ship crops and other goods. With the recent invention and trials of the steam locomotive, many industrious engineers proposed railways as the viable solution.

train travel in victorian times

The development of the steam engine was the tool that propelled the country into the industrial revolution. It made the manufacturing of goods more efficient, producing products more rapidly than ever before, and allowed the middle class to incur wealth to invest in various businesses, most notably, the railways. However, because the industry was in its infancy, regulation was sparse, which led many investors to file for bankruptcy. This issue plagued the early industrial age for many years until regulation was implemented.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the country during this time would be the invention of the railway. During the Victorian Era, the world’s very first railway, the Stockton & Darlington was beginning to take shape, and would soon be whisking cargo between the two towns, and beyond. During the Victorian era, many prominent railway engineers emerged to make their mark on the future of transportation. Names such as Stephenson, Brunel, and Gooch are all familiar in early railway engineering. Up until the time of railway transport, especially the Stockton & Darlington, the primary mode of transportation was either horse and carriage or boat, via canals. Oftentimes, these journeys took weeks, and proved to be quite treacherous.

Therefore, the most important aspect of the Victorian railways were the ability to quickly ship goods throughout the country, in a short period of time. This promoted an economic boom, as now farmer’s crops in these rural areas could be shipped to market. Additionally, perishable food could be transported throughout the country without spoiling before reaching its destination. The railway were to play a vital role in the future of Britain, and the world as a whole.

The World’s First Railways

train travel in victorian times

Opened in 1825, the Stockton & Darlington was in fact, the world’s first railway powered by steam locomotive traction, which both amazed and concerned residents along the line. Many prominent landowners did not fancy these behemoths traversing through their properties, and took the railway to many legal battles.Despite these feverish attempts to hinder progress, Stephenson continued to develop further railway aspirations.

The completion of the railway demonstrated to engineers and investors that rail travel was well worth the investment, as it significantly reduced the cost of coal transport to the collieries. Although the Stockton & Darlington Railway was the first to use locomotive haulage, the presence of the stationary engines did not make it a completely locomotive hauled railway. Additionally, it only carried shipments for the collieries, thus did not transport passengers.

However, Stephenson’s next venture, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, was the first railway to be entirely locomotive powered and haul passengers. The Liverpool & Manchester was important, as it connected Manchester, which encompassed most of the textile industry, and Liverpool, the country’s busiest port. However, during this time, many prominent engineers, mainly canal builders, fought against locomotive workings as they were not proven and many were in favor of horse haulage. However, many advocates of the locomotive were rapidly promoting steam traction, therefore, a trial was to be held to decide which motive power would be used, horse or locomotive.

These trials, called the Rainhill trials, took place for locomotive traction to prove their superiority. George Stephenson’s son, Robert, entered a locomotive in the competition. Driven by his father George, Robert Stephenson won the competition with his famous “Rocket”, against other prominent early locomotive engineers. Stephenson’s competitors included Timothy Hackworth, and his Sans Pareil , Timothy Burstall’s Perseverance , John Ericsson and John Braithwaite’s Novelty , and Thomas Shaw Brandreth’s Cycloped . Brandreth’s locomotive was nothing more than a horse on a belt, therefore,powering the wheels. Nevertheless, Stephenson reigned victorious and won the contract for construction of several locomotives for the railway, ending the opposition’s attempts to introduce horse haulage.

The railway was so successful, it encouraged prominent engineers to invest in railway construction and operation, sparking the “Railway Mania”,thus, a feverish railway boom began, as by 1850, even the most remote sections of England were connected by rail.

Thus, Stephenson, and his son, Robert, opened the famous Robert Stephenson & Company (later English Electric), to produce his locomotives for the railway. One of the first locomotives produced was called the  Northumbrian. The Northumbrian was similar to the Rocket, and was utilized during the grand opening of the railway. Many subsequent Rocket type locomotives were produced at the works, some even shipped abroad. As a result, many similar locomotive manufacturers sprang up throughout the country, as the construction of the Great Western Railway resulted in the opening of various shops, including the storied Swindon Works.

Railway Mania

As perceptions of railways creating significant revenue increased, various prominent businessmen took advantage of the idea, and by the 1840s, railways were spread throughout the country. This”bubble” as it is called in financial terms, created much of the railways of modern Britain, including various trunk lines such as the West and East coast mainline. Although this was a time of great prosperity in Britain, many investing firms were harvesting unlawful business practices, which negatively affected the investors once the “bubble” popped. This is a result of unfulfilled promises, as there was little to no regulation during this time.

One of the most prominent sources of the boom was the increase in industry and manufacturing, of which, railways could transport goods throughout the country, while doing so efficiently and at a low rate. According to Victorian Web ,  although many losses during this time were due to fraudulent dealings, much was blamed on sub-par business practices, poor planning, and investors not having ample capital on hand.Many prominent businessmen were enticing investors with railway shares in order to interest them in other business dealings, therefore, the promised railway was never built, leaving investors in colossal debt.  As a result of these massive debts and lack of capital, the economy of Britain took a downward turn.

Oftentimes, this was due to the repeal of the “Bubble Act”, that had been in place since 1720. Once this act was repealed, anyone with abundant savings was able to invest in the new railway companies, especially those who lived in the towns the railway was promised to journey through, therefore,lack of return left many without their hard-earned savings. These laissaz-faire economic policies caused the economy of Britain to collapse, until the banks lowered interest rates to 10%, therefore, interest in railways decreased. Due to these economic policies, railway lines could receive parliamentary approval without proof of profitability, therefore, many were never built or abandoned.

As a result, various large railways such as the Great Western Railway (GWR), attained much of the abandoned or unfinished rail lines and turned them into profitable enterprises. However, although the railway mania plagued many with bad fortune, the quick construction of railway lines led to a rapid growth in the country’s economy during the mid 19th century.

As railway mania faded into the past, railways became profitable as regulatory measures were implemented. Although, railway mania differed from most negative economic affairs, as the event sparked interest in the railways and began rapid construction throughout the country. This is significant, because in just two short years 1844-1846, 6,220 miles of railway were built.

Traveling on Victorian Trains

Traveling on Victorian trains is oftentimes romanticized, however, this could not be further from the truth. Many were frightened to ride the railway, as threats of accidents scared potential passengers. Derailments and accidents on the early railways were prevalent, as with all new advancements, little was known about the budding industry.

Additionally, a Victorian belief that a train ride could cause insanity was prevalent during this time. Therefore, threats of attacks from these individuals were common fears. It is believed that the motion and sounds of the train could cause a sane person to become insane once the train was in motion. It is recalled from numerous passengers that these individuals seemed calm when the train came to a station stop, however, threw tantrums once the train was in motion. It was also believed that the vibrations of the trains could cause nerve damage, and even more peculiar, cause a person to disintegrate at high speeds, usually in excess of 50 mph.

As these issues became commonplace, separate berths with locked doors became available. However, in some instances, this could put passengers in greater danger,as now they would be trapped in the berth until help arrived. Although many were fearful of the implications of traveling on Victorian trains, the newspaper and media enjoyed publishing elaborate stories about the trials and tribulations of the rails.

In addition to the conditions aboard the train, infrastructure proved to be an issue as well, as Victorian trains often had derailments and other accidents. Additionally, because many of the carriages were open in the early Victorian era, travelers would suffer from smoke inhalation from the locomotive, as well as ear piercing noises. In addition to these shortcomings, the carriages were often rough-riders, as the early running gear did not implement any kind of shock absorption. It was not until the later Victorian era when the railway bogey was implemented.

Cargo transport also proved challenging, as much of the cargo transported had to be loaded onto another railcar, due to gauge differences between the various railways, most notably, the GWR. Gauge is the length between the rails, as most of the Victorian network was 4ft 8 1/2in, the GWR was 7ft, called the “Broad Gauge”. The engineer of the GWR, Isambard Kingdom Brunel ,believed the broad gauge was superior for his high speed locomotives operating on the railway. Although the difference in gauge hindered the speed of the transport of goods, it remained much quicker than the horse and carriage or canal alternative.

Although early Victorian trains were plagued with issues, it opened an abundance of possibilities. The early railways proved that there was an esteemed interest in rail travel, and that with time and experience, will become a viable form of transport that could heighten the economy, and promote growth not only in Britain, but throughout the world.

Railway Gauges

Throughout the years of the early railways, the various engineers all had their own beliefs on how the ideal railway should look and operate. Thus, a differentiation in track gauge was prominent throughout the country, increasing the difficulty of early railway travel. Therefore, Stephenson believed that a gauge of 4ft 81/2 in should be implemented, as that was the gauge that the various collieries throughout Tyneside used, and the gauge of his famous “Rocket”, and saw no reason for change. Meanwhile, Brunel believed that Stephenson’s gauge was not capable of handling the speeds of his locomotives. Brunel’s locomotive engineer, Daniel Gooch, had developed his broad gauge locomotives to reach speeds of 67 mph, speeds not yet seen on Stephenson’s rails. Thus, whenever a passenger or goods train entered the GWR territory, passengers had to de-train, and freight unloaded, in order to transfer them to a carriage or wagon of correct gauge.

Therefore, a gauge battle ensued, as John Ellis of the Midland Railway had leased the Bristol & Birmingham Railway, one of Brunel’s satellite companies, and laid Stephenson’s gauge(Called narrow gauge during this time), with Brunel’s broad gauge already in place. This was the first break of gauge railway in the world, and although was a defeat for Brunel, proved easier on the transshipment of goods and travelers alike. Moreover, if the gauge battle had not occurred, London Paddington station may have never been built. Brunel’s reasoning for constructing the beautiful example of Victorian architecture, was that his broad gauge trains could not fit in Euston station, due to the London & Birmingham railway using the narrow gauge.

Due to the complexities of steam power and locomotive haulage, especially on steep grades, atmospheric railways were proposed as a solution. This technology seemed revolutionary to many engineers and railway investors, as a locomotive was not required. The atmospheric railway operated by way of a series of pipes laid along the track, and in most cases, the entire train acted as a piston as the air was forced into the cylinder located underneath the train. This type of railway was successful, however, was not cost effective due to a pumping station needed to be erected every three miles. Thus, Brunel and the rest of the early railway magnates remained faithful to the steam locomotive, and continued to develop its capabilities to create the ideal machine for transport throughout the country.

The Importance of Victorian Railways

Victorian railways, although somewhat treacherous, introduced railway construction throughout the country. Victorian railways attracted passengers and goods customers due to the speed and efficiency at which they operated. It signaled to potential investors that the railways were profitable enterprises if financed and operated correctly. It allowed news to travel faster than ever before, as newspapers and other mail could be transported throughout the country in a matter of hours.

In addition to British railways, railway construction sparked interest throughout the world due to the Victorian’s ingenuity. In fact, many British locomotive manufacturers exported locomotives to the United States for various 19th century railroads, many built by Robert Stephenson & Co. Because of the Victorian’s innovations, the world was forever changed, quality of life improved, and economic prosperity loomed for all.

Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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train travel in victorian times

The Trials and Travails of Victorian Train Travel

Today’s guest is Bob Brooke. He is an avid collector of antiques and collectibles and has written about them. His articles have appeared in many antiques and consumer publications, including British Heritage , AntiqueWeek , American Antiquities Journal , and Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine, and he has published two books. Today, he has chosen to write on Victorian era train travel. Here is his post:

On the warm morning of August 27, 1831, a throng of people flocked to Lydius Street in Albany, New York. They had come to see the new railroad train. The odd-looking engine, the “De Witt Clinton,” stood in front of a tender containing water and fuel, followed by three passenger cars, made from the bodies of stagecoaches fastened on special railroad wheels and several flat cars to hold luggage. All along the 17 miles to Schenectady, New York,  farmers and their families gathered to see this new spectacle.

Local hotels had sold tickets to ride the train. As passengers climbed into the carriages and took their seats, a conductor, standing on a platform outside each coach, collected the tickets, then climbed to a seat on the tender and blew a horn. The engine gave a great jerk, and the crowd cheered.

According to an eye-witness account published in the Albany Argus on August 27, 1831:

“The engine performed the entire route in less than one hour, including stoppages, and on a part of the road its speed was at the rate of thirty miles an hour.”

The train made the return journey from Schenectady to Albany in 38 minutes, much to the delight of its promoter.

Six years earlier on September 27, 1825, English passengers road aboard a “goods” or freight train from Stockton to Darlington, a distance of twelve miles. Historians regard this as the first train to carry passengers. A month later the Stockton and Darlington Railroad added a daily “coach” car, modeled after a stagecoach.  It carried six passengers inside and fifteen to twenty outside. The fare was one shilling. The railroad allowed each passenger fourteen pounds of baggage.

train travel in victorian times

An early engraving showing a Victorian baggage room with passengers picking through the luggage. (Catskill Archives)

The relative speed and ability to travel regardless of the weather made rail travel attractive to travelers and businesses. But unlike its European counterparts, American railroads developed  a passenger car with one compartment, containing an aisle down the middle. This ran on two trucks containing four wheels each, making it easier to navigate sharp curves.

Though riding the early rails was a step above the canal boat and stagecoach, rail travel left a lot to be desired. The floor of the car lay low and flat, and passengers sat jammed into narrow seats with stiff backs, so they felt every bump. Winter travel was especially difficult.

A stove at each end provided heat to those nearest to it, but those seated in the middle of the car nearly froze. And with little ventilation, all nearly suffocated from carbon monoxide. Tallow candles furnished a “dim religious light,” and emitted a putrid odor. Dust suffocated parched passengers in dry weather since the windows had no screens. And since there were no adequate spark arresters on the engine, passengers at the end of their journey looked as if they had spent the day in a blacksmith shop.

With hard springs, the movement of cars over poorly laid track jolted passengers and rattled  windows, making conversation a luxury. Early trains might as well not have had brakes, for those they did have were clumsy and of little use.

Passengers also hadn’t heard of baggage checks and coupon-tickets. Long trips had to be made over lines composed of a number of short independent railways; and at the terminus of each passengers had to transfer, purchase another ticket, personally pick out their baggage – often on an uncovered platform in inclement weather – then take their chances finding a seat in the connecting train.

Travel by rail wasn’t without it’s dangers. Railroad builders cut the ends of the flat-bar rails diagonally, so that when they laid them down, they would lap and form a smoother joint. Occasionally, the spikes came loose and the end of the rail with its sharp point rose high enough for the wheel to run under it, rip it loose, and send the pointed end through the floor of the car. Passenger’s called this a “snake’s head,” and the unlucky person sitting over it was likely to be impaled against the roof.

Every year showed progress in perfecting the comforts and safety of railway cars. Air brakes allowed trains to be stopped in an incredibly short time with the help of the vacuum-brake which powered the brakes exhausting the air. So passengers waiting on station platforms were often in danger.

The means of warning passengers against standing on train platforms were often ingenious. On a New Jersey railroad, a picture, painted on the car door, featured a new grave, with a tombstone that read, “Sacred to the memory of the man who had stood on a platform.”

The introduction of a bell-cord running through the train enabled passengers to communicate promptly with the engineer, signaling him in case of danger. However, Europeans couldn’t understand why passengers didn’t tamper with it and and how they could resist the temptation to give false signals by means of it.

Steamboats afforded the greatest competition to the early railroads. They had made great progress offering passengers luxurious comforts – berths to sleep in, meals served in spacious cabins, and entertainment on board. To compete, the railroads had to make riding their trains more comfortable.

Early trains carried passengers for relatively short distances, so sleeping arrangements weren’t necessary. But as the distances became longer, a means of providing a place to sleep on board became a prime concern. The Cumberland Valley Railroad of Pennsylvania, running between Harrisburg and Chambersburg — a distance of fifty-four miles — first attempted to furnish passengers with an onboard place to sleep. During the winter, east-bound passengers arrived exhausted at Chambersburg late at night by stagecoach, after a fatiguing trip over the mountains. Since many wished to continue their journey to Harrisburg so they could catch the morning train for Philadelphia, it became imperative to furnish onboard sleeping accommodations. The railroad’s owners divided a passenger car into four sections using transverse partitions. Each section contained three berths – lower, middle, and upper. The car ran from the winter of 1836-37 to 1848 when they abandoned it.

In 1858, George M. Pullman made a trip to Chicago, Illinois, from Buffalo, New York, aboard the Lake Shore Railroad. A new sleeping car, attached to this train, was making its first trip. Pullman stepped in to take a look at it and decided to spend the night in one of its berths. After being continuously tossed about, he sought refuge on a seat in the end of the car. He thought about his experience and figured that in a country of great distances like the United States, railroads should offer passengers cars easily convertible into comfortable and convenient day or night coaches, supplied with appointments similar to those aboard steamboats.

After experimenting for a time, he altered some regular passenger cars on the Chicago & Alton Railroad in 1859 and converted them into sleeping cars. One night, after they had made a few trips on the line between Chicago and St. Louis, a tall man entered one of the cars while Pullman was aboard, and after asking a some questions about his invention, said he’d like to try it for himself and climbed in an upper berth. The man was Abraham Lincoln.

In 1864, Pullman perfected his plans for a car which he felt was a marked and radical improvement from previous sleeping cars. He built it in a shed in the yard of the Chicago & Alton Railroad at a cost of $18,000 – four times the cost of a sleeping car at that time – and named it the ” Pioneer.”

The Pioneer had improved trucks and a raised deck, and Pullman built it a foot wider and two and a half feet higher than any car then in service. He thought this necessary to introduce a hinged upper berth, which, when fastened up, formed a recess behind it for stowing the necessary bedding in daytime. Before that the mattresses had been piled in one end of the car and had to be dragged through the aisle when needed. Pullman realized the dimensions of the railroad bridges and station platforms wouldn’t allow the car to pass over the line, but he believed that an attractive car, constructed upon correct principles, would find its way into service against all obstacles. And so it did.

train travel in victorian times

This Pullman sleeper on a vestibuled train allowed passengers traveling long distances to move freely about the train. (Pullman Car Co.)

With the tremendous success of the sleeping car, railroads next introduced parlor or drawing-room cars for day runs, which added greatly to the luxury of travel, enabling passengers to secure seats in advance, and enjoy many comforts which weren’t found in ordinary cars. Eventually, these became known as “palace” cars and railroads included them as an essential part of their equipment. The Wagner Car Company of New York was one of the first to furnish them.

train travel in victorian times

Pullman’s parlor car was also known as a “palace car” because of its luxurious furnishings. (Pullman Car Co.)

After introducing sleeping and luxurious parlor cars, the railroads naturally turned to fulfilling the demand for serving meals on their trains. Why should a train stop at a station for meals any more than a steamboat should tie up to a wharf for the same purpose? So the Pullman Car Company introduced the hotel car — essentially a sleeping-car with a kitchen and pantries in one end and portable tables which could be placed between the seats of each section and upon which meals could be conveniently served. Pullman named his first hotel car the  “President,” and put it into service on the Great Western Railway of Canada in 1867.

But that still wasn’t enough to supply the wants of the growing number of railway passengers. So the dining car came next. A complete restaurant, with a large kitchen and pantries at one end and the main body of the car fitted up as a dining room, it offered a place in which all the passengers in the train could take their meals comfortably. Pullman named his first dining car the “Delmonico,” which began service in 1868 on the Chicago & Alton Railroad.

train travel in victorian times

Passengers took their meals in dining cars like this one aboard the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy R.R. in the mid-1880s. (Library of Congress)

Improvements in rolling stock had reduced the jerking, jolting, and oscillation of the cars. Plus the rail beds had been properly ditched, drained, and ballasted with broken stone or gravel, the dust overcome, the sparks arrested, so cleanliness had at last been made possible on a railway train.

And that left one major problem to the be solved — heating the cars. This came about through the invention of a method for circulating hot water from the boiler of the locomotive through pipes running near the floor of the cars. Not only did passengers now have warm feet, but the loss of life from train fires originating from stoves had been halted. However, heating a detached car was still a problem until the discovery of electricity.

With the introduction of the dining car came the concept of the continuous train. This necessitated that passengers had to walk from one car to another across platforms to get to the parlor or dining cars while the train was in motion, an act that they had been cautioned against. The railroads realized they had to come up with a solution to the problem if the continuous train concept were to be successful, particularly for limited express trains.   

Crude attempts had been made as early as 1852 when inventors took out patents for devices using diaphragms of canvas to connect adjoining cars and form a passageway between them. Used mainly for ventilation on the Naugatuck Railroad, in Connecticut in 1857, they didn’t work well and the railroad soon abandoned them.

Once again Pullman devised a system not only for constructing continuous trains but also for providing sufficient flexibility in the connecting passageways to allow for the motion of the train around curves. His efforts in 1886 resulted in what’s now known as the “vestibuled” train.

Patented in 1887, this invention succeeded not only in supplying the means of constructing a perfectly enclosed vestibule of handsome architectural appearance between the cars but also accomplished the introduction of a safety device in case of collision.

The elastic diaphragms, attached to the ends of the cars, had steel frames. Powerful springs pressed their faces firmly against each other, creating a friction which held them in position, thus preventing the oscillation of the cars and furnishing a buffer extending from the platform to the roof., This prevented one platform “riding” another, producing telescoping in case of collision.

The first vestibuled trains went into service on the Pennsylvania Railroad in June, 1886, and other railroad companies soon followed. The new vestibuled limited trains contained several sleeping cars, a dining car, and a smoking car, complete with a library, desks and writing materials, a bathroom and a barber shop. With free circulation of air throughout the train, the cars opening into each other, the electric light, the many other increased comforts and conveniences, trains became a safe and luxurious way to travel.

But baggage presented a problem early on. Originally, railways allowed passengers to pick out their baggage at their destination, resulting in a lack of accountability which led to much confusion, frequent losses, and heavy claims against the railroads. The solution lay in the  introduction of a system known as “checking.” A clerk attached a metal disk, bearing a number and the destination of the bag, to each article and gave a duplicate to the owner, which acted as a receipt. Passengers then presented these receipts to clerks at their destinations to claim their bags.

Railways soon united in arranging for through checks which when attached to baggage would insure its being sent safely to distant points over lines composed of many connecting rail lines. The check system led to the introduction of another marked convenience in the handling of baggage–the baggage express or transfer company. One of its agents checked trunks at the passenger’s own house and hauled them to the train. Another agent would take up the checks aboard the train as it neared its destination and see to it that the baggage was delivered to the correct address.

Coupon tickets covering trips over several different railways saved passengers from purchasing separate tickets from several railroads over which they had to pass. Their introduction necessitated an agreement among the principal railroads and the adoption of an extensive system of accountability for the purpose of making settlements of the amounts represented by the coupons.

With all these conveniences and the growth of the rail lines, passengers often found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Conspicuous clock faces stood in the stations with their hands set to the hour at which the next train was to depart, sign boards displayed with horizontal slats the stations at which departing trains would stop, and employees called out necessary information and directed passengers to the proper entrances, exits, and trains. Larger passenger stations included a  “Bureau of Information,” in which a railroad employee answers questions about rail routes.

train travel in victorian times

Due to a dramatic increase in rail travel, this train station in York, England, had to also be expanded.

By the turn of the century and the end of the Victorian Era, rail travel was the prime means of short and long distance travel in the United States and Europe and the days of those early uncomfortable trains were a distant memory. 

More on Bob Brooke

Bob’s two books on antiques are How to Start Your Own Antiques Business in Your Home and Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit , both from Globe Pequot Press. To learn more about Bob and his fantastic web site about antiques, click here . If you are interested in following Bob on twitter, click here . If you’re into Instagram Bob can be found at the antiquesalmanac.

train travel in victorian times

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Railway Traveller

Why Charles Dickens was scared to travel by train

  • Post author By vickymayer100
  • Post date 7th February 2021

train travel in victorian times

Today, February 7, is world Dickens Day. So we’re taking a look at how the incredible rise of the British railway system shaped and influenced Charles Dickens’ life and books. And we discover why the Staplehurst train crash left him scared to travel by train.

The ‘Rocket’ Revolution

train travel in victorian times

When Charles Dickens was 18 the famous Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ made its first journey on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. By the time he died at the age of 58 in 1870, there were over 15,000 miles of track in Britain and railways. Charles Dickens went on to write a lot about the influence of train travel in Victorian Britain.

Dickens’ books and railways

train travel in victorian times

In his earlier novels like Nicholas Nickleby , Dickens wrote about travel by horse and cart. But it wasn’t until the 1846 publication of Dombey and Son that he included stories about the railways that were being built in Britain. The book talks about the destruction of the community of ‘Stagg’s Gardens’. This was thought to be based on Somers Town close to Euston Station in London. Train travel was becoming a subject close to Charles Dickens’ heart.

What Dickens saw at London Bridge station

train travel in victorian times

As well as being a prolific novelist, Dickens also wrote a lot about railways in his many newspaper features. In the August 1851 edition of  Household Words , he wrote about the discomfort of sitting a crowded train at London Bridge station on a hot day. It feels like ‘being “forced – like a cucumber, or a melon, or a pineapple’. Hmm. We know that feeling!

Dickens nearly died on a train

train travel in victorian times

On 9 June 1865, Dickens was returning from France on a boat train when it was derailed near Staplehurst in Kent. Ten people were killed and 40 injured in the Staplehurst crash . At the scene, heroic Dickens helped look after the dead and dying. His near brush with death had a profound effect on him. And from then on, he became scared to travel by train.

For more on Dickens’ amazing life pay a visit to the Dickens Museum in London.

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A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England

Michelle higgs' guide to the weird and wonderful world of victorian england.

A Visitor's Guide to Victorian England

Category Archives: Transport

Victorian train travel.

A few weeks ago, I visited the amazing National Railway Museum in York for the first time. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth the trip – you don’t have to be mad about trains! There are some fascinating exhibits relating to the Victorian era, the expansion of the railways in Britain and how the passenger experience changed.

Victorian railways reinforced the Victorian social structure with a choice of first and second class carriages; third class was not offered until late 1838. At the National Railway Museum, it was wonderful to see some early surviving carriages from this era for the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway. There is a composite first and second-class carriage that would originally have been exclusively first-class. The first-class passengers had upholstered seats while in second-class, they had to make do with wooden seating. You can sit in the second-class section of the composite carriage which gives an amazing feel for the past and how little legroom there would have been, even without the added problem of voluminous petticoats and crinolines!

train travel in victorian times

This is what an ordinary second-class carriage would have looked like with a window in the door only:

train travel in victorian times

Coupled next to the composite carriage is the third-class accommodation, more reminiscent of a cattle truck than a carriage.

train travel in victorian times

Dating from 1896, this image captioned ‘the oldest rolling stock in England from the Bodmin & Wadebridge Branch, London & South Western Railway, in use for fifty years ‘ may show the same or similar carriages to those in the National Railway Museum:

train travel in victorian times

Passengers travelling by train in the 1830s and 1840s had to be a hardy lot. Compartments were unheated, even in first class, although there was a foot warmer for these better-off passengers. In The Early Victorians at Home , Elizabeth Burton describes how noxious these carriages were at night, as they were illuminated ‘by an evil-smelling and dripping oil lamp fixed in the roof’. The cushions in first-class carriages were also inclined to catch the dust from the steam engine.

Second-class carriages had a roof but were open at the sides. Wrapping up warm with a rug, cap and cloak was essential, as was an umbrella. ‘A Constant Traveller’ wrote to the Leicester Chronicle in 1843 about the ‘miserably cold and wretchedly devised carriages’. He commented: ‘The day was windy and wet, the rain poured in so heavily that a pool of water above an inch deep deluged the floor, and…most of the passengers…were wet through, not being provided with any protective clothing.’

train travel in victorian times

The early third-class carriages were little more than cattle trucks with no roof and hard wooden seats. This mirrored the experience of third-class passengers on the top of a stagecoach, but railway travellers also had to contend with the hazards of smoke, soot and cinders.

A passenger travelling from London to Liverpool via Birmingham on the Grand Junction line wrote to the Leeds Mercury in 1841, complaining of the third-class accommodation: ‘I witnessed several instances in and near the carriage in which I was placed, of clothing, umbrellas &c being burnt and utterly spoiled by the ashes from the engine, some pieces the size of a walnut being precipitated, red-hot, into the midst of us. In fact, on arriving at Birmingham, if the seat and floor of that part of the carriage in which I rode had been swept, not less than half a pint of cinders might have been gathered.’

Despite the sub-standard accommodation, railway travel was hugely popular. According to the Railway Times , in the first six months of 1839, the London to Birmingham railway carried 267,527 people. In eight months, the line between Sheffield and Rotherham attracted 330,000 passengers. The Morning Chronicle (1844) reported: ‘Last week, some of the Yorkshire railways offered the public of the West Riding a trip down to Liverpool and back for a few shillings a place, and though the accommodation in the carriages was no better than that given to cattle on the Liverpool and Manchester line, yet no less than five thousand persons availed themselves of this opportunity of visiting Liverpool and the sea!’

After 1844, railway companies were forced to provide roofs on all third-class carriages under new legislation. At least one train every weekday had to run for third-class passengers, stopping at every station along the line. From this time, lighting was also provided in third-class carriages although there was only a single oil lamp per carriage, compared with several in each first-class carriage.

train travel in victorian times

Before 1868, it was not possible for passengers to communicate with the guard if they had a problem, and it was not until the 1890s that they could walk from one compartment to another along a corridor. The corridor walkway became more common after the early 1900s when lavatories started to be introduced on trains. In 1875, the Midland Railway abolished second-class travel altogether and upgraded third-class passengers to second-class standards; it also reduced the fares in first class. Other railways followed suit to keep up with the competition. Around the same time, dining cars were introduced for wealthy passengers. Later in the nineteenth century, long distance trains started to offer refreshment baskets for the less well-off.

Please note: this post contains affiliate links for the British Newspaper Archive .

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The victorian horse-drawn omnibus.

For the Victorian middle classes living in towns and cities, the preferred method of transport to commute to work or to go shopping was the omnibus (or ‘bus for short).  Inside, there was usually room for five people on each side, and there was straw on the floor to keep the passengers’ feet warm and dry. But this quickly got wet and dirty, and it also harboured fleas. Although the seats were covered in blue velvet, they were definitely not luxurious. The omnibuses were notoriously stuffy and poorly ventilated inside, with no air except when the door was opened. 

TANTRUMS, TEARS AND TOIL: DOMESTIC SERVICE IN A VICTORIAN COACHING INN

The second episode of the BBC’s 24 Hours in the Past was set in a coaching inn in the 1840s, with the National Trust’s New Inn at Stowe providing a very authentic backdrop. Coaching inns (or stages) were the hub of stagecoach activity, providing extensive stables, fresh horses and refreshments for passengers en route. They were also the principal hotels for the towns in which they are located. On a major route, there could be as many as 15 or 20 coaches passing through every day, from early in the morning to late at night.

The six celebrities were given various domestic service roles from maid of all work and potman through to kitchen maid and ostler. Experience with horses and quite technical harnessing expertise would have been required to be an ostler; without these skills, Alistair McGowan and Colin Jackson both found it difficult.

The work of the other servants was made up of more general duties. As the maid of all work, Miquita Oliver’s predicament in not knowing how to start a fire in the dining room was fairly common for young girls new to domestic service. She was also required to clean and iron laundry, wait at the tables and service the guests’ bedrooms, including emptying the chamberpots.

Tyger Drew-Honey drew the short straw in his role as potman. This job involved being a general dogsbody and jack of all trades from serving drinks in the taproom and washing the plates and cutlery through to butchering a pig! 24 Hours in the Past stressed the importance of the stagecoaches keeping to a strict timetable with all the servants working as a team to effect a quick turnaround.

There wasn’t much mention of tips in the programme but the staff at coaching inns, rustic inns and hotels relied heavily on tips from guests to augment their meagre pay. On his first visit to England in 1847, the American John Henry Sherburne stayed at the Black Bear in Manchester, but he was unaware that service was not included. He paid his moderate bill and while getting into his cab, he was ‘surrounded by all the servants of the establishment, asking to be remembered from the head cook to the boots’. He was later advised by a friend that, when asking for his bill at a hotel, he should insist that the servants also be charged in it. In this way, he would find himself ‘a few pounds the richer’ and save himself ‘much trouble and mortification’.

Most of the celebrities managed to work well as servants but there was one scene which simply didn’t ring true. I’m referring, of course, to the refusal by Ann Widdecombe and Zoe Lucker to skin rabbits or pluck pheasants as part of their work as kitchen maids. In the real world of the 1840s, refusing to do what was asked by a master or mistress would result in instant dismissal without a character (the written reference provided by an employer so that a servant could find another place in service). 

Knowing one’s place, being deferential and only speaking when spoken to were the golden rules if you wanted to keep your job as a servant, gain valuable experience and move on to a position with higher pay and better prospects. This was a time when people worked simply to earn money for food and lodgings; there was no choice but to do as one was told.

THE LOST STORY OF THE VICTORIAN TITANIC

Today, I’m very happy to be hosting a guest post from Gill Hoffs, author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic . Her fascinating book tells the tragic story of the passengers and crew who lost their lives when RMS Tayleur struck rocks off Ireland and sank. Here, she explains the controversy behind the tragedy:

train travel in victorian times

VICTORIAN PUBLIC TRANSPORT – THE OMNIBUS

Typical photographs of Victorian street scenes feature a multitude of horse-drawn vehicles all mixed in together, but the preferred public transport of the middle classes to commute to work or to go shopping was the omnibus (or ‘bus for short). This was cheaper than travelling by cab. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger observed that “among the middle classes of London, the omnibus stands immediately after air, tea and flannel in the list of necessaries of life”.

So what were these omnibuses like? Inside, there was straw on the floor to keep the passengers’ feet warm and dry. By the end of the day, this was both wet and dirty; this straw also harboured fleas when it was dry, and the ague when it was wet. The seats were covered in blue velvet; this might sound luxurious but it was definitely not. The omnibuses were notoriously stuffy and poorly ventilated inside, with no air except when the door was opened. 

If you were to take a journey on a Victorian omnibus, you would quickly find yourself tightly wedged in beside the other passengers and there would be a painful jolt every time it stopped. When people got on or off, you would run the risk of your toes being crushed or having sticks or parasols poked into your chest or neck. The proximity of other passengers made omnibuses a magnet for pickpockets and there was also the serious hazard of catching a deadly infectious disease.  

For these reasons, men preferred to sit on the knifeboard of the omnibus, located on the roof. There were tiny ledges on which to step to reach the ‘knifeboard’, a raised partition along the middle with seats on each side. It was rare for women to venture up there as it was so difficult to get on and off wearing a cumbersome skirt or crinoline.

The knifeboard design was replaced by the ‘garden seat’ omnibus in the 1880s, which had a curved staircase at the rear leading to the top deck. This was more practical for both sexes as it had a central gangway, benches facing the way the passengers were going, and ‘decency’ or ‘modesty’ boards on the top deck. These gave some protection to the passengers, and prevented people passing from seeing the ladies’ ankles! 

VICTORIAN PUBLIC TRANSPORT – THE HANSOM CAB

If I was able to visit Victorian England, I know that one of the aspects which would fascinate me the most is the public transport. Aside from steam trains and the later electric trams, it was all horse-drawn which, of course, is so different from today’s motor-driven vehicles. Horses pulled the omnibuses, carts, and brewers’ drays through to the broughams, clarences and Hansom cabs. The sounds of hooves clattering on cobbles was everywhere, as was the smell of steaming horse manure…

To get about town quickly, catching a cabriolet (or cab for short) was the best bet. Cabbies plied their trade from cab-stands, not while moving. The fare was based on the distance, so it was important to know how far away the destination was to avoid being overcharged. The driver sat on a raised seat behind and above the passengers’ compartment with the horse’s reins going over the top of it. Passengers communicated with the driver and paid him through a trap-door in the roof. The cab-man controlled the door by means of a lever, which made it difficult to dodge paying the fare.

 Ladies often found that the overhanging reins could knock off their hats, and dresses could easily be soiled on the rim of the wheel. It was also extremely difficult to get in and out of a Hansom with any dignity while wearing a crinoline.

A journalist from Living London visited a cab yard and observed cab-drivers at work in 1901:

“The day cab-men, their hansoms and four-wheelers clean and bright from the washers’ hands, begin to appear in numbers about nine a.m., some hurrying Citywards with fares, and others proceeding slowly to various stands, where they find a few unfortunate and somewhat despondent night cab-men waiting in the hope of obtaining at least one good job before taking their cabs back to the yard.”

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Victorian Transport

Horse and carriage.

At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, horse-drawn carriages were the main mode of transportation. The Brougham was a popular vehicle for everyday use and was available in two- or four-wheel styles. Upper class families would use a barouche, a fancy four-wheel carriage with a fold-up hood and seats that faced each other. For those who didn’t own a vehicle, carriages were available for hire.

Country-dwellers relied on open vehicles, such as wagons and drays. These were larger and heavier than carriages, and thus slower. They were useful for moving goods. For longer trips through the country, one could purchase a ticket for a seat in a coach.

Bicycles became popular during the Victorian era. By the 1880s and 1890s, bicycles were widely used both for fun and as a means of transportation. The accessibility of this means of personal transportation contributed to a social uprising as women shed their corsets in favor of attire more compatible with cycling.

Steam Engines and Railways

With the Industrial Revolution came the widespread use of the steam engine, which, in various forms, was used to drive trains, ships and buses. Railway networks were constructed, providing an efficient means of traveling between urban and rural areas as well as transporting goods. Bus and tram routes were created to connect with the railways, creating an effective and extensive transportation system.

Early Buses and Cars

While railways used steam locomotives, the bus system still primarily used horse power. This was due, in large part, to the Red Flag Act of 1865 which prohibited buses and other such vehicles from moving faster than a walking pace of four miles per hour. It also stipulated that a person bearing a red flag must walk in front of the vehicle. This law remained in effect until 1896, at which time motor cars began establishing their place on British roadways.

The Underground

The steam engine was also the driving force behind the development of the Underground. In 1863, the first underground railway opened in England, and by the 1880s, an extensive underground network allowed passengers to travel between parts of London and beyond.

The use of electricity to power vehicles also grew more sophisticated and useful during the Victorian era. By the early 1880s, some horse- drawn trams were replaced by trolleys powered by electricity through overhead cables. Though slower to take hold than steam powered vehicles, by 1927 an extensive network of electric tram cars laced through British cities.

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train travel in victorian times

#MyrtleMondays: All Aboard! Trains in Victorian England

Posted August 24, 2020 & filed under News .

train travel in victorian times

If you had to choose one feature that exemplifies Victorian England, railways (or railroads as we know them in the US) would not be a bad choice. The railway transformed everyday life for all classes of English people, changing not only the landscape, but industry, leisure, and more.

train travel in victorian times

This 1894 lithograph celebrates the 1830 maiden voyage of the locomotive Northumbrian,  of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the world’s first inter-city train system. Look how small the original locomotive was!

Passenger trains grew out of innovations in freight transport necessitated by the Industrial Revolution. Although the technology of rail transportation was millennia old, it took the advent of the steam engine to bring it to its modern familiar form. Mines in Europe and England had used short horse-drawn railroads for centuries, but with the increased demand for raw materials, and the increased output of goods, the 19th century required faster and more extensive rail networks. British engineer and businessman George Stephenson pioneered early steam locomotives and founded the world’s first multi-city railway in 1830. His Liverpool & Manchester Railway ferried both freight and passengers along its 30-mile route between the industrial center of Manchester and the busy seaport of Liverpool.

train travel in victorian times

Early passenger carriages lacked some amenities but offered the novelty of speed. | A.B. Clayton, Opening Liverpool & Manchester Railway

The changes the steam locomotive and the railways brought were immediate. Thirty miles doesn’t sound impressive today, but before trains, travel anywhere—even short distances—was expensive, complicated, slow, and dirty. Only the wealthy could afford horses or time away from labor, roads were nonexistent or poorly maintained, and less prosperous people were consigned to the distances they might travel on foot. Some improvements to roads and passenger coaches were made in the 18th century, but for any sort of meaningful, affordable long-distance travel, it took the railways. Stephenson’s train turned that 30-mile trip from a daylong journey to the excursion of an hour.

train travel in victorian times

The Illustrated London News enthusiastically covered Her Majesty’s groundbreaking railway journey in 1843

By the mid-1840s railways had spread across England, and the Age of the Rails was well underway. Queen Victoria’s own first train trip was a media sensation.

train travel in victorian times

Railway holidays gained popularity throughout the British Empire. This exuberant poster advertises excursions to see horseracing in India.

Alongside the technological development, the lives of working people were changing, too. The new railways needed thousands of new workers—from the “navvies” who built the rails (the name comes from “navigator,” and was first applied to the construction workers on canals in the 1700s), to the “linemen” who worked aboard the trains, to the clerical staff in stations and offices all over Great Britain.

train travel in victorian times

19th century staff of the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway.

Throughout the period, the workday got gradually shorter, vacation time became more common, and increased wages meant more people could now afford to take holidays, ushering in the new tourism industry. The seaside became the destination of choice , transforming countless coastal villages into resort towns. Another activity reinvented thanks to train travel was the celebration of Christmas . Now far-flung family members and friends could easily gather together to celebrate.

train travel in victorian times

Christmas excursionists aboard a first class compartment, circa 1860. Check out the clever hat rack!

Although everyone benefited from the speed and convenience of train travel, the class system prevailed, and the luxury (or lack thereof) of your railway journey depended on how much you could pay for it. Conditions for third-class passengers were slow to improve from the early open carriages, but second and first class passengers soon enjoyed more amenities.

Passengers boarding a second class carriage in the 1840s ( Illustrated London News ). The second class would eventually disappear altogether from English railways by the 1870s as third class carriages became better appointed.

train travel in victorian times

Cover artist Brett Helquist perfectly captured the spirit of 19th century travel posters.

In How to Get Away with Myrtle , Myrtle takes a rail trip aboard a private luxury train. Excursion companies (or the otherwise very rich) could commission railways to use their networks and employees for private trains or to add private carriages to existing trains. The astonishing luxury of these private carriages is hard to imagine, for those of us used to utilitarian commuter trains or modern subways! Carriages had all the comfortable appointments of the finest Stately Homes; modern amenities like gaslight, electricity, and running water; and everything from barber shops to convertible beds to fancy restaurants.

train travel in victorian times

The Illustrated London News shows life aboard a 19th century train. The captions point out the features like having a smoke, the “Very Refreshing” private sink, going to bed aboard the sleeping car, a little girl saying “Good night, Ma,” and a young woman relishing the blissful luxury of her private room (which she was unlikely to have enjoyed at home).

But period photographs say it even better. Here are some great images of luxury carriages from the Victorian era:

train travel in victorian times

Elegant passengers in the 1880s enjoy a carriage trying to be as Victorian as possible. The cord running the length of the ceiling could be a gasline for the lights, or it might be the emergency signal cord.

train travel in victorian times

Although England pioneered train travel, the most lavish carriages came from America’s Pullman Company of Chicago. This car stayed in America for the Chicago & Alton line, but railways all over the world used Pullman carriages.

train travel in victorian times

A Pullman sleeping carriage, featuring a daybed instead of their famous convertible berths.

train travel in victorian times

A lounge carriage with electric lights, plush velvet furnishings, and the finest decorative fixtures

train travel in victorian times

A dining car fancier than most restaurants!  

Although such luxury trains are now mostly a bygone, there is an enduring romance to the golden age of rail travel, a time when luxury and technology combined to transform the landscape and the lives of people everywhere. You can join Myrtle on her railway journey October 6. 

train travel in victorian times

One Response to “#MyrtleMondays: All Aboard! Trains in Victorian England”

So cool! Gorgeous railway cars. Always love your peeks into history.

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COMMENTS

  1. VICTORIAN TRAIN TRAVEL

    Despite the sub-standard accommodation, railway travel was hugely popular. According to the Railway Times, in the first six months of 1839, the London to Birmingham railway carried 267,527 people. In eight months, the line between Sheffield and Rotherham attracted 330,000 passengers. The Morning Chronicle (1844) reported: 'Last week, some of ...

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    Martyn Pring. 28 Feb 2020. 1890s saw significant strides in express train carriage development with improved comfort and passenger facilities ensuring longer rail journeys could be enjoyed rather than endured. Most people believe luxury train travel was the product of the 20th century's inter-war years. While it is true that some of the most ...

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    In Victorian times, Britain's railway network grew rapidly. In the 1840s 'Railway Mania' saw a frenzy of investment and speculation. £3 billion was spent on building the railways from 1845 to 1900. In 1870, 423 million passengers travelled on 16,000 miles of track, and by the end of Queen Victoria's reign over 1100 million passengers ...

  5. All Aboard the Victorian Luxury Train: Uncovering a Gilded Age of Rail

    The Early Days of Victorian Rail Travel. To fully appreciate the Victorian luxury train epoch, we must first rewind to the early-mid 19th century when passenger rail travel first emerged in Britain. The first generation of passenger carriages were little more than open-air wagons with hard wooden benches - practical but far from comfortable ...

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    Victorian Train Travel Times. In 1956, the 789-mile Madras-Bombay stretch was done in c. 29 hours by the Madras Express mail carrier (the fastest train on its route). That's about 27 mph. My characters in Changeless were traveling north of Glasgow into the Highlands towards Dunblane, I only needed a lose estimate.

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    The history of Victorian passenger trains can be traced back to the early 19th century in Britain. Before the advent of steam locomotives, horses were used to pull carriages on rails for transporting coal and other goods. In 1804, Richard Trevithick constructed the first steam-powered locomotive, which was used for pulling heavy loads in mines.

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  12. Railways During the Victorian Era

    Perhaps the greatest achievement of the country during this time would be the invention of the railway. During the Victorian Era, the world's very first railway, the Stockton & Darlington was beginning to take shape, and would soon be whisking cargo between the two towns, and beyond. During the Victorian era, many prominent railway engineers ...

  13. How to Ride a Train The Victorian Way

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  14. The Trials and Travails of Victorian Train Travel

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  15. Why Charles Dickens was scared to travel by train

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  16. Transport

    VICTORIAN TRAIN TRAVEL. Posted on 9th August 2019 by MichelleHiggs11. Reply. ... According to the Railway Times, in the first six months of 1839, the London to Birmingham railway carried 267,527 people. In eight months, the line between Sheffield and Rotherham attracted 330,000 passengers.

  17. Victorian Transport

    Horse and Carriage. At the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, horse-drawn carriages were the main mode of transportation. The Brougham was a popular vehicle for everyday use and was available in two- or four-wheel styles. Upper class families would use a barouche, a fancy four-wheel carriage with a fold-up hood and seats that faced each other.

  18. This Victorian Book Gives Hilarious Advice To Train Passengers

    The only thing that could have made train travel in Victorian times more harrowing was if Thameslink had existed. Image: Shutterstock. Think train travel's a headache? You should have tried it in ...

  19. #MyrtleMondays: All Aboard! Trains in Victorian England

    The Illustrated London News enthusiastically covered Her Majesty's groundbreaking railway journey in 1843. By the mid-1840s railways had spread across England, and the Age of the Rails was well underway. Queen Victoria's own first train trip was a media sensation. Railway holidays gained popularity throughout the British Empire.

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