Take the Train - time and excursions  

I’m not really into trains, but a little while ago there was a programme on BBC4 concerning the story of the train and its effect on all our lives. I found it unexpectedly fascinating. When I think of a train, I think of a timetable.  It’s difficult to manage a rail system without one. Overtaking is rather difficult because all the trains depend on the same railway tracks. In fact this limitation was at the root of the standardisation of time across the nation. Initially it was known as ‘Railway Time’ a concept introduced by Great Western Railways in 1849. It was the first recorded example of the standardisation of local time and it spread throughout the entire rail system in that year.

Until 1840 there had been a significant difference between the ‘official’ times in different towns along the tracks. Obviously the sun sets later as you go further to the West. And so a difference of 4 minutes existed between London and Oxford, 10 minutes between London and Bristol and 20 minutes between London and the West coast of Wales. All this meant that the guard on the train had to adjust his watch to local time numerous times during the trip, thus increasing the likelihood of error and so of accidents. People being the inherently conservative beings that we are, there was a lot of resistance to this new-fangled artificial time. Indeed for many years, it was not unusual to have two clocks at each station, one showing ‘local’ time and the other ‘railway time’. It was finally in 1880 that the government changed the law in order to apply Railway Time as the official time in the whole of the UK. It inflicted a heavy blow on the manufacturers of sun dials!

But this was not the only social influence which came from the train. At the beginning, trains were pulled by horses. They were mainly hauling raw materials over quite short distances – for example from a mine to a local canal. When though there were steam engines capable of pulling carriages over longer distances, everything changed. And from 1825, when the Stockton & Darlington railway started operating, there was the beginning of a revolution in the transport of people.

Obviously at the beginning, steam engines were rather experimental and so not used for passenger transport. At least horses were unlikely to explode. But allowing horses and steam engines on the same track caused a lot of difficulty, not least because of the different speeds at which they travelled. In addition, the horses were often spooked by the noise coming from their steam equivalents. The growing reliability of the mechanical solution meant that within a few years horses were no longer used, meaning that with this and the exponential prolongation of the tracks, ordinary people could fully benefit from the new system. And they did so with great enthusiasm. They could go in a relatively short
time and at a relatively modest cost to towns and places which otherwise, realistically, would not have been reachable by them using the horse and carriage. It took too long, it was too costly and too dangerous.

From 1840 onwards, there were not only scheduled train services, but also special excursion trains. These were organised by independent entrepreneurs, such as Thomas Cook. They went to popular places and were intended to take crowds of people at the same time, a novel concept.  It also meant that the cost would be very low. It was the era of the ‘monster train’. For example, in 1844 a train of 250 carriages hauled by 10 locomotives transported 7,800 passengers from Leeds to Hull to see the sea. This explains a part of our national history. 

At the beginning, there was an emphasis on the moral well-being of the lower classes, with trips to listen to temperance preachers being very popular.  But it wasn’t confined to the Victorian vision of the promotion of morality amongst the masses. In effect, the excursions allowed the creation of seaside resorts for the masses and so were instrumental in the growth of Blackpool, Weston super Mare, Southend on Sea and so many others. The possibility of travelling not only to the next village, but to other parts of the country also meant that it was possible, for the first time, to see people from other areas, not as strangers, but as ‘people like us’. One could reasonably say that the trains were instrumental in the creation of a much more homogeneous view of Great Britain as one country.

But the excursion trips included destinations about which we don’t hear much nowadays. Prize fights, although illegal, were still taking place and became even more popular thanks to the railways. To cause maximum confusion as to which police force had jurisdiction, normally they were staged on a county boundary.  With the advent of the railways, people could arrive by train in huge numbers at the nearest station and, when the fight had finished, return home without any difficulty. This continued until 1868 when, in view of their tremendous popularity, an Act of Parliament was needed in order to prohibit the use of trains for this purpose.  But the same system was used for other sports. In fact, the existence of football and nationally known teams is all thanks to cheap excursion trains. This was because the teams and their supporters could travel easily to matches in other parts of the country.  Horse-racing, as entertainment for the masses has the same origin - travelling long distances in relative comfort was possible not only for the spectators, but also for the horses and jockeys.

There was though another sport which attracted thousands of people after the coming of the train – public hangings.  Thanks to the ‘execution trains’ it was possible to go to the big cities where these took place and watch while the murderers about whom they’d read in the papers of the time met their gruesome ends.  At Liverpool there was a report of a crowd of more than 100,000 spectators at the hanging of 4 notorious murderers. Such was the power of the train – and cheap tickets.

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