Railways and Transport

The most significant factor to impinge on the development of the mid nineteenth-century city was the railways and the most evident feature of such developments were the new stations. In Dombey and Son, Dickens observes:

As to the neightbourhood which had hesitated to acknowledge the railroad in its straggling days, that had grown wise and penitent, as any Christian might in such a case, and now boasted its powerful and prosperous relation. There were railway patterns in its drapers’ shops, and railway journals in the windows of its newsmen. There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses, railway-plans, maps, views, wrappers, bottles, sandwich-boxes, and timetables; railway hackney coach, and cab-stands; railway ominbuses, railway streets and buildings, railway hangers-on, and parasites, out of all calculation. Night and day the conquering engines rumble at their distant work, or, advancing smoothly to their journey’s end, and gliding like tamed draggons into the alloted corners groved out to the inch for their reception, stood bubbling, trembling there, making the walls quake, as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers yet unsuspected in them, and strong purposes not yet achieved.

The modernity of the steam technology which was used marked out the railways as the most modern feature of mid victorian cities. This was the more evident in relation to the immediate contrast of the old fashioned horse-drawn street traffic into which the railway traveller emerged from the station. The modern irritation of listening to passengers explaining on mobile phones that they are, ‘on the train’, is prophesied by Charles Dickens who wrote of those:

Wonderful Members of Parliament who little more that twenty years before had made themselves merry with the wild railroad theories of engineers went down into the north with watches in their hands and sent a message before by the electric telegraph to say they were coming.

Dombey and Son

London’s main railway stations

1. London Bridge
2. Euston
3. Paddington
4. Fenchurch St
5. Bishopsgate
6. Bricklayers’ Arms
7. Waterloo
8. Kings Cross
9. Victoria
10. Charring Cross and the Thames Embankment
11. Cannon St
12. St Pancras
13. Broad St and Liverpool St
14. Marylebone
15 Holborn Viaduct
16. London and Greenwich Railway
17. Street traffic on London Bridge
18. New Cross Tangle
19. Battersea Tangle

The organisation of the new railways entailed acres of land given over to marshalling yards, locomotive and carriage works, sheds, shunting yards and lengths of track which linked the principal lines. The most spectacular examples of these linkages can be seen on the map, the ‘New Cross Tangle’ at (18) associated with Victoria Station, and the ‘Battersea Tangle’ at (19) associated with the Bricklayers’ Arms Station.

There is such a network of railways that I do not think there is any one person in England who knows what the different lines are. They run in such innumerable directions…

HLRO, PYB 1/579. 27 May 1873, p.7

These ” tangles” were the consequence of fierce inter-company competition. Then as now each company was very reluctant to be behoven to any other to the point where London Bridge Station, for example, was divided into two separate company enclaves. In some areas urban clearances to accommodate the railways and the laying of track isolated districts from one another and contributed to the production of slum areas as more and more residents crowded onto what adjacent land was still available to them.

Manchester’s main railway stations

Press blue button to see a picture of this location.
1. Liverpool Rd
2. Oldham Rd
3. London Rd
4. Victoria
5. Projected Central
6. Central
7. Exchange
8. Manchester South Junction Viaduct

While the railways were being constructed there was an equally vigorous if less spectacular growth in urban street traffic.

The stage-coach was superceded by rail traffic in the 1830s.

Although the railways generated a much increased volume of traffic, it was equally true that competition with the railways continued to increase varieties of horse-drawn traffic in the form of passenger cabs, omnibuses and coaches, and for goods, carmen and carters. This horse-drawn traffic employed a much larger number of people than did the railways.

Knifeboard Omnibus. London Transport Collection, from London 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen, Francis Sheppard (1971)

Inside a London omnibus. Engraved from a painting by W.M.Egley Illustrated London News (1869), fromThe Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

Punch (1845)

Much of the transport both of passengers and freight serviced the railways but large numbers were in direct competition. Most of the distribution within a ten mile radius of London was undertaken by horse-drawn vehicles. But for all that it was the railway stations to and from which cabs and omnibuses moved that generated most traffic. The amount was enormous: even in the 1840s it was remarked that, ‘In the City we make no appointment when we have occasion to use a carriage; the whole place is stuffed to such a degree’.

H.C. 1846,xvii, Q.1541 (Chaplin)

By the 1860s matters were worse, when Henry Mayhew wrote that one could ‘walk over the roofs of vans and buses as readily as over the united up-raised shields of the Roman soldiers outside the walls of some beleaguered city’, The Shops and Companies of London 1865. It was at its worst over the bridges and worst of all over London Bridge itself, perhaps due to London Bridge Railway station. Traffic had increased more than tenfold in a decade By this stage there were 1700 vehicles an hour crossing the bridge during the rush hours between 9 and 10 in the morning and 4 and 5 in the afternoon. In particular passengers on out-of-town routes with large amounts of luggage clogged the roads leading to the stations, and large numbers of commercial vehicles congregated round the major terminals loading and unloading goods – nearly a thousand were counted at Camden Town alone.

The warehouses which received and stored goods carried by the railways are chiefly in the very narrowest and most confined streets. They answered well enough when the arrivals of coaches and waggons were few and far between; but now, they are converted into suction-pipes, drawing together the whole trade of the City to the stations in carts and waggons, they create the most serious interruption to regular trade.

H.C. 1846 xvii,Q.2834

It was this intolerable degree of congestion which first suggested the construction of underground railways to relieve the pressure. The idea was first proposed in 1837 though building did not begin until 1859. This Metropolitan line was initially very popular running at 5 to 10 minute intervals, taking a great deal of revenue from the omnibus companies, but after the initial excitement many customers returned to street travel. Even though the Metropolitan underground railways carried twenty-five million passengers a year, the London General Omnibus Company still carried forty million. John Kellett The Impact of Railways on Victorian Cities (1969)