Our ancestors and the dawn of the railway age

By Jon Bauckham, 30 March 2015 - 11:23am

Alan Crosby marvels at Victorian railway engineering and how train travel transformed our ancestors’ lives

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineWednesday 30 March 2015
Alan Crosby
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Railway cartoon 1800s Getty Images

The arrival of the railway was quite shocking in some communities (Credit: Getty Images)

Micheldever in Hampshire is a pleasant village between Winchester and Basingstoke. I drove through it in early November, meandering down the back roads from Aldershot to Salisbury. Although the village railway station is two-and-a-half miles away to the north, half a mile west the main line from London to Southampton crosses the valley of the little River Dever on a truly immense embankment.

It’s so huge that as you approach it, you think for a moment that it’s a natural hillside. The road goes under the embankment by a sort of mini-tunnel – so massive is this triumph of the early railway builders. The line itself, cutting through the Hampshire downlands, opened in May 1840.

The Micheldever embankment is almost 90 feet high where it crosses the stream, and is made of chalk excavated from equally deep cuttings to the north and south. Now it’s thickly clothed in trees and dense vegetation, but when first built it was a massive barrier of dazzling white chalk, a sensational intrusion into the peaceful landscape of mid-Hampshire, while the great cuttings formed raw scars that hacked through the gentle hills.

I wondered what the local population thought in 1838-39 when the armies of labourers with their picks and shovels and wheelbarrows invaded the area, when fields were sliced in two, the bare white chalk exposed, and the familiar time-honoured landscape transformed. And what did the people think when the line opened and the steam engines clanked, puffed and whistled along the high railway track, not far off 100 feet above the once-peaceful valley?

Today, we’re used to noise, movement, machinery, constant activity, the distant drone of cars and aircraft or the incessant din as vehicles rush along the roads. But in a world where the fastest thing hitherto had been a horse and cart, and the noisiest vehicle was a creaking wagon with its wheels rumbling along a stony road, the intrusion of the London & Southampton Railway must have been deeply shocking.

The railway transformed people’s lives in other ways. At every country station like Micheldever there were sidings where agricultural goods were loaded into wagons for transport to the cities – farming was altered immediately by the quick access to new markets. Local people could hop on a train and be whisked away to the big towns and cities – Winchester or Southampton – or to the nearby market town, Basingstoke, at a speed that was previously unimaginable.

Village shops might take delivery (for collection at the station) of goods sent from the industrial areas, giving country dwellers much greater access to consumer products and new fashions. On special occasions people might join a monster excursion – a Sunday School treat or a church outing – and go to the seaside or attend a fair in town. You can just imagine carriage-loads of excited children and (although maybe less likely to admit it publicly) excited adults, all having a jolly time for a fare of just a few pennies.

For others, railways were a means of escape. They could far more easily look for work in a more distant place, so railways meant out-migration and vastly increased mobility. You can see the results in the census returns. I remember an entry for a family living in Woking, further up the line nearer London, in 1861. Their children were born (in order) at Exeter, Yeovil, Salisbury, Basingstoke and Woking, as the father – a railwayman – shifted jobs along the line, each time a step nearer the metropolis.

And don’t forget that the railways became one of the largest employers in late Victorian Britain. Even a remote country station like Micheldever might have a dozen full-time employees, from station master and ticket clerks to the shunter and the man who minded the horses. Railways helped to make 19th-century Britain – and they surely reshaped the lives of all our ancestors, a century-and-a-half and more ago.

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities


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