Writing History: Trains

A week or two ago, I spent the better part of an afternoon attempting to find out what time a particular train left King’s Cross in 1866, and how much it cost to ride said train to Durham. I did find out–sort of–and added two sentences to my novel. So in honor of this tremendous accomplishment, I thought I’d focus on trains today.

I never thought all that much about trains. Growing up in Cleveland I never rode one; the Amtrak train passing through our fair city only stops here once in each direction, quite literally in the middle of the night, making it a rather inconvenient mode of travel. I did ride the rails when I was in Europe and when I lived on the East Coast, and my son was completely obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine when he was younger (a fascination I credit, in part, for his impressive vocabulary and his Ringo Starr-ish pronunciation of certain words). This, however, is the extent of my experience with trains. Nevertheless, they are one of the many reasons I set my novels in the Victorian period.

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway J. M. W. Turner, 1844

The Victorian era saw the start of the great age of the railway in England–and just about everywhere else. The railway changed everything. More people than ever began to move. A journey that took a week in a carriage could be done in a day. Food traveled more quickly, allowing for a greater variety in diet. The middle class expanded as new industries were built, and Victoria’s empire grew ever larger.

Trains were not without opposition, of course, as change never is. Tracks cut through ancestral lands, scarring the landscape and destroying valuable farmland. Towns that had grown prosperous serving on carriage routes were left empty when the trains went through other villages. There is an interesting article comparing modern railway opposition to that of over a century before; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But railways were wondrous as well. Jack Simmons, in his 1991 book The Victorian Railway, quotes the letter of a Wiltshire clergyman, who in 1841 took his parish clerk to watch the passage of one of the first trains along the Great Western main line: “The novelty of the sight, the strangeness of the sounds, the marvellous velocity with which engine, tender, carriages, and trucks disappeared, the dense columns of sulphurous smoke, were altogether too much for the reason of my simple dominie, and he fell prostrate on the bank-side as if he had been smitten by a thunderbolt! When he had recovered his feet, his brain still reeled, his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he stood aghast, unutterable amazement stamped upon his face. It must have been quite five minutes before he could speak, and when he did it was in the tone of a Jeremiah. ‘Well, Sir, that was a sight to have seen; but one I never care to see again! How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?'” [Simmons, The Victorian Railway, pp. 15-16.]

The railway blurred societal boundaries more than ever before, forcing the societal elite to mingle with the lower echelons, but it was also the railway that gave us the more concrete distinctions between classes–first, second, and third.

The Railway Station, William Powell Frith, 1860

Railway accidents were not uncommon, although as with air vs. car travel today, the likelihood of death or injury when traveling by train was less than than that for coach travel. Charles Dickens was in the Staplehurst rail crash of June 1865, in which ten people died. He wrote a rather harrowing account of the aftermath in a letter to a friend. It was only after he had helped to rescue passengers and aid the wounded that he returned to the train for his manuscript, Our Mutual Friend.

Dickens was by turns fascinated, frightened, and disgusted by railways, and he featured them in his writing more than any other Victorian era writer. In a short story entitled “Mugby Junction,” written in 1866 after an experience at the railway station in Rugby, he wrote,

A place replete with shadowy shapes, this Mugby Junction in the black hours of the four-and-twenty.  Mysterious goods trains, covered with palls and gliding on like vast weird funerals, conveying themselves guiltily away from the presence of the few lighted lamps, as if their freight had come to a secret and unlawful end.  Half miles of coal pursuing in a Detective manner, following when they lead, stopping when they stop, backing when they back.  Red hot embers showering out upon the ground, down this dark avenue, and down the other, as if torturing fires were being raked clear; concurrently, shrieks and groans and grinds invading the ear, as if the tortured were at the height of their suffering.  Iron-barred cages full of cattle jangling by midway, the drooping beasts with horns entangled, eyes frozen with terror, and mouths too: at least they have long icicles (or what seem so) hanging from their lips.  Unknown languages in the air, conspiring in red, green, and white characters.  An earthquake accompanied with thunder and lightning, going up express to London.

Now, all quiet, all rusty, wind and rain in possession, lamps extinguished, Mugby Junction dead and indistinct, with its robe drawn over its head, like C├Žsar.  Now, too, as the belated traveller plodded up and down, a shadowy train went by him in the gloom which was no other than the train of a life.  From whatsoever intangible deep cutting or dark tunnel it emerged, here it came, unsummoned and unannounced, stealing upon him and passing away into obscurity.  Here, mournfully went by, a child who had never had a childhood or known a parent, inseparable from a youth with a bitter sense of his namelessness, coupled to a man the enforced business of whose best years had been distasteful and oppressive, linked to an ungrateful friend, dragging after him a woman once beloved.  Attendant, with many a clank and wrench, were lumbering cares, dark meditations, huge dim disappointments, monotonous years, a long jarring line of the discords of a solitary and unhappy existence.

And because I am apparently in a literary mood today, I give you a contrasting view, that of Thomas Hardy in his poem “The Waiting Room,” written perhaps 50 years later:

On a morning sick as the day of doom
With the drizzling gray
Of an English May,
There were few in the railway waiting-room.
About its walls were framed and varnished
Pictures of liners, fly-blown, tarnished.
The table bore a Testament
For travellers' reading, if suchwise bent.

I read it on and on,
And, thronging the Gospel of Saint John,
Were figures--additions, multiplications -
By some one scrawled, with sundry emendations;
Not scoffingly designed,
But with an absent mind, -
Plainly a bagman's counts of cost,
What he had profited, what lost;
And whilst I wondered if there could have been
Any particle of a soul
In that poor man at all,

To cypher rates of wage
Upon that printed page,
There joined in the charmless scene
And stood over me and the scribbled book
(To lend the hour's mean hue
A smear of tragedy too)
A soldier and wife, with haggard look
Subdued to stone by strong endeavour;
And then I heard
From a casual word
They were parting as they believed for ever.

But next there came
Like the eastern flame
Of some high altar, children--a pair -
Who laughed at the fly-blown pictures there.
"Here are the lovely ships that we,
Mother, are by and by going to see!
When we get there it's 'most sure to be fine,
And the band will play, and the sun will shine!"

It rained on the skylight with a din
As we waited and still no train came in;
But the words of the child in the squalid room
Had spread a glory through the gloom.

Googling “railway history” will give you 150 million results, so here are just a few of the better ones:
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport#Britain
The Railways Archive: http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/
National Railway Museum: http://www.nrm.org.uk/

Also check out Great British Railway Journeys, a BBC TV series which uses the 1863 Bradshaw’s Handbook to explore Britain, comparing and contrasting modern times with the Victorian features described in the book. You can find many of the episodes on YouTube. Bradshaw’s Handbook is available from Amazon, but consider buying a magnifying glass at the same time–the print is tiny!

If you can find it, do read (okay, skim–it’s over 375 pages) The Victorian Railway for a fascinating overview of the impact on railways in Victorian society.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. I got a bit carried away. . .