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Social Impacts of Railway Travel in the Early Victorian Period

Info: 2221 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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How effectively does the contemporary characterisation of railway travel as the ‘annihilation of space and time’ illustrate its social impact in the early Victorian period?

 The expansion of the British Empire was mainly due to the Industrial Revolution, which was a process of denaturalization. In the pre-industrial era, around the last third of the eighteenth century, the natural materials were the primary sources, especially wood, but a flourishing industry of coal, iron, steel and glass replaced all of them. The invention of the steam machine, the new textile machinery, such as Spinning Jenny, and the arrival of electricity allowed a higher production and brought great changes. All these innovations affected economy and society as well. Gradually, people started to move in from rural zones to urban ones because of jobs: who were before farmers and peasants became workers in the factories. However, what changed the English landscape and caused a great impact was the arrival of the means of transport, especially the railroad, which united different points of the country, made migrations from the countryside to cities possible and boosting trade with the transport of goods.

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Before the Industrial Revolution, the main energy sources were water and wind power and wood was the prime material used in construction and as fuel matter. People had other lifestyles principally based on farming where animals assisted them in the daily work, but waken of industrialisation caused a movement of ‘emancipation from the boundaries of nature’ (Sombart)[1]. Mineral or synthetic ones such as coal as a new combustible and iron as a new building material replaced these traditional and natural sources. Progressively, glass and steel were also included as building materials because of the stress resistance that the last one provided.

The main reason to switch the used of water power to steam power was that many factories were competing for a finite energy supply but the coming of the railway network was also important because it made easier to bring fuel from mineshafts to remote areas. Thanks to these innovations, steam became king and in the eighteenth century was possible the development of the steam engine, which Thomas Newcomen, mostly known as the father of the industrial revolution, created. This change was a clear example of independence from nature and many factories adopted the same dynamic, such as printing industries.

Printing industry started, as well as any other factory before the revolution, with labour. Workers spent many hours at work to complete their tasks. Pressure was common among them because of the amount of copies asked for books, newspapers, magazines…and, as it is mentioned in ‘Steam-Powered Knowledge’, hand printing was a stop-and-start process, as the type had to be inked and a new sheet of paper inserted before each pull of the lever. Two experienced men might manage to print 250 single-sided sheets in an hour’s work, but rates were often slower[2]. Evolving to steam printers was a matter of time because of demand, but it was worthy: productivity increased dramatically as well as profits.

However, the greatest advance of the steam engine was its incorporation on the railways. Railroads existed since the late middle ages in mountain mineshafts, so in the eighteenth century people just “reused” them to move coal from the mountains to the river. At the beginning, these wagons were pulled by animal power (horses) but due to physical limitations and demands of the steam engine, steam-powered locomotives progressively replaced it. This changeover was possible because coal became cheaper than food in the mining region from 1815 and the coming of the Corn Law just increased the replacement of horsepower by mechanical power.

Since the end of the eighteenth century, there were evidences about a revolution in the English transport but it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century when plans to develop the railroads into a national mode of transport took place. In the 1820s, promoters agreed that the railroad, which already carried not only coal but also other goods and passengers, must evolve to steam power. The high cost of grain was a recurrent and standard argument. According to Adam Smith, the upkeep of a horse was equal to the feeding of eight labourers. Thus, it was argued, when the one million horses kept for purposes of transportation in England were made redundant by mechanization, they would release additional foodstuffs for eight million labourers.[3]

Before industrialisation, Britain was famous because of its great fleet. Since Henry VIII, the country had acquired a big power through its ships. They were able to get new and exotic things from the New World but also increase their trade with other nations. This was the first source from where the country took its wealth. Nevertheless, though land traffic was considered the weakest link because animal power, there were also great improvements before the advent of the railroad that made mechanization the next step. According to Bagwell — who, interpreting the material available to him, saw the English ‘transport revolution’ as beginning as early as 1770 — traveling time between the most important cities was reduced by four-fifths between 1750 and 1830, and cut in half between 1770 and 1830[4]. With the increase in traveling speed came increases in the number of traveled routes, in traffic intensity and in the number of transportation enterprises[5]. Due to these advancements, the stagecoach became the fastest way of transport in comparison with the riding horse.

 The arrival of the railroad was characterised by the ‘annihilation of space and time’, which was based on the speed of this new means of transport. This meant that it could cover a given spatial distance in a smaller fraction of time, for instance, the average traveling speed of the early railways in England was twenty to thirty miles an hour, or roughly three times the speed previously achieved by the stagecoaches[6]. Thus, any distance was reduced in one-third of the traditional time and, temporally, that was covered to one-third of its last length.

 This decreasing in the distances seemed to create a new geography where different points of the country were closer, but the truth about this notion spatio-temporal was that simplification depended on society’s perception and, at the same time, this perception depended on people’s lifestyles and the regions where they lived. However, the railroad was as great innovation as gunpowder and printing, and it changed the course of civilization towards a new technological direction, despite of its alterations in the traditional field: destruction of space brought accessibility, but also the extinction of the unique. What the localities owned as their identity was lost thanks to this change. Production and consumption became from being local resources to national ones. This was a convenience for customers, but a loss of goods for local regions. Nevertheless, these were not the only features that were lost: regional temporal identity disappeared as well. Whereas traditional transport existed, there was no problem with local times because traffic between the places was slow, but when the trains affected distances, confrontations of local times began to appear. In the 1840s, English railway companies started to standardise time but they did not reach an agreement until the establishment of the Railway Clearing House. That is when they formed a national railroad network and Greenwich Time was established as the standard time. It was not an easy and quick process: at the beginning, very few companies cooperated and it was not until 1850 that was regularized by statute. In the end, every significant company officially accepted it by the close of the nineteenth century.

As it has been mentioned, the impact of the railroad brought many changes for society as well as for the different regions of the country. The decrease in distances was one of the main, but the implementation of rails to connect the country was a hard task in the first years. The most affected areas were the most remote and, on the contrary, the ones that enjoyed first this new mean of transport were the coast zones. In order to benefit themselves from these new services, regions had to contribute goods or materials (something valuable), otherwise they would be the last to use these new means of transportation and they had to keep using traditional transport to travel from one place to another.

 In addition to the development of technological advances during this era, society changed as well. People started to move from the countryside to the cities in numerous groups due to job demand, although working conditions were not good and diseases and epidemics were very common because of the lack of hygiene in the urban zones. Progressively, it took place an industrialised evolution that supposed a loss of traditional values. Nowadays this is still noticeable: young people apply for jobs in large cities instead of in the countryside and it is increasingly common for older people to be those who live in those areas.

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 To conclude, the Industrial Revolution brought many technological advancements during the Victorian period that affected at the same level society and the environment. However, what mainly boosted all this process were the new means of transport, especially the railway. This vehicle not only provided access to places of the country that until that moment had been isolated and probably unknown, but also allowed to carry people, encouraging tourism and granted a faster travel, as well as materials or goods, supplying accessibility to regional products that had been difficult to achieve until that moment. All those improvements also influenced the present in different ways: high presence of machinery in industries instead of labour, more modernized means of transport, demand of jobs mainly in the cities, used of synthetic materials instead of natural sources and, related to society, the loss of traditional values.


  • Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1977).
  • Fyfe, Aileen. Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).
  • Freeman, Michael J. Railways and the Victorian Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).
  • Lardner, Dionysius. Railway Economy: a Treatise on the New Art of Transport, its Management, Prospects, and Relations, Commercial, Financial, and Social, with an Exposition of the Practical Results of the Railways in Operation in the United Kingdom, on the Continent, and in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1850).
  • S. Bagwell, Philip. The Transport Revolution from 1770 (London: Barnes & Noble, 1974).
  • Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Victor Gollancz Ltd, Vintage Books, 1963).
  • Alvarez-Palau, E. J. y Aguilar Hernández, A. ‘Accesibilidad territorial ferroviaria y distribución de población: Inglaterra y Gales, 1871-1931’, GeoFocus, nº 15 (2015), p. 75-104.
  • BBC, ‘Victorian Technology’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/victorian_technology_01.shtml, accessed 24 October 2018.

[1] Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, p.2

[2] Fyfe, Steam-Powered Knowledge, p.35

[3] Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, p.5

[4] Philip S. Bagwell, The Transport Revolution from 1770 (London, 1974), p. 41.

[5] Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, p.7

[6] According to H. G. Lewin, The Railway Mania and its Aftermath, 1845-52 (London, 1936), the average speed, up to 1845, was “between 20 and 30 miles per hour” (p. 95). The Great Western Express, the fastest English train, reached a speed of 46 mph. Lardner says the speed of the stagecoaches was a little less than 8 mph (Railway Economy, p. 36), whereas Lewin claims that the fastest coaches achieved 18 mph. The actual speed of English trains in the 1840s, i.e., their top speed, was, according to Lardner, frequently 60 to 79 mph (Railway Economy, p. 170).


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