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